Left: collage by Miru Sol using Frasie Molina's kit, right: collage by Alia Wilhelm 

The Nearness project is connecting young creatives in isolation

Two ex-Rookie Mag contributors have created an online community as a form of group art therapy.

by Jenna Mahale
30 April 2020, 3:00pm

Left: collage by Miru Sol using Frasie Molina's kit, right: collage by Alia Wilhelm 

Alia Wilhelm and Anna White have never met in person, though they’ve been collaborators for roughly five years. “We didn't realise until after we had worked together on various projects that we both went to the same university,” says Anna, laughing. “We even studied the same thing!” adds Alia, “We were both in this small journalism programme, so it's funny that we have that in common, but we were five years apart from each other.”

Anna, a journalist and illustrator who lives in Chicago, met Alia (a London-based creative) through their work for Rookie magazine. The website, created by a 15-year-old Tavi Gevinson, was formative for many young women, providing an important safe space to discuss social issues and share life advice, but also somewhere they could express themselves creatively, sharing mixtapes, early essay-writing and collages. “When things started to get bad with COVID-19, and it was clear that everything was changing a lot more than any of us had anticipated, I felt anxious and confused and was kind of seeking that guidance that I feel I used to get from Rookie when I was younger, in times of—” Anna pauses, “Maybe not crisis, but confusion.”

In April this year, Alia and Anna launched Nearness (@nearnessproject) in an attempt to resurrect that sense of creative community. “We wanted to create a community where we could share and seek inspiration from each other’s experiences, a space that encouraged self-reflection, open conversations about mental health, and a rare and real opportunity to slow down and process what was happening around us,” reads a joint statement on their website.

What were you aiming to achieve when you started this project?

Anna: I think people are interacting a lot more on social media right now, but it sometimes can feel a lot more superficial. Because something like Instagram is the main method of connection, you're generally interacting with just a small piece of something someone's posting as opposed to a larger essay or piece.

Alia: I suppose this time made me realise that it doesn't matter that I'm not a teenager anymore, I still very much think I would benefit from having an outlet like Rookie. And I guess I was imagining that other people would feel the same way. It doesn't really matter how old you are, it just feels good to have a space that feels like a real community.

Nearness does certainly feel like something of a successor to Rookie.

Alia: I think it just affected my life in such a big way when it was around, in so many different ways. Particularly in terms of aesthetics, it was hugely influential for me. It just offered this space where I felt like people could be frank, and people could be funny. People could be really honest, but also in a self-effacing, goofy way. And I think that kind of space is hard to find online these days.

Anna: Reflecting on Rookie has been interesting, because I've been thinking a lot recently about how we've been kind of put back into a very teenage position with quarantine. I feel like a lot of the things that resonated with me when I was like a senior in high school have been feeling particularly apt, because we're all in a kind of weird, lonely isolation state that feels very teenage even if you're not teenaged -- that kind of desire but inability to interact with the world.

How have you been holding up in quarantine?

Alia: I find the lack of structure the hardest. I know if you're working, that's hard in its own way, but I think I've really tried to throw myself into this project because I feel like, psychologically, it's the only sense of normalcy I have. Like I can wake up and actually put my time into something. I don't know what I would have done without it, so in a way I also feel like it's been sort of a selfish thing in a way, indulging in this. And getting to see how other people are feeling and making that a part of my work day has been strangely reassuring in some sense. But I do find it hard to switch off and let go, and accept that it's okay not to be working all the time. I think that's what my days were like before this, so I'm trying to relax but I can tell that it's taking me a little bit of time.

What have been the highlights of running Nearness for each of you?

Alia: I think for both of us it's important that we work with people who haven't necessarily had their work recognised in a professional sense. But I think it's something I want to encourage because that felt like such a big thing for me with Rookie, that I was just a teenager in her bedroom and they still wanted to feature my stuff. So continuing that feels important to me.

Anna: One of my other favourite things is pairing different illustrators with different writers that might not have worked together before. I think that's been really cool to connect people -- a bit selfishly maybe -- that I've been a fan of and see them respond to each other's work. But I hope that also helps facilitate a sort of community feeling, like what we experienced with Rookie. Because I feel like working with different writers as an illustrator, or illustrating different people's comics really helped me feel like part of the community and introduced me to artists that I'm still working with, like Alia, that I would not probably have met otherwise.

What do you miss most about pre-pandemic life?

Anna: I think I miss the ease of casual interaction? Now everything has to be so much more planned, like you're not going to run into a friend on the street in the same way. I think it makes connection a little more weighted. Every interaction is more planned and premeditated -- it's just not as easy, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It makes every interaction a little more important in some ways. But I miss just being able to be in the same room as people, maybe not even talking.

tavi gevinson
art therapy