wemake celebrates

Recap: 2017 WeMake Celebrates: A Design Conference About The Process of Making

This year we explore Experiments in Process. 
"Before there is ever success or failure, there are experiments."
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Photos by Rowen Bradley & Megan Gex

On Friday, Oct. 13, the WeMake team hosted our third conference – WeMake Celebrates – at The Armory in Portland's Pearl District. This year, we explored the experiments instrumental in the creative process.

On stage, six speakers told about their experiments and shared their successes and failures while the emcees Jolby (Josh Kenyon and Colby Nichols) guided the journey and recapped the day with cleverness.

The Line-Up

Artist and author  Adam J Kurtz (Toronto/Brooklyn) told us to feel all the feelings and not to be precious with anything. 

New Portlander and illustrator and designer, Mauja Waldia (India/Portland) spoke about her young career on stage for the first time.

Brilliant designer and science lover Kelli Anderson (Brooklyn) showed us that experiments will lead you to new discoveries and ignite curiosity. 

Nicholas Misani experiments with letters and type in his studio in Brooklyn and makes beautiful fauxsaics, which capture the spirit of cities around the world.

Experimental artist Craig Winslow makes everything an experiment - it's in his job description. He taught us that light can change everything and introduced us to lost history. 

Australian graphic artist Luke Choice (aka Velvet Spectrum) bring motion and color to his visual experiments. He also weaves in generosity and positivity into the elements of his success. 

5x5

5 minutes, 5 slides with local creative entrepreneurs: 
Anthony ScottAsa Bree SierackiTyesha SnowSaul Koll and Ian Williams

Performances

"Nobody in the world ever wrote their own song. You have inspiration from all the people around you, from your life experiences, to a person next to you who cracked a joke."

Ural Thomas, musician & storyteller,  has uplifted his audiences in Portland and all over the world.

B. Frayn Masters, writer, storyteller and producer, shared her wicked humor and love of the absurd. Catch more of her round Portland with Back Fence PDX and The Moth. 

Helping Arts Education

From ticket sales, we raised $7000 to give to non-profits making a big difference on a small budget. Thanks to you, we helped:

  • MARROW, a radical education, arts, and activism space, centering young people
  • p:ear builds positive relationships with homeless and transitional youth through education, art and recreation to affirm personal worth and create more meaningful and healthier lives.
  • Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls builds girls’ self-esteem through music creation and performance. 
  • Schoolhouse Supplies is an award-winning nonprofit that supports public education in Portland by giving students and teachers free classroom supplies.

Thank You to Our Community Partners

Wieden+Kennedy, Wacom, Aquent, The Study, Klum House, Widmer Brothers, Scout Books, HouseSpecial

 Finally, remember the questions that started the day's experiment? Above are the results of your selections. Squares are a rare breed and green is the most favored color. What does that mean? More expereiments. 

Finally, remember the questions that started the day's experiment? Above are the results of your selections. Squares are a rare breed and green is the most favored color. What does that mean? More expereiments. 

Adam J Kurtz: Honesty, Humor and a Little Darkness

As my teen angst subsides, I’ve been discovering, dissecting, and embracing the realities of being an adult
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Let’s all take a moment to remember the glory that was the early days of the internet. That time when your parent’s computer was a treasure chest of wonder that you opened each night after everyone in the house was asleep. A place where you’d pour your heart out on Live Journal and made your first “Internet friends” on MySpace. For me, a angsty kid that grew up miles away from a city or even sidewalks, the Internet exposed me to art and ideas that nourished my creativity and even shaped my values.

According to Facebook, Adam J. Kurtz was created in 1988, making us the same age. Just like me, Adam took to the internet like a fish. He grew up in Toronto, clicking away into a creative oblivion. “I’ve just been online for as long as I can remember,” said Adam. “I launched my first fansite in 1999 after learning bits of HTML. Pokemon and Neopets led the way, and then with LiveJournal and MySpace I was using that knowledge to build out my ideal online world.” Today, Adam is an Internet rockstar. His Kickstarters are triple-funded. He answers all of his fan’s comments. He is a BuzzFeed alum and he has has his own handwritten note series on Design Sponge. While some of us have developed a disdain for the internet, Adam continues to use it as a place to exercise his creative muscles and express his internal thoughts. “My personal work grew out of sharing bits and pieces of my life on Tumblr. My first zines were more like diaries, combining that sort of confessional style with my design student aesthetics. Over time it’s simplified, focusing on penciled lines and primary colors.”

