Category: Schoolin’ Life

Schoolin’ Life: Ayun Halliday

In today’s installment of Schoolin’ Life, we check in with illustrator, author, and performer Ayun Halliday.

Ayun Halliday

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of The East Village Inky zine, a freelance illustrator and the author of seven books, including No Touch Monkey! And Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late and the graphic novel, Peanut. She wrote and performed in over 500 short plays and several full-length solo performances as a member of the Neo-Futurists and has a bottomless appetite for creating theater with teenagers. She will be performing in the world premiere of her play, Fawnbook in New York City this fall. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Greg Kotis and their son, Milo. Her daughter, India Kotis, just headed off to college in Chicago, and will turn 20 in less than 2 years.

When you were in your 20s…

What expectations did you have for yourself over the coming decade?

In my early 20s, I thought I’d be doing a lot of theater, but despite a degree in it from Northwestern University, I wasn’t quite sure how. Shortly my 25th birthday, I was cast in Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, the NeoFuturist’s long-running, late-night attempt to perform 30 plays in 60 minutes. Being an ensemble member gave me plenty of opportunities to write and perform, as well as a professional identity that I took with me into my 30s.

In what ways did society shape your expectations of yourself?

My expectations were forged in opposition to society’s expectations. In my teens, I learned – to my surprise – that I was a bit of a misfit, at least at the preppy school I’d attended since 2nd grade. Generally speaking, it led me to developed a distaste – some would call it a chip on my shoulder – for anything society deemed popular.

What was your first job like?

My very first paycheck job was extraordinarily undefined. I had just turned 16. It was at Ralf’s Deli in Indianapolis. I think I was a hostess – I didn’t get an apron or a paper hat –  but I also had to clean all the gunk out of the sink traps, which created a phobia I have to this day. A meat slicer in his 20s named Yuri thought I was cute and called me at home, which freaked me out. I knew my mom would not be down with that. I didn’t know that a hostess or whatever the hell I was wouldn’t be allowed to take two weeks off to go on a long planned family vacation, three months after she started work. That was the end of that. What a ding dong I was. I have since made it a policy to try to really train people in what they’re helping me do… I was at such loose, loose ends!

Sad to say, my 20s were full of jobs like this – impermanent, poorly conceived, a bit . I wrote about them in my third book, Job Hopper.

I guess the defining job of my 20s was waiting tables at Dave’s Italian Kitchen, just because the place itself had such an identity. I was proud to be considered worthy of slinging spaghetti there. It was definitely the best waitressing job I ever had, and I had a lot of those in my 20s.

What was your first apartment like?

Wonderful! I shared half a house in Evanston, Illinois, with two guys from the theater department. It had a big front porch, a backyard, a big kitchen for all my hippie cooking experiments, and my giant bedroom had a king size bed left behind by the previous tenant.

Did you experience any big life changes?

Yes. I traveled to Europe, Africa, and Asia on a shoestring budget. I went to massage school. I moved to New York City nine months before turning 30. I got engaged to my friend and fellow NeoFuturist, Greg Kotis —married him just a few months into my 30s.

In what ways did your friendships change?

Mostly they deepened. Many of us who’d been together at college remained in Chicago, and joining the NeoFuturists provided me with significant links to several other ragtag theater crews, notably Theater Oobleck, Cardiff Giant, and the Curious Theater Branch. We would go to each other’s’ shows and parties. I kept in touch with many of those who moved by writing letters – I just unearthed 100s of the ones I received in reply in shoeboxes under my bed. It’s a true time capsule. I encourage those of you in your 20s to print out some of your favorite emails and text conversations. Is it possible to print out texts? Clearly, I’m not in my 20s anymore.

What did you learn through your romantic relationships?

I came out of my 20s with the understanding that my pattern of skipping out on relationships that weren’t officially over, to revel in a new love, was not the way to go. From the inside, it was quite easy to view myself as a victim of circumstance, gripped in the jaws of a desire I was powerless to deny… From the outside, it’s pretty tawdry…petty, not sweeping.

How do you feel society viewed you?

I doubt it was much interested in me. I was not a threat, just kind of an oddball. If society stopped to consider me, it probably thought, “She should lose ten pounds, cut her hair, wear makeup, shave her legs…” Actually my boyfriend’s agent told me that when I was 23, kindly adding, “But I don’t think you want to do that just so we can send you out for young mommy roles.”  That was the death knell for my commercial career.

How do you feel you changed emotionally?

Gosh, did I? I gained experience, but I think the emotional make up remains the same. Keep reading, maybe it doesn’t. I’ve got no perspective here…

How did you change intellectually?

I had to stay abreast of the news to pull my weight with the NeoFuturists. George H.W. Bush was president, and there was a real sense that women might lose their right to safe, legal abortions. I wrote a lot of plays about that. I listened to NPR and read the Utne Reader, read the newspaper every day.

I was much better informed in my 20s than I am now – then I was only responsible for myself (and the world). Now I have a family and the Internet blowing big holes in my attention span.

I also lived in fear that I might be called upon to do improv, and I would be too ill informed to act intelligently upon an audience member’s suggestion. Actually, that happened to me just last winter. My audience member’s suggestion was “Bernie Madoff” and internally, I was like…hmmm…uh…oh yeah, that guy who screwed people out of their investments…I think he maybe went to prison…hmm…he was in the news a lot but the financial industry is so boring to me. Needless to say, hilarity did not ensue.

I think you meet a lot of people in your 20s, who’ve gone to different colleges, and have this whole other set of references than you do. I began to get a feel for what they were teaching over at Oberlin, the University of Chicago, etc.

I was a voracious reader, then, as now. Lately I’ve taken to rereading some of the books I loved in my 20s to see how they hold up. Grapes of Wrath and Ship of Fools definitely do. Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms, not so much…

In what ways do you feel your identity changed?

My ongoing work with the NeoFuturists let me claim to be a professional, without the need to behave like one. Since we almost always played ourselves,  people who recognized me in the subway, felt comfortable coming up and starting conversations, a recognition I enjoyed for the most part. I liked feeling accessible, and sought after. My 20s definitely gave birth to my voice, even though my first book didn’t appear ’til I was in my 30s.

I also got a lot less guarded. I was shy when I was little, and didn’t know much beyond the conventional expectations. I would rather hold my pee for hours than have someone see me walk into the bathroom, because then they might know that I – gasp!- actually used the bathroom. Menstruation was kind of a horrorshow of embarrassment.

Interestingly, I was pretty uninhibited when it came to romance, but I think that was because I was so down to be loved and cherished. I still didn’t want those guys knowing I peed! Even when we lived together! I think a combination of massage school, the NeoFuturists, and global travel on a shoestring are to thank for that… I realized there’s little profit in being uptight, particularly when the people who gave you these hang ups in the first place aren’t part of your daily life anymore.

How did your worldview change over the course of the decade?

You can’t travel the way I did without expanding your worldview. Obviously, I was very familiar with the Save the Children, Concert for Bangladesh, South Asian, and Southeast Asian countries before leaving home, but traveling, I met many happy, multigenerational families, living in the equivalent of an American garage. Really. They’d roll the door down at night, then roll it up again in the morning, their lives exposed to the street for most of the day. I was impressed by the way the entire family would coalesce around the baby. The baby was always king. The furniture might consist of a couple of plastic stools and a plastic bag of mangoes hanging on a nail, but there would be this giant, blown up photo of the baby hanging in a place of honor. And the baby was invariably so well behaved!

My college sweetheart was the youngest of eleven children – he always said that his feet never touched the floor. Those babies were like that – so adored that their feet never touched the floor.

I saw that people were able to live and be very happy without a lot of stuff. I don’t think I’ve ever been particularly materialistic in the designer handbag / pristine interior decoration sense, but I do have a lot of things…souvenirs, books, little indicators of personality. Traveling, I saw a model in which personalities could exist free of stuff.

And it’s definitely an experience to travel around a place like Rwanda a year before civil war or some other catastrophe befalls it. It makes you appreciate what you have, and also come to the sobering realization that knowing your complaints are comparatively petty does not necessarily mean you’ll stop making them. I’d be scribbling in my journal about how someone hurt my feelings… meanwhile, back in Rwanda, neighbors are slicing each other to ribbons with machetes.

