Turning the Everyday into Art

Turning the Everyday into Art

Inspiration is frequently presented as a lightning bolt, almost mystical in its unworldliness. In reality, its origins are often more prosaic, derived from day-to-day objects, scenes, and personal relationships. 

That isn’t to say the subsequent art is any less ambitious or powerful—the three artists below are proof of that. 

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Pui Wan Lim: Memorializing a disappearing city 

Pui Wan Lim learned about miniatures as a teenager in 2009 after her sister lent her a book about the art form. Her obsession was immediate; each week, she spent hours scouring Internet forums for new techniques. Many of the masters were Japanese and so Lim, who is from Kuala Lumpur, taught herself the language. 

With money from her part-time waitressing job, Lim bought clay and tools. She entered her first competition while still in high school. For her second entry, Lim recreated a provision shop she regularly passed on the bus that sold the snacks and candies she’d loved as a kid. 

“Lim makes miniatures full-time—a job she never dreamed was a possibility growing up. Inspiration still comes from day-to-day life, but as her career has progressed, a throughline has emerged.”

Lim continued to refine her skills throughout college, flying to Japan at one point to buy materials she couldn’t find in Malaysia. She loved the exactness of the process: “When you spend so much time doing one thing, and you see you are improving from zero to one, and then you find a new technique to make it even better…the experimentation and completion was so satisfying,” she says.

Now, Lim makes miniatures full-time—a job she never dreamed was a possibility growing up. Inspiration still comes from day-to-day life, but as her career has progressed, a throughline has emerged. 

Pui Wan Lim spent years perfecting her skills as an artist working with miniatures.

In painstaking detail, Lim recreates aspects of Malaysian culture, such as traditional barbershops and pre-Lunar New Year reunion dinners. Beginning in college, she would “purposefully choose old streets to walk down, and talk to the uncles and aunties,” some of whom still practice dying art forms, such as making joss candles by hand. Recently, she memorialized a 60-year-old coffee shop in the center of the city that was about to be razed. The architecture was traditional and distinctive—she recognized it from a history book—and the establishment, which served traditional Malaysian breakfast (kaya toast, soft-boiled egg and coffee) was a favorite with locals despite being near major tourist destinations.

Lim’s work has made her alert to details most pass by. Having traveled extensively through Malaysia, she is fascinated by architectural variations that reflect the country’s many cultures. “When we go on vacation, normally people are taking photos in front of buildings and fancy [backdrops],” she says. “Most of the time I focus on the building structure.”

Bonnie Lambert: Finding beauty in gridlock 

As a kid, Bonnie Lambert liked to draw. But other interests stole the spotlight: After college, she spent two decades as a stage actor before transitioning into a career as a freelance graphic designer. 

About 20 years ago, she started drawing again as a hobby; for the most part, she copied faces she found in the newspaper. For a long time, pursuing art more seriously scared her. “I hadn’t found my voice,” she says. Finally, in 2009, she took the plunge, signing up for a painting class that led to a series of shows and commissions. About three years ago, she found she’d stumbled into becoming a full-time artist. 

Bonnie Lambert’s paintings show the quiet, unexpected beauty of Los Angeles traffic.

Her work focuses on scenes from her neighborhood in Burbank, California. A particular obsession, one familiar to most Los Angeles County residents: traffic. But where most people see exhaust fumes and gridlock, Lambert sees color and light. 

“[Cars] reflect the sunset, they reflect people in the windows, they reflect the world around us, too,” Lambert says. Recently, she completed a painting of cars in Los Angeles’ financial district.  “The windows reflect the street lights,” she says. “It’s like a pool, a river reflecting the sun.” 

“There is so much around us that we take for granted.”

Power lines are also featured prominently in her work. Lambert lives two blocks from the Whitnall Highway, a “forest of transmission towers.” But again, where most people see tangled eyesores, she sees sculptural shapes and design efficiency. “Every beam is only what’s needed, nothing more, nothing less.” The lines extend outwards, breaking the canvas into interesting sections; and like cars, they reflect the light. “I find them beautiful now,” she says. “I’ve had people who have seen my work say, ‘Oh I used to think power lines were ugly, and now I’m beginning to think about them in a different way.’”

Lately, Lambert has been finding inspiration in her immediate vicinity, including nearby alleys and houses she never noticed before. “We’ve had a lot of rain, a lot of reflected light, angry clouds.” She’s always been interested in capturing flashes in time, an instinct that has only intensified. Recent work has focused on transitions—from twilight to evening, from late afternoon to sunset—that moment “where you get some outrageous colors for 10 minutes” and then it’s gone. 

“There is so much around us that we take for granted,” she says. 

Bing Liu: Exploring dark, complex, sprawling issues through an intimate lens 

Director Bing Liu mined the experiences of himself and his friends to create the shattering documentary Minding the Gap, which was nominated for best documentary at the 2018 Academy Awards. 

Liu got his first camera as a teenager in Rockford, Illinois and started filming skateboard videos. In his early 20s, Liu began interviewing skateboard videographers. After that project was completed, he started interviewing the skateboarders themselves. Common themes emerged—including drug addiction and domestic abuse—some of which aligned with personal experiences from his childhood. “I saw there was this thing that we danced around, which was what was happening at home,” Liu says. 

