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!

 

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

Working on My Day Off

I’ve been getting a lot of crap for working all morning… from coworkers since they know this is supposed to be my time off. But I had deadlines and I felt guilty and let’s face it, work is an amazing excuse to procrastinate cleaning my house. And…

My job is like play to me.

How many people can say that?! When I’m not making art and being a mom/wife, I am the Design & Interactive Manager at Denver Zoo (I’m also the official photographer —  I get to photograph baby zoo animals!). I have been working there for 5 1/2 years and was a volunteer there for 2 years before that. I like to to tell people that I love my job as much today as I did on the day I started. Again, how many people can say that?

I could go on and on about all that I love about my job but I’m sure there will be posts on this topic in the future, like maybe when I have new baby zoo animal photos to share!

For today – I will just share with you some of the projects that I got to work on this morning as evidence of why I feel the need to do work even though it’s officially my day off (it’s just so much FUN!):

Signage and advertising for our new tiger exhibit…

the_edge

I had to put together our monthly Board Report for the month of December and these were some of the highlights from the section under Public Relations:

baby_zebraWATCH: Baby zebra at Denver Zoo loves the snow

Denver Zoo offers X-ray to help restore 367-year-old painting
We’re even making contributions to the art world – how cool is that?

Last chance to visit Santa at Denver Zoo’s Zoo Lights
Zoo Lights is where we take the girls to take Santa every year. I make it a point to get there before the crowds. This year, we were the first ones there and he spent and extra amount of time talking to the girls — telling them not to fight and telling Sophie that puppies get scared on the sleigh ride so he avoids giving puppies for Christmas.
santa

And… I worked on our new Zoo Map. You all know by now just how much I love maps.

zoo_map

It’s 1:30 now and I am officially taking the rest of the day off! To clean my house – ugh. I think I’ll get in the hot tub first. See, now I feel I deserve it. No more guilt.