Convention Report: The FWA 2022 Artist Alley Experience

I’m taking a nice slow week after the big push for FWA this past weekend, mostly focusing on teaching and catching up on a few things, but I wanted to pop in and wax exuberant about the experience.

FWA is one of the most unique conventions in my lineup, both from a vending standpoint and as a participant. I love how much of the fandom is built upon original creations and personal expression. After spending the past couple years cooped up in familiar spaces and routines, being around so much creativity and variety was a balm to the soul. It remains one of the most genuinely friendly and delightful conventions I have ever attended. I loved getting to see friends I hadn’t seen since 2019 and making new ones.

I was on the first come, first served Artist Alley list this year. Since I barely understand Telegram, I missed the new raffle system entirely. Luckily, this did not end up being a problem. I was able to get a table each day without difficulty. I am, however, definitely feeling the years of sedentary living and not enough convention/art show hauling after four days of moving my stuff back and forth on public transit.

In spite of the limitations of the daily set-up-and-tear-down system and the need to carry everything (display and product) each day, this remains my best convention by far. I got to draw so many wonderful characters, and I’ll be restocking prints for the next couple months. My box of small prints is almost empty now!

I had planned to ramp up production significantly in 2020, but then the world shut down. Now that I have had two successful shows in a row I’m once more in a position to take some risks and make some bigger investments into some product expansions. I’m excited to get my plans in motion once again!

My next show is not until July, so I have a bit of time to prepare and dive into some bigger projects and learning experiments. Aside from my summer camp obligations and my ongoing character design job, I’m planning to create a couple of new products and start working on some art books to try to have one or two ready for next year’s FWA. I also want to play more with animation practice.

Thank you to everyone who stopped by my table this past weekend, and extra thanks to those of you who let me draw your characters or stuck around for conversation. I’m looking forward to keeping up with you all throughout the year and seeing you again next year!

If you’re here from the con and want to find me in other places, here’s the list of spots I haunt:

The Return from the Goblin Cave

This past weekend was JordanCon. It was my first convention since 2019 (second show- I had a one-day Goblin Market last November that was an incredible experience, but first convention and multi-day show), and my first time at JordanCon ever.

As a return to the convention scene, this was about as ideal as I could hope for. I was in the art show rather than the Dealer’s Hall this time, which meant it was a silent auction rather than a sale that required me to be behind a table. For the first time in… maybe five years? I was able to actually go to a convention and sit in on panels. It was a lovely way to dip my feet back into the world outside of my goblin hovel. The Writing Track in particular was an absolute delight, filled with insightful people giving entertaining and educational talks on the topics I’m passionate about.

The pandemic has been… an interesting time. On its surface, the opportunity to spend several months at home while the art center was shut down and shows were canceled seemed like a strange sort of gift. Open time to achieve anything you want to, the freelancer’s dream! But, absent the external structures of a show schedule and required outside interactive time, a lot of the scaffolding I’d put up to keep my motivations and focus moving forward fell apart both dramatically and unexpectedly. Add to that the general stress of the news and the specific stress of a few folk being trapped in a house together for all the hours for the first time… it took a while to even start regain my footing in the new world.

Online interactions and self-promotion are both weak points of mine, and admittedly these did not get all that much stronger for much of the pandemic as I flailed about wondering who am I if not a teacher and a convention artist. But over time, I grew a little bolder, a little more capable of talking to strangers on the internet without wanting to hide after every phrase I typed. I’ve joined creative support groups, made friends among strangers, and rekindled friendships that distance and busyness had stifled for so long.

Within that framework, I’ve rediscovered parts of myself that had also been buried within the hustle and panic framework of, frankly, most of my adult life. In particular, the love for writing rekindled. I dragged an old manuscript out of the drawer and typed it up, then set about replacing almost all of its 60,000 words with (currently) about 140,000 new words that, while still not good are at least better than they were.

And drawing never stopped. My focus for it shifted somewhat, though. Without conventions to attend I was no longer creating work “to sell” and instead started creating work to experiment. I learned to make animated gifs to bring characters and moments to life. I practiced character design and shapes language. I took online classes to push my understanding of lighting and composition. And… I drew for fun, and only for fun. I think somewhere in there I finished a whole short webcomic for webtoons.

See? I’m bad at self promotion. But I’m good at making stuff.