Director Bing Liu started his career by making skateboarding videos in Rockford, Illinois.

It wasn’t until he applied, at a suggestion of a friend, for a fellowship at the production company Kartemquin Films that Liu began to have higher narrative ambitions for the project. Originally, he’d been filming more than a dozen skateboarders but he narrowed the focus to Keire, a goofy, charismatic skateboarder about seven years younger than Liu, and Zach, who was trying, falteringly, to transition into adulthood. 

Liu followed the two of them for the next three-and-a-half years, capturing everyday scenes from their lives—birthday parties, jobs, skating—as well as pivotal moments, such as Keire’s reckoning with his father’s death and the birth of Zach’s child with his girlfriend, Nina. Over the course of filming, darker elements of Zach and Nina’s relationship emerged, including allegations of domestic abuse. 

This was an issue Liu was intimately familiar with. As a child growing up in Rockland, he was regularly beaten by his stepfather, who was also physically abusive to his mom. Initially hesitant to add his own story to the film, he came to realize his own experience added important context. “I really started to see Nina early on, when she revealed what was happening between her and Zach, as a younger version of my mom,” he says. 

In addition to film from his childhood and interviews with his mom and brother, Liu had about 75 days of footage from the three-and-a-half years he filmed Keire and Zach. From these hundreds of hours, he distilled a searing, 100-minute narrative that explores, with depth and complexity, issues of race, domestic abuse, and cyclical violence.

“Vulnerability and honesty require persistent pressure.”

The process was iterative by design. With interviews, “you can do as much preparation and be as present as you possibly can, but it’s only going to be as effective as the other person is willing to open up, and where they are at in their life, that week, that day, that hour.”

Oftentimes, the essence of a response came the first time he asked a question, such as when, early on, Keire discussed his complicated relationship with his late father. Subsequent discussions often refined these initial insights, without dramatically changing the substance. 

Occasionally, however, vulnerability and honesty require persistent pressure. “For three years I kept asking Zach about his family and his internal feelings until finally, he broke,” Liu says, a climatic scene that comes at the end of the film. “Part of it is like surfing. You can go into the water and you can have all the preparation in the world, but if the wave isn’t going to break, you aren’t going to ride the board.”

from Adobe 99UAdobe 99U https://adobe.ly/36yijEr

99U Contributors at Home Around the World

99U Contributors at Home Around the World

 

Fran Labuschagne, South Africa 

“We are South African citizens, from a small town called Wilderness, and had been on holiday in the UK. On our way to the airport, we got the news that all airports in South Africa closed and that our flights had been cancelled. It was our first time visiting the UK, and we bought the motorhome in March. We ended up living in the motorhome for four weeks in the English countryside before we were able to get a repatriation flight home. The motorhome is in storage and we plan to return to continue our tour when we can.”

Fran Labuschagne, 99U contributing illustrator 

 

Madeleine Morley, Berlin

“I recently moved apartments, so I’ve been using my time in quarantine to settle into new routines, reorganize bookshelves, and get to know my new space better. Over a month ago, I drove a circular glass dining table that I’ve always loved from my mum’s flat in London over to Berlin; it’s now become my makeshift desk underneath the living room window. As spring has sprung outside, I’ve been joining my neighbors in sunbathing on our balconies, planting new seeds, and sipping much-needed spritzes at sunset.”

Madeleine Morley, 99U contributing writer

 

Anne S. Ditmeyer, Paris

 

 

“I’m in Paris, France where living is small, and my workspace is in my living room. My second monitor doubles as my TV. I love surrounding myself with things that inspire me, which includes my collection of maps on a postcard rack, photobooth strips with friends, and little gifts and trinkets I have collected over the years. The portraits of me are by two of my favorite illustrators: Jean Jullien and Lisa Congdon (the swimming portrait is from her book The Joy of Swimming which I keep on my bookshelf).”

Anne Ditmeyer, 99U contributing writer

 

Ryan Muir, Brooklyn

“I’ve found it necessary to divide my workspace into areas devoted, where possible, to productivity and relaxation. My desk (a work in progress—I’ve been building a new one) is now where I do most correspondence, read the news, watch YouTube tutorials, and receive the odd phone call. Usually I would have it much more filled with computer paraphernalia, but I need a more peaceful environment to sit at a desk and not try to have every kind of notification within arms reach.

Behind my desk is my shelf of camera equipment and charging wall, which admittedly hasn’t gotten much use over the last eight weeks, and next to that is my Fileserver which I’ve transformed into a streaming workstation. I’m hoping in the future to remotely produce virtual programming once my clients start to come back online, so this has been the focus of most of my research.

Ryan Muir, 99U Conference photographer

 

Erin Scottberg, Brooklyn 

“I’m lucky enough to have a backyard, which essentially doubles the size of my Brooklyn railroad-style apartment (meaning my desk is in my bedroom). Now that it’s getting nicer out, I work outside as much as I can—I’ve been spending my free time cleaning up back there to make it as cozy and functional as possible. Prior to shelter-in-place, I typically spent my working hours in co-working spaces, so when I moved last fall my home office was the last thing I paid attention to. So it’s a little sparse and basic, but it does the trick.

