Where did you grow up, and how did the arts fit into your childhood? I grew up in a larger suburb of Washington D.C. and I was a pretty cultured little kid. We would go into the city a lot to visit museums, and it felt like I was growing up in the city, even though I lived in suburbia. It was the best of both worlds as a kid. As a child, I was always on my own little planet, doing my own things. My family would be watching a show together, and I would just be in la-la land, coloring. I would hide under the table and make a fort and just draw for hours. I was always creating and making things and making a mess, trying to see what I could get away with. My mom told me the other day that as a kid, I would draw beautiful drawings on the walls and then pretend like I didn’t do it. So I was kind of mischievous, but I was more interested in seeing what I could make.
Did you end up going to school for art? I did not. I took the financially safe option, and went to state school, because I felt like I didn’t have any direction. I wasn’t 100% sure that I could follow art as a passion and I convinced myself that I couldn’t, which is a big part of my whole life story. I went to school with no plan, and I figured at least I wasn’t spending a ton of money to go somewhere when I didn’t even know why. I was naive. I was smart in school, but I had no passion one way or the other yet.
“…I’m the type of person who can be happy doing anything. It’s good, but it’s also really frustrating when you’re trying to find your one true career choice”
I always tell people I’m kind of cursed, because I’m the type of person who can be happy doing anything. It’s good, but it’s also really frustrating when you’re trying to find your one true career choice at that age. I thought, “I don’t want to pick one thing. I can’t. It’s against everything I am.” While at school, though, I couldn’t avoid taking art classes. I just kept taking them. Then as a junior, I decided I would pursue an art major. To supplement it I came up with this bright idea to earn a Spanish degree also, because I wanted “job security.” My parents were less than thrilled with my choices, I think, but they warmed up to the idea. I felt like I had discovered two things that I loved. I didn’t want to turn back, and I wanted to travel the world. And it actually turned out really cool for me. Knowing another language allows you to be creative in a different way. And teaching, which came later for me, allows you to be a different type of creative.
I can relate to that. I remember growing up and I can distinctly remember my art teacher telling me, “You’re going to be an artist,” and then a dance teacher telling me, “You’re going to be a choreographer,” and then a creative writing teacher telling me, “You’re going to be a writer,” and now I’m a musician. It’s cool to be a kid who’s passionate, but it’s also kind of scary, because you wonder what you’re good at. I know I’m really bad at math, so I would rule out certain careers based on what level of math I needed to know. I think kids take it to heart when they’re told they’re bad at things, and it has an impact on who they become. If you can tell your kid, “Just keep exploring,” and teach them to be open to being a lifelong learner, that’s so much more productive.
When did you decide to make a career out of being an artist? I graduated from college, and then became a high school Spanish and art teacher, which was great because I was able to use my degrees. I taught for nine years. Then two years ago we moved to New York City for my husband’s job. I was at a weird crossroads where I was always going to be happy teaching, but I also had this chance to sort of start over. I was making art on the side and selling it, and I tried an Etsy shop, and a couple of different small-scale endeavors with art. I kept going back to making art for some reason.
I started pursuing being an artist six years ago, and then I officially became a full-time professional artist two years ago. I had no idea what I was doing. I had never run a business before. I had only taught and worked in various jobs, but I had never been involved in professional art before. I was just leaping in blind. But I’ve learned that I thrive in difficult situations, because it forces me to be creative. Having a creative streak is sort of like having a problem-solving streak. So I’ve kind of utilized that part of my head for the last two years.
“After my daughter was born I became insanely more creative…I knew that I was about to reinvent myself because I was calling in sick to work so that I could make art.”
How old is your daughter? She’s six. After my daughter was born I became insanely more creative. I don’t know what happened. Maybe it was my outlet, needing to have something that was mine. Once she was born, I started making art on the side, just for fun. I found some pop-up shops that I worked with, and little collaborations where I could maybe make four or five paintings over the course of six months. But then I got addicted to it. I knew that I was about to reinvent myself because I was calling in sick to work so that I could make art. I felt like some part of me needed it. My weekends became me asking my husband for three hours of time so I could paint.
Wow. So essentially, you’ve built your business in just two years? Yeah. And it’s so hard. I mean, when people reach out to me and ask me what they should do first, I tell them to pick one thing and just keep going. I started with a website, and I didn’t even have a design or anything, but I purchased the domain and I started there. You take tiny steps, and if you take one tiny step every day for two years, it’ll take hold. But if you had talked to me a year ago, I would have told you it was a failure. You go through phases where you think it’s not worth it. It’s been hard, hard work, but also really wonderful.
