Socially Responsible Investing

SRI-illustration

I wouldn’t blame you if you felt a little oogie about investing right now. In the past seven years, shady dealings done by banks, fund managers and even credit rating agencies left millions of us with no jobs, no savings, or sometimes, horrifyingly, with neither (and let’s not even discuss the debt). In the meantime, many of those same financial institutions have posted record profits while the rest of us continue to struggle.

So how do we get back on track? How can we work the system from within while changing things from without? A good first step might be socially responsible investing.

Socially responsible investing means putting your money to work in an area of positive change. This is not like Kickstarter or donating to a non-profit, where you don’t get much in return for your contribution other than feeling mildly helpful. This is you buying shares in businesses that are trying to make a difference while also making a profit — and they do. According to The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment, numerous studies have shown that SRI funds generally perform just as well as conventional ones.

Responsible businesses also tend to be less risky investments. Companies that stay away from industries like fossil fuels, tobacco and gambling also stay away from the volatile pricing and heavy government regulation that often goes along with them. On the flip side, companies that treat their employees well and practice sustainability often save money on employee turnover and energy costs.

Perhaps the nicest thing about SRIs is that there’s a flavor for everyone. There are funds supporting women’s economic development, green energy, clean water, and companies rated as great places to work. More personally, you can find funds to support particular religious values or investment in your local community. And if you don’t really know where you want to direct your dollars but want to steer in a generally good direction, you can choose from a number of more blended funds that consider broad environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) factors when building their portfolios.

For more information about socially responsible investing, SocialFunds.com is a good place to start. Their site looks a little janky, but they have a lot of great resources. I particularly like the investor tools in the Mutual Fund Center, where you can compare funds using a variety of metrics and see the full profiles for each individual fund. This is especially helpful when many of the funds have super generic names like “CSIF Balanced Portfolio C.”

Have you ever invested in an SRI? Do you know which companies your retirement fund supports? I”d be interested to hear about your personal experience with mutual funds, socially responsible or otherwise.

Work/Life 3

Cover image by Jeff Rogers. Copyright Uppercase Publishing 2013

If you read my post back in May, you know that I applied to participate in Uppercase’s new illustration annual, Work/Life 3. You also know that I struggled with what I perceived as my own failure to deliver my best work, but I’ve since (mostly) made peace with it. As a wise friend pointed out, what’s important is to do the work and put it out there. It’s not important (or good for your creative practice) to expect a perfect result every time.

But this post is not about that. This post is about the process that led me from application to final submission.

  1. Application: after I saw the call on Twitter, I took a few days to consider whether I should submit an application. Ultimately I decided rather firmly that it was worth the investment. That decision was further solidified by how incredibly easy it was to work with Editor-in-Chief Janine Vangool and her staff. They were the consummate professionals throughout, and the turnaround time between my application and acceptance was surprisingly quick.
  2. Bio/questionnaire: this was way more thorough than I ever anticipated. There were pages upon pages of essay questions to answer — some mandatory, and some optional. To make a long story short, I had trouble with the instructions page and never found the form until after the deadline had passed. As a result, my answers felt rushed and incomplete, and submitting the interview late also meant that I received my assignment late, which did not get me off to a great start. Still, I felt pretty jazzed about the assignment and confident in my ability to complete it in the month I had left. As it turned out, I would need (and get — thank you, Janine!) an extension.
  3. Assignment: a couple of days after submitting the interview, I received the following instructions: “Go to the hardware store, a grocery store or a flea market and select some objects to use in an assemblage or composition about you.” It was a classic, Project Runway-style materials challenge — in others words, right up my alley.
  4. Brainstorming: I decided to adopt a two-pronged approach. Firstly, I would do my usual sketchbook brainstorming by making lists (of concepts, formats and possible materials) and creating a mood board of sketches and inspiring images. Secondly, I would take a leisurely stroll through Lowes and let the materials do the talking.

