photos by Marnie Recker
He’s an accomplished web designer, musician, llama lover, nut enthusiast (yup, you read that right), blogger (who writes posts like “fuck being cool”) and now, the author of an excellent e-book called Eat Awesome: A regular person’s guide to plant-based, whole foods. Full disclosure: I also edited* Eat Awesome.
Paul and I first met nearly 10 years ago, and we’ve been friends and frequent collaborators ever since. I was lucky enough to have Paul design this blog and my professional website. He’s smart, talented, grounded and very funny. He also lives in Tofino, B.C., which is one of the most beautiful places on the planet, and he spends several months of each year traveling with his wife and musical accomplice, Lisa. Sounds good, right?
But back to the book. Paul has the (surprisingly rare) ability to make big plans – and then make them happen. He also has a big following on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. When people started demanding recipes for the vegan dishes on his Instagram feed, Paul decided to write a book. One week later, he finished the first draft. That’s classic Paul: get an idea, dive in and do it.
Eat Awesome is ultimately a handbook for the “vegi-curious,” so it doesn’t matter whether you’re a vegan, a committed carnivore, or you land somewhere in between. No judgment. Just fresh, plant-based foods and delicious photos by Marnie Recker. I wanted to know more about Paul’s creative process and his experiences with self-publishing, so I asked him all kinds of nosy questions. Here’s what he had to say.
What inspired you to write Eat Awesome?
I had written Eat Awesome a bunch of times in emails to friends and family. They all asked the same questions about what I eat and wanted recipes for the plant-based food that I make. I didn’t want to keep writing that same email, so I thought I’d write a book.
Why were you getting so many questions about food? There are lots of other plant eaters out there…
Mostly because all I talk about is food and eating. I post a lot of food photos and I talk about food all the time on Twitter and Facebook. People often said, “can I have the recipe?” or “that looks good… how can I be vegan?” Strangers started asking the same questions that I got from my friends and family.
Were you always so obsessed with food?
I’ve always enjoyed good food, and for me, the point of traveling is pretty much to eat and try new things at restaurants. But in the last couple years I’ve been getting more and more into whole foods and clean, vegan eating and eating gluten-free. It just keeps snowballing.
Now that it’s summer, I’m getting all my produce from Vancouver Island or B.C. farmers. I just keep going further and wanting to know more and more about my food. It’s gotten to the point where I need to know where all my food is from and who, for example, picked these berries that I just bought.
When did you become vegan?
I’ve been vegetarian for eight or nine years. One day I realized, “I haven’t eaten dairy or eggs or anything like that for about a year. I guess I’m vegan.” So, I’ve probably been vegan for about three or four years.
Why publish Eat Awesome as an e-book?
I’m a nerd, so I like to do digital stuff and I know that world really well. I didn’t necessarily know anything about writing a book, but I do so much online and on the computer that it seemed like the best way to go.
I created a full e-book, though, because there’s still cachet attached to that form. I could have written all these recipes as blog posts and people might not even read them. But because I made it a PDF that you have to pay for and download, more people have been interested. And I do tons of writing. I write lots of guest posts and blog posts for other people, and I have a newsletter where I publish recipes that aren’t in the book or anywhere else online. The e-book seemed like the best way to get it into as many people’s digital hands as possible.
Why do you think books – even digital ones – have that cachet?
To be honest, I don’t have a clue. But I think it’s cool. I like that even though you can’t feel the pages and smell the paper, there’s still something about having it all in one place, formatted how the author wants it to be, and the content flows more like a story than on a blog.
What was the most difficult part of the project?
Learning how to do it. I did everything on my own, basically, like figuring out how to publish it and how to handle the e-commerce and the marketing. Writing the book probably took less than a week. But then there was the photography, getting the editing done, figuring out the marketing plan, and submitting it to all the different blogs and online review sites. All that took way more time than writing it – and I did it myself because I wanted to learn how to do it. For me, that was the most difficult part, but also the most interesting and fun.
What’s the best response to the book that you’ve received to date?
Every time I hear that somebody has thought more deeply about what they eat. That’s why I wrote it. I don’t really care if somebody is vegan or not, but obviously it’s cool if someone tells me, “I went vegan because of you.” People are seeing the connection between food and their bodies and their health and how their lives work. To me, that’s the biggest thing – hearing that people are questioning food and thinking about it.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned about self-publishing?