This is probably how I arrived at my conviction that very few people would have actually stuck their necks out for Anne Frank, the way the heroic Miep Geis did when she was barely out of her 20s. All children get a pass from me, if they say they would save Anne Frank. Most adults do not. I think most adults are like me…horrified when they read the news, quick to express that horror over social media or cocktails, but just as quick to post a photo of our dinner or our vacation. We’re most of us in a position that makes it very unlikely to disrupt our lives, to take the risk that might save someone else. But I think, even if we were to strip away those responsibilities to job and family, we’d still find a reason to steer clear.

It gives me respect for what others go through, and respect for the people who do move mountains to help strangers.  It also makes me a bit impatient with certain American anarchist acquaintances’ knee-jerk “Fuck America” rhetoric. A lot of us, myself included, are guilty of inaction. Send money or give time. I guess I better send some money somewhere tonight.

What was the most embarrassing moment?

So many to choose from! Most of them wound up in my first four books. Fortunately there is a difference between “embarrassing” and “shameful”.

What was your biggest disappointment and how did that affect you later?

Hmm…there was no one crushing one, more a number of small lumps in the throat, mostly having to do with being passed over for some part or another, prior to the NeoFuturists. That probably contributed to me not pursuing auditions very vigorously…thought it could also be a temperamental thing. Either way, I wound up making a lot of opportunities for myself, a thing I continue to do, though these days I like to include others.

Who was your biggest influence and why?

The late performance artist Spalding Gray. Something he said in an interview in Tricycle magazine really resonated with me, that the reason he started performing his autobiographical monologues was because he got “sick of waiting for the big infernal machine to make up its mind” about him. It’s become a personal motto.

Is there any one experience that you feel defined the decade? Or one historical moment that changed you?

I did have the distinction of answering the phone at an alternative newspaper in Chicago when some random person called to report that Kurt Cobain had died…I ran into Editiorial to break the news to the music editor and the rest of the staff. That was my big scoop. That said, that event defined others’ decades much more than my own.

(Let it also be said that I, a 20-something receptionist, put the great Art Spiegelman on hold for like, 5 minutes, while I finished my salad, or whatever the hell it was I was doing. I fell all over myself when I finally got back on the horn and he told me his name. The arrogance of youth!)

Do you have any regrets? Are there things you wish you’d done, hadn’t done, or done differently?

Of course! See all of the above! But to quote Don Marquis’ alley cat, Mehitabel, “Wot the hell, Archie, toujours gai!”

Schoolin’ Life: Stacy-Marie Ishmael

In today’s installment of Schoolin’ Life, we meet digital media expert Stacy-Marie Ishmael.

© Clay Williams / http://claywilliamsphoto.com
© Clay Williams / http://claywilliamsphoto.com

Give us a quick bio: who are you, what are you into, and how do you spend your days?

I’ve been describing myself as a “Trinidadian-at-large” for a few years, which is a good summary. I grew up in Trinidad and then spent time in France, the UK, and the US with a bunch of travel to other places in between. I’m mostly in NYC these days, and trying not to feel too guilty about not practicing yoga or getting on my bike(s) as often as I tell myself I should. I work at the intersection of news and technology, specifically in the universe of mobile, and I love it.

When you were in your 20s…

What expectations did you have for yourself over the coming decade?

That I was going to have a Ph.D. and work for FIFA. Neither of those things panned out. This has very probably been for the best.

In what ways did society shape your expectations of yourself?

I grew up in a family that is extremely high-achieving. So being good at school – and a Ph.D. is like being good at school on steroids – was very much a part of that. And I went to a fantastic all-girl high school that is directly responsible for a lot of how I am today, including the fact that even though I taught myself to code as a child and built computers for fun and profit, I didn’t pursue a computer science degree. My options were limited, or so I was led to believe, by what was offered on the curriculum. So I took French, English Literature, and Economics instead of technical drawing or CS.

What was your first job like?

I worked for several summers in a tattoo and airbrush studio. I wasn’t allowed near any of the needles, obviously – I was the receptionist/accountant/gopher. I spent a lot of time running between the studio and another place in the mall where I would make photocopies of tattoo designs that people wanted. And sometimes I airbrushed some t-shirts. It was fun. Weird, but fun.

What was your first apartment like?

It was called the Liming House, and I loved it. It was a small apartment in Trinidad in the same apartment complex that my parents lived in, and I was allowed to move in there at 16 or 17 as long as I paid nominal rent and did my own laundry and cooking. It meant that my floor and sofa were always taken over by a rotating cast of friends. We’d have study groups that turned into band practices and jam sessions. I lived there until I moved to France. It was just the best time.

Did you experience any big life changes?

I moved from a tiny tropical island where everyone pretty much looked like me to the other side of the world and a city where no one did. I’d never seen snow before I moved to Europe. That was quite an adjustment.

In what ways did your friendships change?

Many of them ended when I came back – one of those not with a bang but a whimper situations. I’d changed, they’d changed, we no longer had very much to say to each other. The ones that didn’t endure to this day.

What did you learn through your romantic relationships?

That, with one notable exception, I am better at being independent than I am at being committed.

How did your relationships with your family change?

Absence makes the heart grow fonder 😉

How do you feel society viewed you?

I suppose people don’t quite know what to do with someone who has repeatedly taken on the kinds of challenges that involve “move across the world by yourself, figure it out as you go”. The TSA especially thinks I am incredibly suspicious. I am never not randomly selected.

How do you feel you changed emotionally?

There were a few things that almost broke me, and I survived. I gave myself permission to go on.

How did you change intellectually?

This might come as a surprise to people who know me, but I became better at listening to people with whom I fundamentally disagreed. And I stopped fetishizing theory and became obsessed with execution.

In what ways do you feel your identity changed?

I started to identify more with being considered someone from an ethnic minority, rather than as a “mixed” or “red” person as we say back home.

How did your worldview change over the course of the decade?

I am much less of a misanthrope these days.

What was the most embarrassing moment?

As a baby reporter, I fell for a prank and wrote a story based on a fake press release. That was awful.

What was your biggest disappointment and how did that affect you later?

I have never quite gotten over not getting one specific academic prize, one that I had worked toward for the whole of primary and secondary school life. And I know I disappointed a few professors when I decided not to pursue an MSc and then a Ph.D. A feeling of academic inadequacy has haunted me since.

Who was your biggest influence and why?

Paul Murphy, who was my editor at the Financial Times and more than anyone helped me understand news on the internet.

Is there any one experience that you feel defined the decade? Or one historical moment that changed you?

The day that Trinidad and Tobago qualified for the 2006 World Cup I was, as usual, on the other side of the world. That sums up how I felt about my 20s – never quite where I most wanted to be.

Do you have any regrets? Are there things you wish you’d done, hadn’t done, or done differently?

There is one relationship that ended badly, and not because of anything either of us had any control over. And then we lost touch, and he died in a car accident. I regret not having made sure he knew just how much he meant to me.

Is there a story that you feel best sums up the decade?
The early years of my twenties were marked by a period of global financial frothiness; the middle with recession and crisis; and then as I was staring 30 in the face we seemed to be heading back to recovery. And I covered a big chunk of it as a finance reporter. So for me I can’t separate that decade from that story.

Schoolin’ Life: Maelle Doliveux

In today’s installment of Schoolin’ Life, we meet and get to know illustrator, animator, fabricator, puppeteer Maëlle Doliveux.

MD_headshot-bw_150225-web

 

Give us a quick bio: who are you, what are you into, and how do you spend your days?

I’m ¾ of the way to 27. So I’m sure that next 3-4 years will be another host of interesting life revelations. But so far in my life, I’ve gone by the name Maëlle Doliveux, and I’m a French and Swiss illustrator, animator, fabricator, puppeteer living and working in New York City. I spend my days making things, all kinds of things, for different people. I’ve worked for Newsweek, The New York Times, Sesame Street, Motorola, UCB and others. Almost every day I walk my little dog to and from my studio space in Greenpoint in an old rope factory.

When you were in your 20s…

What expectations did you have for yourself for the decade? In what ways did society shape your expectations of yourself?

I should start this by saying that I’m still in my 20’s! My expectations were definitely far too high. I think I read somewhere that anyone ‘successful’ already created some kind of ‘masterpiece’, or at least was well known before the age of 24. And I read that Craig Thompson (one of my comics heroes) published Good-bye, Chunky Rice by age 24. I had this notion that unless I got a comic book published by the time I was 24, I would never make it in the industry. In the end I didn’t get a comic book contract, but I did get published by the New York Times, which meant a lot, and of course I’ve also come to realize that people’s trajectories take different amounts of time, and giving yourself no-pressure space to be creative is vital for the actual creation of ‘masterpieces’. Nobody sets off to create a masterpiece and then accomplishes that.  And obviously, being ‘successful’ is not necessarily being published, and definitely not being famous.

