Alice Stevenson: Ways to See Great Britain

06/30/17

I am so excited today to share with you an interview with Alice Stevenson. Alice is one of the most talented, dedicated, curious illustrators I know. I first met Alice several years ago when she came to stay in San Francisco, where I was living at the time. Hailing from London in the UK (where she has lived most of her life), she has just published a new book all about her home country called Ways to See Great Britain. The book is part visual adventure through her gorgeous country, and part Alice’s own personal exploration of parts unknown. That’s right, Alice traversed her country over the course of two years, and most of it for the first time, on public transportation and by foot, with the goal of getting to know the less common, less touristy parts of her country in more depth. And simultaneously she wrote and illustrated a book about it! Stunningly illustrated in Alice’s energetic, colorful style and written in Alice’s soothing voice, the book is both eye candy and inspiration for slowing down, looking at your surroundings and appreciating the unexpected. All the illustrations below are from this gorgeous new book.

And so without further ado, I present to you my  latest Interview with Someone I Admire — Alice Stevenson!

Lisa: Alice, tell us a little bit about your background, your story as an illustrator, and the kinds of things you work on as an illustrator.

Alice: I’ve been working as a freelance illustrator and surface pattern for a varied range of clients since 2005 when I graduated from the University of Brighton. I’ve illustrated many books and book covers including Maya Angelou’s autobiographies for Random House US and Carol Ann Duffy’s Collected Poems for Children for Faber & Faber. I’ve also been commissioned by a host of different editorial, advertising and packaging clients including Kellogg’s, Waitrose and Amy’s Kitchen. I’ve always had a lively personal drawing and painting practice alongside my commissioned work.

Lisa: This is your second book? Before we launch into Ways to See Great Britain, tell us briefly about your first book.

Alice: Ways to Walk in London is collection of reflective writings about my wanders around my home city, combined with illustrations inspired by my journeys. It’s a celebration of surprising corners of London and those fleeting moments of beauty you find when exploring a city on foot. I was initially approached by my publisher to create this book as so much of my personal output as an illustrator and artist is about drawing in response to my surroundings.

Lisa: How did Ways to See Great Britain come to be as the follow up to Ways to Walk London?

Alice: I grew up in London, and there is always a sense here of being quite cut off from the rest of the country. I’d always been aware that there was so much of the UK I’d never seen even though I’ve travelled widely overseas. I was interested in writing a travel book, which investigated the process of travel and my own reaction to different journeys and locations, so travelling around Britain seemed like a logical progression.

Lisa: It’s amazing how many places all over Great Britain you traveled!! How long did you spend traveling to create the content in the book? How did you decide what to explore in each region?

Alice: Yes, I look back at the book now and wonder how I managed it all! I spent just under two years doing trips for the book, and it was incredible. I’ve been much more sedentary this year and I really miss all the travelling, in particular the long train journeys. When I started the book, I wanted to restrict my travels to “in between places”: outskirts of towns, places that were a mixture of industrial and rural for example. But this felt a bit restrictive as I started making plans so I kept this in mind but gave myself permission to go wherever took my fancy, even if they didn’t fit into this sort of category. Really it was a mixture of places I’d always wanted to visit and places recommended to me. It ended up being quite an organic process. I’d often let whatever journey I’d just been on inform my future travel plans. For example, I fell in love with Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, which inspired me to visit the town of Harlow which had been designed by the same architect Frederick Gibberd, hundreds of miles away in Essex.

Lisa: The art in the book, which is gorgeous, is obviously driven by your experience in each place, and yet, the illustrations are not literal. They are more figurative, patterned illustrations on each place. Talk about your process for creating the illustrations in the book.

Alice: Thank you :). What I seek to capture in my illustrations is a sense of what I found visually interesting and engaging about a place. To me, the visual memory of a place more closely resembles an abstract pattern than a straightforward “scene” because its a combination of details and atmosphere. I take photos and create sketches (if possible) on my travels for reference, I then use these as the basis for creating some initial drawings which eventually develop into final pieces. The process is very intuitive, I try not to overthink what I create.  I found with some chapters that I’d see the artwork quite clearly in my mind’s eye, and in others, I would have to draw and experiment for a while until it became clear what the final outcome would be.

Lisa: The book is explicitly not a travel guide. So talk about how you envision or hope people to use the book to explore Great Britain?

Alice: I would be delighted if people wanted to follow in my footsteps after reading my book and I hope that it gives people ideas for travels around the UK, but just as much I would love to inspire readers to engage with their surroundings in a meaningful way wherever they go in the world. I also am a passionate advocate of armchair travel, so I like the idea of my book mentally transporting readers from wherever they are in the world to Liverpool in December, or the mud flats of North Norfolk even if they never actually use it in a practical way.
Lisa: Because you don’t drive a car, you walked or took public transport everywhere you visited and wrote about in the book. What was that experience like for you? Was it difficult to get to some regions or places you wanted to see without a car or did you manage to get people to drive you? How did you manage your expectations on your journey when you were at the mercy of your feet and other modes of transport that you didn’t have control over?
Alice: Having never driven, I’m fairly used to managing without a car. I’m honestly never happier than when I’m on a train, and I also really enjoy taking little local buses, they provide excellent people watching opportunities. On certain journeys I managed to rope long suffering friends and family into chauffeuring me around — for example, in Northern Ireland which would have been very tricky on public transport. On the whole I prefer travelling without a car as it limits your options in a good way, as I think too much choice when travelling can be overwhelming. For example, when I was staying in Patterdale in The Lake District with my mum, we didn’t have a car and we spent our two days there just exploring the immediate footpaths around Lake Ullstwater, which were absolutely stunning. If we’d had a car we’d have probably spent the time driving around trying to see as many places as possible, which I find can be a bit draining and unrewarding. Plus if you’re not driving it means you can go to the pub!
Lisa: Was there a spot or region you visited for the first time that really blew your mind? If so, what was that and why?
Alice: I was very taken by Hull. It is often unfairly dismissed as being a bit of a rough place but I was delighted by it. It has the most amazing grand Victorian buildings, a fascinating maritime history and excellent pubs. People are extremely friendly there and I just felt it had one of the loveliest atmospheres of any city I’ve ever been too.
Lisa: Did you stumble on anything by chance that you hadn’t planned on that made it into the book?
Alice: Yes! On the grounds of Castle Crom near Enniskillen in Northern Ireland, we discovered these astounding ancient yew trees that created an amazing arboreal palace world when you stepped under their outer canopy. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before. I wrote about this experience in the book and it is probably one of the best surprise discoveries I’ve ever maddwhilst travelling. I think it’s these moments that make travel worth doing.
Lisa: What are you working on now?
Alice: In terms of books: “Ways to See Great Britain” was such a mammoth undertaking so I’m allowing myself to take some time this year to regroup and work out what the next big writing project will be. Alongside working on illustration commissions I’m enjoying playing around with some personal art and writing projects and seeing how things develop.
Lisa: Where can people find you online?
You can find out about my books and look at my illustration portfolio at www.alicestevenson.com. Signed copies of my books and prints can be found on my online shop at alicestevo.bigcartel.com. You can follow me on Instagram,Twitter and Pinterest at @alicestevo and at Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/alicestevo/
Lisa: Thank you, Alice! And folks, you can purchase the book here, along with many other beautiful things by Alice!
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Bridget Watson Payne: Part Two

06/08/17

You may remember a few weeks ago, I posted the first part in my two-part interview with author, artist and editor extraordinaire, Bridget Watson Payne, about her recently released book, The Secret Art of Being a Grown Up. If you haven’t seen that book yet or read that interview, head over here to take a look. The Secret Art of Being a Grown Up is one of my favorite books of the year.