Everything takes a lot of time. I had the idea to write book at the beginning of the year, and I thought, “I can get this done in a week or two.” That didn’t happen at all. So, you need to have patience. Even when you send the book to iTunes or Amazon, it takes 3-4 weeks for it to show up on their systems. The delay gave me time to really think about the book promotion, to get review copies out, and to build the buzz. I built a big mailing list, too, so as soon as the book was out, I could send an email blast and generate lots of interest. I didn’t expect the whole process to take so long, but I’m glad that it did.
Have you recouped the money that you invested in creating the book?
Basically, I spent 10 bucks on the domain name and 100 bucks to get it on all the online e-publishing platforms. So, yes, I’ve definitely recouped that cost!
I also bribed the photographer by saying, “you can eat every single one of the recipes if you help me with this.” All of my friends and neighbours were really stoked when we did the food photos. We finished the photography in about three days and we shot every single meal in the book. So there was a lot of food!
I’m lucky that I know lots of people who are really good at what they do. I could also build the website by myself, because that’s what I do, and I could build the newsletter and set up the e-commerce functions. I was lucky that I could cover everything that might cost money, other than getting it onto the publishing sites.
In your opinion, how viable is self-publishing as a revenue stream?
I didn’t publish this book to make money – and that’s why I only charge five bucks for it. I just wanted to get it into people’s hands. But, I think there’s definitely some value in original content. Unfortunately, it’s not as much as it used to be.
I didn’t look for a publisher and I didn’t write a proposal, because I knew I could do it myself. That way, I can get 100% of the revenue, and my costs to write it and produce it were low. So, I think it’s kind of viable, but unfortunately, as with anything in the arts and the creative realm, you’ve got to really work at it and you’ve got to really hustle to make money doing it.
What’s your best advice about promoting a project like EA?
Be genuine about it. I use social media as the main source of promotion for the book, and a lot of people on social media just talk at everybody. I don’t think that works and I don’t find that engaging at all. I think it’s good to have conversations with people. I probably tweet “my e-book is available” about once a week, but in that week, I’m still tweeting and talking and sharing photos on Instagram and engaging with people. When I do have something to promote, they’re more likely to pay attention, because they’re invested in our conversation.
You always describe yourself as an introvert, yet you’re very active on social media. What gives?
I’m much better at written communication. I have done public speaking, but I would never do it in the future, and playing music is about the only thing I’m going to do in front of people. But I can tweet and share a photo with thousands of people, and I can set the interaction that I want. I can reply or not reply, and I can engage or not engage, and if I don’t feel like “talking to people,” I don’t need to put anything out that day. For somebody like me, I think it’s perfect.
What advice would you give to people who have ideas or content they want to share (potentially in an e-book) but don’t know how to start?
There are so many free and relatively cheap services out there. For example, anyone can create a site with WordPress, pick from a bunch of free themes, and just start writing content. If you’re creating a book, you can write in whatever program you want, save it as a PDF, and there are a ton of shopping cart systems that are simple to set up (I use Sellfy) – even if you don’t have any programming knowledge.
Bottom line: There are easy ways to do everything that I did, without having the technical background that I have. It’s just a matter of finding those services. It might not look 100% perfect right away, but there are so many pro WordPress themes and templates in Pages (the Mac app) that can make all your stuff look good.
Did you have any goals or targets for the project?
I had no goals. I just wanted to do it. I thought it would be cool if a couple hundred people bought the book, and now a couple thousand people have bought it. So, it’s doing better than I thought it might, but I wasn’t trying to sell a certain number of copies or recoup a certain amount of money. It was a project of love and interest for me.
Any other advice or words of wisdom?
I know lots of people who want to write a book or an e-book, but they think, “I don’t know how.” You can learn as you go. If you make mistakes, just own them and move on. People aren’t expecting perfection. They’re okay with a process, so don’t get hung up on doing it right. Just do it.
What’s next? Do you have more creative projects up your sleeve?
So many. I wish I had more time in the day. I’m working on an iPhone app about being vegan and eating awesome food. I’m also doing a website that interviews vegans, but doesn’t touch on anything related to food or animal rights. Plus, a couple more cool things that I can’t share yet.
*I love editing big, meaty (no pun intended) projects like Eat Awesome. Send me an email if you want to chat.
all photos by Jamie Mann
On an unseasonably warm night in late May, about 35 people gathered at Vancouver’s Zientte to eat, drink and laugh together. It was a diverse group, but we all had one thing in common: We love Zoe Pawlak and her work.
I barely knew Zoe when we first chatted about art and business. In the meantime, she’s become a treasured friend. What also became clear on that lovely spring night, at her annual collectors dinner, is that everyone who is lucky enough to spend time with Zoe feels the same way. Even better? Having her work hanging on your wall.