I thank my parents and my international school teachers for never having imposed expectations on me about who I was as a person or my career – I always felt like I could be anything and do anything I set my mind to, if it’s what I truly wanted and I worked long and hard enough at it. This is an extremely privileged way of looking at the world, and I’ve been very fortunate that it has worked out for me. I think I’ve been insanely lucky that I haven’t been confronted with sexism more in my life (apart from catcalling New Yorkers).

In terms of romantic relationships, I had very false and dumb thoughts about how they worked, and about what kind of woman was considered attractive. I assumed independence and wit intimidated men, so I deduced that nobody was really interested in me for a long time. Also, I think that we are told there are these ‘rules’ to dating, when in reality, all relationships are different, whether friendship or romantic interest.

What was your first job like?

First ever ‘real’ job was as an architectural assistant in a small architecture firm in Lausanne, Switzerland. I’d just graduated from Part I of my British architecture degree and had to do a minimum of six months as an apprentice. It was the first time that I realized that most of architecture in practice was not at all what it was like academically. The amount of time spent on concept and design is probably less than 10%, with most of the time being spent on technical detailing, administration, negotiating with a client and the contractors, researching materials and so on. The people I worked with were very friendly, and these things are important, but I personally found it all excruciating after 6 months. It made me want to try something other than architecture. In a big way, having a job that I disliked so much is still a big motivator for me as a freelance artist. When there are moments of doing something I’m not completely enjoying, I always think “well, at least it’s still better than sitting at a desk for 12 hours a day drawing technical details of suspended ceilings”.

What was your first apartment like?

The first apartment where I lived alone was a tiny little apartment in Lausanne. The kitchen was a small sink and a foot of counter space and two burners, and I could practically brush my teeth, shower and cook all at the same time. Sadly, someone broke in during the time I was away over Christmas, and stole the only few precious things I had, including some family jewelry my grandmother had left me, and my mother’s beautiful coat, which she had bought with her first ever paycheck as a young woman. Bizarrely enough they also stole my dishwashing liquid. I was pretty sad and worried about the whole thing, so I moved back in with my brother soon after.

Did you experience any big life changes?

A career change and a big recent (ongoing) romantic relationship. After this experience in Lausanne, I wanted to take a year to figure some things out, and thought that taking some improv classes and studying ‘illustration’ in New York sounded really fun. I had no idea what illustration was. But my feeling was that I’d do that for a year and then figure out my ‘real life’. Of course this very quickly became my ‘real life’, because I was having a lot of fun.

I realized illustration was exactly what I loved the most in architecture – concepts, visual problem solving, storytelling, drawing, sculpting/model-making, working with your hands, making something beautiful. I did several wonderful internships with some great mentors who encouraged me to switch into the Masters program at SVA, which was a really great move for me. After that I knew this was the right career path. I also got a dog in my early twenties! It was definitely a way to commit to illustration, because I didn’t want to have a dog and work in an office and get a dog-walker all the time. I didn’t think that was fair to a dog. But I knew that if I worked as a freelancer I could be with my dog all day, and she would give me a better rhythm to the day.  

In what ways did your friendships change?

Since I was a kid I’ve moved around quite a bit, so I’m now somewhat sadly used to the ebb and flow of friendships. But I know that with true friends, it doesn’t matter how much time you spend apart – when you see each other again it’s like you saw each other only yesterday. I hope to be better at spotting those friendships now, as opposed to the fleeting ones. But I’ve never really been into having a mass of friends- I like selective friendships that know me well and bring me joy and energy.

How did your relationships with your family change?

I came to see my parents as people, and to love them just as much, but as people, not just as all-knowing, all-powerful superhumans. Kind of like the first time you see a high-school teacher outside of school.

How do you feel society viewed you?

As a stereotypical French artist girl, with a dog and ukulele and an artist’s space in Brooklyn— wait a second, that IS what I am. Am I a stereotype?

How do you feel you changed emotionally?

I’m much more confident and less intimidated than I used to be. I remember that making a professional phone call or email when I got my first job as an architectural assistant was absolutely frightening. I kept on thinking I wasn’t doing things right, or faking it. When I interned with some incredible illustrators, and they admitted the same feeling to me, I realized that that sensation never goes away, for anyone in any field.  And also that everyone was their 20’s at one point, and didn’t know things and was learning. It would be insane to get angry or upset with someone for something they weren’t aware of. When I started seeing other people as also ‘faking it till they make it’, that made me much more confident in myself.

How did you change intellectually?

My tastes have broadened, and I hope to be more open-minded now than I was, particularly in terms of visual art. I think I’m more able to recognize and analyze what I like and why I like it, and also to be understanding and admiring of art that I like, but isn’t necessarily to my sensibility.

In what ways do you feel your identity changed?

I think my identity is more defined now than at the beginning of my 20’s, probably because I’m very passionate about my career, and present myself to others as ‘an illustrator’. I think wandering and figuring things out and being open to things and not defining yourself is an important part of your early 20’s. (And one should stay open to new things later in life too!)

Though my career doesn’t define me entirely, I think working as a creative person merges your personal and your professional life a lot.

How did your worldview change over the course of the decade?

Having grown up with a very international education, I think I’ve always been aware of how countries’ boundaries are non-existent, and how interconnected we are. Also how we as human beings are essentially the same at our core, and that culture is all the different ways that humanity can become specific. I don’t think my worldview has changed in that sense, but I hope that I’m more informed and more interested than I was as a teenager. I listen to the news on the radio now and try to keep in touch more.

What was the most embarrassing moment?

Hmmmm… I feel like I’m a fairly hard person to embarrass. I’ll usually try to spin it to make it funny, or embrace the embarrassment. That was my high school survival tactic that’s stuck around. Last year I created a 13ft long dragon costume and performed as that dragons’ talking anus and threw a whole store-bought fish and multiple chocolate and rice pudding cups out of said anus. That didn’t embarrass me in the slightest. I’m only embarrassed when I don’t stand completely behind the work I’ve done.

What was your biggest disappointment and how did that affect you later?

When I came to New York to study illustration I also chose SVA because it offered cartooning classes, which I was very curious about, but knew that a full-on cartooning degree would frighten my parents. I’d grown up with comics and in my university years had discovered American indie comics, which completely opened up what I thought the medium could do.

So I took a cartooning class, and loved it, but immediately tried to be like the artists I admired, and to make an opus that would “stand the tests of time”. It was ridiculous and entirely unfeasible. Anyways, I started working on this huge graphic novel when I’d barely had three little short stories penciled, and outlined this very intense noir/sci-fi dramatic epic. Very kindly, the wonderful, talented and extremely generous Tom Hart sat down with me to look it over, and about halfway through the conversation asked me, “Have you read Osamu Tezuka’s Road to Kirihito?” I replied that I hadn’t, and he suggested I read through it. When I did I realized that Tezuka, the legendary master of long-form comic storytelling, had basically created a version of my story that far exceeded and surpassed anything I wrote or could have written.

I realized his was successful because he was passionate and knowledgeable on his subject matter, while mine was juvenile and only half-studied because I felt like it was what I was ‘supposed’ to do, rather than what I was actually interested in doing. This was a pretty discouraging event, which made me falsely think that I wasn’t cut out for comics for a while. Only later on, when some grad school friends recommended me for some short-form comics projects, did I pick it up again. And by then I was far more confident with what I was interested in and the kind of art I wanted to make, so the work reflected that and was far more successful when I wasn’t inhibited by what I thought ‘good’ comics were, or wasn’t trying to cram in everything into one story.

Who was your biggest influence and why?

Sam Weber, Brian Cronin and Richard McGuire have been three huge influences. I interned and worked with Sam and Richard, and Brian was my thesis advisor for my final MFA project. Not only do I admire their work, but they are also exemplary in their professionalism, and really showed me how to be successful as an illustrator. I interned with Sam and his studio mate Chris Silas Neal for over a year, and they showed me everything including how to file taxes. This sounds simplistic, but I had absolutely no idea how to do anything like that, and they were true examples for me to know that it was possible to make a living and work full time in this field.

