Everyday Creative People is a weekly interview series dedicated to showcasing the real face of creative living. Each week, I interview a diverse selection of doers, dreamers, and makers to talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly of cultivating an active creative practice in your life (whatever your end goal may be).
For anyone who wishes they had more time and freedom to play, who struggles with creative blocks, or who is trying to figure out how to make a living while making art, we're here to stumble through the madness by your side.
Alexandra Zsigmond spent 7 years doing art direction for the New York Times' Opinion section before deciding to refocus her energy on personal creative pursuits. In this week's conversation we chat about her "dream job" as an Art Director and her current process of creative recovery.
Alexandra is an award-winning art director and visual thinker working at the intersection of fine art, illustration and editorial design. Her core interest lies in the use of metaphor and symbolism in visual art, as a tool to represent complex ideas and visualize the invisible realms of mind, thought, and emotion. Since writing her honors thesis on visual metaphor at Stanford University in 2004, she has explored this interest through multiple roles and media: as art director, curator, and designer of metaphoric imagery for newspapers, books and exhibitions.
She has collaborated with a roster of over 1000 artists worldwide and art directed over 4000 editorial illustrations. She is known for greatly expanding the range of visual contributors to the Times, drawing equally from the worlds of contemporary illustration, fine art, animation, and comics. To follow her adventures and see some of her creative work, follow Alexandra on Instagram @zsigmonda.
"I am of an immigrant family. So this is what we were taught: ‘This is, you know, America is the land of opportunity, and this is what you must do in order to become successful.' So, if this is what has been taught to each one of us, then me pursuing art was something very risky, and in that risk, and I think even behind the scenes, you know behind the Instagram photo that I would put up, there was a lot of that sacrifice, and struggle... My family and close friends saw that most.
So I did get a lot of like, 'Well, why don’t you try to look for another job in the meantime and do this on the side?' And I was like, 'No, that’s not what I want to do. I can’t do that, because, then, I feel like I’ve wasted all these years, and that’s only going to take me away from it further.' So it was a lot of resisting on both ends... Like, 'You’re crazy, you’re ridiculous for doing this,' but also, 'No, I need to do this or I’m crazy for not doing it.'”
Natalia, aka Naty, is an Argentine-born, NYC native creative free spirit. She is a henna artist, fine artist, muralist, graphic designer & photographer. Naty has been practicing the art of henna since 2009. She has a Bachelors Degree in Graphic Design with a fine art focus. She has participated in events & parties in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Florida, Art Basel, Las Vegas, Denver, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Burning Man, Cuba & Costa Rica
Her passion, expressed through all of her arts, is to build up & empower humanity through connection & unity. Much of her inspiration comes from the four elements of nature due to their reflected similarities within people. She hopes to bridge culture gaps by embracing, educating & demonstrating that henna is for everyone. You can check out Naty's work on her websites hennabynaty.com and natybynature.com, her Etsy store: Naty by Nature, or on Instagram and Facebook @natybynature.
- Loss as a catalyst for reclaiming your creative voice
- Making use of the tools at your disposal to boost yourself to where you want to be
- Making the leap from full time to freelance
- Defining "career" on your own terms
- The importance of overcoming the fear of asking questions
“The idea that the arts need to be something separate from your socially engaged life, or your community-based life, its really been created by institutions and it isn’t true. Every community... has been using the arts and creativity to thrive, since forever.”
Rebecca Kelly-Golfman is a facilitator, entrepreneur, theatre artist, and activist. She has spent her entire career figuring out how to integrate the arts and advocacy/activism work, and helping others to learn how to do this too. Rebecca is a true Renaissance Soul/Multi-potentialite, cobbling together a variety of different activities to build a life and career that really feeds her soul.
Amongst her various activities, Rebecca is the Founder of Black Abundance BK, a platform celebrating Black life in Brooklyn through uplifting Black businesses, creators, activists, and community members. As an Adjunct Professor at Wagner College, she was awarded The Diversity and International Action Council Award for Diversity and Inclusion for her course Race, the Arts, and Activism. She also devises plays with anti-gun violence youth organizers in Crown Heights through Theatre of the Oppressed NYC. Additionally, Rebecca is a former civil rights attorney where she focused on dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline as Associate Counsel with The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Washington DC. She was recently selected as part of the 2018 Create Change Fellow cohort with The Laundromat Project, and is co-creating a socially engaged art project in Brooklyn with STooPS Bed-Stuy.