“And I’m not gonna lie: My puppy is a big cuddler—her favorite thing to do is crawl under the blankets and sleep on my feet—and isn’t really into mornings, so I often start my day with coffee and emails in bed with her. I know, I know, this goes against everything I’ve read—and written!—about productive WFH habits, but how can I say no to a snuggle from that face?!”

Erin Scottberg, 99U contributing writer


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5 New Routines to Create Work From Home Boundaries

5 New Routines to Create Work From Home Boundaries

As creative professionals, gig workers, freelancers, and small business owners, many of us are familiar with the challenges and benefits of working remotely from home. In fact, according to Gallup’s article from March 2020, 43% of U.S. employees already worked remotely some or all of the time and studies show remote workers can even be more productive and profitable than in-house employees. Yet there’s a learning curve to remote work, and those of us who’ve recently made the transition are discovering which practices translate from office to home—and which need to be reimagined altogether. One of the biggest considerations being how to create routines and boundaries when there is no longer a commute to physically separate home and work.

Here, veteran and novice work-from-homers share best practices and new approaches to respond to the interwoven demands of the professional and personal while working from home. 

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“It’s okay if you don’t feel productive. We are all recalibrating to a new normal,” offered experienced work-from-homer Becky Simpson, who is an art director for Tubby Todd and runs her own illustration practice. As one of two previously remote people on her team, Becky said the first week of her entire team working from home was an adjustment and she had to be more “on” than usual, but she is grateful to have work and didn’t mind being more available as everyone recalibrated. 

“We are all recalibrating to a new normal.”

For NYC-based Alice Katter, a social community strategist with her own consultancy, the recent shift to working from home has also required her to be more “on.” Increased demands for real-time virtual interactions with her team of freelancers means calls and video chats are now on the calendar for what might have previously been solved via email. Although Katter is used to working remotely, she notes that those on her team who are not acclimated to it often feel more connected with higher levels of interaction as they transition. 

Art director and lettering artist, Danielle Evans, who has been working from home for eight years, also noticed increased expectations for availability. “We’re physically removed, but now digitally and virtually on top of each other.” Over the weekend, Danielle received an email with a request and then had a follow-up email in her inbox on Monday morning to ask if she’d received the previous message. Danielle emphasized that if we want to be productive and healthy work-from-homers, it’s going to take a greater amount of work to set boundaries because the assumption is that we’re connected to our devices 24/7. 

As Head of Design at I&CO in Gowanus, Brooklyn, Lucia Orlandi works with a team of 20 people and has been pleasantly surprised by the positive outcomes she’s experienced working from home. Collectively, her team is doing their best to reduce the need for additional meetings. Individually, she has an increased sense of autonomy to organize her day and has felt more focused during work hours. She credits this to having better boundaries around her workday. 

“Creating a simple ritual to help transition into work, even without a physical commute, can be a helpful practice.”

Easing into routines and setting boundaries that help separate professional and personal was a recurring theme with each work-from-homer I spoke with, whether seasoned or newly minted. Here are our five takeaways for easing into routines and reimagining boundaries.

1. Separate home and work with a ritual.

Creating a simple ritual to help transition into work, even without a physical commute, can be a helpful practice. Becky Simpson noted that clear transitions are especially important if you don’t have a home office or separate space to work from. Becky’s morning ritual includes not checking her phone for the first hour she’s awake, and instead taking time for meditation or exercise. In the evening, she doesn’t check her phone after 9pm. Danielle Evans and Alice Katter also employ morning rituals rather than jumping straight into work. Evans noted that although she’s worked from home for eight years, she is purposefully starting slower to “get her head right” before diving into work, which might include exercise, making breakfast, or a call with a friend. Alice has found that staying as close as possible to her “normal” morning routine of shower, breakfast, and exercise helps her mentally underscore personal time before work.

2. Proactively set your agenda.

Having a list to choose from can reduce paralysis about where to start. For art director Simpson, a start-of-the-week brain dump on Monday helps her clarify priorities for the week. At the end of each workday, she follows up on her list to make a schedule for the following day. Although she gives herself permission to pivot from her agenda or delay an item if needed, having a structure to follow when she begins work in the morning helps her knock out the most important items first. Additionally, Katter adds that she assigns different client projects to specific days to increase her ability to focus and set clients’ expectations for when she’s available.

3. Block off time to disconnect.

Blocking off time on the calendar, even if it’s 15 minutes, to do something unrelated to work can help establish a sense of autonomy over the workday. Consultancy founder Lucia Orlandi didn’t realize how much time she previously spent at her desk. When working at the office, she’d quickly grab food and eat in front of her computer. Now working from home, she blocks off time to cook herself lunch and take a midday break.

4. Accept that boundaries will blur.

“I try to remind myself it’s a balance,” said Evans. She noted that while working from home, productivity can look like cleaning your workspace or preparing meals. Boundaries are important, but they will also sometimes blur. With that in mind, Evans suggests having two or three work-related tasks you can cross off to feel like you’ve accomplished something. Prioritizing a few tasks that matter each day can relieve pressure and help you create momentum for the next day.