Brian and Richard helped me be more comfortable with my voice, and I’ve always admired the breadth of their work in terms of style and form. They never limit themselves because they think ‘this isn’t illustration’ – they will make the work they feel is interesting to them, in the medium they enjoy at that moment, and then find the right place for it. As someone with a wide range of curiosities and who gets bored fairly quickly, it was a godsend to see that this was also a way to make a career.

Is there any one experience that you feel defined the decade? Or one historical moment that changed you?

Probably Facebook? Not sure it’s a ‘moment’, but it probably will be seen as one in the future. For all its’ glory and awfulness.

Do you have any regrets? Are there things you wish you’d done, hadn’t done, or done differently?

It sounds cocky but I don’t really believe in regrets. I think if I were presented with the same set of opportunities I would always make the same choices. And I believe that ‘mistakes’ are just as valuable as ‘successes’. Maybe even more important because they provide opportunity for learning and changing.

Is there a story that you feel best sums up the decade?

I very recently and very briefly met Amy Poehler, who complimented me on my work. I’d just done several posters for the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre annual improv comedy marathon, and as a founding member of UCB, Amy attends almost every year. At the end of the weekend, I was walking home from the wrap-party, when I bumped into the artistic director of the theatre, who quickly turned around and introduced me to both Amy and Matt Walsh. I was very flustered, and giggly and excited, and tried not to make a fool of myself.  
To me it sums up this decade well: work hard, do things that interest you (improv comedy) without overthinking it, make friends, interesting projects will come along from all of that, and if all goes well you will make some people happy. And maybe that makes you happy. Which is an ego trip that I probably have to address… still not sure how healthy this is mentally. But right now, making art makes me very happy.

 

Schoolin’ Life: Jenn Baker

In today’s edition of Schoolin’ Life, we chat with writer, baker, editor, creator, and producer Jenn Baker.

Jennifer Baker

Jennifer Baker is an African American writer of fiction & nonfiction; a native New Yorker with a penchant for baking (and eating desserts), writing about relationships, seeing new parts of the world, and biking. She spends her days working as a production editor and freelances as a copy editor/proofreader and reviewer of restaurants. In addition, Jennifer volunteers with the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books and is the creator & producer of the podcast Minorities in Publishing.

What expectations did you have for yourself over the coming decade?

Funny enough, I had a “checklist.”

  • Get married. (Done!)
  • Go to grad school. (Done!)
  • Establish a career. (Done!)
  • Write a book & get published. (Sounded easier when I wrote it down.)

Achieve the greatness I think many expect for you, or you really expect for yourself, when you’re an overachiever. I did the marriage and grad school thing, which I now regret for various reasons  of it being too soon and not the right choices (in mate & school). I started my career in publishing. I wrote a half-assed book with obnoxious characters before starting one that would kick my ass for several years (still working on it). I sincerely thought that I was doing everything I was “supposed” to do in my 20s by following a methodical path that really wasn’t the right one for me.

In what ways did society shape your expectations of yourself?

I’m lucky that I always had a supportive family. So what stood out for me was that many of the women in my family held things down and got things done while the men were more sideline characters. So even if I wasn’t seeing strong women, particularly strong Black women in media and in books, I was raised by them. And I noticed that the way they handled things by themselves, whether they had a spouse or not, that I couldn’t always count on anyone besides myself which lead me to have a very independent, must-get-this-done mindset leading to the overachieving (and overly naive) ideology of “If I do everything, right things will turn out well for me. The reason things didn’t turn out well for others is because of bad choices.” Don’t you know that mindset got fixed real quick as I got older and entered collegiate and then professional life.

So many aspects of life are unpredictable and no matter how many “rules” you follow, there’s no set guide on how things will turn up. The way I’ve been received by others in society took away the shield I had as a kid/teen of having family always looking out for you and protecting you from the larger ugliness of the world. Mind you, NYC is not the cesspool some may think it is. I’ve encountered lots more kindness than anything, but that’s not to say that living in this city and building a thick skin because of the way you’re treated as a young female of color means others may not be as receptive to you as you’d think. So while I always expected the best from myself, be hardworking, do right always, put others before yourself, but rarely ask for help, I saw that these were also hampering how I felt the world would (and should) return on my investment.

What was your first job like?

My first real job out of college was for a literary agent and I had to quit that one due to a family emergency. After that I became an editorial assistant at an academic publisher and the person who hired me left soon after I started. The new boss and I didn’t have a great rapport which I think hampered my first job experience.

All the assistants and I worked in what people called “cubeville.” We were all recent graduates. We were all trying to satisfy our bosses. We were all overachievers who got really upset when we made mistakes big and small. We ate lunch together often and some of us cried on occasion. We also looked out for each other by over-ordering food whenever we had thankless tasks (e.g., stuffing CDs into envelopes and sticking said envelopes into workbooks for hundreds of books) so we could get ourselves (and each other) free breakfast/lunch from the nicest places on our bosses’ tab.

I made great friends at that job who I’m still in contact with today. The job itself didn’t lead to any upward movement for me and was the first of several assistant jobs I’d take on before finding my fit outside of editorial and in the production department.

Did you experience any big life changes?

I lost my virginity. I got married. Had a miscarriage. Initiated my career. I found the stories I wanted to tell while finding my voice as a writer (and I’m continually finding that voice). But in terms of big personal losses or catastrophic/life-altering changes I can’t think of many. I think emotionally I was still developing and perhaps achieved a lot of personal reflection that was very necessary so that the growing unhappiness I felt in my 20s would potentially be rectified in my 30s.

In what ways did your friendships change?

I was the first of my friends to get married. And I think I may have felt a bit of hierarchy in that. I would later become the first of my friends to get divorced which shed light on how they pursued and grew in their relationships and I how I had pursued mine.

What did you learn through your romantic relationships?

I finally owned up to the fact that the reason I wasn’t happy in my marriage wasn’t solely because something was wrong with me. Even after going to couple’s therapy I figured that my periods of fluctuation in feelings for my mate, and in some instances was encouraged to think, that I was running from a problem when the fact was the marriage was the problem. I chose to remain in a relationship that was no good for me purely because of perception. I forced myself to really pay attention to the bad signs and no longer ignore them at the end stage of my 20s to the point that I pulled the trigger in my early 30s.

The biggest thing for me was acknowledging my fear of being alone and starting over and not knowing everything I thought I did as a married woman. At some point it hit: I already felt alone in my marriage; it would be less stressful, and perhaps somewhat redemptive, to feel alone and be alone.

In what ways do you feel your identity changed?

I became less concerned with making other people happy and focused on me. It’s freeing but can also lead to misunderstandings because I went from being a very timid, silent person to a direct person. One thing I came to understand when I think on the independence aspect of the women I was raised by is that they often did more for others than themselves. They were single mothers who worked long hours and multiple jobs for their children. These were women who remained unhappily married until later in life. And when I got into my first relationship which resulted in marriage and I also got my jobs I did whatever it took to get people to like me and make them comfortable.

I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing to be a comfort to others or to try and help others or to do the job you’re paid to do. But when you’re losing aspects of yourself, when you’re making compromises that don’t sit well with you, when you’re unhappy on a deep level something has to change and often times that’s an inside-out change not always an outside-in one. So instead of taking what others thought all the time I formed and spoke of my opinions. I also needed to be a better listener so as not to barrage with my opinions while not hearing others.

On the relationship front I owned myself more and when my partner kept saying I was “naive” and “young” I took it for what it was rather than considering who I was. In my 20s my insecurity of being wanted romantically was full out on display. I threw myself (not a joke, I actually did that one time at age 20) at men which makes me cringe thinking back on it. I didn’t know much about relationships but I readily knew the body could be a key attractor and I used it in an attempt to get what I wanted, which was companionship that I hoped transformed into love. I was not aware or didn’t wholly understand that I should be enough for someone.

That I should be wanting to be better for myself but also to be with someone who made me want to be better. And it’s when that realization struck, and I mean really struck, that I felt strong enough to realize who I was as a young woman and embrace my body in a way that I had more control over it and who I shared it with.

How did your worldview change over the course of the decade?

The big thing was becoming more attentive to politics and social issues. The more I paid attention to what was happening in the real world the less enamored I became with celebrities and the life of riches paraded on TV. My insecurities weren’t simply because there was something wrong with me in all instances but because the world viewed women and/or black women and/or vocal black women in a certain way. I had to comprehend that my behavior spoke volumes, that perception was constant and that people may very well prejudge me before I walked in the door or opened my mouth based on whatever information (be it banal or not) they had of me.

