Why Surtex Was The Last Step For Me; Not The First

(May 25: YOU GUYS. I can't even begin to express how overwhelmed I am by the Facebook comments, blog comments, and personal messages I have received about this post. It was from a place of honesty and vulnerability that I wrote this, and I am beyond happy to hear that it has meant so much to people. Thank you for all the kind words- they are truly appreciated -Lauren )

Some people may think that Surtex, the NYC trade show for art licensing and surface design, is the beginning of one's career. For me, it wasn't. In fact, a lot of hard work and conscious decision making happened before I felt like I was ready. I quit my job last year and showed at Surtex, yes, but let me be honest with you:

My Surtex journey started in 2008. 

Six years before I actually showed at Surtex for the first time.

Six YEARS.

I'll let that soak in.

I was a crocodile lurking in the water, slowly...slowly moving in on my wilder beast... and my prey was named Surtex. And SNAP, when the time was right... I grabbed it with lightning speed, but only when the timing was perfect.

(That may be one of the most fun and bizarre sentences I've ever written on this blog, FYI.)

I've always had a policy of transparency about my story, because I want people to know that I just didn't pop into the show lightly and make it happen. I think one responsibility I have as an artist (and teacher) is lifting up the curtain and showing that a lot of struggle and long years went into this, and if I had done Surtex too early it would have been a disaster.

Ok, maybe not a disaster, but it would have been premature and perhaps not the best use of my money, especially at a time when money was tight (some of you may know that feeling).

So let's pull back that curtain and I'll share some things that may shine some light on your own Surtex goals.

My First Licensed Job Came In 2008 

It was a larger job with a great client that is still available today, actually. That got me hooked- the idea that my fun art could be used for products. it felt so appropriate for my crazy characters and sense of humor! I wanted to learn more. At the time I was mainly working in editorial and publishing, but I felt like this was going to be a great fit if I could figure it out.

Walking Surtex Made Me Realize I Needed To Change My Portfolio.

For a few years I was lucky to somehow score passes to Surtex through RISD- I had teachers invite me down or I got them from the career center (at the time I didn't realize how fortunate I was.) The show was very inspiring and educational, but the most important thing I took away was realizing that my work needed some changes if I wanted to pursue the industry. You see, I was still much more of an editorial and publishing artist...more of a straight-forward illustrator, shall we say. This was before the slew of online classes were available on the subject, mind you. I had to take a very honest look at my art. I decided that my plan was to adapt my art to the industry, but not too much where I lost the uniqueness of what I had to offer. 

That part alone would take another four years or so to work out before I ever exhibited.

Again, I'll let that sink in.

About four years.

If I had decided to do Surtex then and there, it would have been the wrong decision- my work was NOT appropriate for industry needs. I like how Monica Lee of Smart Creative Women brings this up in her interviews. You REALLY have to look at yourself and ask if the subject matter is good, the technique is good, and if it's in a format where manufactures can easily apply it to products. If I had shown old book cover illustrations and editorial pieces... well what the hell is someone suppose to do with that??

So I Signed Up For Classes to Help Me Fill In The Blanks.

Again, remember that this was before all the online classes popped up on the internet (you guys are so lucky now!) Instead, I was teaching in RISD's Continuing Education Department, and one bonus was that I got a free class to take for every one I taught (most programs do this- check it out if you teach in a similar program). I made sure to take advantage of this perk! I took two classes on surface pattern design (one traditional materials, one digital), and a slew of digital classes- vector, web design, indesign...I took classes in anything that I thought could help me reach my goal.

I Got A Full-Time Job In The Industry So I Could One Day Be A Better Freelancer.

Now this is where for most of you the story is going to take a left turn. You would THINK that maybe I would take all these classes, make new work, and surely my next step would be Surtex, right? Right? Nope. Not yet. And for the record, I'm not saying what I did next was for everyone. In fact, I think everyone has a different way of reaching their goals. So what comes next is by no means what I'm saying is "right". If anything, I just want to show you that achieving your goals is something you have to jump into with both feet.

For me, that next step was 100% changing my life and taking a job that would allow me to live, eat, and breathe surface design. I applied to clothing companies, giftware companies, just any company that I thought could help me understand what happens in the licensing and surface design industry. I turned down a pretty big scholarship to SVA's Illustration Grad Program so I could take such a job. Why? In the end I knew that "real world" experience was the education that was gonna help me get the jobs I wanted.

So I passed on a swanky NYC grad program to design christmas cards in Nashville at an established gift and paper company. I left Rhode Island and everything I was familiar with to find myself in a grey cubicle with my name on it. But BOY DID I LEARN. Within two weeks I was a digital ninja, learning way more about The Adobe Suite in that short amount of time compared to 2 years of classes. I sat in meetings and helped pick art for product lines and brainstorm new items. I met with design studios and got to buy art with my creative team, sipping coffee and freaking out over too-cute designs (and learning what designs were and were not worth buying from a client's perspective). I was the lead designer for our Atlanta showroom one year and forced to step out of my comfort zone plenty of times.