5. Take care of yourself outside of work.

Self-care routines are a vital foundation for work and overall health, whether that means re-establishing an abandoned practice or starting a new one. Each of the work-from-homers I spoke with shared multiple practices they’ve found helpful.

Alice Katter has recently started meditating using the Headspace app, something she’s wanted to do for “ages.” Limiting news and social media was another theme that arose as Orlandi and Simpson both mentioned they’ve reduced the number of times they check in each day because there’s a threshold where it’s not helpful to have more information. Evans encouraged making time in the day for creative interests outside of work, whatever they might be. “Nourish those right now,” she said. For her, it’s baking and cooking, which reminds her of her ability to make beautiful things as well as nourish herself. 

“It can be helpful to focus on the small changes we can make in our day-to-day that will have a big impact.”

With the transition to remote work, the ability to create rituals and boundaries to separate personal and professional becomes more necessary as they are no longer built into a commute or physical office. As each of us develops a practice that addresses our individual needs, it can be helpful to focus on the small changes we can make in our day-to-day that will have a big impact: morning rituals, prioritizing our agendas, disconnecting for brief moments throughout the day, accepting that the boundaries won’t be black-and-white, and, most importantly, finding ways to nourish ourselves outside of work so that we can show up fully when we’re on the clock. 

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Finding a Creative Spark Within Solitude

Finding a Creative Spark Within Solitude

As creatives, our inspiration often comes from external influences like travel, gatherings within our community, or new perspectives that emerge through conversation with peers—but don’t overlook the internal source of that spark. We know how to make the most of it when it happens, but here we’ll explore how to connect to it on our own.

“Humans are uniquely social. We spend the majority of our lives with other people,” Dr. Steve Cole, Professor of Medicine and Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the UCLA School of Medicine, says. “Most of what we do, we get done in concert with other people.” But there are upsides to solitude, particularly for creatives. The pang we feel at the absence of human connection makes us keen observers, alert to subtle details that normally go unnoticed. Often this is uncomfortable—the lonely brain is primed to identify threat and social rejection in even innocuous encounters—but it can also lead to creative breakthroughs if we accept it.

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Our species’ survival is based on connection—we are anything but solitary as humans. As a result, loneliness, or the acute want of social interaction and kinship, sets off primordial alarm bells, Cole says. Loneliness “keeps us longing for one another, keeps us able to function effectively in these big groups,” he says. “You can think of it as the same adaptive motivational strategy for this aspect of our lives that thirst would be to keep us hydrated and hunger would be for keeping us fed.”

Edward Hopper, an artist frequently associated with loneliness thanks to his depictions of urban spaces punctuated by solitary figures, was himself quite isolated, says Jennifer Patton, executive director of the Edward Hopper House Museum in Nyack, New York. “He didn’t like many people and most people didn’t particularly like him,” she says. “He wasn’t a man of social graces.” But he also saw what other people didn’t, obsessively drawing scenes and details that most would pass without noticing. 

The period she spent living in New York was an intensely lonely time for writer Olivia Laing. To cope, she found herself drawn to art that explored the emotion, notably Hopper’s masterpiece Nighthawks. “The artists I encountered in the lonely city helped me not just to understand loneliness, but also to see the potential beauty in it, the way it drives creativity of all kinds,” she writes in The Lonely City, a love letter to the “strange and lovely state.”

To find ourselves in this state—even if by design as a solo creatives—can be uncomfortable. But there are ways to manage the resulting loneliness including seeking out, as Laing did, its silver linings. 

Be forgiving to yourself

Cutting physical ties not just to loved ones, colleagues, and friends, but the communal feeling of moving through a crowd is painful. Technology mitigates this somewhat—thanks to a creative use of Zoom, Hangouts, and text, it’s possible to keep in contact with friends and collaborators. 

But digital tools are a poor substitute for physical community. It’s difficult to read face and body language over pixelated screens, harder still to achieve the sense of togetherness engendered by in-person experiences that allow us to share the same physical reality. And screens don’t allow for touch, which is a “surprisingly powerful form of communication,” Cole says. Physical contact, from friends, loved ones, even acquaintances and strangers, has the ability to lower cortisol levels and ease anxiety. “That is one of the fundamental cues our body uses to read whether we are well—whether we are linked up with other cells in the metaorganism of our community,” Cole says. 

“Thanks to a creative use of Zoom, Hangouts, and text, it’s possible to keep in contact with friends and collaborators.

The act of simply identifying this lack—and the impact it has on one’s ability to focus and create—can help. Personally, I also take solace in the knowledge that the scatteredness and sadness I feel from not just missing family or friends, but moving unworried through a crowd, is universal and worth acknowledging.

Work towards something larger

One of the best ways to combat loneliness is the pursuit of a larger goal, ideally one that requires teamwork and collaboration, Cole says. Focusing on a shared vision helps disrupt the lonely brain’s self-critical, destructive loops, allowing us to let our guard down and reintegrate ourselves into the social fold.

“Through digital tools, we can continue to brainstorm with colleagues and work together towards collective deadlines and goals.”

