Alexandria Batchelor

The thrilling part about entrepreneurship is following your dreams while pursuing your passions. That’s definitely the case for illustrator and creative director Alexandria Batchelor. As the head of her own company, Foxee Design, Alexandria uses her skills in graphic design, branding and illustration to not only provide killer work for her clients, but to also redefine standards in the industry within art and design that represents minorities (primarily Black women). Now that’s change worth supporting!

We kicked off our conversation talking about plans for the summer, and Alexandria talked about how she named her company, some of her notable clientele and collaborators, and the best kinds of clients for her to work with on projects. She also spoke about an upcoming book she worked on with noted authors Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes, and shared some secrets and advice on creativity and self-motivation.

If you’re looking to get a dose of inspiration, then this episode is the one for you. Enjoy!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Tell us who you are and what you do.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Hi, everyone. My name is Alexandria Batchelor, AKA Foxee Design. I am currently the CEO and creative director of Foxee Design. Completely self employed right now, and I am a designer, but I specialize in branding illustration and comic production specifically. That’s me in a nutshell.

Maurice Cherry:
How is the year going for you so far?

Alexandria Batchelor:
It’s going really well actually. Lots of good projects are coming in. I’ve actually started subcontracting. That’s where I’ve started leveling up where I have acknowledged that I can’t do it all by myself. One of my mentors taught me that he kind of taught or ingrained this mentality of looking out for your community and your network and taking on all the talented people that you know and spreading the wealth, because I am tired. This year I am focusing on self care and that’s why I bring it in like, oh, you have some time? All right, I’ve got two projects for you here, and I’ve got this much money and I’ve got this for you and this for you. That’s kind of how I started managing my business this year. It’s already working quite well, so good start so far.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a great start so far. I’m telling you, and for people that are out there listening that might be running one person shops, the minute that you get into subcontracting, you will feel like you have unlocked the cheat code. Wait a minute. I can do this self employment thing. Once you build that network or that collective, you’re like, oh, I got this.

Alexandria Batchelor:
I know. That’s not sustainable. Not if you want to be happy and be a real person, because I like reality. Let’s stay rooted in it.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, and also with subcontracting, it can also help you to even just expand your services. If there’s something that a client may want that you know someone in your network has the capacity to handle, it just kind of makes you appear more well rounded, so good for you. That’s good.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Right. Thank you. I can’t wait to continue to build. I just actually recruited one of my old design confidants from college as well as one of my old interns who are both my friends still to be my right and my left hand for my company, so that was a big move where I’m like, I told one of them, I’m like, you’re my successor. The other one is just stepping up to the plate, so it’s just really nice to have people I really trust my business with and I could only be thrilled to imagine how they would run my company one day when I have to go expand to new horizons. Still come back to Foxee because that’s where my heart is.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s amazing. I guess with that, do you have any plans for the summer?

Alexandria Batchelor:
Yes. I’m going on vacation. I don’t vacation often, so yes. Actually summer, well starting off with my birthday, my birthday’s next month. May babies, Tauruses. Any Tauruses in the house? I’m going to Alabama because you were talking about the south, but my family’s from Alabama and I’m visiting my grandma for my birthday. We’re going to hang out in Atlanta for a bit, so that’s going to be really fun. Then in June, I’m spending the month in California because I’m also going to be speaking at VidCon, which is exciting, but most of it I’m going to be relaxing, but yes. I’ll have my first major speaking engagement in person. I don’t think I’ve nervous yet, but as we get closer, I’m going to be a ball of nerves.

Maurice Cherry:
You’ll be fine. VidCon is one of those conferences that everyone’s going to have a camera, of course. It’s a video conference, VidCon, but you’ll be fine. I think there’s enough energy at that kind of event where everyone wants to see you do well.

Alexandria Batchelor:
That’s true. It’ll be good vibes. As long as there are good vibes, I’ll thrive.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I’m curious, where in Alabama will you be visiting?

Alexandria Batchelor:
Nobody knows where this is, so I’ll be surprised if you know. It’s called Elba. Elba, Alabama in Coffee County.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I too am from Alabama.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Really?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Oh my goodness. I.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m from Selma in Dallas County. I’ve heard of Elba though.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Oh, really?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Oh my gosh. You’re the first person who’s ever heard of where my family’s from. That’s amazing.

Maurice Cherry:
People will come to me and name random cities in Alabama, like Utah or Boaz or something. I was like, yeah. I’ve heard of that. Really? I’m like, yeah. I grew up in Selma, from Alabama, south central Alabama. Yeah. Nice. Alabama in the summer is hot.

Alexandria Batchelor:
It’s going to be brutal, yeah. Well, May, so that’s not too bad.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s not too bad. Yeah.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Yeah. My grandma wants us back later in the summer in August, so I think I might die. I don’t know if I could do that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. August is Alabama is brutal, but the thing about visiting small towns in Alabama like that is it just strips everything away, like technology, wifi, cable. Selma is not a big city. Even when I go back home to visit my mom, she’s got cable and she has internet, but like it’s not the cable and internet I have at home. In terms of the entire environment, it just kind of strips everything away and forces you to be still for a while.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Nice. Yeah. That’s exactly what I’m looking for to unplug, kind of reconvene with nature. My grandma’s got this cute little vegetable garden that I want to see and just kind of learn about the land, because we own land too. It’s low key our inheritance eventually, so I just want to get back to my roots and what better time to do it than for my birthday? I’m really excited.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Let’s talk about Foxee Design. I know you’ve been freelancing for a long time now, but tell the people more about Foxee Design.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Foxee Design, I wanted to figure out a nice alias that really represented me, and we started branding ourselves in college, but everybody was kind of doing… no shade to people who just use their name. That’s a very legitimate brand because your name actually holds a lot of meaning. I’m big into name etymology, so I love learning the meaning behind everything, but I just wanted something more than just like A and B.

Alexandria Batchelor:
I just realized my hair became a really big signifier and symbol in my life because I used to have chemically straightened hair up until I was like 18. Right when I was in college, I did a big chop and I went natural and that was the first time I had had natural hair in my life. That’s why the hair kind of became a big thing. I have a beauty mark, like the Marilyn Monroe beauty mark and the lips and I’m like, you know what? Maybe this is the visual I want to represent my brand.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Then Foxee, the name, kind of came about because… actually, it’s from Foxy Brown, the Pam Grier movie from the 70s, but I learned about that from Quentin Tarantino’s iteration of it, Jackie Brown and Pam Grier again. I was like, oh, I’m in love with this movie. It was my favorite Quentin Tarantino movie. It just really resonated with me, so I was like, well, this character is so cool because she’s re-contextualizing black female sexuality and she’s kind of making the black woman a very powerful force to be reckoned with in Hollywood. I’m like, I want to do that in the design industry. This was before where are the black designers, which we were just talking about too, where I’m just like, I just want to be myself and be this very strong black woman without any consequence and have it resonate with my work. It doesn’t always need to be about my work, but it’s always rooted in it because it’s a part of me.

Alexandria Batchelor:
That’s why it kind of was a little sexy. At times I would ask my friends like, should I have done something a little more palatable, but I just kind of leaned into it and I really want to embody this persona where… if you see me, I’m very naturalista, like Tom boy, but I can have those moments where I step out. It feels like an alter ego to an extent as well, but I like stepping into this alter ego because I’m this authority in the brand space and the design space and the illustration space and I get to know what I’m talking about and feel really empowered behind the knowledge that I’ve accrued over time. That’s kind of how Foxee came about and the meaning behind my whole business.

Maurice Cherry:
I love that. I love that there’s so much intention behind it.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Yes. Always have intention behind the work I do.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you specialize in, you mentioned, graphic design, you mentioned illustration or comics and branding. What specifically drew you to branding? I’ve been finding, I’d say probably on the show within the past year or so, a lot more designers getting into branding, but what draws you to it?

Alexandria Batchelor:
I look at branding as storytelling. I realize illustration, comics and branding are all storytelling mediums for me that are my favorite mediums. I also write a little bit and my mom is a writer, so I have that in my blood. There’s something about branding that I feel like can be missed where you just think it’s a logo, but it’s much more than that. You’re telling someone’s story. I think it’s more of the owner. You go back to the owner, you find out even more about the business, and that actually influences a lot of decisions, like what colors. Is this based on your favorite colors? Is this just tied to how that color represents the specialty that we’re trying to brand? What is this interest, this hobby? Did you like skiing? Is that why you wanted to make something related to skiing?

Alexandria Batchelor:
I think brands always go back to the first person who came with that idea, and I love learning about people and understanding the attention behind all of the things that we are drawn to. That’s why I really like branding, because it’s kind of like decoding and getting to know someone. It’s kind of personal, because I know recent years people are trying to separate the personal brand and the business brand. I actually think it can be both. It’s one logo. One brand can, I believe, represent both personal and business. That’s how I do it. I don’t have a separate page. It’s all at one.

Alexandria Batchelor:
I am a person, I am my business, but I can also be just the person that can just be the business. I can be like, okay, I’m taking a mental health day and I go to the spa. I feel like when you try to split, it’s hard to navigate, so I love creating this space where you can feel like your work isn’t necessarily your life, but it is an important part of your life and it can still be a representation of you, your will, your passion. That’s why I love branding.

Maurice Cherry:
I love that. That’s a great way to put it. I see now branding and storytelling and it’s something I’ve definitely seen with a lot of small companies are trying to get into it, or I think they’re trying to get into branding because they’re starting to see it now as more than just a logo. They’ll come to a designer, I need a logo, but the logo should hopefully tell the story of your business or why you’re doing your business or something. It’s not just something generic that you just slap together and say, this is what my business is. It’s this logo.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Right. It’s Papyrus type. No, I’m just kidding. I’m literally always walking around like, I don’t like that, I love that. My dad’s like, stop working. I’m like, I can’t help it, dad. The whole world is design. Oh, man.

Maurice Cherry:
Talk to me about how you approach a new project that comes into Foxee Design.

Alexandria Batchelor:
I’m a big process person, like process junkie over here. I love how you got from point A to point B. I learned that a lot of clients and even designers are only about the final product. When I was getting introduced to this culture of design, I would notice that designers would hoard their designs until they were ready to share it and it would be more finalized and clients would just be like, I don’t get what this concept is. Just give me the final product. This was in college I reached this theory. I was like, I think there’s a gap in understanding, because actually my college major, it’s not graphic design. It’s communication design, so I quite literally can design communication, and I realized there was a gap in communication between the designer and the client.

Alexandria Batchelor:
I made my process very transparent. I start with a sketch. I’ll give a couple rounds of sketches and I’ll share it with the client. I’m like, what do you think? This isn’t obviously what it’s going to look like in the final stage, but these are just some ideas to get from point A to point B. Do you like this? What do you like about that? What do you like about this? We can combine those ideas and see if they work. I can tell you why they might not work. Let’s try this instead. When you bring the client in and involve them, you just get a much more successful design.

Alexandria Batchelor:
I’ve definitely had projects that have fallen through, obviously. No one’s perfect, but when the projects really go to the finish line, I’ve always had very high success rates. People are like, I didn’t even know this is what I wanted. I’m like, exactly, because the client always wants to be like, hey, I trust you. Just do whatever you want. I’m like, no. This is your business. You have to do work too, so I give them homework. I’m like, fill out this brand brief, answer all these questions. Some people are like, I never thought to answer all these questions about my business. I’m like, well, you’ve got to think about some extra stuff before maybe we even start your logo, because I always start with the logo if we’re doing a big brand project, because it’s an easy starting point but there’s way more to that. Especially if you want to be a musician or if you want to be on YouTube.

Alexandria Batchelor:
There’s a lot of other deliverables that go around the logo. I’ll give you colors and type bases to work with, even if that’s what you lead me with, but there’s always more than just a logo. Yes. I make my clients work just as hard as me, and that’s why I think I work really well with people and now they appreciate the process. They’ll always walk away like, I learned something about design today, and I’m like, that’s amazing. I’ve got teaching in my blood.

Maurice Cherry:
I think that’s a good way to approach it. Back when I started my studio, which was… what year is this? 2022. Back when I started in my studio in the olden days of the inter… no, I’m kidding, but back in the late 2000s or so, there was this really big push and maybe it’s still this way now, I don’t know, but there was almost this dichotomy that was set up between designer/entrepreneurs and clients where the designer is always right and the client is always wrong and there was this whole thing about clients from hell. Clients from hell.

Alexandria Batchelor:
I remember that blog.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Not to say that they don’t exist. They do exist. But also I think it’s up to the designer to vet the people that are coming in.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
I think if you’re doing a good job of that and they know that you’re educating them along with doing the work that you don’t run into many clients from hell after a while. They know to kind of stay away, but that education portion is super important. I think clients want to know sort of what they’re paying for, of course. They’re not just paying for hopefully a set of hands. They want someone that can illustrate, especially if it’s for their business and its brand. I would hope that they would want to be involved in it.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Me too. Yeah. Someone, I can’t remember who, but there was four types of clients. You have the smart involved client, you have the smart, lazy client, you have the… sorry to say dumb, but the dumb involved client and the dumb and lazy client. I think the worst one they said was the dumb involved one because they want to be all up in your business but aren’t listening or anything. It’s interesting that there are types of clients out there, but you have to know how to deal with them. If someone is more the uneducated one who wants to be involved, that’s great. You shouldn’t see that as a loss. You should be like, no, this is a learning moment. You want to be involved, but you’re not listening to me and I’m the authority. You paid for this.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Also, sometimes that’s where I take an L. If you don’t want to listen to me, then we’ll go with what you want. It might not be the right decision, but because you don’t want to listen to the specialists that you hired, then we’ll just go and do what you want to do. I think as I got older I started to be less precious with my work because yes, I’m here to guide you. I’m here to be like a salesperson. I’m here to persuade you, but sometimes if they just don’t want to listen, then that’s fine. I paid you to do what you want me to do and that’s that. I think a lot of younger designers get really hellbent on like, well, they’re not doing this. They’re not do it. I’m like yeah, I know that stinks, but put all that energy in your own work then.

Maurice Cherry:
Design, at the end of the day, for what it’s worth, especially as an entrepreneur, it’s a service industry, so you are serving the client in that way. Honestly, just because you did the work doesn’t mean you have to put it on your portfolio. There is a lot of work that I’ve done for horrible clients that will never see the light of day for me.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Right. I get you there, or I’ll put the one that they should have picked in my portfolio. I’m like, this is the nice version that we just left from ground zero, and it’s a dream, but this is the reality it should have been, so I get that.

Maurice Cherry:
You mentioned earlier about subcontracting and having people as you’re left and right hand. What does a typical day look like for you?

Alexandria Batchelor:
Oh my goodness. I’m in a decompression mode right now, so it’s a little different. Sometimes I’ll be gaming all day while also working, so I balance it out, which is kind of hilarious, but other days… I’m a Switch girl, so I’m playing the new Kirby game. Nobody’s paying me to promote this, but it’s really good. It’s beautiful. That’s been nice to feel restorative, especially if I have a stacked day, but I go through my emails. Also, email anxiety is so real. Some days I just put them off, but I try to have admin days where I can focus and respond as I go so they don’t build up, because if I’m away from my email for at least a week, I will have at least 200 emails and that is not fun to go through. Yes. That’s real. Email, admin stuff, I’ll go through any contracts that I have and get them signed and sent over, because I always collect deposits or I have regular income where I’ll have to give bills and stuff. So I’ll send in my invoices then. That’s the business side of things.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Then some days I like to blog in the mornings, especially if I worked too much the past day. I’ll just be writing my memoir, which is a little passion project I have going on, so I’ll spend time either doing that. This morning I spent embroidering, so I’ve been trying to get back to traditional art because I want to spend less time on my computer. Yes. I’ve been wanting to paint more, so in the coming days I’ll get back to painting. I like to play as much as I work with even my art because it’s my passion and my job, but traditional is where I’m steering, so I like being able to balance that throughout the day. Then I’ll work on a project here or there. I’ve usually got several going on.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Some days I’m like, I’m not working on this project or I’ll have to prioritize which one, like they need this one urgently or this deadline or this sub-task deadline is due this day, so that’s how I organize my tasks. Then I try to not work into the evening. Then I unwind with some anime and food. That’s what a day looks like for me.

Maurice Cherry:
I love that you said I like to play as much as I work and that you kind of weave that into your work day. That’s pretty cool. I like that. I think it’s a good way, one, to just get through the day, but then as an entrepreneur, I think it can be so easy to fall into that trap of just work, work, work, work, work, because everything has to depend on you. Incorporating those moments of play like that into the work is a good strategy.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Yes. This is very new too, because I was work, work, work, work, work, and then I crash, crash, crash, crash, crash. Now I’m like, okay. I have to make sure I am relaxing. I want to bring back yoga and meditation into my routine, because I also was doing that because self-care is just so important. That’s what I’m trying to stress as much as I’m trying to make money. I’m good. I think that’s also important to have financial literacy when you’re in these spaces and to be able to save and not worry about going check to check. That’s where I’m like, you know what? I’ve worked hard enough to be like, I can relax. It’s going to be okay.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a good place to be.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Yeah. It takes time. I think everyone can get there, but even if you are living check to check, still put a few bucks aside to get a facial from Walgreens. One of those things to just do the mini. I love doing like those really home care days. I’ll put my feet in like some Epsom salt or whatever and soak, so you can do it in a very affordable way too. I suggest that as well.

Maurice Cherry:
I like that. I first heard about you about a year or so ago from YouTube. I think I told you this before we started recording. I was randomly watching videos. I was letting the YouTube algorithm guide what I watch next and I ended up on this… I guess the best way to describe it would be maybe an anime discussion channel. Not necessarily review, but more like discussion. This anime discussion channel called Beyond The Bot. Can you talk about how you became a part of that?

Alexandria Batchelor:
Sure. Actually it goes back to my history at Frederator. We actually got laid off during the pandemic too. It happened to a bunch of different companies. I have no disclaimer. There’s no shade. I wouldn’t be the designer I am today without that company. I have much respect for Frederator, but we just couldn’t afford to keep all of us on after the pandemic hit. If it didn’t hit, we probably would still be there, to be honest with you. That crew wanted to keep a channel that we started at Frederator called, Get in the Robot. That had to pause production because we had lost our jobs, so we evolved it.

Maurice Cherry:
I watched Get in the Robot. I didn’t know that was the succession. Look at that.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Right. Here we go. Full circle.

Maurice Cherry:
Full circle.

Alexandria Batchelor:
I knew we’d get there. Yes. We just evolved it to the next stage with Beyond the Bot. We did it completely independent. We were crowd funded. We had a lot of really great opportunities to us. Then they were like, all right. Come on board, because we literally took the whole old team from Frederator and just started this because we just needed extra work and the fans were helping us pay and keep it alive. We got a couple hundred bucks a month working on it and we just kept the joy alive because that channel meant a lot to us, like Get in the Robot, and then Beyond the Bot was a new baby that helped us be able to do even more than we wanted to do without corporate constraints.

Maurice Cherry:
For people that want to check it out, you should really go to YouTube, search for it. If you’re into anime, I wouldn’t even say just modern anime, like My Hero Academia or whatever because you all have talked about stuff with Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z and stuff. If you’re an anime fan of any stripe, definitely check it out.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Yes. We do deep cuts. I think we did a Neon Evangelion Genesis video. We’ve done a Cardcaptor Sakura video, so even the ones you’ve never heard of, we were talking about that stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. What are the best types of clients for you to work with? I know you’ve worked with, you mentioned Frederator is a place that you’ve worked at before, and we’ll go through the rest of your work history, but you’ve worked for some publications and other publishing studios. What are the best types of clients for Foxee Design though?

Alexandria Batchelor:
I love working with YouTubers. YouTubers are where it’s at because everybody is getting on that. I’m even trying to get on YouTube. I would love to be able to be like, come follow me at Foxee. Content will come this year, I promise, but yes. I love the YouTube space. That’s kind of what Frederator did too. We were kind of cornering the mark. They were kind of the first people really doing what they’re doing on YouTube. A lot of these clients that have reached out to me are like, I’m inspired by Get in the Robot. I’m inspired by this. We’ve kind of set a domino effect of these new big YouTubers who focus on anime or cartoon industries or video games. Well, there were other people like [inaudible 00:30:17].

Alexandria Batchelor:
All those different names, but YouTube is the place to be. There’s kind of a lot of not so great branding on there, so I would like to save YouTubers. That’s also why VidCon is a great space for me to speak at. I can’t wait to connect with a lot of people who might need a new brand. Either a brand refresh, a whole rebrand, or just a brand in general, but I think YouTube is a great spot because there’s a lot of authentic personalities that… the algorithm serves up authenticities. They love when you are just yourself and you have a good niche and you have a good hook. If people have those good ideas and just need a good brand, then they’re a great fit for me because I can help visualize that and help build their brand on YouTube.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Those are my ideal clients, but I’ve worked with musicians. Back when I was living in Buffalo, my first set of clients were local rappers who would charge $50 album covers. I’m like, the come up is real. I’ve worked with musicians, but I don’t charge $50 for album covers anymore. I’m all about indie. I listen to indie music. I love like indie films, so anything independent and not discovered by the world, it just feels more special. You were one of the first few fans to get access. When you see someone blow up, you’re like, I was following them when Spotify didn’t even exist. It just feels like an achievement to be able to be in those spaces. I think it’s high honor, especially if you’re a designer in those spaces to work with those kind of artists who are doing their thing, because it’s solely based on passion. Of course they want to be famous and they want money, but they are 100% driven by passion, and passionate clients. Ideal clients are just anybody with a dream and a lot of passion, and money too.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. There’s a guy I design… not design. Sorry. I had him on the show… was it last year? I’ve been doing this for so long I really have to think, like when did I interview this person? It was last year. This guy, Chris Burnett, he started out doing some designs for Odd Future. He loved the music and lucked into becoming their creative director for a while, did work with Tyler and with Frank and them. I’m like, wow. To be able to come in at that level, whether it’s a musician or even with what you’re talking about with a YouTube channel or something like that, to get in on the ground floor of working with another passionate creative is amazing. That’s the best. It’s the best. It’s so good, because that energy is there. They’re doing their thing. You’re doing your thing. It’s so good. It’s so good.

Alexandria Batchelor:
So good. Glad you agree.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s switch gears here a little bit. I know we’ve talked a lot about your work, but let’s talk more about you. Where did you grow up?

Alexandria Batchelor:
Me, I grew up in the Hudson Valley in New York. A little town. I don’t know if you all know Fishkill. More like the Poughkeepsie area. I’m just throwing out general terms because this is so specific. It’s like the greater New York City area. I know some people are going to be like, what? Then other people are like, what the heck is that? It’s near Beacon. Beacon’s also really nice. I don’t know. Good. It’s the upstate New York area kind of, but not really. It’s very white, which is fine. That experience made me very comfortable being in predominantly white spaces, which actually helped me out in corporate and college, although my college program, our class, there was a lot of diversity there, which was surprising because it was Buffalo, but anyway. Yeah. I grew up in a predominantly white area in the suburbs and I lived there my… that’s not true. I was a baby in Mount Kisco, so I barely re remember that, but remembering the growing up experience, I grew up in that other area that I ranted about that half of the people listening will probably not know.

