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Things To Do illustrator Caita Chien shares her relationship with failure and setback encountered during the process of discovering the voice of the story’s illustrations.
Illustrator Catia Chien on failing
In early 2012 my life fell apart.
I guess you can say it was a long time coming. I was raised in an emotionally and physically abusive family. And in 2012, as a fully-fledged adult, I had become the perfect storm of codependency and misguided filial piety.
I was spending a lot of time with my mentally ill and profoundly volatile parent. I was essentially a live-in nanny for my sister and her two kids. I was working, illustrating two children’s books simultaneously. And I was trying to carve out some kind of life for myself. I was spread thin. And when I became the scapegoat for a number of family fallouts, something in me just gave out under the strain. I had nervous breakdowns and was deeply depressed. My social anxiety and fear became extreme.
Before that year, I had been able to find sanctuary in my artwork, no matter the conditions of my life. My art had always given me a sense of identity and value. But that year, it became unbearable for me to make art, as the pain in my personal life seemed to devour everything else.
In fact, the art I was trying to make for my two book assignments became deeply compromised. I had no emotional bandwidth to create good work, and I was paralyzed with fear. I was afraid to admit my situation to my two art directors and to my agent, because I thought I would be fired and maybe never work again. I kept pushing myself, but I kept dropping the ball.
The initial work I turned in for one of the books was half-hearted at best. Ironically this book was about celebrating and owning our feelings, and there I was completely unable to process my own.
Here are two of the pages that I first turned into my art director:
The art director was surprised by this work. This is what she wrote to me:
Thanks for getting the sample hi-res art spread ftp’d to us as well as sending along the cover and some of the interior images. Unfortunately, I have to report that we aren’t very happy with them. These images don’t seem as nuanced as your normal work, the characters aren’t as appealing, and the overall impression of the book is not a joyous celebration of color. Considered individually, the art lacks detail, depth, and it seems to be a perfunctory translation of the text without much connection to the emotions of color. Before giving specific feedback on each piece and possible ways to revise, I need to first know if you are connecting to the text and are invested in making this book the best it can be? If you are, we need a commitment of not only time in repainting but also emotional interest in this project.
I am huge fan of your work but I just don’t feel that the artwork we have on hand is very indicative of what you can do. Is there a way I can help to better inspire you?
All the best.
Her honesty, compassion, and belief in my work was one of the best gifts that I’ve ever received in my career. I remain eternally grateful to her. And to this day, I look for those qualities in my closest collaborators.
At the time, though, it was hard to face the fact that I needed to redo the entire book, but her email woke me up. I knew I had to stop lying to myself. I was not going to push my way through. I needed time off.
I opened up to my agent about my situation, and he reacted with tremendous understanding. He talked to the art director on my behalf, and I was granted a generous extension. Somehow, it never dawned on me that I was worthy of such kindness. This extension afforded me time to not only redo the entire book, but, more importantly, look at my life.
It was during this time when I noticed a book on a friend’s bookshelf – How Not To Be Afraid Of Your Own Life by Susan Piver. I read it immediately, and in a near panic, I looked up Susan and called her. I thought the number would direct me to her agent, but Susan picked up instead. I managed to get these words out,
“Can you tell me more about meditation?”
Not only did she tell me more, she recommended a meditation center very close to my house. I went the next day. And soon after, I had a meditation instructor. This is the first email I wrote to my meditation instructor, Gil:
I am struggling with emotions that I don’t want to be with. Could you send me information on bravery?
My meditation practice was underway, and I began to develop a skill set. One breakthrough came when I was listening to instructions for walking meditation from the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. He simply said, “walk like a free person,” and to my surprise, my heart suddenly broke wide open. It dawned on me that I was not free, and I had no idea how to be free. I cried and cried, and this time I didn’t hide from the pain. I faced it and it started to heal.
I made new paintings for the book assignment:
By the end of the year I was on my way to finishing both books successfully.
In late 2013 after two years of meditation practice, I could see my life more clearly and I decided to distance myself from my family. I moved across the country to New York.
When I got to NY, I started hosting weekly dinners at my apartment in Brooklyn. Strangers and new friends would come and have a free home cooked meal and a place to meet other people. This was one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done, even though it wasn’t easy for me to pay rent at that time. I now knew the biggest assets in my life were the people around me.
My hope in sharing my story, which is hard for me to share, is to remind you that you are not alone. I would never have found my way had it not been for my agent, my art directors, my various teachers, my friends, and kind strangers. It’s true that there is oppression all around us, but it is also true that we are surrounded by people who know how to love.
I wish for you to also walk like a free person. No matter your situation, in your mind and in your heart you can be free.
About the Author
Catia Chien was born and raised in São Paulo, Brazil. Today, she is happily working as a children’s book artist from her art studio in New York, with a view of the East River and an old pencil factory. You can visit her website here.