Recently, I wrote about starting our own little revolutions to create the change that we’ve been hoping for. As part of the Little Revolutions series, I’ve collaborated with Erin Gerofsky to give the first “commencement speech”. But first, the back story.
I’ve been thinking a lot about career paths, college/ university and the process we all go through to figure out the right career and to ultimately secure our dream jobs (and making our dream lives a reality). I probably owe this to the fact that my little sister is graduating from high school this month and I’ve been going through my head to try to give her the best advice. I looked back at my own experiences and reflected on what may have went wrong, what has gone right and which parts of the big decision-making process could have gone smoother.One of the many things that came to mind was how I felt misguided–or even unguided–I felt as a high school senior. Sure, I had attended career talks and took the generic aptitude tests. But there was never anything that gave me a clear idea what which career path was like. I was never given helpful advice and guidance that made complete sense.
So, as part of this series, I went and collaborated with a few people who seem to have found success in their chosen careers. I asked them to give write their commencement speech if they were called by their alma mater to talk in front of a new generation aspiring to make it in their respective fields. Except I wasn’t interested in the generic, boring speeches we’ve all already heard. I wanted it to be real–something that gives a glimpse of the real world yet still inspiring. Enough back story. Here’s Erin’s wonderful speech:
[I]spasio readers! I’m Erin, blogger/photographer/crafter over at Predictions for the Past by moonlight. By daylight, I fight evil. Okay, no, I’m not the reverse Sailor Moon (Sailor Sun? Sailor Starshine?), but my day job as a set and costume designer for theatre does make me feel pretty cool. Currently, I’m working on my second season as the assistant designer for The Shaw Festival, the second largest repertory theatre festival in North America.
As the Design Assistant, my job is to help the designers achieve their vision for the 10 plays in the season, and make their jobs easier in any way that I can. This includes such awesome tasks as building scale models of the sets, and some less awesome tasks like scanning and photocopying; regardless of how “cool” the task at hand may be, this position has been an unparalleled learning experience, and has been a great opportunity to reflect upon my education and how prepared – or not – it made me for the professional world I have now entered. I am also currently in the early stages of costume designing a show to be mounted (that’s “staged”, get your mind out of the gutter) in Toronto this summer with Rogue and Peasant Theatre, as part of my long awaited transition into professional design work outside of the rep theatre setting.
Despite having a very niche career, I was lucky enough that there were multiple avenues to get to where I am, school-wise. I did a 4 year bachelor’s degree in Theatre Production and Design at York University in Toronto, but I also applied for Fine Art at OCAD, Theatre Production, and Fashion Design at Ryerson, both also located in Toronto. I’ve known I wanted to be a costume designer for a long time (my love of set design was a more delayed realization), and except for a period of time in High School where I thought that Medical Illustration was surely my path – which my parents talked me out of, those weirdos – I had been working toward this career for a long while. I was a sound and lighting technician for my high school drama program, learned some rudimentary carpentry, started the costume “department”, and learned how to sew. Despite the multitude of skills I had, and continued to acquire, I was always afraid that I wasn’t good enough, and met every interview with a nervous pessimism (which was never communicated, but internalized). I actually think that this nervousness has been helpful in my journey. In fact, the one time I was too confident – my attempted foray into graduate school – is the one time things crashed and burned for me. But we’ll get there in a minute.
Throughout university, I tried my hardest to learn as many skills and make as many connections as possible in anything even tangentially related to my desired field. Any opportunity that came my way, I threw my whole self into it and hoped for the best. Truly, I think that one of the best things I have done to approach my career is to say “yes” as much as I can; while still keeping some wiggle room to breathe and keep my sanity. You never know when a job will introduce you to the right people, or the right skills, to get your foot in the door, no matter how unrelated or tangential the position may seem to your ultimate dream. Sometimes the work seemed glamorous; I made shoes for a couple months one summer, apprenticing under the premier shoe workshop in Toronto, Jitterbug Boy, the brainchild (and lovechild and sweatandtearschild) of York alumnus Jeff Churchill. It was one of the most difficult jobs I have ever had, and definitely one of the most rewarding, and I miss that workshop constantly. Other times, my career path was less exciting, including working at Fabricland for two years; but damn if I don’t know the price point per metre of everything we carried, as well as a comprehensive knowledge of non-fashion fabrics and drapery techniques. It was minimum wage, the customers totally sucked, but in additional to paying for my ghetto apartment, I gained so much information it would have taken me many years to accumulate in a different field (and probably with a lot more trial and error of my own, instead of learning from the customers I chatted up). Creative work is difficult to get, so keep an eye out for retail or labour positions that may help you down the path, even if it’s just a good relationship with a manager so that you know you have a McJob waiting for you when the going is tough and you have bills to pay.
