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How sensitivity is a superpower in sketch series on at Gumboot Café

A show of self-reflective artwork by Roberts Creek-based illustrator Elin Jonsson illuminates a personality trait affecting as many as 20 per cent of the population
Artist Elin Jonsson, who manages intellectual property partnerships for a Vancouver gaming studio, is featured at the Gumboot Café this month.

A show of self-reflective artwork by Roberts Creek-based illustrator Elin Jonsson illuminates a personality trait affecting as many as 20 per cent of the population, amplifying external stimuli into outsized stress. 

Dozens of digital prints line the walls of the Gumboot Café as part of Jonsson’s second solo show on the Sunshine Coast. 

Jonsson is a veteran of the video game industry who emigrated from Sweden to Vancouver a little over 10 years ago. It was half a decade later that she discovered a book by American psychologist Elaine N. Aron, whose theories defined a trait that Aron dubbed the Highly Sensitive Person. 

“Everything — my whole childhood and my life — just fell into place,” Jonsson said. She recognized Aron’s description of people with increased sensitivity to physical, emotional and social stimuli. “In the Highly Sensitive Person, it means that your senses are just taking in everything more deeply. Many artists, they need that to be able to create. You can understand people better. You actually have a higher empathy, but you are also sensitive to other people’s energies.” 

Jonsson developed coping strategies. She planned a consistent sleep schedule. She dimmed the lights in her workspace. She asked her boss at East Side Games Group, a Vancouver technology company, to provide professional feedback without injecting unnecessary emotion.  

“For parents of H.S.P. children, they can adjust their parenting style,” Jonsson added. “Many of us have heard our whole life, ‘Don’t be so sensitive.’ Especially in North American society, we’re told to toughen up. But there are more and more studies showing that if you are a highly sensitive person who grew up in a household where the parents understand the trait and give their child tools to work with their sensitivity, that person can utilize their empathy and creativity like magical powers.” Conversely, children in environments without adequate support are prone to anxiety and depression. 

While navigating her self-discovery, Jonsson used a daily coffee break to draw specific facets of life as a Highly Sensitive Person. In each morning session, she kept her pencil pressed to her notebook until 15 minutes elapsed. The contiguous lines formed a feline character inspired by Jonsson’s two Siberian cats. Jonsson digitally scanned the sketches, using computer software to infuse the series of illustrations with a gold patina. 

The result is her series of prints that show scenarios in which emotional overwhelm is diffused through gentle humour and childlike whimsy.  

In one, Jonsson’s bewhiskered avatar is dwarfed by a paunchy monster representing depression, its blunted arms negating imminent threats of danger. In another, the cat seeks safety inside a cardboard box, symbolizing the need of H.S.P. individuals for psychological buffers. In a design concocted after Jonsson attended an overstimulating Thanksgiving dinner, the press of overbearing personalities threatens suffocation. 

Jonsson plans to collect her drawings into a book for adults, providing a pictorial catalogue of the strains and benefits of life as a Highly Sensitive Person. 

The Gumboot Café series is a significant departure from Jonsson’s earlier illustration work, which was distinguished by darker, gothic tones evocative of Tim Burton’s film canon. That style dominated her first appearance at the Gumboot Café and inaugural contribution to the Sunshine Coast Art Crawl two years ago.  

“Now, I’m just slowly evolving to this,” she said, gesturing to her array of revelatory prints. “Here, on the Sunshine Coast, I think this community has a higher density of highly sensitive people because there are so many creative people here.” 

Elin Jonsson’s exhibition, which includes information about recognizing and flourishing with the Highly Sensitive Person trait, remains on display at the Gumboot Café in Roberts Creek through the end of January. 

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