Is there any one experience that you feel defined the decade? Or one historical moment that changed you?

To me a major turning point for the 2000s was the Gore/Bush election. I continually wonder what would have happened if Gore had won. Would 9/11 have taken place? Would there have been a war and mass killings? Would this have lead to the latest recession as well as so much dissension in the U.S.? That one election seems to have set the stage for a whole new way of life and a real need to see things differently for those in my generation specifically.

In 2003, straight out of college I attempted to get a full-time job, yet I saw many people were being laid off due to the repercussions of 9/11 and the impending war creating a lot of concern in various industries. It was as though a continuous spotlight had been cast on corruption taking place in all areas of government and corporations. When the situation arose where I was the sole means of support for my husband and I, there was very little around to help us because even though my salary in one of the most expensive cities in the U.S. helped me skid by it still wasn’t enough to require any kind of subsidy to help us not struggle.

The growing financial concerns and visible discrepancies between those who worked hard and those with expectations made it clear that we all needed to pay more attention to the world around us. The “War on Terror” made me face the fact that those older than me, those in office, those with power, were not always looking out for others.

Do you have any regrets? Are there things you wish you’d done, hadn’t done, or done differently?

My biggest regret was being too cautious. I took fewer chances and always worried: about money, about pleasing my partner, about being alone, about doing the wrong thing (and wrong was really society’s expectation of what a woman should do: be married, have kids, maybe work as well). This hesitation meant I didn’t do more traveling. That people I was attracted to and who may have been better matches that crossed my path were people I distanced myself from when I flashed my engagement and later wedding ring out of resigned loyalty, not devotion. My thoughts on pleasing my partner had me consider conceiving a child I knew full well I was not ready to have.

I wish I had paused more to think about the larger things I wanted from life, or consider what to explore sexually or otherwise. I did things that didn’t make me happy because I thought that’s what you should do. You should get married even if you have concerns about the person you may be marrying. You should get a job even if it’s not one you want simply because you have to pay rent. You should move in with said partner even though he snores extremely loud and constantly reminds you he has more life experience. You should get a graduate degree and take on some debt because you already have a bachelor’s. I think my quest for success and to “check” all my boxes stifled me more than I would have liked. And seeing that I had more money to burn in my 20s when I was splitting all my expenses with a partner than I do now supporting myself I do wish that I’d traveled more, risked more, just did more than be a “good girl.”

There’s no doing it right, and even when you aim to be a good person you can, and may very well, get screwed time and time again. So the aim should be to be happy with yourself before making others happy with you.

Schoolin’ Life: Cecilia Ruiz

In today’s installment of Schoolin’ Life, we meet author, illustrator and graphic designer Cecilia Ruiz.

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Who are you, what are you into, and how do you spend your days?

I am a 32 year-old author, illustrator and graphic designer from Mexico City. I moved to NYC in 2010 with the purpose of getting an MFA in Illustration at the School of Visual Arts and ended up staying. I now live in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, with my husband and no pets.

I like sad stories that make me laugh and I spend my days working (or trying to) from home while drinking strong coffee. You can see my work here.

What expectations did you have yourself over the coming decade?

I don’t really remember having any clear ones. I think I was just (pathetically) excited to feel more like a grown up even though I pretty much still looked and behaved like I was 14.

What was your first job like?

My first job was what I had always thought would be my dream job. It turned out it wasn’t.

Right after graduating from college, me and some close friends decided to start our own design studio in Mexico City. Without any upfront capital or the slightest clue on how to run a business (for some reason, we didn’t consider any of those things as that important), we managed to survive three years at a shared office that, among other things, had a ping-pong table on the roof top.

I think we all had a very romantic and idealized idea of what it would be like to have our own company, but that was soon overshadowed by millions of decisions we had to make on things that had nothing to do with design/art making—which was what we were really interested in.

Looking back, I feel nostalgic of that era. It was exciting, unstable, stressful, but most of all, it was FUN. It was a complete mix of very contrasting things: being able to come in at noon wearing pajamas if we wanted to, going to business meetings at fancy intelligent buildings, with fancy non-intelligent clients.  Working non-stop without sleeping for 48 hours, designing beautiful websites for clients like Coca Cola, talking to lawyers and accountants, implementing rules that we didn’t follow, and having ping-pong breaks that would turn into day-long tournaments was all part of the experience.

It didn’t take long for us to realize that we needed way more than design skills to run a successful business, but three years of daily struggles had to pass before we came to the conclusion that what we didn’t really want, was to own that kind of business.

I still consider that first job a success story; we learned a lot, we didn’t lose any money and most important, we remained good friends.

What was my first apartment like?

In Mexico, in your twenties, you don’t usually leave your parents house until you get married or move to a different state/country. That was my case. I went to Barcelona to do one year of college and that was the first time I rented an apartment (with my parents’ money, of course). I shared a three-bedroom apartment with other four Mexican friends and I was the lucky one who didn’t have to share the room. My room was tiny and so incredible dark, that if I didn’t set my alarm,  I would wake up at 2 pm feeling extremely guilty and confused.

Did you experience any big life changes?

I think the biggest life change I experienced was leaving Mexico City in 2010.

When I was 27, I moved to NYC to pursue an MFA in illustration at the School of Visual Arts.

At that point of my life, I was pretty settled and comfortable with myself . I had a full time job that I was happy and good at, and family and friends that would laugh at my jokes.

Moving to a different country put me in touch with parts of myself that I had forgotten were there. It reminded me how painful shyness and self awareness can be, especially when you have to interact with strangers in a different language.  

That first year in NYC was the most intense of my life. It is the year when I can say I became an illustrator and it is the year when I met the love of my life.

In what ways did your friendships change?

My old Mexican friendships, the important ones, survived the distance. Even though we don’t see each other that often, technology has helped us to stay close.

What did you learn through your romantic relationships?

One of many things I learned is that being in a relationship where you fear to say something stupid or make a fool of yourself is not a good place to be.

How did your relationships with your family change?

I feel like being away from my family brought us closer in a way. I don’t know if it is just growing older, or if it has to do with the distance. I just feel like I share more with them now and I feel like we have more meaningful conversations. I am more open to take advice from my parents now, too. We fight less and we are more appreciative of each other when we get to visit.  

How do you feel you changed emotionally?

I have always been emotional but, from the second half of my twenties up until now, it has just gotten out control. I used to make fun of my teary mom and aunts, but now I am just one of them.

How did you changed intellectually?

I think most of my intellectual growth (if there’s such a thing) has been through literature and film. More through film than books, though – I am a better watcher than I am a reader.  I think a lot of the books and movies that I was exposed to in my twenties; they really shaped the way i think and have been a huge influence and inspiration in my artwork.

In what ways your identity changed?

I don’t think there were major changes. I just think I have gotten to know myself better hence it has become so much easier to identify what I  like, think and believe in and I what don’t. And most important, I’m able to articulate why.  

What was the most embarrassing moment?

This one happened in my mid-twenties, in a time when having multiple chat windows opened while working was common practice. I wrote something pretty horrible about a person, clicked SEND, and realized that I had just sent it to that very person. I then crowned my stupidity by saying: hahaha, just kidding! I felt so terribly ashamed, that later that day, I drove to the person’s office just so I could apologize to her face.

What was your biggest disappointment and how did that affect you later?

One big disappointment was getting a rejection letter from the University of the Arts London when I applied for their Master’s degree in Illustration. Even though I was pretty bummed when that happened, just a couple of months later I was in New York realizing that that rejection letter was the best thing that had happened to me.

Do you have any regrets? Are there things you wish you’d done, hadn’t done, or done differently?

Not really, though I know there are plenty of times that I wished I had listened to myself earlier.

Schoolin’ Life: Annie Koyama

In today’s episode of Schoolin’ Life, we meet publisher Annie Koyama.

Annie-1

 

Photo credit: Robin Nishio

Give us a quick bio: who are you, what are you into, and how do you spend your days?

I’m a publisher of alternative comics, art books and zines in Toronto, Canada. I love working with and promoting emerging artists as well as more established artists. I am trying to curb my workaholic ways by taking at least one day a week off to appreciate nature and bad movies with my fantastic partner.

When you were in your 20s…

What expectations did you have for yourself over the coming decade?