“You take tiny steps, and if you take one tiny step every day for two years, it’ll take hold.”
What does your husband do? He’s in IT, so his interests and the way his brain works makes us completely different people. He’s been really instrumental in all of the decisions I’ve made, because I’m not necessarily business savvy, and he’s so analytical. He’s always joking, “When you make it big, I’ll totally work for you!” He’s good with the analytics on the website, and calculating shipping; anything where I’m not strong, he’s strong.
You knew you wanted to be an artist, and you started pursuing art and painting when you moved to New York. How did that evolve into a sustainable business for you? Honestly, for me, I knew that I wanted to paint every day. That was the underlying thing. If you’re a maker or a creator, you know that you want to make every day, whether it’s weaving, painting, calligraphy, whatever. But for me, I didn’t want it to be a hobby that was financially draining. And I figured that even if I only broke even, I would still consider year one to be a success. I didn’t put a lot of financial pressure on myself for a lot of reasons. I’m one of those people who just needs a little tiny bit of success in order to fuel my motivation. I set the bar really low. I didn’t want to tell myself that I need to make x amount of dollars in the first year because I knew I’d feel badly if I didn’t.
I also am the regional leader of a national organization called Rising Tide Society, which focuses on fostering community for creative entrepreneurs. When I first moved to New York, I went to the first meeting, and there were just four of us. There was a florist, a business coach, a makeup artist, and me. And we all ran ideas by each other. I remember leaving that meeting and realizing that for me, what I need to succeed is just people. I can’t do this alone. I left one meeting and one of the members had told me where I could get business cards, directed me to someone who could help me with my website, and she told me I could do it. Simply that. We have these meetings once a month, and at our two-year anniversary last month, 100 people attended our meeting. That just goes to prove that creatives need this community.
My advice for people who are just starting is always to find four or five people who you can bounce ideas off of. They have to be creatives; they can’t be dream crushers. A lot of times people will say things like, “My best friend says that it’s not worth it.” I remind them that their best friend isn’t their business partner. And that’s ok! They don’t need to be the person that supports you. It has to be someone that dreams bigger than you.
We all need real, human people to bounce our ideas off of. I like to hang out with people who are more established than me—not to feel self conscious about where I am, but more to see that it can work. Eventually I will be a full-fledged “whatever.” Sometimes in our industry there’s a tendency to want to stay small, or be around people that you’re used to. And there’s comfort in that, no doubt, but there’s no challenge, no room to grow. You have to push yourself really hard.
But, the making has always been easy. I just paint. I dream about places, and I paint them. There’s no creative block here. The hard part for me is managing it all. At year zero, when we first moved here, I would get frustrated a lot. I felt like it was a waste of my time. It’s hard when you’re not making any money at first.
“…the making has always been easy. I just paint. I dream about places, and I paint them.”
So you were living in New York, not making a money, being an artist. Were you primarily “momming”? Yes. We had worked it out financially so that me “momming” was saving us a ton of money. We didn’t need after care, or all of these other things that moms and dads have to do. So the financial burden was off. When you’re a parent, there’s a way to quantify your worth. You can do the math, and realize that you’re valuable, when you could instead be paying someone else for childcare. And, of course, you also get to see your kids, which is awesome. Being a parent is productive. There can be such a stigma for stay-at-home moms, but that is the hardest job ever.
Financially, it’s a humongous amount of money that’s being put into a family. We had that conversation, which was hard. It was one of those things where because I had worked as a teacher, I knew what it was like to be productive financially, to be equal in that way. To have it shift suddenly was hard for me as a woman, for me as a secretly raging feminist. I wanted to be the breadwinner. And I shifted it so that I could follow my passion.
