January 3, 2018

Independent Artist & Designer Shawn Smith Creates Things He Loves

Shawn Smith (self-portrait above) is the creator of character-scapes Shawnimals and Ninjatown, including new series All Shapes and Helping Hands. Here, he shares his views on working hard, as he put it, “to delight and inspire people with my art and design.”

Enjoyed your 2012 talk at the 11th monthly gathering of the Chicago chapter of CreativeMornings when you talked about your toy lines and environments of Ninjatown and Professor Frederick Fliggins’ Island. You’ve evolved since then with the creation of Resketch from seeing you at the annual Show of Hands. Impressed by your sticking to your independence in making the work desire to make. How did you arrive at wanting to become an independent creator of art and design? Was there an initial encounter of making, of creativity, that helped establish your path toward becoming a “very professional creative person”?

Thanks. My wanting to become an independent artist and designer comes from seeing my Brothers draw comic books when I was a kid, further solidified by seeing some drawings my Dad did when he was younger. Then: playing games, watching movies, reading comics and other pop-cultural things sealed the deal. I loved mimicking the things I saw, but had an even stronger desire to make up my own things. It’s always been that way. Inspired by something pop-cultural, but ultimately making it my own.

“Very professional creative person”—liking this email signature of yours? What’s the breakdown here—the meanings?

It’s mostly tongue-in-cheek. But there’s a silver of truth here insomuch that I want to be professional in my dealings, since this is my livelihood and sole source of income. On the other hand, having worked at companies in the past in marketing capacities and witnessing the pretentiousness in emails, I thought it’d be funny to call myself out as a very professional creative person but keep it lowercase. I also don’t specifically say artist or designer because I consider myself both and them some (not to mention the entrepreneurial interests I have).

Can you give a tour of how one of your ideas gets real?
Take Resketch for example.

Using Resketch (above) as an example, I notice something when out and about or on the internet or as part of a conversation with someone, and that something sticks with me. Like a tiny idea stuck in the back of my head. Then it sits there, sometimes for a long time. At some point, if I’m lucky, I’ll notice something else that awakens that tiny idea and it will grow or evolve in some way. Sometimes this takes months, sometimes years. With Resketch, I visited the Creative Reuse Warehouse on the south side, years ago, and toured all areas of the facility, thanks to my friend, Marianne, who was a volunteer there. I noticed, among other things, that they had a lot of paper in the back warehouses, that weren’t open to the public. Tons and tons of it in these open-top pallet boxes. All sorts of paper, too. I thought it was crazy that this paper wasn't going to be purchased or used, and would eventually become unusable due to getting wet, becoming mildewy, or from rat droppings. As an artist, I wanted to use this paper to make awesome things, but there was SO much that was never going to see the light of day. Years past, and I couldn't figure out what I could do with such a disparate collection of paper. It didn’t click until I saw a paper sample booklet at an art supply store. The disparate collection of paper IS what makes it interesting AND solves the problem in one fell swoop. Then I created early prototypes, but didn’t do anything with it until years later, several years after the launch of Kickstarter. Launched that in 2013, since then, have been making variations on this theme, not to mention understanding how it needs to evolve to be sustainable, both environmentally and from a market standpoint.

Time flies. So true, especially while working. Even a small work activity takes large amounts to time. What is your “consistent schedule” in helping to make each day a consistently productive one? How did you make it? Did you go through versions of it to land on a version that proved effective?

Yes, many, many versions. My personality type (ENFP) struggles with structure, but there’s a couple of ways to think about this: I can either resign myself to this fact, and embrace it, or know that this is a limitation that I need to work on to overcome. I don’t know if there’s a right way exactly, but I do know that a lack of structure professionally causes me stress in a few different ways so it’s not worth fully embracing it. For me, it comes down to this: I have a tendency to get far too detailed with my daily/weekly schedule, which I rebel against. So instead I set up general times for certain kinds of work. That way I can project-manage myself within general schedule constraints, and then move on to the next general thing. I also include certain days for freeform studio time. That’s really important for me, but I think for everyone. The act of play is vitally important to innovation, however you define that.

