Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Creative person hits the creative ceiling in their not-so-creative small town. They pack their bags and move to the big city with nothing more than a head full of dreams and a pocket full of loose change. They hustle. They starve. And they make it.
We’re all familiar with this old chestnut, but it’s been a while since I, for one, have heard it from anyone under the age of 60. How nice it must have been in the good old days when you could hit the streets with your portfolio and a smile, and eventually, after Saul Bass or Massimo Vignelli turned you down the first or second time, it was the third knock that finally opened the door to world of design.
Unfortunately, even the most idealistic among us know that there are simply a lot more creative people out there looking for work today; there’s also less money in advertising, and businesses and corporations are much more fractured. Precarious times call for precarious measures. That’s why when visual artist Shawna X moved east from Portland, she spent two years Chicago, working steady agency jobs and saving money before she made the leap to New York. And even then, she only planned to stay for a month. She wasn’t convinced she could make it. “The only way it was possible is because I spent a lot of time just saving money.” Shawna X, now in her 30s, was ahead of her time, but more and more millennials and Gen Z’ers are following suit and are making saving money a top goal. But like Shawna X, it doesn’t mean they don’t have big dreams.
You’ve seen Shawna X’s work on the cover of New York Magazine and The New York Times Magazine; in the pages of the Guardian and The New Yorker; in colorful installations featuring larger-than-life cheese pizzas and human body parts; in murals at SXSW and around town in Brooklyn and Portland; and in client work for Samsung and Adidas. But lately we’ve been most enthralled by her beautiful, bright, and honest depictions of childbirth and motherhood.
“Pain pushes us forward. If things are too easy for me, why would I even create?”
Her first month in New York City in 2014 ended up being a very “enlightening” time, as she describes it. Chicago isn’t a cow town by any stretch of the imagination, but even after working for creative agencies there she had no idea how much broader and more specialized the creative scene was in New York. “You could be an editorial illustrator—and that’s all you do. I was so used to jobs like art director, where you’re doing all these other things.” With an eye on specializing in her own work, she took a steady job in digital product design at a dating app while she grew her own visual design and illustration practice on the side. Then she transitioned—slowly, carefully, over the course of three years—from full-time, to part-time, and finally to freelance. One day, she woke up and realized she was her own boss.
“Going freelance was scary,” she says. “It’s still scary, to be totally honest. But when I first started, if I didn’t get any inquiries for a week or two, I would freak out. I’d go online and look for full-time jobs or I’d get really tough on myself, that I wasn’t doing enough to put myself out there. Then I’d get a job and think, Oh, I’m doing okay. And then the cycle would start all over again.” She understands now that this rollercoaster ride is normal. “It’s the nature of the beast,” she says. “Accepting that is part of being a freelancer.”
This sense of confidence comes only after years of trial and error. “I had an intense learning curve,” she says. “In my baby days of freelancing, I got totally fucked by many clients. Some would drastically change the scope of a project after we had agreed on it.” Others never paid her. “One non-paying client said that my work wasn’t good enough and that I should consider myself lucky to have the experience of working with them. Just terrible stuff.”
Of course, you can only get fucked with so many time before you set some boundaries. She quickly figured out how contracts work and what terms you need to put in them, and she stuck to her guns. But even she gets soft sometimes, and will start a new project with a client who she’s had a positive experience working with before, or who she’s become friends with, and she’ll forego the formalities of a contract. “I’ll think, I don’t really need a contract with them. And it always screws me in the end because there’s inevitably going to be something that doesn’t go according to plan.” Just like the saying: Good fences make good neighbors, good contracts make good clients, even if you’re buds.
Once she had contracting down, the next thing she had to get her head around was pricing. She had no idea what her starting rate should be, but reading Jessica Hische’s “The Dark Art of Pricing” and having some candid conversations with friends helped her reach a number she’s comfortable with—for now. “I’m always reevaluating my pricing,” she says. With ever-changing advertising budgets and the influx of competition, it’s tricky to stick to one number. It’s more a matter of understanding the client and their industry, trying to get a sense of their budget and what you can realistically do within that range. It’s a dance, I posit. “No,” she counters. “It’s a shit show. Pricing for creatives is a very confusing thing.” The best solution she’s found is to set up a tiered pricing structure. “It’s almost like menu of my services that people can pick from.”
The pain of negotiating with clients has gotten so keen that Shawna X has just started reading a book about it. It’s not written by an illustrator or designer or CEO in the creative industry, but by a former hostage negotiator for the FBI.
The author “makes a good point, that negotiating is working together to find something in common with the other party. It’s not ‘you vs. them.’ That’s something I think about constantly when I have to negotiate with clients,” she says. I can’t help but point out that things must be pretty bad when illustrators have to turn to the FBI for help.
“Maybe I’m taking it too seriously, but it feels like a very cheap way to make art.”
One of the things she struggles to negotiate for is the rights to her own work, which she acknowledges is a universal problem for people in creative industries. “Our work is so accessible, it almost becomes a commodity that anyone can take for themselves and reference or sell. There’s not a lot of thought behind IP or how work is shared. And there isn’t much you can do to protect your work. Some people have suggested adding a watermark, but that doesn’t do anything. Just because it has your name on it doesn’t mean it’s sacred.”
Her way around this isn’t as much a solution as it is a zen mindset. “I’ve realized that I can’t protect my work, and while that might sound negative, it’s helped me to not be so attached to the work I make. Each work is just a stepping stone to the next thing. You might see people copying your style. So what? I can’t say I invented my style. Nothing is original.”
Several times during our conversation, she had to stop herself and apologize for coming off as pessimistic. She’s clearly at a moment in her career where she is grappling with her work. She and her partner recently had a baby and her outlook is shifting. She’s taking time now to take it all in. Six months ago, when she chronicled a weekend in the life of a new mom who is a full-time creative, she wrote that she was “lamenting the politics of the creative industry while debating my own path in it.”
There are a lot of issues coming to a head for Shawna X right now. She gets a lot of commissions to create “Instagrammable moments,” and while she admits it can be fun to work on those projects, she worries about what it means for the future of creative work. “Maybe I’m taking it too seriously, but it feels like a very cheap way to make art.”
In keeping with her zen outlook, she’s in no rush to find answers. Rather, she’s enjoying the process of chewing on the questions. “I’m actually holding back a lot right now. I’m not pushing myself. For the first time in my life, I’m not forcing myself to make work when I don’t feel like it. I’m not pushing myself to network with people. I’m very content being at home, managing my energy, understanding my emotions. I’ve been very introspective this past year, and that’s helped me to deal with the superficial side of visual art and illustration.”
Instead of whipping herself into a frenzy chasing down work and clients, all this thinking has led her to some new insights. Now that she’s come to accept the downsides of commercial work, she’s looking well beyond her current portfolio. “I need to hone my energy for something greater than this. I don’t know what that is yet. Illustration and visual art is my first love, but I think this is just a stepping stone to something more impactful.”
A year of asking herself difficult questions, and putting her work on the chopping block, so to speak, hasn’t exactly been a ball. But “we like pain. Humans like pain,” she says. “Pain pushes us forward. If things are too easy for me, why would I even create?”