Bridget’s second book, How Art Can Make You Happy, was also just released. And guess what? It’s also one of my favorite books of the year! Part of why I divided this interview with Bridget into two parts is because both of her recently published books are really, really entertaining, sensitive and, most importantly, useful.

So I’m back to interview Bridget a second time about How Art Can Make You Happy. To learn more about Bridget, how we know each other (she’s an important person in my life) and her first book, head over here to our first interview. Then come back to this post to read on.

Without further ado, I present to you: Bridget Watson Payne, back to talk about How Art Can Make You Happy.

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Lisa: This book resonated with me on so many levels, and I’m curious to hear in your own words — why a book about how art can make you happy?

Bridget: I found myself having so many conversations with people—friends, colleagues, at parties, over coffee—where, when the subject of art came up, folks would all of a sudden start to express so much guilt and anxiety. Maybe it’s because of my job title? Maybe you imagine that if you’re talking to someone whose job is “Senior Art Editor” that must mean that this person you’re talking to is super-duper knowledgeable about art, makes it out to every big art show and every cool obscure art show, and is looking down on you because of stuff you don’t know or stuff you didn’t go see. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth! I wanted to wave my arms and shout—no, no, no! Art shouldn’t make you feel crummy and guilty! Art should bring joy into your life! Art should make you happy! So then I realized maybe I should write a book about that.

Lisa: As someone who came to a profession as an artist later in life — and with no formal training or connections to the “mysterious art world,” I remember feeling completely terrified when I first started out that I would be found out for being a fraud and that there was some secret society who would certainly kick me out. I have my own theories, but why do you think we have gotten to this place as a society where we are so intimated by not just art but “the art world”?

Bridget: I think it’s kind of this cultural myth. I mean, yes, sure, there are a few snobby jerks out there who like to use their knowledge to shut others out or make them feel small. But for the most part, it’s a fiction. You can walk into a museum on the free day, or into an art gallery on any day, and look at the art there. No one is going to stop you. The art world isn’t actually shutting us out, we’re shutting ourselves out with this cultural story that says, oh, art’s not for normal people art’s only for fancy people. Nonsense! Art is for everyone. Art is for you and for me and for you and for you and for you. That’s not to say that the story isn’t a real and powerful thing in itself—it comes out of some pretty deep-seated societal issues we have around class and culture and intellect and education—and it’s not always easy to throw off that kind of cultural baggage. But we are right to work to try and do so.

Lisa: I also think our perceptions about art are changing because of the internet and because museums, in order to stay relevant, are making great efforts to make art accessible to everyone. Art in all of its forms is becoming more mainstream, and our conception of what is art is also broadening. Art is for everyone, and art can be anything. To be clear, some people (mostly inside “the art world”) find this shift offensive. Why does your book argue this is a good thing?

Bridget: I am 100% egalitarian when it comes to art. Everyone should be invited to the art party. If they’re not then, what? You’re making art some sort of rarefied insider-y thing on a mountain top and keeping this source of joy out of people’s grasp? That’s insane. I really have a hard time believing that we’re still having these conversations about what is and is not art in this day and age—but I know it’s true, we are. Every time I go to a museum show about the work of a fashion designer—which, let’s be clear, have been some of the best exhibitions out there in recent years!—I overhear all these conversations debating whether fashion is art and should it be shown in museums and blah blah blah. And I’m like, seriously? Are we still seriously having this debate in the year 2017? More art—a broader more inclusive definition of art—and art accessible to more people—is only ever a good thing. We would never say movies or music or books or ice cream or vegetables or pillows or bicycles are only for a few special people, so why on earth would we say that about art, this amazing huge source of inspiration, empathy, and joy?

Lisa: When I walk into a museum, despite the genre or period or artist, I am often overcome with emotion. I have been known to cry or to feel overwhelmed, and not in a negative or positive way. I am simply moved. Sometimes I find myself rushing through because the feelings are so intense. I’ve heard a handful of other people talk about this same experience. Why is this happening this happening to me?

Bridget: You are letting art do to you exactly what art does, if we let it. Art is a powerful engine of emotion. When I say art makes you “happy” I don’t mean happy like skipping around in a field of daisies eating bonbons, I mean happy on a deep and profound level. Happy like moved. Happy like awake. Some art is deeply unpleasant—it can shake you up, upset you, outrage you—but those strong emotions can also lead to this kind of deep happiness I’m talking about. If we really let art in, if we open our eyes and let it do it’s number on us, the natural result is feeling. Not every time, of course—some art works for some of us and not for others—that’s why learning to trust your own taste is so important, you have to find the art you like so you can find the art that moves you. Because feeling that feeling of feeling feels good.

Lisa: Why should people prioritize seeing and engaging with art (even if it is intimidating or even overwhelming at first?)

Bridget: I argue in my book that art wakes us up to three profound realities: the reality of the world, the reality of others, and the reality of ourselves. As humans, we tend to be blinkered to the wonder of the world around us—we have to be or we’d be overstimulated all the time. We tend to be self-centered and have a hard time really truly believing that other people are just as real as we are. We tend to get caught up in the mundane day-to-day and disconcert from our own capacity for deep feeling, thought, and pleasure. When we prioritize making time to engage with art, we are prioritizing being our best and our happiest selves. And sure that’s a payoff worth facing down intimidation or overwhelm for.

Lisa: There is a whole section in the book about looking at art without leaving your house. This is important for people who are curious but don’t live in an area with galleries or museums (of which there are vast swaths across the world). What are some of the things you suggest in the book about how those folks can engage with art?

Bridget: Yes. If we’re going to say art is for everyone (and we are!) then we have to get really clear about the fact that not everyone lives near museums and art galleries. Luckily, there are lots of ways that art can come to us. We can order affordable art online and hang it on the walls of our homes. We can pull those art books someone gave us as gifts off the bookshelf or coffee table and actually look through them, slowly and carefully. And then, biggest of all, there is the internet. Going online is your gateway to accessing an almost infinite amount of art. Try art blogs (a few of my favorites are The Jealous Curator and Booooooom), art websites (I adore Artsy.net), and the amazing thing nowadays is that more and more museums are digitizing their entire collections. You can actually see way more art on the website of the Met than you can if you actually go to New York now.

Lisa: When you can, though, why is it different or special or important to go look at art in person? What changes?

