ALL THINGS BRIGHT AND BEAUTIFUL

A career is a funny thing. At least for me it was and continues to be. As a young girl growing up in New Jersey, I had this very clear image in my mind of myself as an adult, living in NYC, wearing a coordinated twin sweater set with my hair tightly tied back in a chignon, holding onto a pole in a subway car, reading the NY Times folded in one hand with a job that was important. The job part of the equation was pretty nebulous at the time but it didn’t take away from the fantasy. I thought I would be a stockbroker like Alex P. Keaton - my girlhood crush as a kid. But those dreams were quickly dashed as I got older because I hate numbers and I’m not particularly good at them either. My mind was geared more towards the arts. I loved to draw and write creatively, but never thought or was encouraged to pursue a field in art because the child of a first generation immigrant household needed to find a job that could pay. So I studied hard, got into the the S.I. Newhouse School of Journalism at Syracuse University and decided to be a journalist. My parents urged me to go into broadcasting. (Not that this field is ANY easier to break into than a career in art, mind you. The logic was clearly lacking here, but, hey, it was better than a degree in art.)

Regardless of any foundation that I have tried to lay down for the future, I continue to ping-pong my way through life. Life apparently thinks it knows better. So to make a long story short, somehow after graduate school, I found myself working as a file clerk in Los Angeles at a small car insurance agency for travelers vacationing down in Mexico. There I was, with a B.S. (for sure) and an M.S. filing manila folder after monotonous manila folder, as my super rich boss told me about how he ended up in a hot tub with Tom Hanks over the weekend. He said it with such authentic glee and wonderment that I couldn’t hate him . (Truth be told, he was a really nice man.) So I would file away all day wondering how my life had taken this turn, would take the #20 bus line from Beverly Hills to my loft apartment in downtown LA (that I could only afford to live in because my ex was super successful), and completely and totally hated my stupid life. My ex worked in reality television and would often be out of town on a shoot so I had the loft to myself. I would sit there and email my friends, who had already embarked on their careers, and give them status updates about how miserable I was. Then I would draw all night on my laptop and post whatever I thought was good, onto a portfolio site called coroflot.com.

As luck would have it, a contemporary denim company called J&Co. randomly contacted me, said that I had an interesting illustrative hand and would I like a job creating graphics for apparel? I jumped at the opportunity and was beyond the moon working in the bowels of Vernon, CA and getting paid nothing. So without any training, I fell into my career as a graphic/textile designer and found that it just came naturally to me. As time went on, I never thought I would leave LA. Living in LA was too much fun. It’s the perfect city when you’re young, still have your metabolism, have super creative friends, love the beach and love really cute boys even more. Clearly it didn’t work out with the ex. Duh. Years later, the housing crisis hit, the party was over and all of my friends - and myself included - were getting laid off or were taking massive pay cuts just to stay in one of the most exciting cities in the world. But it was time to grow up. And then one day, a company called Target randomly contacted me, said that I had an interesting illustrative hand and would I like a job creating graphics for apparel?

That was 9 years ago. It was a difficult move from a lifestyle perspective. The cold-to-your-bone-marrow Minnesota winters certainly did not agree with my immune system. I didn’t know anyone. I was landlocked. But working at Target has given me the opportunity to make a really nice life for myself. Carving out that nice life took a tremendous amount of work (as things that are of intrinsic value often do) — and I had NEVER worked that hard in my life. Circo (a children’s brand that has now been replaced by Cat&Jack) was losing money and it was my job to steer the brand and the art in the right direction. The brand consistently missed it’s sales goals which had a tremendous impact on the Kids department as a whole because it was a core business. Nobody was happy. The buyers were pissed. My manager was frustrated. My designer and I didn’t get along. I was making art that I didn’t particularly like or felt proud of because the brand was too scared to try anything new. I was homesick and getting really fucking tired of the dark, grey winter weather which was further exacerbated by the mean tension that took over the office. Quite frankly, I don’t look back on that time with a feeling of fondness. It was beyond challenging and every day I went into work I felt like I was failing worse than the day before. And I almost got fired.