As we tasted each delicious course prepared by Chaperone Catering (owned by Zoe’s husband, Seamus, and his business partner, Brendan Ladner), Zoe thanked everyone, individually, in front of the group. She described which of her pieces each person or couple had collected, and how they came to own the work. She also explained how the purchases had directly affected her family’s well-being. It was classy and heartfelt — and surprisingly emotional for many people in the room.
Talent blended with business savvy will take you a long way in this world. If, like Zoe, you also have a sincere, open heart, plus a good dash of humility and humour, literally anything is possible.
Want to attend next year’s collectors feast? Buy Zoe’s paintings!
“Where do you find your inspiration?”
I’ve realized that I despise this question – and I’m guilty of asking successful artists and creators the exact same thing from time to time. This blog is called Inspired Outsiders, after all. And tracing exceptional work back to its roots is a natural instinct. Who isn’t seeking a formula for everyday greatness?
Strong coffee + sunlight + art gallery visit + Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue = endless creative fuel
If only it was so simple.
Instead, I often feel overwhelmed by the information buffet available both online and outside in the real, rainy world. It’s paralyzing. When you’re struggling to accomplish big things and wrestle down your creative demons, where do you invest your attention? What’s worth reading and viewing and tasting and hearing, and what’s not?
I’ve always felt a (potentially misplaced) sense of pride about my omnivorous media consumption. I’ll read the New York Times and Marie Claire with equal absorption and watch both reality TV and esoteric foreign films. I’m not a cultural snob. But could my indiscriminate ways actually be harmful? Should there be more focus?
I have no idea. Instead, I often retreat into information hibernation. That’s where I’ve been lurking for these past few weeks. But spring is almost here. People are running around in bright pink and green pants. Things are blooming. It’s time to re-engage and figure it out.
In the meantime, here are a couple sites and stories currently piquing my interest:
I love this online image feed for creative people who know how to wield their iPhones. I didn’t even realize it was a social network until I signed up and posted my first photo. I thought it was all about the cool, retro-style filters. Regardless… I’m hooked.
A French transplant living in NYC, Garance is a photographer, illustrator and girlfriend of the Sartorialist. She recently launched a video series called Pardon My French. If you’re female, follow fashion, and dream of chucking it all for Paris, then you will enjoy these videos. If you’re a lumberjack or Monty Python devotee, please carry on. Ultimately, the series works because Garance has one of the most sparkling and likeably authentic personalities I’ve encountered online.
I just read this fascinating NYT magazine story about Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s side gig as an orchestral composer. The way writer Alex Pappademas describes the band’s 1993 MTV Beach House appearance (and Thom Yorke’s near-drowning) is laugh-out-loud brilliant.
Until next time.
Humans are visual creatures. Read me a statistic and I’ll forget it before I’ve finished my coffee. Show me a graph, an illustration or a photo that conveys the same point and I’m far more likely to tuck it away in my frontal lobes.
We’re hardwired to absorb ideas through images — and that’s why film is such a perfect medium for storytelling. Thanks to available bandwidth and increasingly inexpensive, high-quality cameras, more and more people are learning to harness the emotional power of documentary-style video.
A recent favourite is the Made by Hand series produced by the Bureau of Common Goods, a Brooklyn-based film and digital content studio. Made by Hand is “a short film series celebrating the people who make things by hand — sustainably, locally, and with a love for their craft.” The two videos currently available online feature Breuckelen Distilling founder Brad Estabrooke and knife maker Joel Bukiewicz, who launched Cut Brooklyn. There’s also a profile of beekeper Megan Paska in the works.
Lovingly captured in black and white, the films explore how Brad and Joel each began, and what drives their work. The images are absorbing, no question, but I especially appreciate how the creators address struggle and challenge head-on. We never assume that their businesses sprang up overnight. Joel failed, cut himself, and misjudged the market along the way. Brad fought to get non-believers on board, namely plumbers and cranky landlords. These details contest the tired “investment-banker-turned-cupcake-baker” narrative that emerged during the 2008 recession and still plays out in numerous publications (especially women’s self-improvement mags).
I understand that many corporate refugees find greater fulfillment by pursing a long-delayed, often handmade dream, but stories of instant transformation ignore two facts:
1. Working with your hands, while potentially satisfying, is still hard work. It will inevitably require repetitive physical and mental labour. In short, baking cupcakes might be just as mind-numbing as crunching spreadsheets.
2. As Malcolm Gladwell suggested in Outliers, it takes at least 10,000 hours to achieve proficiency in your craft. If you’re aiming for mastery, prepare to log many, many, many more.