brainstorm materials

Project 1: Mobile

With a new baby on the way and notions of balance buzzing around my head, my first idea was to construct a mobile. I thought about the main areas of my life I’m constantly struggling to balance (relationships, health, family, finances, creative fulfillment, and home) and made a representative drawing of each. Then I translated the drawings into electrical wire using needle-nose pliers, and put together a diagram of how the whole thing should hang together.

health mobile-diagram

I assembled the mobile using wooden dowels, metal cotter pins, beading wire, and white plastic screw protectors. After adjusting the balance of the various arms, I held everything in place using steel split rings and clear plastic washers. When I finally hung it and photographed it all together, I was disappointed. The bright colors and wonkiness of the wire made it all look too much like a school craft project. So I went back to the drawing board.

mobile mobile-detail

Project 2: Tornado

I thought that perhaps the trouble lay in trying to make unruly materials behave too precisely. Life is never precisely in balance anyway, so why not let things get messy?

tornado

I decided to create lots of tiny ink drawings on pieces of wood veneer, which would appear to be spinning within a multi-colored wire tornado. The crazy colored wire would serve as a backdrop, but it would be tempered by the consistent color and texture of the drawings on wood. As it turned out, this approach did not add any sort of natural charm to project. It just looked messy. Next!

Project 3: Geodesic Dome

Frustrated with my lack of success using bright colors and haphazard materials, I went completely in the opposite direction. I kept the small drawings on wood veneer, but decided to suspend them from the triangles of a Buckminster Fuller-style geodesic dome. I used wooden dowels and glue for the dome facets, so the piece ended up being totally monochromatic. It looked cleaner than my previous two ideas but totally uncompelling. I considered upgrading the ink drawings to tiny gouache paintings instead, but there wasn’t enough time to execute that approach, so after making just a few triangles, I put this idea aside as well. I didn’t even bother to photograph it.

Project 4: Family Tree

Clearly I needed to scale things down a bit. I narrowed the concept to just one area of balance (family) and decided to only use two colors — green, and the natural brown of the wooden dowels. What emerged was a three-dimensional family tree.

I still used electrical wire, but it looked a lot less messy when I used it to write instead of to draw. I also used electrical tape, which was a similar hue to the wire, just in a lighter shade. At first I thought the names of our relatives should run along the length of the branches, since the loops in the cursive somewhat resembled leaves…

branch-layout

…but the proportions were all wrong and it ended up looking like a spindly sort of bonsai.

tree-mockup

So instead I cut leaf shapes out of the electrical tape by folding them in half over the edge of some wax paper…

tape-leaves-cutout

…and used those to hang the names off the branches perpendicularly. It gave me some more flexibility in regards to placement and made the entire sculpture look a little more filled out.

hardware-assemblage-detail

To finish things off I stuck my family tree into the base of a mini plunger, which I covered in more pieces of electrical tape to resemble grass. I made a little red swing from wire and twine to stand in for our still-to-be-born kidlet, and added a couple of hardware accents — mushrooms, flowers and a bird — to liven up the hillside.

Hardware family tree

Though I would have loved to have kept tweaking this project (adding fruit or blossoms to the branches, perhaps?) or trying other ideas, I ran out of time. Unlike personal projects, which you can revise indefinitely for years, professional projects require the best work you can do in the time allotted. Luckily for me, Janine took my neurosis in stride and put together a fantastic spread that included a range of my other work and a very flattering write-up. She made me feel instantly better about the project.

One day I will figure out how to properly express my gratitude to her. For now, let me just say: thank you, Janine and everyone at Uppercase, for being total mensches. I regret to say that during this process I became exactly the kind of artist I normally hate working with, but you took it all in stride and were always gracious. I am very lucky to have had the opportunity to work with you fine folks.

