Designer interview: Monica Lee


    Today I am excited to bring you this interview with illustrator, licensed artist and textile designer Monica Lee (who, as you can see from the photos above, has the most adorable little dog!). As I talked to her she was busy wrapping up two new fabric collections for Timeless Treasures. Monica’s work can also be found on stationery, wrapping paper and greetings cards and she illustrates book covers and magazine editorials. Monica has been on an incredible journey to get to where she is today, and she generously invites us into her inspiring story today, and shares an insight into the world of licensing.

    Can you share a little about your creative journey to here?

    I have always dabbled in art, ever since I was small. I was a bit dyslexic and creativity was the most natural outlet I had. My mother recently told me that I didn’t value myself enough because I believed everyone was creative. (I still believe that – it is just that most people don’t exercise that muscle!)

    I became a flight attendant right out of college because I was not confident enough to jump into an art career. Shortly after I started my day job flying all over the country, I decided to pursue a little dream of mine to create art for greeting cards. I decided to become a sales rep for other companies first and then jumped in and had my own cards printed. This is back when there were a large amount of ‘mom and pop’ gift stores in the US and it was a bit easier to start a company.

    Eventually I ended up with quite a bit on my plate, I was also flying internationally. I moved across country, had a baby, remodeled a house, got a divorce. During the divorce, I decided to close the company.

    I then began to dabble in working in children’s illustration and some editorial art. While I was freelancing, licensing opportunities found me and I realized how much I missed the gift industry. I had researched licensing years prior but had decided that it was more of a challenge than I could handle at that time. This time round, I actually quit my flying job – a HUGE decision – and decided to dedicate some serious time to licensing.

    What gave you the confidence to set up your own greeting card company?

    It was a long time ago so I think I had weird fearlessness about me. I marched right into the National Stationery Show and started asking questions. I modeled myself after a few smaller companies and then I got practical and became a sales rep for a rep group that sold about 40 different card lines. I had all of Orange County, CA as my area and as I learned the ropes I quickly discovered that cold calling was not my thing! The principal of the rep agency encouraged me to start out on my own with 20 card designs. The very first account I delivered my line to was Borders Bookstore. I drove the order over myself on my birthday!

    What was the most important thing you learnt during that time in your life?

    That it is not just about the physical journey, it’s just as important to have a mental and spiritual journey too. Closing my company was not a fun thing to do. Of course divorce was not either! I had to learn about forgiveness, letting go, and had to gain back my self-confidence. These types of lessons are crucial to moving forward with making your dreams come true. It would have been nice to skip these hard steps, but actually for me they were all a part of my journey.

    How did being a single mother impact on your creativity (either positively or negatively, and in terms of what creative outlets you were drawn to)?

    Life threw me a rather large curveball when I became a single mom. I just about gave up art completely. I had such a broken heart that I couldn’t sit through the solitude that is needed when creating art. I ended up painting a mural in a friend’s house in exchange for a week in her vacation home. I had to go and dig my paint brushes out of the attic! I recreated some of the art from my greeting cards on her walls. It was a turning point because I realized that I could still paint and be still. I really lost track of all time and it was healing for me – and I got a fun vacation week for my little boy and me. (Ack! Now he is a teenager!)

    What made you take the plunge and chase your dream of licensing?

    I had a couple of companies approach me with licensing opportunities and I was hooked. I really enjoy creating this type of art. I love creating a color palette for a collection, and developing the look and feel. Lately I have become obsessed with creating moodboards for collections!

    Can you talk us through the steps you followed to make it come true?

    Well, after some more soul-searching I asked myself what type of art I wanted to be creating all day. I talked to a few industry insiders had a few of them look over what art I had to offer and really sat down and thought about it. I even prayed some! I think this is crucial because on the days when you are feeling a bit isolated, you are going to need to know that you are headed in the right direction.

    I had a family meeting talked about how long I thought it would take to see any cash flow in from licensing and I took a trip to industry trade show Surtex to see what it was all about. I also took stock of myself and my strengths and weakness and decided to get an agent (not least so I didn’t have to do any more cold calling!). Fortunately for me I signed with Suzie Domnick (branding, inc.) a couple of weeks before I had decided to exhibit at Surtex and we entered into it as a team.

    People have all sorts of questions about agents. I believe if you can see yourself with a business partner then an agent is right for you. If you need to control everything, then it is maybe not the best fit for you. It is very much a partnership – you and your agent both have to have a clear vision about that. You both have to have a business plan to work from. You can’t just hand your art over and hope they can make it all happen for you. It is hard work on both sides of the table. Suzie is invaluable, helping keep me on track with my brand.I keep her busy (probably exhausted) with all my ideas!

    Do you think it is necessary to have a very distinct style in order to license your work?

    I have met artists who are successful without having one distinct style and I have met artists that do well with one distinct style. I think it depends on what type of licensing deals you are looking to secure. I know some people may disagree with that but I get around (the internet, anyway!) and that is what I have witnessed. I am so intrigued with ‘style’. I pick up books on fashion ‘style’ all the time. One book I particularly like is ‘Style Statement’ (by Carrie McCarthy and Danielle La Porte). It is a fun look at style for your life, not just what you wear. When I read it I discovered that I am a comfort person. I like to inspire, bring cheer to people, put them at ease, entertain and celebrate. I want my brand and my art to reflect that. This can be done through soft cheeky humor or even a delightful color scheme. Blogging has also been pivotal in developing my sense of style. That may sound odd but I can see how my distinct style has developed just by what websites, clothing and art I choose to feature on my blog!

    What kind of a dreamer are you?

    Oh I love being a dreamer! I am what I call a ‘practical dreamer’. I do a lot of journaling and soul-searching before I take on a new endeavor. I have this practice that I call ‘road mapping’ where I get a big white board and literally draw a windy road on it. Then I dream about all the things I hope to do. I write and draw them on the windy road. I like to tuck these away and pull them out later and see what has actually happened from the map! It is amazing how many of the dreams come true. I have even learned that some things I write down happen but I choose not pursue them. That is where the practical side of me comes out. If something I am doing is not working, or I find myself stalled, I believe in reevaluating until I get the right fit. Now that I think about it, dreaming is one of my favorite pastimes! Dreaming is about having hope, and a hope-filled life is a content and joyful one. It is also important to find like-minded people to encourage you – some days you really need it! It can also help to have a sit down with your family so they understand what your dreams are and know what to expect from you.

    What is your next big dream for your creative business?

    Oh, this is the best question! I have a lot of dreams for my business. I want a complete lifestyle brand. Dishes! Gifts! Bedding! Books! TV! (What? Where did that come from?) The whole shebang… I even came up with an idea for an online magazine…shhh, don’t tell my agent yet, she may faint!

    I am super excited about a new collection I created called The Cardigan Girls. They are my alter ego completely! They inspire and comfort, have opinions, and live in a colorful world all their own. The idea is that these darlings and their point of view would be turned into gift items that you would give to your daughter, mom or girlfriend – in fact anyone who needs encouragement, or to be cheered on. A Cardigan Girl loves polka dots and lemonade (as well as a sip of champagne). She is a tad zany but you always want her on your invitation list because she will help you charm the socks off all your guests! She might even help steer you in the direction of your own dreams.

    [All images courtesy of Monica Lee. Find out more about Monica and her work on her website here or the new ‘Cardigan Girl’ home here, or connect on Facebook].

    [This interview was first shared on Do What You Love on August 18 2011]