Bridget: There’s something magical about seeing art in person. In the same way that seeing a live performance is very different from watching a recording, there is something visceral and immediate about being in the same space with the actual physical object that the artist created with their own hands. Because, let’s not forget, art is a physical experience. You feel it in your body. And you see things in such a different way when you stand in front of them, in person. Not just that you see more details—the individual brush-strokes in a painting, for instance—though there is that; but you actually see the original in a different way than you see the reproduction. Take Impressionism, for example. We’ve all seen certain Impressionist masterpieces, Monet’s waterlilies, say, reproduced so many times—on posters and coffee mugs and mouse pads and in the dentist’s waiting room—that we can hardly see it any more at all. It’s become this boring accustomed decorative background that our eyes and brains tune out or gloss over. But when you’re lucky enough to see it in person, it hits you. The size of it, the scale, the brushwork—but beyond all that: the living magic of it. Suddenly you realize how insanely revolutionary it was, at a time when people wore top hats and corsets, to paint what things felt like instead of how they literally looked. The audacity of it! Wham!

Lisa: I have been a professional artist for ten years, and I am just getting comfortable talking about and having opinions about art for the first time in my life. Why is talking about and having opinions about art so intimidating for so many people? And how can we move on from that fear?

Bridget: Frankly, we’re afraid of looking stupid. We think people are going to judge us for our lack of knowledge, or for having “bad taste” or something. And, yes, overcoming those sorts of fears can be hard. But also? Overcoming those sorts of fears is the real and proper work of our lives as adult human beings. Worrying about what people will think of us holds us back in nearly every arena of human endeavor. And like most things, the way to get good at something—in this case talking about art—is to practice. Start out with someone you trust. I recommend finding a friend to go on art dates with—go to a museum or on a mural walk together and talk about what you see. What do you like? Dislike? Why? Once you get comfortable with your friend, move on to chatting with others. Art is a great topic of conversation for social situations—it gets you away from boring small talk and onto something really interesting. And a great way to get to know people is by finding out about the art they like (and you may discover some new artists this way as well). People worry that others may know way more than art than they do—but it’s usually not the case. The one thing others may have mastered is name-dropping. If you learn the names of your favorite artists then you, too, can drop names into the conversation and start to feel more and more competent and knowledgeable.

Lisa: What was your favorite part of writing How Art Can Make you Happy?

Bridget: It was so much fun to be a writer! Because I’m a book editor by profession, I’m so used to being on the other side of the editor/author relationship. It was awesome and exciting to get to take my editor hat off and just concentrate on writing the very best book I could. And I got to work with a great editor of my own—Christina Amini. I felt like the whole experience gave me a deeper appreciation both of what editors do and what authors do.

Lisa: In one line, describe one message you hope people hold with them after reading it.

Bridget: Art is magic, and it’s for everyone.

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Andy Miller // Creative Pep Talk!

05/31/17

   

One of the coolest experiences I’ve had in the past few years is being a guest on Andy Miller’s brilliant podcast, Creative Pep Talk (you can listen to my episode here). Andy is not only a fantastic podcaster, interviewer, community builder and pep-talk giver, he is also a phenomenal illustrator with a distinctive style that is so delicious I want to eat it. Andy now has a book out — also called Creative PepTalk — and I talked to Andy recently about this amazing new book, what’s behind it, and why it is we all need a pep talk now and again. The book is filled with “pep talks” from 50 different artists (including me, see my spread below, thank you Andy!). It’s colorful, bold, unpretentious and inspiring.

And so, without further ado, I introduce to you Andy J. Miller, this week’s Interview with Someone I Admire!

Lisa: Andy, before we launch into a discussion on this fantastic book, tell us a little bit about you. Who are you? What do you do?

Andy: First of all, SO THRILLED to do this, I just love and support everything you do and have done for the creative world, so I just want to say THANK YOU and thank you for being in this book! You were at the top of my contributor wish list!

Lisa: Oh, thank you, Andy. That means the world to me!

Andy: A little about me: most people know me by Andy J. Pizza these days, and I’m an illustrator who works with clients like Nickelodeon, Google and Converse. I’m also a podcaster, and my podcast Creative Pep Talk exists to help people make a good living, making great creative work.

I’m deeply passionate about sharing the breakthroughs I’m having in my creative career in hopes that it might enable a breakthrough for someone else.

Lisa: How did you get the idea for this book? Why Pep Talks for creatives? Did anything particular inspire the book?

Andy: I can’t remember exactly what sparked this idea but I’ve always loved a good collection / anthology. I kept seeing all this beautifully lettered creative wisdom and realized that it would kind of work as a double whammy as an anthology. On the one hand, it’s just a collection of phenomenal lettering and on the other hand it’s jam packed with the wisdom of a creative self help book of sorts.

I think a lot about why I’m so attracted to the idea of a pep talk. Here’s what I’ve realized: I’m just doing for others what I’d like done for me. Ironically, this pep talker requires LOTS OF PEP TALKS to keep going. A good word of affirmation or fresh perspective from a friend or mentor can keep me going for weeks!

Lisa: Haha, I am right there with you. Sometimes I say to my wife at dinner: I NEED A PEP TALK, PLEASE! There is such a myriad of terrific advice in the book. And so  I found myself saying, “YES!” and “YES!” and “I so needed to hear that today!” when I read it. I think sometimes people think those of us who have been working for years and are the ones dispensing the advice in the book somehow don’t experience insecurity or doubt or challenge. But we do! So this book really is for everyone. What is some of your favorite advice in the book?

 

Andy: I keep going back to Jon Burgerman’s “If You Can’t Be Good, Be Different.” Creative people get so caught up with the surface level metrics like how perfectly something is designed or how technically perfect something is. In my opinion, it’s more advantageous to get out of those races and find your own lane completely. Jon perfectly sums this up with his piece.

Jen Mussari’s page is another I keep returning to. She says “Make Friends, Not Contacts.” I am a MASSIVE believer that often in the long run, nice guys actually finish first. Those who scheme and cut corners might be quicker off the starting blocks, but their shortcuts catch up with them. Jen’s phrase reminds me that getting ahead doesn’t mean using people, and it’s possible to succeed and be a decent person at the same time.

Lastly, I’ll say Andrew Neyer’s “Stop Making Cents”. Andrew is a close friend of mine, and along the way we’ve both been very supportive of one another. We’ve always encouraged each other to charge fair rates and never to sell ourselves short.  I was so thrilled to share this piece of his with the world.

Lisa: There are so many fantastic artists and designers in the book. How did you begin to think about and select all the people in the book?

Andy: The number one criteria for this book was creative wisdom. I genuinely started with a list of people who had made an massive impact on me and had illustrated some of their wisdom visually.   Many of these folks profoundly changed my perspective and in turn my creative career with their work, their writing and their talks.

Lisa: One of the things I love about the book is the diversity of pep-talks, but also the fact that in some ways you can distill most of them down to a few key points: 1) believe in yourself (and your ideas), 2) don’t give up and 3) take risks. Your own advice in the book is about our infiniteness and potentiality when we believe in ourselves and in the power of our ideas. Say more about how that idea has played out in your own experience.

Andy: Looking back it’s very clear to me: this whole life is first and foremost a mind game with ourselves. Essentially, I’ve spent the past 9 years trying to find the right perspective or mental breakthrough that allowed me to trick myself into making progress. I am convinced that we are all infinitely more capable than we could ever imagine, and we can rise to this potential if we can just find the tricks and tips to get out of our own way.

For instance, from age 15 – 21, I was in a cycle of self destructive tendencies. They kept my self esteem low and convinced me that I was doomed to a live a life of defeat and failure. In that time frame I made some friends that pulled me out of this. When these people I respected and admired saw me as an equal, it changed the way I saw myself. This helped me break free of these cycles.