How to Support a Pregnant Woman

pregnancy-what

As I approach my final days of being two people, I thought it might be useful to share the words and actions that were most helpful and comforting to me during this time. Even if you never plan to have your own children, chances are you will be called upon to support a friend or a family member who does. Obviously, this is my list, and it doesn’t apply to every woman on earth (some women might want to hear your most horrific birth stories — I don’t), but hopefully this offers someplace to start, especially when it comes to people with whom you’re not particularly close.

Things that helped:

  • Making things feel as normal as possible: I really appreciated people’s thoughtful attempts to make life feel normal and not all about the baby. For example, my husband would sometimes make me a mocktail at the end of a long day. Even though it was non-alcoholic, it felt special and relaxing, and helped me to unwind almost as much as the spiked version. I also appreciated when friends would ask about something other than my pregnancy in conversation. It reminded me that they still considered me the same complete person I always was, and didn’t identify me solely as a mom-to-be.
  • Questions rather than assumptions: I much prefer the questions “Can I help you with that?”, “Would you like to sit down?” or “How do you feel about sushi?” to the statements “Here, let me take that,” “You must want to sit down,” or “I vetoed sushi for lunch, since I know you can’t eat it.” Everyone’s pregnancy is different — I ate sushi and pursued construction projects throughout mine — and questions allowed me to continue living the way I wanted, rather than pigeonholing me into someone else’s perception of how a pregnant woman should act.
  • Being understanding/forgiving when I lost my mind.: I was lucky to not have any truly incapacitating symptoms during my pregnancy, but there were still many days when I just wasn’t firing on all cylinders. Not getting enough food, sleep, or oxygen wreaked serious havoc on my brainpower. I was slower to complete projects and I made more mistakes. I missed appointments and forgot people’s birthdays, despite having a detailed organization system in place. Sometimes it would say 1pm on the calendar but my brain would read it as 2pm. It drove me crazy to lose so much control over my mental faculties, so I am deeply grateful to anyone who removed extra tasks/chores/worries from my list, gave me gentle reminders, or assured me it was okay when I totally blew it.
  • Checking in: it was nice to have folks check in now and again, especially after I stopped working and didn’t have much daily interaction outside my own house. Just a quick call to see how I was feeling was always appreciated, as were gentle reminders that people were available to talk/answer questions if I needed it. I felt reassured and not alone — like if things got rough, help would be on the way. Knowing that safety net was there was a big comfort.

Things that didn’t help:

  • Defining me by my “condition”: some women like to be fawned over during big life events. I am not one of those women. I do not like being called out simply for fulfilling some heteronormative feminine role (you’d never see me in anything that says “bride” in rhinestones, for example). It makes me feel like a sideshow, not a person. I was therefore mortified when, walking through a company function, a co-worker shouted, “Look out! Pregnant lady coming through!”, as though I were something so weird it warranted everyone’s immediate attention. I felt similarly dehumanized when referred to as “Preggers” or “Preggo” instead of my name.
  • Comments about my size: I heard it all, from, “Only six months? That must be a big baby!” to, “You’re so lucky. You don’t even look pregnant!” I didn’t like any of it. I had a really hard time adjusting to all of the physical changes my body went through, while at the same time I worried about keeping my weight gain within the ten-pound range the doctors suggested. Comments about my size from non-involved parties only served to heighten the stress.
  • War stories: I’ve done the reading, watched the videos, and gone to the classes. I’m fully aware of the horrors that await me before, during, and after childbirth. It requires daily effort to remain calm and optimistic about delivering and then raising a child. Rather than making me feel like part of the “club,” hearing stories about awful labors, babies who don’t sleep, and misshapen breasts just brings all my fears to the surface. War stories are meant to be shared between soldiers after the war is over. They don’t work as part of the recruitment speech.
  • Unsolicited advice: when it comes to your first kid, everyone’s an expert. I’ve been given conflicting instructions regarding exercise, breastfeeding, discipline, pacifiers, sleep training, and just about every other topic you can think of. Hearing so many different opinions just made decisions more confusing and forced me to pretend I was on board with a lot of weird stuff (“Never wear a bra again after you give birth. It causes cancer.”) just to avoid an argument. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t given some extremely helpful information (I was), it’s just that it was information I had asked for, from a person I trust, or it was a source that someone had shared for me to explore on my own. For example, three different people thought I might like the book, Bringing Up Bebe, but none of them told me I had to read it, or pressed me about it later.

