Hustle Chat with Laura Lee Gulledge
Laura Lee Gulledge is an Eisner Award nominated author and illustrator who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. She’s the creator of YA graphic novels Page by Paige and Will & Whit, the latter of which she’s adapted into a musical for teens with her team of Artners. Laura Lee is also a passionate teaching artist, guest speaker, and creative coach with an MA in Art Education. She posts new art and adventures weekly on her blog whoislauralee.com
LH: Tell us about your hustle…
LLG: I’m an artist and storyteller, the creator of YA graphic novels Page by Paige and Will & Whit! I like to write and illustrate stories to empower fellow creative (and often shy) weirdos. I also am a freelance educator, doing presentations and workshops across a dozen states. I also offer creative coaching where I work with adults one-on-one. Since books don’t pay all of life’s bills, I find that doing an education gig once a month is a great way to supplement my income. Plus it’s healthy for me emotionally, for it prevents me from getting totally withdrawn in my studio. I’m definitely still working on finding a balance!
LH: Did you always know you wanted art to be part of your job?
LLG: In school I always adored art but never thought I was good enough to pursue it professionally. It sounded impossible and terrifying! Instead I thought I’d do something more “practical” like be an art therapist, art teacher, or museum educator. It was only after I being a middle school art teacher that I felt brave enough to take the leap and try becoming a real artist myself. Now, years later, I feel honored that I get to teach through story! Turns out I was destined to be a teaching artist, not an art teacher.
LH: What prompted you to make your side hustle a full-time gig?
LLG: My personal art practice has never been a side hustle, it’s been a side calling. To make art for the sake of making it and for myself. It was only later that I decided to look at my art and pull out a story, sculpting a larger work which I could then SELL as a book. I decided to take this plunge when I learned there was a need for comics for young women…a need that I could see myself filling. When you spot such an opportunity and the timing feels right suddenly all excuses go out the window. Why not TRY? #yolo
But I must point out, that for most authors this isn’t a full-time gig. For it’s hard to make money off of artifacts like books or albums, we get paid more for experiences. Hence I get paid more to talk about books than I do to make books. Making books might not make you rich but it does give you keys to bigger open doors and bigger opportunities.
LH: Who has been your biggest inspiration as an artist?
LLG: Personally, my Grandmother who became a painter late in life. Visually, artists Frida Kahlo and Rene Magritte…storytellers Jim Henson and Walt Disney…newspaper comics & political cartoons. Professionally, Raina Telgemeier and Gene Yang.
LH: Are there any ‘tools of the trade’ you always have with you?
LLG: STICKERS! I give away cute stickers and my business card (which has an Artistic License on the backside) to every new acquaintance I meet. Each year I give away probably 500 stickers! I carry them everywhere in a cute little case in my purse. For you must be in the habit of promoting yourself. It also helps facilitate communication and makes it easy for people to find you later. It’s crazy how many people have remembered me by my sticker. Always be bearing gifts.
LH: Art can be pretty solitary - do you listen to or watch anything while you’re working?
LLG: I love listening to music radio stations online to keep me company, I make a ton of playlists. Mostly I listen to WFUV in New York, but also my local station WNRN and sometimes KWXX in Hawaii. If I’m inking or shading I’ll often crave a story, so I’ll listen to a series I already know well so it’s not too distracting. Recently that’s been “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” During my previous books the Harry Potter audiobooks kept me company a lot. I do Pandora when I’m feeling indecisive.
LH: Who is your favorite graphic novelist?
LLG: Alison Bechdel of course! She made the first graphic novel I ever read (“Fun Home”) which opened my eyes to the potential for it as a media. Plus the fact the Tony-winning musical adaption of her graphic novel paves the way for my graphic novel musical “Will & Whit.” Plus I love her background making newspaper comics for decades and her recent exploration of yoga thru her art. She is such a trailblazer! #artnercrush
LH: What do you enjoy most about your work?
LLG: Work wise I love that I don’t have a commute, that I have complete control over my schedule, that I’m my own boss, and that I can sing while I’m working. Sometimes I still can’t believe I get paid to create and get to spend much of my workday in that blissful creative flow-state! That I get to teach thru stories, and that the books end up in the hands of real-life actual people. I get so many emails from people who randomly picked up Page by Paige and found comfort or insight in her story. I feel so lucky I can help other introverts learn how to come out of their shells! My work gives me a wonderful sense of purpose.
LH: Did you ever want to quit, and if so, what made you stay with it?