I see it in my creative career too. Every so often someone I look up to or admire or see as an ‘untouchable’ will reach out and encourage me. It always increases my self worth and belief in my own potential. For many of us we had teachers that did this for us, but I think many of us need this kind of mentorship throughout our entire lives! In short: seek these people out!

Lisa: What do you hope people who read your book get out of it? What do you hope they walk away with?

Andy: I hope at the very least they come away with some hope for the future of their creative work and that this hope helps them to make progress. On a deeper level, I secretly hope that this book will act as a kind of mentor in the form of a hardback book! I hope that its wisdom comes to them in the exact right moments to act as a catalyst for real breakthrough.

 Lisa: What is next for you? What are you working on now? (Here just feel free to share anything fun or exciting that you are working on!)

Andy: I don’t think I can say much about it at this point, but I’m working on a book that I write and illustrate that is very in line with the stuff I talk about on the podcast. So stay tuned for that!

Lisa: Where can people find you online?

Andy: www.andyj.pizza instagram: @andyjpizza and twitter: @andyjpizza

Thank you Lisa!! This was amazing. Thank you so much for everything you do for the creative community!!! 😀

Lisa: Buy the book here or wherever books are sold!

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Dawline-Jane Oni-Eseleh

03/28/17

I met Dawline-Jane Oni-Eseleh back in 2012 when I began teaching business classes for illustrators in San Francisco. But I really got to know Dawline when she was a “live studio audience” student for my taping of my CreativeLive class Become a Working Artist. I remember recognizing immediately that there was something special about Dawline — a determination and resolve and obvious passion and talent that made her stand out. Dawline has always been an artist, but in the last few years, she has taken her art practice to entirely new places. She is incredibly prolific and inventive. Last year, she left her long-time job as the manager of a popular art supply store in San Francisco to become a full time working artist and art teacher. As a friend of Dawline’s and a follower of her work online, I am continuously impressed by her ability to produce interesting work day after day. Last night on Instagram she wrote, “When I don’t make time to draw, paint or carve a block, I get super cranky. I feel it in my neck and jaw.” She shared an image of a piece she made yesterday that, while she wasn’t happy with it entirely, she felt better, because she had pushed through and made something.

Dawline lives and works in Oakland, California. Her current work is focused primarily on what she calls “the shifting urban landscape,” and she has taken a deep dive recently into work about her family. She is an avid observer and prolific photographer, who employs a vast catalog of visual notes and memories as the fodder for her work in drawing, painting and printmaking. She uses a range of media including relief print making, pen and ink, photo transfer and encaustic. What you will find below are not only images from Dawline’s prolific and diverse portfolio of work, but her thoughts on diving deep into subject matter, abandoning her dream to become a Solid Gold Dancer, leaving your day job to pursue a career as an artist, her love of teaching art, and the grit it requires to make a living as an artist, especially when you are first starting out.

Without further ado, I present to you Dawline-Jane Oni-Eseleh in my Interviews with People I Admire series!

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Lisa: Tell us about you. Where did you grow up, what role has art played in your life? What was your path to becoming a full time working artist?

Dawline: I grew up in the Mid-Hudson Valley region of New York, about 2 hours north of New York City, the third of four daughters. When I was very young I was strongly influenced by the activities of my two older sisters – they were always writing and illustrating little books, creating plays for us to perform for our parents or playing instruments. I remember being a very sensitive, day dreamy little girl who bored very easily, so those types of activities gave me something to focus on.

My parents had reproductions of art on the walls growing up – one of the ones I remember clearly was “Four Studies of the Head of a Negro” by Rubens, and a book of “The Helga Pictures” by Andrew Wyeth. I looked at that book for hours – I couldn’t have been more than 5, but it was the first hint that art was something that someone could do her whole life, and that one could focus on a single subject for years. During my formative years, I was always involved in some visual or performing art program at school, whether it was glee club, school band, creative writing, or art class. As kid who loved to express herself but wasn’t sure how to do it verbally, it gave me a tremendous opportunity to be social and be “heard”.


Lisa: So did you know you wanted to be an artist?

Dawline: I always figured I’d be an artist in some shape or form. Initially, in elementary school, I had designs on becoming a Solid Gold Dancer with regular appearances on Soul Train, but I later settled on the more practical career of architect because I loved drawing houses so much. By the time I got to high school I decided that I wanted to design album covers, and spent hours practicing the logos and portraits if my favorite metal bands in #2 pencil. Art was a constant in my life, and I saw it all around me, but it wasn’t taken seriously as a practical career choice by adults around me at that time. Nevertheless, I persisted and took as many different art and literature classes as I could, applying to and getting into the art school of my choice at the end of my junior year, much to the chagrin of my dad. That was the beginning of a very long battle between doing what was “practical” to support myself, and developing my artistic practice. The rest is history.

Lisa: One of the things I’ve always been impressed with in you is your discipline. I was going to say you have an “insane” work ethic, but I corrected myself because I don’t want to in advertently pathologize any commitment to living a disciplined creative life (though I often describe my own relationship to my work as insane)! So let me rephrase by saying you have an incredible work ethic. You make and share work nearly everyday. You are incredibly prolific. What drives that in you?

Dawline: Ha! It is a little insane, and I think it is part of that now internalized struggle to prove that, yes: art is fun, art is passion, and art is valid as a life’s work. I try to give a little bit to nurturing my career every day, rain or shine. It’s also practical – since this is my way of processing information and expressing things that are on my mind, a day without making art would almost be like a day without talking to anyone. Those periods when I can’t make artwork for whatever reason feel a little bit like solitary confinement. I’m too much in my head without an outlet. It’s both vice and virtue.

Lisa: Tell us about the themes and major influences in your work. How do you come up with ideas for what to draw and paint and make?

Dawline: For the past few years my work has centered around themes of home in all its various meanings and iterations. I used to have these recurring dreams about houses, and I wanted put this imagery down on paper. I started with literal images of houses, much like the type I used to draw as a child – triangular roofs, square windows, rectangular doors, all very symmetrical. As I repeated these forms it evolved into a meditation on place and the stories behind them. As I did more research into the subject and discovered Carl Jung’s theories on dreams and the idea of the house as self, I started to dig a little deeper into my thoughts, and these images became conversations about different facets of my life. I started to integrate different pictorial symbols into my work – clouds, waves, lightning bolts and even Depression era pictographs to compose images that could be taken at face value or examined more closely. In recent months, I have gone very literal with my “home” imagery, and I am currently working on a body of work that depicts members of my immediate and extended family. It’s a story told without a set chronology.

I’m a big reader and researcher and probably watch more television than is cool to admit. A lot of times, if I come across a reference or concept intrigues me or I don’t understand I jot it down or look it up for further reading. In that way, I’m always trying to expand my knowledge base and explore the different ways we as humans seek to communicate the basic themes of our existence – love, hate, hunger, war, procreation, hope and survival. It’s in everything, from documentaries about World War II to Sharknado 4. I would say that popular culture is one on the biggest influences in my work.

Lisa: One of the questions I get a lot is “How do you come up with your ideas?” I am always curious about this question for other artists. How do you decide what to work on from day to day? What role do ongoing projects and bodies of work have in your art practice?