A CIRCO SUMMER SUNDRESS PRINT I CREATED IN 2013

A CIRCO SUMMER SUNDRESS PRINT I CREATED IN 2013

But things turned around because they had to. With the support and guidance of some really amazing mentors and advocates, and a buyer who was open to a fresh artistic perspective, we managed to salvage the brand. Circo gained #1 marketshare in Girl. Remarkably, my team won an award, and I cemented a positive reputation. That seems like a lifetime ago and though I was proud of what we accomplished as a team, it was a bittersweet victory. So I gleaned what I could from that experience personally and professionally, stuffed the bad memories deep down somewhere and looked forward to working on another product category because I was burnt out.

About a year or so ago, my former Junior designer text me an image and wrote: “Look at this painting by Amy Sherald. She’s painting Michelle Obama’s official portrait for the National Gallery in Washington D.C.”

ALL THINGS BRIGHT AND BEAUTIFUL, AMY SHERALD, 2016 OIL ON CANVAS

ALL THINGS BRIGHT AND BEAUTIFUL, AMY SHERALD, 2016 OIL ON CANVAS

I find it ironic that the title of this painting is All Things Bright and Beautiful because that dress print was created during an extremely stressful time in my life. As I continue to look at the painting, though, I see that the background is a sunny yellow, and that the young girl has her wary eyes shaded from an intense light shining right at her, maybe portending good things to come. It is very humbling to see your commercial art being utilized in a painting created by a famous fine artist. Does it erase the hardships of the past or make me feel like it was all worth it? Not really. I do love that it exists - that it resides in the ether of popular culture. And in some abstract way, I think I can identify with the young girl in the painting: always looking towards the blinding light, never knowing what to expect, but hoping for the best.

PLANTS CAN TEACH YOU HOW TO LIVE: AN INTRODUCTION

Late fall of 2017, I had brain aneurysm surgery. It seems redundant to say it, but it was a challenging time in my life. I got through it with the support of my loving parents, a select group of friends (I’m not the rah-rah running marathons for causes type), one supremely invested general practitioner and my wonderful manager at work. Surrounded by love and after a three month-long stint on a horrible blood thinner called Warfarin, I approached 2018 with ridiculously high expectations for the new year. (Truth be told, I spent New Year’s celebrating in a gorgeous floor-length gold gown that many women incorrectly inquired as Versace at Artis Naples in Naples, Florida with tears streaming from my eyes as I danced all night to Cole Porter standards.)

2018 HAPPY NEW YEASDFLASKDJFWELKFMD.V,DM….

2018 HAPPY NEW YEASDFLASKDJFWELKFMD.V,DM….

Life, however, could give two shits about what you want. Which is why I think people tend to soften that harsh truism by saying instead, ‘Life is funny that way’. Into the third week of 2018, on an average morning getting ready for work, I blacked out. I lost consciousness and dropped face forward onto a mirrored tray that cracked into a gazillion pokey shards and pieces, and promptly gave myself the mother of concussions. I was told by one ER physician and three specialists that I was SUPREMELY lucky. If I had still been taking blood thinners when this happened, my brain would have developed a hematoma and then shit would have become really real. Or shit would have been, more likely, totally over.

This is an intense thing to hear when half of your face is bruised and bleeding, while your left eye is swollen shut . However, after you have had your bell rung (as NFL Players refer to concussions) you will just sit in a haze and watch lips move while processing nothing because your brain is not functioning as it should. Lights and sounds induce piercing migraines. You are unable to filter out things in your periphery from things in your axis so you’re unable to focus and then you become overwhelmed, your head begins to pound and then the exhaustion hits. You sleep for days on end. Your balance and equilibrium are fucked. You start to cradle dark thoughts that are harder and harder to keep at bay. You have zero control over your emotions. And what shivs you deepest, is that you’re put on medical leave from work and are given strict instructions not to read, not to surf the net, not to watch television and not to listen to music as you heal. No concerts, no museums, no restaurants, no sporting events, no shopping, no nothing. You are instructed to let your brain rest and that equates to avoiding and blocking out any and all stimuli.