Maurice Cherry:
When did you know that creating art was something you wanted to do for a living?

Alexandria Batchelor:
Probably when I was five. I was always drawing, especially when we hung out with the family. I was always curled up on the couch just doodling. I still have my doodles. I have a great archive. I’m excited to go through it, like through recent revelations and deeper understanding of my work, but I have stuff from when I was really young still in my possession, but I always knew. Yeah. I’m an archivist, which is a fancy term for hoarder, but it’s still worth it. I think having your old work is really important because it says a lot about the interest that shaped you as an artist. I always knew, and I actually wanted to get into architecture briefly because I do love architecture, but I’m not good at math, or maybe I am but I just didn’t have good teachers. The pressure it is to be an architect, uh-uh (negative). I was like, I’m not going to build a house that could fall down and me get sued. I don’t think so. Then I found graphic design and that was a wrap.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you mentioned studying communication design. You started out at Dutchess Community College and then you attended University of Buffalo. What were those experiences like? Did they really prepare you once you got out there in the world as a working designer?

Alexandria Batchelor:
I would say yes and no. Dutchess, the community college, it was a great school for saving money. I just wanted to save. Maybe I was a little not like ready to run, like jump the nest. That’s my mom’s theory, even though I’m like, no mom. It’s probably not that, but she’s usually right with her suspicions, so maybe. I went for free because I graduated in like the top 3% of my high school, but it felt like the 13th grade and me and one of my friends were really bored and we were just like, we have to get out of here. We got to do really fun programs. I got to learn fencing while I was there and did a dance program. I want to get back into fencing. Fencing was super fun and you look really cool. I love swords, and video games, I am always the person with a sword. That’s my ideal weapon choice.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Just in case you guys were wondering, but I didn’t get to take really graphic design classes there. I took a 2D and 3D design class and a photography class, which is indirectly graphic design, but I had to wait the next year to take a graphic design course, but I was already onto the University at Buffalo. Those courses, they were okay. I thought the teacher I had was kind of pretentious. He was kind of a jerk and told me I couldn’t get into other schools, even though out of high school, I got into like RIT and I’m like, okay, well I’m here just to save money for my family so you’re wrong, but thanks.

Alexandria Batchelor:
That was a crappy experience with that guy where I’m like, maybe you’re just mad you’re teaching and you want to be out in the field. I don’t know. It was not really about me, but it was a crappy experience to still have. University of Buffalo was way better. I actually met two of my mentors that I’m still friends with today, John Jennings and Stacy Robinson. They together work as Black Kirby and they are leading the Afro-futurist… they’re just big names in the Afro-futurist space, especially in the comic book industry. They just kind of took me under their wing immediately when I met them, and that was the best thing I got out of UB especially. Then also all my friends. I still keep in contact with a lot of my classmates. We just kind of all stuck together. I had a friend reach out to me recently like, hey, we’ve always been fans of your work and we always thought your stuff was next level. I’m like, me? Fans from school? Oh my gosh. Thanks guys. That was so sweet.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. I had John on the show a couple years ago. I want to say 2017, 2018. Yeah. John is great. John, you mentioned his name.nd I think any Afro-futurist circle people are going to be like, oh yeah, Kindred. We know John. Yeah.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Yep. I’ve worked on most of those projects he’s worked on, so I actually helped color Kindred too.

Maurice Cherry:
Work. Nice.

Alexandria Batchelor:
I just think those things [inaudible 00:39:39]… because I’m a very humble person. I don’t go out reciting my resume, but I’m like yeah, I worked on that too.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Yeah. He’s dope. He’s very cool to work with. He was the one I mentioned earlier who taught me, don’t leave your network behind and bring them up with you. He is trying to master the subcontract and that’s who I got that from.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. I like that a lot. I like that. What was your early career like once you graduated? Is that when you started freelancing right alongside working?

Alexandria Batchelor:
Yes, because my first job out of college was at The Cheesecake Factory. I was a server. I couldn’t get a job for the life of me because I was in Buffalo and the industry there is very small. It’s a very blue collar town. No shade to Buffalo, but design was not flourishing there. I’m not really sure how it is. I don’t think it’s flourishing now. You’d have to work at like a doctor’s office or some kind of establishment to really be a designer there. I wanted to work at an agency or some kind of innovative company, but I just couldn’t get in. I was behind on internships because I didn’t take internships in school because I was kind of a lazy student. I’m going to be honest with you. I slept during class all the time, since high school. I was a sleeper. I don’t know. That was my bad.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Instead, I decided to go into the restaurant industry and I made really great tips. Then that also encouraged me to freelance. If I never served, then I would’ve never really focused on freelance work and Foxee Design may not be what it is today, because I didn’t want a gap in my resume. I was like, well, I’m going to have to really operate as a freelancer so I have this experience for when I’m ready to get into design. I did end up getting in two offers at internships. One at like a car dealership place, which I’m like, I’m not a big car person, so I’m like, it’s not a great fit. Then the other was at a newspaper, which is really cool. It was called the Buffalo News. It’s one of the biggest newspapers in the Western New York area. They had a medley of different clients that they would work with, so I thought that was a better fit than a car dealership. No shade.

Alexandria Batchelor:
It was a great offer that she… it was the first time someone took me out and wined and dined me to be like, are you going to choose our internship? I’m like, for an internship for real? No, but thank you. I mean, not wine. She took me out to coffee and got me a snack or whatever, but either way it was [inaudible 00:42:21] that she really wanted me to work there, but I chose the newspaper instead. I worked in their digital ad department because they were still focusing on penny savers, but my department was the smallest and newest and youngest. We worked on Facebook ads, like back in the day when you were only in the backend, working on Facebook. This was back when it was so new that you could actually discriminate through it because you could choose to serve your ads to specific races. It was very interesting.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah. I remember when Facebook had that. I think it was some sort of housing. I forget what it was, how someone found out. I think it was because they were making ads that would discriminate against people for housing or something like that, but I remember when could do that with the ad manager.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Yes, and I witnessed that happen. The sales rep didn’t allow it, but the woman was on speaker phone asking and I was just like, oh my goodness. I can’t believe she just asked if she could only serve this housing ad to white people. It was just the most baffling experience. I was like, wow, people really be doing that nowadays. Still to this day. That was a very interesting experience because it was very old school. I had to dress up for work. I had a retirement fund. I was like, what in the world? I had a retirement fund. That’s how old school this place was. That was my early career. It was very interesting. Very interesting.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, what was it like at Frederator? What did you learn from there? I know you said it kind of helped you now in terms of, I guess, process and such, but what was that experience like, because Frederator, and we talked about this a bit before recording, but it feels like it serves a very specific type of demographic that I don’t know if it encompasses black women, black people in general, but probably specifically not black women. What was your experience there like? What did you learn from there?

Alexandria Batchelor:
Well, it’s funny enough. I was one of the first three black people employed there. It was two black guys and me and one of them, he’s still there and just got promoted to president, so now he running the place, which is amazing.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. Look at that.

Alexandria Batchelor:
The first day he started, he said, I’m going to run this place. I said, okay. That was me meeting him. I was like, sure. Then he did. I’m like, of course he did. Of course he did. It’s being run by a black person now, but it was a wild ride because it was definitely predominantly white for decades, which, it makes sense. The higher ups were all white. That’s usually what happens, but that’s why I was really grateful to my boss who gave me a chance because I needed to get out of Buffalo. Through friend or something, I was able to connect and she’s like, I love your work. Then I got the job and I got to New York City lickity-split because I was ready to go. It was just amazing to have an opportunity to be in that space, because it’s so hard for us to get into design spaces for whatever reason. Well, the reason is because it’s systematically designed like that, but that’s a whole other conversation. We’re partially going to talk about it.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Yes, it was kind of hard being there, as any predominantly white space, but for whatever reason, there was more and more minorities that kept flooding in. At one point, there was half minorities and half white people and then there were less white people. I’m like, oh, they’re getting scared. They’re getting scared. I’m just kidding. It was so funny though. We would joke about it, but I think I was able to navigate the space where I let people feel comfortable talking about feeling uncomfortable. I would be able to talk to the one half Hispanic, half indigenous guy and the one Asian guy about in high school when they used to give us really racist names.

Alexandria Batchelor:
This was water cooler talk, and I don’t think anybody would ever have been able to have a safe water cooler space talk like that if it was only white people around. I didn’t really have an influence on company culture because I was the only designer there too, so I was so tired and busy, but the moments I had were really nice where I could just bond with people and we could talk straight with each other. I even talked to some of the white people about it because I’ve always had white friends who just let me talk. I’m like, if you just listen, I’m cool with you. You cool. You know what I mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Just let hear my voice. I’ve had really real talks with some white folk and those are the ones to stick with; the ones who aren’t going to tell you how you are supposed to feel or about your experience. I had a lot of those moments with some people there, which was nice, but design wise, it was YouTube. I got to figure out how to brand YouTube. I made extensive style guides. I’ll make you a 50 page brand guide that you will use and share with the video editors, because we had a huge freelance network too, some of whom I still keep in contact and using my own network now. Yeah. The people I met there were worth it. The skills I gained there working on YouTube was worth it. Yeah.

Alexandria Batchelor:
As a black woman, it wasn’t always great. I didn’t always feel like my voice was heard. I feel like I had a lot of good ideas and they would always be overshadowed, and then every time the white guy said exactly what I said two weeks ago, I’m like, of course. Of course now it’s a brilliant idea. I don’t want to think it’s always intentional, but you always feel a type of way where it’s like, is anybody listening to me, but still a good experience. Still a good experience. Again, it made me strong. I had interns be like, because we went through a lot, I was able to handle a really crazy work situation being only in a small team, and I’m like, I’m glad, because it hardens you when you are responsible for a lot. It was too much. I definitely needed like another designer, but I run my own business now.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. That’s interesting. It hardens you. That’s an interesting way to look at it.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Yeah. It’s not 100% great terminology, but that’s the strong black woman though. Unfortunately, that’s the trope that we do have to play often.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, this kind of leads into my next question, which is kind of about representation. I mentioned to you before and I’ve talked about this on the show too when I have black illustrators or fine artists, do you feel a need to quote unquote represent with the work that you do?

Alexandria Batchelor:
Not necessarily. Obviously I’m going to go for the black female representation or even just a lot of women I’ve always drawn, because I’m always going to go to the self first. It’s an easy subject. It’s like Frida Kahlo. She says, I know myself the best. That’s why my best subject. She’s one of my favorite artists. That’s why I quote her. That was not a direct quote, but anyway, and then also, because I’m bisexual, I also love how women look and it’s so easy to draw women. I always have to be like, oh crap. I haven’t drawn a man in months. I should probably do that. Men are cool too, but dang, I don’t know. [foreign language 00:50:26].

Alexandria Batchelor:
Anyway, I think it’s important specifically to represent the black women in my work because I pull a lot from my feelings, so I make a lot of sense of what I’m feeling and what I’m going through through my illustration work, and because black women have to be hardened by society, I think being vulnerable in that way helps be like hey, I’m still a person and I’m really sad or I’m really frustrated, or I feel like I’m falling apart, which is why I do a lot of disembodied, disconnected body parts. That’s kind of a style I’ve developed. I’ve always been doing that for I think maybe for 10 years.

Alexandria Batchelor:
That’s kind of been the art style where it’s like just the head or the bust or a hand or an arm. It just shows this disconnect and just feeling really outside of your body, because there’s so much going on, you don’t really know the feelings that are kind of taking over you and you feel like you’re just kind of fractured. I’m constantly breaking apart and putting myself back together to make sense of myself, to reassemble myself, like a stained glass mirror or a stained glass window. Sorry. That’s why I think when I try to represent the black woman it means more because we aren’t allowed to feel feelings like that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now, you do a lot of work with like Afro-futuristic [inaudible 00:52:02]. You mentioned John Jennings and you mentioned Kindred. You’ve got a new project that’s coming out in September with Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes. Can you talk to us a little bit about that?

Alexandria Batchelor:
Sure. We’re now allowed to talk about it. I was doing hold up because I was the colorist on the project, so I colored that whole bad boy. I had some help with my assistants. They were great, but yes. It’s funny because I’ve been coloring with John since I was in college and I’ve been getting promotions with him. This was the first time I was the lead colorist. Oftentimes I’m an assistant colorist, like on Kindred I was an assistant, but this time I got to be the senior level colorist and I got to see the inks that Marco Finnegan did. He’s incredible. He loves film noir. That’s why the shadows are really heavy. I always forget this name, the really intense contrast. It’s the [inaudible 00:53:01].

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, chiaroscuro. Something like that.

Alexandria Batchelor:
There you go, chiaroscuro. Yes. I never get that right, but one day I will, so thank you for the assist, but it has that really beautiful effect. It made my job easier because I was like, great. I got to do less shadows because he made this so exaggerated, but it was beautiful. His inks were just so strong on their own. Then I got to just take a look at them, understand the scene. I had to plot out the script to see how many days this story went over. It took a place over seven days. It’s about this little girl, she’s eight, which, fun fact, was based on Marco’s daughter, which is really cute. I love when, again, you’re using your reality as your subject and that’s what makes it realer, because the expressions, I’m just like, this feels heartfelt. I’m like, well, if it’s based on your daughter, I get it.

Alexandria Batchelor:
This little girl, she goes through a lot of death and she is kind of on her own after a while because her caretaker dies and then a monster is summoned to take care of her, called the keeper, but there has to be a sacrifice to keep it alive because it needs life to keep it alive. It’s a beautiful, horrific story. It was funny because I was listening to a talk with Tananarive Due and she was talking a lot of black history or black stories. They are horror. They’re horrific, so it’s technically a horror graphic novel. I think the demo is like around… it’s supposed to be young adult, but I think it can skew higher because it reads really well. I highly recommend, not just because I worked on it. It’s good. We nailed it.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. We’ll put a link to it in the show notes so people can pre-order it, because this will be out before this comes out. Side note, and only because I’m a nerd, you talked about [inaudible 00:55:06], and as soon as you said that, I was like, there’s a song by a British jazz singer named ZR McFarland called chiaroscuro, so if anybody’s listening and they want to check that out, it’s a pretty good song. She’s a good singer, but that’s a pretty good song.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Nice. I’m going to be jamming to that after this podcast.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. How do you get back your creativity when you’re feeling uninspired? Do you have any methods that you go through or anything like that?

Alexandria Batchelor:
I wish my brain could shut off that I could really be uninspired, but I understand it’s not necessarily not being inspired, but the creative blocks, I guess, where it’s like I know I want to do this, but sometimes I don’t know how. Sometimes I guess going back to traditional media, just doodling mindlessly helps, me going back to nature. I was just going on a walk with my mom and she was so annoyed because I literally was stopping and picking the flowers because I mentioned wild flowers in a blog post, so just taking root of my surroundings, even if it’s a fire hydrant and the colors on that because I’m a comic book. I work in comic books, so the background art, you think the things that you just pass by every day, we love. We put that in the background so we’re always studying the environment.

Alexandria Batchelor:
I think that’s been a really good way to, I guess, push through creative blocks where I’m just like, let me just go outside and collect some research and also get in the fresh air and I just want to hike more. I want to get back to nature because I think as we get back to nature and respect it more and I want to raise more plants, I want that to help revitalize me when I’m feeling like down with my creativity.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s funny. As you said that about creativity and even as you mentioned this about horror before. Have you been to Elba before? Is this going to be your first time visiting this summer?

Alexandria Batchelor:
No, I used to go when I was a kid, but it’s been a while. It’s maybe been over five years, so it’s been a while.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. One thing I remember about Elba is that it’s flooded a few times. At least in my lifetime, it’s with the river there, the town is flooded. I don’t know. As you started talking about that I was thinking, what if there’s some interesting southern gothic horror story of this town that’s been repeatedly flooded with people that can breathe underwater or something. I don’t know. My mind is wandering a little bit.

Alexandria Batchelor:
I would love that. No, please, because it’s funny. We have another piece of property and on it there’s this little mini house and they call it the doll house, and it’s near a lake, so I’m like, oh, you might be onto something. Okay. We might have to talk. Okay. We’ve got to talk about this little story over here. That sounds awesome.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you have a dream project or anything that you would love to do that you haven’t done yet?

Alexandria Batchelor:
I am literally working on a dream graphic novel, so yes. It’s pretty much I have very vivid dreams because I’m very stressed out a lot, I guess. Yeah. People would call them stress dreams, but I’ve started getting them again. They’ve been hilarious. One dream someone said that… like I was an X-man and someone was like, your sister’s a normie, and I pimp slapped them because I was like, she’s amazing. Don’t you ever talk about my sister like that. These are the kind of weird dreams I have. I’ve recorded at least 70 plus of these. I’ve started organizing into a story because there has been a lot of through lines between all of these dreams where it’s like, there’s this underlying plot or there’s this love interest, so it’s been very interesting mapping out all these symbols because I also love dream symbolism and dream interpretation.

Alexandria Batchelor:
I’ve used that as a resource for this story because it’s literally writing itself. I literally just have to go to bed and dream and that’s part of the writing and now it’s tightening it up, but then I’m paralleling it with my actual life to be like, what is going on to instigate these dreams? It’s biographical as well as a dream memoir, so I’m pulling from my journal entries at the same point in time and I’m creating this beautiful story that weaves in and out from reality and dream world and creating a narrative. This is going to be a hybrid piece where it’s graphic novel, but there’s going to be written pros and there’s going to be dream dictionary-esque aspects of it. This is a passion project. I’ve already finished the beginning and figured out the beginning and end. I’ve just been working on it diligently and hopefully I am going to get this published maybe next year or the following year, given how much time I’m able to work on it with everything else going on.

Maurice Cherry:
That sounds amazing. I’d love to read that once you have it. Once it’s out there and ready, I’d love to read that.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Absolutely. I will send you a link personally.

Maurice Cherry:
What is the best advice that you’ve ever been given regarding your craft?

Alexandria Batchelor:
I guess reserving my passion for my own projects, but I don’t think that’s actually the best advice because I’m so passionate about everything. I think just focusing more on myself though is important because I’ve always been worried about everyone else. Not that I’m going to drop the execution that I spend on projects, but I just need to be a little selfish nowadays and there’s nothing wrong with that because it’s a balance between selflessness and selfishness, but with my work, I want that dream to come true. I also want to have an exhibit. If I want all these dreams to come true, I’ve got to think about me, so I think that’s probably the best advice. Balance, letting myself get a little bored, re-centering myself and just letting go a little bit. That’s, I think, what I need to continue to grow and not stagnate or burn myself out or give up on this because I feel like I’m onto something.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work do you want to be doing?

Alexandria Batchelor:
I want to do more environmental design. I want to figure out how to help the environment more. I’m not really sure. I’m still very new about sustainability. I do it in different ways. I don’t have a car, so I don’t add to the carbon footprint. I take the public transportation. I recycle plastic bags and use them as garbage bags. There are little ways I do it, but I want to know how to build that into my business more. I also want to build interactive spaces for people to be able to enjoy separate… hopefully including sustainability. I want to get more into the museum exhibition space and just create a new world that you walk into whenever you go to a show or some kind of piece. I want to get out of the 2D space because I’m ready to graduate to 3D.

Maurice Cherry:
I like that. That’s good. Well, just to kind of wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more information about you, about your work and everything? Where can they find that online?

Alexandria Batchelor:
Sure. Well, I’m actually not as active as I need to be, but I will be more active on Instagram. That’s where I prefer to post work. I’m also on Twitter. It’s all Foxee Design, F-O-X-E-E Design. Then I’ll be on YouTube this year too, so those are my main platforms, and then you can find other links through there, but that’s all I’ll share for now.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Alexandria Batchelor, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I was familiar with your work, like I said, through YouTube and watching the videos and being like, this is so really well done. Who is behind this? Then of course now being able to talk to you and really get the passion and the fun and the energy and the vitality that you have behind your work. I’m excited to see what comes next, because it sounds like you are working across a lot of different spaces, doing a lot of just really cool stuff. I’m excited to see what your design future is going to hold, so thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Of course. Thank you so much for having me. I had a blast.

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Liz Montague

If you’ve been a regular reader of The New Yorker magazine, then you may already be familiar with this week’s guest, Liz Montague. (But if you’re not, then this conversation is a perfect introduction!) Liz is the first Black woman to have a cartoon featured in The New Yorker, and now she’s an author with her first book set to hit bookstores everywhere in the Fall. Everything’s coming up Liz!

Our conversation begin with a quick life update, and from there Liz talked about starting her comic “Liz at Large” as a college student. She also talked about how she began contributing to The New Yorker, and spoke about representation, how that’s reflected in her work, and her future books (plural!) that are on the way. Liz is proof that self-determination and hard work definitely pay off in the future!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right, so tell us who you are and what you do.

Liz Montague:
Hi, my name is Liz Montague, and I’m an author, illustrator and cartoonist.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, before we get more into learning about your work and about your journey as an author/illustrator/cartoonist, tell me, how has this year been going for you so far?

Liz Montague:
This has actually been a really good year. I mean, I think personally, it’s been really good year. I just got married. I just bought a house.

Maurice Cherry:
Congratulations.

Liz Montague:
Thank you. In a personal and material way, I guess it’s been super good. I mean, professionally it’s been really good, too. It’s been my first year working on book projects, which is very new for me, having come from the news media world. It was a very tumultuous past few years for everybody, and being on the news side of that was really exhausting. So I think this has been a really calm year, I’d say

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. I mean, I guess as calm as getting married and also moving into a new house. I’d imagine there’s probably been some stress around that, even just with the pandemic and everything.

Liz Montague:
I mean, it’s less stressful than covering the Trump presidency and 2020, COVID, all of that and trying to do it in record time with deadlines and everything. That was way more stressful than this, 100%.

Maurice Cherry:
Fair. I get that, totally. I totally do. What lessons did you learn over this past year? How would you say you’ve grown and improved?

Liz Montague:
I would say that I prioritized just my mental health. I feel like everyone’s saying that and that people say it so much, it starts to not mean anything. This is the first year I really started saying no to things. And that’s been kind of scary, but empowering, but also terrifying. I don’t know. I’m still learning.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I mean, I think that’s something that a lot of people are still learning, is to say no. I think the pandemic, of course, forced everyone to not just slow down, but in many cases to just stop.

Maurice Cherry:
And now that we’re at this point, though we’re not completely out of the pandemic, we’re at this point where restrictions are being lifted and rates have gone down to a point where we now have to try to come out of this period with some new normal. And what this time has forced everyone to do is just sort of reevaluate their commitment to work, their commitment to being busy and all that sort of stuff.

