Keri Smith is a Canadian award winning illustrator and author of several bestselling books and apps about creativity including Wreck This Journal (Penguin), This is Not a Book (Penguin), How to be an Explorer of the World -the Portable Life/Art Museum,(Penguin), Mess: A Manual of Accidents and Mistakes (Penguin), The Guerrilla Art Kit (Princeton Architectural Press), Finish This Book (Penguin), and The Pocket Scavenger (Penguin).
What do you do and how did you start? How old were you when you realised you wanted to do what you’re currently doing and how old were you when you actually began. What jobs did you have before you went out on your own?
I think I knew what I wanted to do when I was nine years old. We were reading a book called “Jacob Two-two Meets the Hooded fang” by Mordecai Richler, illustrated by Fritz Wegner. I loved the illustrations and tried to copy them with some success. Early on in my schooling I realized that school was not a place to be creative, so I creatively came up with many excuses not to go. I think I had the worst attendance record for my school. At home I could create freely, making something from nothing, using anything I could find, garbage, wool, egg cartons, etc. I failed art badly in high school, a point which everyone finds most amusing now. I had one really great teacher in high school who said, “You should pursue that which most moves you in this world.” I did not graduate from high school, (which blew my chances at university) so I worked at a bookstore for two years and read. And read. I educated myself and studied anything I was drawn to. After two years I was ready to try art school, I applied as a mature student and surprised myself by getting into The Ontario College of Art.
After majoring in Illustration for three years I realized (and so did the head of the program), that my work “did not belong in the illustration program”. They had a problem with bike parts. I was craving outside influence. So I went to other areas of the college for my last year and had fun, got dirty! I tried printmaking, paper making, experimental painting, bookbinding, sculpture. All these things I could apply to illustration. When I was done I got my first big job with the Canadian Opera Company. And the rest has really fallen into place.
One of my favourite authors Joseph Campbell says, “When you are on your path, and it is truly your path, doors will open for you where there were no doors for someone else.” This has been very true for me. And it is not an easy path, riddled with uncertainties, doubts, mistakes, pain, but it is worth it. And it is the one thing I have always wanted to do. Katherine Mansfield said, “Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinions of others, for those voices. do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself, face the truth.”
How steps did you take to create your own business?
I think I answered this already but I’d like to add where I feel I’m headed in the next few years…. I am starting into a new phase in my work, one of self direction. In the beginning as an illustrator you really just want to get regular work, make a steady income, and get your name out there. I’m now at a point (after 7 years of doing this full time) where I feel like I’m reinventing what it means to be an illustrator for me. I’m doing more of my own work and ideas and selling them to people and companies, as opposed to waiting for someone to hire me for my services. I still do editorial and advertising work, but there is a definite shift happening and I see that eventually tapering off. I want to continue to create things and ideas that move me. I see my role as a writer growing, (I have as many people responding to my writing now as my illustrating.) This shift into self direction is extremely fulfilling and empowering and the new possibilities for work seem to be unlimited. I also am starting into the world of licensing, selling my designs to various companies. This new phase started over a year ago when I left my agent to pursue self representation. I found it important to market myself more as a “brand name” as opposed to being marketed in a group setting (the brand being the rep’s name). It appeared to me that I was growing and needed really target specific areas that my work was suited to. This just wouldn’t happen while being a part of a larger group. Also, my focus is really not on making the money, it is more important for me to do work that I enjoy and feel passionate about. It became harder for my rep to understand the more I grew in confidence, so it was a natural progression to go out on my own.
What is the most rewarding aspect of what you do? The most frustrating?
The freedom to pursue whatever I am drawn to. I feel myself being drawn into some exciting and scary places and it’s wonderful. I am really enjoying sell my ideas to people and am always surprised when I get a “hit”. At this stage the most frustrating is probably the negotiating, contracts, royalties, etc. I never know if I have done the right thing. I am in the process right now of considering an agent to handle this part. I have never been big on agents in the past, but I would like to have more time to focus on the fun stuff.
[infobox bg=”orange” color=”white” opacity=”on” subtitle=”Keri Smith”]Fear is natural, make it your friend. [/infobox]
Do you have any fears about what you do, and if so, how do you deal with them?
Hundreds weekly. Keep going. Every time I meet a professional creative person I ask them about this subject, THEY ALL HAVE FEAR STILL, no matter how long they’ve been doing it. The trick is to keep doing it. Fear is natural, make it your friend. I recently had a popular Canadian author up for tea, when I asked her how she got through all the public appearances she replied, “Grin and bear it.” I am finding doing public speaking the hardest thing for me right now, but I’m getting better.
What kind of work environment do you have?
I have just built a new barn studio in the back yard which is almost complete. Situated amongst the trees it is really my dream studio with more space than I am used to, natural light and a view of my gardens. My partner is a furniture designer/maker so he has the first floor, and I have the second floor. It is our first “designated artist space”, so it is very exciting.
Have you encountered any financial obstacles, and if so, how did you overcome them?
Several years ago my partner and I decided to move to the country to pursue a different quality of life and also to scale down our overhead. I always wanted a small cottage in the country to create in, one that I could really make my own. Ironically this move cut our living expenses in half, (as compared to the big city lifestyle.) So this has really taken the pressure off to live up to a certain income. I no longer have to take on every job that comes in just to make ends meet. It’s really great being able to choose to work commercially or say “this week I’m going to do some personal projects”. I also like to live as simply as possible so I try not to fall into the need to aquire “things”. You know the quote, “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” Books are my main indulgence.
Who or what are your inspirations?
I read a LOT. I have an illustration mentor, Linda Montgomery. She was my teacher at O.C.A. and she had a wonderfully spiritual approach to illustrating. My favourite teachers in life have always asked the question, “what moves you?”, your work should be about that…… suck it up into your work. I like to sing, pursue modern dance, paint, write in my journal, drink tea, cook, ride my bike, swing on my hammock, send and receive snail mail and email. The simple things are the best for me. I usually revolve my vacations around my reading interests. I love modern art and sculpture/installation, Rauschenberg, Basquiat, Rothko, I love new artists who are using technology in a way that I’ve never considered, or who help to me see the world with new eyes. I love experiential art, something I can interact with, work that doesn’t take itself too seriously, has a sense of fun and lightheartedness. Tim Hawkinson’s Uber Organ http://www.massmoca.org/ excites me to no end. I got to see this piece in person last year at Mass Moca (my current favourite gallery in the world), it makes you afraid, it makes you curious, and it makes you laugh all at once.
Favourite authors include May Sarton, Henry Miller, Opal Whiteley, Euel Gibbons, Ann Lamott, Anne Frank, Cortia Kent, Chip Kidd, Dan Price, Anais Nin, Sark, Carl Jung, almost all Canadian fiction, Nathalie Goldberg, Joseph Campbell, to name a few. There is nothing better than a novel you can’t put down. All my web pen pals, many listed here, are a constant source of connection and life for me. I love people who live by example. Creative inspiration is contagious! I am so moved by this little circle of women.
Words of advice for those pursuing their creative goals.
Begin Now. Dream big. Keep moving forward. Research. Acknowledge successes. Connect with others on the path. Work at loving yourself. Trust. Cry (it’s o.k.) Connect again with others. Trust. Let go. Take time to fill yourself up again (down time). Reinvent when necessary. Trust.
Oh, I should also mention this one…All of my best ideas come when I am in the midst of playing or letting go. That relaxed state when we are not attached to outcomes, trying to impress, or needing to do good work. It took me many years (and a lot of bad art) to figure this one out. I’m still working on it.