Dawline: Because I’ve been doing this for most of my life, figuring out what to do every day is second nature. I generally have a ton of ideas floating around my head, and I’m tasked with slowing down and focusing on one thing at a time so that there is a cohesiveness and consistency to my work. I usually take a lot of photos every day as a visual diary, which I then organize into folders by theme on my computer. I use the notes section on my iPhone to jot down stray thoughts and refer to them often for those rare times when the ideas aren’t flowing so freely. Because I work in so many various mediums I rely on bodies of work and projects to rein myself in.

Lisa: Teaching has become a big part of what you do. Tell us about what & who you teach and the meaning it has in your work and life.

Dawline: Currently I teach a wide range of age groups, from kindergarten to senior citizens, in both studio and community settings. I find it helpful to be able to step outside of my approach to creating and see things from a new perspective. My approach to teaching is geared more towards skill sharing and developing critical thinking skills, as opposed to “This is the only acceptable way to get this result.” I find it rewarding because I generally come away learning so much about the variety of expression from one person to the next, even when given the same prompts and materials. I’m currently teaching relief printmaking to all age groups, as well as intro to digital photography for elementary school students and leading interactive art exhibition tours to school age students.

Lisa: for years you worked as a manager at a major art store in the Bay Area, but recently you jumped ship to become full time artist. People ask me all the time, “How do I know when I’m ready to leave my day job?” And I always say: “It depends”. How did you know you were ready?

Dawline: When the time is right to leave, you will see a giant flashing exit sign that you cannot ignore. I say that metaphorically, of course, but it’s also very real.

My advice to someone deciding to leave their day job would be this: Be very honest with yourself about your ability to be self-directed, be objective about your work and ability to handle rejection and be graceful and keep moving forward, and think about what you would be willing to do to support yourself during lean times. Another important thing to consider is how good you would really be at being your own boss, realizing that the boss isn’t always necessarily your friend. Working for yourself means showing up consistently and on time, working long hours and making tough decisions. It can take a really long time for you to see returns in your investment in yourself as a business. Before you leave, examine your reasons for wanting to take the leap.

My reasons for leaving were many, and had a bit to do with company culture, but at the heart of it I was working 42 hours or more a week at my day job in addition to putting 4 hours or more a day into my studio practice. That year I had an art show booked every month and was getting good feedback on my work, including exposure from press and online interviews. I did a self-assessment and concluded I had no problem putting in long hours considering I was relatively autonomous at work, while at the same time good at prioritizing my art career. I focused on what I liked about my job – marketing, connecting with customers and the community, and sharing my knowledge of art materials and techniques. It gave me a sense of the different ways I could support myself as a working artist. Once I had that list down it was easy to start transitioning out of that job and focus on a positive and realistic outcome. My one exception to that advice is if you find yourself working in a toxic environment on the verge of burnout. If you find yourself in that situation, locate a lifeboat and leave asap. Once you head down the road to burnout, you put your future productivity at risk, regardless of where you land.

Lisa: You work in so many mediums from watercolor to photography to block printing. Why is working in so many ways important to you? What does your diverse art practice give to your experience as an artist?

Dawline: The simple fact is I really love exploring different materials. Maybe it’s because I tend to get bored easily, maybe it’s a side effect of working in the art materials industry for close to 20 years and having to explain different things to people with some degree of authority. If you think of art as a form of expression, using different materials is like speaking different languages. I like pushing the bounds of different mediums, but just as in speaking different languages, a beautiful poem in one language may not rhyme if translated literally into another. I enjoy the process of seeing how far I can go in one direction and then switching it up into another. It’s like a form of visual code-switching. As a person growing up in an Afro-Caribbean household in the suburbs in the 80’s and 90’s I think it’s an intrinsic part of my experience of trying to fit into two different worlds on a daily basis, that naturally shows up in my work.

Lisa: I know you would describe yourself as a life-long artist but you also readily admit that you are just in the beginning stages of making a full time living as an artist. It’s tough to keep the momentum required to do this full time, especially when you are in the first few years of your career. There is a lot of hard work, hustling, networking and marketing required, and often this is when people give up. What keeps you motivated to continue with such passion everyday? What are your hopes and dreams for yourself as your career evolves?

Dawline: I got through these first few years with the help and encouragement of my close friends and family – especially during the time leading up to and immediately after I left my full-time job. They had my back when things were very tough, and I don’t think I can ever really thank them enough. It’s tremendously important to have people that support you though the ups and downs, because it’s so easy to give up hope at any given time. The “ups and downs” part is key – because the art market can be such a competitive field there are times that feel tense when you have friends trying for the same opportunities. It seems counter intuitive, but even the little successes can be a source of stress at first – people wondering aloud how you may have gotten opportunities when they feel their work is as good or better, or conversely, spending time and money on developing work and having opportunities fall through and facing questions on when you’ll be getting a “real”  job. It all circles back to having a clear direction on where I wanted to see my career and how I wanted to develop my work. It helps me to keep my eye on the larger picture. As my career evolves I’d like to be a little more self-sustaining – as it stands now, I’m still in “work almost every day” mode as I try to find a sustainable flow.

Lisa: Who are your art heroes? Who do you admire and why?

Dawline: Sometimes I get really weary of heroes, because there is always something a little problematic that creeps up (nervous laugh). But, when I think of two people whose careers in expressing themselves I deeply admire, I think of Prince and David Bowie. They aren’t visual artists in the classic sense, but in terms of exploring different avenues of sound, performance, experimentation, and visual representations of themselves, I really can’t think of anyone I admire more. They presented as two people that were always wholly themselves, and that is something I strive to emulate as an artist. In terms of visual artists, I love Jenny Holzer for her use of text and environment to make points that are bigger than the sum of their parts, Alice Neel’s unflinching portraits, Diebenkorn’s use of color to capture the incredible quality of the light in the Bay Area, and Hokusai for his “pictures of the floating world” and the fact that he changed his name more than 30 times to reflect the different periods in his life and work. I also love Jugendstil design and propaganda posters. They fall on opposite ends of the spectrum with the former being highly decorative and the latter being very strait forward in its messaging, but I love the combination of solid color and stylized portraiture.

Lisa: Where can people find you online?

Dawline: My website is www.dawlinejaneart.com, on Instagram at @disfordilettante, on Twitter at @dawlinejane_art and on Facebook at Dawline-Jane art and Illustration.

Lisa: Thank you for sharing your talent and wisdom!

 

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Abigail Gray Swartz

02/17/17

One day a few weeks ago, I got a text from my mom: “Did you see the story about the woman who did the cover illustration for the next New Yorker?” she asked. She pointed me to a Huffington Post interview with Abigail Gray Swartz, an illustrator from Maine, who sent her artwork to New Yorker art director Francoise Mouly on a whim. A week later, Abigail’s work (pictured above) graced the cover. Aside from being excited by the story, my mom was also glowing because Abigail mentioned me in the interview (she is my mom, after all!). I knew after I read the Huff Post piece, that I had to interview Abigail myself. I wanted to learn more about her story.