The Bureau of Common Goods team hopes we’ll be inspired by these stories of handcrafted commitment. I think they’ve achieved that goal. This series should also remind storytellers (and dejected creators) that every great tale requires conflict. Without struggle, there’s no sense of achievement. And without failure, there’s no reason to keep pushing; no reason to wake up eager and hungry for more.
In late August, author Ewan Morrison shared his bleak forecast for the publishing industry at the Edinburgh Book Fair. His core premise: If you’re a writer, publisher, photographer, journalist or even a porn star – anyone who earns a paycheque by producing original work for a passive audience – your professional days are numbered.
Morrison begins by predicting that paper books have just a generation left until their inevitable extinction. When 78% of Gen Y readers consume all their news online, for free (according to Bertelsmann CEO Richard Sarnoff), it’s easy to imagine a paperless future. Books as interior décor is not an outlandish suggestion in today’s market.
Next, Morrison cites Chris Anderson’s Long Tail model of niche consumption and his book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price. Morrison lists eight products and industries that have begun (or nearly completed) the downward spiral to free: home videos, music, porn, computer games, newspapers, photography, telecommunications, and the Internet itself.
According to Morrison, “every industry that has become digital has seen a dramatic, and in many cases, terminal decrease in earnings for those who create ‘content.’ Writing has already begun its slide toward becoming something produced and consumed for free.”
Instead of selling a product or content service, online businesses are selling your demographic profile to advertisers and sponsors. The content is simply what gets you there. Many business strategists now champion paywalls or subscription-based content (a model the New York Times is currently test driving). It seems everyone is filling their bar napkins with charts and scribbles, trying to flip longstanding production models and save the embattled content industries. Morrison, however, suggests all this brainstorming is just busywork:
“… ultimately, any strategy conceived now is just playing for time as the slide towards a totally free digital culture accelerates. How long have we got? A generation. After that, writers, like musicians, filmmakers, critics, porn stars, journalists and photographers, will have to find other ways of making a living in a short-term world that will not pay them for their labour.”
He says the only solution is to demand that writers and authors (and by extension, all professional content creators) receive a living wage for their work – a figure that’s entirely separate from how much they sell, to whom, and in what format. It’s a wage simply for doing the work and doing it well.
I hate that Morrison’s predictions will probably hit the bull’s eye. But, I just don’t know about the “living wage” argument. We’ve all become entitled consumers who demand top-quality free information and entertainment. At the same time, North American culture is increasingly polarized. People struggle to feed their families while we collectively pay the Kardashian family millions to get their nails done and plan blink-and-you’ll-miss-it marriages. It feels like there’s less cultural space to follow tangents, create for the sheer joy of it, or pursue niche pursuits – unless it will pay off in the free market.
So what do we want from art and culture? What does it mean to create? Who’s responsible for footing the bill? These are questions that keep me up at night.
Maybe it’s time to bring back the patronage system.
What do you think?
There’s something in the air. Every day I hear about a new conference, workshop, speaker series or educational event — and many of these sessions are aimed squarely at artists and creatives.
Online technology has made it easy to watch presentations long after the seats are empty. At the same time, in-person learning feels increasingly rarefied. We all have crazy schedules and a thousand voices competing for our attention. Taking the time to attend a live event or class (unless you’re earning a degree) is a leap of faith; you want to leave feeling inspired, and at the very least, better informed.
Here’s a sample of the growing number of creative learning events, Vanity Fair style.
1. The elder statesman
We all know and love TED — the speaking series founded in 1984 as a conference for technology (T), entertainment (E) and design (D). Today, there are two annual TED Conferences in Long Beach and Palm Springs, the summertime TEDGlobal Conference in Edinburgh, and a variety of affiliated fellowships, prizes and independently-organized TEDx events. With a mission to spread ideas, TED “brings together the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives.”
TED became a widespread phenomenon, however, when the TED.com site launched in 2007. Suddenly, we all had a front-row seat for the world’s best TEDTalks. They’re free to watch, legal to share and re-post, and they’re very, very addictive. The most viewed talks of all time come from author Elizabeth Gilbert, scientist Jill Bolte Taylor, musician Jake Shimabukuro, and education professor Sir Ken Robinson, among others.
2. The rebel
Night School is what happens when a distinguished Seattle boutique hotel hosts filmmakers, writers, bartenders, artists, and musicians for salon-style conversations and eclectic performances. Established by curator Michael Hebb and Barbara Malone, co-owner of the Sorrento Hotel, Night School offers a bold mix of creative programming that’s designed to inspire and provoke. Expect to see more of these casual-yet-brainy gatherings at an indie venue near you.
