A Mission Statement of Sorts
“Money does not make the man. The man makes the money.”
These were the words of an angry black man with dread locks I saw, preaching from the empty fountain at Washington Square Park by NYU one summer, as I was just entering adulthood. This was not an uncommon scene in New York City whether it was a religious group, worker’s strike, or just some guy on crack, but this sounded different so I stopped and listened. Those words have since become something I've internalized to help guide my career path.
Over the last decade since then I've worn many hats creatively as a designer, animator, art director, etc. for some of the world’s most recognized creative/entertainment companies, in New York and San Francisco. It’s been a surreal experience but I still can’t say I've ever landed that dream job.
I was born to a working artist father who grew up in low income neighborhoods as a foster child, and a mother from a Japanese farming village. They met in a new age religious organization that provided for us in terms of housing, a community, and missionary work for them. When they felt it time to work independently from it, they had to start their real world careers nearing 50.
Through my dad finding clients to paint murals for, my mom working stay home jobs in her wheelchair, and lots of credit card debt, they managed to raise 5 kids through high school. Financial savvy was a rocky road they learned to navigate in their older years only so much, so us siblings had to learn it for ourselves mostly.
I have always been somewhat of a dreamer seeking to entertain and relate, whether it be through art, writing, and/or performance. My parents raised us in upper middle class neighborhoods maybe for the good schools, so I didn't know how to approach my fellow students except through creativity. In elementary and middle school in Irvington, New York near New York City, I was the kid who could draw but sucked at sports. At Bellevue High School when we moved to Washington, I found more creative outlets and poured everything into them. For my school’s radio station I did skits with friends, performed live music, and made funny radio commercials. My comics in the school paper poked fun at the high society of Bellevue while being self-deprecating. They got me some recognition, but still the caption under a photo of me talking to a teacher in the yearbook read, “Mr. Talbert talks to a student”.
When it came time to consider college and a career, given my less employable creative interests and parents working off the grid, I had some thinking to do. Career path tests and counselors confirmed my fears by encouraging me to pursue what my heart desired. I instead settled for studying graphic design (the day job art, which I grew to appreciate much later) at a state school, just like my older brother who ended up working for Microsoft.
In an attempt to enter this looming “career world”, I did a sales program for students my second summer of college. This involved going to sales school for a week, then selling educational books door to door for 80 hours a week all summer. The woman who first hosted my team at her house happened to be an artist as well, and could not understand why I chose to endure this grueling sales boot camp. It didn't take long for her to resound what my career counselors told me: Follow your heart, not your wallet.
I got the message and decided it was time to go for number one, studying animation at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. My state school advisers warned me that art school was for rich kids, but I already read the pamphlets, researched other schools, and talked to SVA staff and alumni about it. It was the only thing I was sure I wanted at the time, so there was no stopping me. It was time to enter the proving ground for artists, my old neighbor NYC.
To gain residency for state financial aid, I moved there a year prior to attendance and landed in Harlem. My first job was as a graphic designer for a local business copy center a few blocks from my apartment. While the staff was friendly, it wasn't easy being the only non-black person there every day. To get paid, I had to bring my check to one of those check cashing places nearby, with the bulletproof glass. Sometimes they refused it or my boss told me not to come to work, because they didn't have enough money. It made it all the more triumphant when I made it into my dream school the following year.
SVA was great but daunting for those of us paying for it out of pocket. I still worked at the copy center while attending but due to new building plans, was asked to move out of my Harlem apartment sophomore year. I ended up in a windowless 8'x9' converted basement room, in a sketchy Brooklyn neighborhood by a project building, for most of my time in school. I also had to find a different cosigner every year for my alternative loans, on top of my Stafford Loans since my parents’ debt disqualified them. As a result I treated every class project like my life depended on it, which wasn't entirely untrue. I wrote many essays for scholarships about my situation, and received one that covered about 5% of that year’s tuition. I still jumped on my bed in victory, someone cared! In the end, “It’s about the journey” was my way of digesting the total on my student loan debt, and whenever I broke down I told myself, “Hey, you can always kill yourself”. That usually did the trick.
Guest speakers in my career prep class senior year, were networking opportunities for me. When I gave my business card to a guest producer, it was my ticket to designing the dossiers featured in the first season of the Food Network’s Throwdown with Bobby Flay. I also raised my hand and told Cartoon Network guru, Fred Seibert I wanted to work for them during his talk, to which he pulled out his phone and called his secretary about me right there. He later invited me to his New York office, to talk about helping me get started there in LA. I froze. There was no loosening the grip on securing steady work for me, over simply answering the question, “What do you want?”. I felt like Bastian in The Neverending Story, who had only to call the empress’s new name to save Fantasia, but held back because the real world convinced him that world didn't exist. If only I had a luck dragon.
On a side note, I wrote a list in the back of my planner of what I wanted to accomplish in the big urban playground of NYC, before moving there. On top of studying animation at SVA, I also managed to check off playing a show with a band in the city, performing stand up comedy, and showing my work in an animation festival, which won some awards!
Still, I heeded the warning about animation being an unsteady career, and with the heavy check for school I stuck with graphic design upon graduation. Thanks to some creative agencies, I found myself working for Nickelodeon, Disney, Publicis, and Milton Glaser Inc., though it was all on the marketing end, as oppose to actually creating original content for the company. At my last full time job, again as a designer for marketing at a social gaming company, I decided to cross that bridge in a most peculiar way.
There was one game involving Victorian time travelers in fancy outfits, that I was to make the trailer for using game art. It was so painfully nerdy and cliche, yet I had to promote it like it was the best game in the world. One slow day, I decided to throw these characters into a 6 panel comic in Photoshop, that humorously portrayed them as shameless, pathetic douchebags using the time machine for selfish reasons. I attached it to an email, plugged in the office-wide email address for events, and wrote “Enjoy…” After some hesitation I clicked “send” and suddenly felt sick to my stomach, realizing I was messing with one of the top 5 social gaming companies in the world.
A few minutes later I received a forwarded email from HR of what I just sent (yikes). It wasn’t only to me I noticed, the email address said “global”. In other words, every office location around the world for this corporate giant saw my unabashed mockery, for what became its most successful, award-winning game. They loved it so much I was asked to put out a comic every Friday! When I introduced myself to people in the office they said, “Oh you’re Teddy, the comic guy!” This went on for a year until I decided to quit and go back to freelancing, but not without realizing I could entertain an audience on a weekly basis.
I didn’t hesitate to start my own webcomic after and put it on Tumblr. Months later, it got picked up by a webcomic publisher and featured in popular news/culture sites like Huffington Post, Mashable and Laughing Squid. I’m hoping it leads to work in film, animation and/or television, but comics are the simplest, most affordable medium to visualize a story so I can work with that for now.
Since graduating high school, I insisted on putting a wall between work and what came natural to me as an artist. It may have come later for me than most, but I’m finally allowing that same spark that went into my creative outlets as a child, to happen in the forefront and seeing results! It’s still going to take a lot of work, but I have to keep reminding myself to own my success instead of having my success own me.