Artist and illustrator Kyle Simmers: Communicating identity and relationships through their work

Story by Laurel McLean
Photos by Will Geier

As author Toni Morrison famously said: All good art is political.

Paraphrasing this sentiment, Calgary-based artist and illustrator Kyle Simmers elaborates, “If you aren’t making work that is deliberately political, you’re just beautifying the status quo.”

“I try to keep that in mind with all the things I’m working on; what would I like to see grow and change about our culture?”

Whether Simmers is creating a graphic novel or an oil painting, the main concepts they are looking to communicate through their work is in regards to identity and relationships in the context of gender, queerness, and subjectivity.

Take, for example, the mural Simmers collaborated on with their brother, Derek, for Dept. in Inglewood. The mural is a play off the iconic V-J Day in Times Square photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt that depicts a U.S. Navy sailor grabbing and kissing a female stranger. Using that image and working in a gender swap, their mural portrays a woman grabbing and kissing a blue jeans and white t-shirt clad individual.

“One of the elements of murals that I love so much is the public engagement,” says Simmers. “And something new that is my favourite thing about that mural was the most common question we got asked about the gender of the person in blue jeans. It became more ambiguous and that became my favourite part. Blue jeans and a white t-shirt is the classic masculine attire. But, because of the power dynamics of that position and the history of it, despite the attire and the short haircut, people project femininity onto that body.”

“It’s definitely an interesting conversation piece for a city like Calgary,” remarks Simmers.

The siblings have also collaborated on several other murals around the city, including ‘Astro Dog’ designed for Tubby Dog and ‘Route 666’ for Burnt Toast Studios.

With plans for more murals around Calgary, various graphic design and commercial illustration projects, and working on production with a local fashion designer, the upcoming months promise to be busy for Simmers. However, the project that currently excites them the most is a graphic novel, Pass Me By.

This five-book series, created by Simmers and co-written by visual artist Ryan Danny Owen,  is a queer rural Canadian tragedy, following a reserved, retired man named Ed. The split narrative follows Ed’s dementia diagnosis in the present, while revisiting a suppressed past where he toured with a glam rock band in the 1970s.

“We’ve been finding it a really useful tool to talk about elements of masculinity and agency,” explains Simmers. “We’re trying to build a story about a very specific disease and turn it into something that a lot of people deal with like depression or being lost in their own lives. We’re trying to find ways for people to connect with a character who is decades away from where they may be at in age, but emotionally very close.”

With the second book of the series taking place in 1972, the artists have found it to be a powerful format for discussing queer identity. In a time when Mick Jagger performed in Hyde Park wearing a dress, Freddie Mercury was sporting leotards, and David Bowie was constantly gender bending, there was “a lot happening with people on the masculine side pushing outside of the realms of what was normal for men to be doing.”

Simmers, speaking to their decision to talk about the graphic novel as a queer rural Canadian tragedy, explains that they have an appreciation for the term queer due to its ambiguity and openness.

“Everyone I’ve met who uses that term, it means something different to them and it’s mostly just about a willingness to be open to love and experience and yourself,” describes Simmers.

Simmers’ upbringing in Bashaw, a town of 800 in central Alberta, has provided a unique perspective to this graphic novel while simultaneously allowing them to greater explore themself while working on this project.

“I’ve come a very long way as a person since working on this project. Pass Me By is a way for me to have conversations that I desperately wanted to have but also felt like I couldn’t.”

The project was successfully funded through Kickstarter, reaching 180 per cent of their funding goal with 172 backers. Simmers says the positive reception of the novel is important to them because it means that people are connecting with the concepts it explores.

Although Simmers never saw themself professionally making comics, they have found it to be “way more effective than any other medium for describing nuance and having time to tell a story.” In this regard, Simmers has found graphic novels to be able to blend aspects of literature and film, while simultaneously being able to accomplish things neither could do individually.

Simmers finds great visual influence through film, also opting to write the books like screenplays before laying them out. And, true to the nature of film, Pass Me By even has a soundtrack, with lyrics overlaying silent scenes to match the emotion being portrayed.

For example, they open the book with lyrics from Heroes by David Bowie, a song which they found to thematically fit a lot of the content that they’re addressing in the novel.

Simmers’ formal art education from Red Deer College, Sheridan College, Rhode Island School of Design, and Alberta College of Art and Design developed their skill in various mediums including acrylic, watercolour, pen and ink, and mixed media. Although Simmers is currently focusing predominantly on digital art, mainly due to its efficiency in time and portability, through their extensive experience in diverse mediums, Simmers demonstrates the importance of constantly evolving as an artist.

“I’d be very afraid of ever being content. I think that’s the most dangerous spot to be in as an artist. I’m happy with where things are at right now, but I still have so much room to grow.”

Simmers continues, “One of the things that is so frustrating with artwork is that there’s no perfect point. You never actually get to a point where you’re like, ‘I’ve done it; I’ve mastered this technique.’ There’s always places to go; there’s always better. Which is terrifying and frustrating, but if you’re the right kind of person it metamorphosizes into that being the most exciting part about it.”

Check out Kyle’s work on their website and Instagram