3. The go-getter
Designer Tina Roth Eisenberg (a.k.a. Swiss Miss) launched the CreativeMornings breakfast lecture series in New York City in September 2009. The free monthly format has now spread to 16 other cities and counting. The predominantly tech-savvy crowd arrives bright and early to hear smart speakers and chug the free coffee. After all, there’s a still a full workday ahead once the applause dies down.
4. The local
Here in Vancouver, we’re lucky to have an intimate and increasingly engaged creative community. In addition to our own Tedx conference, we have CREATIVEMIX and a new CreativeMornings team, plus the big industry events, such as the Vancouver International Film Festival, the Vancouver International Writers Festival and many, many more. From Portland to Melbourne to Hong Kong and Copenhagen, I’m sure there’s a similar story playing out in your city. Creatives are hungry to learn — and they’re getting organized.
5. The iconoclast
Tomato, ToMAHto, PechaKucha or PehCHACHka; however you say it, PechaKucha night is a global phenomenon that blends learning with self-promotion in a lively social setting (drinking is encouraged). Launched in Tokyo in 2003 as a forum for young designers to share their work with peers and the public, PechaKucha presenters show 20 images for 20 seconds each and describe what’s up on the big screen.
Some talks are funny, some are dull, and some are downright exceptional. You never know what you’re going to get — and that’s part of the beauty of this fast-paced night out. The concept has ignited in cities and towns around the world. Wherever you are, there’s probably a PechaKucha night in the works.
I’ve long admired Vancouver’s In the House Festival. Born in 2003, this creative performance series transforms private homes and living spaces into temporary theatre venues. The eclectic, intimate shows often fuse music, dance, storytelling, film, theatre, spoken word, acrobatics and burlesque to create unique cultural experiences for hosts, audiences and artists alike.
Yesterday afternoon, I got a sneak peek at their third-annual haunted theatre installation. Just in time for Halloween, the House of Faerie Bad Things is a mash-up of puppetry, opera, aerial circus, belly dance, film and music. The one-hour tour takes you through 14 different faerie environments in a labyrinth-like space. Eight shows run nightly from Oct. 29-31st with an after-party for all ticket holders following the last tour.
“It’s a very different kind of scare than ‘here’s a dude with a chainsaw,'” explains In the House artistic director and show co-producer Myriam Steinberg, who suggests the eerie tour is best suited for visitors ages 12 and up. All the scenes pull their dark, often gruesome and macabre content from old faerie tales. But, “there are a few moments that are hauntingly beautiful,” adds Steinberg.
So why faeries? What’s so frightening about Tinkerbell, Ariel and her winged sisters — and what’s the connection to Halloween?
“It’s all linked to the same culture,” says artistic director and co-producer Chris Murdoch, whose studies in comparative mythology revealed that nearly all pre-Christian societies had faerie-related celebrations around harvest time, during the period we now mark as Halloween. People believed that the veil separating the earthly world from the supernatural grows thin as winter draws near. The stories and fables passed down from early civilizations provide a cautionary tale for the season. “I really enjoy faerie mythology and the tongue-in-cheek, dark humour in it,” says Murdoch.
I have to confess I’m usually a Halloween killjoy. Save for the occasional set of Mickey Mouse ears or the year I played a vampire victim, I usually let the day slip by without celebration. The House of Faerie Bad Things offers a new way to explore the dark holiday without resorting to the usual clichés. You’ll get an excellent dose of local theatre culture — and hopefully a good scare, too.
To buy tickets (they’re going fast) or for more details, visit the In the House Festival website.
Inspired by this post from Megan Clark about her favorite people, I thought it would be fun to list some of my most enduring creative influences. These are the writers, artists, ideas and images that have burrowed inside my head and now refuse to leave. We all have them — both accidental and intentional.
Here’s my brief list. I’d love to hear yours.
Like most kids, I loved to draw, but I could never re-create what I saw in my head. That didn’t stop me from trying. In high school, I remember sweating over an oil painting of a couple sitting in a ’50s-style diner. It was terrible. My generous art teacher suggested it resembled a Modigliani painting and encouraged me to look up his work. Wow. While her comparison was wildly exaggerated, I saw in his art the power of individuality. There’s no reason to paint, write or create like everyone else. Do it your way.
