You Don’t Have To Be Perfect
Jillian Adel shares how to develop your own practice and create a more inclusive space for everyone
Jillian Adel is the Art Director, Letterer, Storyteller and Pole Dancer behind the sex-positive zine Divine. We talk to her about her process and work — and about finding yourself through your craft and going where your passions take you.
Ulrik: Hi Jillian — I think I want to start with talking about your lettering practice since our readers are type and lettering nerds — and then maybe use that as a vehicle to talk more broadly about your practice. But before we get ahead of ourselves, maybe you’d like to introduce yourself and talk a bit about what you do?
Jillian: Ok. Well I am an Art Director, Designer, Illustrator and Letterer by trade. And a Pole Dancer, Storyteller/Writer, Creator/Curator/Editor of a zine called Divine, and I suppose also somewhat of a sex positivity and porn activist. I think that covers it. Titles are weird, and I’m still figuring out my elevator pitch. But it’s also always evolving. So that’s my best shot for today.
Ulrik: That’s a pretty great calling card though. So how does your lettering practice fit into all of this?
Jillian: Lettering was my second business-related passion behind music. I booked concerts in college and a few years after at club venues. After moving up to NYC about a year and a half after college in 2009, I spent most of my time obsessed with lettering: looking at it, making it, and being a part of the community (as NYC has one of the best type communities in the world). I discovered that it could be a whole entire job. At the same time Jessica Hische was starting to use social media to put a lot of great work out. I saw what she was doing and realized it was a profession I wanted to pursue. I essentially spent 5 years obsessively looking at and drawing letters in any and all ways. And now, I’d say it’s probably 60–75% of what I get hired to do in my freelance business.
Ulrik: One of the things that struck me when I was looking at your lettering work is that it is very diverse — or rather it has a freedom to it which I really enjoy. It doesn’t look like it’s coming straight out of a How-To book on lettering. How did you go about developing your style?
We had to make a lot of good work really quickly, so I had to learn how to sell ideas, lettering or otherwise, before investing the time in the details.
Jillian: Early on, I was mostly attracted to scripts. Scripts, swashes, flourishes, and more flourishes. Looking back, I think this appealed to my Maximalist sense (is that a word?. So in New York, I spent a lot of time practicing drawing a lot of script alphabets: Copperplate, Spencerian, etc. But I was always aiming for perfection…which was ultimately not attainable for me.
I think a lot of us who work in a craft-driven field are perfectionists. We could sit and tweak details for hours or days. At my last full time job in New York at an agency that made art for Broadway theater advertising, I worked for some people that really broke me of this habit. We had to make a lot of good work really quickly, so I had to learn how to sell ideas, lettering or otherwise, before investing the time in the details. My boss would rip things up, scribble things on scrap paper and tell us to use it, etc. and we were constantly trying to infuse energy into advertising that frequently feels the same every time. I think all of this seeped into my work after I moved to LA. I really was less attached to what work LOOKED like so much as what it FELT like. I think this is something that frequently gets lost in the droves of people out there trying to make “Instagram-perfect” work. Just trying to make things feel human…if that makes sense.
I’ve experimented with almost every tool you can think of, but I almost always use the wrong tools for whatever I’m making.
Ulrik: That makes perfect sense. I think a lot of young designers are trying to do exactly that: make things perfect. And I think breaking out of that mold is really empowering.
You also mentioned a bit about your tools of choice and your process. Can I get you to dig in to that a bit too?
Jillian: Hmmm. Well it’s changed over time. I’ve experimented with almost every tool you can think of, but I almost always use the wrong tools for whatever I’m making. I’ve gone through a lot of phases. I’ve always been a predominantly brush pen kinda gal. I practiced my technical scripts with Pentel Sign Pens. But then went through a paint phase with acrylic paint and brushes. I had an airbrush phase too. Now, I like big chunky paint pens and a lot of chisel markers.
But for paid lettering work, I’m on the iPad Pro most times. Last year, I did a job for Apple where we worked on iPads. After that, I had to buy one and I’ve been attached to it ever since. It’s just super efficient. I’m all about efficiency, and don’t like to take extra steps if I don’t have to. But often it’s either some quick drawing or painting scanned with the Scanner Pro app and pulled into Photoshop or Procreate with Apple Pen. I have a whole rolly cart of every marker and pen you could imagine and I haven’t touched it in months. At the moment, I’m trying to practice some gothic alphabets on the iPad for fun too.
Ulrik: Cool. I think that shows in your work. There is a lot of different expressions to it, which I find really nice. Maybe we should turn to one of your projects now? Do you want to talk a bit about your zine Divine? Or perhaps your new Patreon initiative?
I’ve had to try to be okay with putting down my art and lettering practice or whatever discipline came before, in order to really dive into whatever is moving me in that moment
Jillian: Divine happened because I dove into a world of people, especially women, who were awake to a world of sex and body positivity when I started pole dancing here in LA. And during a slow time with work, I started making a bunch of experimental artwork that led me to taking partially nude photos of myself. I wanted to share them, but couldn’t figure out where or how. I ended up in an existential crises about admiring my body and getting to this place of being comfortable in my sexuality. It threw me up against this wall of all the ways in which American society doesn’t want me to be comfortable doing those things. I decided to release them in a low key print form where they could be received in context, along with my thoughts, rather than having to deal with social media nudity restrictions or releasing one-off photos that could end up anywhere on the internet devoid of context or my ownership.