Liz Montague:
Yeah. And the pandemic and the pause that it caused happened at such a weird time in my life where I was 24, and I’d already been working at The New Yorker for two years and had been doing this work for about two years. And now where we’re at now, I’m 26 and I’m trying to really figure out, “Holy crap, what do I want to be when I grow up?” And I didn’t expect that question to scare me so much. It’s terrifying.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I mean, in your 20s, it is a scary thing. Especially, God, I’m thinking even now with everything that’s happening right now, it can be hard to think about, “What does a future look like?” I totally understand that.

Liz Montague:
Yeah. Thoughts around that right now is just like, “Okay, so I’m done, what do I want to keep doing? What new things do I want to do? What do I want to try? Is there still time to try things and be bad at them and new at them? Or am I at a point where I’m just supposed to try things and automatically be good, because that’s what people might expect?”

Maurice Cherry:
I’ll say with you being in your 20s, you totally have the time to try and fail at stuff. The 20s are for that, the 20s are your time to do that. Your 30s are sort of your time to sort of refine the process. And then hopefully by your 40s, you have it figured out. I’m saying this now because I just turned 41 recently. But you hope to have it figured out by that point.

Liz Montague:
[crosstalk 00:06:02].

Maurice Cherry:
But I can definitely say in hindsight, in your 20s, that’s the time to… I don’t want to say make those mistakes, but that’s the time where you can sort of have those errors and it doesn’t affect you long-term into the future, that kind of thing.

Liz Montague:
Everything feels like you’re one wrong move away from crumbling it all. But I know that that’s not actually true. Even if it feels like it’s true.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s go ahead and jump into Liz at Large. For those listening who for some reason have never heard of Liz at Large, can you give an introduction?

Liz Montague:
Liz at Large is a single panel cartoon series that I actually started my sophomore year of college. I was just trying to sort out my own mind to myself. And I just kind of started drawing these cartoons where my dog, my childhood dog, to me would give me advice.

Liz Montague:
And it just started as a super casual thing that I would post on Instagram. And my teammates, because I was on the track and field team in college, would be like, “Oh my God, I love that cartoon. Where’s the next one?” And they would really kind of just hold me accountable to just keep doing it. And I just really just stuck with it.

Liz Montague:
And then eventually after I was out of college, I was working as a graphic designer. I was already working for The New Yorker at the time. I was able to make it into a single panel cartoon into the Washington City Paper, which was a lot of fun.

Liz Montague:
But then it’s a different ballgame once you have deadlines and you need to worry about, “Well, how is this going to print?” And the kind of evergreen nature that it needed to be, because when the deadline is versus when it would print was two weeks apart. So it’s really kind of grown and shifted with me, which is kind of cool to have that to look back on and know where I was mentally when I made it. So yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I was going to ask, have there been new changes and things that you have introduced to the comic as your life has gone on?

Liz Montague:
Stylistically it’s changed a bit, where I think it got a little bit more fluid as time went on. When I look at the old versions of it and old cartoons of it, it feels very rigid, like I was really afraid of messing up. And then as time went on, I think it got a little bit looser. I think I was willing to kind of play around with environments more.

Liz Montague:
And then it changed even more once it was in the Washington City Paper, because then it’s like, “Okay, there’s a deadline. Okay, there’s an audience that’s actually going to see this.” As opposed to, the internet is kind of a black hole. You’re kind of, sort of thinking of an audience, but you’re not really thinking about, “Oh wow, someone’s going to tangibly hold this in their hand.” And that tangibility kind of made me a bit more nervous.

Liz Montague:
And then I think that the content of it kind of had to zoom out a lot more. Again, because there was that two week period versus when it was due and when it would print. For a daily, local newspaper, you don’t know what could be going on in the world at that time. And then what ended up going on in the world at that time was the Trump presidency and eventually COVID, and we were in the middle of Washington DC. So it was big news there.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I was going to say, I’m thinking during that time, I can imagine everything during that time was about voting, the presidency. Yeah, I could see in DC how that would be really… Well, I’m curious. Knowing that stuff was going on as you were doing the comic, did you sort of feel a need to speak to the times in that sort of way?

Liz Montague:
I mean, it was almost impossible for me to be super responsive in the way that I would be for a New Yorker daily cartoon or something just because I knew, like, “Okay, by the time that this is actually printed a week or two from now, there could be a whole new thing. There could be a whole new something else going on.” I actually ended up zooming in to my own life and making it hyperspecific to whatever I needed to hear, and then just hoping that it would work out for whenever it was printed.

Maurice Cherry:
I think that’s probably a really good strategy too, I mean, to just make it more focused on you. I mean, it is called Liz at Large, it’s not World at Large.

Liz Montague:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
So it makes sense to focus it on you and your life as opposed to trying to make it some sort of regular bulletin about what’s happening in the world.

Liz Montague:
[inaudible 00:10:09] sure, and there was already enough of that. And I was like, “You know what? This isn’t for that. So I’m going to just do it.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. To that ends, what was the feeling that you wanted to really capture with Liz at Large?

Liz Montague:
When I first started, it was really just for fun. Just to see what my friends would say, what I would say. But I think as I continued doing it, I realized that the power that emotional literacy could have of just taking a second to stop and think, and think about how you feel. Think about what you need to hear, what I needed to hear and taking the time to write that down, and that could actually have a profound effect on your life.

Liz Montague:
And I think that that kind of really became a big why for me, as far as just emotional literacy matters, the way that especially in… It’s always weird to speak on the Black community, but it’s like how in the Black community, emotional literacy talking about your feelings, addressing your feelings is kind of just an issue that really needs to be sorted out. And how it could just make everything so much better if we just stopped and felt and processed. And I don’t know, just the impact that it have. I hope that made sense.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. No, it made sense. I think if that’s something people can grasp from the comic, particularly from a single panel comic, I think that’s really powerful. To that end, there’s so much about Black people that’s reflected through not just the media, but through different types of media, through cartoons, through movies, et cetera. And so if you’re able to not only make it hyperspecific to your life, but then also try to make it unique to the quote/unquote “Black experience,” which is such a varied, vast concept, it’s impossible to do that.

Liz Montague:
I worked in nonprofit at the time. I was a graphic designer at a nonprofit when I lived in DC. And I remember I read research on the racial empathy gap. And about how there’s research on it, about how for whatever reason… I mean, not for whatever reason, we know what the reasons are. But white on audiences have a really hard time connecting with people of different skin tones, especially darker skin tones.

Liz Montague:
Because at the time I was working for a nonprofit that was mainly geared toward and focused on brown people, Middle Eastern people. So it was just wild to realize that this is empirically researched information and that the impact of it is everywhere where it is. Well, why are there so many white leads in these cartoon shows? Why are there so many white leads in these regular movies and books, et cetera? And the idea that it’s harder for white audiences to connect with, I don’t know, different skin tones, different genders.

Liz Montague:
I mean, I think that’s more on the forefront now with people talking about the recent movie Turning Red and about how people felt like they couldn’t… Not people. There was one white man in particular who did an interview who said that he couldn’t connect with it. And it was just, “I can’t connect with this, da, da, da, da, da.”

Liz Montague:
And it was because it was about a girl going through puberty who didn’t look like him. And it’s like, “Okay, but we all watched A Bug’s Life and Ratatouille, and I’m not a rat and I was able to connect with Ratatouille, but.” I just totally went on a whole tangent there, I’m sorry.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. No, I’m glad you mentioned the Turning Red thing, because I was thinking about that as you were saying that, that sort of empathy gap. Because as people of color, we are forced to kind of make that gap when we see so much media that doesn’t involve us.

Maurice Cherry:
And so when you have this one thing, particularly an animated thing geared towards children and then some grown-ass white man is like, “Well, this doesn’t represent me.” Well, it probably doesn’t because it’s not geared towards you. It’s not about you. But look how many other things out there in the world are geared towards you and about you. Do you know what I mean? It’s so weird.

Liz Montague:
Yeah. Yep. It’s the weirdest thing, but there’s literal evidence on it. And how much can a single panel, or even whatever other cartoons in the world, how much impact can they really have? I don’t know. But I was like, “Maybe if I put these universal feelings with a darker-skinned Black girl, maybe this could help someone close that gap.” Not that it’s Black people’s job to teach anybody how to feel, but I think that that was part of the intent.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Walk me a bit through the process of creating the comic. You mentioned having to sort of have it in by these specific deadlines. Does that mean that you sort of batch a bunch of comics together? How does that work?

Liz Montague:
Oh my God. It was the jankiest process ever. I was still figuring things out and working my full-time graphic design job and a million other things. And it was due every Thursday, and it would print two Thursdays after it was due. And I would have to get done the… There would have to be the social media size and then the regular size for when it would print.

Liz Montague:
And I would only submit one each week and I would sit there for, I kid you not, hours and stare at the wall and be like, “Oh my God, I have no idea what to say right now, and I have a deadline, and the editor’s texting me.” It was a mess. It was a hot mess really, but we made it through.

Maurice Cherry:
And you said that there was also kind of the added thing of seeing it in the paper. I’m sure at that point, you’re gaining a whole new audience outside of your friends on Instagram. How did people react to it when they saw this in the paper? Did you get a boost in clients or anything? How did that happen? What happened?

Liz Montague:
Honestly, I don’t really know. I guess I got wider reach, for sure. I think that tangible media, things that you can hold, just ends up in different people’s hands in a way that… There’s a lot of digital noise and people scroll and don’t always really stop and look. And I think that it being something tangible in people’s hands enabled them to stop and look more.

Liz Montague:
But I do know that after, once it was in the Washington City Paper, I ended up getting reached out to by a random blog. And they were like, “Oh, can we interview you or whatever?” And I was like, “Yeah, sure.” And then I did that interview, and then through that, that’s how the editor from Random House founded me, and that’s how I got my first book deal. So you never know what can lead to what. So the two things are probably distantly connected.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s kind of switch gears here a little bit. I want to kind of dig a bit more into your origin story. Now you mentioned living in DC, is that where you’re from originally?

Liz Montague:
No, I’m from South Jersey.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. All right. So being from South Jersey and growing up there, were you exposed to a lot of drawing and art as a kid?

Liz Montague:
I mean, yeah, I think I was. I think I have a very artsy family. Both my parents went to Pratt. My mom’s an architect, my dad’s an engineer. So I have two older sisters and we were all very exposed to that. And it was super encouraged. And my parents had a lot of friends who had been artists or were artists.

Liz Montague:
But it was always, “Oh yeah, Charlie can be artist, his parents just gave him a brownstone.” It was very clear who could be kind of what you think about when you think of a traditional quote/unquote “studio artist.” And that there was definitely a wealth gap in between that, versus who needed to have a more desk job type artist thing. Architecture, engineering, graphic design, which is what I ended up going into. You know what I mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So I guess knowing that growing up, you were drawing and kind of having this interest in it… And you said both of your parents went to Pratt, but you didn’t go to Pratt. You went to the University of Richmond.

Liz Montague:
Yeah. Well, so my mom’s from the south side of Chicago, my dad’s from Brooklyn and he grew up in the projects. So they didn’t have traditional four-year college experiences. My dad went to junior college first and then went to Pratt on a basketball scholarship. My mom started out at Hampton and then eventually made her way to New York and finished her degree over a decade.

Liz Montague:
So for me, they were just kind of like, “Well, you run track and your older sister ran track and she got a scholarship, so you’re going to get a scholarship too.” And I was just kind of like, “Okay.” And University of Richmond just happened to be where I got my athletic scholarship. And that’s why I went there. I had fun.

Maurice Cherry:
No, I was going to say, there’s actually a pretty strong Hampton University to pipeline.

Liz Montague:
There is?

Maurice Cherry:
I want to say I probably had about… I know I’ve had at least three guests on the show where that’s been the case. Yeah, it’s a pretty strong pipeline. I don’t know if a lot of people know that, that it’s from HBCU to design school in that way. Tell me about your time at University of Richmond. How was that experience?

Liz Montague:
I flipped around majors a lot. I went into college knowing that I liked to draw, but not really… Even with parents who went to Pratt and were in the arts, I had no intention whatsoever of even studying art, minoring it, anything. I was like, “I’m going to get a business degree.”

Liz Montague:
And that totally didn’t work out. I hated it so much. I tried to do computer science, anthropology, English, and none of it worked. And then it was towards the end of my sophomore year and my academic advisor was like, “Listen, you need to pick a major or you might not graduate on time.” And my scholarship was for four years and I was determined to graduate in four years. And then I was like, “Okay, just put down studio art.” And that’s how it happened. I know it’s not the best story, but it’s the truth, so.

Maurice Cherry:
How was the program there?

Liz Montague:
It was really intimate, which I think I needed, especially at that time. There were more faculty than students in the major. It’s a very, very small school. I think University of Richmond has 3000 students, which was smaller than my high school. I went to a really huge rural New Jersey high school that had thousands of kids.

Liz Montague:
And our senior year, my senior year, there were five majors, we were all women, and we had six professors. So we were outnumbered by our professors. It just allowed you to have a really one-on-one experience. There was room to just try things and figure things out, and we were given a lot of freedom, which I really appreciated. It helped to really just kind of be self-motivated and not rely on, “Okay, well here’s a syllabus. Do this, this and this.” You’re really able to kind of carve your own path, if that makes sense.

Maurice Cherry:
No, it does. I was going to say, I imagine that’s really super empowering. To have not only that kind of intimate class kind of setting and makeup, but then your being able to kind of work closer with your professors, with people like that. Because I’ve had folks on the show before that have went to larger schools or went to art schools and stuff, and that kind of one-to-one kind of relationship is tough to get.

Liz Montague:
Yeah. And I knew that it was definitely like I kind of lucked out.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, something pretty cool happened. Now you’ve kind of alluded to it a bit earlier in the interview, but something pretty cool happened around your senior year with The New Yorker magazine. Tell me about that.

Liz Montague:
Yeah. I was a super brand new 22, felt very old and mature. I had just heard back a graphic design job, was super pumped, I was like, “I’m moving to DC. I’m about to be such a grownup.” And then was at the office for something, I don’t even know what, and was supposed to be working, fully supposed to be not on my phone, but I was.

Liz Montague:
And I was on Instagram, scrolling through, and on my explore page or something, The New Yorker cartoons page came up and I was just scrolling through it. And I was like, “Oh, wow. All of these cartoons are white. Every single character in these are white, it’s all kind of the same perspective over and over again. I wonder if they know?”

Liz Montague:
At the time, my headspace was in brand new, about to start at a nonprofit job in DC where I’ve just been trained on all of these unknown biases that people have and corporate structures and yada, yada, yada. So in my mind I was like, “Oh, they just must not know that they’re using all white characters. Let me just tell them, they have no idea.” And so I just hit the email button and was like, “Hey guys, don’t know if you’re aware, but all of your cartoons are white. You guys should do something about that. Best of luck.”

Liz Montague:
And that was really it. And I did not expect to hear anything back. And then I got an email back and they were like, “Oh…” It was Emma Allen, who’s the editor there. She was like, “Oh yeah, we’re aware, da, da, da, da. Is there anyone that you would recommend?” And I was like, “Oh yeah, me. Yeah, I draw cartoons.” Literally, I had no idea what I was getting myself into, at all.

Maurice Cherry:
But I mean, you shot, though.

Liz Montague:
I saw an opportunity and I took it. I saw a window and I ran through that thing.

Maurice Cherry:
Look, one of my favorite sayings is fortune favors the bold. And I mean, you saw an opportunity, you went for it. And so after you did that, after you pitched yourself and said that, did they reach out to you and say, “Let’s see what you got?” What happened?

Liz Montague:
Basically. It was like, “Okay, well send us something.” And then I think I that night was trying to cobble together some sketches. And it was 50 sketches before I got one yes. Once I got one, I was like, “Okay, so this is what they’re looking for.” And then you get two, and then three, and then four. And then you’re able to start contributing regularly.

Liz Montague:
But there was definitely a very steep learning curve. Because I remember when I first told my dad, “Oh, I’m going to have a cartoon in The New Yorker.” He was like, “What’s The New Yorker?” That was not-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh.

Liz Montague:
And he’s from New York, but he’s not from that New York. So it’s just like my frame of reference for The New Yorker was their Instagram account. I had no frame of reference for a physical magazine for The New Yorker brand.

Liz Montague:
But I think that was kind of a really big advantage, to come from the outside. Because I think that a common problem that they have, or a common thing that happens with people who submit is that they’re trying to emulate The New Yorker voice. But I had no idea that there was a New Yorker voice, so.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, and also when I think… I mean I’m in Atlanta, so I don’t know… I mean, I know of The New Yorker, but when I think of that magazine just in my mind’s eye, I’m thinking it’s a maybe more upper middle class audience, white audience that mostly would be paying attention to or reading The New Yorker.

Maurice Cherry:
But then it’s also online and I look at a ton of stuff from The New Yorker online, so. Even in it’s just design stylings, I feel like that’s who it’s trying to sort of cater itself towards. So when you said you have to try to find what that voice was, was it about trying to tailor yourself to that audience, or more so tailoring yourself to what just the editor wanted at The New Yorker?

Liz Montague:
I mean, I think probably a little of both, because this was my first professional art job ever. Kind of straight into the fire, so to speak, where I didn’t have any concept of, “Oh, this is the deadline and if it’s not in by the deadline, it’s not going to print.” And of, “Oh, these are finals and you’re going to keep doing it until it’s right.”

Liz Montague:
And of atmosphere and what skin tones can print and what skin tones can’t print. And will it smudge into the black lines so then you won’t be able to read facial expressions?There’s such a learning curve there in general, and then on top of that… And I talked really openly with my editor, Emma, about that at the time, about, “Well, Black humor isn’t going to be funny to people who read The New Yorkers.”

Liz Montague:
And I remember I said that to her point blank, via email. I talked to her about that, where it was just, what I might find culturally funny might not be able to be in this magazine because of the voice and the audience that you’re targeting. So where does that leave me if what, because of cultural things, because of societal things, I find funny but can’t be published here, what am I… Am I supposed to, I don’t know, put myself in the shoes of if I were middle class and white?” So that was a huge barrier, but I figured it out. I mean, I got some zingers in there. I definitely got some zingers in there.

Maurice Cherry:
I would imagine once people discovered that you were the first Black woman cartoonist in The New Yorker, that probably also expanded who read The New Yorker.

Liz Montague:
I mean, I would get DMs like that where it’s like, “Oh, I read The New Yorker now because of you.” And I’m like, “Oh God, $12 a magazine? Please, spare yourself.” But I mean, I don’t know. It’s such a weird, hard conversation to have, because it’s-

Maurice Cherry:
I’m curious, let’s dig into that a little bit. What makes it weird?

Liz Montague:
I think because it can be hard for institutions to own that conversation, and then it’s kind of deflected into, “Oh, well maybe there was somebody else, and what about this? And well, we don’t really know people’s racial identity and what…”

Liz Montague:
And then it’s interesting how with these conversations about first and what’s overdue, whatever, it’s like a lot of times the conversation ends up on the individuals rather than the institutions where it’s like, “So why didn’t you guys hire anybody in the last 100 years?” You know? And it’s like, “Am I at 22,” or at the time at 22, “equipped to have that conversation? Equipped to really navigate the waters of this and navigate other people’s identities, navigate the commodification of my own identity? Am I really?”

Liz Montague:
It’s a minefield, and I think that especially right now, where we’re at as a society, it’s just whatever you share is then up for sale and you have to be willing to be not just branded, but then speak on behalf of that entire community, and then have it challenged.

Liz Montague:
And then especially for The New Yorker audience, which was used to a very specific kind of perspective and thing, and then to have me not offer that very specific thing, people didn’t take it very well sometimes. I got some wild emails. Yeah, I think that there’s one cartoon I have where it’s the girl’s hair bit off someone’s hand. They don’t sell it on the Condé Nast store. It’s the only cartoon of mine that they don’t sell on the Condé Nast store.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh.

Liz Montague:
It’s just weird. Did I answer that well?

Maurice Cherry:
No, I think you did. Because as you sort of said that, what sort of becomes apparent to me and hopefully to the listener is there’s this layer of activism that ends up getting added to your work that you not only didn’t ask for or volunteer for, but you didn’t include in the original work.

Liz Montague:
Yeah. [crosstalk 00:29:05].

Maurice Cherry:
No, but I mean your cartoons, like you said, they’re about kind of slice of life sorts of things. You didn’t intend to layer some deep social message or anything into it, but that’s how people are perceiving it based on your identity.

Liz Montague:
Yeah. I don’t know. It’s like everybody who’s from a marginalized group is forced into the role of activist. And it’s like, especially having lived in DC, I’m first generation suburban, nobody else in my family grew up in the suburbs. The people are fighting a good fight, but that’s such a thing to just put on somebody, you know what I mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Liz Montague:
It’s just a hard thing to navigate because then it’s like you don’t get a rest ever. And I think that that’s kind of what I realized, especially towards the end of 2020, with everything going on with the police and with George Floyd and everything, where I was just like, “Man, I’m tired.” I was just so tired and drained.

Liz Montague:
And that was the last cartoon I did for The New Yorker where it was, I think the text was, “Oh, my white friends think racism is new.” Or something like that. It just makes you tired.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I know the feeling. I totally know that feeling. Prior to doing this podcast, when I was… when did I start the Black Weblog Awards? I think it was 24? 23 or 24. I started this event online called the Black Weblog Awards. And this was back in 2004 or 2005, really kind of pre-social media. Definitely pre-Twitter, but pre-social media. Facebook, I think, was just starting to transition out of being only for college students and opening it up to everyone in the world, essentially.

Maurice Cherry:
And what I wanted to do, because I was an active blogger at the time myself, what I wanted to do was make this event that would celebrate Black bloggers that I knew of that were doing great things. Because I saw that there were other blog awards out there. There were two that were both called The Weblog Awards, although one kind of shortened their name to The Bloggies or whatever.

Maurice Cherry:
And what I saw with the winners is like, “Well, all the winners are white.” And I know that there’s people of color that are out here blogging, particularly Black people. And what got me was one of the awards had a category that was Best African or Middle Eastern Blog, and all of the nominees were white and the winner was white. And I’m like, “You mean to tell me out of the entire huge continent of Africa and the probably similarly huge section of the Middle East, only white people? I find that’s very hard to believe.”

Maurice Cherry:
And so I started the Black Weblog Awards sort of in opposition, but also to celebrate the community that I knew about that I was kind of a part of. And when I sort of talked about that layer of activism that gets added onto there, just calling it the Black Weblog Awards invited so much criticism and unnecessary hate. And this is, again, this is pre-Obama. So this is this at a time in the world, it’s post-9/11, pre-Obama, where Black and brown people really not really favored that well in terms of the media and such.

Maurice Cherry:
But I did that for seven years, ended up selling it to a friend of mine. And I mean, even as the years went on with it, it was amazing how the reception to the event changed as society changed. So around 2007, 2008, Obama’s running for president and such. Comments I kept getting back about the Black Weblog Awards is, “Well, I mean, we’re post-racial now. Why does it have to be the Black Weblog Awards? Why can’t it just be the Weblog Awards?” And I’m like, “Well, two of those already exist. And I’m only doing this for Black people. So it is the Black Weblog Awards.”