None of what I’ve just laid out should be taken as a universal proscription, but it can help to remember that your pregnant friend or relative is the same woman she’s always been. If you treat her that way, giving her just a little extra slack during this transitional and sometimes unpleasant period, it’s hard to go wrong.

Thank you to everyone who has seen me through this ordeal. I really and truly appreciate the love and support I have received throughout. You make me feel like an extremely fortunate woman.

Define Failure

I had a really rough morning. I went to bed feeling ambivalent about a creative assignment I had just turned in, and sleeping on it didn’t seem to help. Distancing myself from the work for a few hours didn’t provide the clarity I was hoping for, and instead I awoke with that vague but panicky feeling that accompanies the submission of work I don’t count among my best.

Those of us who work in creative professions hope that our work will always continue to improve over time as we achieve new levels of skill, taste and practice. In general this is true, but like the stock market, improvement over time doesn’t happen in a steady, straight line — it appears through the average of successive peaks and valleys. Though I understand this rationally, when I slide into one of those dips I can’t help but feel like I’ve just gone backwards — like I’ve failed.

creative-development-chart

Let me pause for a moment to define what failure is to me: failure is the inability to submit work of which I am unequivocally proud. Did I complete the assignment to spec?* Yes. Did it solve the problem in a clever and aesthetically pleasing way? I think so. Did I immediately want to run out and show it to everyone I know? No. And that’s what feels like failure.

Somewhat ironically, the harder I’ve worked on a project, the worse I feel when it doesn’t work out. I take no comfort in knowing I tried my best. If that was my best, then what good am I? Being able to blame a lack of time or effort is much more comforting than having to admit a project fell short due to bad decisions, a lack of good ideas, or poor craftsmanship.

My feelings of failure are also directly proportional to the stakes of the assignment itself. In this particular case, the piece in question was created for inclusion in an illustration annual, where it will serve as the sole representation of my entire body of work to over 1,000 industry professionals. This one piece will introduce me and my work to all of the editors and art directors I have been hoping to reach for years. So pardon the hyperbole (“I didn’t make something spectacular! I don’t deserve to work in this town again!”) but you see, the stakes could not be higher.

hardware-assemblage-detail

I was seriously considering pulling the whole project this morning, $500 investment be damned. How could I have my not-amazing work to appear alongside the obviously-amazing work of dozens of other artists? Allowing such an unfavorable comparison would surely be more detrimental to my reputation than not appearing at all, right?

Luckily I asked that question out loud, to people I trust to give me honest answers, and they wholeheartedly disagreed. My husband insisted it would be a mistake to not participate in the book. As one of the only artists in the book working in three dimensions, my piece will introduce me as someone to consider for editorial props. Other friends agreed that even if it isn’t the piece de resistance of my entire career, my submission is still strong enough to encourage people to check out what else I’ve done.

Fortunately, as with all failures, there is always something to be learned, and the sting eventually fades over time. With this project I learned that complicated assemblages (especially using unfamiliar materials) are better served by a “lean manufacturing” approach (finishing a small section of the project in its entirety before starting on the rest) than by an industrial approach (making all the pieces first and then assembling them all at the end). Never again will I waste time and materials because I discovered too late that a good idea didn’t come together in execution, and that is extremely valuable — even necessary. In fact, I might argue that on the stock market graph of creative development, you can’t have the peaks at all without the valleys. After all, without the failures, what new knowledge is there to propel you to greater heights?

All that’s left to do now is to try to channel my inner zen master and let this project go, while also hopefully maintaining a little optimism. Who knows? Maybe my little sculpture is right up Tim Burton’s/Brad Bird’s alley, and they’ll insist I contribute my talents to their next film. Stranger things have happened.