To go into more detail, I know Mondays are going to be some form of catch-up (I try best not to work weekends so I can spend time with my wife, son and dog). However, I also know I need to get other things done on Monday, so I look at short and long-term deadlines, and break those projects down into incremental elements to make sure I can make progress. I typically choose three main things to work on daily depending on deadlines. I also have a prioritized list of three smaller things, in case I have a very productive day.

Beyond that, I try to earmark at least one day, but usually two days per work, for studio time. So far, this methodology is working for me. I use Google Keep to stay organized.

What is your vision of satisfaction, as it relates
to your chosen career?

Satisfaction is creating things that you love, and getting paid to create them. The lines between life and work are very blurred for those in creative professions, so it’s important to be mindful of this, and separate when you need to.

Who and/or what keep(s) you going?

I honestly don't know. My own drive? I think about my son and wife and dog and friends a lot, but that’s a given. They don’t necessarily keep me going with regards to my professional endeavors. They ground me so I don’t burn out and live in squalor. The impulse of creating things is what keeps me going. I suppose that’s the closest thing I have to some sort of spiritualness. Or maybe it’s just magic.

In running your creative practice, and getting work done, are there software/Web-based tools that you use and highly recommend?

Adobe CC, of course. On my iPad Pro, I use Procreate all of the time. This setup, with Apple Pencil, blows my mind every time I use it. I like how you can export a high-res layered PSD (Photoshop Document) from Procreate to Adobe CC and do any other adjustments to the file before finalizing it. Otherwise, from an admin standpoint: Google Keep, Google Apps for Business, and the native social media apps on my iPhone and iPad. I am trying not to be on my MacBook as much as I used to.

Love your distilled to-dos: “Make conscious, confident choices; Make art; Do the work; Choose happiness.” This would make for a great poster. Business development is a part of “Do the work.” What’s worked for you in promoting your work?

Marketing and networking get a bad rap because there are SO many shitty examples of this kind of thing. But I think what gets lost is the core meaning of each of these things when done in the right way. Marketing is communication. And if you love what you're doing, it’s not selling. It’s simply talking about something you feel passionate about, and hopefully finding some other folks who may have similar or analogous passions. Networking is also called meeting people and making friends. It doesn’t have to be shitty and fake. It can simply be you being present and interested and curious about what other people are doing, and being open to a tiny idea being planted in the back of your head that may grow into something awesome later. I would also like to think that there is an assumption out there that if I am a self-employed creative person, that part of that is looking for work. It doesn't have to be said necessarily, UNLESS you hear of something in which you want to participate. And then, ask, but do so in a gracious and tactful way. Nobody likes assholes, and you never know who knows who, so be real and be nice.

If a person approached you and said, “I want to make my creations for a living,” what’s your response?

Go for it, but let’s talk first. I advise small businesses and entrepreneurs on Wednesdays for a Small Business Development Center, and it’s important to know the whole story before I tell someone to jump head first. I talk about this with my clients constantly. We live in a time when you can make huge strides in doing what you do creatively while still maintaining a 9 to 5. There’s no shame in that. If anything, I applaud such folks loudly because it’s hard as hell. But yes, make things and if you want to do it for a living, be smart about it. It's not easy, but it’s worth it if you can create a sustainable business model and practice... well, and you're talented or at least good at marketing. ツ

How does the city of Chicago contribute to your work? And what makes it special for startups/business/creative community?

Chicago is a great city. The art scene is stronger and more vibrant than ever before. I love it here because it’s still affordable, people are straight up, and there’s still lots of opportunity. I do wish some of the businesses (particularly tech startups) would hire local artists even more than they have been. Certainly supporting any indie artist is important, but let’s not forget about the local economy. If we don’t support it in meaningful ways (which has a lot to do with financial support), people are going to move. I don’t want to see that kind of migration.

Back to your CreativeMornings/Chicago 2012 talk, seeking the footage of it has turned into a quest beyond my write-up. What can we still do to find the video recording of your presentation?

I have no idea. Talk to the main CreativeMornings folks and see what can be done. I’d love to see it unearthed and published again. I think the core conversation is still very relevant today. Thanks for caring.

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All images courtesy of Shawn Smith.

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