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If you search hard enough, you can almost trace Adam’s trajectory to online fame. Adam’s first gig was website layout for Michelle Branch. And he is still in touch with her today, and just created merch for her latest album. Adam is a true fan and companion to his friends.  “I get excited about things and sometimes (often) those things are the people I love and their projects. I’m grateful and honored to know a lot of awesome creative people doing all sorts of things, from Michelle Branch to Siobhan Gallagher,” says Adam. “I’m drawn to a lot of different types of work but often find a spirit of inclusion, humor, and sensitivity to be the most important. I’m constantly being inspired by my friends and I love being able to support them, and feel supported by them, in whatever ways I can.”

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There is something so sincere to Adam’s work, that is must just be engrained in his personality. When you look at Adam’s books like Pick Me Up and Things are What You Make of Them: Advice for Creatives, it seems like he has all the answers. Then his pins and daily planners show his truthful honesty and dark humor. While he can’t tell you if he’s ‘made it’ he can tell you exactly where he stands. “I’m not secure in the ways I’d like to be. There are many, many doors that are not open to me. I work very hard and and am rejected or passed on often,” says Adam. “ It’s important to be transparent about that because I think the perception is often really different from reality. I’m so grateful to have support for my projects, to be able to produce and distribute things that I really want to make. That’s something that’s been more recent and is still amazing to me. But I don’t have unlimited resources. I still have to be really thrifty with how I approach things and how I live life, too. I’m just going to keep doing my thing until it stops working, and then I’ll do something else.”

The early days of the internet showed us that we were all searching for community. Take a moment to explore Adam’s work and get inspired by his genuine honesty and love for his friends. Connect with yourself and those around you in the way that fills you with love and creativity. We’re so honored to have Adam here in Portland for WeMake Celebrates. Grab you ticket to the day-long conference and look forward to hearing more words of wisdom from Adam on October 13!

From the Greenwood of Louisiana to Michigan Ave, The Ural Thomas Story

Nobody in the world ever wrote their own song. You have inspiration from all the people around you, from your life experiences, to a person next to you who cracked a joke.
— Ural Thomas
 Ural performing at the Spare Room in August 2017

Ural performing at the Spare Room in August 2017

Written By: Melissa Delzio

The setting was 1930s Meraux, Lousiana, now a suburb of New Orleans, then a sprawling rural area with cotton fields and swampland. Ural Thomas — age 3 — his mother and a dozen or so of his siblings and neighbors settle down on their front porch at sundown. 

“The porch was like our TV, that’s where all the stories were told.” Thomas relates before launching into one such story with a sly grin on his face. “The Greenwood [song was derived] from a story my Mom would tell about experiences from when she was a little girl. The Greenwood was a place that was too wild, where you weren’t allowed to go. Once, my grandfather went into the Greenwood to go hunting, he was gone 3 or 4 days. He hadn’t found anything. He sat on a log to rest and eat, and took his knife out and a block of cheese. He cut off a piece of cheese and he took his knife and he stuck in the log. He ate his lunch and then he pulled the knife out of the log and blood came out. He saw the blood running and he said, “Damn, I never seen no tree bleed.” He followed the tree to it’s end and it turned out to a great big snake, turning with his mouth open. My grandpa was so scared he threw down his rifle and he went running!”  Ural clasps his hands as he laughs at the thought. 

His mother’s stories and memories are a web of cautionary tales, folklore, and regional myths that haunt her son and inspire his writing to this day. “I don’t even know if there is a really place called the Greenwood.” Ural admits, but those were the stories. 

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The storytelling septuagenarian before me is the proclaimed “Pillar of Soul” in Portland, Oregon, a city he has lived in since he was 4 years old, far from the fields of Louisiana. Ural Thomas’s childhood in the Historic Mississippi District where he still lives was centered around the church, where his Mom played guitar and sang in the choir. He would go with his mom and soon learned to sing all the songs. “I watched and learned.” 