*For those of you who are curious, the assignment was to create an assemblage using only supplies from a hardware store, a la Project Runway’s “unconventional materials” challenges. I can’t show you the actual piece until the book is published, so the tiny detail up top will have to do for now. This was also my monthly project for April.

Monthly Projects: An Attempt to Get Back On the Horse

As of tomorrow, April 1st, I’ll be embarking on a monthly project for the next five months. This is yet another gimmick I’ll be employing in order to become a more prolific artist. My art practice has suffered pretty terribly since October, when I went from part-time to full-time at my job. At the end of a full work day, after I’ve finished making and eating dinner, I often have very little energy or desire left to try to be creative, so I need to set up some external motivation again. My open-ended “make something a day” technique has not been yielding much other than knitted items (mostly because I can do this in front of the TV), which is not really pushing my creative boundaries or inspiring portfolio-worthy work.

So, upon the suggestion of my very smart husband, I collected all of the project ideas that have been relegated to the back burner and wrote them on slips of paper. On the first day of the month I will draw one from a hat, and that is the project I will work on for the next 30 days, ideally completing it by the end of the month. My April project has already been assigned by Uppercase (for Work/Life 3), but May through August will be ruled by fate. After that it will be time to take a break and assess how well this is all going.

Weekly progress will be posted right here on the blog in order to keep me somewhat accountable, but I’d also love to hear feedback from other folks during this time. Are you working on something similar? How do you motivate yourself to keep doing creative work at the end of a long and tiring day? Please share your experiences and thoughts below.

Wish me luck!

Trading Fans for Friends

If you read some of my earlier posts, you know that sometimes social media makes me feel like this:

I think that much of the conventional wisdom about social media is complete and total crap.  It turns out that I do NOT need keep up with it every day. I do not need to tailor or time tweets/posts in order to get the most likes, followers or re-tweets. I don’t need to avoid sharing my work more than 10% of the time and I don’t need to build a large social media community or following for my work to be commercially successful.  Know why? Because a person who follows me on social media due to some strategic piece of shared information most likely doesn’t care about me as human or as an artist, they’re just mildly interested in said piece of information — which is fine as a social media side effect, but makes no sense as something to chase after/spend time on.

The people who do care about me as a human and an artist on social media are the people who also care about me in real life. They’re the community who will support and share my work because they’re the ones who will actually take the time to look at it and think about it. They’re also the people whose lives and work I care about in return, and the people with whom I have the most satisfying conversations, on- or offline.

Knowing all this, here’s what I’ve done: unfollowed all the people I envy or am inspired by — I have enough inspiration and project ideas to last the next three years without needing more sprayed at me like a fire hose. I also unfollowed every social media/marketing expert and inspirational life coach, and every celebrity — they also have nothing that I need right now. That leaves me with just people I love and people/publications who make me laugh. Pretty great, right? I don’t get stressed out anymore when I visit Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. I don’t open my e-mail every morning hoping to see a re-tweet, like, or new follower notification. Best of all, I’m getting so much more work done — creative, exciting work that I feel great doing.

At the same time, I’m connecting more meaningfully with people online, one at a time.  I’ll reach out to someone who’s admired my work, or someone whose work has inspired me to be a better artist. Sometimes we’ll have things in common and exchange a few e-mails. Maybe we’ll even meet in person some time if we’re in the same area. Sometimes it goes nowhere at all. Either way I’m finding life much more satisfying now that I’ve stopped caring about fans and followers and have started making friends.

I want to do this forever

A friend of mine is about to launch a fascinating new blog series for the SFMoMA all about money in the arts. I’m lucky enough to get to work with her on the infographics for it. I don’t know what direction the illustrations will eventually take, but here’s a peek at some mock-ups I did as a sort of brainstorming exercise (you’ll notice the numbers aren’t real). This project was more up my alley than almost anything else I’ve worked on recently. If I could do nothing but real-life infographics from now on, I would be a very happy camper. So more people please start contacting me about these kinds of opportunities, m’kay?  Thanks.