The first issue was all me, and the second issue involved 10 contributors of different practices which was released this past spring. The past year has been a huge personal expansion. I developed a storytelling and writing practice, started tuning into and engaging in conversations around pornography and sex education, and having it all live alongside my most successful freelance year as well. Ultimately, all of that has nothing to do with my art to lettering practice. The only way it relates is that it happens to be my foundation and therefore gave me a means to transmit these ideas I was working with. The first issue of Divine had all handwritten copy. The second had none. So they were aesthetically very different. I brought in illustrator friends from New York in the second issue, along with new writer, stripper, and adult actor friends in the second issue. So it’s a big melting pot of all kinds of creators that are both from the art/lettering worlds and some of the newer disciplines I’m tuning into.
I think the biggest hurdle has been the identity crises that comes along with all of it, and that’s often what I write and speak about. I worried when I started posting pole videos to my Instagram that was previously all letters and cats and food, that people would get confused. But as I spend time diving into different moments where I’m more drawn to making art, or dancing, or writing/storytelling, or curating, I’ve had to try to be okay with putting down my art and lettering or whatever discipline came before to really dive into whatever is moving me in that moment—definitely never care about anyone potentially finding offense…because that just comes from our society’s poor socialization of sexuality; and I’m here to hold a mirror up to that, rather than cater to it.
I feel like that’s maybe finally happening with the monthly newsletter I just started. People are essentially signing up to receive whatever I want to send them each month in the mail, and it feels like the purest transmission of love. This past month, I pulled a tarot card and wrote about ideas around success and angst, shared an article I wrote called “How To Flirt with a Sexual Feminist”,
and included some art around the idea of Purity…or anti-Purity. It’s photos, lettering and prose. So I’m really excited to see where that will go.
Ultimately, as I get more comfortable letting myself be more discipline-fluid, others are too. And I think there are ideas and aesthetics that are always somewhat of a common thread through it all.
I think in visual arts of any kind, we spend so much time trying to perfect craft that we forget to care about what we’re saying.
Ulrik: That’s a great answer. I think this was what I was probing around. I am interested in the power that a creative practice affords as a means of gazing within. Not to get too philosophical, but I think that is what is really resonating with me personally here — that you have this means of expression that can work as a catalyst in terms of finding and expressing an identity. And to take it way back to the beginning of this interview where we were discussing the quest for perfection — well that seems like pursuing someone else’s ideal. OK, maybe that did get a bit philosophical after all.
Jillian: It’s all philosophical to me. It’s not just perfection. I think in visual arts of any kind, we spend so much time trying to perfect craft that we forget to care about what we’re saying. And there’s definitely time and place and a lot to be said for someone who can make something technically beautiful. But I think too often we’re not thinking about what we’re saying or communicating. I just happened to find causes that mean a lot to me, that I now often work with message-wise. But no one can really force finding what that thing is to them. But I think if we put down not only the idea that all that matters is drawing the perfect “T” or “S” but also the idea of what a “Letterer” or “Illustrator” or “Designer” is supposed to look like in terms of identity — for example: we’re supposed to love minimalism & Eames chairs & Warby Parkers & have the most perfect pancakes photographed on our Instagram (I’m not hating on any of that, I’m wearing my Warbys as we speak) — then we open ourselves and help open each other up to embracing the parts of ourselves that maybe feel like they don’t fit with the “Freelance Designer” or “Freelance Letterer” identity. In my case, I had to dig deep to figure out that the part of the industry that really wasn’t working for me was the inherent conservatism that permeates many aspects of it. For others it may be something else. But for now, that’s the space I hold that I hope we can improve on by supporting the weirdest and most unique parts of the identities of our letter-loving brothers, sisters and non-binary partners.
Ulrik: Amen! This has been a really inspiring interview! One last question; so what does the future hold for Jillian Adel?
Jillian: I mean, who can know. The last year has been such a whirlwind with a lot of growth that I’m really trying to slow down and take care of myself. Making a lot of art where you’re essentially using yourself to send a message, where your existence itself is somewhat of a rebellion, it gets really tiring and draining especially for someone who is a major introvert like myself. So I’ve had to pull back and prioritize taking some time to myself.
I’m excited to stay really open and make these newsletters for my patrons. It feels like a really sacred relationship, and it’s the best motivation to stay honest with myself in whatever I make, because that’s what they’re there for. I have some big projects going public in the fall that I’m not sure if I can even talk about right now. But I made a logo that will be out in the world in a big way really soon. I’m training for some more pole performances in the fall while I have some down time. And I’ll be attending AIGA Eye on Design Conference in October in Minneapolis. I haven’t been to a design conference in a while, so I’m excited to reconnect with that world. And Divine just got accepted to Kiosk Fest during SF Zine Fest in September, so excited about that!
I’ve had a non-stop year working on bigger campaign work for Toyota and Target, so I’m happy for the summer slow down right now. I’m using the time for personal initiatives, but I like the balance with commercial work. It’s always somewhat of a surprise what projects may come through from week to week, so I’m looking forward to whatever’s next.
Ulrik: Jillian, again thank you so much! Best of luck in the future.
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