Maurice Cherry:
But as society changed and the way that people perceived the work that I did changed, I even experienced that with Revision Path when in 2015, I did a talk at South by Southwest in Austin called Where Are the Black Designers? And I was about two years into doing Revision Path, managed to land at South by Southwest with a speaker proposal, did a speech to a room of maybe about… the room sat close to 500 people. There may have been 15 or 20 people in there.

Liz Montague:
Whoa. Intimidating.

Maurice Cherry:
Nobody was there. People were charging their phones, people were asleep in the back, nobody was really paying attention, and I gave this talk. And there were a handful of folks there, “Good job,” that sort of thing.

Maurice Cherry:
When I tell you that presentation didn’t pick up traction until five years later during the summer of unrest, when we heard about what happened with George Floyd and the Minneapolis Police Department, then it started to pick up steam. And people were like, “Oh, well this is so great. This is so wonderful. We’re trying to center Black voices. We want to know about this presentation.”

Maurice Cherry:
And in my mind, I’m like, “This is five years old, but the way that people are perceiving it now has changed because the culture has changed.” Like I said, there is this layer of activism that gets added to the work that I didn’t necessarily put it there, but you’re attaching it onto it based on your societal values or what’s happening in the world and how you think you should feel about it because it exists.

Liz Montague:
You just said a word. You just said a word.

Maurice Cherry:
But it’s a lot. And I mean, I can imagine. I mean, I was going to ask this question a little bit later, but that whole thing about representation, we’ve seen this influx of Black artistic talent with cartoons and animation and fine art and such.

Maurice Cherry:
One, you see all these new Black shows and stuff. A lot of those Black shows also have fine art and they’re from Black fine artists. Now you never hear about those artists, that’s a whole other conversation. But it’s so interesting how all of these things and all these shows and movies and such, and they’re in these different genres, but they all kind of have this layer/burden of having to represent for the community. Do you feel like you have to do that through your work now?

Liz Montague:
When I first started, I definitely did. I definitely felt a lot of pressure. I mean, especially based on where I’m from. So I’m from rural South Jersey. There was a soybean farm behind my childhood house. So very, very rural, very white.

Liz Montague:
And I just remember what we would be told as the few Black people in town was, “Every white person’s opinion of a Black person is going to be formed based on how you act. So you better act right. Or else you’re damning every other Black person they’re going to meet.”

Liz Montague:
And so that was kind of the framework that I had. And I think that I just kept feeling like, “I don’t want to mess this up for anybody else.” In the cartooning world, at The New Yorker, I don’t know, in the spaces that I felt that I was at, I just didn’t want to mess it up for anyone else. So I wanted to make sure that I was saying yes to everything and super amenable and like, “Oh, no worries, it’s fine. It’s okay if you don’t have the budget for it.” Just very overly accommodating.

Liz Montague:
And then I just got sick of it and was just like, “You know what? This isn’t sustainable. It’s just not sustainable.” But I think that also as I got older, just maturity-wise, I just realized the only person I can control is me. I can’t control how I’m interpreted. I can’t control another person’s actions to a fictional future person who may or may not exist. I need to just live as a single human being in this moment and not as every possible iteration of Black person that this person could interact with. I think I was doing that for a while.

Maurice Cherry:
Well I mean also, I think whenever you’re doing work that has such a large kind of public footprint, and I feel like actors probably do this a lot. You learn eventually what strategies you have to kind of, I guess cope is the best way to put it. But you don’t read the comments, you don’t read the reviews, you just do the work and just keep moving on.

Liz Montague:
I don’t know. I think I didn’t want to not be what everyone expected me to be and then miss out on opportunities, too. Because especially early 2020 when the pandemic was starting, it was like all this stuff came out of nowhere.

Liz Montague:
And I felt really conflicted about it because I was like, “God, am I [inaudible 00:38:00] off of all of this terrible stuff happening to the Black community? Am I benefiting off of the George Floyd shootings? All of the shootings that happen to Black people that aren’t talked about, and just this collective white guilt that’s happening right now?”

Liz Montague:
Where all of a sudden, I’m getting to do stuff for Food Network and the Obama Foundation. I worked on a Biden presidential commercial. I did a Google Doodle. I don’t know. My mom was just kind of like, “Oh, just take it. Just take it and just be happy.” And I was like, “You don’t understand. What are the ethics behind this?”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, your mom’s right, just take it.

Liz Montague:
[crosstalk 00:38:40] take it.

Maurice Cherry:
If the opportunity comes, just take it. I mean, there are a lot of us that did have a bit of a come up during that time. And I think that’s kind of a bit of the secret shame around it. I guess you could call it shame, I don’t know.

Maurice Cherry:
But the fact that now people are paying attention to the work that we do, but that it had to come at a time of such civil unrest, at the death of an innocent person. That it had to come to that in order for us to be recognized. And there are some people I’ve talked to about it and they’ve said to me, “Is this what it’s like for white people all the time?”

Liz Montague:
Is it?

Maurice Cherry:
And I’m like, “I don’t know. Is it? I mean, that would be interesting if that’s the case. But it is this sort of weird tension, like you’re being recognized because… You know the hard work that you’ve done to get to this point. And yes, you’re being recognized, but the fact that you’re being recognized because of all this injustice and inequity and other things that are happening in the world, it’s sort of…

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t know. It is a very weird feeling, but at the end of the day, take the work. Take the work, get the check. There’s no ethical consumption under capitalism, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Take the work. So your mom’s right in that aspect, absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
But I get where you’re coming from too, because I had an influx of speaking gigs and a whole bunch of stuff like that. Because I got fired from my job, they cut my whole department right before the summer of 2020. And so for all of this to happen, it’s like, “Oh, well at least I’ll be able to eat for a few more months.”

Maurice Cherry:
But it does sort of come with this psychic weight of, “Yeah, but all this other horrible stuff in the world had to happen. And it was during a global pandemic, but I’ll take it.” One thing Black folks are going to do, it’s make a way out of no way, so. Just take it.

Liz Montague:
Yeah, that’s for sure. That’s for sure.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So now you’re a full-time cartoonist, you mentioned working at this nonprofit for a while after you graduated. What do your work days look like now?

Liz Montague:
Right now I just finished my first book, my graphic novel, Maybe An Artist. It’s available for pre-order. That’s with Penguin Random House. So that’s just finished, and that was taking up literally all of my time up until a month ago, maybe. And now I’m working on a picture book, also for Random House. And I also have a three book deal with Scholastic for a three book Y-series.

Liz Montague:
So my days are pretty much split between those two projects, with the series grouped together. I’m one of those crazy people who wake up really early and run. I don’t know, I like being out in the sun. So my days just start with me waking up, going for a run, I usually do some kind of HIIT class or something. My husband makes me a coffee, I try not to check my phone or my email because if I do, I’ll get sucked in and then I’ll just be on my phone and suddenly it’s three o’clock.

Liz Montague:
I actually try to get done all… I do a to-do list of everything that needs to get done. Look at chapter one, or finish sketches, the ending or beginning of whatever. So I’ll do those early in the morning when I can rely on my focus, because as soon as it’s lunchtime, all bets are off. I pretty much do that until lunch, and then in the late afternoon do emails, and then whatever else is left on the to-do list. That’s pretty much my day. I usually have the same day every day.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. Are you still doing the Liz at Large comic?

Liz Montague:
I haven’t posted any of them. I still do them sometimes for myself. I don’t know, the cartooning world, there’s just so much going on. And it’s very rare that I even watch the news these days to even… I think that the thing with cartooning, or at least for me back when I was doing it more than I am now, it’s very reactive.

Liz Montague:
And it’s usually very reactive to news specifically, where it’s like I’m looking at the news, I’m looking at social events, I’m looking at what’s going on and then I’m reacting to it. But these days, it’s like I don’t really give my myself things to react to anymore. Because I feel like I learned the hard way in 2020 and early 2021 that there can be a breaking point to that.

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm. How do you kind of keep motivated and inspired with the work that you’re doing?

Liz Montague:
I think that right now, I kind of just want to see, “Okay, let’s see how far I could go.” That’s definitely part of it, of just like, “Okay, let’s see when the wheels fall off. How long can I really pull this off for?” That’s definitely a part of it.

Liz Montague:
And the other part of it, I think, does go back to even why I started Liz at Large. This idea of emotional literacy and of just seeing Black characters and of providing Black characters in general, and being able to provide Black characters as a Black woman. Because you wouldn’t believe, I mean, I’m sure you would believe the amount of Black characters and characters of color in general that are not made by people of color.

Liz Montague:
And to be able to… I mean, authentic is such a weird word. But to be able to provide a… to be able to showcase an experience that I’ve actually lived, I think, is something really powerful. And something that I’m really proud to be able to do. But I don’t know, it’s also that whole idea of, “If not me, who?” That’s a trap, that’s a total trap. So I think my why is day to day. It’s day to day.

Maurice Cherry:
Look, at this stage, I think we’re all kind of taking it day by day. So I completely understand that.

Liz Montague:
I wish I had some big, “Well, you know…” A reason or something. But I think I’m just figuring this out.

Maurice Cherry:
And at this stage of your life, that’s the time to do it. That’s the time to just try to figure it out, you know? I know that you and I have sort of talked about this prior to the interview about what you want sort of people to take away from it. But don’t be so hard on yourself. Take it day by day, as things happen.

Maurice Cherry:
I think certainly, with what you’ve just described already, you are at a great place in life right now. Great. Great. So take it day by day-

Liz Montague:
I can appreciate that.

Maurice Cherry:
… and kind of just go through the days and your feelings and work as it happens. Because I’m telling you, I’m telling you, there’s a lot of people at your age that would love to have that kind of just opportunity and work lined up. I mean, a three book deal? A three book deal. That’s major. That’s major.

Liz Montague:
No. It’s just like-

Maurice Cherry:
A three book deal, on top of a book you’re already working on, on top of a book that’s about to come out. Come on now.

Liz Montague:
It’s so weird though, because I feel like day to day is also so solitary. I don’t have coworkers, I don’t know people. I mean, it’s hard because the only people… So I’m comparing. You shouldn’t be comparing yourself to, you shouldn’t be, but everybody does it. And it’s like you end up comparing yourself to your wildest ideals and your biggest insecurities of just like, “Well, you should be doing more. Well, what about this? Well, what about Instagram?”

Liz Montague:
And then that’s a whole other can of worms, because it’s like the social presence, the social media presence part of it. Because I feel like there’s a huge pressure, especially nowadays, to have this very big social media presence to… I don’t know, exist on all platforms, be approachable at all times, be connecting at all times.

Liz Montague:
And I remember I texted my agent Wendy and was like, “Listen, man. I can’t do TikTok. I can’t do it, please.” Yeah. And she was like, “Of course not. You don’t have to.” But it’s crazy though, because these days in meetings and for negotiations, they’ll ask you your followers. And it’s just like, “What? What?” I don’t know. It’s to think about the longevity, the sustainability of this, of such a fast paced world where we’re consuming so much so quickly, you know?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). I’ll tell you though, the way to not burn out from that is to focus on the audience and the community that you have. The thing with a lot of social media, and I know this from one, just from being old and being around on the internet forever.

Maurice Cherry:
But there’s so much about modern social media that is about trying to attract an audience that you don’t have. And I think what can end up happening with that is you end up exhausting all of these efforts and jumping through all these hoops to try to impress people that don’t know you, don’t know your work, et cetera.

Maurice Cherry:
The reality is if the work is good, the people that already support you will kind of do some of that legwork for you. They’ll tell people, they’ll tell friends, they’ll mention you in rooms that you’re not in. So you don’t have to be on all the things all the time. I think probably for a visual media or a visual artist like you are, being an illustrator and a cartoonist, being on Instagram does make sense because it is a visual medium. TikTok is the Wild Wild West.

Liz Montague:
It really is. It really is.

Maurice Cherry:
And I mean, aside from just the ever-changing and shifting algorithm of the platform, it’s also super toxic. And I know art, I’ve seen artists on TikTok that I’ve had on the show. So I know that it is helpful to kind of get the word out to people. But then it also exposes you to so many just idiots that don’t get it. And they spend their free time trying to instill the seeds of doubt into you so you don’t do the work that people love you for. You know what I mean?

Liz Montague:
Yep.

Maurice Cherry:
So you don’t have to be on all the things, because you spread yourself too thin. Focus on the audience that you have and on the platforms that you feel you can at least control and have some semblance of yourself on there, where you don’t have to change who you are or what you do to kind of get your work out there.

Liz Montague:
So that’s been the hardest part lately, is just being like, “Okay, who I am right now, right this moment, not me 10 years from now or me three years ago, who I am right now is capable of doing this work and is enough.” I feel like everyone’s kind of dealing with that. I feel like now we’re in a stable enough place as a country and as… well, I mean as stable as America ever is, for people to reflect on, “In the thick of it for two years, and what happened to me during those two years? What did I lose? What did I gain? Am I proud of what came out on the other side of it?”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Liz Montague:
I think a lot of people are dealing with that. I think I’m especially dealing with that as just, I don’t know, especially… 30 is looking pretty close coming from this side of 25. 30’s looking pretty close. And I’m just like, “Jesus,” trying to figure it out. We don’t need to figure it all out, that’s not real, social media and everything else, but.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean give yourself some grace, certainly. And realize that, I mean, like I said before, where you’re at right now at your age is great. But I mean, and whatever way you feel is I think the best way that doesn’t take too much out of your regular process. But even just documenting where you’re at in some way I think is helpful for other people so they know that… Again, like you said, we’re all kind of figuring it out. But I think particularly for Black creatives, there’s this strong propaganda to hustle hard and “They sleep, we grind.”

Liz Montague:
Oh, for sure. For sure.

Maurice Cherry:
And that is not sustainable at all. I get these naps in everyday. Please believe it.

Liz Montague:
Exactly. [crosstalk 00:50:53], oh my gosh.

Maurice Cherry:
I work smart, but I’m sleeping over here, a lot. So once you sort of find what that balance is, I think even just documenting it… Even if it’s just for yourself, not even for the public. But just so you know, “This is how I felt as I was going through this time in life, as I was trying to figure these things out,” I think is super helpful.

Liz Montague:
I mean I feel even just talking about as Black creatives or Black artists or whatever, what’s attainable, I didn’t really think that it was possible to be your own boss for real. Or have stability. Does that make sense? Where it’s like-

Maurice Cherry:
No, that makes sense.

Liz Montague:
And I think that it shocked me more than anyone, that, “Holy crap, I’m a homeowner. When did that happen? How did that happen?”

Liz Montague:
… wild that we don’t even realize what we’ve written off for ourselves because of whatever paths we choose or wherever we find ourselves. And I think that especially for myself, there was a lot that I didn’t think was achievable. And it’s like, “Oh, wow. Actually, this is.”

Liz Montague:
And I think that a lot more Black artists especially need to realize that. Because I think that especially the eat, sleep, grind culture, as someone who lived it, that burned me out so quick. I was like, “I’m never going to draw again. I hate this.” It took a year to come out of that.

Maurice Cherry:
Now even with these books that you are working on and everything, do you have a dream project that you’d love to do one day?

Liz Montague:
You know what, speaking into existence now, I would love to work with Disney. Hit me up, I’m a huge Princess and the Frog fan. Beyond that, I don’t really know. I think I’d like to teach somewhere down the line, or even now. I used to teach really fun community art classes when I was in DC, but then the pandemic kind of put an end to that.

Liz Montague:
I think I’d like to teach. Who knows? I swear, every other week I’m talking myself out of going to medical school or something, or becoming a pastry chef. It could be anything at this point. I would definitely love to do something centered around Black mental health, for sure. And diving into that and different ways of just connecting.

Liz Montague:
Because I know that people love to say, “Hold space,” and whatever that means. But I think that beyond just face-to-face talk therapy, which in a perfect world would be accessible to everyone and they would be able to have Black therapists who could understand where they’re coming from, we need to deal with the world that we’re in right now. Where there need to be more accessible ways of connecting beyond just this one way that is very not accessible for most people. And I feel like there’s some kind of world where there’s an art-based solution to that. Or at least in the world that I want to exist in.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What do you want this next chapter of your story to be?

Liz Montague:
I hope in the next five years, or not “I hope,” I know. In the next five years, I’m going to be spearheading a lot more projects. I feel like up until this point, I really just… people have approached me and I’ve said yes.

Liz Montague:
Whereas especially with the series at Scholastic, that was the first thing that I pitched myself, I came up with myself and that was fully my idea that I’m going to be taking to fruition. So more of that, more of me getting to execute my ideas instead of executing other people’s ideas. I hope a lot more of that.

Maurice Cherry:
Well just to wrap things up here, Liz, where can our audience find out more information about you and about your work and everything online?

Liz Montague:
My website is lizatlarge.org. I’m on Instagram, @lizatlarge. I’m also on Twitter, but I don’t really tweet that much. It’s also @lizatlarge.

Maurice Cherry:
Liz Montague, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I mean, as I was doing my research for this interview and everything, I was like, “I think I’m becoming a fan of you and the work that you’re doing.” I mean, even the fact that you’ve managed to accomplish this much at a young age is phenomenal. And I’m really excited to kind of see where you go from here.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I think it’s one thing to have these accolades about first Black women cartoonist in The New Yorker and then to have all this success. But being able to sustain that as you go forward in your career is going to be super important. And I hope that this interview kind of has given you something to think about. But then also I’m excited to kind of come back to this in a few years after we see you really blow up huge and do big things. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Liz Montague:
Thank you so much for having me and reaching out to me and just having this space in general. This is actually so awesome. Really. I really enjoyed this.

Alanna Flowers

2021 has been quite a year for us all, including this week’s guest Alanna Flowers. This year, she became a full-time creative and launched her own business, AGF Design Studio, and I had the chance to talk to her in the midst of her very busy holiday schedule.

Alanna gave me the rundown behind why she started her studio, how she plans to expand her services next year, and also gave some insight into her creative process. She also talked about growing up in NYC, the pros of art licensing, and how she builds her brand through social media.

Thank you all for listening to Revision Path this year — onward to 2022!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right. So, tell us who you are and what you do.

Alanna Flowers:
Hi, my name’s Alanna Flowers. I’m a lettering artist and illustrator, based in Brooklyn, New York.

Maurice Cherry:
How has the year been for you so far?

Alanna Flowers:
Wow. This year has been unlike any other that I’ve had. Professionally and creatively it’s been really refreshing and really a big learning experience, I would say.

Maurice Cherry:
In what ways?

Alanna Flowers:
Well, I’m a new freelancer. I started freelancing January 1st of this year, so-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh.

Alanna Flowers:
I just jumped in feet first and, yeah. I’ve had so many rewarding experiences and I think, because I’m still so new, I’ve learned a lot along the way.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, congratulations on striking out on your own like that.

Alanna Flowers:
Thank you so much.

Maurice Cherry:
If you don’t mind me asking, what was the catalyst behind you deciding to do that?

Alanna Flowers:
I mean, everyone knows how things have been for the state of the world. So, the pandemic hits last year, and at that time I was a full-time in-house graphic designer/graphic design manager. I was reporting to work every day, working in downtown Manhattan. New York City’s a hotbed, but I reported to work. So, that was a challenge for me definitely. Then I guess as the whole year went on, I was really evaluating. I’m like, how can I start doing what I’m actually really passionate about? Because at that point I had already thought about maybe I want to strike out, even do something different, even if it wasn’t necessarily freelancing on my own. I knew that I just wanted something different. So, the pandemic was a humongous catalyst for reevaluating on all levels. So, yeah. I decided, I think midway through 2020, I’m just like, all right. I’m going to start saving this money that I’m making, and try to figure out something on my own.

Maurice Cherry:
And you did, and you struck out on your own.

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Since this is coming up at the end of the year, do you have any early plans or resolutions for 2022?

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. Geez. I’ve been thinking really hard about next year actually, because now I have something to base things on, because everything was very, well, we’ll see how this goes. So, now I actually have quantifiable metrics to base things off of. So, I have big goals for next year. I want to expand my services definitely, and just continue working with great brands and clients.

Maurice Cherry:
So, let’s talk more about your studio, which is called AGF Design Studio. You started at the beginning of this year, how has business been, just establishing yourself?

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. It’s been really great. I’ve been very fortunate honestly, to have worked with all of the brands and people that I’ve gotten to work with this year. I’ve gotten to work with Adobe. My first client was American Greetings.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Alanna Flowers:
It’s like, how does that happen? I’ve had a very fortunate year and experience going out on my own. I think if we can keep that momentum, and it seems that we are so far, going into next year, I think that would be great.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Those are two big names just right off the bat for your first year.

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
So, what is the process like when you’re… Say you have a new project come in, or there’s a new design that you’re working on or something like, what does your creative process look like when you’re starting something new?

Alanna Flowers:
That’s a really great question. It really definitely depends on what the client’s needs are, and they give you a creative brief and you review it, and I start thinking about what exactly is it that they’re asking me to letter? Because as a lettering artist, I’m usually illustrating some sort of quote or phrase, so I start thinking about stylistic treatments. Sometimes the origin of the quote is historical, so maybe it’s from an actual figure, so I do a little bit of research on that person. From there, I just follow the steps of my process, which are basically establishing some kind of hierarchy for the piece, so that it communicates in the best way possible to the intended audience.

Maurice Cherry:
It seems pretty straightforward then.

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. It’s not too complicated. I think where things start getting complicated is maybe how long the phrase is, and the composition, creating for social media. I’m usually given some sort of dimensions and constraints, so my compositional approach for something that’s supposed to be a square will be completely different than something that’s supposed to be a poster, for example. So, it just depends from project to project, I think.

Maurice Cherry:
Are you currently working on any projects that you can talk about right now?

Alanna Flowers:
That’s a good question. I can vaguely describe it, I guess. Yeah. I actually just started a project that I’m really excited about, and it’s actually going to allow me to incorporate lettering and a little bit of animation actually. It’s a marriage of my interest in filming and video and editing, with lettering and animation. I’m pretty excited about this one.

Maurice Cherry:
That sounds pretty cool. Wow. So, you mentioned Adobe, you mentioned American Greetings. These are both very visually strong companies. American greetings with greeting cards, Adobe of course, with everything they do with the Adobe Suite and stuff. Are there specific types of clients that you’ve found that you work best with?

Alanna Flowers:
I’ve been fortunate to work with Adobe for a few projects this year, each one was so different. I think what I’ve seen from the clients that I’ve gotten to work with is, it’s always best when the vision is as clear as possible, I guess. And when we can just establish that we’re on the same page as much as possible. Things pretty much sail smoothly from there, as long as you can have a nice, clear line of communication with the client, I find that those project go over the smoothest and the best, from beginning to end.

Maurice Cherry:
So, even with those types of clients, I’ve got to imagine you’ve probably had a bunch of different people just try to hit you up. And with it being your first year, I’m probably guessing there’s been some clients that you’re like, “You know what? I don’t know if this is the best one,” because sometimes in your first year of business, you want to take on everything, or you try to take on as much as you can because it’s your first year and you want to try to do all the things. But have you found the flip side to that?