And now, after JordanCon, I am reinvigorated for the business side of things. To make things for people again, to connect with folk, and to push myself in different directions. I don’t want to lose that fun that I found over the last couple of years, but I think I’ve found the right balance. I found new motivations, and new structures so that I’m no longer operating like my school days, where my inattentive mind would grasp onto a due date and work myself into the ground to meet it at the last minute. I have a spreadsheet and little clicky timers and a whole self-perpetuating system to keep track of things even if there isn’t external structure in place anymore.

Now I have a show schedule set up for the year. The external motivation is back, but the internal structures are stronger. I’m excited for what lies ahead. I’m excited to see more of the people on the circuit I’ve missed for the past several years, and I’m excited to push myself further in several directions.

This is perhaps a bit of a rambling blog, but I’m trying not to be scared of that anymore. If I let go of that fear, I can use my voice a little more frequently and live the philosophy that I teach my students: a thing does not need to be perfect to be good and worth doing. Whatever gets the words out, do that thing.

It’s good to be back, and thank you all.

Silencing the Anxiety Beast: On Success and Schooling

For the past several months I have been staring down the wailing and terrified beast that resides within my head, trying in turns to calm it, to reason with it, or to simply scare it off.  But it is a creature that cannot understand reason, and as it already lives in constant terror, there’s not a lot I can do to scare it further.  I’ve been at a loss.  It’s hard to enjoy the prime of my life and the objectively excellent situation I find myself in when there’s a beast living in my head that will. not. stop. howling.

I have been fortunate, I remind it.  I planned, I saved, I structured my life in such a way that I was able to let go of a full-time job that was providing little more than knowing what was going to be in a paycheck at the end of the month.  I traded the scope-creep and what was often at least 50 hours of my week for flexibility and work that paid better.  Less work, sure, but more worth the time it cost.  I didn’t lose employer provided health insurance because I never had it.  I’ve only had to dip into my safety net once- for the holidays.  I have an excellent support network, an incredible and encouraging partner, and bright plans for the future.  I even taught myself to enjoy hard-boiled eggs!  I am doing fine.  I am incredibly lucky.  I still have time.

But because the beast does not listen to reason, none of this matters.  So in my quest to find new ways to soothe or distract it, I have come to a realization.  The beast is not truly afraid of destitution and starvation, or even of the potential need to once again return to the traditional 9-5 existence.  These are just the flags it’s waving around to hide the true core of its terror:  I do not deserve this.  I am not worthy.  I am lazy, foolish, selfish, a drain on society.  That if I am going to be so irresponsible as to leave a life of sitting at someone else’s desk for at least 8 hours a day whether I’m needed or not, I’d better have some damn good results to show for it.  I’d better turn into a success.

Here’s the problem: I don’t have a real definition of what success is.

My life plan has largely been the nebulous “make art, sell the art, teach other people how to art.”  This hasn’t…not worked.  I do well at the majority of shows I vend, and teaching supports my eating habits nicely.

The trouble is that once I removed the 40+ hour workweek structure from my schedule, I no longer have clear units of measurements to prove to my terrified brain beast that “yes, we did enough today.”  I set goals and make to-do lists and work toward them, but I have the terrible habit of constantly shifting the goalposts and therefore end every day feeling like I haven’t accomplished nearly enough.

I have pretty deeply internalized some unhealthy lessons and habits from the 9-5 office job setting, particularly my first and longest-held job at the doomed digital marketing agency (basically a content farm).  Even with the knowledge that these principles are flawed, if not entirely false, my brain cannot seem to completely let go of the following toxic measurements of worth:

  1. Quantity and speed is more important than quality
  2. If you do not have a large number of accomplishments to show at the end of the day, you’re doing a bad job and should probably be disciplined.
  3. You have to show up for at least 8 hours a day, even if there’s not 8 hours of stuff that actually needs doing today and even if you showed up for 12 hours the day before.
  4. Even illness needs to be heavily justified before it can be used as an excuse not to work

So yeah, I have some things to fix before I can actually enjoy a creative career, which doesn’t have the same goalposts or measurements of accomplishment as typing in a lot of really surface-level fluff content into the internet so someone else can get rich.

I think one of my biggest problems is that I never stepped back and really asked myself what I actually want out of a creative career.  What would success look like, not to the faceless mass of society, but to me?  Since I did not define what it looks like, the crappy toxic job definitions of success still live in my brain, years after watching the crappy toxic company get shut down by its buyers.  So this is the first thing I need to figure out.

The second thing I need to do is go back to school.

