Why I Quit My Dream Job to Become a Professional Artist

A friend told me recently that when she tells others about me she says “Charlotte quit her dream job for her dream job.”

It’s true. Sort of. I just quit my job as a designer, photographer and art director at Denver Zoo to pursue being a professional artist. Am I crazy? Maybe, but hear me out.

The story of how I came to work at the zoo is one of vision, perseverance and serendipity. It’s a long story, a good one, but one for another blog post. Suffice it to say, when I started there, it was the closest I could get to my ultimate dream job. For six years, I was continuously challenged and I grew exponentially as a designer, photographer and leader. I got to work with the most amazing, talented and dedicated people and at any point, I could walk outside my office and be in the awe-inspiring presence of lions, tigers, polar bears, gorillas and hundreds of other species. More importantly, I was working for an organization whose mission lie in engaging guests, inspiring their connections with animals, and motivating them to take conservation actions. We worked towards improving the lives of animals on grounds and throughout the world. Since I was a young girl I loved animals. I felt a deep connection to them and I dreamed of working with them. My job at the zoo felt like a dream come true.

So why did I quit?

First of all, I’m going to put this out there to set the record straight – my ultimate dream job is to travel the world as a wildlife photographer. It never truly was working at a zoo; it isn’t really to be an artist; and being a web/graphic designer for the past 15 years was just a smart career choice and I am good at it. The idea of being an animal photographer is what drove me to the zoo in the first place.

My number one priority in life right now is being in a happy, loving supportive marriage and raising my daughters to give them a good childhood with a secure, solid foundation – something I didn’t have as a child. If I were to pursue my ultimate dream, I imagine I would be getting up and going on faraway adventures for weeks on end, leaving the girls with an absent mom, feeling abandoned – not to mention it taking a toll on my marriage. But, I’m not one to let go of my dreams just because I chose to be a mother. Just the opposite, actually. I want to teach my girls to follow their dreams and the best way to do that is to live by example. Being a zoo photographer, to me, was the closest I could get to being a wildlife photographer while still being able to take my girls to soccer and dance, volunteer at their school every now and then, throw amazing birthday parties, and build a loving mother/daughter bond. I did my best to do those things while I was working at the zoo, but it was not easy. Actually, it was really hard and stressful and that whole mother/daughter bond thing, well, I wasn’t so confident that I was succeeding.

The fact was we were a family with two full-time working parents and at the end of each day, we were exhausted. The kids were exhausted from the school day and then nearly three hours of aftercare in the school cafeteria. My husband and I both had long commutes. He came home drained after 45 minutes in traffic and then having to get dinner ready. I experienced stress having to rush back in time to get the girls to soccer practice on time. There was a lot of tension and one too many bottles of empty white wine in the recycling bin.

That was our day-to-day reality. So yeah, I was setting an example for my daughters to follow your dreams… but at what cost? True, I wasn’t off traveling the world but I also wasn’t being the present, calming, consistent force that I felt a mother should be.

So that was part of it. A big part of it.

And then there was this calling to be an artist and all these signs telling me “it is time.” 

IMG_6609
This graphic illustrates the plethora of influences and inspiration that I experienced pointing me to my calling as an artist.

Some of the primary reasons I left my job to be an artist were:

  • I turned 40.
  • I read Big Magic.
  • The 2016 presidential elections were a wake-up call. I started to understand the deeper meaning behind my world maps and felt the need to share them with the world.
  • I went through 6 months of therapy recalling childhood trauma and came out of it free of anger and resentment.
  • I got Best of Show in the Arts Brookfield Show.
  • I was asked to be on the Board of Directors for Athena Project, an arts organization empowering women.

