Artist Ruby Jones talks with Sharon Stephenson about a work that spoke to the hearts of many after the Christchurch mosque attacks, and about forgiveness
On March 15, Ruby Jones woke up with an aching tooth and realised her day wasn't going to go as planned.
She called in sick and managed to wangle a dentist appointment. A few hours later, jacked up on painkillers, the 26-year-old was sketching in her Wellington apartment, one ear on the radio, when the news turned grim. There had been a shooting in Christchurch.
"I wasn't really listening, so at first I thought it was just a domestic situation and brushed it off," says Jones. "But it kept coming – a shooting at one mosque, then two – and I kept thinking it was so unreal because that would never happen here."
Jones' two flatmates were away and her Dunedin-based parents were at a funeral. "I couldn't get hold of anyone, so I turned to social media to see what was going on. People were trying to find a way to put what was happening into words."
Jones did what she's always done: she started to draw her feelings. "I discovered lots of the victims had come to New Zealand as refugees, looking for a better life and then this happened to them."
Her simple drawing, which took about half an hour, was of two women, one of them wearing a hijab, embracing. Scrawled underneath were the words, "This is your home and you should have been safe here."
She initially shared it with her 400 or so Instagram followers. By the next morning, that number had ticked over to more than 10,000 (it currently hovers around the 69.8k mark).
Jones believes her quick sketch resonated with so many people because of its simplicity.
"It summed up the grief and sadness in New Zealand at that point in time. I think people found that vulnerability, that basic human connection, helpful, especially the Muslim community who told me how much it meant to them to see themselves in the image.
Which shows how under-represented they usually are."
We're chatting in a central Wellington cafe on a grey Wednesday morning. It's November, but a chilly breeze drifts through the front door which, inexplicably, someone has propped open.
Jones lives not far from here, in a seven-storey apartment block where the soundtrack is four lanes of traffic. But it means she can walk everywhere.
"I love Wellington. In Dunedin everyone knows you but here I can wander the streets anonymously." And she does, walking for hours, always finding something to fill in the time.
If you've ever wondered how it feels to go from complete obscurity to having the world's eyeballs on you, here's a rough guide: your email and social media feeds will overflow with compliments, you'll get photos of your artwork plastered on walls from Pakistan to Spain, and Time and Vogue magazines will come a-knocking.
Navigating that space when you're an introvert isn't easy. "I'm a quiet person who's never sought attention or fame," says Jones, breaking for a sip of her iced mocha. "I thought about making my Instagram private because it was getting so out-of-hand. I've never put any value in the number of followers or likes, so I didn't care about that. But I felt obligated to answer every message and email, which is kind of crazy."
Like everyone in those dark days, Jones was trying to process the horrific attack. "But on top of that I had all this personal attention to deal with. I called my mother in tears and said I don't think I can cope with this."
Two days later, unable to sleep, Jones figured she may as well get up and respond to the messages, which were still pouring in. There was one that caused her to rub her eyes. "It simply said 'Hello from Time' in the subject line and explained that Time magazine was doing a story about the Christchurch attacks and commissioning me to draw the cover."
It was 3am and Jones called her mother. "I was going, this is huge. What do I do? Of course Mum said I had to do it."
At work the next day – Jones works part-time at a media monitoring agency – she started playing with ideas. She sketched the outline that night and a few hours later had completed the biggest commission of her career.
"I didn't want to overthink it," says Jones of designing the cover of one of the world's biggest magazines. "I had to draw what I was feeling and what I felt for the country and the world. I knew the first picture I drew had to be it."
That picture was of three women looking out at a starry sky, each star representing one of the victims of the shooting. Time loved it and paid Jones a not insubstantial amount, one that makes her squirm when I ask how much.
She'd prefer, if it's okay with me, not to say. It was, though, easily the biggest payment of her freelance career.
"I've always struggled with the concept of charging for my drawings. For years, people made me feel that because it was something creative and something I loved doing, I should be doing it for free. It's taken me a long time to accept that I should be paid for my work."
She's the youngest of two children born in Dunedin to Parry, an artist, and Lynette, a producer-turned-educational designer, who met when they were both working in Sydney for the American animation company Hanna Barbera. Her older brother Harley (28) is a tattoo artist in Melbourne and our conversation drifts to tattoos, where it stays for some time.