But BOY DID I LEARN.

Surtex Was Kind Of Out Of The Blue.

To be honest, I wasn't 100% sure when I would go back to freelance. There wasn't exactly a number of years I was trying to reach. Three? Five? Ten? I decided I was going to follow this road until it was right to pick another. By the end of 2013, I was feeling that itch and knew that I had learned all I could from my in-house job. In addition, I was engaged to a wonderful guy and we were planning a wedding and future family. As I did the math, it became clear that properly giving myself enough time to settle back into freelance and build momentum meant leaving soon (probably sooner than I was comfortable with) if I wanted to keep up with the rest of my life and the future changes that were on the horizon.

Oh boy, this was it!

I decided to move to being a part-time designer for my company and start the transition. At the same time, it became clear that 2014 was the year to do Surtex. My dear friend and then co-worker Tracy Mattocks had signed up and I knew that waiting another year wasn't an option. So with only five months before the big show, I signed up and started the rush of preparing new work and getting my act together (while juggling freelance work that paid the bills but didn't give me material for Surtex). I showed up and the rest is history as they say.

Some Thoughts on Surtex.

In the end, I learned a lot from that process as well as the years leading up to it. There have been plenty of discussions about Surtex with students and artists interested in licensing and surface design. I'm happy to share some of these thoughts with you!

  • Surtex is a serious investment of both time and money. It's not something you do on a whim, just like a business owner doesn't ask a bank for a loan "on a whim". There is a lot of planning and yes, you are taking a calculated risk. Exhibiting is something that people spend years preparing for if you think about it, whether it's improving a portfolio or building up funds. You are a business person first when you go to Surtex. You will have to make sacrifices and plan carefully like business owners do. Sometimes those sacrifices come before, during, and yes, even after exhibiting at Surtex or similar events. 
  • If an artist really wants to be there, they find a way (even if it's not RIGHT away.) Yes, that hotel in Times Square is expensive. Don't stay there if you can't afford it! I know people who have slept on friend's couches and trained into the city an hour each morning for the show. Others have banded together to rent vacation homes for a week and split the cost (many times at the expense of location).  If you are more in love with the idea of going to Surtex- cocktails with professionals, taking in a show on Broadway after hours,  rolling around in a pile of licensing contracts in your luxury hotel room, then you may want to double check your intentions. I've been amazed how people are finding solutions- crowd-funding their first year of exhibiting, joining collectives....we're creative people. Find creative solutions. And if it means waiting and plotting and being a lurking crocodile in the water for a little longer, don't worry. Lurk away, my friend!
  • I think everyone is different, but I (mostly) believe Surtex is something one should do once they have some momentum and really "know" themselves as an artist. I once heard an art agent say that- for the most part- they preferred to sign people who had already proven themselves to some degree, even if it was just a small amount. I think this is good advice for exhibiting at Surtex, too. Surtex for the majority of people should not be "Square One". Have a few projects under your belt, even if they are small ones.  Go in really knowing what your strengths are and who your customer is rather than just showing up with everything and seeing what sticks. Patience is your best friend- it gives you time to reevaluate and properly plan.  I'm glad I never rushed into doing the show! If I had, I probably would have made an inferior first impression. 
  • Social Media is awesome, but it also adds a lot of pressure and doubts to your plan as you seemingly observe everyone else getting that awesome contract or that exciting client. Online networks are great for sharing resources and information, but I think we all know what it's like to see someone else's big art news and feel just a little deflated about your own journey. Wah Waaaaahhh. All I can say is remember that people's online stories are usually very clean and streamlined. Someone might seem like they exploded on the scene, but maybe they spent ten years working in a similar industry and have a head start on things like networking and business skills. Maybe they have years of technical training and it's unfair to compare yourself to them when you've only had a class or two. So when you see people going to Surtex, it doesn't mean you are behind in any way. Do what's right for you, when it's right.

In conclusion, Surtex is an amazing opportunity and one I strongly recommend. I met clients there that I have been contacting for years via email and other means, but it was amazing how one in-person event  finally got me those dream clients in just three days! (That's right, there is still plenty of business magic to be had.) 

BUT.

BUT, BUT, BUT.

Does one have to do it right away, guns a blazin'? 

No. And they probably shouldn't! Going back to other business owners and entrepreneur for a second, think about how much work they put into starting their businesses. They research everything from suppliers to building sites if needed. Months, if not years are spent on business plans and properly applying for any permits or funds needed. It is complicated, and being a successful freelancer in any business is complicated, too. So you shouldn't feel bad if you feel like you aren't moving fast enough. Again, six years. I'm not saying it will take other people that long, obviously, but no one should beat themselves up in they aren't exhibiting right away. In fact, plenty of people have scored great deals in the meantime without the show.

So lurk away in those waters, crocodiles! Slow and steady will get you that prize. I am busy collecting my thoughts about this year's Surtex which I just returned from and hope to get that post up soon! Stay tuned.