In art college I championed a lot of illustrators and used their careers as maps to guide me along a path I hoped would help me become successful. It was a natural thing to do, and what many young artists do when they’re learning their craft. This fed into a plan I already had in place, which was relatively easy to follow and was, for the most part, created by sources exterior to myself – by my circumstances, my parents, my teachers, friends, hetero norms and societal expectations.
When we moved to Canada my dad worked at a factory and then as a janitor until I was about sixteen years old when he lost his job, and my mother did data entry at an educational publishing company, well into her sixties. They both made very little money and supported a family of seven: my brother, sister, and I, and my aunt and grandmother. We knew how little money they made and so we each got jobs as kids to help ease our family’s financial stress, and to pay for our undergraduate educations. My options were incredibly limited, and when I look back I still wonder how I even got this far. The first several years of my career felt like a simple board game, there was only one direction to move in (forward) and sometimes there would be moments when I would have to pause or go backwards stalling my progress. Although I loved to draw, money became the primary reason why I worked so fiercely – I didn’t have enough of it, and I didn’t want to live the kind of life that my parents had lived, which was continuous financial struggle.
Shortly after I graduated from art college I poured all of my energy towards trying to ensure that my drawings would make me money. It took a lot of effort, a new portfolio of images, and some leaps of faith. Fortunately I was able to capture a level of work, and make enough money that allowed me to quit my job, and move into an apartment where I slept on a real bed, instead of a sleeping bag on the floor. But after a few years, it was hard to keep working with this level of intensity and from this place of intention (making art for money) because at my core, my aim was something that I knew couldn’t be sustained over the long term. As I grew older I had several coming of age moments (which I might write more about in my later entries) in which I felt like I was either falling apart, or cracking open, and as much as I loved money and pretty things, they weren’t keeping me happy anymore. And so, continuing to walk towards an elusive finish line seemed to vanish, and I shifted my view towards the awesome and curious things that lay outside of the path that I was on.
That path in my twenties was a life that was held in glossy magazines, music videos and on television. I loved fashion (and still do); however, back then I had a more superficial and fantastical view of what the industry was like, compared to nowadays where, via work, I’ve become privy to the mechanics of the fashion machine: the moving parts (and the money!) that’s needed to create and maintain the magic. So, my illustrations reflected this love of mine, it allowed me to literally draw the fantasy that I wanted to live in, and to imagine a world that was full of abundance; one that was the total opposite of my childhood. But over time I grew bored of drawing these images because as I changed as a person my work stayed the same. New stories begin to surface that I felt I needed to uncover and express in a more obvious way. These stories referred to my ethnicity, sexuality, gender, history, and upbringing. I used to think that commercial art was purely about taking someone’s words and expressing them visually in a magazine or advertisement, but once I allowed myself permission to tap into these personal influences to create a new body of work, my entire world changed and it was at that moment when I stepped off of the path I was on, and started to wander, play, and learn new ways of seeing, and making art.
This is when I wrote my first Five Year Plan. I did this mostly because I believe in the power of setting intentions, and that the words you use can manifest those intentions (with real work, of course). I also believe that when I write the words out in long hand it makes the intention feel more concrete and tangible, and I even read it out loud like I’m casting a spell. These acts, although I have no proof, adds a kind of depth of feeling to the words as though I’ve taken the first actionable step to making the plan come true.
What I’ve learned working as a freelance illustrator is that my process is sometimes unorthodox and that I change my mind a lot. As Walt Whitman wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” I can’t adopt someone else’s paths to success because our lives are hinged onto so many things, such as our social and economic status, work related experiences, family upbringing, psychology, trauma, geography, ethnicity, gender and the list goes on. I’m not as organized as I thought I was, I’m very emotional and have a tendency to ruminate. I understand that making art takes hard work and that there will be moments when the work feels boring. It’s important to be grossly truthful, and to be aware of not only my strengths, but especially my flaws before writing my 5 Year Plan. Here’s a recent one I wrote this past summer.
In 5 years, I’ll be 48 years old.
I won’t be living in New York City.
Mikee and I used to talk about moving out of the city, even out the country and exploring the world together. This time, his job will take him to South America and so I’ll join him. I speak Portuguese fluently now, and my parents still laugh when I call them on the phone and speak to them in Portuguese instead of Chinese. Although I’m not sure that we’ll be living in Brazil, Mikee and I will be living somewhere close enough that it won’t be a grueling flight over. I’m grateful to have become an American citizen 5 years ago. Having the mobility to come back into the United States is very important to me. My family are still living in Toronto, and since New York City is still my home base, it’ll be easy to see them.
I recently completed my fourth picture book in the past 5 years. The first three books were a struggle to make. It had been such a long process putting them together, but once I got past the initial hurdle of writing and illustrating my first book that’s when the momentum began. Also, big news… this most recent book was awarded a Caldecott Honor! I’m currently working on a new one and I’m crossing my fingers that it’ll win a Caldecott Medal! Writing and illustrating picture books was not something that I even foresaw in my career; however, because my finances have stabilized through consistent illustration work and being commissioned to work on larger and more lucrative projects, I can finally devote more time to picture book illustration. It’s 2023 and so far I have 11 illustrated books under my belt, one of which is a book published by The Folio Society.
I also have a new body of artwork that I’m working on. This is something I haven’t stopped doing since 2007, making personal work. This particular body of work has piqued the attention of a gallery in New York City and so I’ll be flying back in a few weeks to meet with the owner. I asked her if she’d rather fly down here, but her schedule wouldn’t allow it.
Staring at my closet, it’s filled with speedos and crop tops. My fitness journey began seven years ago and I’m proud to have stuck with it. It was one of the best decisions I made in my life. Approaching 50, I look and feel nothing like what I imagined 50 would appear to be. I still wear a size Small!
I’m walking to the beach today. I’ve left my laptop at home and decided not to bring Shalby – she loves the beach, but it’s a too hot for her to be out today. I’ve been working this way since art college, taking my sketch book outside of the house to work; to the park, a café, or to the pond that used to be a few blocks away from my parents home in Scarborough. Mikee’s out of town, he’s giving another TED Talk about some creation of his that’s helping to make some people’s lives easier. He became an Occupational Therapist 5 years ago, and since then he’s turned his profession into something much greater and is helping more people than he ever could have imagined. He used to dream out loud about his future, and it’s amazing how accurately it’s unfolded. In August it’ll be our 18th anniversary. Funny, but we still joke about being in our second marriage with each other. Like Margaret Mead said, every woman needs three husbands in her lifetime, one for sex, another to raise children and the third as a companion in old age. In addition to working on my new picture book, I’m also preparing a new workshop for those artists who don’t have a lot of money or who can’t afford to study art. This was something that began 5 years ago when I first decided to do an online workshop called “Drawing Distance,” and although I am still doing it (well, an iteration of it) and although it’s no longer free, it’s still affordable and brings me joy.
Now that i’m finally at the beach, I think I’ll chill for a bit before sketching. There’s a drink stand nearby, I’ll grab a Caipirinha first.