Thursday, April 3, 2014
The rain came down in torrential waves that morning before sunrise. I misidentified my blue Camry as some type of water vehicle that morning as I hydroplaned my way to the beautiful city of Atlanta. Suitcase, coffee, and my portfolio were my passengers on that wet Friday morning. My GPS, Lola, offered words of traffic warnings and delays. I am a punctual person who frets at the fear of tardy arrivals. At that moment, I may have actually feared more for my life as visibility remained obstructed by the lack of highway streetlights and pouring rain. My morning felt more like Homer’s Odyssey. Would I ever make it to my destination or would the seduction of the siren’s song of Starbucks be my demise? True, her mermaid split-tail image sang a song of warmth, comfort, and her free wifi tempted me more than once. Not even Poseidon himself and all the rain he could muster would hinder my journey. Determination and will drove me that Friday morning and I safely made it to the shores of my Ithika…3 hours early. Hey, look. The Marriott has a Starbucks!
With warm beverage in hand, I took a deep breath and began the path towards registration. Sure, there were signs identifying the way to the room I needed, but the pattering of my heart was so distracting that the involuntary action of breathing seemed to require its own manual with step by step instructions. My nerves began to get the best of me. This was it. Illustrator day was here. Unlike some conferences, an illustrator does not just show up to this event. We have planned, we have drawn, we have painted, and we have sketched. Cards and business cards were prepared, ordered, and a silent prayer given daily in hopes that they would arrive before that anticipated conference day.
Kathleen’s smile greeted my nerves with warmth and familiarity. She presented me with a nametag and my registration materials. I was welcomed to the weekend’s event with enthusiasm and shared passion. This would be my first “Springmingle”, and my first illustrator day. Not only would I be attending talks by those who were decision makers in the industry, I would display my work amongst a gallery of varying artists from all experience levels and have signed up for a public quick fire critique from the art directors. I have bravely walked the dark stone path into the lighted arena of the coliseum and the lions were hungry. Was that a bit over the top? Well, yes. Don’t judge me. I am an insecure artist who has convinced herself that a thick skin and a deeper understanding of how the industry works is what I need to grow as an illustrator. Unfortunately, the unexpected brought fear and anxiety to my heart. What if they hate my artwork?
I displayed my vulnerability out on those fabric-covered tables that weaved about the landing of the Illustrator’s room. Portfolios laid side by side with books and credits to their careers. At the instruction of Kathleen, I looked for a nameplate to guide me to my place for the gallery display. I opened my small, black portfolio to my first illustration. I felt amateur as I compared myself to others in the room. My own insecurities and over consumption of coffee fed my anxiety and fear of the day’s anticipated unknown. There was only one way to overcome this demise of confidence. Find a place to sit and utilize social media to provide an appropriate distraction. After smiling over pictures of my sweet family, facebooking a new status, and tweeting my location, I remembered why I was here. I was here to learn and better myself as an illustrator. Let go of the ego. Lose myself in the moment. Let the day begin.
Hours flew by and my pen wrote at a speedy pace. Information flew left to right in scribbled words of valued information. The tools provided where inspiring to the aspiring. They validated my path and passion in texts and powerpoints. Inspiration flowed and empowered me…and then it happened. The quickfire process began and my anxiety rose to new heights of stress. My cheeks flushed and my back straightened in my chair. My jaw tensed as I listened to the names announced as Mr. Hill brought forth each individual portfolio to the art directors’ table. They gathered around the table, all four of them, and thumbed through each portfolio twice. Each art director received a different colored Post-It tab to mark the page the panel members thought was the best from those two long minutes.
One by one, the panel of women analyzed portfolios at a rapid pace. Then that dreaded moment came. Mr. Hill walked down the carpeted inclined floor of the dimly lit room announcing a name; my name, “Cassaundra Dunbridge”. Fight or flight; stay or flea. This was it. I wanted to cry. They did not know me and I only knew them from the podium they presented from early that day. They flipped through those pages so quickly. The words that came alongside that page flipping chaos were not the words I had hoped to hear. At the end of the two minutes, I heard one sentence clearly. Someone said a flower on my last page was interesting. That was it. A flower on the last page of my portfolio was the only positive I could hear at the time. I received 3 Post-its on that flower and one Post-it on another corresponding page. I felt confused. I didn’t understand. Did I fail? Am I awful? Was I wrong to pursue this? Ultimately, I felt my failure like the sting of a bee. It hurt a lot. The stinging of a bruised ego swelled and the venom of self-doubt radiated outwards enabling me to become a weak and fragile shell of myself. In that moment when the panel collectively closed my portfolio, I felt as if all the answers I craved were unattainable and my dream was a nonsensical illusion driving me to a dead end of failed sorrow.
I took a step back and changed the perspective. First, I bid farewell to those insecure tears. What I should understand is that the answers where there. They were right in front of me and these women gave me a gift to ignite my passion. I was able to view a mock session with art directors. This is how the art department evaluates incoming work. I was a part of that process. My flower stood out. Sure, it was a small part of a large picture, but it was different. It was unusual. My flower was memorable.
I looked around and saw the same worried faces of other illustrators. They were like me. I was like them. At that moment and at that time, all of us were there looking for the same answers and validation. We weren’t defined by our art education, gender, or career history. We were our work. Our voices sang through the colors, paints, sketches, and artistic distinctions that make us who we are now. This was not a competition. It was collaboration. Together, as an illustrative collective, we grow from opportunities like these. What I gained from the quickfire was a perspective. My skin is thicker, I wore my brave suit well that weekend, and I gained a community of fellow artists and writers. What I lost was something I was happy to lose. I put down the ego and removed the insecure emotional ties to my art. This wasn’t a personal judgment of character; it was an objective look into a process that is more than just illustrating. This was the process of how to sell your artwork and become a published illustrator. What I embraced was a tool to further my aspirations. I used to be an aspiring children’s book illustrator who was a little lost and alone on her journey. Today, I am a children’s book illustrator and author for the picture book genre with a community of kindred spirits walking a path together. There is strength in community.
I now know what I must do to achieve my illustrating dreams. The road is clear. The rain has stopped. Coffee is in my hand. Thank you to everyone for a wonderful Illustrator day and conference.