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. I’ve definitely had some interesting things come my way, and it would just meet me right in the middle of me working on something. And I’m just like, I could say yes and rush through this and it not be that great. Or I could just politely decline at the moment. It’s great they found me, they have my contact information and I have that contact from them, so those doors could more easily be reopened. Just like, “Hey. I was busy then, but my schedule’s open now.” But, yes. There’s definitely been a lot of temptation to say yes to everything, but thankfully, so far so good, and timing seems to have been on my side for most of the time.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I was going to say, it sounds like it’s more of a timing thing than the actual work itself. I guess that’s pretty good. It’s good to know.

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s switch gears here because I really want to learn more about you and how you really came into all of this. Tell me about where you grew up.

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. I grew up in White Plains, New York, suburban kid all the way. Even though I’ve been Brooklyn now and I’ve been here for a few years, I definitely was not a city dweller all my life. So, yeah. I grew up in White Plains and that’s the only place I’ve known.

Maurice Cherry:
Were you exposed to a lot of design and art and stuff like that growing up?

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. I would definitely say, that as a kid, I was always very enthusiastic about the opportunities during class to color and do arts and crafts, and art class and stuff like that. And then, just from, I guess, a personal side, I always enjoyed musical theater, and my family would be able to go to Broadway shows every now and again for the holidays or something. So, just being exposed to even different forms of art, even if it’s not visual or digital art, just being exposed to all different kinds of artistic expressions was definitely a thread throughout my upbringing.

Maurice Cherry:
And now you went to the New York Institute of Technology, in Old Westbury. Can you tell me what your time was like there?

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. My time there was so great. It was so interesting because I went there and I applied there even, on the recommendation of my old high school art teacher, Dr. A. So, he was an alumni of there, so he’s like, “Oh, apply there,” because that’s where he went. The art program there was very small because NYIT is actually more of an engineering school. So, the art program felt very intimate. Everyone who had some sort of art major, whether you were graphic design or motion design, or what have you, everyone knew each other. So, it felt like a very close knit little family and community, and I really enjoyed my time there.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you feel like they really helped prepare you to go out there in the world and work as a designer?

Alanna Flowers:
In some respects, yes. Where you’re thinking about working for a company, or an agency, or working in-house. Yes, thinking about, okay. I could have a job after this in a creative field, but not necessarily in the thread of a, this is how it looks if you want to work for yourself idea. So, definitely preparation was there, but definitely in the traditional sense.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I haven’t found that there have been a lot of schools, maybe some of the art institutes, only because I know that they do take a lot of input in from people in the community, basically just about what they should be teaching. But, yeah. There’s not a lot of design focused schools I’ve seen that give you the tools for entrepreneurship. It is about pushing you into that… I don’t want to say pipeline, but pushing you into that realm of, are you going work for an agency? Or you could work for a design focused tech company, or something like that. It’s not really about, how can I take these tools and strike out on my own because a lot of that is… I mean, yes. It’s your technical skill, but there’s also just so much business stuff that you need to know to run your own business and deal with contracts, and all that sort of stuff.

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. Absolutely. Any kind of inkling of what it was like to be a freelancer came from the one off, maybe you have a semester with an adjunct professor who happens to also be a freelancer on the side, or something like that. I mean, they might show us some of their client work as examples and stuff like that. But definitely not completely focused, like you said, where it’s dedicated to teaching you the ins and outs of the business aspect that goes into freelancing.

Maurice Cherry:
Why do you think that is?

Alanna Flowers:
That’s a great question. I feel like there’s more attention on the creator economy, and maybe it’s because now I’m in it directly, but I don’t recall it being talked about as much, even amongst me and my peers. The power that social media could have in transforming someone’s creative career in that trajectory, and being able to go off on your own. So, there might have just been an unknowing of the potential of these platforms. When I was going to school, Instagram was king, but now there’s so many competitors and so many different avenues that you can take. I don’t know. I think, as more people do it, the more shine it’ll get, and more people will talk about it.

Maurice Cherry:
What were those early years like after you graduated?

Alanna Flowers:
It’s pretty interesting actually. When I first graduated, I was very bright-eyed and was super excited to just jump into my field, but I actually had an opportunity fall through, that I wanted to take to be a designer. I was down on my luck a little bit, and I told my friend, I was like, “I just need income please,” anything. I ended up actually taking a job as a receptionist for a year right out of college, before I was able to secure my first graphic design job.

Maurice Cherry:
A receptionist, huh?

Alanna Flowers:
Mm-hmm (affirmative) I gave myself one year because I was just like… And I was a great receptionist.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Alanna Flowers:
I was very efficient and they’re just like, “Yeah. You’re great.” And I’m just like, and with all this stuff comes complacency and comfort, and you know this was just a very temporary thing so you need to move on. So, I had my exit strategy, and after that experience, I was able to get an associate design job in-house.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, that’s something good to know, that you had a plan to get out of it, because sometimes you fall into those gigs where you’re doing the work as you have to do it, it keeps a roof over your head, it keeps food on the table, but it’s not fulfilling. It’s not what you really want to do. So, at least you had a plan to get out of that, and eventually start somewhere and really work on your design career.

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. It’s very interesting thinking about it now, but it’s just like, well, it’s part of my story. It is what it is. It’s not always red roses, but I’m grateful for the way things happened anyhow.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I noticed that you’ve been doing a lot with social media. You can go to your website and really tell that you’re very active on these other platforms like YouTube and Instagram and Pinterest. How has, I guess, exhibiting your work through those channels helped you out as an artist and an entrepreneur?

Alanna Flowers:
I think it has really challenged me to think about one, I guess how much one person is capable of. So, you’ll see a lot of people who do content creation full time, and you’re just scratching your head and just like, how are they doing all of this content? And just like, well, there’s a strategy behind everything, and a lot of content is actually strategically recycled and scheduled and all this stuff. So, once I was able to break that formula down in my head, I was able to be like, okay. I’m just going to put my work in multiple places, because you never know how someone will find you or come across you, and shooting as many shots as you can is always, I think, good. Especially if you’re entrepreneurial like me, or just trying to increase your chances of someone coming across your work. I think it’s always best to be in as many places as possible.

Maurice Cherry:
And also, by doing that work and showing off what it is that you’re doing, you’re attracting other people, which for your first year in business, I mean, that’s the best marketing that you can do, is to really show the work that you’re doing so other people can find out about it.

Alanna Flowers:
No, definitely. It’s definitely a whole process of show and tell. Your social media quickly becomes your portfolio, or your YouTube becomes a reel of the things that you can do. I’ve had so many people tell me, it’s like, “Oh, I watched some of your YouTube videos,” and that exhibited that you can speak about this topic, and you know about video editing. It’s interesting also the way that people will break down, “Oh, I’ve seen your content in this place, this place and this place,” and from that I can deduce relatively the kind of skills that you have, and the interests that you have. I think it’s just a great way to showcase everything that you can do.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you find that different social networks are better, depending on what you’re trying to accomplish?

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. I would say so. I think it depends, because a lot of people have been saying, especially this year, that video content has really taken over platforms that were previously photo based, like Instagram. Where TikTok and Snapchat have… Well, mostly TikTok, but I guess Snapchat really did it first, where people are creating video content, and using that as a way of exhibiting a tutorial. It could be for anything. I use a lot of my platforms to use as tutorial based posting, so I think that’s a great way to engage with my community. It’s not always about, oh, this is the finished piece that I did. I like to share educational content, so I’ve found that anything that really has videos on it, which is everything, can really be used in that way, which I’ve tried to leverage a lot this year and has been pretty successful.

Alanna Flowers:
And then, other platforms like Twitter, I found are just great for building community and just getting out there, and just talking with people who are really like-minded, and in your same creative sphere. Maybe they don’t do lettering, but maybe they do type design and other kinds of illustrations. So, it’s really interesting to hit that follow button on someone and see them follow back, and be surprised maybe the people who are just willing to talk to you about the stuff that you guys already know that you’re interested in from your bio or whatever.

Maurice Cherry:
So, even with all that, you’re on these different social networks, you’re doing these things. I see that you have a section on your site about art licensing. Talk to me about that, because that’s something that I haven’t really seen on a lot of really designers or illustrator sites, is about licensing.

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. That’s definitely one of the areas that I knew that even if, quote unquote, I was maybe slow out the gate to get some clients, I could definitely build a licensing portfolio. I’m personally, I think I’ve collected probably almost every greeting card or holiday card, birthday card I’ve gotten since I was, I don’t know, 10 or something. I’ve just always loved the illustrations, and just the look of greeting cards. I’m just like, that’s art licensing. I could totally do that. I was able to actually get an art licensing course that I purchased at the top of the year, and it was really helpful for me getting some licensing clients. That’s just a little bit of recurring income that I get, which is nice, and it’s completely passive. Once I’ve done the designs, they just generate that little bit of income for me every month. So, it’s really nice.

Maurice Cherry:
So, have companies already reached out to you to license some of your work?

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. I actually did a little bit of… I think I’ve actually done probably all of the outreach maybe, I think, for all of the companies that I’m licensing with right now. The first one I did was a mobile app called Felt, and they actually do digital greeting cards. So, you have the app on your phone, you can design the greeting card, you can write it on your phone and they’ll mail the card out to whoever is in your address book. So, they have a hybrid approach, where it’s like you do the process digitally, but they’ll still mail the card. So, that was interesting. I don’t… Honestly, I think I just Google searched like crazy, just art licensing, seeing other companies that fellow lettering artists have licensing deals through, and just collecting contacts and doing the research, and just sending out cold email. Got a few good responses this year.

Maurice Cherry:
And is that… I mean, I would imagine that’s probably pretty steady income too, with licensing, because you’re doing along certain time terms, maybe monthly or annual or something like that?

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. Exactly. It just depends on whatever your contract agreement is, the terms of your royalty payments. But it’s cool because I can expand my portfolio, if I want to add 10 new cards to a collection, I can, and just have those go in circulation and see how they perform. And then you just get your little monthly commission reports, so you can see how your designs are performing, and maybe where you want to make some improvements, maybe add to different categories or something like that.

Maurice Cherry:
Who are some of your inspirations, either as an artist or as a business person? Who inspires you?

Alanna Flowers:
Oh, geez. Well, I definitely was inspired from the very beginning by Jessica Hische, because she was probably the first name that I heard attached to lettering. I think that happened when I was in a typography class that I took in college. My professor had shown her daily drop cap project as an example of lettering, and I was just like, “Lettering?” And then, from there I just fell down the rabbit hole, so to speak. I was pretty much hooked from there. Other than her, Martina Flor definitely, has all also been a huge inspiration. I actually took her freelancing course when I was first getting started this year, learning the ropes of freelance from one, a seasoned lettering artist, but also someone who’s been running their own lettering business for 10 plus years. It was a huge inspiration for me.

Maurice Cherry:
What advice would you give to someone out there that’s listening to this, and they want to follow in your footsteps? They want to maybe learn lettering design, or they’re looking to strike out on their own as an entrepreneur. I know those are two separate things, but what advice would you give to someone that’s listening, and they want to go in either or both of those routes?

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. Well, when I was first thinking about it, I think I was first listing all of the talents that I had, I guess, like these are all the ways that I could monetize the skills that I already have. I’m a trained graphic designer, I can do that. I taught workshops before, I can do that. Just listing out those skills and talents was, I think, the first thing, because I’m just like, okay. These could be my services hypothetically for freelancing. And then, I think it just from there went to following this passion that I’ve had for a long time. I think that first exposure to Jessica Hische’s work was probably 2013, 2014 or something like that. So, from there I just had lettering as a hobby and a creative outlet while I was sitting at my receptionist desk. I think being a graphic designer full-time made it harder for me to nurture that creative hunger, I think, for lettering.

Alanna Flowers:
I knew that what I wanted to buy myself was more time. So, from there I saved money. I’m just like, I’m completely new to freelancing. I never truly envisioned myself freelancing in my career. So, I was just like, I know one thing that I need is a little bit of a cushion financially. I definitely took a risk quitting my job, but I didn’t just do it without any logistical understanding of my expenses and stuff. And then, I think from there, it’s just really go with your gut. I did have the financial cushion, but I did not have a client history. I didn’t have referrals from other people that I could take with me in my little email address book or something.

Alanna Flowers:
I took a risk definitely in that aspect. But because I’ve been nurturing this skill and this hobby for so long, with the hopes of somehow making this my profession, I think a lot of the things that I’ve encountered were that whole luck, where it’s opportunity meets the preparation. So, yeah. If you want to do something, make sure that you’re already doing it in some capacity, even if it’s just on the side to begin with. As long as you’re feeding into that, whatever that thing is that you really want to be doing, that’s definitely positive as well.

Maurice Cherry:
What does success look like for you at this point in your career?

Alanna Flowers:
Wow. Right now, success looks like being able to sustain and continue from places of passion and genuine excitement and interest, and not from the place of, I’ve got to take this client on because I need to pay my rent this month. I think just continuing with that feeling of excitement and passion, I think, because even when you’re doing things that you’re really interested in, after a while you might get a little burned out. I’m hoping to not, to not reach that burnout point, and be able to be responsible with my time and with my emotional wellbeing. I just want to keep doing this and maintaining,

Maurice Cherry:
Do you have a dream project you’d love to do one day?

Alanna Flowers:
Oh, geez. I have many, and it’s great because some of them even happened this year. But I am definitely setting my sites out for large scale projects, like murals. I am definitely looking to get my lettering painted outside somewhere in New York City. I think that would be the coolest thing, and have people take pictures with my work outdoors. I think that’d be really awesome.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you appreciate the most about your life right now?

Alanna Flowers:
I appreciate the privilege that comes with being able to take a risk, like the one that I took, and in some ways I’m still taking. I really appreciate that. And I appreciate the luxury of time. I’ve bought myself a little bit of time with a little bit of the planning that I did before, I ended going freelance, but I’m abundantly grateful for those things.

Maurice Cherry:
So, given where you are now, where do you see yourself in the next five years? Is there certain work that you’d want to be doing at that point or anything like that?

Alanna Flowers:
This year has been a lot of seed planting. It’s like I have to start working from somewhere. So, I started my YouTube channel this year, started with zero subscribers just like everyone who starts anything. In five years it would just be nice to see these communities that I’ve started, investing and grow. I really love lettering and I love working with clients. It’s such a rewarding feeling, being able to help them. But it’s also really rewarding to help other people who are interested in lettering. So, that’s why I definitely knew that as a part of my freelancing that I wanted there to be some sort of educational aspect, with workshops or tutorials and stuff like that, like I do on YouTube. So, yeah. Just expanding my reach and having that allow me to reach back as well to others.

Maurice Cherry:
Reaching forward and reaching back, I like that. So, just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more information about you? Where can they see your work and everything online?

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. You can find my work at agfdesignstudio.com, but you can find me on YouTube at AGF Design Studio. That’s my channel name, that’s also my name on Instagram. And then, also on Instagram and Twitter. I’m Alanna_ Flowers.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Alanna Flowers, I definitely want to thank you so much for coming on the show and really one, I think telling your story, but then two also, giving us a little bit of a peak behind the curtain of what it’s like to a new freelancer. There’s been all this talk this year specifically about the great resignation, and people leaving jobs and striking out on their own. It seems like you’ve really… I mean, well, one, you have struck out a lot on your own. But two, it seems like you’ve really hit a stride and you’re making great work. You’re promoting yourself out there on social media. I wish, when I started my studio, that I was half as prepared and put together as you are with how you’re doing everything. I think you’re doing a great job, and I’d love to see where your work goes in the future. So, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Alanna Flowers:
Thank you so much, Maurice, for having me.

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Matshoshi Matsafu

November ends with a fantastic conversation with Matshoshi Matsafu, and let me tell you…she has lived. Lived, I tell ya! She currently works as a senior UX designer at Microsoft on their Flipgrid product, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what she does and what she’s experienced.

Matshoshi talked about growing up in South Africa and attending college in Johannesburg, relocating to South Korea to teach for a few years, and about her most recent move to Minneapolis and how life has unfolded in the years since then. She also spoke about being a Black creative in flux (and how to embrace it), the joys of embracing being a generalist, and shared what keeps her motivated and inspired as a creative. According to Matshoshi, being a Black creative is a myriad of things. So why not explore them all?

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right. So tell us who you are and what you do.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
So my name is Matshoshi Kholofelo Matsafu. I am originally from South Africa. I’ve been based in the US for almost five years, six months and a couple of days. I am currently working as a Senior UX Designer for Flipgrid, which is a subsidiary of Microsoft. Essentially it is like a video exchange software where it became really popular during this pandemic because it was really useful in the education field. Yeah, I work in tech. I create digital artwork from time to time. I illustrate, and I’m into music, into a lot of things that just like equal creativity. I guess that would be the sum of me. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I was going to ask you about Flipgrid because I had not heard of it before. So I’m guessing this is a company that Microsoft acquired. And you work on the team?

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Yes, yes. So it was acquired actually not too long ago. Essentially we make a really robust video editing camera and software that’s available online predominantly for students and educators now, but it’s expanding. What I love about it is that I get to work directly with real educators. We’ll get into this a little bit later, but I spend some time doing ESL teaching myself. There was always a need for tools to help students that aren’t necessarily comfortable speaking out loud in front of a classroom forever, or giving them prompts and creative ways to elicit a response. This is one of the things that I get to build on a day to day. That’s what really is exciting.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I could see how something like that would be really useful, especially with so many classrooms over the past, God, two years now, geez. Like adapting because of the pandemic and things like that. But also not just schools. We’ve done some work in the past with the Smithsonian,. I know that do or they tend to have curriculum for schools like summer programs and things like that. I could see where they could even use something like that because especially in terms of curriculum, a lot of schools will look to museums and such for field trips and things like that. But when you can’t travel to the museum for a field trip, then how are you supposed to get that same I guess, cultural exchange? So I could see how Flipgrid might be super useful for something like that.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
It certainly is. I’m really glad that you went into that because looking at some of the very surprising use cases that have come about, it’s exactly that. It’s families connecting with each other when being divided because of COVID, sending each other video messages on a private secure platform. It’s teachers obviously connecting with their students. It’s book clubs and choirs and auditions for plays that are happening on this platform because it’s a way to be able to ruminate about what you want to create, but not have so much pressure to have it be completely perfect and still be able to express your creativity. So I think that’s kind of why I love it.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. So how has 2021 overall been for you?

Matshoshi Matsafu:
I can say there’s a definite shift in terms of my feeling of not being tossed into the wild like 2020 was.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
I think the acclimation that has happened, whether it be from a mental health perspective or from an understanding how I work and what works and what doesn’t. Like a lot of people, the introspection helped a lot. It has definitely been a year of revelation for me as to what’s important. How do I want to spend my time? What do I think is worthy of my attention and what relationships do I need to foster? How do I hold myself not so much accountable, but how do I grow in a non pressurized and from a perspective of love standpoint?

Maurice Cherry:
You’re located in Minneapolis, which last year was such a nexus point for so many things happening just in this country around police brutality and protests and things of that nature. How was it being in the city during that time?

Matshoshi Matsafu:
It was incredibly wild because little bit of history, I grew up in the dredges, like the end or not quite end of Apartheid date in South Africa. So when I saw the tanks patrolling the streets, it just drew me right back to memories of growing up in a policed state.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Where white people were trying to kill us. They were holding AK-47s. There were tanks patrolling the areas that we were essentially forced to live in. We call them townships. If you speak to a lot of South Africans, kind of like if you speak to a lot of indigenous and black people here, there’s been a a reclamation of areas that we were sent to die, essentially. By calling them townships or the hood and not actually calling them what they are, which was essentially a concentration camp.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
We are a resilient people. All I remember is seeing those riots and understanding what is driving people is not about actually the incident that occurred, that was just the tipping point. This iceberg has been building. Like everywhere else in the world, I was really in turmoil about the conversations that were being had and the ones that were being avoided. There was so much focus on the masses of people, black and brown bodies showing up and demanding to be heard.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
But there was very little talk about what would lead to folks to be so desperate, and so disenfranchised, and so broken to have to break up our own resources. It doesn’t just come from nowhere. Thinking about, looking at … We need to talk about colonization, we need to talk about settlement. We need to talk about the remnants of capitalism. We need to talk about all of these things that show up in these ways.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
It’s incredible to me that a lot of those things were not being talked about. So it was hard for me because I had a little bit of PTSD, not a little, a lot. I was afraid to go outside some days because I couldn’t reconcile seeing tanks and young kids, younger than me in uniforms holding rifles, ready to do what.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. I can only imagine how much of an eerie parallel that had to be to see that as an adult, and then to remember how that was in a totally different country as a child, like, oh my god.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Right. The only thing that’s different in the world is that some regions, things got given names. Ours was called Apartheid. In Europe, they called it the Holocaust. Here, it’s loosely called slavery. But the remnants of all of that are ever present. That was the most sobering thought.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
But on the flip side of that though, because I always try not to dwindle in the maelstrom, is that whenever there’s destruction, creativity booms. So walking through a ghost town where things are boarded up, but people have reclaimed those boards and created some of the most incredible public art that I’ve seen in all the places that I’ve lived.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
That was a wild experience, people expressing pain through art, like visceral, tangible arts and the dichotomy of emotion that comes as you’re walking through a street, knowing that at any point, a crowd could come rushing through, breaking windows. But then immediately after, folks will be boarding up and painting. Those are such extremes.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Goodness. Geez. It almost feels weird to try to pivot back to talking about what you do for work after focusing on that. But I mean, I think what you bring up and certainly from your unique vantage point of, like you said, having lived through a very similar type of situation as a child, one thing that really struck me during the pandemic last year was how many people I talked with for this show.

Maurice Cherry:
Us, Even in these conversations like you and I are having, trying to reconcile what it is to be black and work during this sort of time and have to compartmentalize the issues that are happening in our society, and what’s going on outside of our windows, while also expecting to show up to our and be productive, and still hit your numbers or whatever you have to do for work. Oh goodness.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
It was wild. In as much as it feels like it was a total alien experience, I think every single person who was just really in tune, it felt like you’re having an outer body experience because you are looking at the world going up in turmoil. But at the same time you’re facing yourself, like truly having the time alone with yourself to really figure some things out.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
One of those things is reclaiming your time even from work, which I think I saw a lot of evidence of, being black and creatives really standing up for, “You know what, you’re not entitled to have 18 hours of my day. You’re entitled to have this many hours of my day, and I’m entitled to have this many hours. I’m going to pour love into myself,” however that looks like that was certainly something that came up a lot.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
I was appreciative of seeing that too because you just don’t know how many of us are functioning on empty. We never take time off. We always have to work harder than everybody else. We have to explain things and be the cultural competency solution in most of our jobs. Having to do all of that labor without getting paid for it, even though most of us do have a so-called equity, diversity and inclusion department in our workforces or workplaces, they don’t infiltrate the every day. The day to day, when you get on a call immediately after the Floyd incident, and somebody makes a joke about murder as a icebreaker. Like how? Navigating those and having to have that conversation with your manager and having to not teach all of these white people that that’s not the right thing to do.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So I guess I’ll try in some way to pivot this back to work, but not in a complete way. But what do you do to separate yourself from work when that sort of stuff happens?