As a designer, this is a death sentence. Digesting media and soaking up stimuli are the foodstuff for creativity and generating ideas. But concussions are a siege on life because you have to guard yourself from it. A great wave of depression hung over me. Luckily, for the majority of the month, I slept for days on end. And when I was awake I felt abandoned, isolated and desperate. One day, apropos to nothing in my prior history (I liked shoes, not plants) and sick of the grey darkness of February in Minneapolis, I just drove to a garden center. I have no idea why. Maybe that reptilian drive for survival decided to kick in. The warmth and humidity and the color green in that nursery felt so good. And then I came across a beautiful and strange plant that may have prevented me from more desperate measures and enriched my life for the better: a Pilea Peperomioides or a Chinese Money Plant.

My one-year-old Pilea Peperomioides in 2019.

My one-year-old Pilea Peperomioides in 2019.

Unbeknownst to me, this was the IT plant of 2016-2018 on Instagram and was highlighted in those super slick design blogs where everything is white and clean and mid-century. As is my luck, I stumbled onto THE thing by happenstance and was just completely dumbfounded by how odd the plant looked. I had never seen anything like it before. Flat pancake-like leaves attached to long slender stems that grew horizontally from a short stalk (at the time) and cost $50. I balked from the plant because of the price. But I kept circling back around and staring at it. Observing it. Touching it. Other than my sweet Persian kitty, Sibi, it was the best purchase I have ever made.

Fast forward a year later. It’s January 2019 and my little Pilea has grown about a foot and a half in height and has produced 5 new pups or baby plants. I learned so much in a year just from raising that plant. And now I can categorically call myself a crazy plant lady which is the new crazy cat lady which is another trend that I fell into by happenstance and that is just how my life seems to operate now. And that is ok.

One of the first Pilea pups or offshoots growing in it’s own little pot.

One of the first Pilea pups or offshoots growing in it’s own little pot.

My lovely apartment has transformed into a mini-jungle of sorts since that first Pilea purchase. I have 50+ plants and growing (haha); an industrial sized humidifier that can increase the humidity of the entire first floor of my apartment; a smaller warm mist humidifier used specifically for extra finicky tropical plants; countless empty distilled water jugs repurposed to hold tap water to fill said humidifiers; grow lights of all sorts and sizes; antique plant stands from India, Morocco and the 70s; a finished basement equipped with a second hand work/potting bench that I bought for a steal from craigslist; a portable 6’ mini-greenhouse that I use for a plant triage unit and for sprouting seeds; and an amazing Sonos system that my very considerate boyfriend installed throughout my house so that I could listen to classical music while I pot new plants on my workbench or as I putter around my private jungle in my pajamas, admiring my plants. I couldn’t be happier. And my brain is healing too.

In a time of such bleakness and desperation, a funny little plant gave me a reason to rise out of my depressed state and to find another way to be creative. It was a self-imposed challenge to keep something that unique and beautiful alive and thriving. I mean, what else was there to do? And that challenge shadowed my own journey back to health. As my Pilea matured, I realized that I could still be productive and was good at things other than my job. Plants have pushed me to problem solve in new ways, learn more about nature and it’s processes, and have nudged me to be more nurturing, observant and patient. It brought a meditative quiet to my day-to-day that had been missing for too long. It became a way to keep stressors at bay while seeing results: both in the plant and in my overall wellbeing. Buying clothes and shoes and purses could never do that. And now I barely buy any of those things anymore, because what those specific material items symbolize is an endless pursuit. Instead, I spend hours in the quiet of my home, inspecting and marveling over each and every leaf of each and every plant when my brain starts to shut down from the blue light emanating from the phone/tv/tablet/computer screen and then a calm comes over me and the headaches start to subside. Nurturing and cultivating my little jungle has taught me how to exist in a stillness that was once enforced, but is now something that I seek. That stillness has become a non-negotiable in my life. As the adage goes, life is funny that way. And so are Pileas.