There was creativity in the gospel music. “I was raised on country songs like Red River Valley and Be Honest With me Dear. My mom would sing in the church and she would put gospel words to those songs. The gospel players would leave the church and they would go and put [the melody] into Rock ’n Roll or Rhythm & Blues songs. It wasn’t that one came from the other. It was people from all colors and cultures coming together playing music and making up words.”

By middle school, Ural was playing secular music and had a signing group, The Streetcorner Singers with neighborhood kids. By high school Ural was performing with an accapella group called the Monterays. They performed in parks and schools and saved up enough to record their own album. They sang on the weekends and would work during the week.

In the early 60s Ural started a tradition that would eventually lead him to where he is now, a standing Sunday morning “open house” and jam session in his North Portland home. Ural invited all the neighborhood kids to his house (still the property he owns today), he would feed them, offer them clothes that he had found at Good Will and cleaned, and he would play music with them. “Those kids were so talented they didn’t have any training, they just had something to say. They had life experiences.” With a few Monterays albums under his belt and a recording of the neighborhood kids singing under the name House of Entertainment, Ural was a central father figure for a troubled Portland neighborhood.

All the recording and performing paid off when a friend took Ural to LA and got him signed with the record label, Uni (a subsidiary of Universal Records). From there he moved to New York where he became a regular opener at The Apollo in Harlem for James Brown, Otis Redding and other soul legends in the 60s and early 70s. “Those were fast times. I would open up the shows. I was living at 12th and Vine and I would walk everywhere. I was there a little over a year.” But just as his star was rising, he made an abrupt move back to Portland. 

Ural had become disenchanted by the music industry and embroiled in arguments with other musicians over rights and style. “It was the battle of the bands.” He decided he needed time away. “I wanted to see what was coming out of me. I didn’t want to sound like anyone. I don’t want to be in the middle of that.” While he left the toxic industry behind, music remained a part of his life. “I kept my music inside of me. Someone would come along and I would give them a song if I could. I’ve got stacks of songs on single pieces of paper all over.” 

Far from the limelight of his early music career, Ural worked many jobs in Portland. “I was a busboy at the Imperial Hotel [now Hotel Lucia] for 15 years and I worked weekends at the Cotton Club. I was a machinists at the shipyards. It was like being inside a car engine. I was a seed sorter for a nursery. I learned how to tell the difference between a good seed and a bad a seed.”

When his home was bulldozed on the lot he still occupies, Ural literally had to rebuild his life in Portland. Using recycled and found materials he painstakingly and lovingly built a new house — with ample space for the neighborhood kids to practice on Sunday after church. Decades later, on one of those Sundays drummer Scott Magee stopped by. Within minutes they were playing music together and Scott quickly learned that this living legend still had the talent, the passion, and the voice he did 50 years previous.

Magee soon found a backing band of 9 musicians worthy of playing with the ageless soul legend and thus “Ural Thomas and The Pain” was born. Ural reflects, “We had harmony from day one. All the guys in the band came from an educational side of music, but they all loved it all their life. We put all of our ideas together and we are really tight about the simplicity of the music. All the guys have input. They have wonderful voices, but they put their voices in the their instruments. You can sing the melodies. I learned to sing what I can play.”

Ural is still actively writing songs (writing 4 just last week) and more inspired than ever. “I may not write anything for 10 years, but then I have 10 years of collected memories. I never try to take my life and put in it one perspective.”

Ural has been telling stories with his new band for 6 years now. “It was supposed to be a one night gig,” he smiles. But one show led to another and by 2014 they were named by Willamette Week as Portland’s Best New Band 2014. Now picking up steam, they are playing regular gigs around Portland and even toured back to Ural’s old stomping grounds in New York City.

As lead singer of The Pain, Ural wows audiences with his buttery smooth voice and his high energy dance moves. But what differentiates Ural from other performers, is his genuine, unending positivity, despite life’s hardships. “I express a lot of people’s feelings. If I’m positive, it’s going to effect others. I try to remain positive and give them the positivity of my soul. It can only produce more positivity. In life you have a choice.”

Back on the front porch in Louisiana, his grandfather’s Greenwood memory sparks another story.