Technology makes it possible to do this remotely. For many of us, work is one outlet. Through digital tools, we can continue to brainstorm with colleagues and work together towards collective deadlines and goals. Or kick off an ambitious side project to work on collaboratively within your community that serves a greater good. Having regular check-ins around a long-term project is one way to feel connected beyond your day-to-day.

For many, art serves as a motivating larger purpose, if a solitary one. As Laing recounts in The Lonely City, she wasn’t happy during the solitary time she spent in New York, but the experience, while uncomfortable and sometimes painful, was illuminative, inspiring connections and insights she’d never had the space to consider before. 

Pay attention

Growing up, Hopper traveled through his small hometown of Nyack on foot, observing. (Upon his death, Hopper left the Whitney Museum thousands of his sketches from this time—of boats, people, hands, cigarettes—an endless procession of captured details.)

Original Edward Hopper sketch courtesy of Edward Hopper House, photographed by Liv Johnke

Original Edward Hopper sketch courtesy of Edward Hopper House, photographed by Liv Johnke.

Later in life, he traveled further afield. This included glamorous trips abroad, like a series of solo visits to Paris in the early 1900s. But usually, it was more prosaic. In New York, Hopper liked to ride the subway. “He was always at eye level—if he could sketch on the L train, he would,” Patton says. 

“Those of us lucky enough to self-isolate at home are left with a rare commodity: time.”

In the past few weeks, Patton has found herself taking in more of her surroundings like the artist whose work she spends her workweek with. Her days, once consumed by the mad rush of getting her kid to school and getting herself to work, are far quieter. It’s spring in the Hudson Valley, and for the first time in a long time, she has watched the magnolia and cherry trees bloom. “I’ve never noticed the weather as much as I do right now,” she says. “I’m not going to the grocery store that often, I don’t have errands to run. Wherever I choose to go to get fresh air, it’s not so much about why I am going there.” The lack of purpose leaves space for observation: the light, the temperature, the architecture, like a Tudor house down the block she never noticed before. 

A writer friend has experienced the same thing; as her world has narrowed to her apartment and immediate neighborhood, she’s started to notice architectural details she used to gloss over in the rush to get elsewhere. Once home, she investigates their histories, like the well-maintained mansion that used to be owned by a rich piano manufacturer. Parameters aren’t always bad for revealing new directions of inquiry. Her life is more contained, but the questions and sparks keep flowing. 

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Brainstorming from a Distance: How Distributed Teams Collaborate

Brainstorming from a Distance: How Distributed Teams Collaborate

For many creative teams, a typical brainstorming session might mean a huddle around a whiteboard, or an impromptu back-and-forth over a coffee break. With remote work on the rise, the nature of group dynamics is changing and so must our collaboration methods.

We reached out to creative team leads to see how they are adapting to collaboration and brainstorming from a distance—still a necessity for any creative project. Some are WFH veterans with a well-developed workflow, others quickly adapting to leading remotely, but all are focused on connections and strong, clear communication. The creative leaders we spoke with shared insights into keeping their teams inspired, motivated, and on the same page. 

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Build the structure for success

Structure, clarity, and consistency are keystones of remote work days. Each creative leader we spoke to had a specific routine in place that anchored their weeks and days. 

For Vida Cornelious, Chief Creative Officer at experiential agency Fake Love, this takes the form of a daily block of time to hear from every team member. “Setting a daily 15 minute morning team video check-in is a simple way to keep everyone connected and accountable. Promoting open dialogue for team members to share concerns, challenges or successes is a way to give everyone an equal voice.”

“Setting a daily 15 minute morning team video check-in is a simple way to keep everyone connected and accountable.” – Vida Cornelious, Chief Creative Officer at Fake Love

Roanne Adams, who helms the team at RoAndCo studio as Chief Creative Director, adopts a similar daily agenda. “Every morning we have a standing meeting so that we all align on what we’re working on. This little check-in helps set the stage for the day ahead.” She has also found that structure is imperative even for casual brainstorming. “Creativity needs limitations. So I find that having a clear creative brief and an account manager in attendance really helps usher the process along.”

Even with everyone remote, there are still ways to get everyone on the same page—literally. For John Koenig, Creative Director at World Famous, it means picking up the phone. “Chatting on the phone with my colleagues while everyone’s working on the same document is my favorite way to edit a piece of writing. There’s a simplicity of focus there that I find creatively stimulating.”

Mike Treff, President of Code and Theory, has found that his approach is rooted in two tenets. “We keep coming back to two core strategies for effective communication: preparation and transparency.” In fact, remote work has been a boon for his team’s productivity. “In many ways, this has helped us progress faster and more effectively—being remote constantly forces prioritization of time, effort, and activities,” he explains. “We’ve found that people come to meetings more prepared, on time, and having done the prep work needed to maximize the efficacy of the shared time.” 

Use “psychological shortcuts” 

For creatives new to working from home, it can be a challenge to create sustained focus in a space that usually signals that it’s time to switch off from work. Even if you don’t have the means to set up a home office, you can use environmental tricks to signal to your brain that it’s time to clock in and shift gears.