And… finally… my husband and I spent a lot of time and energy exploring what was possible financially and what was best for our family. I have always been the one in our relationship with lofty, ambitious, career-focused dreams – the over-achiever. Scott is grounded, smart, hard-working and not without his own dreams. His though, have always been based on family and living a good life, here and now. It was hard for him to understand why I would want to leave a job that I loved. He even said, “I don’t know how you can be hash-tagging #ilovemyjob one month and then wanting to quit the next.” So I shared with him everything I have just shared with you here and then he shared with me that ever since he met me and learned that I was creatively driven that he dreamed of some day supporting me as an artist. So now we both get to work towards our dreams.

Here’s to the start of new adventures – to finding success as an artist, to being the best mom and wife I can be, and to sharing this journey with you!

 

First Real Adventures for my Traveling Feet

The girls and I (and my feet – they are like a new character in life) traveled to the Bay Area, California for Spring Break. We visited my close friends from college, Megan and Michael, and their three kids Maya, Walter and Alex.

Our days were filled with fun activities and adventures: beach play by the harbor in Sausalito; a ferry ride past Alcatraz from Sausalito to San Francisco; a visit to the sea lions at Pier 39 and later to the Marine Mammal Center; a walk through Muir woods (Lucy puked on the way from the windy roads); multiple drives over the Golden Gate Bridge; getting creative in Maya’s homeschool art class; and a mini road trip down the coast to the beach and boardwalk of Santa Cruz.

Megan and all five kids were patient with me as I stopped to take photos of my feet whenever there was a idyllic backdrop. My ultimate goal was to get a perfect shot in front of the Golden Gate Bridge because the final product of this art project really is a series of photos in front of iconic locations around the world. But there were lots of other fun opportunities to take photos of my feet. In Muir Woods, I lied down on the ground in order to get the perspective of the tall Red Woods. A woman with a stroller commented as she walked by.

“Cool idea. Wander and wonder, hmm,” she read my feet while I pointed them up towards the sky.

“Thanks, yeah, it’s an art project,” I said, looking up at her from the ground.

“She makes world maps,” Sophie added, “wanderandwonder.org.”

And we all laughed, because it’s obvious the girls already have a love hate relationship with this foot thing. Actually, I think Lucy could care less at this point. She’s 6 and has other things to think about. But Sophie, who’s 9, rolls her eyes and acts annoyed whenever I sit down and take off my shoes but then out of nowhere, totally unprompted here she is promoting what I’m doing with pride to a random stranger.

It will be interesting to see how I get my family on board with this project as we continue traveling. I know Scott is not thrilled with the idea. I know I’m crazy and it may seem ridiculous to others. I know it’s silly. But it’s really fun! And I happen to enjoy the fact that I don’t take myself too seriously. And honestly, I love having an excuse to take off my shoes everywhere I go. Other friends have been supportive and encouraging – our friends Mike and Lori encouraged me to take off my ski boots at the top of a mountain peak at Copper Mountain; Megan offered to stop the minivan whenever I wanted while driving through San Francisco and helped me look for the best views of the bridge. I’m so grateful when people are accepting of my crazy ideas. Artists need that kind of support because the fact is we are constantly battling self-doubt and it makes it twice as difficult to do the thing we want to do when our loved ones aren’t supportive. I guess I should have a heart-to-heart with my family before we travel the world. I understand my girls needing to rebel against everything I do, but it would be nice if I could get acceptance from my husband.

With or without support, this project is happening and I am excited.

04

Living a Designer’s Dream

Our new tiger exhibit, The Edge, opened last week! It was a huge project for Denver Zoo with most of it having been planned, designed and constructed internally. My role in the project was designing the brand identity for the exhibit; designing all the signage and graphics; and eventually the advertising campaign to promote the grand opening. I started the process over a year ago… with a few sleepless nights. Note that the middle of the night is my most creative time – always has been, probably always will be. Something about the stillness. First, I was up all night awake with ideas. I had seen plans and renderings for the future exhibit and I knew that it was built to support the care of our tigers. I also knew it was going to look industrial with a lot of metal and mesh. My challenge as a designer would be to have the graphics support and enhance the purpose and theme of the exhibit; to make the interpretive graphics so compelling that people might actually read them; and to bring a certain softness and playfulness to what might otherwise be a stark and cold exhibit. Another sleepless night, I started researching the recent field of Environmental Graphic Design, I got totally and utterly inspired and started designing.