  Photos by Ric Walters

Photos by Ric Walters

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“My mom’s sister was out in the cotton fields and she heard a whistle, and thought it was someone they knew, so she shouted ‘Over here!’ But it was a snake, standing up! A coachwhip, a real coachwhip, they whistle just like man and when you acknowledge where you are, they hit the ground and come at you. They whistle like a man and they stand up on their tail, that’s how they catch their game. They hit you with their tail. She saw it coming and she took off running, but it bit her in the bottom of her foot. They are deadly, but she ran so fast and so long that there was no poison. She was swift like a deer — that’s what I want to call the song. She ran the poison right out of her foot.”

Snakes as big as fallen trees or that whistle like men. Those are the stories still rattling around Ural Thomas’s head 70 years later. “Those are the stories I want to turn into country songs.” He says. “The reason I haven’t told a lot of my stories about my life is because I want to put them in music. Some of the stories my mom used tell were scary, but you can find a way to make it fun.” For Ural, his 7 decades of life from rural Louisiana to drug-laden North Portland to Harlem, make for richer song material. “Nobody in the world ever wrote their own song. You have inspiration from all the people around you, from your life experiences, to a person next to you who cracked a joke.”

When asked exactly how old he was, Ural doesn’t skip a beat, “I’m 76. No, no, Im 79, I’m endless.”

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You can catch a few of Ural Thomas's stories and hear him sing at WeMake Celebrates on October 13th.

Tickets Available Here

An Interview with Luke Choice—Experimenting with Abandon

Stop looking at what everyone else is doing.
— Luke
Luke Choice

Luke Choice, aka The Velvet Spectrum, is an Australian graphic artist based in Los Angeles, who specializes in typography and 3D illustration. Starting out his career designing for the music industry Luke has formed the base of his portfolio with a strong focus on dynamic color and composition.

Catch Luke on the stage at WeMake Celebrates on October 13.


This year, our conference’s theme is ‘experiments in process,’ which complements your work perfectly! Could you describe how experimentation plays into your process specifically? How do you go from inspiration to implementation?

The process is a large part of what inspires my experimentation. Diving into artwork with no real intent of where I want it to end up, gives me the freedom to react to the colors, forms and movement that present themselves. I often look for abstracted concepts within the experiments to inspire the direction of the artwork. 

You have a lot of bright, vivid colors in your work, what is it about hot tones that inspires you? 

There’s a lot of early inspiration from the comics that I read as a kid and to my early years designing for the music scene back in Sydney. Once I began to learn digital programs, it was a case of “more is more.” I didn't resign myself to simplicity in my work, because the new tools were so exciting to explore. 

What is the strangest thing that’s inspired you to create? 

An artwork inspired by fecal matter for a WaterAid exhibition a couple of years ago. 

 Luke Choice’s “Poop Art” (all images courtesy WaterAid America)

Luke Choice’s “Poop Art” (all images courtesy WaterAid America)

What has been your favorite project and why?

At last year's Adobe Max conference I created the visual language for an interactive partnership between Adobe and Emotiv, which develops advanced brain monitoring technology. Attendees were fitted with EEG headsets that read five key emotions (Stress, Interest, Excitement, Engagement and Focus) triggered during the creative process. These visualizations were broadcast on monitors to show the brain activity fluctuate during the process. The challenge came through trying to find a complementary graphic style to best represent each emotion, while not over-complicating the scene. It can often feel isolating behind the computer, so having the opportunity to watch people interact with something I created was such a rewarding experience. 

What is the ultimate goal of your work? 

I want to convey a positive energy through my work, whether it be playful messaging or vibrant color palettes. There's a lot going on in the world that's hard to digest, so my aim is to cut-through and cause people to stop and connect with something surprising and light hearted. 

Why do you make?  

A constant pursuit of developing the technical skills to realize my creative ideas. 

What advice would you give people to experiment more? 

Stop looking at what everyone else is doing. Start simply and build up around core principles that excite you. 

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Catch Luke at WeMake Celebrates on October 13.
 

An Interview with Nick Misani—Type, Style, and Freelancing

My parents were both jewelry designers, and I think that was influential, not necessarily because it taught me to think visually at an early age - which it did - but it forced me to rebel against my upbringing.
— Nick
 Photo by  Ahmed Klink  

Photo by Ahmed Klink 

 

Interview with designer and guest writer Melissa Delzio

 

“It’s my first real day of full-time freelance,” Nick Misani says with nervous excitement. I congratulate Nick on getting out of pajamas on day one. “Well, half out of pajamas,” he admits. “I’m still just coming to terms with being accountable for my time and staying on schedule.” Nick is fresh from a three year stint working at Louise Fili Ltd, and before that, Penguin Random House. His book design, lettering and packaging design work is varied and strongly references historical design movements, which he says Louise helped impart. An Italian American, Nick was born in Italy, studied in Japan, and finally found his way to New York City and to graphic design. 