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Well, black Twitter has been very helpful. The reason is that without black creatives, all of the social media platforms would’ve been dry. The amount of effort that people have put into creating humor out of nothing or making really think pieces just an equipped, like one tweet that makes you really reevaluate things or laugh so much that you can forget for a little bit of time has been helpful.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Also because of building new language and ways to talk about things that are quite heavy, but there’s a lightheartedness to it, right? The memes that keep coming up across the board, that has been one way to help. Of course, other things include being very intentional about mental health practices, simple things, taking breaks, going for walks, engaging with people that I love, my friends, my family, and also pouring time into things that make me happy. They may not necessarily be hobbies per se, but just things that make me happy. That’s it really.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
I try to keep it as simple as possible because sometimes also trying too hard is trying too hard, you know?

Maurice Cherry:
No, that’s very true.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
It’s very stressful.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Around that time last year, I was actually unemployed. I had gotten laid off from my job right before Memorial day. I was feeling this sort of a different kind of tension because at that time, I’d say the summer, at least June through August was really the first time in my professional career that I had any sort of a break. That I didn’t have to feel I needed to rush out and get a job or something like that. Like you have down periods between jobs and stuff like that. I would always feel like, “Oh, I got to go find something else.” But I was fortunate that I got enough of a severance and had enough savings that when I got laid off, I was like, “Oh, I’m good for about like four or five months. So I’m just not going to do anything.”

Maurice Cherry:
For me, it was so odd to reconcile this time of rest with this huge time of unrest happening out in the world, and in a way almost feeling guilt for taking a break and not getting out in the streets and what have you. I don’t want to say I rationalized it, but I don’t know. Have you seen the Tony Morrison documentary, The Pieces I Am? I think that’s what it’s called.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Mm-hmm (affirmative), mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry:
She has a part in the documentary where she talks about her role or what she felt her role was in the Civil Rights Movement. She was saying that I can’t go out and be on the streets. I can’t do that, go out and march and things.

Maurice Cherry:
She’s like, “But what I can do is like publish a writing to get it to a bigger audience. I can support the writers and the poets. I can help fight in a different way.” So I guess even in a small way through this podcast, I felt like, “Oh well, as long as I’m sharing this out still with people, then I won’t feel so guilty or guilty at all about …” I don’t want to say taking up arms because it sounds like I’m joining a militia. But I wouldn’t feel like, “Oh, I’m not out there, you know, marching the streets with a sign or anything.” It was such a weird, weird time because really, I mean, I’ve been a working professional for so long. But I’ve never really had that time where I could just have a break for several months and not worry about what the next thing was that was coming.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Yeah. That whole existence was some of the most trying. Because for myself personally, I had the added layer of being an immigrant in this country. So I was having such a push and pull in my mind. It was like, “Oh, when my country was going through its liberation, similar things happened.” People on the streets, other countries came and stood up. People were in the crowds, and bodies were out there. But what it means for a black body to be out there is a whole different thing here.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
When I was talking to different types, different groups of folks, those who were adamant about physically being present and also sometimes that came with judgment too, right? That if you’re not in the streets, then you’re not really participating. You’re not really standing for anything. I think that needs to be to, Tony Morrison’s point, that needs to be taken to question because we all have our different roles to play.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Right? So I think we need to really talk about expanding what resistance looks like from a more holistic view. From yes, we have bodies in the forefront. Yes, we have intellectuals that kind of theorize. Yes, we have business people that are like, “Okay, how do we change these structures?” Yes, we have money people even like, okay, so capitalism is not working. How do we think about something different? How do we build equitable society? Not just in the moment, but what happens after that?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
That’s where I think design comes in. That’s why I’m excited to be a designer because even in the smallest things that I’m building, those things play a part.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, absolutely. I want to go more into your background. I know you mentioned earlier being from South Africa. Tell me about what it was like growing up there. I mean, you mentioned the apartheid. But what do you really remember from your childhood aside from that?

Matshoshi Matsafu:
I mean, my gosh. It’s kind of a Willy Wonka experience. Right? There’s moments of extreme insurmountable joy and awe because of the creativity of black people, the music and art expressed. I think the first time I encountered design was in the township. Most people grew up in what are called like Shanty houses, which are made out of tin, aluminum bars or even asbestos at some point. It’s one room, there’s no electricity, toilets outside, everything.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
But the creativity to make one room feel like a home, that is invention. I remember there was a neighbor that I used to visit who took the covering of of a can, just like a can of … There was a brand called Lucky Star. It’s Sardines essentially. But the graphic art on the label was so striking because we were in that era of just poster designs, so really bright colors and just beautiful typography.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
They spent however long gathering those labels and made wallpaper out of them. When you look at that, and I look at that, and I look at what is called, so-called modern design. I can see that that could easily be in a pop art museum because that’s the kind of art that it was. Or it could be likened to mid-century modern repetition wallpaper too. So I feel design came through just because of necessity. Design is the answer to anguish and pain. Design and art and creativity is the answer. So it was everywhere. I was lucky enough to notice.

Maurice Cherry:
Now being around it as much as you have, when did you decide that this was what you wanted to study? This is what you wanted to go to school for?

Matshoshi Matsafu:
I initially wanted to be a fine artist. I remember in high school, one of my memories is my mom made the decision to send me to what we then called multiracial schools, which meant there was a handful of black kids in a white school, which was interesting. But I really loved my high school because it was in the middle of a forest. I was in boarding school. It was designed like a little European village, I suppose. The classrooms had a lot of natural light, which is not common here. All of the classrooms look like prison industrial complexes.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
One thing I remember is painting. I would paint for hours. I would be covered in paint from 7:00 AM in the morning until 6:00 PM when I had to go back to the hostel. Eventually, when I was head of hostel I had the keys to the hostel. I don’t know why I was lucky enough to be in a really nurturing environment. My teachers believed in me. I would be painting well into the night, and they trusted me.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
That’s odd. It’s unheard of. As a black girl in a white school painting these massive three-by-six pieces, and being free to do so, that’s one of my best memories. From then, I thought, “Okay, I’m going to pursue a career in fine art.” But reality hit when I left school and things were not good. I got accepted into one of the biggest, best art institutions in South Africa, but I couldn’t afford to go. So I found a design school down the road from me. I literally took all of my paintings, my huge portfolio in public transport, and walked up a hill or two, and arrived at the administrator’s office with my ill-fitting clothes and a hat over my head, and sweating, and being like, “I do arts. I think I can do design too, if you give me a chance.”

Maurice Cherry:
Now this school, that was Vega School, is that correct?

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Yes. Yes. I spoke directly to the head of department at the time. His name is Gordon Cook. He’s an eccentric white man, not typical, very much future thinking. He saw me, I’m sure when he saw me, he was like, “Oh my goodness. What? What is this?” I was disheveled and I had this big portfolio case of art pieces. He looked at my stuff. He was like, “Okay, we’re going to give you an entrance exam.” I wrote the paper.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
The last question I answered, and I thought, “Oh my gosh, they’re never going to accept me. I don’t know what I’m trying.” Then they accepted to me. So I ended up doing design and multimedia at the time, which was the introduction to digital, which is interesting, like user interface design, and also animation, and of course communications, and just graphic design. So that’s how I started. I haven’t looked back since.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
So once you graduated from there, what was your early career like in Johannesburg? Did you feel like the school had really prepared you to go out there in the working world?

Matshoshi Matsafu:
In a sense, yes, because when I was working, there was definitely a push to have more black creatives. So I found myself in a network of just really great black creatives. We all grew up in similar ways. But some of course more extreme than others. It was just really great. Because you’ve got to remember that my country has multiple, I’m going to use the word “tribes” loosely, but multiple cultures too.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Because of the separations, some of them were just melded all together. So if you can imagine being in a brainstorming session with people from multiple cultures, but we’re all in the same country, all speaking different languages, and just throwing all of ourselves into it. The texture of what came out of those years is amazing. Sometimes I look at that work and I’m like, “Wow. South, Africa’s just a incredible place in terms of creativity, because it’s such a vibrant with different cultures.” So yeah, that’s kind of what stood out. My first job, I was making those really, really terrible user interfaces for phone recharge cards. I don’t know if you all ever had that service here where you prepay for like $30 worth of money to put on your phone so you can call people.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember though. Oh my god, this was back in … I’m showing my age here. This was like back in the early, like late 90s, early two 2000s, I remember those. Because I got my first cell phone in 1999. God. I’m really dating myself here. I got my first cell phone in 1999. I remember having to buy cards to put minutes on it. It was from a-

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Exactly. Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It was from a provider. It was from Powertel, which is now out T-Mobile. But I had to buy cards and then put like 500 minutes on it or something like that.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Yes. So those little machines that you would buy your minutes from. The buttons were all embossed and made in Photoshop. Terrible. Like minute fills. Yep, that was me.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, somebody had to do that. Somebody had to do that work.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
It was terrible. Then, I mean, the cell phone companies were coming up. So I’d be making little animated banners on the sites that would just live there. Then I worked for a production, like digital print production, which it wasn’t creative work, but I think it just taught me the basics in how to work quickly, print stuff and B2B stuff.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Then I worked in a network BBDO, subsidiary of like the larger network agency, the global agency. That was really, really fun. I was paired with a copywriter. We were one of the few fully black creative teams, like all women creative teams. We got to work on some really fun campaigns, local ones, but also some international brands. Yeah. Then I remember the turning point when I decided to leave advertising. I loved the advertising world. I learned a lot. I was in charge of people who had been in the industry for so many years. I was like, “I’m making ads and you’re older than me? But you have to listen to what I have to say? Oh my god, this is so scary.”

Matshoshi Matsafu:
It was just so fun. Very exhilarating. Then I decided to leave home because of a number of things, but also primarily because I felt like the advertising industry back home, this is hard, was kind of masquerading as being for black people, as in using black imagery and our colloquialism, like our style, our dress, our lingo, our music, and selling us these things. But in real life, it wasn’t really reflected for most people. One of the so-called marketing research sessions we did was with a group of aunties. I would call them aunties. Most of them, single mothers and caring for multiple people in the household because our culture is as such, is that you’re not an island.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
So they’d be caring for multiple kids. So why it disturbed me is that the company I was working for wanted us to encourage this demographic to use what would’ve been their 12th check in December, which they would usually use to stock up on supplies for the following year because people aren’t rich. You buy extra bags of flour, and you send them out to the village or to the neighboring family. You share, and that’s the way we were all able to survive. So we were trying to encourage these aunties to spend that money on a cellphone contract. I was like, “No. I’m not doing this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this anymore.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s interesting you mentioned that about advertising. So I live in Atlanta. The part of Atlanta I live in is, I want to say it’s the black part of town, but like most of Atlanta’s the black part of town. But the neighborhood that I’m in the west end, is I’ll say one of the lower income areas of the city. It’s a historic neighborhood. Morehouse College is here, Spelman College. Like it’s well known in terms of just black history and whatnot.

Maurice Cherry:
But I do see a lot of the advertising that’s done around here, and it’s always for like prepaid cell phones and things of that nature. For things that don’t really better the community in any sort of way, it’s just like, “Hey, you just got paid. Give us your money.”

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
Not even for well-meaning whole things. It’s like, give us your money so you can buy some shoes. Give us some money so you can buy a combo meal or something like that.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
It felt sickening at some point to know that we’re putting things out there that actually catch people’s souls because that’s what we are meant, what we’re trained to do as communicators, as media makers, as creatives is find a nugget that makes people feel that connectivity to being human and exploit, use, expound upon, whichever one you want to use and sell them a product. That felt really disgusting to me. So I left.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
I also just kind of wanted to experience life. I originally wanted to go to Korea to go in … No. I originally wanted to go to Japan, to apprentice with a calligraphy master and eventually become the second black samurai. That’s what I wanted to do. Okay. Because Yasuke is one of my heroes. I was like, “Okay, well, I’m 24. I don’t really have any reason to just stay in one place. I really love of Japan and Japanese culture.”

Matshoshi Matsafu:
I consume Manga and Manhwa and everything. So I wanted to go there. But I applied in Korea as well. Korea got back quicker. I knew that I didn’t have the resources to just travel. I knew that I’d have to work. Teaching English felt like an easy way because I’m really good with languages too. Then I didn’t mind kids. So I was like, “All right. So if I teach English, I can save up money. I can travel. I can build some character, learn about different things. Maybe I’ll still figure out how to be a samurai.”

Maurice Cherry:
I mean. Matshoshi, the samurai, it has a nice ring to it.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Right? That’s what I thought. I thought. Everything. I was going to have my braids. It was going to be so cool.

Maurice Cherry:
So you decide to leave Johannesburg, leave South Africa, go to South Korea. I’m sure it was a big culture shock. But what ways did I guess … So many questions. One, how was it a culture shock for you? Two, like when you think back to that time, what really sticks out to you the most?

Matshoshi Matsafu:
The funny thing is that I think moving here was more of a culture shock for me than moving to Korea.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Yes. The reason being is culturally, I think indigenous cultures, we tend to have similar social structures in the sense that you never address your elders by their first name. You defer. There’s a different type of way of speaking, which is more formal or informal. That was familiar to me. There were things like gestures to show reverence for older people. You don’t just hand somebody something without supporting your arm. It was universal.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
All of these things were apparent even before I learned the language. So those things felt familiar. Also our families tend to stay together. Your grandparents raise you or have a part in raising you. You grow up not just as a nuclear family. The idea of all for one, one for all, we share resources. There’s even a word in Korean called chong, which is the direct and same meaning as a word in one of my language called Ubuntu. Ubuntu and chong, loosely translated, mean the spirit of humanity. That we are beholden to as humans and should respect and impart upon each other. That’s powerful to me.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting that moving from South Africa to Korea was not that big a shock, but moving … Yeah. I could see how moving to the us would be a big, it’s definitely a huge change for that especially depending on the part of the country that you’re in. Because even what you’re describing in terms of that familial structure, I’m from the like deep south, from Alabama. In a way, it’s sort of similar to that.

Maurice Cherry:
The town I grew up in, Selma, is a very insular town. So even as you’re describing that family structure and reverence of elders and things like that, that’s still very much a thing. Now, it might be different in other parts of the country. Actually I know it’s different in other parts of the country. But yeah, even depending on where you would move here and settle in, it is totally, totally different.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
I mean, there were the obvious things, right? There were reactions to my skin color, obviously. We’ll get into the not so nice things about that. There were reactions to my hair. There were to my perfume because when I had moved there, black people, I don’t know anybody who doesn’t use Cocoa butter or Shea butter. That’s just what it is. There at the time, it was difficult to find things that we were accustomed to, like lotion that doesn’t have whitening agent in it, or deodorant. I had to import some stuff because it was just not commonly used. So there were so many reactions, reactions to my hair obviously.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
I remember one day standing at a bus stop. I felt something tugging at the back of my braids. I was like, “What the hell is going on?” I turn around, and there’s these two really small grannies, and their faces are all wrinkled, like crinkle paper. They’re playing with my hair. Then I have this moment of, “Don’t touch my hair.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
At the same time, I’m looking at their expressions. I had learned a little bit of Korean then. I understood what they were saying. They were saying A, that my hair was beautiful and that it looked so familiar to a style that their ancient Koreans used to do as well because they also used to braid hair. Right? Braids were something that royalty used to have. So they were talking about that. I decided to focus on that aspect of the conversation.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Even though it was a teaching moment, like, “Next time, please ask.” It was also a humbling moment for me to have grannies that are 70, 80 years old being fascinated with my hair, and not from a judgemental perspective. That’s the beauty I drew from those moments. But when there was full out racism, oh man. Whoo. I had direct jobs declined because I’m black. People were not shy to say.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Very clearly, “We need you to speak in an American accent in order to have this job.” We had to send photos in with our resume. The moment they got my photos, they would just say, “No, sorry. You’re not what the school wants to represent itself by.” In other words, you’re not blonde, white haired and blue eyed. Yeah. There were some serious racial offenses. But as you know, those are all over the world, if you’re walking around in a black body.

Maurice Cherry:
This is true. But I would imagine, even more so in such a homogenous country like South Korea or in Japan or something like that. It’s definitely a lot worse because what it does … I mean, it’s one thing for it to be racism, but similar to how it is. Well, maybe not so similar to how it is in the United States. It just impedes how far you can go in society. It keeps you, the racism keeps you down literally at a level where it’s preventing employment and any like social rise in that way.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Right. But at the same time, it was a balance of, yes, I’m being racially profiled, and these things are happening. I’m not able to make a living in some. There were some spots where it was really bad. I was like, “Oh my gosh, if I don’t get another contract, I don’t know what I’m going to do.” But then at the same time, because teaching wasn’t the only thing I was doing there, I was performing music. I was doing like graphic design and design stuff, freelance and production assistant on some films, and things like that, because I never stopped being a creative. In those areas, because of what I looked like. I had so many opportunities. I was a wedding singer.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Because everybody had this idea of a black soul woman in a red dress, just like belting out these love songs from the fifties and jazz. I was like, all right, I’ll play that role. Sure.

Maurice Cherry:
That is amazing.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Oh my gosh. There was aspects of living in Korea that was so fun. I got perform on stages. I got to do weddings. I got to be in a couple of movies and ads. I got to sing in K-pop songs. It was the truth, and purely because of being black and because of the consumption of black culture. So I have to sit with myself and reconcile some of the really negative feelings around that. But for the most part, I was just like, “Okay. At least in the granded scheme of my life, I can say I once did this.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, no, absolutely. I mean, those are the kind of memories you keep with you for a lifetime, just great stories too, to tell, to get to know people and things like that.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
So in 2016 you ended up relocating here to the United States, in Minneapolis. How was it, making that change?

Matshoshi Matsafu:
It was brutal. It was brutal. I wasn’t even based in Minneapolis first. I was based in Duluth College. Duluth, it’s a college town, but it’s also an old town. So not a lot of people around my age. It was in the middle of winter. I’d never experienced a winter here.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow. You went to one of the coldest parts of the country in the winter. My goodness.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
It was brutal, but it was I think a character building exercise for sure. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more homesick than in those years. Especially considering the political climate too, being in a small town in an almost reddish state, and being highly aware of how many or how few black people there were in the vicinity was very jarring for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Did it ever get that cold in Korea?

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Oh yeah. I mean, it did get cold. I think the Minnesota cold hits different though because of all the other things. Right? Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. No, I feel you. Yeah, totally. Also you came, because if you came in the winter of 2016, I mean, that was just such a contentious time in this country because we had the change in leadership from Obama to the president whose name I shall not mention. All of that combined, did you feel like at the time, that you had made the wrong choice?

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Absolutely. I had so many moments of … I was like, “Why would I choose this? Why, why, why?” But I also know that life has peaks and valleys. If anybody grew up the way that we grew up with all the things that we’ve seen, this is nothing. In the grander scheme of things, there’s growth to be had here. That’s why I think I’m still in the city, is that I feel like the city is a place for treading water and refining, refining.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
This is a place where I refined. Okay. I want to work in tech. But what do I actually want to do in terms of my career? Is my career serving my purpose, innate purpose or is it something that I do for money? Do I feel like the surroundings or the circumstance determine my happiness? I’ve had to be very, very, very active and intentional about answering those questions for myself because it would’ve been really, a much harder time, if not. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. How has the Minneapolis like creative community been for you? I mean, it sounds like wherever you’ve managed to go or wherever you’ve managed to be, you’ve tapped into some creative community, whether it’s in Johannesburg. In Korea, you mentioned being a wedding singer and all this stuff. Have you found like similar creative opportunities or communities like that in Minneapolis?

Matshoshi Matsafu:
When I’m being intentional about it, yes. This is except for the past two years.

Maurice Cherry:
Right, right. Because of the pandemic. Yeah.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Right. The thing that I appreciate about here is that even though it was very difficult to find black, brown communities, there are things that show up, like events. If you’re active, you can figure it out. I mean, I had, at some point been planning my month’s activities in advance to go to book launches or independent films or live sketch, anything that would put me in proximity to creativity and art ,like visiting galleries or talks or going to photographer’s exhibition, something, anything. When you do that, then it is very possible to find a bunch of creative people. Right now, I’ve been attending a lot of virtual things and slowly getting into communities. There’s pockets of really interesting things that are happening in the city because oddly enough, there’s tons of funding for the arts, like tons of funding for the arts.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
So when you really go out there, you realize that it may not necessarily be completely futurist yet. But there’s an underbelly of building here that’s really exciting. Black people owning co-ops, black people owning artist collectives and exhibition spaces, black people putting on shows and music and theater and everything. You’re just like, “Wow, this is actually really great. I never expected it here.” I would always be going to Chicago and New York, around LA to find those. But more and more, I think people are actually staying in Minneapolis and deciding to build it here rather than seek it elsewhere.

Maurice Cherry:
We just had on the show a few weeks back, someone that’s in Minnesota. Terresa Moses, she’s an educator at the University of Minnesota. She also has a design studio called Blackbird Revoke. I’ve had other folks on the show, I think in the past, that have been in and around Minnesota. Of course, as I mentioned to you, I know some people there just personally. So I’ve always heard like great things about the community there. I’m glad you were able to really sort of tap into that, to hopefully make it feel … I don’t want to say like home, but at least feel like it’s a place where you can be.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Yeah, absolutely. I actually know Terresa.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh really? Okay. All right. Nice. Tell her I said hello.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Oh yeah. I will go tell.

Maurice Cherry:
You mentioned to me that you wanted to talk about how to embrace being a black creative influx. I’m sure that a lot of folks in our audience want to know how to embrace that, especially during the midst of this very uncertain, weird time that we’ve been now in for about two years. Can you like expand on that?

Matshoshi Matsafu:
So when I think about that, it’s essentially how in this time of what it means to be a black body working in corporate world, especially in a creative profession, our creativity is very closely linked to our identity. Now you’re working with your identity, and your identity is now your work. So you have to really think about like, how do I separate? How do I accept that my emotions, my state of being, my home life, all of these things, the fact that I’m in a black body is going to influence my work, whether I like it or not? The expectations that are put on us to be at the forefront of creating new isms, and memes, and things, and media can, I think, lead to a little bit of an identity crisis.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
I’m saying this out loud because I’ve certainly felt that way sometimes, and embracing the fact that A, you don’t have to be one thing. That’s been the biggest thing for me is that yes, the messaging around find your passion, gear your emotion and your focus and your work towards that passion. Then it’ll turn around for you. Hopefully, be equitable.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Yes. But also we are multifaceted intersectional beings. Right? Half of the time, all of the way that we are around working and being productive and showing that we are worth anything is very Western. Being in one lane is a very, very just constrictive way of being. Part of me kind of realigning myself with my cultural learnings and what feels true to myself has been this, having grace for myself to say, “Okay. So I’m an illustrator, but I’m also a singer, but I’m also a writer, but I’m also a great arter. I’m also a really great technologist.I am also a great philosopher.” These are all the things that I am and more, and I can be good at all of them. I can be good at all of them. I don’t need to be good at all of them at the same rate at all, all the time. But I can certainly not squeeze myself into one lane feeling like that’s it; and if I don’t do that, then I’m not worth anything.

