In collaboration with Creatives Meet Business, we’re highlighting four guides who will be leading workshops during the upcoming CMBXP conference. Designed for creatives, artists, small business owners, and solopreneurs, the conference will cover four tracks–Storytelling, Business, Marketing, and Skills Development–as well as feature mentorship sessions and happy hours.
For the first interview in our CMBXP series, we chatted with illustrator Becca Borrelli. Below, she shares what she learned from her career in art education, her day to day routines as a full-time illustrator, and what conference attendees can take away from her storytelling workshop.
Tell us about your background. What experiences led you to pursue your illustration business?
My past life was in art education. I taught PreK, and elementary art in Ohio. In 2010 I moved to Austin for graduate work at The University of Texas. My thesis research was a partnership with the Blanton Museum of Art. We offered a summer art workshop for public school art teachers. The study’s goal was to observe the ways art educators might use art making as a tool for reflecting on the intersection of their identity and professional practice.
I had a lot of hypotheses about what I’d find. What ended up emerging was unexpected. I found a group of art teachers spiritually and creatively dried up when it came to making their own art. For many of them, the workshop was the first time they’d made art in years. It was incredibly validating to see the data…albeit saddening. As an art teacher, I had abandoned my personal art making as well. Teaching in today’s climate is often unrealistically and unsustainably demanding. Not many people know this, but over 45% of new teachers leave the profession within 5 years. I began to look differently at teaching after that study. I wondered if I could create a career where I could teach and make art joyfully. That idea ended up being the seed of my business today.
What has been the most unexpected part about owning a business?
Honestly…that I could make it work! I was crystal clear on all the entrepreneurial craziness coming down the pike. Very little about my biz experience has surprised me. I think in some ways I was too clear on the challenges as a young maker, and it made me second guess if I could succeed. When I left waiting tables and went full time in August of 2016, everyone told me they weren’t surprised…but I sure was!
Take us through a typical day in the life. Do you have any routines in place?
My inherent nature has always been to resist routines. When I began working for myself, that was an assumption I quickly began to question. It took me years to see the value in routine, but I’ve really come around. I am unsure if I’ll ever be able to manage professional routines, but now I have personal ones that I religiously and enthusiastically maintain.
I wake up and meditate each morning over coffee. I journal and set an intention. I workout with a trainer Monday and Wednesday and cycle Tuesday and Thursday. I have to admit I used to scoff at people who were overly committed to routine. I think I had this mistaken notion that people who had rituals were just trying to look busy. I used to think: “why waste my time with this extraneous stuff when I can just hit the ground running?” Now I wouldn’t miss my rituals. I realize they are my compass. They are how I stay centered and focused on what I’m really trying to do. They also make the shifting nature of my work easier to manage. Some days I’m working at my shared studio space, Lemon House. Other days I’m on a site with a client or teaching a workshop. Still other times I am running around doing errands. With my work, it’s always something different, so I truly cherish my personal routines.
As an illustrator, where do you go for inspiration? What does your creative process look like?
Inspiration is such an elusive creature. It’s always changing for me. All said, I definitely enjoy illustrating urban and natural spaces, as well as icons of whimsy and mysticism. I love visualizing the idea that our world is straight magic.
My creative process is also a response to the fact that I don’t love drawing straight lines or perfect angles. Our urban environments are riddled with them, and I think that’s unfortunate. I have so much more fun drawing spaces that swirl. I think people respond to my illustration in part because we’re all secretly hungry for more curvaceousness.
Tell us about your CMBXP workshop. What do you hope attendees take away from the experience?
I am leading a workshop in the Storytelling track called: Storytelling with Mixed Media Drawing. I’ll be taking attendees through the process of creating visual narratives with oodles of art supplies as a tool for professional reflection. I truly believe art making is an excellent way to learn about ourselves, and that includes our work lives.
The Ancient Greeks and Romans believed art doesn’t come from people, but through them from a subconscious realm. There’s actually a lot of research to back this up. Making art can be very centering and helpful at clearing out the noise associated with demanding work. In fact, a daily creative practice can get us sustainably reconnected to what we’re really trying to do. My hope is that the attendees have a blast making art, and get some practical tools for cultivating an art practice at home. I also hope they experience renewed clarity around things that might be nebulous in their work or personal lives.
How does storytelling play a role in your work and how do you encourage others to use it?
I first began telling stories as a school teacher to my little ones, and during that time I became convinced it’s one of the most powerful communication tools at human disposal. In my work, I primarily use story as a way to share ideas and opinions around my own art, as well as encourage others to do the same.
Story is compelling because of its gentleness and willingness towards vulnerability. It’s easy to argue with another’s opinion or idea. That can make people much more hesitant to share themselves authentically in their work, lives or art. But how do you argue with someone’s story? It’s nearly impossible.
When I was a grad student I ran across an artist who did round table discussions of hot button issues. Her first round of conversations were erupting into near violence, so she changed her methods. The attendees were forbidden from sharing ideas or opinions. Instead they were given a forum to tell a story attached to a topic. The results were goosebump inducing! People on opposite sides of incredibly polarizing topics were suddenly weeping in each others’ arms. Many times groups of storytellers on different sides of issues would discover they had identical stories.
Story softens. I don’t use story in the same way as the above example, but I’ve learned story can give us a safe container to share ourselves authentically with far less fear of blowback and judgment. That’s why I love incorporating it into art classes.
Is there anything you’ve read or listened to that’s made an impact on you or your business?
Last year I read The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron and it changed my life and work forever. I think many creative people tend to be on the sensitive side, and are convinced they would be terrible at business. Prior to reading this book, I was certain deep down that I had an over-sensitivity chip that threatened to derail my art business at any given moment. The culture associates entrepreneurship with personality traits that lean towards external embodiments is power. Charisma. Focus. Coolness. Masculinity. Dominance. As someone without high levels of those traits, I absorbed the idea fully that I had no place in business.
Aron’s book is about her research at Harvard regarding the gene that leads to high sensitivity in about 15% of all mammal populations. I can’t articulate enough how completely and powerfully her book reframed how I view myself. My business and life began to thrive in ways I’d never seen. In fact, Aron found that the highly sensitive tend to be excellent business owners! I’ve always wished more creatives and artists were in business. I feel like our economy would change overnight for the better.
What is your best advice for fellow creative entrepreneurs?
In the wise words of the unpredictable Ricky Gervais: “The best advice I ever received was: ‘No one else knows what they’re doing either.’”
Creatives Meet Business Experience is taking place September 19-21 at Springdale General. The conference will include more than 50 hands-on workshops in business, marketing, skills development, and storytelling, and will also feature mentorship sessions and happy hours. To take a look at the full schedule and grab your badge, head to cmbxp.com. Find Becca’s workshop details and contact info, below!
Images by Aline Forastieri