This was a whole new realm for me as a designer. I had spent the last 20 years designing websites, brand identities, printed marketing materials and advertising. Never anything 3-dimensional, tactile, that required fabrication, consideration of outdoor materials and construction. It was an exciting but scary process. With copywriting skills and feedback from our Guest Engagement team; a lot of help from our production artist who had more experience in signage and materials; the expertise of our sign fabrication company; and a year of planning… all my visions came to life.

• A guest viewing deck area surrounded by large panels that feature life size silhouettes of tigers in action with huge action words educating while encouraging young guests to act like a tiger. Tiny holes in the HDPE (huge plastic panels) create the visual effect of a forest of birch trees (representative of where the few remaining Amur tigers live in the wild – Siberia), through which guests can see the shadow of a tiger walking or stalking until it makes it’s way to the huge glass panels and one can get eye to eye with the animal.
• Two life size tigers made of powder-coated aluminum with layered elements for visual interest – one at the main entrance (a sculptural version of the logo I designed for the exhibit) and the other in a jumping stance as part of a sequence in the center of the guest deck.
• Huge letters hanging below a loft/catwalk where tigers walk above guests that read ‘Are you being watched?’
• Other signage with beautiful photos and design elements meant to match the industrial materials used in the construction of the exhibit.
• And the main messaging of the interpretive graphics translated in Spanish, a first for Denver Zoo.

The exhibit opened with a special breakfast event for donors and the media. I was there to photograph the event and observe people interacting with the exhibit. The best moment was when the tiger walked up the catwalk, looked down giving the guests a sense that, indeed, they were being watched and then sprayed everyone below. The guests gasped and put down the plates of pastries and fruit salad that they had been holding. It was entertaining.

I visited the exhibit early on another morning to photograph it without any people around. It was just me and the tigers. They were willing and participatory models for photos of the exhibit and my graphics. They moved in an out of my photos while exploring their new yards. The sun was still low in the sky and reflected beautifully off the metal of the tiger silhouettes. The colors of the graphics were vibrant. In that moment, I was reminded how grateful I am to have the job that I have – being close to animals every day, designing with the purpose of making a difference, and the added bonus of being able to photograph it all.

Later, when the exhibit opened to the public, I got to see kids interacting with the graphics: touching, point, talking, climbing. I had done my job.

03

SNL spoofing my job & my live television debut

I got to feel what it feels like to be famous last week, sort of. Saturday Night Live did a spoof on MY job – Denver Zoo photographer. What an honor, even if it could be slightly embarrassing since the joke is that a morning news show makes the mistake of calling it the Denver Zoo pornographer. It was a funny joke, and good thing we can all take a joke – the zoo, my coworkers, the media and myself.

My coworkers and I decided to come in on Monday and do a reenactment, just still shots – it was a blast. The local media picked it up and I got to go on live morning news on Wednesday morning. Later in the day I did a phone interview with The Westword, a local online and print publication. I was ridiculously nervous mostly because I was doing something I’d never done before, being on TV, live TV! I was nervous about not knowing what to anticipate, but under it all was a deeper calm because I was talking about a job that I am truly passionate about. I love taking photos of animals.

With that said, there is so much publicity out there that I don’t really need to write much in this blog post – just share some fun photos and links… enjoy!

Middle-aged Moms getting Tats

My tattoo is done. Jackie and I met up at Ritual Tattoo in Denver. We both had appointments with the same artist, Jake, who was covered in tattoos all the way up his neck and onto the temples and sides of his face. He had a buzzed haircut, a big beard, bright blue eyes, shriveled and droopy earlobes from the gauges that weren’t currently in place, a gold-rimmed tooth and a nose ring or two. He was kind, meticulous, a self proclaimed germaphobe and not a big fan of feet. I apologized and mentioned that I had just come from getting a pedicure.