Admittedly, these best-selling women are a little touchy-feely. They mix art and spirituality with abandon and in some chapters, you can almost smell the patchouli rising from the pages. Their books on writing, however, remain among the most dog-eared volumes on my shelf. Once you peel back the flowery descriptions of Cameron’s horses in twilight or Goldberg’s spiral Snoopy notebooks, they offer some of the most practical advice I’ve heard about the creative process: Forget your fear, get the F*** to work, and don’t judge it until you’re done.
High Art and Laurel Canyon are two of my all-time favorite films. There’s something intoxicating about the way Cholodenko blends images, words and music together on the big screen. Neither movie is particularly plot-driven, either, which highlights another principle of creativity: The work doesn’t have to be huge; it simply needs to be compelling and true.
I’ve written before about my love for this Dutch artist’s work. He’s a photographer, film director and all-around creative visionary. His gritty glamour and a slew of high-profile projects (including the 2007 film, Control) draw increasingly hungrier audiences, but he’s been shooting steadily since the early ’70s. I’m continually inspired by his work ethic and singular lens on the world.
These are just a few of the people and works I’ve long admired. Writing this post was a reminder that there are many, many, many more. In fact, I’m going to do another list soon.
Baring these influences is also strangely liberating. There’s a lot of baggage around the idea of creative references and, specifically, the pressure to value what’s exclusively considered highbrow, established or cool. You can and should seek out brilliant work at every opportunity, but you never know what will hit a raw emotional nerve. In the end, that’s what really endures.
photo c/o Division of Labor
It all started when my friend Jo-Anne – a gorgeous lawyer who dances Flamenco – sent me a Sunday Book Review sketchbook called “Snacks of the Great Scribblers.” From Truman Capote’s evolving (devolving?) drink schedule to John Steinbeck’s penchant for cold toast and stale coffee, the piece explores what fuelled the words of our most esteemed writers – living and dead.
I had to know more about Wendy MacNaughton, the artist behind the charming illustration. I followed the digital rabbit trail to her documentary series for The Rumpus and lost a good hour on her website and blog. Talk about talent. Wendy backs up her artistic prowess with a tangible sense of empathy and a journalist’s eye for detail. It’s a compelling, one-two creative punch.
Now based in San Francisco, Wendy has lived in Los Angeles, Amsterdam, Paris, New York and East Africa. She earned degrees in both art and social work and has sold used books, counseled survivors of torture, designed humanitarian campaigns in Kenya and Rwanda, produced a film in The Democratic Republic of Congo, and written advertising copy, among other pursuits.
Just over a year ago, Wendy left her campaign strategy job to work full-time as an independent artist and illustrator. She had been toiling away on freelance contracts in her off-hours for several years and the work was flowing steadily. It was time to make the leap. “It felt like the biggest, but also the smartest, risk I’ve ever taken,” she says. “Everyone was cheering for me – but it was really nauseating.”
The nausea is now firmly under control and Wendy is busier than ever. She draws the regular “Meanwhile” column (an illustrated documentary series on San Francisco communities) for The Rumpus, and her work has appeared in GOOD, Edible San Francisco, 7×7, Longshot, Time Out New York, Gizmodo, The New York Times, and Gastronomica. She sells her prints on 20×200 and Etsy (more on that below), and takes editorial and commercial commissions. Wendy has also turned her pen to packaging, site-specific installations, and several books are in the works. I can only assume world domination is next – one sympathetic commuter, musician and library patron at a time.
1. How has your transition to self-employment turned out?
Super well. It’s crazy. It has been better than I expected. One thing just seems to lead to the next. People always say, “It must be so nice! You’re working for yourself.” But I’m the hardest boss I could ever have. I work a lot. There’s also no distinction between my life and my work. I draw all the time. I’m busier than I’ve ever been, but I’m also happier than I’ve ever been because I’m doing what I love to do. It all sounds cheesy and cliché, but it’s true.
2. What fuels your work?
Just looking at things, like how a line forms in a coffee shop, or the weird ways that women tie sweaters around their necks. The way a woman ties a sweater around her neck has an amazing story behind it. Empathy is critical, and when you look at someone through an empathic lens, there’s a huge story there. It’s never just what you see on the surface. Life is a lot more interesting through other people’s eyes than through mine.
3. How do you balance the different demands of business and art?
I don’t. I’m disheveled. I have all the stuff that would make for organization, but a lot of it’s still in boxes. I’m working on that, and I’ll probably be working on it for the rest of my life.
In terms of the nitty-gritty, I try to keep a file on every client. I’m really good at keeping emails and printing stuff I need to print out. I have a standard invoice that I customize for every client. I make up a contract. I learned a hard lesson recently that I need to bill half [my rate] upfront and half on completion. I wasn’t doing that and I got in a really hard spot. I think a lot of other people have learned that same lesson.