My interview with Nick covers the winding path of this Young Gun’s career, his inspiration, thoughts on having a style and his hopes and fears for the future of his career. 

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Melissa: Your work is very worldly, what influence does travel have on your work?

Nick: One of the things that is inspiring beyond just travel is the expectation of travel. I recently started this personal project that is travel centered, and it came about because I didn’t have any vacation days to use. I was in a really small studio. I would reminisce about past trips or think about trips I’d like to take.

When I do travel I try if possible to switch off and just enjoy where I am and see what comes. I remember an instance when I was working at Penguin, I was working on a book cover design and I happened to be in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico had nothing to do with the book, but there was some lettering I saw on a building. I wasn’t actively looking for inspiration, but it happened naturally and that is the best thing. I find when I am actively looking for something I can’t find it.

Melissa: And how did you end up studying in Japan?

Nick: I grew up in Italy, our high school system there is a five year system. In the fourth year, there was an option to take that year remotely. Nobody seemed to want to go to Japan, that program wasn’t available, so I had to go through an American school to get that to happen. I stayed after the school year was over and worked there awhile. My high school was specialized in architecture and industrial design, but when I was in Japan I was just focusing on the language.

Melissa: You’ve studied architecture and industrial design, how does that background support your current work, or does it?

Nick: It got me thinking about things structurally and visually from an earlier age, but I don’t think there is a direct correlation between the two. There was a period of time between when I studied architecture to when I arrived at design when I studied music in college. When I moved to the states I was a classical music major. Because of that buffer, I don’t see the architectural part and the graphic design part as one leading into the other. I do remember that I wasn’t loving architecture. There was a lot more tedium than I imagined, dealing with building codes and all that wasn’t interesting to me. I transitioned into music and I did that for awhile, but what really prompted the move to graphic design was that I really just wasn’t a talented enough musician to make it in that field, or I didn’t start early enough. I decided to explore another interest I had dormant for some time [design] and I ended up really liking that. 

Melissa: Your work references many different historical design movements. Do you have a favorite time period?

Nick: The studio I just left, Louise Fili Ltd. is really well known for this type of historical design. That experience has helped give my work a stronger connection to history. As far as periods that have a special place for me, I really love Art Deco. I came into my experience working for Louise really loving Victorian typography. It was on trend at the time, a few years ago, and I was seduced by the ostentation of it. Deco is a lot more paired back, it’s more about geometry. But there is a drama and glamor about it that I think is fascinating. I also really love Art Nouveau, which I hear is really popular on the West Coast, or at least in the San Francisco area. I used to hate that style because it reminded me of 60s psychedelic posters, which were influenced by Art Nouveau, just like 80s design was influenced by Art Deco.

There is this other time period that is a transitional phase between Art Deco and Nouveau called Wiener Werkstätte. That is not as played out as the other historical styles. It has the geometry of Art Deco but its a little bit softer. 

The Arts & Crafts movement with William Morris and Dard Hunter is also really fascinating to me, or anything before the 40s; that’s when I start losing interest. I really don’t care about 50s type, that whole atomic look, I’m not into. I can get behind some 60s typography (Herb Lubalin’s work), that over-the-top lettering. Louise worked for Herb Lubalin. Loise is a great in her own right. My excitement and desire to work [at her studio] was completely because of Louise and I didn’t even know who Herb Lubalin was at the time. As far as graphic design history in the states, Herb is very influential. Loiuse would tell Herb stories, just like you would talk about any other boss, and you forget that he was this amazing designer that books are written about. Herb was like a grandfather, his legacy was felt.

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Melissa: Do you feel like you have a style?

Nick: I think about this a lot especially now that I have my own studio. How do I differentiate myself from my old boss? With Louise our tastes and styles matched up from the very beginning, she is leaps beyond me, but our interests were overlapping. It was easy for me to do work that fit within her studio’s output. Now that I’m on my own, the challenge is to figure out which part of the that feels like me and what part needs to be changed so that I can claim it as my own. I don’t think I have a definite style yet, people have told me that I do, but I don’t see it. I would like to.