Maurice Cherry:
So what is it that sort of keeps you motivated and inspired these days, like knowing that?

Matshoshi Matsafu:
The funny thing is I inadvertently surround myself, maybe not even physically, but I somehow manage to find people that when we connect, we remind each other of our natural frequency of joy. Whether that be just a conversation or exchanging a message or something, just to reset and remind and inspire. Right? That’s what keeps me going. I have a friend of mine that like a ton of my friends, we don’t maybe not even speak to each other for six months at a time. But when we do speak, it was just like, “Oh, I remember what it feels like to be really happy existing in this time right now.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
That’s it. Then on a more practical sense is not stopping the things you know bring you joy on a practical day to day level. Things like journaling doodling without purpose, not thinking of the final product, whatever it may be taking pictures, cooking, doing something that removes you from being in front of the screen all day. Right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Don’t stop doing those things and don’t stop documenting because when you feel like there’s absolutely nothing left, then you have a whole archive of things to remind yourself that you are more than your work. You are more than productivity, and that you are an actual massive being.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I feel like that a collective thing that a lot of people have started to really discover within themselves this year. We hear all this talk in the news about the great resignation and people casting away. Casting away the jobs that they may have once had under pre pandemic life and doing their own thing. I know so many people over the past two years that have ditched their jobs just to become quote-unquote “content creators”.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a very broad term, but they’re doing stuff on YouTube. They’re doing stuff on TikTok. They’re podcasting. They’re doing any number of things that are not what they were doing beforehand because they realized as society shut down and things got stripped away, they realized what’s really important. For many of them, it was not the jobs they were doing. So they had to tap into who they were and find out how they could become more of that authentic self and really lean into that.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Right. Then also balancing the pressure of even if it’s okay to be multiple things, it’s also okay to be one thing. I think we have this pendulum swing that keeps the happening where it’s like stick in your lane or be a complete hustler and have five different, six different hustles going on at the same time. But some people aren’t built that way. The true thing is to really take the time to know yourself and understand how you built and go with that. It doesn’t have to look like anybody else’s thing.

Maurice Cherry:
Absolutely. Do you feel like you’re living your life’s purpose now or do you think you’re still searching for that?

Matshoshi Matsafu:
I think that’s a constant search. I the think if I ever assumed that I know or that I have found, then my ignorance is really set in deep, personally. If I don’t continue searching, refining, pivoting, learning, becoming new, then I personally feel that I’m denying the very nature of existence. Our cells change on a daily basis. You’re not the same yesterday as you are today. Our personalities, our minds are constantly evolving. So for me, that means that everything should be constantly moving. Will I find some lanes that I’m comfortable in? Sure. But to say that it’s found, I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember, I think this probably went around a couple of years ago about how the body cells replace themselves every seven to 10 years. So in many ways, you’re literally physical not the same person that you were because your body is always in a state of change.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
To that end, and I mentioned this because you had touched on this a little bit before we started recording. But where do you see yourself in the next five years? Is it staying in Minneapolis? What do you want to do or where do you want to be in the next five years?

Matshoshi Matsafu:
I know for a fact that I’m building my life to be as such that I don’t need to call one place home. I want to be three months in one country, three months in another country, in another city and another, and be comfortable in all those places because I know that that’s what I need, to be a structured nomad, I suppose. Because that’s fun for me. I love learning. I love being immersed in different cultures. I love languages. I love building and designing from that perspective of having multiple sources of influx. That makes me excited.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
So that’s one of the things I’m building my life as such to make that easy for me, whether that means also delving into real estate and understanding how that works, so that I can have another passive income that’s actively happening. So I can facilitate my being able to move around, whether that’s increasing my technical knowledge and skill. I mean, I can definitely work from home from anywhere in the world. But the more proficient I become in my particular field right now or the things that I’m able to do, whether it be the illustration or the UX or design, getting even better at that. So that it’s easy for me to move around, and I’m not encumbered by one contract.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
I think I also definitely want to pursue some business aspirations that I’ve had that have been lurking around. Yeah. So that’s it. I want to be in a state where I can live anywhere in the world for three months at a time, unencumbered, be working whichever way it is. Whether it’s through my own business or through contracts, and to be exploring and learning about different cultures, and also being able to spend a lot more time with my family because I don’t like this, what’s been happening for the past two years and not being able to hold my mom. I need to be able to give my mom a hug, and my brothers. It’s intense. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I just got to see my mom this summer back in July. I mean, it came unfortunately at a tragic time because my grandmother had passed away suddenly. That was the first time I got to hug her was after that happened. Oh my god. Yeah. I know exactly what you mean. I know because I live in Atlanta. My folks live in Alabama. People will ask me like, “Oh, why don’t you do what you do in New York or in San Francisco,” or da, da, da, or whatever. I’m like, “Look, I got to be close to home.” Even if it’s just a state over, that’s close enough. I can’t go too far out like that. I would love to, maybe one day, but yeah. Sorry. That brought up something that was not … I was not expected to go there. Oh my god. No, no, no.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
It’s real though. It’s real.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s real though. Yeah.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
When you feel it in your chest and in your throat, and you realize that such a simple thing … Right now, there’s not even any words for it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Yeah. I mean I want to travel with my mom. That’s the next thing I want to … This is strange. I don’t know why old people like cruise ships, but it’s fine.

Maurice Cherry:
Look, oh my god. My mom, my mom wants to go on an Alaskan whaling cruise or something like that.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Exactly. Oh my goodness.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m like, “You’ll be by yourself, lady. I’m not doing that.”

Matshoshi Matsafu:
I’m so shook. I’m like, “What? Okay. That’s what we’re going to do.” So yeah. Yeah. I want to build a life where I can fully take care of myself and my mom, and my family. Just be like, “All right, we’re going to be on a cruise ship for the next couple of months.” Because that’s what you want to do. Let’s do it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Well, just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more about you and about your work and everything online?

Matshoshi Matsafu:
So everything is under my first name Matshoshi on the Grams and Twitter. That’s M-A-T-S-H-O-S-H-I. Also my website is Matshoshi.com. You can see all of my design work, and my forays into creative experiments there. So yeah, that’s where I am. Sometimes I’m vocal online, but most times I’m not because I live in the moment. That’s just the way I function. So if you catch an illustration or a thought here and there, cool. But I mean, I’m there.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Matshoshi Matsafu, thank you so much for coming on the show. One, really for just sharing your perspective of working in the world and creativity in different countries and stuff. But just sharing your story, sharing the deep thought that you have behind your work and around, your artistic practices and everything.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I’m kind of getting a little tongue tied. This was such a really good interview because we didn’t really talk about your work that much. But I’m glad that you were able to really just talk about who you were and showing how being a black, creative is not just the work that you do. It encompasses so many different things. I really feel you embody that. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
I appreciate the opportunity to chat with you. It was a wonderful experience. Thank you.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit is a strategy and design firm committed to designing a more inclusive and equitable world.

We accomplish this through graphic design, presentations and workshops around I-D-E-A: inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility.

If you’re curious to learn how to combine a passion for I-D-E-A with design, check us out at brevityandwit.com.

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

Keisha Okafor

We’re halfway through the year! Summer’s here, and I thought it would be a great time to feature an extraordinary young designer whose work I recently discovered — Keisha Okafor. Her work is brimming with energy and vibrancy and joy — feelings we all could use a bit more of these days.

We start off talking about freelance design, and Keisha told a bit about how she helped make one of the features Google Doodles for Black History Month 2021. Keisha also spoke on her signature design style, talked about one of her dream projects, and gave some great advice on being an illustrator. Keep an eye out for Keisha — I think we’ll definitely see more of her work in the future!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right. So tell us who you are and what you do.

Keisha Okafor:
My name is Keisha Okafor. I’m a freelance illustrator. And I would say that my work I’ve been using depicts joy and celebrates people. I really like to use bright colors and bold patterns.

Maurice Cherry:
How’s the year been going so far?

Keisha Okafor:
It’s been going pretty great. I actually just went freelance full time. So that’s the thing. But before that, I’ve been working full time in design as a production designer, actually for print and also doing project management. Ironically, I was managing all the print projects I was doing. So kind of like a one-woman show. So all of that was very technical and like sending client emails. And then out of work, I was doing illustrations and drawing and working with my freelance clients. So it’s nice to have more time this time, but honestly, it’s been going pretty well. I mean, I know the whole pandemic is still happening. In my mind, it’s not even close to being over, but as a very, very heavy introvert, my day-to-day isn’t really that different, I be inside. So I’m still watching Anime, still playing video games. Yeah. Outside of work is pretty normal to me because I wouldn’t be outside anyway.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Wow. So yeah, you just went freelance. That’s a kind of scary thing to do to make that leap of faith. I mean, did you feel like you were prepared for it when you did it?

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. I definitely did, which is surprising because years ago, would have been terrified, but I did a lot of planning, I watched so many seminars and workshops about going freelance, like what do you need to have in place before you do that? And I also saw enough clients coming in and projects coming in to where I believed like this is going to keep happening. I’m not just a Juneteenth, Martin Luther King Day illustrator. I can do this 365. So once I saw that and all the other planning I’ve been doing for the past several months, I wasn’t as scared as I expected to be.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s good. That’s good. I mean, oftentimes, we’ll have the designers that are here on the show that either are freelancing or they’re thinking about going freelance, and making that leap can often be really scary. I mean, you said that you had some preparations in place, which is good. I mean, to know that you can step out there and have at least some sort of a foundation, so you’re not necessarily going at it alone, but you have, it sounds like you had some major things already planned out before you made the jump, like clients.

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. I also had savings. That was like my main thing. I didn’t want to jump with like $25 in my account. So with all the freelance money I’ve been getting, luckily because I had the full-time job, I was able to save all of that pretty much by pretending that I didn’t have it. I was tricking my mind, like, don’t spend this, this is for your future. Like, don’t wild out and buy stuff, but I’m also not naturally a big spender. My biggest splurge last year was getting Netflix, the two accounts. Yeah. I mean, I bought video games, but I would’ve done that anyway, but yeah, I got Netflix. So that’s like an idea of something I think about, a purchase that I would think about for a while before doing so. Was able to save all that money to have bought a year’s worth just in case nothing happened, which I don’t believe that was going to happen, but just in case, I had enough money to live off of that.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a very smart move.

Keisha Okafor:
Thanks. I take risks, but it’s very calculated because I get very scared, just the idea of going freelance is so scary. So I just wanted to make sure I have things set in place, I thought it through that I’ll be good.

Maurice Cherry:
What made you decide to go freelance? You said you were working as part-time gig, did something happen or did you just feel like it was just time to go?

Keisha Okafor:
Honestly, just in general, the jobs I’ve had, it was a full-time job too. Boy, was I tired anyway. It was just like, no matter what job I had, it ended up being rinky-dink. And by rinky-dink, I mean, no matter how confident I am, no matter how competent I am at the job, no matter how much work I do, how fast I go, I’m still getting treated like I’m entry-level or like the level of a recent graduate in my pay, in how I’m talked to when I ask questions. And I’m just getting tired of that. And because I saw that doing freelance wasn’t as intimidating as I thought, I was just like, let me better myself and make sure that I’m handling that side for myself, that I get to advocate for myself and also determine what I’m worth.

Maurice Cherry:
That is a big reason why I ended up going freelance back in 2008, the company that I was working for was treating me in that same way, like I felt like I was being undermined or belittled or patronized too, even though I’ve got the skills to be there and I’m cranking out top quality work, you still feel like you’re almost treated like a child.

Keisha Okafor:
Yes. Oh my gosh. Yeah. This past job, the work I was doing, it took four people to do before I got there.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. And they’re not a startup company. They’ve been around for many years over a decade. And even taking on that work, they still saw me as a rookie. And I’m like, “Really after all of this?” So I could see that that wasn’t really going to change anytime soon. They would give me compliments, but I’m like, “But my pay isn’t changing.” And when I say things and give suggestions, it’s just going over the head and out the window. So I’m just like, “All right, I see where this is going. I’m out.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What does a typical day look like for you right now? I know you just started freelancing, but have you started getting into a good rhythm?

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. Generally, I have a Trello account, where I have all my freelance projects that I’m working on right now and just different to-do lists, broken down to all the small steps, just so I can see overall what I need to work on. So if there are any priorities or upcoming deadlines, I’ll then write a list, a to-do list of like at least three things I want to get done during the day, like I want to finish this sketch or I want to finish this piece, send this email to the client, things like that. I usually start my day at around 10 o’clock. I am not a morning person at all. Also, I have a cat who only wants to be pet in the middle of the night. So from like 5:00 AM to 7:00 AM, she’s crawling on my chest, like, “Pet me, pet me.” And I’m like, “Let me sleep.” That’s why I start at 10:00 to get back some of that sleep I lost.

Keisha Okafor:
But yeah, I usually start eating cereal, see if I have any emails. I don’t really get too many emails, but I’m also someone who like, I get through them. So I usually only have like three tops. And then I just start the work I’m doing. And if, and then I just keep reviewing that Trello list with my deadlines and checking things off. And if I’m like at the right pace, because I’m trying to pace myself doing a little each day to make sure I hit the deadlines early, instead of like binge doing it all in one day. So once I hit that pace for the day, if I’m done, then I’ll take a break and rest for the day. Yeah. That’s generally how it’s been going so far.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. The best thing about freelancing is really setting your own schedule and then no one can tell you to change it. It’s completely up to you. So if you want to stay in till 10:00 AM, till noon, you can do that. No problem.

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. It still feels like, I feel like a kid beginning summer break, but then I’m like, “Keisha, you’re an adult.” Make sure you get stuff done, which I always do. But waking up at 10 o’clock and being like, “Well, time to get this started.” That still feels wild to me. I’m like, “I get to do this. I planned for this and it’s happening.”

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Now, I first heard about you this year from your work you did for YouTube’s Black History Month campaign. I think they did four different illustrators and artists for each of the four weeks in February. Can you talk about that? How did you become a part of that project?

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah, that still blows my mind. This was like maybe a week before Christmas. I randomly get this email saying, “Hey, Keisha, I work with YouTube. Want to work on this project about Black Creativity for Black History Month?” I immediately thought it was a scam. And then I googled everyone that he mentioned just to make sure kind of just like, who are you? What the heck? His email didn’t say @youtube.com. So I was just like, “Oh, I don’t know about this. Let me just double check.” But I googled everyone and then their LinkedIn pages were like, they’re designer at Google, engineer at Google. I’m like, “Oh, okay. So he was serious.” So I immediately said, “Yeah, I am available to do this. Are you kidding me?”

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. And then probably a week or so later, I met with like a small design team at the YouTube. And they were just telling me about the initiative that they had and they want to work for artists celebrating History Month and wanted to have all the artists make art around black creativity. And that was it. They were like, “You can make that whatever you want it to be, but it just needs to be around black creativity.” And they gave some keywords, like forward-thinking, hopeful, bright, like that. Literally, those were the keywords they gave. So I pretty much just took that and ran with it. But also in the back of my mind, I’m like, “Okay. Okay, Keisha, this is YouTube. You got to show up, you got to show out. So like, do it, do the thing.”

Keisha Okafor:
So initially, I was planning on doing portraits of women who in math and science from the past just to celebrate them. But then they wanted something, when they said forward-thinking, that’s why they gave me the idea of having children in there, like giving like a hopeful idea instead of looking to the past, wanting people to look to the future as well. And I was the one who chose math and science, just because normally when you think of creativity, I usually think of a paintbrush, like dancing and music.

Keisha Okafor:
And they also mentioned that they didn’t want to hit the normal black stereotypes. So like a boombox and people doing break dance. They want it to steer away from that. So I personally like math. I still, even at my big age, I watch PBS Kids shows about math and science. So I figured that would be a fun thing to do, a fun thing to go around. And that’s in that forward thinking idea, it was me having like women in STEM, showing young girls the magic in front of it. So that’s where the idea came based on their feedback. That’s how that idea came to pass.

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. And once they approved it, I was just going with it. The main critique was at first, I made everyone dark skin and almost the same tone. And they were like, “Oh, can you give it some variety?” I go, “Oh yeah, no problem.” And then they wanted me to use like, I was being very literal at first. So like the sky is blue, rockets are gray. And they were like, “Can you use like some of the colors that you use? Like the ones that you use.” And I was just like, “Oh, okay. So you actually want me to put my spin on it.” I was putting all these rules, adding all these rules to myself. This has to be very literal. If I’m drawing math, it needs to look like math. But once they said that, then that’s when I went crazy with the colors, like, “This guy could be pink and yellow and purple.” So yeah. Then I added my own spin to that. And that’s pretty much how it turned out.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I have to say it looks amazing. And for people that haven’t seen it, we’ll make sure to put a link to it in the show notes so you can definitely check it out. I mean, I get that kind of forward feeling, that forward-thinking notion from that. It’s interesting enough, I had discovered an organization, I think they either left a comment or I saw it somewhere else on the web, but because your piece was centered around STEM, I had discovered this group called Black Girl MATHgic, like Black Girl Magic, but MATHgic. And I mean, I love math too. My degree is in mathematics. So I saw that, I was like, “That is so cute.” That was the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. It’s like it’s a program, but then they also sell some merch for fundraising and stuff. I was like, “This is really dope teaching young black girls math fundamentals and stuff.” It’s pretty cool.

Keisha Okafor:
Oh, that is so amazing. I just love that so much. And the lack Girl MATHgic, Oh my gosh.

Maurice Cherry:
It sounds like you working with YouTube on this was like a really kind of collaborative process. Are those sort of the best types of clients for you to work with?

Keisha Okafor:
Yes. I would say that working with YouTube was definitely like ideal client. They were very responsive, followed the schedule, they communicated so well. And they were also really nice, like we’re working with big clients, I just assumed like they were going to be very strict and we need to have it look a certain way. They want to work with people, but they want it to look a certain way, it’s what I expected. But working with them, I really saw that they wanted me to show myself in there and to put my own spin. When they said, put your own spin on a theme of black creativity, they actually meant it. That’s why I mentioned the thing with the colors. That was like very refreshing for me, something I really enjoy, like the great communication, being responsive, when things were delayed, they adjusted the schedule to match the delay. I was like, “You’re amazing.” Yeah. I really enjoyed them as a client. And those are things that seeing that it’s possible, those are things that I start to look for when I’m working with people.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Let’s go back to freelancing just a little bit more. When you have a new client or you’re approaching, let’s say, a new project, what does your creative process look like?

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. So usually, I try to get as much information from the client at the beginning as possible because a lot of people say, “Oh, just do whatever.” But they actually have something in mind. So I try to ask a lot of initial questions, just to get an idea, like, do you have an idea or do you actually want me to give you my ideas? I just want that to be clear from the very beginning before I start doing research. And then I also asked like a lot of technical questions, how much do you want the resolution to be? What size? What’s your timeline? Because if it’s a small timeline, then I won’t try to do this super complex thing. I’ll make it simpler.

Keisha Okafor:
But in terms of like the creative making the thing once that’s settled, I usually do a lot of research on stock websites. I like iStockphoto, just to get an idea of like composition, and if it’s something I’m not familiar with, I can’t just think of 35 math formulas off the top of my head. I just got f of x imprinted in my mind, but I need more. So I like to look at stock websites just to see what kinds of things are default, their body poses, body expressions, what do real people look like? Because I don’t want every person I draw to have the same face, but different bodies and different hairstyles. That feels weird to me, but I like when other people do it.

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. So I like to go on stock websites just to see if anything is giving me ideas, is it inspirational? Is it good for reference? And once I get that, I’ll start sketching out different ideas, trying out different compositions, just to see like, does anything look good? Can I draw this thing? What are the hands going to look like? And then usually, that’s when I start going back and forth with the client, seeing what they think of my ideas.

Keisha Okafor:
But if anything’s going in the right way, usually, that’s also the time I’ll ask, “Do you have any other ideas once you see this, a better idea of what you’re looking for kind of thing?” And then once that happens, I’ll either revise it or start going with color, again, make more ideas, send that to them. And then it’s usually just a back and forth, giving them the art and then getting their feedback. But as I’ve been working and seeing like how easily that can turn into a 100 revisions, I put limits like, okay, we’re going to have two rounds of revisions. And if you want more, this is going to cost. So yeah, I say back and forth, but it’s back and forth like twice just to protect my time essentially.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, even with all of this, are you also thinking a lot about, let’s say, colors, like a color story or anything to go along with a new project? Or does that come naturally?

Keisha Okafor:
Sometimes it comes naturally, but I also have a Pinterest board just full of different pictures that are like, it’s either a fashion outfits, stationary, graphic design branding, things like that. But if I don’t have any ideas, I’ll just pick from that, like, oh, let me try this, or since I’m on social media a lot and have a lot of artists I follow, there are just some artists I like the way they use color. There’s an artist, her name is Olivia Fields. And one thing she likes to do is have a very monochromatic color scheme, but she uses value so well it’s still very interesting to look at. So if I’m thinking about that lately, I’ll like, let me try to use a monochromatic scheme just to see what it look like if I do it kind of thing. If it doesn’t work, I’ll just trash it. But yeah, it can either come from other artists, that Pinterest board or I’ll just start off with, I want the main color to be yellow and then I’ll just randomly pick colors and adjust it based on that.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. So I want to switch gears here a little bit based on what we were talking about prior to recording. You mentioned you’re from North Carolina, that’s where you grew up. Tell me what it was like growing up as a creative kid in North Carolina.

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. I will say my grew up story isn’t similar to like the ones I hear on interviews. People will be like, “I drew all the time, I love drawing.” I drew some of the time and I was mostly watching cartoons, animated movies, just a lot of TV, playing a lot of video games. It wasn’t until I was 13 that I even decided like, oh, I want to do something art related. It was from seeing the Incredibles. I saw the behind the scenes animation thing. And I was like, “I want to be an animator.” But then once I got closer to picking a college and saw what animation was, very quickly, it was like, no, I don’t want to do that.

Keisha Okafor:
I want to draw because I used to draw like a little bit, when I say every once in a while, I mean like a handful of drawings per year. I wasn’t really, I liked to draw, but I wasn’t sitting around drawing all the time because I was just overthinking it so much, I would draw, one time, I drew the Powerpuff Girls, like just very stiff Powerpuff Girls poses and look like them. But then I took it to school for the next few days and showed everyone. I was like, “Praise me. I’m a good artist. Look at me.” And then didn’t draw for like the next few months.

