Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Old Year Reflections

Last year was a funny kind of year for me, a good year in many ways but different than I had envisioned it. It was the first year in my life I achieved my dream of making a living by selling my art and teaching. It will take me a little longer to be more comfortable financially, but I count myself pretty lucky for making it through the year without having to get another part-time job, which I did consider several times (I even applied for a job but didn't get it - thank goodness!) Not that there is anything wrong with having a part-time job, but as the year progressed I realized that I can now make more money doing what truly interests me than working other jobs. This has never been true for me before in my life, so I am very happy about that!

Looking back, I see 2015 as a year of "sinking in." The year started off very slowly for me. I went into heavy hibernation mode in the beginning of the year. I ate a lot of grits with cheese and watched a lot of movies. The winter was harsh in Richmond and throughout the United States. I wanted to be more productive with my art, but I felt so unmotivated. I felt guilty and frustrated because now that I had more time than ever to work on my art, I wasn't taking advantage of it in the way I thought I should. Periodically I took art classes in handlettering, mixed-media, screenprinting, and ceramics to help me get into the flow of making stuff again. While I enjoyed the classes, doing so many different things made me feel a bit disjointed. I never had a steady flow of creativity, it was always in fits and starts.

Sgraffito bowls I made in my ceramics class.

Through the year I thought about children's book illustration, listened to Let's Get Busy podcasts (now called All the Wonders) for inspiration, and tried to define my style by doing many experiments but didn't hit on a "solution." In October I attended my regional Society of Children's Books Writers and Illustrators conference. After receiving a portfolio critique from a creative director, I was shaken up. I wanted him to tell me I was ready to illustrate children's books, even though the hodge-podge of illustration in my portfolio said otherwise. Looking back, he gave me some helpful suggestions that I will definitely use, but I decided I will not attend another conference or get a professional critique until I have done some major work on my visual storytelling abilities. I need to put the emphasis on learning and practice rather than results and praise. I will be ready when I am ready. Through the conference, I met and joined a small critique group with a couple of illustrators who live in my area, so now I have a great support system to keep me motivated!

In my fine art world, while I had periods of intense art productivity, I mostly floated through the year. 2014 was intense with starting my notecard wholesale business, but in 2015 I just didn't have the energy to push myself. I got sick four times during the year, which is unusual for me. My body kept sending me the message that it didn't want to be pushed hard at all, in fact it wanted to be nurtured. My hands and body were stiff all the time and I didn't know why. I worried that I was getting some kind of precursor to arthritis in my hands. My body gets a little more cranky in the winter, but usually when warm weather hits I am fine. I tried to do more yoga, but the stiffness persisted even through the warm months. Then, for my birthday in June, my aunt sent me the best gift ever: a set of Zumba dance fitness dvds.

And so I discovered DANCE. I'm not kidding when I say that it changed my life. 
As this was my first year being a full-time artist, at first I didn't notice how little I was moving around. I have never felt very graceful or coordinated (and I'm extremely shy about dancing in public), but doing Zumba makes me laugh, shake, and feel alive. It's a great reprieve from sitting all day working on art, and I come back from dancing feeling happy and ready to work again. It made me appreciate movement and the many ways the body can express itself. With the addition of drinking fresh ginger tea (which has lots of antioxidants and health benefits), my body felt so much better. I also started bicycling again.

One thing I did do a lot of last year was travel. 

In May I went to New York City to walk the National Stationery Show with my parents and aunt (who own a fabulous gift shop in Rochester, NY called Archimage). As I wrote about in previous posts, starting in 2014 I worked to wholesale my notecards to shops around the country. While I had some success with it, I was very small-potatoes. It was exciting but ultimately exhausting contacting store owners and trying to get sales, to the point that I felt burnt out and wasn't sure if I wanted to run my card business anymore. I didn't know whether I should try to grow or scale back, and it weighed heavily on my mind for many months. My family suggested that I walk the Stationery Show with them to see what the card industry is all about. 