Melissa: Should designers have a style?

Nick: It’s a big debate. For designers that specialize in lettering and illustration, having a style is encouraged. In design it is somewhat discouraged. Am I just a letterer or am I also a designer, those are the murky waters I am navigating right now. I don’t really have an answer. I don’t know if I want to focus more on lettering and follow in the direction of Jessica Hische or Dana Tanamachi, also alumnae of the studio I worked at. Or do I want to go more towards branding and packaging, more similar to the work that Louise does. Louise has a very definite voice even though she’s not just doing illustrative lettering. On the spectrum of an “invisible” designer to one that has a recognizable style, she is more toward the recognizable style. I’m not entirely sure which is better, I am still figuring that out.

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Melissa:  Do you worry about committing to a style and getting pigeonholed with your fauxsaics project?

Nick: Totally. From the very beginning, before I even started the project I thought about that. I posted my LA fauxsaic because I was going to LA. It was a one-off. I found that I enjoyed doing it and other people really responded. I thought about turning it into a series, but I considered, do I really want to be the mosaic guy? Do I want to put myself in that corner. As the series has grown, it is still on the forefront of my mind. It has given me a lot for a personal project, it has helped me grow my presence online significantly. It has given me a bunch of great opportunities. But I do sometimes feel like, what’s next? How does this project grow beyond what it is. Does it become more experiential, environmental? Or should I move on to something else? I am really interested in the decorative arts in general, things like mosaics, stained glass, wood block prints, and these older crafts. My style might evolve, but my core interests will hover around that for awhile. Something that has that old craft look to it, but is reimagined in a more contemporary way.

Melissa: Italy, Milan specifically is a design hub, and your family has a background in design. What role did your upbringing and surroundings play in your career path?

Nick: My parents were both jewelry designers, and I think that was influential, not necessarily because it taught me to think visually at an early age - which it did - but it forced me to rebel against my upbringing. I gave that direction up to pursue other stuff, which created a more indirect and winding path towards where I am now. It contributed towards my diverse interests. Had I just gone into jewelry design I would probably have had a pretty clear, easy path towards that. My dad had a company already set up, that had his name already on it. But I really wasn’t interested, so I studied music and I studied architecture.

As the years have gone on, I have a more nuanced view of what my upbringing has given me and I am starting to appreciate a bit more what my parents have passed on. The closest I have gotten to jewelry design is designing a few enamel pins, which is pretty run of the mill for designers these days. I don’t exclude the fact that I might go back to something jewelry design-related in the future, but I think it will be well in the future. It’s hard to be flexible enough to change course within a career, because you feel you’ve invested all this time into it. Even now, I’ve invested all this time in lettering, if I wanted to do interior design all of a sudden, that would be a scary move. I hope that if that desire presents itself strongly enough, I would at least to some degree listen to it, or incorporate it into my work and let it guide me toward something new. 

Melissa: It’s your first day freelance, what excites you and scares you about tomorrow?

Nick: I’m mostly afraid that I’ll be really lonely and that I’ll get into bad habits and not be as productive as I could be. Now that there is no clear divider between my personal and professional life, I want to be able to create boundaries for myself. I want to be able to shut off and have a personal life. I haven’t been able to have that in the past because when I got home from work I had to work on my other freelance work. If I’m able to keep those boundaries solid, I think my well-being and my relationship will improve in a way that I haven’t been able to experience. I am currently looking into being represented by an artist’s rep, which is also new to me. I am thinking about how my work is going to have to scale to allow me to support myself. Bigger clients are starting to get in touch, and I don’t know how to price myself and work with them, so having a rep is a nice idea. You have to be able to market yourself in a way that is very different than it used to be. It’s no longer about entering in some competitions, getting in a few annuals and sending out some mailers. I can see how useful it can be to delegate some of this work of self promotion.

Instagram and social media is fickle. If you start to get too sales-y or influencer-y that turns people off. Authenticity is very important as it producing work. Hopefully I will be able to keep up.

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Catch Nick at WeMake Celebrates on October 13.
October 14 Workshop: Learn the ins and outs of historical lettering design with a focus on Art Deco typography.