As someone who thrived in an academic setting only to find that it has very little translation to what the real world is like (and boy was I not prepared), the thought of returning to school has always been sort of a comforting and wistful daydream in the back of my head.  The expectations were simple.  You showed up.  You studied.  You took tests.  You did projects.  When a thing was done, it was done, unlike a lot of adulthood where you have to show up and do the same thing again the next day and there’s no sign of stopping.

There was growth, learning, and challenge.  There were clear goals.  You weren’t trading your life for money, you were investing your time to become better at what you’re doing.  This was the time when I felt the most freely creative, even if my skills weren’t yet where I wanted them to be.  This is the mindset I need to recapture to fall in love with creativity again, rather than just trying to be a “successful businessartist,” which is a sort of soulless thing to be.

Now, traditional art school is a pricey investment and I have no intention of burdening my career and feeding my anxiety monster with a mountain of debt.  So when I say that I’m going back to school, I don’t mean that I’m trading in my office desk for a desk in a brick school building.  There are enough online resources to serve as professors, and I have been around the block enough to see at least some of the weak areas in my own work I want to improve upon.

So I will be designing my own college curriculum.

I’ll still be teaching and doing my freelance work, but I will also be taking on “classes” that I will design following a traditional college semester structure.  I plan to build myself a course catalog exploring the areas I want to improve upon (facial expressions, character design, shapes theory, etc), create a syllabus, and show up for classes in my own living room every week.  I will have projects, and I will have homework.  But the goal is not going to be to “build my business” or “make many dollars,” it is just to learn and get better.  Maybe the other two things will come about, maybe they won’t, but it really doesn’t matter.

So instead of taking out student loans, I’m going to loan myself the time.  And maybe, just maybe, this will be enough to silence the beast.

Be Bold, Be Bold, But Not Too Bold

These words greet the heroine of the English Bluebeard-like tale, Mr. Fox, as she approaches the gates to his estate.  Like all the heroines of the Bluebeard family of folktales, she is about to discover that the future laid out for her has a dark underbelly and a very real risk of her own brutal and untimely death.  She reads the warnings and continues deeper until she reaches the forbidden door, opens it, and finds the bodies of young women just like her.  In a moment, the future she thought was before her shifts its path to a dark place and she must now act to free herself from its shackles.  The return of Mr. Fox requires her to hastily hide away from sight, watching as he drags another young victim through his stately mansion.  He stops near her hiding place, having noticed a ring on the finger of the woman he’s dragging, and in his insatiable greed he feels compelled to stop everything and pull it off her right there.  The ring is stuck, however, so in his frustration he simply chops the finger off.  It bounces, landing in the heroine’s hiding place, and when he doesn’t immediately see where it went he just shrugs and drags her up to finish the job in his murder-room.  The heroine grabs the grisly trophy and books it out of there, holding on to it until the morning of her wedding, when she uses it to reveal Mr. Fox for his true nature and save herself from a murderous union.

The line “Be Bold, Be Bold, But Not Too Bold” struck me particularly when I read this tale about a month ago, and it has become a personal anthem for me since.  Not too long ago, I realized that the path that I had set myself on had its own closet full of bones.  After a year of working full-time in the office, part-time as a teacher, part-time as a podcaster, and part-time as an illustrator, I had reached a desperate state of burn-out.  I walked through the halls of the life I had built and looked in on the bloody closet of ideas and projects I would never have time to complete, opportunities I had already missed or had to turn down.  A couple months after that anniversary, I witnessed a long and difficult battle between my magical unicorn coworker and leadership, and her resignation was the finger dropped into my lap.  It was time to take myself off this path.

Though her grievances were thankfully resolved, to the relief of everyone involved (we would have been in serious trouble without her- she truly is a magical unicorn of a person), my story had already veered in a different direction.  I could not keep up that pace indefinitely, and while my full-time work was the most stable source of income I had, it was also the least fulfilling and the greatest contributor to my closet full of bones.

So here I stand at the mouth of a path into a dimly-lit wood.  I packed my bags as best I know how, I have the tools I know how to use at my belt, and I have donned my iron shoes for the journey.  The last time I left my safety net was a matter of circumstance outside my control.  This time it is my choice.  I may encounter many thorns and hungry wolves upon the path, but at least when I reach its end I can say it was an adventure.

Do I have what it takes?  I won’t know until I start.  Could I have prepared more? Probably, but at what cost?  All I know was that I could not stay in the comfortable home of steady income only to end up another nameless set of bones forgotten in a closet.  I am buying myself time to tell the stories I have always wanted to tell.

It is time to be bold.