Improve Your Instagram Feed With the 'Still Here' Art Challenge

Zena Kay and Tess Smith-Roberts’ lockdown-inspired still life challenge has inspired artists worldwide for 52 weeks straight.
Bettina Makalintal
Brooklyn, US
April 2, 2021, 11:00am
a side-by-side image of two food-themed still life illustrations by artists zena kay and tess smith-roberts of the still here still life challenge
Illustrations by Zena Kay and Tess Smith-Roberts

A few weeks into the UK’s first lockdown in March 2020, illustrators Zena Kay and Tess Smith-Roberts decided—as so many of us did in the naiveté of those early pandemic days—to start a virtual project with a few friends. To keep their creativity going, they’d post a still life photo prompt on Instagram each week, asking artists to recreate the image in their own style, using any medium. Kay, whose work celebrates simple everyday moments like meals, and Smith-Roberts, whose colorful illustrations often feature fruit, called this project Still Here: a weekly still life challenge. 

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Unlike those weekly Jackbox sessions that fell off our shared calendars and the virtual cooking clubs that lost steam, Still Here is still going strong one year later. “I never actually thought about how long it would go on for,” Smith-Roberts said. “I guess, in a way, I assumed it would naturally end when lockdowns and stuff ended. But that never happened.” With over 157,000 followers on Instagram as of this writing, the project has grown bigger than either of them ever expected, especially having never run a challenge like this before.

This week, Kay and Smith-Roberts posted their 52nd prompt: an overhead shot of a jewel-toned radicchio and squash salad, created by the food platform Plate Talks. A few days later, artists from all over the world have put their spin on the image—from an orange-and-green version with a smiling bell pepper from illustrator Jessie Wong in Hong Kong, to a textured sketchbook rendering from artist Annie Jaquest in the UK, to a bold take with an emerald green background from illustrator Lucia Calfapietra in France. 

This, to me, is what makes Still Here so much fun to follow. Not only is it an introduction to new artists, it also highlights the uniqueness of each artist’s vision, making one marvel at the sheer variety of emotions and responses a single image can provoke. A tablescape featuring drinks in tall glasses and plates of pastries looks moody and nostalgic in black-and-white, but futuristic and shiny in a pixelated 3D rendering; a plate of pancakes looks absurd and hilarious after being sculpted in an anthropomorphized clay form, but sentimental and sweet when stitched with embroidery thread. As a person who isn’t very visually artistic, I appreciate the opportunity to peek into so many brains that seemingly work so differently from my own.

Over the past year, Instagram’s shift towards being a shopping and education-focused platform have made it, in my experience, less enjoyable. The pops of pretty art from Still Here, however, give me a break from the relentless advertising, influencing, and infographics. Kay and Smith-Roberts say Still Here has given them a newfound appreciation for collaboration, both with each other and with the broader artist community—and for the power of Instagram in fostering that, despite the challenges the platform continues to pose.

 “I think [the project has] shown me how many incredible artists, creatives, designers, etc are out there no matter where you are in the world,” Kay said. “I think it’s made me realize I need to spend less time on [Instagram], but it’s also made me realise what an incredible tool it is. It allows us to showcase work from all over—work which might not [otherwise] be seen—and for us to give confidence to people about their work.” 

These days, Still Here gets so many submissions that they can only share a random selection on their feed. (For even more variety, all of them can be found in the page’s tagged images.) “I guess we will keep going until we can’t anymore,” Smith-Robert said. At some point, she said, they might have to reduce their posting frequency, as the project takes up more time and energy than they’d anticipated. “But lockdown or not, it will still be happening in some form or another I imagine. For a while anyway.”