Jackie went first. She got a variation of the Om symbol on her forearm, which she insisted read ‘breathe’ in Tibetan script. It was in memory of her mom who died of a pulmonary issue in 2015. I took photos while she got hers done. She was silent and focused with the occasional leg move, scrunched brow or request to pause, I could tell the pain was hard for her to handle. It made me more nervous than I already was. Hers was done pretty quickly – about 15 minutes and it looked great.

When my turn came I decided I would do a guided meditation while he was working on my feet. I sat up while he did the little traced imprint to make sure we got the positioning of the words right. We had to do it three times until we both agreed it was perfect. Then I lied down on the massage table with my knees bent and my feet flat, I put in my ear buds and started the 29 minute meditation titled ‘Rise of the Phoenix’ by Dakota Earth Cloud Walker. I felt the pain, I did, like someone was inserting a scalpel into my skin and making a shallow incision – but I kept returning my attention to the woman’s guiding words in the mediation, the drums beating, the rhythmic breathing in the background, the imaginary world in my head, her instructions to enter the underground world through a portal at the base of a tree, to go down and meet my spirit guide. My attention would then be pulled back to my feet where I became aware of the pain again, but I quickly directed thoughts back to her voice – where I was led to a circular fire burning large, where I walked in the directions of a compass – East, South, West, North, I thought of the existing tattoo on my pinky toe and back to the pain, and then back to the center of the fire. I was surrounded by my spirit guides, this time a pack of wolves, circling and howling, there to support me. Left foot done – wander.

He had me turn around so the LED lamp could shine on my right foot. I closed my eyes and returned to the fire. Her words instructed me to find something I wanted to let go of, something that I was holding on to that was not serving me in this life. Let it go, let it go, let it go, she had me chanting silently. The idea of body issues popped into my head. I chose to let go of my ties to this earthly body. I reminded myself that I am more than this body, this vessel that happens to be experiencing extreme pain right now. I am more than this body that society constantly makes me feel isn’t good enough. Let go of body issues, remember that I am more than that… this body will turn to ashes some day not too long from now. That’s why I feel okay with this tattoo and why I understand the desire for others to cover themselves in art as a form of expression. We are more than these bodies that we inhabit. That’s what I let go of in the fire. Then I transformed into a phoenix with wings expanded, a large bird prepared to take flight, free.

I opened my eyes and looked at Jake knowing he was getting close to being done with the second tattoo – wonder. “Are you cool with me finishing my meditation even if you’re done. It shouldn’t be too long.”

“Sure. We can just let it bleed for a while.”

I had six minutes left of the meditation so I lay back down, back into my underworld… the drumming slowed. I was led back up to the upper world, back into the studio, I heard the voices of men discussing which tattoo they wanted. The pain was gone. Completely. I felt elated.

Jake did an amazing job even getting the distressed negative space in the typeface. The tattoo was exactly how I pictured it for 9 months. I love it.

Tattoo, Travel and Photography – on my way to a lifelong art project

It has been about 9 months since I came up with this idea. I can’t remember how it came about but I do remember thinking it would be fun. I also remember thinking, getting a tattoo is kind of permanent and it might be a good idea to sit on it, think about, decide if this is something I really want to do. Someone decided having a life growing inside of you should take about nine months, so my guess is that’s a good amount of time to allow an art project to simmer. And now, it’s time to give birth! Yay, tattoo appointment is this Sunday!

Here’s the tattoo turned art project idea. Best described in photos – see below. I am going to get my wander + wonder logo tattooed on my feet. Then while I spend the next 40 or 50 years traveling around the world, I’m going to take my shoes off everywhere I go and take a picture. As a tourist, you’re going to take photos. It’s just part of your job, but sometimes while you’re doing that, you forget to sit, look deeply, observe with awe the wonder before you. I’m guilty of that. For sure. Not any more. Now, I will be forced to literally sit, get down on the earth, stop and take it all in. Hmm, just had a thought, it’s offensive in some countries to point the bottom of your feet at people – I hope that’s not the case with scenery and sculptures. Oh well, sometimes offending people for your art is inevitable.

