By Michaela Sawyer
Kassia Karras, BC ’22, used to be known as “Mrs. UnlocktheSwehg.” These days, she sports the username “Purified Smoke” on Instagram. Whichever moniker you associate with her, Karras is a campus illustrator whose art instantly demands attention. A brisk scroll through @PurifiedSmoke unlocks a childlike thrill in me. Each of Karras’ pieces is adorned with bright colors, intentionally skewed perspectives, and stark outlines that evoke late-night viewings of Cartoon Network mainstays such as Dexter’s Laboratory or The Powerpuff Girls.
Karras identifies cartoons as seminal inspiration for her work today. “I always start with cartoons because that's what I grew up watching a lot,” she said. “I was kind of a latchkey kid and only child.” Though she’s transparent about taking cues from ’90s animation, Karras makes a deliberate effort to imagine beyond her creative catalyst. “I realized it’s cooler to create your own characters. You can really make up the whole world and personality.”
While visually familiar, Karras’ characters simultaneously seem to operate in their own vivid and particular cartoon universe. In her mini-comics “In the Catsino” Part 1 and Part 2, Karras’ furry friends escape from their sheltered home environments and embark on an odyssey to the hottest casino for cats. This comprehensive picture of feline nightlife shows Karras’ knack for worldbuilding—a talent she honed throughout a childhood spent in speculation and wonder.
Karras’ only-child existence and her parents’ encouragement both worked to refine her expressive ability. “They’ve been really supportive,” Karras said. “My dad’s an architect. So he was the one who bought me art supplies, and encouraged me to try clay one day or fingerpainting another.” She emphasizes how her father pushed her to experiment with a resolute confidence. It takes immense focus and persistence to evolve a blank canvas, screen, or even t-shirt into a dynamic narrative, and Karras has channeled her original visions through a variety of mediums since her days in the sandbox. Her father also instilled a practical sensibility in young Karras: “As an artist, you gotta know when to stop. He was telling me as a four-year-old fingerpaint[er]: ‘Wow. You gotta stop … you gotta know when a piece is finished,’” Karras told me. “I think that’s the main sign of an immature artist is that you overwork it and it gets muddy where the composition gets ruined.”
Her mother exerted a different kind of influence as she developed her imaginative world. Karras explained that her mother, a scholar and journalist, “very much does not understand the impulse to create, but she does understand the impulse to read and learn.” Throughout her childhood, Karras’ mother shared formative stories of her own upbringing in Beijing. She remembers “hiding books in floorboards” and being accused of being a Chinese-Russian spy by one of her professors while she was in college. Her mother’s crusade against these obstacles encouraged Karras to be a “student of life” and to transpose everyday circumstances into her world of illustration.
By high school, Karras had directed these influences towards O.K FUN, her clothing brand. A self-proclaimed graphic tee enthusiast, Karras decided to screenprint her drawings on hoodies and t-shirts that she feels display her art more effectively than any gallery or Instagram account. With this initial foray into merchandising, Karras found herself delighted by the creation of art that her peers could share and wear. A one-teenager show, Karras shepherded her designs through every stage of the design process: creating characters, applying them to clothing, and finally marketing them. The primary goal was to find an interactive way to exhibit her work: “[I] realized not a lot of kids put art on their walls because it’s their parents’ homes, but people wear art. I thought that was an easier way to distribute my drawings.”
Karras has since plastered shirts with the spirited characters from her prints. During the 2020 presidential election, Karras drew on a blend of animated caricature, pop culture, and PSAs to create a Donald Trump & Cop Co Clown Graphic. The t-shirt depicts Trump’s disembodied head alongside a hoard of police costars, all clad in clown makeup and wielding Bibles. Karras wanted to use her platform to make a stark and striking statement about American political theater and Christian hegemony. “Political cartoons are another huge influence for my art. I really like visually translating geopolitics into art,” Karras said. However, she was reluctant to characterize her art as exclusively political: “Recently, I kind of steered clear of direct political cartoons and focused on subtlety.” Her work is never far from the cultural commonplaces of modern life: she infuses popular topics like cultural appropriation, Zoom meetings, and mask mandates into her pieces with refreshing color. Many have commented on the difficulty of only seeing half our friends’ faces during the pandemic, but one of Kassia’s radiant prints focuses on a silver lining: We discovered the under-appreciated beauty of the “homies’ eyes.” She managed to transform one of the most disenchanting aspects of pandemic life into an exceptional opportunity to appreciate the intimate details of our friends’ faces.
Karras is in the final year of her architecture major at Barnard. She hopes to eventually work for a design firm in a major city. Though her academic schedule hinders her ability to constantly create, she champions her impulse to “consume” every day, whether that’s listening to Gram Parsons’ country music or reading about the Soviet Union’s material culture. “My friends always roast how unorganized my desktop is but I’m always saving things that interest me,” she said. “Whenever I hear about something I want to watch, read or listen to, I write it down.”
This consistent media consumption shines through in Karras’ work, which injects the dullness of daily life with electricity and creative consciousness, uplifting the most mundane scenes into lively tales worth cataloging. Her art operates in perfect harmony with Gen-Z pop culture while maintaining a distinctive voice. Never shying away from a novel subject, Karras defamiliarizes the familiar, imbuing everyday characters and objects with surprise in ways that simultaneously reflect and expand our culture.