Keisha Okafor:
That was me as a kid artist, but still very much enjoyed it. I took art classes in middle school and high school. And I would say that’s where my artistic skills and sense and interests started to grow. I wasn’t doing anything like extracurricular. I was just taking it as an elective. So by the time I got to college, I was like, “I don’t have any other interests. I want to be an artist. And I’m hoping college will unlock the key to figure out how people actually get paid to make art.”

Maurice Cherry:
And I mean, you went to North Carolina State University, which we’ve had several alums just here on the show that have went there. While you were there, do you feel like they really prepared you to become a working designer out in the world?

Keisha Okafor:
Now, when I look back at it now, I’m like, “Oh yeah, they actually did.” But at the time, I didn’t think so at all, because it just felt very vague, because I also, I majored in art and design at NC State and I thought that meant I’m going to paint, like be an artist. They attach design to it. But they really mean art, right?

Maurice Cherry:
No.

Keisha Okafor:
It was like the first week they were like, “Hey, I know you guys like to draw and paint, but we’re not teaching you to be artists, we’re teaching you to be designers.” And in my mind, I was just like, “No, what is design? Oh, no.” Looking back on it now, I see they were teaching us how to think like designers and how to problem solve. And that’s something that’s been so helpful. And also, with drawing, making sure you understand the foundations of drawing, that’s something that I’ve been using a lot as well, but really that problem solving thing and also how to think like a designer, I would say that’s been the most helpful in my design career. But in terms of like how to get a job, how to make a good portfolio for a job, nope. I’m just like, “I wish I did something about it.” But now that I am working and have had jobs, those design fundamentals have actually been very helpful.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Now, after college, you ended up for a while moving out to LA, what prompted that?

Keisha Okafor:
It was actually like one of those moments of close family member passed away. So it was just very much like life is short kind of moment, let me try things that I would never do, just you never know you get this chance again. And growing up, watching a lot of TV, California always looked cool. And that was one of my bucket list thing, like I want to see what it’s like to live in California. So once that chance came up, I just went for it, oh, man. So scared. I was sweating on that plane just, Ooh, oh my gosh. I was so scared. But yeah, that’s how I ended up getting there.

Keisha Okafor:
And really, my goal was just to see, like, can I go there and survive? Can I do enough to make sure I don’t have a flight back in three months? And I ended up staying for four and a half years, going on five years. I came back to North Carolina at the end of 2019, months before, I mean, months before COVID happened. So I am so, oh, I don’t have family in California. So that’s why I’m like, I am so glad I moved just in time so I could be near my family and at least know they’re safe in person versus a phone call from like 3000 miles away.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now, while you were out there, did you get a chance to really experience the LA design scene?

Keisha Okafor:
I don’t think so. When people say that, I’m just like, “So where’s the scene at? And how do I get there?” My only experience was through the jobs I had. And comparing it to North Carolina, the main difference I noticed was that things were way more fast-paced. Yeah, that was like the biggest difference I noticed. And also like, but this is with anything. Once you see the process behind things, it takes that bale away. Things aren’t as glamorous as I initially thought, like I had a job at a media buying agency, where I was editing album covers for social media posts or resizing banner ads that will be put on YouTube, like watching the YouTube video and seeing of like, oh, this looks so like, well, one it’s annoying, but also seeing like a big artist with an ad, I’m like, “Ooh, fancy.” But hearing the media buyers trying to get the space and make it and asking me to resize things and how crazy that process can be, I’m just like, “Okay. These are just regular people trying to just do their jobs.”

Keisha Okafor:
And I would say a big thing that just in general in the workforce, I’m just like, “Man, people procrastinate so much.” I thought that was like one of those warnings I got in college, like, you’ll never be able to procrastinate when [inaudible 00:27:40], but adults do that all the time.

Maurice Cherry:
All the time.

Keisha Okafor:
Yes. Oh my gosh. And it happens so much. When I was working on those album covers, I was just like, “Come on guys. Just please send me the picture so I can resize it.” But it did help me build up efficiency because there were such fast turnarounds. I was used to working at a fast pace. So coming back to North Carolina, that’s how I ended up, when I mentioned earlier doing the work of four people, because I was used to working so fast. Like when things are slower here, it wasn’t that big of a deal. It felt normal. It helped me in that sense. But yeah, you asked about the design scene. I would also love to know what the scene was like, where was the all people? Where were the people at? What do design people do? I didn’t really get that question answered.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, it’s interesting because like, you mentioned earlier like, well, where is the design scene? I think designers carve out their own scene based on who they’re working with or working for, who they have met or inspired by. I’ve been to LA only once, I went in the beginning of 2020 in February. And I found that it was just like real, it was just so spread out. I mean, Atlanta is spread out, but LA is way more spread out. I’m like, it takes forever to get anywhere. Like if you’re going to go somewhere, you better hope it’s on your side of town, you don’t have to cross over and go down. It’s so big. I was there for two weeks and I know I only saw maybe like a 10th of LA. It’s so big. So big. I mean, I guess when I asked about like how the design scene was, I’m curious if it was different from maybe the design scene that you knew back home in North Carolina, like you mentioned, it was more fast-paced, but were there other differences?

Keisha Okafor:
That’s a good question. I will say, like you mentioned, because everything was so separated, it was kind of like, if you weren’t in that neighborhood, we’re not going to meet or we’re not going to meet often. So it ends up being like pockets of communities that I would notice. So I had a lot of animation friends because they lived in Glendale and Burbank and they were interested in working at Cartoon Network or Disney TV.

Keisha Okafor:
So I would meet those people in Burbank and Glendale, but then the people who were interested in more of graphic design or stationary, I talked to those people down near the beach because that’s where a lot of the agencies were. It was like, I could find pockets of people in different areas, but it was so rare for them all to come together just because how long it took to go places like, like literally, Google Maps will say something is maybe 10 miles away and you think, oh, I’ll get there no time. That’s an hour trip one way. I’m just like, “This doesn’t add up.” But then you take the trip and I’m just like, “That took an hour. Oh my gosh.” So it’s just like people aren’t going to make that. Even people who were natives, they weren’t really going to make that trip on a regular basis. So it was just like pockets of communities that I would have in the different places I was at depending on where I lived and worked. That’s how I ended up seeing the people.

Keisha Okafor:
But I feel like in North Carolina, everyone is in Raleigh, you’re in Raleigh, I can get to the edge of Raleigh, the top, it will take like 20 minutes. So to me, compared to being in LA, I’m like, “That’s not a big trip at all.” So I feel like people are taking more initiative to meet up, and I’m sure that’s because of COVID as well, have like a lot of meetups and groups and workshops and stuff. Whereas it would be like a once in a lifetime thing to do, I’ll take this trip one time an hour for this workshop, but don’t count on me to come every week.

Maurice Cherry:
And the web is going to change things too. I mean, there’s events and workshops and things. A lot of stuff has come online just over the past year that before either didn’t exist or it was just inaccessible because of location or something like that.

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. Adobe MAX, the first time I attended it was last year because it was virtual. I lived in LA and it happened there every year, but I just was not about to sit there and pay for it not only, but just go there and talk designer talk. Sometimes I feel like there could be a prestige that some people might have, like, hello, I’m art designer. I integrate things together. They use all the design words and I’m not very good at that. I’m just like, “Yeah, make pictures.” So being in that environment isn’t something I would want to pay to do. So it was nice to be able to attend the virtual version because I never would have went otherwise. Yes, there were so many conferences and things I’ve never heard about that I got to hear about because it was virtual and people I got to meet because of that, which is nice to me.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. As I was going through your work, I saw your illustration work and your portrait work, which is beautiful, but your patterns, the patterns on your website are absolutely gorgeous. I love that you have in your bio, on your website, you mentioned that you’re an artist and designer depicting joy. What does it mean for you to depict joy in your work?

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. So in terms of people, you’ll probably see that I draw a lot of black people. And one thing that makes me happy about black culture and just black people in general is just seeing us love the things that we love, however we love it. It just makes me really happy to see all the different facets and ways that black people just are. I get so excited. And I feel like when I draw that, that’s where I’m trying to convey just how excited I am to see black people as they are, doing whatever they like, looking as cool or as goofy or as happy as they are. I feel like that comes through with the people.

Keisha Okafor:
And in terms of the patterns, I really like music. But when I hear music, I tend to see a lot of different shapes and colors just moving together. That’s how I see the song. Like me drawing those abstract patterns, it’s usually me listening to music and drawing whatever comes to mind. So just kind of like the happiness that comes from listening to music, that energy is something I’m trying to capture in the patterns. And I like for it to fit together kind of like different sounds fit together in a song, that’s how it shows up in the patterns.

Maurice Cherry:
And when you’re even doing these patterns, it also seems like you’re drawing from nature some too. I don’t know maybe if that was just the particular collection that you were doing, but I saw a lot of kind of tropical themes and leaves and stuff like that. It’s just very, very stunning work.

Keisha Okafor:
Thank you. Yeah, the tropical thing is I just love the way tropical scenery looks. I also think it’s nice, like all the different leaves and like patterns that you see within leaves, I think that’s nice as well, but also sometimes, if I draw too many triangles and circles, I’m like, “Let me draw something that people can recognize.” So it ends up just being leaves and flowers for some reason. I’m not even a big flower person, it just ends up coming out, or I’ll just look up pictures of flowers. But yeah, I really love tropical weather and themes and stuff. So I just end up drawing it a lot.

Maurice Cherry:
I have not met a Nigerian that didn’t like bright colors. So you’re definitely onto something there.

Keisha Okafor:
[inaudible 00:35:22]. I love that. You’re right. You’re right.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you get your creativity back if you are feeling uninspired, like say you hit a block in a project somewhere you’re working on something, what do you do to get that spark back?

Keisha Okafor:
So when I am inspired, I have a bunch of hidden Pinterest boards. And then I also have a notebook where when I’m inspired, I just write down ideas of things that I think will be cool to make. So when I am feeling blocked or uninspired, I’ll look through that Pinterest board. One is just called Black, and it’s just black people, just random black people that I can find on Pinterest. It used to be really hard, but I saved so many pictures and looked at it that Pinterest has realized this girl likes to look here black people. So now my homepage has that.

Keisha Okafor:
So I’ll either look at that Pinterest board, just kind of seeing people do stuff or I also have some with just colors or textures or shapes. I’ll just look through the Pinterest board or I’ll look through that list of ideas that I have. I’ll either do that or I’ll just take a break. Turn the thing off, turn the computer off, turn the iPad off, watch TV, play a video game, take a nap and then come back. Yeah. And then if there’s like a time crunch, I’m just like, “Well, honestly, think about the money.” I’m like, “Girl, do you want to get paid?” I’m like, “Yeah.” So I just do it no matter what I’m like, okay. Just loosen up. Then I’ll take a five minute break, loosen up, get some water or something and then come back and just do it.

Keisha Okafor:
Or another thing I’ll do, sometimes I’m not a good singer, but I love to sing. So I’ll just turn on Spotify and then just force myself to sing along out loud as bad as it’s going to come out, just so to get my mind not overthinking it. And then things usually come out better. If I have, like my mind is focused on me singing, even though like, what notes? What notes am I hitting? So that helps me have a bit of more energy and looseness to the art that I’m making.

Maurice Cherry:
One thing that I would do when I was working on projects is I’d always build in at least a week into the sort of like project plan, because I mean, I think the expectation, certainly, I think from clients, but oftentimes, for us as freelances, as designers, the expectation is we’ll get the work and we’ll just be able to knock it out, like we’ll sit down and we’ll know what we do because the client has brought us on for our expertise. So we have to be the expert.

Maurice Cherry:
And I mean, depending on how, if you set up a project rate or hourly rate or a day rate or whatever, sometimes clients will try to nickel and dime you to try to know like, well, how long did it take you to work on X, Y, Z, and blah, blah, blah? And I certainly early on in my freelance career, that was a mistake that I made. And then eventually, I switched things over either to like a project rate or I do like a day rate or something like that. I’d build in like a week of time because there’s no telling.

Maurice Cherry:
And for me, it’s almost like creative insurance, like I may need it in the future if something happens, like what if I get sick? Or what if I just am not feeling it? And I can take that time out of the bank sort of because I’ve built it into the project and then I can, like if I take a day off and then decide to come back later and do it, then that way I’m not impacting the project because I built that time in there. It gives me permission to not have to be a machine when it comes to like creativity because sometimes the ideas flow and sometimes they just don’t.

Maurice Cherry:
And I’ve certainly been at that place where you’re at, where you’re like, you just have to think about the money, like think about what this is going to do. And then you soldier on or you push through it. But yeah, that’s one thing that I would do is I just build in the time because the good thing is if you never use it, then you come out early and the client is happy. And then if you do use it, the client is still happy because you came out on time.

Keisha Okafor:
Right. That’s great. Because I learned in the design world as well, especially when I was at that media buying agency, it was an open office and there were only like eight of us. So sometimes I’ll work on stuff, they just be standing over my shoulder, “How long do you think it’ll take?” I’m like, “Please. Oh, I think it’ll take me a few hours rolling.” It wouldn’t. It would take me shorter than that, but I like to add in that buffer, just like you said, like if something happens, I can still turn it in when I said I could, but also giving myself that insurance, like you said, to make it.

Keisha Okafor:
But in terms of the illustration projects now, those few hours turns into a couple of extra days or maybe an extra week, like you said. Yeah. Especially when people say they have a tight turnaround, things never are as tight as people want it to be, especially with getting revisions and just getting feedback, especially if there are a lot of cooks in the kitchen. So it is way better to add in more time for that kind of stuff in the beginning, like you said.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now when you were in school, when you were back at North Carolina State, let’s say, I think that was maybe probably around 10 years ago at this point, right?

Keisha Okafor:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry:
Where did you see yourself career-wise by this age where you’re at now?

Keisha Okafor:
Honestly, by the time I graduated, I was just like, “Am I cut out for this?” Honestly, because I thought, again, like when I was 18 entering college, I thought, okay, college is going to give me the roadmap. And by the time I am a senior, I’m going to know exactly what I want to do, how to get there and I’ll be able to get there. But that didn’t happen when I was a senior. I felt kind of similar to how I was as a freshman, like, what? Like, what am I doing? I need to find a job.

Keisha Okafor:
So I mainly, the main goal I had, I was like, Keisha, please have a job, please have a job and an apartment that you can pay for with your job. I had very, very basic goals for myself, have a job that’s something related to design. Yeah, that was pretty much my only goal. I wanted, the idea of freelance sounded good, but then at that time, I had no idea how to do it. So it wasn’t even, it was more like a fantasy more than like me seeing myself there.

Maurice Cherry:
I didn’t go to design school, but it is something that I’ve thought about in terms of like, do I need this in order to have this legitimacy for myself as a designer? Because I’ve been self-taught and I did a little bit of work at companies, like I worked for the State of Georgia for a while, I worked at AT&T for a while. And then like, I really had just felt like, you know what? I got this, I could start my own studio and do this and really do it myself. And I’ve learned so much really just in the time that I had my studio doing things by myself, but they never really teach you entrepreneurship. I mean, again, I didn’t go to design school, but even with the work that I was doing, by the time I started my studio, I had a bachelor’s and a master’s degree and still didn’t know anything about freelancing. I was really either making it up as I went along or I was asking other freelances. I was really gaining this education while I was also trying to run my business.

Keisha Okafor:
Absolutely. Because in design school, in my senior year, we had this class that the description was literally, we’re going to prepare you to get a job. But when we actually took the class, they were like, “You need a website. Do you know what a website is? You can make websites on Squarespace.” I’m like, “Are you kidding me? This is my senior year and you’re teaching us that we need a website. Of course, we do. What are you talking about? How do you get a job? Please tell me what to put on my resume and how to get the people to actually hire me.”

Keisha Okafor:
Even then, like being in design school didn’t make that difference. It’s almost like they’re out of touch with what was happening in the world. Like they got the art skills, but getting a job or even being an entrepreneur, that wasn’t even close to being thought about in any of my classes. I would have had to talk to alumni who are already doing it. And kind of like you said, they were figuring it out on their own or like having outside resources to figure that out. So I definitely don’t think going to design school will or not going to design school, you won’t really be missing out honestly.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, by the time I really started figuring it out, I think I was about, I don’t know, I think maybe I was about two or three years into my studio and from just talking with other freelancers and picking up, because sometimes you just have to get, unfortunately, you just have to get burned a few times in business before you learn that lesson or whatever that particular lesson is. But I think by the time I was like, by the time I hit my fifth year, I had it down pat at that point, I knew about contracts and proposals and getting things done and everything just ran smoothly, but it took some time to get there.

Maurice Cherry:
So yeah. I think now, because freelancing is an option for so many people, whether they do it either independently, like you’re doing, or if they do something like working via like a design marketplace, such as ThemeForest or Envato Elements or Envato Market, whatever the thing is that Envato has with all of the different websites and stuff, Fiverr, even those kinds of things, Upwork, there’s ways that you can use those tools to manage your business better, but it’s still, at the end of the day, it comes down to really knowing what those fundamentals are and knowing what works best for you. I think certainly, when I was doing business, there’s not an all-purpose solution for like being an entrepreneur. I wish there was. But once you learn what works for you in terms of cashflow and payments and client communication and everything, then you’ve cracked it, you’ve cracked the code pretty much.

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. A lot of the stuff I’ve learned even about graphic design because NC State does have a graphic design major, but I majored in art and design, a lot of the stuff I learned about graphic design was just learning by doing. It ended up being like the jobs I had, more doing stuff for family and friends was really the stuff that prepared me for the different jobs. And I’m learning that that’s the same thing that’s happening with freelance as well, like the classes that I take, the people, the Instagram artists that I’ll DM or Instagram friends I have, I’ll DM, those things have been really helpful. And also, like you said, being burnt, having bad clients, that helps me set better boundaries for future clients, like knowing what to do. So yeah, that’s definitely something I’m in the process of right now. I’m definitely looking forward to the part where everything runs itself.

Maurice Cherry:
It’ll get there probably I think sooner than you expect. Before you know it, it’ll just flow. It’s sort of like a… I mean, you watch anime, it’s like the Avatar State. Eventually, you’ll be able to just invoke it and you’ll be good.

Keisha Okafor:
Awesome. Avatar is one of my favorite shows. So I love that you said the Avatar State.

Maurice Cherry:
What are you obsessed with at the moment?

Keisha Okafor:
Speaking of anime, so I’m watching this anime called Fruits Basket. It’s a silly premise. When it’s like, if you hug someone of the opposite gender, they will turn into Zodiac animal, so like the Year of the Horse, or a cat, rat, like things like that. But you end up finding out everyone has these crazy backstories and there’s this whole curse and things like that. So I’ve just been binge-watching that show basically, because I’m so curious to see what’s happening. Other than that, I’ve been playing a video game called Mario & Sonic at The Olympic Games for 2020. I’ve just been going through the story mode. There was one, it’s the triple jump and I keep getting disqualified. So I got mad and turned it off, but I still think about it because I’m like, “I’m going to win.” Yeah. I would say those two things.

Keisha Okafor:
Also, I have a cat. I’ve never had a pet before, but I got one a few months ago, honestly, off the strength of seeing other black people on social media have cats and they seem to enjoy it. And I always wanted a cat. So I ended up getting one. So I spend a lot of time peeking over the couch, seeing what she’s doing or looking for her around the house and just smiling really big. She gets annoyed, but I think she’s used to it. I would say I’m pretty obsessed with her.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Do you have like a dream project that you would love to do one day?

Keisha Okafor:
That’s a great question. I would say the only dream project I had, I got to do it last year. So I got to illustrate a deck of playing cards and I pretty much did the art direction for the whole thing. So you mentioned the tropical idea, there was a running idea I had for a long time of joining black people in the tropical space, kind of like an oasis, a place where they could freely celebrate themselves without all the isms in the world that black people carry. So I pretty much made the deck around that and got the job black people being happy or silly in that tropical environment. And that was something I really enjoy doing. If I think of like a future project, it would be a similar thing, but in a different format. I haven’t figured that out yet, but definitely enjoyed doing that deck of cards, but I’m not sure if that’s like a book or like a coffee book or like a storybook, but that’s kind of like something that I’m juggling in my head right now.

Maurice Cherry:
What is the best advice that you’ve ever been given regarding what you do as an illustrator?

Keisha Okafor:
Interestingly enough, I would say the best advice I have is more of like a you as a person. So like, not finding your identity in the work that you do, you’re more than the work that you do. You are enough as you are. Like those kinds of things I’ve seen have made the biggest difference for me. Yeah, a lot of times the artsy-fartsy, mumbo-jumbo, it just slides off of me. I’m just like, this sounds, but when I draw, what does that mean? So hearing things like, I’m more than the art that I make is very freeing for me to be able to just have fun with it and do stuff that I like. And I don’t have to judge myself based on how well I drew today.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I can see how that, I mean, well, one, I see that is good advice just in general, like, make sure that you don’t get too caught up in the work, but also realize that you put your own identity into everything that you do as well.

Keisha Okafor:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next like five years? Like this whole pandemic craziness is over with, it’s 20, what? 2026. What kind of work do you want to be doing?

Keisha Okafor:
Honestly, I haven’t thought that far ahead. I was like, “Will the world still be turning at that time?” I think it would be.

Maurice Cherry:
I hope so.

Keisha Okafor:
You’re right. Me too. Honestly, I hope I’ll be doing bigger projects, projects I’m really excited about. I’m enjoying the projects that I’m doing right now. So more, just like an extension of the kinds of things I’m doing right now getting to illustrate different people, doing things, really hoping to get into the Children’s Book World, be able to illustrate them to children’s books. That’s something I’m looking forward to. And also, I want to get my patterns onto products. So one thing I’m hoping to do also in five years is to have my products on things. Yeah. More of like, just like all the different ways I can get my work out there, either on products or online in different formats. That’s something I’m hoping will happen, just as I grow and do things and get better at art, have it just spread onto different formats as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Well, just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more about you and about your work and everything that you’re doing online?

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. So you can find my work on my website, which is keishaokafor.com, O-K-A-F-O-R. You can also find me on social media on Twitter and Instagram, mostly Instagram @keishaoak, oak as in oak tree, O-A-K. The reason why it’s like that is just so you know how to pronounce Okafor. But yeah, that’s pretty much where I’m at, Instagram, Twitter and my website.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Keisha Okafor, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I have to say, I just love how joyful and colorful and vibrant your work is. Like I mentioned, when I discovered you from the work that you did at YouTube, I was just looking at your website, like, this is so fun. And I have to say that it’s rare to see a designer put that sort of joy into their work, but I am really excited to see what sort of work you’ll be doing after this interview, after people get a chance to really see your work, because I feel like this sort of vibrancy and joy in life is what we need right now. We need to be seeing more of this everywhere. And so I’m excited for people to really learn more about you and learn more about your work. And yeah, just thank you for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Keisha Okafor:
Thank you for having me. I am hope, really excited for people to see my work too. And I really appreciate all your kind words. Yeah, I definitely, I’m just like, if I’m going to draw, I’m going to have fun with it and I want everyone else to have fun with it too. So definitely excited to see where it all goes.

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