Some themes from our conversation:
- Learning to accept various artist identities outside of a formalized/externally recognized space
- Getting self judgement out of the way
- The natural synergy of arts and activism
- A (very) brief history of the arts being used as a form of rebellion/resistance by African people enslaved in the US
- Making tough decisions about what is worth your time and energy, creatively
- Learning how to approach paid opportunities without letting desperation get in your way
Tomislav "Tom" Benzon taught himself how to play guitar in high school, winning his first band competition only two weeks after forming the band, at a time when Tom himself knew only a few chords.
The audacity and sheer determination behind this win is a theme seen over and over again, throughout Tom's career, which spans 25 years as a full time touring musician. A dynamic personality, Tom has organically lived his life by the principles behind "The Secret" since long before he even knew it was a thing with a name. He has played around the world with musicians like Jack Savoretti and Jooles Holland, and performed in films with the likes of Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp.
A few years ago, however, a motorcycle accident in the UK stopped Tom in his tracks. The long recovery process was a huge blow, forcing Tom to step back from his career. Now based in San Diego, California, he is working to regain his footing.
- “The Secret” and the idea that "If you want to try, go all the way.”
- Picking yourself up after a big setback
- The importance of good friends who can remind you who you truly are in dark hours
- Why building genuine connections with others is a smart career move
What does it look like to have a healthy creative career that brings together a wide variety of different mediums and practices under one umbrella?
I think Miriam Castillo gives us a pretty good picture of success with a portfolio of careers. As a visual designer and illustrator who also teaches yoga, paints murals, designs a line of yoga pants and makes vegan cheese (who knows what project may crop up next?), Miriam is going all out in pursuing whatever creative projects come her way.
If you're in New York on April 21st, check out Miriam's next event, Wild Nature: Creativity, Imagination, and Freedom.
Miriam Castillo is based in New York and Valladolid, in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. Her whimsical hand-drawn illustrations explore the world through both fantasy and the proximity to Nature. Finding a path in mixed media, Miriam is an artist that pushes the creative boundaries of her craft. She is an antiquarian, fascinated by mysticism, and draws inspiration from her journey as a yoga instructor. Yoga has bestowed her with a new invigorating source of creativity. Yogis’ connection with Nature, gives them a deeper wisdom and understanding of their own bodies. As such, she spends much of her life observing the natural world and exploring its intersection with the creation of art.
Highlights from today's episode:
- “Hiring yourself” when you don’t know where your work is going to come from next
- What is the separation between work and life? When you’re doing so many different projects that you’re so passionate about, is there a division?
- Our innate creative capacity and the childlike freedom that comes from creative practice
- Supporting people to tap into their creative centers - where creativity lives in our body.
What is your reason for creating? Majella Mark was raised by artist-activist parents who instilled a strong sense of social justice in her from a young age, and this has been a clear driving force behind her own creative ventures.
By day, Majella is an analytics professional in New York City, creating performance analysis and strategic planning for major television networks such as Spike TV, NBC and ESPN under the tech company TiVo. By night, she organizes a variety of arts-oriented social justice and community activities such as Perception Theatre (a monthly film discussion series focused on cultivating empathy) and Baha'i Millenials, a blog about spirituality and her journey in the Baha'i faith.
In this episode, we discuss:
- Immigrant parents and the heightened pressure to choose a “practical” career
- The data behind what kinds of perspectives get represented in our media
- How open-source media has enabled minority identities to get more representation
- Exploring social justice topics through the arts
- What it means to be a womanist (as opposed to a feminist)
Majella Mark is a native Connecticut resident born to immigrant parents who came to the United States as artists from the Caribbean island of Grenada. She graduated from UCONN with a degree in Media and Society Studies focusing her individual major on the influence media has on cultures and vice versa. She also earned an MBA degree in International Business at the European Business School of London. As a data story creator and progressive tech enthusiast with years of experience in advertising and marketing, she has worked for major corporations such as Turner Broadcasting and The Weather Channel.
In addition to the links provided above, you can learn more about Majella on her website, majellamark.com and follow her on Instagram @bahaimillennials and @majmark.
This week's guest is practicing creativity in a slightly different way from many of the folks on this podcast so far. Erica Soultanian is a co-founder of Mission Collaborative, a DC-based organization that helps professionals design careers they love through workshops and immersive programming.
Erica was inspired to co-create Mission Collaborative after struggling through a career change herself and realizing that there aren’t many resources or support organization to help professionals change careers once they graduate college. Erica also works at DC’s Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development where she helps grow DC’s private sector economy and entrepreneurial community. In her free time, Erica organizes Startup Weekend events in DC, which help bring new startups to life through 54-hour intensive weekend experiences.