For Koenig, that means creating a space that matches the work mindset. “As someone who works remotely 90% of the time, I found myself incorporating touchstones of the Seattle office into my workspace in Minneapolis—from music and snacks to my desktop wallpaper—to help cement my desk as a place where work feels natural. It’s a psychological shortcut to get myself into a certain mood.”

Protect the quiet moments

If your creative process typically thrives on ambient studio sounds or the buzz of a bustling cafe, it can be tough to embrace the silence of working from home. But this unexpected pause can be an ally. Take the time to understand your innate creative rhythm, and build in the time you need for your mind to spin free and wander.

“I have my most creative ideas when I sit in silence.” – Roanne Adams, Chief Creative Director at RoAndCo 

Cornelious’ advice is to lean into those lulls. “Make peace with that silence and use it wisely. Schedule time for your brain to wander into a few ‘what if’ moments. Similarly, schedule creative time when you know your mind is most open to new ideas. Protect the time you need to think, and better thinking will emerge because of it.”

Adams knows that her creative process needs moments of uninterrupted calm. “I have my most creative ideas when I sit in silence, so if I have time and I know there is a creative brainstorm coming up in the schedule, I might close my eyes and meditate for a few minutes beforehand to clear my other thoughts out and get centered.”

Be your own editor 

It’s easy to feel untethered if you rely on creative sparring with your team to produce work. And it is true that some of us are more physically isolated than before. While challenging, this shift also brings with it the chance to hone your self-editing skills, and develop an independence that can supercharge your creative instincts. 

“We have to become better self editors. Walk away from your ideas, and come back to them with fresh eyes. Be critical and objective.” Cornelious recommends. “And when it is time to collaborate with others, you will be more open to new perspectives and approaches.”

Make it social 

Ideas thrive when teams feel connected and comfortable enough to share what’s on their mind. When it comes time to voice those fleeting thoughts or sparks that have great potential, a welcoming environment is crucial to the creative process. For remote teams, building team camaraderie that creates a sense of community and receptiveness where the best ideas can take flight is all the more vital.  

Stephanie Yung, Design Director at Smart Design, considers that every meeting starts with a chance to set the mood and strike the right note. “One simple way to stay connected is by starting off meetings with a quick ‘How is everyone doing today?’ This thoughtful question helps relax everyone and lets us more easily move onto the topic at hand.” Similarly, Koenig acknowledges this unusual time and asserts “it’s all the more important to let collaborative sessions be looser, chattier, and more digressive.” 

Some managers have opted to schedule a pressure release into their team’s week, like John Robson, Technology Director at FuzzCo. “We have a recurring Friday meeting where the whole team gets together on a Hangout and attempts to play a game. It’s been a lot of fun!” His team is also newly bonding over other shared interests. “We’ve found that a lot of us are spending more time cooking lately, so we’ve opened up a Slack channel for recipes and food-selfies. Things like that have really gone a long way to keep the positive energy flowing.”

And for Adams, some much-needed physical release is on the calendar daily. “We have a scheduled ‘5 minutes of movement’ everyday where we all call in and dance together.”

Embrace familiarity to connect with your creative spark 

While remote work may present obstacles for the uninitiated, it’s also a chance to see possibilities in new circumstances. With no commute, a safe, familiar space, and stretches of time alone, you could explore limits of your creativity and dig into more complex thinking that you wouldn’t otherwise have had space for in an office.  

“What we’ve learned is that even though you’re remote, you can feel closer to people in some ways.” – Stephanie Yung, Design Director at Smart Design

Yung echoed this sentiment in her experience conducting remote research with prototypes and stimuli through Smart Design’s human-centered design process. “It’s not the first time participants have expressed they are more comfortable having personal conversations in the comfort of their own home versus a more formal research facility. The nuance is that they are in a safer environment and feel more free to share real feelings even more than through in-home ethnographies. What we’ve learned is that even though you’re remote, you can feel closer to people in some ways.”

Outside of your usual work environment, you have new visual influences to explore. “Be inspired by your space or the view outside the window.” Cornelious says. “And consider more honestly what aspects of your creative craft need work, and adjust. Learn a new skill, collaborate with someone you normally don’t work with.” Let yourself adapt and observe in ways you don’t typically give yourself space to explore.

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How to Lead Your Team Remotely 

How to Lead Your Team Remotely 

“These extraordinary times require more awareness and thoughtfulness around expectations,” remarked Deepa Subramanian, Chief Product & Digital Officer for the ACLU. Deepa is overseeing a team of 60 people as they’ve made the transition from working at the office to working remotely over the past few weeks. Communicating expectations has become even more paramount to her team’s success. No longer connected by physical space, but instead dialing into meetings and connecting throughout the day via chat, she reflected on being tasked with how to think more carefully about managing her team from afar as the boundaries between home and work blur. She’s not the only one. As managers navigate the new landscape of managing their teams from home, Deepa and several of her manager peers shared emerging best practices and what they are doing to provide their teams with clarity and support as they work remotely. 

***

Support your team’s ability to be flexible.