Here are some practice photos I did in Photoshop – my feet in Mexico and in the mountains.

wander_wonder_feet_tattoo

Here are some sketches of future photo compositions. Thanks to the sketchers on the internet from whom I borrowed their work. None of the artwork below is mine.feet_great-wallfeet_pyramidsfeet_statue-of-libertyfeet_taj-mahal

As an aside. I do already have one tattoo that I got on my pinky toe when I was seventeen. It’s a compass/north star which was supposed to represent direction (and travel) as I fledged the nest and flew out into the world.

I love how now, it will act as sort of an asterisk for the words wander + wonder and how together they speak to the way I want to live my life. I want to constantly be wandering, traveling, exploring, and wondering with infinite curiosity about the world, but I also want do so with a sense of direction. Sometimes I find it in myself, other times I am looking for guidance from a higher source — usually that higher source is speaking through me, I just have to be listening. It’s funny how I write as if this all some kind of desire, because really it’s not how I wish to live my life, it actually IS how I live my life. That is something to be proud of. Maybe the permanence of a tattoo will remind me of that.

wonder__wander_comapss_tattoo

 

 

Valentine’s Day Love Letter to Sophie

Dear Sophie,

Happy Valentine’s Day! I know that it makes you shy and makes you all squiggly and squirmy when I read you these love letters, but I am so excited to do it, because I can’t wait to tell you how much I love you and all the things I love best about you.

I love that you are someone who wants to always do what was is right. You are very conscientious and I can always tell that you want to do the right thing and be kind to others. It makes you feel bad to not follow the rules or to be mean to other people. I love being able to trust that you are good person at heart.

Of course, I love what a good student you are. You are so smart and love to learn. You read books that are way above your grade level and do great on your report card every time. I am so proud of you for doing so well on your erosion project, for learning to work as a team on the project even if you had disagreements at times, for presenting to the principal, Mrs. Hollman, and I love that if all goes well, you will actually get to see your terrace idea come to life!

I love that you are a leader. You are not afraid to take charge and you take others’ opinions into consideration and think about their feelings and make others feel included. Leadership isn’t about trying to convince a group that your idea is the best, but instead it’s about taking everyone’s ideas and building something even better than the idea that you came up with. It’s about listening and being the person who makes everyone feel like they played an important part in the success of the project or the team. Leadership is about celebrating your team, not about being the boss. I think you probably learned some of this while doing your erosion project but I also saw you practicing some of these ideas while you were writing the scripts for your class plays and seeing how you wanted everyone to have a part. I love that you are a great leader now and that you will be in the future. It’s just in your nature.

I love how you have found something that you are so, so passionate about – theater, drama, plays, acting, play writing and monologues. Your birthday party was so much fun because you got to see what it’s like to be a great actor as a grown-up. And you got to share that with your friends. I’m so excited for these unexpected private lessons that you get with Taylor at the rec center. Although I know you would have so much fun if it were a big class, I think he’s teaching you a lot about auditioning and hopefully this will help you get the part you want in theater camp this summer. Also, I’m excited to see you be the narrator for the little kids’ play in the spring recital.

I love how much you love learning piano. I love the motivational signs that you made around the house that say “Play the Piano, No Electronics” – that is a very creative way to remind yourself that practicing will make you better and better and soon you’ll be writing your own songs.

I love the special moments we have together like early mornings in the big red chair, evenings reading in your room while the bunny hops around doing binkies (I also love that you clean his cage) and I especially loved our recent microadventure sleeping outside with our sleeping bags in January. I can’t wait to do more of those with you!

You are a wonderful girl and I love you so, so much!

Love,
Mommy