I also have two agents now – a commercial agent and a book agent. It was a challenging decision for me, because I thought I could do a lot of what they do for me, in terms of promotion. Working in advertising, I became good at talking to people and getting new business. Obviously the agents can do it better than I can, and they’ll handle all the business stuff, which will give me more time to focus on my work. So, there’s a tradeoff. They take a large percentage of the money, but hopefully that math will work out for the benefit of my artwork and give me more time to make it.
Are books on the horizon?
I just partnered with the San Francisco Mayor’s Office to create a book of the piece “Meanwhile, The San Francisco Public Library.” I titled it “The San Francisco Public Library in its Own Words.” It will be out on September 15th and available in SF bookstores and online.
My partner, Caroline Paul, is a writer, and she and I recently collaborated on a proposal that’s out at publishers right now. She wrote it, I illustrated it. I’ve also met with some publishers about doing a couple other projects. So, yes, hopefully there will be two or three more books in the next couple years. I definitely want to do a book of the Meanwhile columns from The Rumpus. That’s a big goal.
4. Is there another artist or creative pro whose business model you admire?
There are two – and they’re both great people and friends of mine as well.
The first is Lisa Congdon. She has an interesting background and she’s a self-taught artist. She has great business savvy and has really diversified herself. She does commercial illustration, her own books, book covers, prints, and she does some speaking. She recently had her first solo show at a gallery in San Francisco, which I thought was great. It’s so easy to get swept up in commercial work, so to create an entire body of work for a show at the same time is really impressive.
The second is Jason Polan. He became known for making little books and ‘zines and selling them out of a suitcase in Central Park. He did a series called “Every Piece of Art in the Museum of Modern Art” where he literally drew every single piece in the MOMA collection and made it into a book. Now he’s drawing every single person in New York. Those personal projects have led to so many sales, commissions, and shows. He’s booming. I really respect Jason, because he does many things, but he’s focused on his personal artwork. Companies, individuals and publications ask to use his work, but he doesn’t change what he does. He’s also a really good drawer.
5. How many revenue streams do you have?
I do a lot of editorial and commercial illustration. That includes magazines, newspapers, and reports. I’ve also done packaging, I have a couple books in the works, and I’ve done environmental graphics, where a company or store pays me to draw on their walls.
Then I make my own work and sell the originals. I make prints occasionally. I also sell my work on 20×200. They’re great. I love them. They work with both established and emerging artists and give them a great platform and great publicity and financial support. Their model is really fair and good for the artists.
I also do commissions. People will hire me to draw something that matters to them, whether it’s a character from a book or a map of a meaningful location. I’ve had a few people ask me to draw maps of their lives, which is an honour. I’ve also done general gun-for-hire stuff, like wedding invitations and other freelance work when I’ve needed to, financially speaking.
6. What is your bread-and-butter income source?
I have a couple big commercial clients and an ongoing branding project, but it’s mostly a lot of editorial work. My bread and butter comes very quickly in small bites. It’s not like a stable loaf on the table. People are throwing slices at me and I have to catch them.
7. Do you have a passive income stream?
Selling my prints on 20×200 is great. I can’t tell you how nice it is to get a cheque every month from those sales, even when it’s for a few hundred dollars. Those few hundred dollars really help.
I’ve also put some prints up on Etsy. I’m testing it out for a few months to see how it goes. Handling the fulfillment is a pain, but it was pretty incredible to list a few prints and make a good chunk of money in several weeks. I was shocked. Everyone around me was like, “duh,” but I’m still not sure it’s something I want to continue doing if I have to manage it all. I do see the promise, though, and I’m thinking about the books in the same way. It’s a lot of work on the front end, and then it would last over time.
8. What tools or financial opportunities do you think artists and creative pros should consider?
The Internet (as ironic as that seems), and I don’t mean social networking. I think now is a really, really great time to be an old-fashioned artist. With all of the hullabaloo online and the bells and whistles and Photoshop-y Illustrator stuff you see, people are really burnt out on the speed. Seeing something online that’s hand-drawn or painted slows people down. It’s like a breath. I think it’s important for artists to think about how they fit into that realm and how they can take advantage of it. How can artists format their work in order to connect with people using online platforms? The 20×200 site, for example, allows people to have art and buy physical prints – and that model wouldn’t exist without the Internet.
I also feel very lucky to be in San Francisco, because there are so many people involved in cutting edge technical and social media stuff. After I read about Longshot magazine on Twitter, I wrote and asked if they needed an illustrator. They said yes, so I went in at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning and there were all these people who hadn’t slept staring at computers. I walked in with my paints and my paper and some brushes and pens and sat down at the table and said, “Okay. What do you want me to do?”
