-By Lauren Panepinto
Bear with me, there's a point in here, I promise...
It's getting close to the holidays, and all the year-end lists have been hitting wave after wave. It's a time of year many of us get introspective, and that's a good thing. It's always a great time to clean house mentally and physically. One thing I do every year-end is go through my sketchbooks. For any of you that have seen them, they're not really sketchbooks, per se. They're more everything books. They're my calendar, planner, the place to put all my project notes for Orbit projects, Drawn + Drafted projects, and everything else I squeeze in between. They're where I save quotes and glue in snippets of articles to use later, and where I doodle when I'm bored in meetings.
I've always been pretty crap at keeping a diary, but at the beginning of every book I force myself to write down a few pages of where I'm at in my life, what I'm working on, and what I'm working towards. At the end of the year I reread all of that, and go thru the pages, and every year I am surprised (if not shocked) at how much has happened in a year - and how much I would have never predicted.
Hindsight is 20/20. We all know that one, but I heard a great quote once - I think it might have been Guillermo Del Toro, but I can't find it now - that said (I'm paraphrasing) A Career is a Car Wreck that Looks Like a Plan Only in Hindsight. If you look at the progression of my career so far - Comic Book Store Girl to Graphic Designer to Book Cover Art Director to SFF Publishing Imprint Creative Director then it seems to make the most obvious of paths. I assure you that wasn't the case while it was happening.
When I look back at this year the thing that surprises me the most is that suddenly I became considered a "curator" of things. That's not something that had ever been a goal of mine, or in any kind of plan. Marc Scheff said to me almost exactly a year ago: Hey I want to start an online gallery that posts little original work once a day. Will you help me do it? It should be a Drawn + Drafted project! And poof, Every Day Original was born. Happy Birthday, EDO, by the way, and thanks to all the artists that have been part of our amazing first year! Thank you especially to Marc for building it and Odera Igbokwe for managing it and Elliot Lang for helping us at all the cons. I get entirely too much credit for being involved with it, when I am really just head cheerleader.
The annual Microvisions auction at the Society of Illustrators was some of the inspiration for Every Day Original, so it was an honor for Marc & I to be asked to take over the show, and thus Visionarium was born. Then this year at Spectrum we organized a ton of new Art Business Bootcamps and Jon Schindehette in his Art Order capacity said, hey, I know this awesome lady Julie Baroh who owns Krab Jab gallery in Seattle. Do you think you could schedule her in for a Getting Into the Gallery World Bootcamp? And of course I was excited at how many artists would be interested in that talk so I reshuffled all the work we had done already and shoehorned her into the schedule. I had never met Julie before, but I was really impressed by her talk and the selfless way she wanted to help artists, and we became friends. And now I am guest-curating a show at Krab Jab this spring. (More about that to be announced here soon!) And beyond that, there's another big project afoot that I can't leak yet but it's the biggest curatorial project yet for me, and it's going to be amazing.
So I'm not trying to humble-brag here, there's a point. This seems like a natural progression after the fact, but none of it was planned. There's really only one thread through my whole career, and it's so simple that it seems too simple: Saying Yes. People are constantly telling me some variation of "I don't know how you find the time" or "How are you involved with so much?" or "How did you know that X was going to lead to Y?" and the answer is when something that sounds amazing comes knocking, I say yes.
How did I get paid to teach for a week at Miami Ad School and get a free vacation along with it? I said yes to a succession of guest teaching and lecturing opportunities. Eventually they led to a NYU teaching gig and a trip to Miami. But I didn't say yes to guest teaching a small SVA class one night because I thought it would lead to something bigger—I just said yes because I wasn't used to teaching and I wanted to get better at it. Often Saying Yes really means Say Yes to What Scares You. Even more importantly: Say Yes Because It Scares You. And my favorite...Say Yes and Figure It Out Later.
I heard a recent story that really condensed this idea in my head: I saw a tweet by Lin-Manuel Miranda explaining how someone already so famous for being too busy fit in composing the new Cantina Song for J. J. Abrams and the new Star Wars movie.
Look, if an opportunity that good knocks on your door, you make room! But the story got even better. J. J. Abrams and Lin-Manuel Miranda didn't even know each other! J. J. just came to see Hamilton and they met and Lin-Manuel just tossed out that he'd love to do anything on Star Wars if he needed it. And J. J. went home and was like, shit, we need a new cantina song. And bam.
And Lin-Manuel fit it in. Because he couldn't pass up something so cool. And soon after this story broke I saw this jpeg going around my theater geek friends:
And it's true. Everyone gets the same 24 hours. You have to choose what you fit into it. It reminded me of this image I keep pinned up by my desk by another lunatic overachiever, Henry Rollins:
So let me make a quick caveat here: You do need to know your limits. You should definitely push at your limits, but you have to know when you're overextending. Trust me, you can do a lot more than you think and pull it off well, so don't be TOO cautious of your limits, but always listen to your health (both mental and physical). Also don't say yes to just anything, it has to be worth it. There will be some things that sound cool and are not worth it, or do not pay back enough, or will just be impossible to schedule. I'm not here to guilt you over lost opportunities - but I AM here to encourage you as far as you can go. Just don't expect to know exactly what the payoff will be at the time you do the thing. Just trust that it'll build into better cooler things. And remember, family time and mental health time and recharge-your-batteries time is important too, not just work time.
Saying Yes, I have realized, is a big problem for a lot of artists. I hate to say this, but it can be especially hard for women, who have more often be socially conditioned to not stand out or seem pushy or egotistical. We are all scared of doing something poorly. We are all scared of committing to something we don't know how to do. In just the last few months I've had Art Directors who I wanted to guest lecture (and get paid, mind you) for my NYU class turn me down because they were nervous to speak to a class. I've had people try to turn down bookcover commissions. I've had people say no to all kinds of things they could easily have done if they had tried. Being inexperienced is valid - to a degree - but sometimes you need to say yes to a thing, and figure out how to do it later. When Dan asked me to start writing for Muddy Colors I had never written much of anything, and here I am banging out posts 3 years later - and beyond that, now people think of me as a writer, and even ask me to write introductions for things. Let me tell you how terrified I was of that one. But I am so happy I said yes. And I figured it out (eventually).
So the next time a good opportunity knocks and your knee-jerk reaction is to back away, take a minute before you say no. Really ask yourself if you're saying no because you're not interested, or because you really cannot commit to another thing right now, because you really can't figure out the thing skill-wise, or because you're just scared? If it's only because you're scared, then Say Yes instead. Just try it, and see where it takes you.