That's my dad, mom, and aunt in the far left.

After walking the show, I observed that while there were some excellent stand-out booths and the cards were of great quality, many looked very similar to me. The art on my cards was much more unique in comparison to most of what I saw, which surprised me. I decided that I don't want to do what everyone else is doing just to make more sales. I want to do what I enjoy and what works for me. I am happy being small-time and niche, and I don't want to get too big because it will take over everything else that I enjoy doing. So it turned out that I am doing just fine after all!

I traveled for a lot of craft shows/vacations last year, including Buffalo and Rochester, NY; Trenton, NJ; Philadelphia, PA; Louisville, KY; and Raleigh, NC; as well as doing a lot of shows locally in Richmond. A few of those shows really sucked for me in terms of sales, which caused me to re-think how many out-of-state shows I want to do in the future. But I beat my all-time sales record three times last year! And the funny thing is that I only made four new prints to sell.

Visiting the glorious mosaics of Isaiah Zagar at Magic Gardens in Philadelphia.

I was able to visit my family in Rochester, NY twice. I usually only visit my family around Christmas. They own a gift store, so holidays are exhausting for them and I am also burnt out from holiday sales. It was wonderful to visit them in August when things are less stressful for everyone and we had more time to hang out.

At beautiful Watkins Glen in upstate NY with my family.

The merry-go-round at Charlotte Beach. Such amazingly-painted creatures!

In late October I traveled to Mexico City to visit my best friend and witness Dia de los Muertos, a holiday that celebrates and honors family and friends who have passed away. It was an awesome trip, and I plan to make a zine about it. I saw so much and it gave me perspective on another culture and myself in unique ways that I am grateful for.

Just one of the many ofrendas, or altars, created by Mexican citizens to honor their deceased loved ones.

In spite of not doing a ton of artwork, I did manage to do a few commissions and donations for others:

I, along with several other local artists,  painted bicycle frames to raise money for the Richmond Cycling Corps and Art 180. It was fun working on a 3-dimensional object. The words on the bike are a poem I wrote called "Ode to Oregon Hill," and they wrap around the bike on both sides.

I created a beer label for Hardywood Brewery. The ale was created and brewed by Justin Anderson. I enjoyed collaborating with Justin and graphic designer DeeDee Hamad to create label imagery that fit the taste and feel of the ale.

A painting I created for a calendar for my parents store, Archimage. Every year they give out a free calendar to their customers and this is the first year they had one custom-designed! I chose the theme of monkeys because 2016 is the Year of the Monkey in the Chinese calendar year. I worked really hard on the painting -going to the zoo and watching videos to draw monkeys, and doing color tests and sketches before even starting the final. 

And I did manage to make a new zine!

So to wrap it all up, when I say that 2015 was all about "sinking in," this is what I mean:
- resting and rejuvenating from the previous year
- learning how to balance myself emotionally and physically as a full-time artist
- learning what my working rhythms are and how to time things
- analyzing my previous accomplishments and building on that infrastructure
- learning how to be happy just doing "enough"

My anxiety level dropped from the previous year and I was able to feel hopeful for myself and not quite as worried as usual (though my normal worried is generally extreme). I let go of many projects I had planned and I made very little new artwork, yet I was still able to support myself. The only downside is that now my head is so crammed full of ideas from last year that I am going crazy wanting to express myself!

I can't say for sure what 2016 will bring, but I know that my energy is different than it was this same time last year. I feel more confident about living as a working artist. I am making a conscious decision not to travel as much this year so I can root myself in creating new work and have a less disruptive schedule. But I will leave a little room for adventures. I mostly want to get the ideas out of my head and into the real world through zines, prints, children's illustration, writing, and whatever comes up. I plan to launch myself into my artwork and follow my bliss, so the word for this year is: EXCITEMENT!

Dear Readers, can you sum up the theme of your last year in a word or two, or a phrase? What do you think 2016 will mean for you?