I was probably too busy just trying to get by since I’d left home during high school. Although I had already ruled out social work after doing some volunteer probation officer work, I was hoping to find some work in the arts. I was enjoying being a set painter for the National Ballet of Canada and Canadian Opera Company.

 In what ways did society shape your expectations of yourself?

I was the eldest of six kids and a visible minority. There was an expectation to excel for sure.

What was your first job like?

My first job when I was of legal working age was in a women’s clothing store in a suburban mall. I certainly didn’t fit in as the store sold spongy, synthetic clothing to middle-aged women. Customers would pee in the dressing room wastebaskets and I’d have to take the wastebaskets downstairs down a long, dark corridor to get to the washrooms. I was making some of my own clothing at that time so needless to say, I never used my employee discount.

What was your first apartment like?

I left home during high school and found a roommate to rent a cheap two bedroom apartment in a mixed industrial/residential area of town. I had to take two buses to school. The two most lasting impressions were that I learned to co-exist with cockroaches and silverfish. And the local cookie factory was nearby so there was a sickeningly sweet smell to the whole area all the time. To this day, I can’t eat those cookies.

Did you experience any big life changes?

I finished University, where I studied arts, languages and criminology; then I got a chance to travel with my sister and a friend of my father’s in Europe. I discovered that social work was not for me, which saddened me, but at least I could move on. I discovered that while I am a competent painter, I was not a really creative painter. However, I got a job at the National Film Board of Canada, which turned out to be my entrance into the world of film production. I loved working in film and felt as though I had found my niche. I’ve stumbled into virtually every job I’ve had in my life. My 20s was the decade where I tried out jobs in different professions allowing me to eliminate the ones that were not for me. However, being an A-type, decisive personality and a person who didn’t want to do a job unless I could excel in it, I was pretty merciless in terms of evaluating my skills.

In what ways did your friendships change?

I kept in touch with some friends from university, but there was no social media in the 80s so some people fell by the wayside when I met new groups of friends. People moved away for jobs afterwards and it was harder to keep in touch.

What did you learn through your romantic relationships?

Whoo boy! What didn’t I learn? I learned that I’m good at cutting my losses in general which has helped me in other parts of my life. I often felt like the protagonist of “My Brilliant Career.” I turned down a few marriage opportunities that decade.

How did your relationships with your family change?

Growing up, I was close to several of my siblings, partly because, with six kids, we had to share bedrooms but having a bit of distance wasn’t a bad thing either.

How do you feel society viewed you?

I definitely experienced racism and sexism from an early age, but you have to begin to think about how you are going to engage with others during those instances. Being one of two female set painters and feminists in a union shop full of men was challenging but once I was able to prove myself as the job involved quite a bit of physical labor, things leveled off a bit. In North America, we tend to be viewed by what our profession or job is. It’s a narrow view and it’s always bothered me that there is more to people than what they do for a living.

How do you feel you changed emotionally?

Because no job I’ve ever had was planned, I just stumbled into a variety of kinds of work. I guess you have to keep growing as you take on new challenges but I don’t recall that much changed emotionally. I feel as though I grew much more emotionally in my 30s.

How did you change intellectually?

As an avid reader and one who mostly enjoyed school, I had to continue to go from book smart to street smart. When you have the safety net of a tight family, you may be protected from making more mistakes. On your own, you fall more often but if you learn from each fall, I think you get smarter in a way that is more valuable. I still feel that you should surround yourself with people who you believe to be smarter than you in as many disciplines as possible. You can’t help but learn from them.

In what ways do you feel your identity changed?

As an eldest child in a large family, I always felt that I had to lead the way. I felt an affinity to the arts and figured that I’d somehow end up working in some art-related job as it was where some of my skills lay. What I didn’t notice consciously was that my organizational skills were becoming strong and that basis has served me in everything I’ve done since. I certainly became way more independent in my 20s.

How did your worldview change over the course of the decade?

It’s difficult to avoid becoming cynical when you see injustice around you. I’m not a born optimist, so it’s really easy to become disillusioned by the shitty state of the world. Both my parents were interned during WW2 and their families lost everything they had and had to build again from scratch in a hostile environment. It would be easy to carry a chip on your shoulder after that kind of traumatic experience but, to their credit, they chose to go on with life. That kind of fortitude influenced how I try to endure the terrible things that take place in the world.

What was the most embarrassing moment?

Since none stand out, there must have been too many of them!

What was your biggest disappointment and how did that affect you later?

Probably realizing that I wasn’t destined to become a really good painter. That experience taught me to move on and not look back.

Who was your biggest influence and why?

I didn’t really have one in my 20s. I was certainly inspired by writers as disparate as Doris Lessing, E.M. Forster, Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, Yukio Mishima, John Knowles, P.G. Wodehouse, Fritjof Capra and John Berger. My mom was a music lover and took us to concerts even when we were pretty young, she instilled a love of music that I’m sure all of my siblings carry today.

Is there any one experience that you feel defined the decade? Or one historical moment that changed you?

Maybe the beginning of the AIDS crisis. I lost many friends to AIDS related deaths. It was unexpected, confusing and unbearably sad.

Do you have any regrets? Are there things you wish you’d done, hadn’t done, or done differently?

I try not to look back but sometimes I wonder what would have transpired had I’d accepted a scholarship to a university arts program that was offered. I will always regret not travelling more due to lack of funds. You could travel pretty cheaply back then. I wasn’t as comfortable travelling alone then and if you waited for a friend, it wouldn’t happen.

Is there a story that you feel best sums up the decade?

They’d all involve sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll, so nothing original, sadly.

Schoolin’ Life: Sarah Klinger

In today’s installment of Schoolin’ Life, we get to know illustrator Sarah Klinger.

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Illustration by Elizabeth Baddeley

When you were in your 20s…

 What expectations did you have for yourself over the coming decade?

I’m still not clear on my expectations for myself, but I was especially frantic in my early 20s. I saw what looked like two clear paths emerge before me. The first was to find a steady job at a company where I could work my way up, doing something I could stand. This is what most people I knew did, and it seemed like a sensible and realistic expectation—to be comfortable and somewhat unsatisfied existentially.

The second option was to pursue something I was passionate about, which I assumed would mean a very unpredictable and stressful existence.

 In what ways did society shape your expectations of yourself?

As per my answer above, I think that society tells you that as an artist you must either suffer, sell out or give up art to be financially successful. Why can’t we have it all?

What was your first job like?

My first “real” job out of college was very much along the first imagined career path because it had little to do with my passions or interests. But I got to work with a lot of really smart, interesting and compassionate people, and that counted for a lot.

What was your first apartment like?

My first apartment was kind of shabby and not terribly functional, but I am still kind of in love with it. Kind of like most things in my 20s.

In what ways did your friendships change?

I didn’t expect my friendships to grow closer in my twenties—I figured that we would be too distracted by trying to carve out our places in the world. But, as I should have realized, that struggle makes having close friends even more important.

How do you feel society viewed you?

It feels like society views young people, young girls especially, as reckless consumers. In every sense. But I admit that didn’t try very hard to prove them wrong. Actually, I still feel that way.

How did your worldview change over the course of the decade?

It’s such a cliché, but the more I see of the world, the less it feels like I understand it. I love to speculate and generalize about other people’s feelings and motivations all over the world, but my own experiences have been so narrow that I don’t have a good perspective at all.

Who was your biggest influence and why?

My collective family and friends were my biggest influence. Who else can you trust?

Is there any one experience that you feel defined the decade? Or one historical moment that changed you?

In my early twenties, I remember telling my mom that art wasn’t important because nobody ever died without it. Even if I could admit that art brings happiness to people and makes the world fuller, I wasn’t talented enough to make a difference.

But the more I traveled, the more I started to feel the obvious thing that people have been telling me forever, which is how lucky I am. I felt it more than ever when I took a trip to India with my brother. Another cliché, I know!

Most people (and women especially) don’t get to decide what they do in their lives, but I do. What an arrogant waste it would be to throw away my chance to do what I want. Does it even matter if art is important to the world? I’m responsible for what art means to me, and I’d be an idiot to let the opportunity pass me by.

Do you have any regrets? Are there things you wish you’d done, hadn’t done, or done differently?

Of course I wish that I had really felt this urgency to go into the arts when I was in college, or even high school. I might be much further along in my career by now.

But another part of my counters that maybe starting out in art would mean I didn’t want it as much? Ruminating on what I ought to have done is pointless because nobody grows in a perfectly straight line. Things just get better and better.