LLG: After my second book I wanted to quit, because I was struggling financially living in New York and I thought that publishing a couple books would somehow change things. For it takes years before you see any royalties, and a book advance don’t nearly cover expenses during the time it takes to make such long projects. I felt very disillusioned and unsure of what to do next. I could either implode or evolve, so I chose to evolve.
What inspired me to fight for balance was thinking of my talented & creative ancestors who never had such a platform for their expression like I did. They cheered me on. I also pulled strength from my Artner Lauren Larken who I was doing an invaluable collaborative Artnership with at the time. And finally, what really gave me courage was interacting with my young readers. For I realized the stories weren’t about ME any more. I had to do it for them.
LH: What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken as an artist?
LLG: How about being an artist at all! Being yourself and having a voice is definitely a risk in of itself. Besides that…Artistically, I’d say my last book Will & Whit was a big risk for me. For it was the first time I tried to make a reader both laugh and cry, that I really pushed myself as a storyteller not just an artist. Flashier risks have included moving to New York to pursue a crazy dream, plus of course exploring street art and body painting while I lived there. Teaching art in Africa was a big risk.
As an introvert I find that drawing live in front of an audience to be quite scary. For it’s like throwing yourself off a cliff in from of someone and trusting you’ll land on your feet! Hence now I do live drawing during each of my school visits so I can authentically model the vulnerability of the creative process. Being an artist means you’re constantly identifying and overcoming your fears.
LH: What’s the toughest part of what you do day-to-day?
LLG: Since my studio is at home and I’m alone all day I’d have to say the hardest thing is…NOT to get sucked into the internet! With no one keeping you accountable you can easily get some bad habits. Hence I have a structured daily schedule that restricts my internet work to 8:00-10:00am, followed by studio work 10:00-4:00pm. If I’m listening to music while working I often darken the screen so it’s not tempting me. If I need to look up an image for visual reference I tend to swipe the image so I can then close the browser window. I also have a fictional assistant named Coco who helps me deal with the administrative side of things, and in a weird subconscious way helps hold me accountable.
LH: What’s your favorite thing to draw?
LLG: Hair! It’s my favorite way to play with line, and I particularly love using hair to create visual movement. In superhero comics capes are often used to illustrate motion, weight, and tone. I use hair the same way, to make my compositions more dynamic and help lead the eye around the composition thru abstract designs.
LH: Do you have any aspirations in the near future?
LLG: To write my next graphic novel at brakeneck speed (gulp!) because my deadline is already set withy publisher, to expand my Creative Coaching side business with a fresh crop of clients, teaching my first ever comics class for adults at VisArts in Richmond, and to hold the long-awaited read-thru sing-thru for the Will & Whit musical with my Artners in New York to take this project to the next level. And to stay emotionally & physically healthy by sticking with my self care plan through all of these endeavors!
LH: Any advice for people looking to make illustration their main hustle?
LLG: Well, illustration is a whole other ball game so I can’t speak for that as a field. But my advice for creative storytellers in general is…to be patient. Endurance is more an indicator of success than talent, for a creative life is a long game. Learn a practical skill to pay the bills while you explore your art on the side, one that will strengthen your business and communication skills while you’re putting in your 10,000 hours of practice. For it often takes a decade of working for others before you can make the leap to working for yourself. Put your art out there on the side and get it to the point where it pays for itself, that’s success in of itself.
When picking freelance I find it best to pick jobs that use a different part of your skill set than you use in your personal work. You see, when you make personal art you are both the designer and the craftsman. You have the idea, and you make the idea. But in freelance you often are paid for half of the process, so pick the half that best balances your personal work. For example, my art is very psychological and uses my head a lot so I spent years renting out my hands as a sign painter/ scenic artist. Pick freelance that teaches you new things, has you working with good people, and in fact makes your art better.
LH: Do you have anything coming out we should look for?
LLG: My new book “Sketchbook of Dares” will be coming out in Spring 2018 through Abrams Books! It’s an interactive sketchbook featuring my favorite drawing activities that I’ve been dreaming about making ever since I was an art teacher back in the day. Also, later this year my Artners and I will be releasing the Will & Whit: Graphic Novel Musical ALBUM featuring local teens singing our catchy songs. There are so many fun things in the works!
Interview By Bonnie Rubrecht
Bonnie is a freelance writer and illustrator from California who enjoys writing about health and wellness, women’s issues, design, social justice and sustainable agriculture. She lives with her family in a historic home in rural Massachusetts, binge-listening to podcasts, chasing chickens and indulging in Japanese candy. You can find her on twitter and Instagram.