Some of the highlights from our conversation:
- Being an entrepreneur while working a 9-5
- The ups and downs of entrepreneurship
- Dealing with the fear of failure
- How to know when it’s time to take the leap
“It’s a very weird job because you do all this work, and your whole life is engulfed in the show that you’re working on and every bit of attention to detail, and most of the people who come to the show have no idea that you exist... Most people know there’s carpenters, or there’s lighting people - but they don’t understand that there is somebody, who’s like a mystery person, that brings all of this together, and for some reason that attracted me. I want to be this person that does all this coordinating to bring everybody together to be able to create something every night, and I don’t need an applause."
This week I chatted with Caroline Watters, a Stage Manager for the innovative international circus arts company Cirque du Soleil. Caroline is currently touring Asia while stage managing on TORUK - The First Flight.
Originally from Toronto, Caroline became attracted to the unexpected art of stage management while still in high school and received her BFA in Performance Production from Ryerson University in Toronto. The stage manager's art is often hidden, beyond the sight or awareness of the audience, but ultimately there is a high potential for creativity on the grand scale of a live performance, and this is what drew Caroline to the work.
After Ryerson, Caroline went on to obtain her MFA in Stage Management from Columbia University. While working in New York, her Broadway dream shifted to more immersive and complex productions, and shortly after graduation, she accepted an internship with Cirque du Soleil which lead to working as an Assistant Stage Manager on Zumanity. After the experience in Las Vegas, she joined the Cirque du Soleil touring production of Varekai as a Stage Manager, which lead her to joining the stage management team of TORUK. Cirque du Soleil has provided the scale and complexity that she has desired for stage managing; her final Masters thesis covered all aspects of Cirque du Soleil Stage Management.
Themes from this episode include:
- The creativity of a stage manager - making the magic happen behind the curtain
- Creativity in the context of a multi-national for-profit company
- The rewards of being in a job that constantly puts you outside your comfort zone
- Self care practice
“Once I left college, I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to do. And I think for a lot of “former dancers” that becomes an issue, because when you’ve put every fibre of your being into your art form since whenever you started - at 3, 5, 13, or whatever - ballet is all-encompassing in a way that can be compared to training to become a professional athlete, or a professional musician. It takes up everything in you mentally, physically, emotionally and beyond.
So when you lose that part of your identity, in a way it’s really hard to recalibrate... College becomes a buffer in a way, and when you exit that scene it can be hard to really figure out who you are, and there isn’t really a whole lot of time to do it because everyone around you is going to med school or law school or doing banking... and you’re kind of grappling with who you were, who you are and who you want to be.”
Claudia Schreier is a choreographer who has been commissioned by organizations including the Vail Dance Festival, New York Choreographic Institute, and Joffrey Winning Works and has upcoming commissions with Ballet Hispánico and Dance Theatre of Harlem. But there was a time before all these accolades when she was working 9 to 5 in arts management, and finding time to create ballet on the side.
Claudia and I met in 2015 when my choir, Tapestry, sang behind Claudia's dancers for her piece Vigil (which you can watch here!). It's one of the most beautiful things I've ever had the privilege of helping to create. This was also one of the pieces that helped Claudia to launch her choreography career. Since 2015, Claudia Schreier & Company has presented several evening-length performances of her choreography and in 2017 made its Joyce Theater debut, featuring dancers from New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Miami City Ballet, and other leading companies.
In today's episode, Claudia and I chatted about how she became a professional choreographer and where her work has come in the last few years. A few key themes that came up in our conversation were:
- The importance of academic pursuits to balance artistic pursuits.
- The benefits (and necessity) of working in arts management while building your artistic career
- Learning how to take care of yourself while giving 110% to your art when the work starts to pick up.
Ms. Schreier serves as Ballet Master and Rehearsal Associate to Damian Woetzel and has contributed to The Kennedy Center Honors and programs at the White House, Jazz at Lincoln Center, and New York City Center. She is the recipient of the 2017 Virginia B. Toulmin Fellowship at the Center for Ballet and the Arts at NYU and the 2017 Lotos Foundation Prize, and she received a B.A. from Harvard University in 2008. To learn more about Claudia you can check out her website, claudiaschreier.com, and follow her on Facebook at Claudia Schreier Choreography or on Instagram @claudiaschreier.
“It’s kind of like falling in love, you know? it’s like, oh my god this is the person! And then you go through all the difficult moments and you remember that first moment and you’re like, ok, this is worth working on because I felt very strongly about this at one point. And it’s kind of the same way with art - it’s like there’s so many hurdles, and some things are not going the way as planned, but I kind of think back to my original inspiration moment and I think, it’s my duty to this inspiration, to give birth to it.”
Natasha May Platt took a bit of an unusual route into the world of fashion - via a Religion and Philosophy major at Harvard. After graduating from college, Natasha spent three years in India training and working in embroidery design under designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee. She currently works in embroidery design for New York luxury brands.