Schoolin’ Life: Eleanor Davis

For today’s edition of Schoolin’ Life, we get to know cartoonist and illustrator Eleanor Davis.

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Give us a quick bio: who are you, what are you into, and how do you spend your days?

My name is Eleanor Davis, I’m 33 years old. I am a cartoonist & illustrator. I like talking, eating, and riding my bike. I spend a lot of time at my desk.

When you were in your 20s…

What expectations did you have for yourself over the coming decade?

Oh God. I was a mess for a lot of my 20s. I had a lot of expectations and not a lot of them did me much good. I was torn between making art and making money and “making a difference,” I thought I somehow had to become perfect in every way. But in the meantime, I didn’t even know how to, like, feed and bathe myself. So of course I was miserable. Classic!

In what ways did society shape your expectations of yourself?

I think society contributed to my idea that I had to be perfect, and probably to the certainty that I was not. Not sure why or how exactly. A lot of women seem to struggle with that idea, though.

What was your first job like?

My first job in my 20s was working at an ice cream shop. My co-workers and boss were all really, really nice. The customers were usually nice too, although they were mostly tourists. I ate way too much ice cream. In the winter, it would get extremely slow and one of my co-workers made me watch the whole first season of Sex and the City in the back on her laptop.

What was your first apartment like?

My first apartment in my 20s was kind of a pit. But it was on the second floor and you could climb out my bedroom window onto the porch roof and eat dinner and smoke cigarettes. When you jumped up and down in the kitchen, the whole building would shake.

Did you experience any big life changes?

Oh man, these questions are tough. I mean, yes! My husband and I moved from Savannah to Athens where we live now. We got married. I worked really hard at getting good at art, and I basically did, to everyone’s surprise. I decided to quit making art and work at a co-op, and that was good too, because then I figured out that I liked making art after all. I made some friends. I fell in and out and in and out of love, and in again.

In what ways did your friendships change?

I started to have closer friendships. Friendships were hard for me when I was younger, especially friendships with women, for some reason. I don’t think I really understood what being friends with someone meant; I thought it just meant “people who like one another.” Now I think it has something more to do with communication, trust, and showing people who you really are. I used to have a very hard time letting myself trust other people enough to be open with them. I also wasn’t good at letting other people know they could be open with me. Now I’m braver and my friendships are stronger.

What did you learn through your romantic relationships?

I’ve been with my husband, Drew, since I was 19, so I learned a lot about what it’s like to be with one person for a long time. We both have. We’ve learned that it’s really, really hard. We were co-dependent for a while and then we learned to be our own people a little more. We were distant for a while and then we learned to connect a little more. We communicated badly for a long time and pushed stuff down and then we learned to talk it out. Drew is very, very different from me: he’s quiet, and stable, and patient. I’m emotional, impulsive, and loud. We learn a lot from one another for that reason.

How did your relationships with your family change?

I’ve always been super close with my family, to the point that I couldn’t imagine wanting to be alive after my parents were gone. After I started getting better at making friends, I also started to be able to imagine a future where my parents were dead but I hadn’t offed myself. So I guess that’s a positive change.

We are still navigating the weird shift between parents-with-kids and parents-with-adult-kids. I hope I’m easier to be around than I used to be, but I suspect I am not. They are slightly harder to be around. They’re both retired now, & it’s like they’re developing their own arcane language just to use with one another.

How do you feel society viewed you?

A weird, spoiled, abrasive, wimpy, nerdy, asexual woman-child? Which is fine! I am cool with that.

How do you feel you changed emotionally?

I got a lot stronger. I started going to therapy and learned that self-hate wasn’t a good motivator. I learned to be kinder to myself, which strangely helped me get stronger, and helped me support other people more. That was good.

How did you change intellectually?

I got dumber! This is a really irritating thing for me. I’ve gotten a lot lazier, intellectually. I used to read more and stay more engaged with current events, partially out of guilt. When I stopped being motivated by guilt, I stopped doing a lot of things that really were good to do, like listening to the news. I’d like to change that. I don’t like willful ignorance, and I worry that my brain is getting soft.

In what ways do you feel your identity changed?

Simultaneously more masculine and more feminine. Weak and okay with it. More comfortable with considering myself “an artist” (although still – that word, yick).

How did your worldview change over the course of the decade?

My feminism got a lot stronger. I’m more okay with the upcoming apocalypse (not sure if this is positive or negative). More into meditation, hippy shit, etc.

What was the most embarrassing moment?

Please do not make me think about this!

What was your biggest disappointment and how did that affect you later?

Disappointed that I couldn’t work faster, make more art, make more money. Disappointed I couldn’t be a better person, someone who somehow gave back. Disappointed daily in myself. Those things were bad, and they hurt, but I feel pretty good now, and it’s hard to imagine life having gone any other way.

Who was your biggest influence and why?

In my 20s? Personally or artistically? Probably my parents, and my husband, and my best friend, Kate. Like always, like now.

Is there any one experience that you feel defined the decade? Or one historical moment that changed you?

Ummmm. Good question. I was really, really excited about listening to the news in 2008 when the market crashed and it became ultra clear that the Republicans really were full of shit. That laissez-faire economics wasn’t just unethical, it was actively horrible policy. Why is anyone still listening to those idiots?

Camping in the Oregon woods with a bunch of wonderful kids’ book authors and illustrators I’d met over the internet was also really something.

Do you have any regrets? Are there things you wish you’d done, hadn’t done, or done differently?

Oh, Christ. I don’t know.

I wish I hadn’t signed the two-book contract for my first kids’ graphic novel. I wish I’d started going to therapy sooner.

Is there a story that you feel best sums up the decade?

America elected Obama (good, great) and decided that meant we’d gotten rid of all racism (obviously horribly untrue).

Schoolin’ Life: Jen Breach

In today’s installment of Schoolin’ Life, we chat with writer and business analyst Jen Breach.

jen breach

 

Give us a quick bio: who are you, what are you into, and how do you spend your days?

I‘m a 35 year-old Australian living in Brooklyn.  I’m a writer – picture books and graphic novels – and have a day job as a business analyst for systems implementation projects at Barnard College.

When you were in your 20s…

What expectations did you have for yourself over the coming decade?

Oof.  So many.  I truly thought that by 30, I would have a PhD in archaeology and my first novel published.  I was raised with very unhealthy ideas about achievement and perfection.  When I did get to 30, I had an abandoned master’s program and I’d not even finished, let alone pitched or published a book.  Although I understood intellectually that it was okay not have met those unrealistic expectations, I still felt like a failure.

In what ways did society shape your expectations of yourself?

I completely internalized the idea that young women should be pretty, quiet and compliant. How destructive is that?  Those were expectations I could meet, though.  For all the world, I seemed at ease but my own skin grated against me like sandpaper. Oh, to cause a ruckus.

What was your first job like?

I’ve always worked.  I can’t even remember what the first one was. Cleaning houses with my brother?  Or ironing business shirts for a neighbor? It was certainly shitty and poorly paid ☺

What was your first apartment like?

Apartments aren’t common in Australia.  Most students and young people will live in a standalone multi-bedroom family home, sharing with other students. The first place I lived out of my parents’ house was a cute-as-a-button pale yellow weatherboard cottage in a Greek-and-Italian neighborhood in Melbourne. The whole bit: rose garden out the front, concrete back yard with a huge old nectarine tree that the nonna next door would precariously climb the fence to steal from.   I shared the house with an alcoholic, a narcissist and a film student bodhran player.  The arrangement fell apart is a spectacular way after two years but when I think back on it, the sun is shining on that house and the yellow looks lovely against a bright blue sky.

The first true apartment I had was in the East Village when I moved to NYC at 30.  It was a third floor walk up, the smallest space I have ever occupied and completely awesome.

How did your relationships with your family change?

At 19, I came out as bisexual to my parents.  Their response was a quoted bible passage and then we didn’t speak for six years.  It was catastrophic. When we did speak again we didn’t have a single conversation about the estrangement. It took me another nine years for me to talk about it with them and to understand that while ideally a parent will love their child, it’s not always true.

The change, in all its big and tiny ways, was understanding and accepting that the fantasy that mine could be a close, loving, nurturing family was impossible.

In what ways do you feel your identity changed?