Abigail has been a working illustrator for less than five years. While she studied fine art, she never studied illustration. In the last few years, she’s worked for such prestigious clients as The New York Times and Lenny Letter. And now, the creme de la creme: The New Yorker. What’s particularly inspiring to me is that the quick rise of her career has been built on leveraging relationships and pushing herself outside her comfort zone.

This interview is long. That’s because I wanted to dive in with Abigail and get to know her story. I think a lot of you will relate to it and be inspired by her. Like many people in the mid-2000’s, she took a long break from making art after she went to art school. The economy had tanked and she needed to get a job. She also moved around the country a lot for her husband’s job. But years later, once she got settled in one place (she now lives in Freeport, Maine), she dedicated herself to becoming a working artist. Abigail also currently juggles a lot of things — two small children and a husband who often travels for work. In spite of all of that, she has begun to build a thriving career as an illustrator.

I think there are a number of important lessons for all of us to learn from Abigail’s journey: get in to the ring, practice over and over until you get really good at your craft, simultaneously put yourself and your work into the world, talk to people about what you do, make work that reflects your passions and keep pushing yourself to pursue your dreams.

Without further ado, I present to you Abigail Gray Swartz.

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Lisa: First, tell us a little bit about you, your illustration career, how long you’ve been an illustrator, the kind of work you do & are interested in and that kind of thing.

Abigail: Thanks so much, Lisa, for this interview. It’s rather surreal since your book Art Inc and class on CreativeLive, not to mention your own story, really laid the foundation for my journey. So when you reached out to ask for an interview it was the cherry on top of my pretty awesome week!

Lisa: Oh, thank you! That made my day!

Abigail: I’ve been an artist all my life, from painting gnomes in my basement at the age of 5 to winning “draw your school teacher” portrait contests in first grade. Artists also run in my family. My mother is an artist, and my Aunt Deborah in England is an artist. I also grew up surrounded by family artwork hanging on our walls. Portraits by my great grandmother and oil paintings dating back even further to various relatives. So it was always something that felt rather meant to be.

In 2004 I earned a BA in Fine Art, studied art history and printmaking for a semester in Florence, Italy. In the fall of 2004, I lived with my sister in her studio apartment in NYC and took classes at The Art Students League of New York. Then that winter I moved to Alaska for a year to live closer to my future husband. The following year we moved back to the east coast where I enrolled in the Certificate Program at The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. After a year of the program, I felt it was time to move on to their MFA degree. I earned my MFA from The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 2008. I was married that summer, the economy tanked and I found myself working two retail jobs. Thus began a bit of a dry spell for my art. I wasn’t sure how to make money by being creative and the economy certainly wasn’t helping. And then life and two kids happened and we moved almost every year – from Delaware to Maine, then back to Delaware and from one rental to the next. While in the throws of being a new mom, I dabbled with selling my knitting, and then later selling handmade paper garlands on Etsy. In the fall of 2014 I committed to putting my MFA to use, I was determined to make it as an artist. I didn’t want to put being an artist on hold until I had an empty nest. I’ve been a professional illustrator since late 2014.

Lisa: You studied fine art. How did you get to illustration as a career path?

Abigail: As a mom who reads to young children frequently through out the day, I was reunited with my favorite children’s books. I realized I wanted to be an illustrator. I loved the idea of my own great, great grandkids holding a book that I created. So I bought your book, Art Inc, took your CreativeLive class and in every free moment I practiced your advice: “The more work you make, the more work you get!” (I still have this pinned up in my studio). I painted every moment I could, chipping away at what I wanted to focus my art around, often times trying to capture the precious and comical fleeting moments of life with young children. After years spent printmaking and building large installations in graduate school, I had to once again familiarize myself with watercolor. At the time my husband was working 18 hour shifts often back to back as an EMT in Wilmington, DE. So I had to really carve out my own time to paint. It was a hard few years. Then my neighbor had an essay that was accepted by The NY Times, but they needed an illustrator and she told them “I know an illustrator!” and thus started my freelance career with The Times. In 2015 we moved back to Maine and to a community that would be ripe with artistic opportunities. Since our return, I’ve been in a number of group art shows, I also had my first solo show last summer, and this past December I started “Tidings” a seasonal art and craft fair with my friend Julie Persons.

{Work for The New York Times}

Lisa: So, a couple weeks ago, your artwork landed on the cover of The New Yorker. For our readers who might not be familiar, The New Yorker is one of the most prestigious clients you can have as an editorial illustrator. You sent the work in on a whim. It’s a fantastic story. Tell us about what happened.

Abigail: Yes, It’s pretty exciting and makes for a good story! It’s many illustrators’ dream to do covers for The New Yorker. I’ve had several covers pinned up in my studio as inspiration. I even had this goal listed on my 3-5 year career plan, so it was on my radar, but I didn’t realize that it was within my reach just yet. After working freelance as an illustrator for the past three years, I have pitched and submitted my artwork to many places. Sometimes you hear back, often times you don’t, or if you do they don’t have a budget. I actually sent The New Yorker some cover ideas last winter and didn’t hear back. Then in the spring of 2016 Bob Mankoff and Emily Flake came to the PMA in Maine for a screening of their New Yorker documentary and to sign their new books. And like a total fan-girl I nervously introduced myself to them. Emily and I connected on the challenge of juggling motherhood with our creative fields and that was that. But that meeting and watching the documentary, reaffirmed that I wanted to do The New Yorker covers and that I should keep working towards this goal.

After the elections, Francoise Mouly, Art Director at the New Yorker, put out a call for female and female- identifying artists to submit artwork to her new Women’s March magazine Resist. Figuring this would be a good introduction, I submitted a lot of art, and they chose my Rosa Parks portrait for their first issue.

After attending the Women’s March in Augusta Maine, I mocked up my idea for a New Yorker cover in a quick watercolor sketch and sent it to Mouly’s assistant, but the email bounced back so I thought, what the heck, I’ll send it directly to Mouly. I sent it, and didn’t think anything of it. Then that night, after the kids were bathed and in bed, I checked my email. I kinda lost my “stuff,” because not only did they get back to me, but they sent me a mock up of my sketch with The New Yorker cover lines on it! And I thought: BOOM! But really what began that night was a wild week of sketches and phone calls.

Lisa: So they were interested in your cover, but it wasn’t a done deal…yet.

Abigail: Yes. On Tuesday night I sent them a scan of the first painting, on Wednesday morning my 3 year old was home sick from preschool and they emailed me and asked for another painting. There were some minor edits to make and Francoise said, “Since you are fast, why don’t you do a new painting instead of us tweaking it in Photoshop?” And since the answer is always “yes” in these cases, I said “will do.” So I dropped off our 6 year old daughter at school, gave our 3 year old son some crackers and tried to keep him from sneezing on my painting. I’ve worked on many fast deadlines before so I tried to keep telling myself this was just “any other normal job.” I finished the painting and scanned it in time for their mid-day meeting. Mind you, this whole time I was not sure my cover would be chosen. They were weighing my cover with other covers, and there was the possibility that if anyone else painted a Rosie in a pussy hat, be it on social media or another magazine, then my cover would be scratched. By 3 pm on Wednesday they called and asked if I could Fed Ex the art to them in NYC. “Kids, get in the car!”

I sent all of the paintings to them that night and then hit refresh on the tracking every few hours to monitor it’s voyage. They emailed me at noon on Thursday to tell me they had the artwork and would be in touch.