An artist and designer based in New York, when she's not working in her dayjob, Natasha paints indoor and outdoor murals, inspired by beauty, spirituality, and the natural world. Her murals can be found across the five boroughs of New York, as well as in India and Bali. The rich textile and craft traditions of India have deeply influenced her art.
Some of the themes discussed in today's episode include: persistence, learning to separate the merit of your work from its suitability for a particular job, the value of practicing multiple different kinds of art and doing “art for fun” outside of paid work, and deciding when to take the leap and leave your day job.
"When you look at Thai cuisine and even Taiwanese cuisine, the use of things like the offcuts of meat and stuff like that, it’s like ok, this is literally something that most of the world will throw away. How do you make it delicious? And how do you make it so that you can sustain not only yourself but your family? And so some of the things that people come up with is absolutely amazing.”
Ben Blum is a chef who spent most of the first 8.5 years of his life in Taiwan, a country whose approach to food is an amalgam of different styles - Japanese, Chinese, and Portuguese - with a rainforest climate. That’s where his love of food began. Later in life, Ben spent a year working in the kitchen at a school in Thailand before attending culinary school at Johnson and Wales in Providence, Rhode Island. He traveled to Australia to work with Ben Shewry at Attica and most recently worked at Commis in Oakland, California.
In this week's episode, Ben and I discuss the complexity of "humble food" and the power of constraints in the creative process, seeking out strong mentors, and giving it everything you've got.
“I needed to know that it wasn’t going to somehow be a failure if I tried this thing where there was no guarantee of success… if simply the attempt to do something would be seen as enough of a good thing, whether it led to any future in that subject or not. I knew that I would regret it one day if I hadn’t tried going down that path.”
This week I caught up with Clare McNamara, a Boston-based oratorio soloist, choral artist, and chamber musician. Clare, who initially intended to pursue a more "practical" career in engineering before switching gears to follow her heart, has been praised for her “lushly evocative” and “otherworldly” performances. She will be performing with Lorelei Ensemble in the world premier of "The_Oper&" at Duke University on March 8-10th, 2018 (visit her website for details).
Some highlights from this episode include:
- Choosing to pursue an artistic career over all "practical" considerations (5:30)
- Redefining failure (14:50)
- Learning to own your abilities and managing Imposter Syndrome (35:54)
- Being an artist as someone who performs work that was created by someone else. (42:00)
Clare's ensemble affiliations include Skylark Vocal Ensemble, Lorelei Ensemble, Cut Circle, Handel+Haydn Society, and the Boston Camerata. After making her New York debut as the alto soloist in St. Thomas Fifth Avenue's 2017 performance of Handel's Messiah, Clare makes her Boston Symphony Hall soloist debut in the Handel+Haydn Society's 2018 performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor. International festival credits include Laus Polyphoniae (Antwerp, Belgium), Tage Alter Musik Regensburg (Germany), and the Tenebrae Holy Week Festival (London, England). Recordings of Clare’s voice also accompany the modern dance troupe Pilobolus in their acclaimed piece "On the Nature of Things." Almost an engineer, Clare’s very first job was at NASA. She holds an A.B. in Music from Princeton University and an M.M. in Early Music Performance from the Longy School of Music of Bard College. To learn more about Clare and see the full schedule of her upcoming performances, you can visit her website at claremcnamara.com.
Join me as I chat with Grammy-nominated songwriter Anousheh about what happens when a major illness upends your life, evolving expectations after a big success, day jobs that capitalize on your creative strengths, and much more.
Anousheh has captivated audiences both overseas and in her hometown of Richmond, Virginia with her epic melodies. Drawing early influences from some of her 90's music idols like Tori Amos, Bjork, and Radiohead, her songwriting style has always been rooted in introspection and metaphor. As an adult, Anousheh's love of pop music, hip hop and indie rock has focused her songwriting into hook-driven, thoughtful pop songs-- and in line with artists like Tove Lo, Ellie Goulding and Halsey.
Awais Javed is a neurobiologist studying the development of the retina for his PhD. He is a first-generation Saudi-born Pakistani who has been fortunate enough to live and travel to the U.K and Canada for his studies. Growing up in Saudi Arabia, Awais had zero exposure to the act of artistic creation, and didn't really get into the arts at all until he was in London studying for his undergraduate degree. About two years ago, he started to dabble in oil paintings and now he is hooked. In his brief time as a self-taught visual artist, he has developed a surrealistic style. His influences include Salvadore Dali, Rene Magritte, and more recently, David Lynch. In this episode, we discuss what it's like to discover art later in life, we talk about the places where art and science intersect, the importance of choosing friends who will support your creative self, and balancing being a full time professional with an active creative practice.