I grew up in rural Australia in the 80s.  While Australia is a wealthy, educated Western country, attitudes are still very provincial, especially out of the cities.  I did not even entertain the idea that I was attracted to women until I moved to the city for college at 18.  Understanding that I was bi was like wearing a bespoke suit after two decades of ill-fitting hand-me-downs.  When my parents saw my new suit and disowned me, I was really lost. In some ways I am oddly grateful for that catastrophe – it galvanized the way I saw myself. if I’d paid that enormous, painful price to understand and live my sexual identity, it didn’t make sense to be half assed about it.

The other change in identity came much later in my 20s when I shifted perspective from “I want to be a writer” to “I am a writer”.  I went to the Emerging Writer’s Festival in Melbourne one sunny cold early winter day and had my idea of what it means to be a writer turned completely on its head. I had thought that it meant you had to be published, you had to make a living off it, you had to be a bestseller – you had to have soaring achievement that proves your “claim”.  None of that is true.  You’re a writer if you say so.  I can’t remember the first time I actually said it out loud, but in my imagination I am timidly squeaking with a grimace and an apology.   In the States I see people way more comfortable with calling themselves a writer, or illustrator, or designer or game maker – which is right.  There’s a greater acceptance here of creative pursuit and activity, that you’re a professional if you say so regardless of how you pay your bills. In Australia creative pursuit is a hobby, not a career, especially in comics.  It’s not true though – if you write, you’re a writer.

Do you have any regrets? Are there things you wish you’d done, hadn’t done, or done differently?

I don’t go in for regret. Aren’t we all just doing the best we can with what we’ve got in front of us?  So how can a choice be wrong?  There are always reasons – good or otherwise – for our choices, actions, or lack there of.  Of course, some choices are bad and we misconstrue some reasons as excuses.  But unless we know we are acting intentionally cruelly or unreasonably or evilly, then we could all stand to be a little kinder to ourselves about our choices and cut ourselves a break.

There’s such a disconnect between what we think a thing is and what it actually turns out to be.  We make decisions based on what we know, what we feel and what we can imagine, not on the actual, real future outcome of a choice.  How can we?  If it turns out to be a bad choice then we have more information to work on to make new choices – either with forward momentum or backwards reflection to make amends for past wrongdoing.
Regret is an inability to see the threads of one’s life and an inability to act without shame or ego in the face of our own less-than-ideal choices.  Conscious action of this kind is the hardest thing in the world to do, but it’s a better place to put energy than in regret.

 

 

Schoolin’ Life: Anna Raff

In today’s edition of Schoolin’ Life, we chat with New York-based illustrator Anna Raff.

A photo posted by Anna Raff (@annaraff) on

When you were in your 20s…

What expectations did you have for yourself over the coming decade?

I expected to reach a certain level of success in my career as a graphic designer. But what that benchmark was, I’m not really sure, and I didn’t consciously set goals. What I most cared about was doing creative work that I found interesting and challenging, and making enough money to support my travel addiction which I’d honed during and right after college.

In what ways did society shape your expectations of yourself?

Because of my family background, my friends, and the creative industry in which I worked, I was surrounded by a group of very open-minded people, who weren’t necessarily adhering to any one set of norms or expectations. Even if they were, they weren’t forcing it upon others who didn’t fit in—this was New York City, after all. Also, I never pictured myself as a parent, so perhaps that eliminated a big element of societal expectations for a young woman like myself.

What was your first job like?

My first job out of college was designing corporate brochures and presentations at an architectural firm in London. I had travelled there with some friends, after enrolling in a work exchange program which got us to get 6-month work permits in the U.K. Before leaving home, I had sent out a few résumés, but this architectural firm was the only place listed in the program guide that was remotely related to my main interest at the time, graphic design. My résumé had this logo I designed in school at the top—I still have a copy of it somewhere. The logo is okay, but the rest of it is crap! Based on that, and their random needs at the moment, I got the job. Ironically, here I was, an American kid, so happy to be working in London, on Oxford Street, surrounded by all this fantastic, historic, architecture, but working for a firm that designed the most hideous, god-awful, American-style shopping malls. Also, this was all before desktop publishing, and despite taking a few design classes in college, my knowledge of manual typesetting was minimal, so I mostly got by on my wits and earnestness. Kindly, they offered to do the paperwork to extend my visa, but I knew I was done. The nice thing was, the job paid pretty well, and enabled me to do a significant amount of traveling afterward to perpetuate my postponement of looking for a “real job” back home.

What was your first apartment like?

The flat my friends and I rented in London was basic, but more spacious than my first New York apartment. We even found 400 pounds in an empty drawer when we moved it—that was a good day. We knew it most likely belonged to the previous tenants, but the jerky landlord would just pocket the money if we told him, so we used it against our rent. My first place in New York City—where I moved shortly after returning to the U.S.—was a small, railroad apartment in the West Village that would have been fine for one person. The landlord had put a thin wall down the middle of the bedroom to create two rooms, so my roommate and I could basically fit a twin bed into each, and not much else. Being the West Village, it was super noisy, especially on weekends. I remember motorcyclists tearing up the street several times into the early morning, setting off car alarms as they went. That was pleasant. Oh, and that was the first place I saw a water bug fly. Gross.

Did you experience any big life changes?

In my mid-20’s, I moved into another apartment by myself, which was incredibly liberating and empowering. Also, my best friend came out to me. I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t figured it out, but it made everything make so much more sense. It really affirmed that he was (and still is) my best friend. This was during the AIDS crisis, and I remember the first thing I said to him was, “Be careful!” Then I think I told him how proud I was of him…at least, I hope I did. I’m still very proud of him.

In what ways did your friendships change?

Certain friendships that seemed very important in high school and college fell away, while others only got stronger. I came to terms with all that; it was okay for friends and friendships to evolve, and not always toward the same destinations. It’s better to let go, if it’s not working anymore.

What did you learn through your romantic relationships?

That I was completely naïve.

How did your relationships with your family change?

I’ve always been quite close to my family, so I think the only difference was that I was relating to them more as an adult.

How do you feel society viewed you?

As a geeky-looking, somewhat athletic, artistic, straight girl who didn’t really like girly things, some people probably put me into a box of some sort.

How do you feel you changed emotionally?

I started to learn about what was really important, but to be honest, I made much more progress with that in my 30’s.

How did you change intellectually?

By the end of my 20’s, I’d learned the complete suite of Adobe products…oh, and Pagemaker and Quark. That’s probably not what you meant.

In what ways do you feel your identity changed?

Through work, travel, and play my confidence got a boost. I played softball for my publishing company’s team, and that was great fun. I hadn’t played at all since junior high, and I’d always been quite good, but somehow in my teens, felt it was too “butch” —a very ignorant assessment, I might add. Once I joined this work team, I realized how much I missed playing, and how I identified myself as athletic, and that that was okay. It was also great fun to get up to bat against these teams, where the men would see a woman at the plate, and come closer into the infield. Then I’d proceed to whack the ball over their heads.

How did your worldview change over the course of the decade?

Travel really made clear the isolation many Americans experience, having never stepped into another country and out of their comfort zone.

What was the most embarrassing moment?

Drinking too much, and barfing into two plastic mugs while on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. The most amazing thing is that the guy, who is still my best friend, carried the two cups through a moving train to the nearest toilet to dispose of them. In the middle of Siberia! And he’s still talking to me 28 years later. Now that’s friendship.

What was your biggest disappointment and how did that affect you later?

I had a few disappointments at work, like not getting a promotion as I thought I should have, but I chalk that up to not asserting myself enough. These moments also spurred me on to seek out the next thing, the next challenge. And at some point, I realized I really didn’t want to supervise others at work, so I had to seek out positions that allowed that. By my early 30’s, I’d landed a job as a one-person design department at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I worked for ten years, until I returned to school to pursue a career as an illustrator.

Who was your biggest influence and why?

Oh, definitely my parents. They’re just really lovely, interesting people who always made (and make) me feel like I can do no wrong…within limits, of course.

Is there any one experience that you feel defined the decade? Or one historical moment that changed you?

When I landed a job doing design at a children’s book publisher. I had found the industry where I belonged, and it’s where I work now, albeit as an illustrator.

Do you have any regrets? Are there things you wish you’d done, hadn’t done, or done differently?

Perhaps I could have drawn more in my 20’s. At some point, I stopped making handmade cards, and other projects that involved illustration. It took me almost a decade and a half to figure out that I really should be doing that as a career. But perhaps I needed the time, I don’t know.

Is there a story that you feel best sums up the decade?

I think that one about barfing in Siberia is a pretty good one.