With eight years experience working remotely, the CEO of Squared Away, Michelle Penczak, has managed a team of 100 people around the globe, from Japan to Germany and the US. Her team checks in daily and is on Slack during working hours, however that doesn’t mean her team is always available. With Michelle’s support, her team is able to block time throughout the day for personal tasks and caring for kids as needed. “Most of our staff are extremely driven perfectionists. Having kids at home and tasks to complete can increase anxiety. Reminding them that family comes first, no matter what, has given them the confidence to handle both without worrying about the professional side.” 

Even with the never-ending demands of work, Michelle encourages her team to have patience with themselves as they attempt to balance a long list of personal and professional demands. Knowing they will have time to take care of their personal lives allows them to show up more fully to work when they are on the clock. 

Be an example in helping your team set clear boundaries.

Even when working from home, our ability to be connected digitally can pressure us to believe we have to be constantly available. Deepa Subramanian, Chief Product & Digital Officer for the ACLU, has made it a priority to help her team of 60 set clear boundaries between on and off time. On a practical level, her approach has included: 

  • Asking team members to mark their individual calendars with times they are available and unavailable
  • Requesting team members more broadly share times they are consistently not available in team calendars and Slack channels
  • Encouraging team members to honor each others’ availability when sending invites to meetings
  • Having team members be clear in invites about what will happen if someone can’t attend a meeting (i.e. the organizer will email notes or follow up 1:1) 

Deepa noted that part of helping her team set clear boundaries means personally following the directives she’s given her team and requesting her managers do the same. “If members of my team hear leadership say, ‘Take time for yourselves,’ but then don’t see us doing that, how will they actually believe that is a true directive? Leaders need to clearly embody the healthy practices they are putting in place for the broader team to trust and consequently leverage them themselves.”

The practices Deepa has incorporated into her own workday include: 

  • Setting up a pleasant workstation (switching where to break up the monotony) 
  • Only post online once taking care of myself in the morning
  • Respect a real lunch break and mid-day break (ironically, I never did this when I actually went into the office)
  • Updating my Slack availability to indicate when I’ll be back online, which helps me feel less guilty 

Regularly assess your team’s professional well-being.

Brian Smith, a Design Director at FullStack Labs who has been working part-time remote for four years and full-time remote for four weeks asks for regular feedback from his close-knit team of five so he can gain insight on how internal processes are working and where he may need to make changes. In addition to daily and weekly check-ins, Brian asks his team to respond to a quick survey each month so he can gain insight into their professional well-being. The questions are rated on a 1-5 scale with room for comments. Here are examples of what he asks his team to respond to: 

  • I feel like I know what is expected of me on a daily basis
  • I feel like I know what is expected of me in my current role 
  • I feel like I can continue to grow at FullStack Labs
  • I feel like I can contribute to improving the way we work at FullStack Labs 
  • I feel like my opinions are valued by the team

Based on his team’s responses, Brian has a better understanding of what his team members need from him, including where he can provide more clarity and support. It also prompts him to have follow-up calls with specific team members to address individual needs. This approach can scale with his team to help identify hiccups in the process and know which team members might need more 1:1 attention. 

Set realistic expectations for yourself and your team. 

“What we get done we get done,” said Mike Trozza, who co-leads a design and development team of 18 full-time staff for P&G’s Tide brand. Personally, Mike has worked from home often in the past, but has never worked remotely with his team as a whole until now. He had hoped to have more deep work time like he previously experienced while working from home, but that hasn’t been his reality. 

Now his days are chopped up because his team needs more interaction, and he’s okay with that. He’s changed his schedule to get up earlier for uninterrupted time before his team is online. His shift in expectations around productivity extends to his team as well. There’s always work to be done and it can be all-consuming, but he reminds his team that it’s also important to step away from work to stay connected to family and loved ones. He expects his team to get a reasonable amount of work done in the hours they are available and after that, it’s personal time. 

Similar goals, different approaches. 

Each of the managers I spoke with are navigating specific challenges depending on the size of their team, the time zones they’re spread across, the demands of their work, and other variables. However, each was optimistic about finding an approach that works well for their specific team and making changes to that approach as needed. As leaders, supporting a team’s flexibility, teaching by example, directly asking how you can support, and adjusting expectations to reality are all helpful in managing from afar to provide clarity for and support to a team. It will look different for every manager, yet despite the differing rhythms of our workdays, it’s clear from the managers I spoke to that the goals are similar: to help team members feel supported, cared for, and connected as they continue to do the same work, just now from home. 

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Loveis Wise: How Self-Work and Personal Memories Nourish Creativity

Loveis Wise: How Self-Work and Personal Memories Nourish Creativity

When I speak with the illustrator Loveis Wise over the phone, I hear birds chirping in their Los Angeles garden. I also hear the pitter-patter of the paws of Mellow, their pet Shiba Inu, on the grass. It sounds just like the worlds I see when I look at Loveis’ designs—floral-filled sanctuaries populated by beings taking care of one another.

Care, for Loveis, has become a creative philosophy of sorts: They often mine for inspiration childhood memories of being cared for, and their illustrations themselves embody care in their empowering depictions of intersectional identities, queer bodies, and self-loving individuals. Aptly, “nurture” served as the name and theme of Loveis’ first New Yorker cover, released two years ago when they were fresh out of art school at age 23 as an ode to nourishing, matriarchal communities.

