creating new worlds: an interview with Malí Bilstad

This month’s spotlighted artist is Malí Bilstad (they/them). Currently finishing up their degrees in Illustration and Theater at Iowa State University, Malí is an illustrator creating their own tales of childhood fantasy. By doing this they hope to create worlds that their audience can escape reality from and find themselves in.

“No Saints Just Dragons”

Who are you as a person and as an artist?

When I was in high school, the question of “What do you want to be when you grow up?” needed a single, serious answer. I remember being disappointed that I was expected to pick just one area of interest. A lot of things interested me, and a lot of things still do (I pick up new hobbies and dust off old ones all the time), and since I didn’t know what my future would be like, I wasn’t about to limit myself.

It was then I decided to study, to live, for the arts. It has become near impossible for me to separate who I am as a person, and who I am as an artist, as art has helped me understand who I am, the world around me, and where I fit in it. By creating, by making, I have been able to document my personal, professional journey as well as my ever-changing fixations and fascinations.

As a person and as an artist, I approach experiences the same way, “this is different, this seems fun, I want to know more about it.”

“Fairy Tales”

How would you describe your work?

My work has often been described as “cute”, “fun”, and “adorable”, which to me is a great accomplishment for my goals.

I have always been interested in how “simplistic” art styles (as seen in children’s books, comics and animation) are able to make stories with morally complex themes more accessible to all ages. I take inspiration from fairy tales, stories with magic and monsters, and how they have been used to make sense of the world (while also having a bit of good humor in them at times.) Because of this inspiration, I have taken to writing my own fairy tales, sometimes for myself, and for friend. By creating these stories, I try to recontextualize the past twenty-two years of my life, what I have learned, and hopefully help someone else.

“Breath of Fresh Air”

What is your earliest artistic inspiration?

On a subconscious level I have always been drawn to East Asian art. In recent years I have been looking back at the children’s books I read, and have found a surprising number of them feature East Asian artists (many of whom are also women.) One of these books is A Mother for Choco by Keiko Kasza, a story about a bird who is trying to find his mother, who tries again and again to make connections with animals that kind of look like him, only to learn that appearances aren’t all that make a family a family.

It was one of the many books my mother bought about adoption and “unconventional” families; one I’m infinitely glad she read to me.

“Something Sketch”

What are you currently reading, watching, etc? Has any of it inspired your work?

I recently finished reading Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko Tamaki and The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen, and am currently reading Maus by Art Spiegelman and Fun Home by Alison Bechdel for a “History of Comics” course in college.

As an artist, I believe it is important to consume art just as much as you make it. And as said above, I have an interest in accessibility of story, in how the way we draw is a deliberate choice when it comes to communicating a story, and the work by Tamaki, Trung, Spiegelman, and Bechdel have reminded me of that. They have given me a fresh eye, and I am on the lookout for more.


What would be the ultimate goal you have with your work?

As corny as it sounds, I would like to do my part in making the world a better place. 

I was raised to believe in the power of words. My mother always said to be deliberate with what I say, since what I say will carry meaning. In fairy tales, a sentence is enough to will anything into or out of existence. 

“Communication is key” and with my work, I hope to communicate to my audience (which is typically around late elementary and middle school) that while the world may seem scary it is worth saving and that everyone has a place in it.

“Big Move”

Malì’s work can be found on Instagram @mali_bil.