I think that’s so interesting. When you first become a mother, for me anyway, I had this identity crisis, where I suddenly felt like I had less worth, because I didn’t know how to be an artist anymore. And over the course of about a year, my perspective shifted so much because it became: I do have worth, and that worth is financial, because we are saving money if I care for my child during the day, rather than try to get a day job. That idea would never have been there had we not had a child. I realized that the job that I have as a parent is actually really important. Exactly, it’s a perspective that’s so refreshing because you realize how useful you really are. It was a huge awakening for me, but you know what’s funny too? It’s like a strange ego boost. I realized how essential I am. When I was a teacher I felt useful, and productive, but parenting is a whole different level. You’re not only running a family in a lot of ways, but you’re also pursuing a dream. Being able to do that makes me feel so thankful that my husband is supportive. But to have the wherewithal and the audacity to do it is pretty cool too. There are a lot of people out there that don’t get the chance. If you take the chance when you have it, it’s hard. It takes guts.
Could you walk us through a day in the life of Art By Megan? On a normal day, during the normal school year, when I’m not required to attend something at my daughter’s school, I wake up at six. I usually try to wake up earlier than everyone else in the house. Everyone says not to do it, but first I check my email and social media, and do all the admin tasks that I can get done, because I know I won’t have another chance to get them done until later.
My husband and daughter usually get up around seven, then we do the morning routine of walking the dog, eating the cheerios, packing the lunch—and my daughter is the slowest turtle in the world in the morning. I wake up and leap out of bed every morning—I’m such a morning person, and she’s the total opposite. It’s been very funny to see how we work together on that! Then we take the train to school and I drop her off.
In March, I got a studio away from my house; before that I would work at home. Now that I have a space dedicated to work, I have found myself exponentially more productive. At home I often feel the obligation to multitask and do laundry and other chores. Now I go to the studio, which is a 20-minute walk from my daughter’s school. I usually start the day with quieter tasks. I might write down a bunch of ideas or start painting. Sometimes I just pour a bunch of paint and go to town. I never have to sit and think about what to paint. It’s already there, just waiting for the opportunity.
Then I usually work until lunchtime, and then from lunchtime on, until around 2 or 2:30, I do a lot of the back-end stuff: website updates, Instagram conversations, shipping, PayPal invoices, all the admin tasks. I also work as a regional director for HoneyBook, which is a workflow tool for creatives that’s affiliated with my volunteer position for Rising Tide Society. For that job, I’m a contractor, so I work intermittent hours. Because it’s based in San Francisco, most of my hours for that are from noon, on. So my flow has become: Art By Megan in the morning, HoneyBook tasks in the afternoon.
Then on a normal day at three o’clock, I pick up my daughter from school and we go on adventures. I really try to check out from the hours of 3:30-6:30. Because if I’m going to be able to see her, I really want to focus and enjoy that time. On a perfect day we go to the park, we eat ice cream, we do fun stuff together. Or we go home and do homework, because apparently kindergarteners have tons of homework now!
After my daughter goes to bed, I go back to work. I used to paint at home more, but I’ve started to just paint at the studio, which helps me to do a better job and I don’t feel so stressed out about making a mess. Or I’ll do more admin. There’s a lot of admin! It’s intermittent hours, but I definitely work ten hours a day. But I love it.
Tell us more about your artwork and your subject matter. I have always been obsessed with things with lots of layers, so that contributes psychologically to why I paint the ocean, and also the texture of my paintings. A smooth painting to me isn’t finished; I like when there are chunks of paint on it. When I travel, I like to go to a lot of places that are old and kind of crusty. I like the idea of paint chipping off, and something being underneath that, and wondering what came before. I’ve always been obsessed with history, and I like to know that what you see is not always the answer to the question. There are always like 10 layers beneath. It’s the same way when you meet a person. Knowing the surface, but wondering what’s beneath.
My Petal series is a similar concept: things that are fleeting. The paintings are impressionistic, but capturing something that’s so quick and temporary is part of the beauty, whether it’s a wave crashing or petals that are laying on the ground, and you wonder how they got there. I like the idea of remembering a tiny moment. There’s actually a children’s book, The Man with the Violin by Kathy Stinson. It’s about this little boy whose mother is pulling him through the subway, and he’s noticing all of these things, a man playing music, an old woman wearing a colorful jacket, all of these little tiny things. And the mom’s in a hurry saying, “We’re late, we’re late, we’re late, let’s go!” and the little boy keeps noticing beautiful things.
I feel like that’s sort of how my brain is. Normal adults walk from place A to place B, but I’m very distracted by the beautiful things around me. I think that’s why I love traveling so much, because I get to be distracted the whole time. I want to notice those things every day.