Loveis’ joyful, celebratory approach can be seen on large and small scales, gracing their recent Black History Month mural for Google’s artist-in-residence program as well as a floral patterned bandana, designed in collaboration with Wolff Olins for Planned Parenthood. As with many creative people, Loveis pours their self into their work—a process that can often bring out the best in an illustrator, but also one that comes with its own challenges as work and life boundaries blur. Sat in their garden, Loveis shares the story of how taking care of themselves personally has led to a stronger creative outlook and working process.

 ***

Q. Your illustrations have such a unique voice, in terms of the patterns, colors, textures, and forms. How did you arrive at your style?

A. By playing around with different ways to draw. I had a professor [at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts] that encouraged students to draw in the most uncomfortable ways—uncomfortable, but also still comfortable to our own hand, almost like how we would when we were kids. So that tuned me into how I innately draw. I also thought a lot about how different artists that I love interpreted figures, like Kerry James Marshall. My love of patterns comes from the picture books I read as a kid, like Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day and Eric Carle’s The Hungry Caterpillar. I took all of those little influences, mashed them together, and my style was born. 

Desktop with books and mementos.

The illustrator casts a wide net when looking for inspiration, drawing from spirituality, community and nature.

Q. What else inspires you, outside of art and illustration?

A. I’ve been learning more about spirituality, metaphysics, and playfulness, as well as nurturing my own community in various ways. That might mean making a plant medicine for a friend, cooking, or taking time to reconnect with my body.

 

Q. You often draw from personal memories to create work. How does that manifest?

A. I started using nostalgia in my work while I was doing a lot of self-work. I had a rough and traumatic childhood, and to be able to move through it, I tried to recover calm and beautiful moments where I truly felt free. Putting these little memories into my illustrations has helped me a lot. 

New Yorker cover by Loveis Wise.

The artist’s second New Yorker cover echoes many of their signature themes of nature, community, and nostalgia.

You can see these memories in things like my first New Yorker cover, where I was inspired by my mom and the women in my family. I grew up in a very matriarchal family: Both of my grandmas grew food in the garden and took care of us. I brought memories of their nurturing and care into the cover.

“When you’re telling your own truth, it makes for the best pieces, because people will connect with them.”

For my second New Yorker cover, I remembered moments from my childhood watching a femme person taking care of another femme person. My grandmother owned a hair salon: I drew from my memories of women coming in, getting taken care of, their conversations, and the beauty of that interaction. I also drew from memories of my mom tending to me, doing my hair, and the safety of that.

 

Q. I’ve read you say that illustrators can sometimes be afraid of putting themselves into the work. Why do you think that is?

A. There’s often a pressure to be what people want you to be. Early on, I found myself trying to mimic what I thought people wanted me to be and how my work should look. Through doing therapy, I started to see myself as enough, and in tandem, I came to the realization that my stories are worthy of being told in my work. I started to feel much safer sharing personal parts of myself in commercial illustrations. When you’re telling your own truth, it makes for the best pieces, because people will connect with them. 

Loveis Wise at home.

Loveis Wise at home with Mellow, their beloved Shiba Inu.

Q. What other realizations about your professional life have you made through self-work?

A. I used to overwhelm myself with a lot of projects, because I felt like I needed to take everything on at once. I found myself saying yes to everything, and thinking that if I said no, it was a bad mistake that I’d regret. We can all get ambitious in that way. 

Google Doodle for Black History Month 2019.

The artist’s Google Doodle for Black History Month, in 2019 depicting Sojourner Truth.

Now, I’ll only take on two to three commissions a month, and I feel comfortable enough to say no. Maybe it’ll come back later again, who knows? I only take on the work that really speaks to me, and nine out of ten times, I hand the project over to a friend, or I recommend someone else for it. Saying no is a powerful thing: It’s all about having better boundaries with yourself.

“I only take on the work that really speaks to me.”

Designating certain hours, and certain times, to work has also been important. There was a time when I had no boundaries at all and I’d be overworking. I’d be so hard on myself when I thought I wasn’t spending enough time drawing. I now won’t ever work past 8pm. I won’t do that to myself. And I’m not hard on myself when I do need a break. 

 

Q. How do you split your time between personal projects and commissioned work, and what is the relationship between the two?

A. Right now, more than ever, I’ve been diving into what that question really means to me. For a long time, I was only working on commission-based work and I didn’t take the time—or make the time—to play. I stopped hearing that call for my own innate creativity. 

Loveis Wise at home.

Wise has learned to balance personal work with commercial commissions in a way that best serves their innate creativity.

Now, I’ve now set up a strict routine to make time for personal work. I’m the sort of person that if I don’t create a plan, I won’t stick to it. So I wake up in the morning, take a shower, go for a walk, and then I designate an hour or two for making whatever comes up. Afterwards, when I’ve done whatever I really want to, I can focus the rest of the day on my commissioned gigs. And it’s so important to make this time, because you can bring the information that you learn about yourself while playing into your professional work. 

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