Lisa: That sounds so nerve-wracking!

Abigail: I sat on pins and needles for the rest of the day, yo-yo-ing between, “It’s no big deal” to “Yes, it is a big deal”. By the time my husband came home for dinner I told him I was convinced it was a “no-go.” Then after dinner I got a phone call from NY and Francoise said, “So it looks like it’s a go. Can I get a quote form you about your experience at The Women’s March?” When I got off the phone I exhaled and then cried. The kid’s asked my husband, “Is mom okay?” and he told them, “Yes these are good tears, your mom has wanted this for a long time.” The New Yorker shared my cover the following morning on Friday when the February 6th issue went to press. I joked on Facebook that day how the whole process felt like giving birth, finals week, and my wedding day all wrapped into one week, but I couldn’t tell anyone the entire time. It was a roller coaster.

Lisa: That is so intense! Tell us also about the cover. What inspired the imagery?

Abigail: I am a knitter and leading up to the Women’s March, I loved watching on Instagram all of my friends and strangers knitting hats for one another. The act of knitting was already a bonding activity, and I knew it would be a strong visual the day of the March. After the March I read a newspaper headline that said, “She the people” and I thought: “She the People, the revolution will be handmade”. And I started thinking about how we are at a tipping point in our country, and it felt reminiscent to preparing for battle. The March was about fighting for equality and to protect women’s rights. So I thought back to WWII and how women “manned” the home front while the boys were off fighting the Nazis. Sacrifices were made, goods were rationed, women knit for the soldiers and worked in the factories for them. But today in 2017, not only are we reclaiming the word “pussy” from a president who bragged about grabbing them, but we are also making something for ourselves as a symbol of this reclamation, and we are knitting for ourselves. And that is also a modern evolution; women are doing something for themselves for a change. So naturally Rosie felt like the perfect symbol for these themes I was thinking about.

Lisa: What has the response to the cover been? I am always so curious about what it would be like to put something with such a strong point of view on the cover of a magazine. Tell us about what happened after the cover came out?

Abigail: The response has been wonderful and at times overwhelming. My friend told me the night the cover was announced that I should hire someone to manage my social media and emails for the following week. I thought this would be a non-issue. But it turns out she was right. Honestly I was pretty surprised that so many people wanted to know about the artist behind the cover, I haven’t been in that position before. In the past my illustrations accompany an essay, or an interview where the feedback usually falls on the essay’s content and not as much on the art. Local newspapers asked for interviews and I obliged. I also did an interview with Canada’s CBC radio.

I received congratulatory emails and personal stories from readers, about their own familial “Rosies”. And after my Huffington Post interview, my online sales went through the roof and it took me a solid week working late into the night to process all of the orders. A very happy problem to have! After the interview I also received emails from people from the U.S. and abroad who shared similar political views as well as their own March experiences.

Lisa: So exciting! I’m curious, your cover could be considered controversial. Was there push back?

Abigail: Of course, there was criticism of the cover. There was a bit of push back about being a white woman painting a woman of color. I read comments asking, “Why wasn’t an African American artist chosen for this? They would have done a better job” and so forth. I don’t think people understood that artists pitch ideas to The New Yorker. I’m sure that if this was someone’s idea at the magazine then perhaps they would have reached out to an African American artist to paint this version of Rosie. But you have to appreciate the fact that the magazine respects intellectual property; I pitched it and they didn’t ask to give my idea to another artist, but rather they honored my idea and had me execute it.

Lisa: The actual Rosie the Riveter is white. Say more about why you painted her as a black woman.

Abigail: It was important that Rosie is a woman of color, and I painted her as such to give children, and especially children of color, another visual of representation. I wasn’t trying to talk about something bigger than that, but I understand how it packs a punch and needs to be considered and discussed. I also heard from the trans community that the pussy hat does not represent them.  I understand this, and I agree. It’s also asking a lot of one magazine image to cover such a wide spectrum. We have a lot of work to do within the women’s movement. White women need to show up for The Black Lives Matter protests. Trans women need our help; they are in crisis when it comes to domestic violence and hate crimes.

Lisa: Let’s talk about risk taking & making bold moves for a moment. I mean, in truth, sending your artwork to a major magazine actually has no real risk involved — except the risk of rejection (or just not hearing back), which can feel painful, and which is why most people wouldn’t do it. Would you consider yourself a risk taker in life in general? Or is this new for you? Have there been other “risks” or bold moves you’ve made in your art career before this one?

Abigail: I don’t think of myself as a huge risk taker. Sometimes I can mull over a room’s paint color, or second-guess myself on something very minor. But I guess you could say at its core my career is a risk in some fashion. For the first few years I would have to wake up and recommit myself to my dream of being a professional artist and not cave into the criticism that what I was doing wasn’t a “real job.” I had to take the negativity and doubt of the naysayers and turn it into jet fuel to launch my rocket. Stubborn like a bulldog, I was determined to prove them wrong.

My friends call me a “go-getter.” I think I’ve always been enthusiastic in this way, but I think the crunch of motherhood, of the “longest shortest time” conundrum, made me go after things with more intention, enthusiasm and determination. It is also important to me for my kids to see that I am passionate about my talents, and that I am driven and a hard worker and how hard work can pay off. I also figure, What do I have to loose!? Rejection used to bother me, but in a short time I built a callous, and it doesn’t affect me in the same way as it did at the beginning. Now I just view rejection as a free moment to pursue another project I have on the back burner, or to keep painting and drawing in order to improve.  And once you feel that way about rejection, asking and pitching isn’t as daunting as it once was.

Lisa: I think that is such a healthy attitude. And I think it’s something that comes with risk — the more you take risks and are rejected, the more you realize risks won’t destroy you. Let’s talk about your work for another prestigious client, The New York Times, which it turns out also happened as kismet for you. Tell us about how that relationship began and what the process of illustrating for the Times is like.

Abigail: While we were living in Pennsylvania from 2014-2015, I lived next door to a writer, Margaret Gilmour. Our kids played together, and we would go on long walks where we talked about working from home, pitching to editors, and about her children’s book. In February of 2015 she texted me and asked if I could meet her at the fence to talk about something. She told me that her essay was accepted by The NY Times parenting blog “Motherlode” and they were between illustrators. She told them that she lived next door to an illustrator, and she gave my email to the editor, K.J. Dell’Antonia. As a result, I illustrated Margaret’s piece and afterwards thanked K.J. and asked her to please think of me if she needed art in the future. She hired me the next day and I was thrown into editorial illustration as the “artist in residence” of the Motherlode. It was a 3 month residency that turned into 6 months. I would average about 2-3 illustrations a week. There was not an art director at Motherlode to discuss the artwork with, so in many ways I was both the art director and the illustrator, which was another wonderful challenge. K.J. would email me a stack of essays with some deadlines attached and I would get to work trying to sum up an essay with one image without giving away the ending. It was the perfect on the job training and I love all of the writers I met through my time at Motherlode. I have called on them for industry advice, and they have hired me to illustrate their family holiday cards!

In the winter of 2016 The Motherlode merged with The NY Times “Well” department and is now called “The Well Family.” I created an illustration for them last spring for the foster diary series, that piece is still one of my favorites.