Jones has eight artworks inked across her torso, including one of a mouse she pulls up her sock to show me. Her brother did in it February.
"Oh my God, tattoos hurt," she says, mock-rolling her eyes. Another life lesson: not having tattoos coloured-in. "They hurt the most. I'm sticking to line tattoos from now on."
Jones has always drawn, sprawled across the floor of her parents' Macandrew Bay home, following her father's lead in creating worlds out squiggles and colours.
As Johnny Cash comes bounding out of the cafe speakers, we talk about why Jones didn't channel that creativity into formal art training. It turns out she tried to. "I signed up for Massey University's four-year design degree and moved up to Wellington for it. But I hated the course so much – that whole focus on marking and judging creativity, which to me is so subjective."
She packed it in after a semester and headed back to Dunedin. Wanting to do something to help others, Jones did a three-year occupational therapy course. She hated the complex anatomy side of it, found it robbed her of time to draw.
"Hate" is a word Jones flings around a lot: she hated her design course and anatomy classes, hates drawing hands, hates drawing objects. Other hates include climate change deniers and what America is doing to restrict access to abortions. The savagery of the word when she says it out loud doesn't quite square with Jones' sweet nature.
"I'm not an angry person, just an impatient one," she says, her hand swiping at the air as if swatting a fly. "Things I find difficult or annoying can really frustrate me."
She's never used her occupational therapy qualification, instead landing at National History NZ, where she worked as a production assistant for children's television. When that gig ran out ("the unit was moving overseas") she came back to her beloved Wellington. "Apart from Melbourne, I can't imagine living anywhere else."
The dream, she says, is to be a full-time artist but until that pays the rent, she's happy monitoring digital and print media for clients three days a week.
"It suits me because I'm obsessed with the news and need to know what's going on in the world. I can remember as a teenager setting my alarm for 5am so I could listen to Morning Report before school."
Three weeks after Jones' work graced the cover of Time, she received an email from Penguin asking if she'd like to do a book of positive messages and drawings. The theme was kindness and togetherness, something she spends a lot of time thinking about.
The only catch? She had to deliver the finished artwork by July for it to be ready for the Christmas market. Jones slashed her media monitoring hours and spent five days a week working from 7am into the evening, in a studio lent to her by a friend.
The result is All of This is for You – A Little Book of Kindness, 53 A5 pages that tear big, juicy bites out of the zeitgeist. Published in early November, Jones' first book features her drawings – of women, men and pets – alongside affirmations such as "Even on the longest of days, make sure there is enough love left for those closest to you" or "Pour as much love as you can into the world every single day". In anyone else's hands, it could be twee, a little try-hard.
But Jones nails its, hitting the sweet spot between empathy and humour. Perhaps because so much of it is personal: the illustration of a ladder and the words "please don't leave, the world needs good people like you in it" was born of a note her father left beside her bed when she was a teenager, struggling with mental health issues and suicidal thoughts.
One of Jones' favourites is the powerful image of a naked women curled in upon herself with the words, "On days when you can't bear to look at your own reflection, remember all of the things your body has allowed you to do and all of the places it has taken you. It may be scarred, it may be tired, it may be old ..."
She explains: "I had bulimia for three years as a teenager and it has been an enormous struggle to feel comfortable with my body, to see beyond the flaws."
Jones says the book has helped her to heal, not only in terms of being kind to herself but also to finally being able to enjoy her success.
"All this year I've felt so guilty that my success came on the back of an international tragedy. For a long time, I couldn't let myself feel happy about it. Actually, only in the last month or so have I felt comfortable enough to enjoy what I've achieved."
We chat about what music she listens to while she works (Frank Ocean and Mallrat), about streaming American basketball, which she's somewhat randomly become obsessed with ("My team used to be the Oklahoma Thunder but now it's the Lakers") and another obsession, the Modern Love podcast (I tell her she'll love the TV adaptation, which she promises to check out).
She knows this question is coming and grimaces as we get closer. Does Jones ever think she'll be able to forgive the Christchurch gunman?
"I know so many of the Muslim community have but I can't forgive him yet. I am, however, working towards it, because he doesn't deserve to take up any space in our hearts and minds."