Through my design classes at York, I learned a lot about the way that designers work, the importance of collaboration, elements of story telling, and most importantly, I got to see how 8 design students given the same material – a script – could create 8 strikingly different designs. This was the most significant lesson I learned in school, and I consider it to be the most important thing any aspiring artist of any kind can learn: You are valuable because your vision is unique. Don’t waste your time comparing your work to the work of others in an attempt to be more like them, or your idols: it worked for them, but it won’t work for you. Carve your own path, shape your own voice, and stick to your guns. We said often in our design classes, nobody goes to see Romeo and Juliet and expects them to live; we keep reproducing classic works not to change the story, but to reinterpret the intention, the story’s relevance to our current world, the creative spirit injected into the old words by the creative team. Your Romeo and Juliet will look different than others you have seen, and that’s great. Surprise people. Surprise yourself! Being an artist means being bold, making a statement, and having faith in your craft. Somewhere out there are people who “get” it, and these people will become your collaborators.
I said earlier that my nervousness has served me well. I’m a person who always has a plan A-F for just about any situation; making a career in art means that you have to be flexible. It’s pretty easy not to take rejection too personally when you have back up plans up the ying-yang. When I was in my last year of my undergrad, I panicked and thought that I wasn’t ready for the working world yet. In my attempt to avoid facing reality that my life was changing, I applied to grad school in New York, for a 3 year masters program in Costume Design. It’s been 2 years, and I still consider the day of my interview one of the worst days of my life. I spent all my money to get to my interview, I put together what I thought was a stellar portfolio featuring the designs and production photos from my thesis project, designing the costumes for a mounted production of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. My portfolio really expressed my point of view, I had a gaggle of people rooting for me in Toronto, I had a killer resume (WHO MAKES SHOES ANYMORE?!), I thought I had it in the bag. They ripped me apart.
I left the interview completely eviscerated, only to read a libretto, and return 2 hours later for additional humiliation as I sat in on a couple classes. I was told I didn’t know what clothes looked like, I was told I didn’t know what I was talking about, I was told not to speak during the classes I sat in on, given “homework”, discounted in every way possible. It was devastating. After a 6 hour stretch of horrible humiliation at the hands at artists I respected, I returned to my hotel room, and called my mother in tears. Basically, it was the worst. I’d just been told I would never be successful in my career of choice, and I returned to Toronto defeated. I wallowed pretty hard for a couple weeks, and dragged my heels for a couple months. Graduation loomed, and at the least likely of moments, opportunity knocked. And that put into perspective for me, that even people who have found success, did not find every venture in their life to be successful: you will have ups and downs. The downs don’t mean that it’s a downhill trend: you just have to take the good and the bad together. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and try something new. And when opportunity knocks, if it’s remotely possible, say YES. The summer I graduated, I took 2 jobs designing for one act plays in Toronto’s two major summer theatre festivals, The Fringe Festival, and the SummerWorks festival. I fell totally in love with the collaborative process, I got to work with some totally boss people, and I remembered that experience is how I hone my craft, and that a degree could never replicate that, no matter how many doors it may open in the process. My new outlook on my career was to work on perfecting my skills, meet professional artists, and be involved in as many productions as possible.
Designs courtesy of Erin
Refreshed, I began to think about life post-university. When a position in the wardrobe of a nearby historical site opened up, I jumped at the chance to apply. And they hired somebody else. In time, they would come to see that this was a huge mistake (duh) and offer me the job, but as I am prone to back up plans, I had already interviewed for a dream position and was waiting to hear back. Less than 6 months after having my dreams crushed, I found myself bargaining for time to accept a position, and receiving invitations to interview for positions I had never dreamed I would be qualified for at that time. And while being in that position is always lovely albeit very stressful, you can bet that it tasted all the sweeter after the bitterness I’d dwelled on not long before. Those peaks are really emphasized by the valleys you experience. The graph of the creative career path is not likely to look like a picture of the prairies!!
I graduated from university being told that I would spend the next 5 or so years crying in my beer about how I can’t get work. And while I have been fortunate and fully employed since graduating, it certainly has come with compromises; moving 2 hours away from my home being a big one. As I now contemplate the never ending job search that will be nearly constant for the rest of my career, I feel a lot like I did in my final year of my undergrad. Back up plans and all. I accept that my work life is never going to be particularly stable, but I build the surest foundation I can to help weather the hard times. I see every compromise as an investment in my future, and aim always to keep myself creatively satisfied. Your skills will not always make you the right choice for every job, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t have something valuable to offer the world. And remember, always, that even the most successful professionals of any field face rejection, even repeatedly: they just don’t like to talk about the low times!
Photo courtesy of Erin
If you’d like to follow along on my journey, you can find me at Predictions for the Past (predictionspast.blogspot.ca) where I regularly share my photography, outfit photos, and anecdotes from daily life. For anecdotes up to 140 characters, I can be found on Twitter (@ErinGerofsky), and for snapshots, including my 365 project, check me out on Instagram (@efgerofsky). Thanks for reading a bit about my journey as a young professional artist, and thank you so much to Denise for inviting me to share my story on [I]spasiyo. If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments, or email me at email@example.com.
If you’re enjoying this series, keep an eye out for future installments! If you’re interested in taking part and you believe you have a different take on this topic, do not hesitate to contact me and pitch your idea. I sincerely hope to open the conversation and impart some insight with this series.