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.
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.”
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.