The editors handed me an article to illustrate. I finished the illustration in a couple hours and they were blown away – and it had nothing to do with my artwork [ed. note – yes it did]. It was the fact that someone could create a painting right there and hand it to them. It was a physical object on paper, ready for publication. It was such an epiphany for all of us. It was exciting for them to see something handcrafted specifically for the project right before their eyes, and it was exciting for me to see how valuable that was to people working online. My new business brain said, “Here’s an untapped space.”
The first big client that really helped me switch to being a full-time artist and illustrator was Gizmodo, which is a tech site. The job came directly from working with Longshot. Gizmodo hired me for one month to draw five days a week. They gave me an assignment every day and I had to develop an idea, illustrate it, scan it and adjust it, and send it back to them so it was ready to roll by 6 a.m. east coast time. It was like illustration boot camp.
9. What has brought the most opportunities and attention to your work?
Gizmodo and 20×200 were great. I also created a map of San Francisco for 7×7 magazine and they used the map as the cover. That was big for me, and it created another passive income stream. We ended up printing posters of that map and selling them in bookstores, online, and in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. We just sold out and I decided not to go into another edition or do any more reprints. I’ll draw a new one in the future. But we sold hundreds of those. It was good money for a while, and it was incredibly helpful, in terms of publicity. I still get requests for it.
My focus now is Meanwhile on The Rumpus, which is something that I feel really strongly about. It’s keeping my head on straight about the kind of work I want to do, and it has gotten some good attention.
10. What is the best investment you’ve made in your career?
The time I’ve spent creating Meanwhile. Financially, building a website was a big investment. I had to bite the bullet and work with a web designer and pay what, for me, was a lot of money, but you gotta do it. It’s just so important – and I’m going to be re-designing in the next year or so.
What hasn’t paid off?
You know what doesn’t work? Cold calling. I should have known that. After I quit my job, there was a lull, and that was so scary. I had finished some big jobs and there’s always a lull. You do a big job and then there’s a pause and then more work comes in and then there’s a pause, and I had never hit a pause before. I didn’t have the experience to know that was temporary, so I wrote blindly to agents. That’s just stupid. Getting work is like anything else – you do one thing and it leads to the next. It doesn’t happen out of the blue. There’s nothing that’s less effective and more depressing than making a cold call.
11. What does “selling out” mean to you?
I’m kind of over the idea of selling out, meaning that if a company wants to pay me a lot of money to do something that I think is cool, that’s fine.
If a company wants to pay me a lot of money to do something that I don’t think is cool, then the math gets kind of hard. Is it something I don’t think is cool because I don’t like the idea, but I really need the money? I’ll consider it.
But if I’m asked to do something that I don’t believe in – like I actually think it’s ethically wrong – then that would be selling out. And I’ve done that. I did it when I made this transition. I needed more money to carry me over and I was offered a big sum to work on a project for a company whose practices I don’t agree with. I took it. And it was surprisingly easy, very lucrative and even kind of fun – although I purposely didn’t tell a lot of people about it and felt ashamed when I did.
But, I can see how saying yes to one job like that can lead to another. It can be a slippery slope. Hopefully I won’t have to make that decision again, and if I did, I believe I’d turn it down. But I’m not certain about things like I used to be; there’s all this grey area. I am certain I can do my best work in the world through my artwork, so that’s my bottom line.
Some notable links as we head into the weekend:
I was thrilled to see Delancey get some love in last week’s New York Times. A longtime Orangette reader, I licked my chops in anticipation as Molly Wizenberg and Brandon Pettit built their 40-seat Seattle pizzeria. The slice of Fennel Salami I devoured there last summer did not disappoint. It’s time for a return visit.
There’s a new online magazine on the block. Kinfolk has a dreamy, DIY feel with a Brooklyn-meets-Portland-by-the-lake aesthetic. Extra credit for the mini films scattered throughout the pages.
Here’s a snippet of the magazine’s manifesto:
Kinfolk is a growing community of artists with a shared interest in small gatherings. We recognize that there is something about a table shared by friends, not just a wedding or once-a-year holiday extravaganza, that anchors our relationships and energizes us. We have come together to create Kinfolk as our collaborative way of advocating the natural approach to entertaining that we love.
I wish them all the best.
Have you seen this sweet-yet-sad video of a Mariachi trio serenading a Beluga whale ? You must. After all, it’s Friday afternoon.