{Work for Lenny Letter}

Lisa: That is a great story. And it just goes to show you the power of personal relationships and putting yourself in potentially scary situations as a new illustrator. You never know what will lead to an illustration gig or where that gig will lead! While we are on that topic, tell us about working with Lenny Letter, another exciting client and great story.

Abigail: Lenny Letter is really great to work with. My introduction to the women at Lenny was like everything else in my career: kind of casual, random and magical. My English cousin emailed me their first letter and told me I should reach out to them to do portraits. I did but didn’t hear back, so then I tagged them in a Gloria Steinem portrait I shared on instagram, giving a shout out to their recent interview with her. Later that night they shared my Lucille Ball portrait with accompanying quote on their own Instagram account, and I was over the moon. Then they got in touch that week and I’ve had the pleasure of painting the portraits of some amazing women over the past year and a half. They pay their artists well and they pay promptly- both are signs of respect. I once thanked them for their promptness and they said they’ve all worked freelance at some point and they know how tough it can be to wait on a check or to not get paid well. I also had the honor of illustrating Lena Dunham’s election piece! That was a fun story. I emailed them to throw my hat in the ring to paint the portraits of the new female representatives who were elected, and they got back to me that day and said, actually we have another project for you. Could you get us this art by the end of the day? I did. And it was my experience working for The NY Times on tight deadlines that allowed me to get this done so quickly, which in turn gave me a solid footing for painting The New Yorker cover with a quick turn around.

Lisa: What I love about this story is that you always said “THANK YOU” and “I WOULD LOVE TO WORK WITH YOU AGAIN.” I have learned that those words to an editor or art director will get you so far. That leads me to my next question — editorial work requires good communication and responsiveness, things like promptness, quick thinking and fast turn around. Was it always your intention to be an editorial illustrator?

Abigail: It was not always my intention to be an editorial Illustrator, but I have really enjoyed my assignments. Initially I wanted to illustrate children’s books, paint murals, and design wall paper and fabric. But after speaking with some folks in the biz, I was told that books can take years, and if I needed fast money, editorial work would give me an instant paycheck and would allow me to develop my illustration career while contributing to our household’s monthly income. The editorial work was perfect for me, because at that time my kids were really little, my husband was working all the time, and having an assignment was easier to work on under those circumstances, rather than trying to rely on my brain to draw something other than how tired I was! But now that the kids are in school, I have more time to dedicate to bigger goals. I want to create something you can hold in your hands or experience in person. Thus moving towards books, magazines, murals, and surface design etc. The editorial side of my career has given me the experience, the skills of working fast, the connections, and the confidence to start pursuing these other areas.

Lisa: Tell us about that. What other interests do you have as an illustrator? What are your hopes and dreams for your career?

Abigail: I love what you often say, Lisa, about diversifying your career with several outlets that way if something grows quiet the other piece of the puzzle will continue to bring in money or inspiration, and how these pieces will often ebb and flow throughout your career. I’ve also taken to heart another tip you once shared, if there is something you are interested in, pursue it. It’s as simple as that, we don’t have to be stuck doing one thing. So I’ve tried to do these two things with my own career.

In addition to editorial illustration work, I have an Etsy shop and another online shop where I sell cards and prints. I’m also selling my cards and prints through several wholesale clients in Maine, but this year my goal is to pick up more out of state wholesale accounts. I want to get back to screen printing bags and tea towels, outsourcing that task. I’ve also written several children’s books. After the New Yorker cover, I am shopping them around this year. This year I am also collaborating with an interior decorator on designing a fabric pattern. Fun story: we met through a portrait I was commissioned to paint for Atlanta Home Magazine of the Ladies from the 80’s tv show “Designing Women” (how cool is my job!?). It accompanied his article about his love for the show. And I got the Atlanta Home Magazine gig when the art director saw my work for Lenny Letter! The manifestation of your saying, Lisa: “The more work you make, the more work you get!”

Lisa: Being an activist is something that is clearly important to you and to your artwork. Has it always been part and parcel of what you draw and paint, or is this something that’s happened more recently? Tell us about the evolution and what it means to you.

Abigail: I’ve always been very “fired up” about right and wrong. Growing up I would listen to my grandmother talk about all of the letters she would write to her senators, or organizations that she disagreed with. I loved watching her tap away at her type writer. When I go for stuff with vigor, my husband will look at me and say, “You got some of Grams in yah!” and give me a wink. In college I began to approach some political themes within my work but it wasn’t until taking some print making classes at The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts that I really began to explore political topics.

I was once advised to not be too political on Twitter or with my art, that it could burn some bridges for my career. But it’s such a natural part of who I am, I read and talk about political issues all the time, thus it was only natural for it to come bubbling out into my artwork. But I am cautious to strike a balance, I want to keep it positive and empowering rather than depressing and dark. SO I have the inspiring women portrait series with accompanying quotes and I designed Women’s March merchandise leading up to the march that supports the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. My approach is to keep building up our community and to find ways to use art to inspire and lift people up.

{Work for The New York Times}

Lisa: What advice do you have for artists who would love to have their work on the cover of the New Yorker or something equally as prestigious?

Abigail: The times I heard “yes” and the times I heard “no” were both stepping stones that equally created the path to where I am today. Sometimes you have to trust the journey you are on, but continue to be proactive enough to really go for things! Everyone has self doubt and you have to regulate the critical voice in your head. If you get an opportunity to show someone your work, show it to them! I did this with my first email with K.J. at the New York Times. I didn’t just send her one sketch and one idea, I sent her several sketches and several different ideas so she could see my thought process and my range. I did this again when I submitted to Mouly’s “Resist.” I sent her a variety of work so she would remember me.

When it comes to editorial work, pitch to people often. I usually send query emails on Monday or Tuesday, because in the editorial world, decisions are often made on Tuesday or Wednesday because Thursday and Friday are when the bigger traffic pieces are published. Or in the case with The New Yorker, they go to print on Friday. Always be polite and willing to rework something. If ideas are not coming together over email, ask for a phone call with the art director. And if you get a “no” take it as an opportunity to work on your personal projects that have been patiently waiting. There is no such thing as wasted effort, it all works together to support your career in some fashion.

Also, be a sponge, keep yourself open to ideas be they something you’ve read, heard, or seen. I’ve kept a note on my phone over the past several years called “The New Yorker” where I would jot down cartoon and cover ideas. I also have a note called “product ideas” and photo albums appropriately labeled for different bodies of work.

Write down your goals and tack them up in your studio. This January, inspired by Tara Gentile’s podcast “Profit, Power, Pursuit,” I wrote down: “What is it at the end of the year that I would like to say I accomplished?”And then I worked backwards and came up with monthly to-do lists to help me achieve these goals. I’m still stunned that I can cross off “The New Yorker cover” in the first month. In truth, this goal has been updated to “Continue to do covers for The New Yorker.”  I’m learning and manifesting that there is something really powerful about verbalizing your goals and dreams and then putting in the hours. And I love the quote by Zora Neale Hurston, “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” I’ve had many years that were full of questions, but there will always be years that answer those questions. And so far this year is starting to answer my questions.

Lisa: Thank you for sharing your story and wisdom with us, Abigail! I look forward to following along on your journey!!

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