I love to hear what inspires an artist’s work. Knowing what motivates your choices helps to understand your work on a much deeper level. People will say to me, “Oh, those are so pretty! You must be a beachy person.” And actually, I live in the city. I’m not inspired by the beach necessarily, not in a direct way. But the ocean is terrifying and powerful and I love it. I also think it’s such a good metaphor for life, because the ocean ebbs and flows, there are hard times, and then there are really easy times, and beautiful times, and scary times, and to me, it shows that nothing is permanent. Things will change and get better, but we also need to be grateful when it’s good.
"I had a hard time at first. It wasn’t easy. The birth was rough, unexpectedly difficult. I remember being very disappointed that it had been so hard for me. But then, once the fog of new motherhood lifted, I remember thinking: but I did it. I remember feeling like a superhero. I thought if I could do that, I could do anything."
I was reading your recent blog post about why you so often paint the ocean. I loved what you said about the experience you had when you were 12, feeling scared that you were going to drown while playing in the waves. And your story about going in the water when you were freezing cold and feeling invigorated. That made me think about how a single moment basically affected your subject matter as an artist forever. It’s pretty incredible to think about that, when you grew up being interested in so many different things. Now you’re channeling one specific moment into your work. It’s really special. And I wonder how the moment of becoming a mother affected your work. I had a hard time at first. It wasn’t easy. The birth was rough, unexpectedly difficult. I remember being very disappointed that it had been so hard for me. But then, once the fog of new motherhood lifted, I remember thinking: but I did it. I remember feeling like a superhero. I thought if I could do that, I could do anything. I had never had that confidence, ever. I was the opposite of confident for much of my life.
I just felt like if I did that, and if I’ve also lived in another country and learned another language, and I’ve pushed myself to do all these other hard things, why wouldn’t I pursue my passion in life?
In that blog post, I talked about how the things that inspire me most in my life are the things that terrify me. That literally aligns with every part of my history. Any time I’m really nervous to do something, it’s always the most rewarding, or the most beautiful, or the most powerful part of that scenario. I’ve embraced it, and motherhood helps that. Because as a mother, you’re scared shitless, but you do it anyways. You don’t have a choice! You have to love this little person even though you don’t know what to do. I’m going to sound crazy saying this, but I don’t think I was naturally a good mom. I felt like I had to really figure it out, but I didn’t quit. Because you can’t. You have to try really hard. Teaching myself not to give up in the many scenarios of motherhood has really lended well to starting a business. Because it’s your little baby, you love this thing you’re trying to do for a living and you want to do it well. It pushes you to try harder, for sure.
Is your daugher artistic? Yeah. Everyone says that I brainwashed her, but I didn’t! She’s also an artist. She is not into any of the same types of art as me, but she’s definitely a creative kid. If I bring her to the studio, she’ll make a mess, she’ll paint. She loves the studio. She’s more analytical like my husband is, but she loves creating things. And anytime I give her raw materials—a paper bag, a pipe cleaner, a pair of scissors—she’ll sit there and try to figure out how to make it into something for a long time. It’s literally the only thing I’m good at as a mom. I can’t make Pinterest-worthy lunches, cook dinner, any of these “mom-like” skills, but tapping into creativity? That’s our jam in our house!
"There is enough room for all of us."
Do you have any advice for other Mother Makers? I think that you need to be consistent every day. Make yourself make art every day if you can, in some way. Even if you have a baby, you can still paint at night, or you can do something creative when your baby’s awake. And if you can’t do anything, travel. If you can’t travel, go to the museum, go somewhere where you can feed your mind. Read a book. Do something for yourself that makes your mind push itself a little harder.
Use social media to your advantage. I find it really refreshing when I hear that people are moms, and that they’re trying but failing, that they’re winging it. I think it’s healthy for us to talk about. People want to relate to you, and they want to know that you’re a real person, but there is a balance. People don’t necessarily want to hear about your struggles every single day. I don’t believe in work-life balance. I think that it’s a hoax, and I think that it’s unhealthy and made-up, and imposed upon women, but I think that there’s a balance between your voice and how you choose to share your message. Instagram has been a huge tool in my business, and I think it’s because I let a little bit of my real life shine through, but I talk mostly about my art. There are only a couple of facets of me that people really know about just from the internet.
Ultimately, the best thing you can do is reach out to someone who seems nice, and just ask for their help. Eventually you’re going to find friends that also want you to succeed. There is enough room for all of us.