Inspired by: Renegade Round-up

Now that I don’t sell retail any more I was able to go out to the San Francisco Renegade fair just as a shopper.  There was unfortunately a bit of repetition, which will happen whenever any meme proves itself to be commercially successful.  I saw at least four booths selling spiral-bound journals made from recycled book covers, and there were more mustaches, bacon and abstracted San Francisco maps than you could shake a stick at.  Still, when you have 300ish vendors, you’re bound to find a few new and interesting things and find them I did!  Here is a sampling of a few of the artists I admired this year:

Emma SanCartier’s oddFAUNA sculpture shadow boxes:

“Jesus Saves the Dinosaurs” and other irreverent collages by Unusual Cards:

And Whitney Smith’s gorgeous pottery. Would LOVE one of her bowl sets:

200 Yards Photos

Just found out today that one of my photos made it into the 200 Yards exhibition at Rare Device! The opening reception is on my birthday, June 1st, which makes it doubly exciting.  I took a ton of photos and whittled it down to five submissions.  I won’t spoil the surprise by showing the photo I’m exhibiting just yet, but here are the other four I really liked that didn’t make the cut:

Through the corner windows of Rare Device

Bus Shelter Reflection on Hayes (I think this one might be my favorite)

Flat Old Pick-up on Scott

And here are a few that I didn’t submit, but still kind of like:

Starling Perch

Automotive Service

Planter on Fell

Craftcation Recap

It’s been almost a week and I’m still not sure I’m fully recovered from the Craftcation conference.  I was scheduled to run three sessions in three days, but then added a fourth at the last minute when another speaker had to cancel.  Having been a middle school teacher for six years, where you teach 4-5 hours a day, I didn’t think it would be a big deal, but I was exhausted at the end of every day.  I forgot how tiring it can be when all of your down time between sessions is spent networking, even meals!

Moving your Business Beyond the Kitchen Table panel at Craftcation with me (moderator), Angharad Jones, Delilah Snell and Nicole Stevenson

Despite my exhaustion, I had a really good time.  I love helping other creatives (especially women) get their businesses on the right track, and I got to spend a little quality time with other energizing crafty business ladies.  I had one particularly raucous dinner with Steph Cortes from NerdJerk, Rosalie from Unanimous Craft, Marlo Miyashiro, Danielle from Etsy, Ashley Jennings, and Rena Tom that I will not soon forget.  I haven’t laughed that hard in a long time.

Marlo, Rena and me

I was really pleased to see such great attendance at Craftcation, though some of my sessions didn’t run quite as smoothly as I’d hoped.  The session on pricing was so popular that the room became a fire hazard and we had to start turning people away.  We also didn’t have a working projector, but the attendees all rallied their technology so that each table could view the slides on a shared iPad.  The marketing session was also a full house and we ended up running out of handouts halfway through, but my helper for that one, Stephanie, was freaking amazing.  I understand that you can never quite predict session attendance, and besides, shit happens, but I want to make sure that anyone who couldn’t attend or take home handouts has a chance to access the materials.  Y’all paid good money to attend the conference after all, so here are the links to the materials from my three solo sessions (the panel didn’t have materials):

Full house at the Marketing on a Budget Session at Craftcation

One thing I’m having trouble with is measuring the ROI of this conference to my own business.  The benefits are so intangible for the most part that it’s tough to tell whether offering three days of (essentially) free teaching will pay for itself in the long term.  I really like teaching, so there’s that intangible benefit right off the bat, but does it make up for the three days I couldn’t work on any of my own projects?  Right now I’m leaning towards “yes”, but I couldn’t give you any hard evidence for why I’m leaning that way.  Right now it’s just a gut feeling surrounding the concept of “networking”.

How do you figure out when to take on projects that are peripheral to your creative business, like speaking, writing and teaching?  I could honestly really use some help with this one.