If you find yourself doodling fun food illustrations in your notebooks while you should be working, you might be an artist in hiding. Or perhaps you secretly admire Tumblrs with bodega cat illustrations or you’ve been dying to take an illustration class? In this week’s How to Quit Your Day Job series, we chat with Stacy Michelson, a freelance food illustrator who runs a successful Etsy shop featuring cute food-based pins, adorable animal pillows, and pouches for brunch or coffee bucks. Michelson shares how she keeps her creative flame alive while managing her craft business.
Meet the food illustrator Pro: Stacy Michelson
Stacy Michelson grew up in Huntington Beach, CA, and took screenprinting and photography classes at her high school. As an artist, she supported herself by working in restaurants while drawing on the side, until a trip to Japan changed her life. Seeing all the cute and smiley faces on food packaging in Japan, Michelson was inspired to take her love of food and drawing into a new realm. Fast forward to her current career: She sketches, screenprints, and sews in her downtown Los Angeles art studio to make the whimsical products she sells in her Etsy shop. On Saturday mornings, Michelson listens to her local radio station KCRW’s Good Food show and illustrates the episodes. She started tagging the program on Instagram and the producers were so intrigued by her art that they asked her to design a tote bag and blanket as part of their fundraising drive.
Brit + Co: What’s your morning routine?
Stacy Michelson: I don’t exactly have a routine, even though that does sound appealing to me. I think the closest thing I have to one is making time to draw every morning. Sometimes it’s right when I wake up, still in my pajamas with coffee, other times it’s closer to lunch, but always before I start work and checking emails and going to my studio. I either work on my weekly Good Food illustrations or draw in my sketchbook, zoning out for the length of an album, drawing whatever weird characters come out of my brain. Being creative every day is important to me, so I’m not just in running mode of making products, filling orders, and finishing freelance design jobs.
B+C: What inspired you to start your company?
SM: I started my brand as a way to get my art out into the world. A painting or print hangs on a wall and only the people who live there and their friends see it. A t-shirt or pin is seen by everyone you see that day. The design gets to live a more exciting and fuller life. I’ve screenprinted t-shirts since high school and people always loved them. Later, I designed and printed merch for bands I played in and restaurants I worked at. My own line was an obvious next step, and since I knew how to get a design on a product, that made it seem possible. My line of t-shirts turned into making pillows and pouches, and then I realized it was the characters that made people want them, so I could put the characters on more types of products and have a busier business.
B+C: How do you challenge yourself as an entrepreneur?
SM: I like to shake it up and do lots of things under the larger umbrella of artist/designer. STACY MICHELSON the brand is Stacy Michelson the person. Yes, I have a line of products, but I also do freelance jobs and I try and do everything I can with the skills and interests I have. I try to think outside the box of how to market things, like when I made a stop-motion animation and wrote a jingle to sell a coffee pin on Instagram, or push myself as an illustrator by giving myself the assignment to illustrate a weekly podcast I love about food for a whole year, and even working with restaurants and companies to create products for them with my twist of fun. Diversifying my business has been both fun and financially successful for me.
B+C: Tell us about how your family and friends help support your business.
SM: I have an amazing, supportive mom that lives down in Huntington Beach who is always offering to come up to LA and help me with anything I need, from cutting fabric before or after I print it to stuffing and sewing pillows with me. She also usually shows up wearing one of my Sealrus t-shirts when she comes to work and it’s pretty sweet. I also got really lucky in the friends department, because my friend Paul Frank is a genius crafter and builder, besides being a designer himself, and knows the answer to any question I have, and he’s helped me make some ideas come to life for design/craft fairs. And as far as those shows go, I have a group of friends that have given me their weekends to work in my booth year after year and have done a lot of loading in/loading out with me that I could not have done by myself. I always feel bad asking them to help, but I’m glad they at least act like they don’t mind, even if they’re sick of it by now ;)
B+C: What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten?
SM: Two things come to mind. One is more of a mantra: “Always go buck!” My friend Ed has always told me that about creating, living, doing, and making, so I do. The other is more calculated business advice from my friend Carolyn, who has a stationery line. She once told me, “If a product isn’t selling, cut it from your line, no matter how much you like it.” Learning this has helped me make better decisions about where to put money in my business.
B+C: What do you love about your job?
SM: I love that I create things that make people happy. A coffee cash pouch ($13) isn’t gonna change the world, but it might change your mood when you whip it out to get that much-needed caffeine jolt! If the sassy Cat-Tus pin ($10) on your jacket tells people what you’re about without you having to say a word, that’s awesome! And if that pin turns into a conversation with someone about how you both have the coolest cat ever, then that’s cool and I’m stoked that my art facilitated that connection. I like making cute, fun, quirky things, and I’m glad that there are lots of people out there that want them in their lives. It might not be the thing they need, but I’m glad it’s the thing they want!
B+C: Name two female heroes who you think should get a shout-out.
SM: Oh that’s easy, Martha and Grandma Michelson. Martha, as in Martha Stewart of course, the goddess of all things crafty, entertaining, and desserts. It’s inspiring what she has created and accomplished over the years. I love that she is her brand. I also love that she has this it-has-to-be-perfect image, but then I’d see her on a talk show cracking jokes, eating Taco Bell, and drinking a 40 of Olde English. And Grandma Michelson was just a firecracker and a sweetheart who definitely was living her best life, way before Oprah told people to. I loved that she traveled the world with friends, told dirty jokes, was in a dinner club, had a wallet that said PARTY GIRL in sparkly letters, wore a necklace that spelled out “screw you,” and ate vegan food with my friends and me when everyone thought it was weird. She was always supportive of everything I did and always told me to trust myself because I was a “smart cookie.” I feel like I inherited her zest for life and I couldn’t be more happy about that.
B+C: If you could tell aspiring creative women anything, what would it be?
SM: Go for it, try it, do it, make it, Google it, take a class, ask for help, collaborate, and be yourself. I spent a lot of years being the only girl in a class, a band, in a group, at a meet-up, etc. Maybe I always believed that the kind of artsy things I liked weren’t necessarily feminine or masculine, or maybe I just had great teachers and role models who never treated me differently. All I know is there are so many things I’m really glad I did, even when I looked around and said to myself, “Hmm, it’s all dudes here and me. Weird.”
What’s your dream career? Tweet us @BritandCo to let us know, and we could feature it in the next column!
(Photos of KCRW tote bag and Breakfast Show illustration via Camellia Tse; all other photos via Stacy Michelson)