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Meet Lea Chen, a Young Entrepreneur Breaking the Model Minority Myth Through Fashion

Aanandi Murlidharan

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Lea Chen with dark hair wearing a yellow dress with tattoos on her arms,  standing in front of a brown brick building.
Source: Lea Chen

Asian style has been known worldwide for its unique designs and patterns in its heritage way. It has recently been the center of attention, both positively and negatively, the former being due to the rise of K-pop and the popular Chinese street fashion TikToks, and the latter being the appropriation of Asian culture (specifically the fox eye trend and Kim Kardashian’s maang tikka).

However, there are still very few Asian designers present in mainstream Western fashion. This is possibly due to the “model minority myth” — a phenomenon that has boxed Asian Americans into solely professional careers. 

BLENDtw had the opportunity to interview Lea Chen, the CEO of the e-commerce apparel brand AA BATTERIES, which prides itself on being a brand that is “for and by Asian Americans.”

The recent Wharton Business School graduate said that the journey leading to the creation of this passion project was not an easy one. However, the result of this tough journey was a company that will make a difference in mainstream media.

Tell us about the name “AA BATTERIES.” What does it represent?

The “AA” part represents Asian Americans. I actually started this brand four years ago in college, and I only recently rebranded it to AA BATTERIES in the end of March. That was when I wanted to do something very focused on the Asian American community. This is coming from someone who didn’t really feel pride in her identity growing up.

I feel like I didn’t see designs that were reflective of our culture and heritage. I wanted something that was not only representative of us, but that fueled us and made us feel proud — that recharged us, essentially.

I think it was perfect because I knew I wanted “AA” or “AAPI” in the name to represent us as Asian Americans. On top of that, AA batteries are already a thing, and I wanted a brand that really energized our community.

How did your relationship with your AAPI (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders) identity evolve into what it is today? 

I grew up in Edison, New Jersey. Though I’m fortunate to have grown up around a bunch of Asian Americans (for context: my high school was 80 percent Asian), I resented my Asian American identity during my childhood. When I was a little kid, I would ask my parents if they were sure that I was one hundred percent Chinese. “Are you sure I’m not, like, Irish or Spanish or anything else?”.

Growing up in Edison, I always felt labeled as “just another Chinese girl.” I had expectations set on me, and I didn’t always fit into them. I think when I went to college, my relationship with my identity changed. I met people who grew up in a very different background than me. They had grown up in very White towns and had always longed to meet other folks from the AAPI community. 

I think it really opened my eyes to feel more grateful for the town I grew up in. It helped meeting some really creative Asian Americans who really wanted to make an impact and do something different. My journey started with me growing up in Edison not really loving being Asian American, then me going to college and really educating myself about the community and really loving it.

You started with Lovelea. What made you want to create your own apparel brand that focuses on Asian American representation? 

When I first started out, I was running on the adrenaline of “Oh, it’s so exciting to run a clothing brand, regardless of the name or how cohesive the designs look.”

That was really exciting and it did teach me a lot, but it came to a point, maybe about a year and a half in, where it kind of reached this stagnant point.

It was at this time when I was looking back, or just sitting back and looking at the brand and thinking, “You know, what is this brand really about? I’m not super passionate about it, so how can I expect other people to be interested in it?” 

It’s really an investment of a brand and a mission that they believe in. So if I’m asking that of people and I don’t really even see the value of the company, I don’t expect anyone else to support it. I had that moment where I just needed to reset this whole entire thing. And so I thought about, like, “what am I super passionate about?” and “where is there a gap?” 

I know a bunch of Asian American illustrators and designers and creatives just from personal relationships and digital groups. A lot of people are so talented in this community, but either they don’t really pursue it seriously or they just see it as a hobby. They don’t necessarily think they can make money off of it.

Since rebranding, I’ve been way more invested, excited, passionate, and fulfilled by the brand, but I also see the community response increasing and that’s equally, if not more, important to me.

A white sweater with a green bottle on it lays on a green, yellow, and white background.
Source: Lea Chen

As you know, there are hardly any Asian American creative entrepreneurs in mainstream media. This is possibly due to the fact that the Asian American community encourages stable professional careers such as medicine, law, and engineering. Did your family have any hesitations with the idea of you pursuing a career in the fashion industry? 

I think the biggest hurdles were sort of those external comments. I remember I would go to these Asian family parties, and we would go down the line and each kid would go down the line and say what we’re interested in.

I would always say that I’m interested in fashion and business, and other parents would just kind of raise an eyebrow and look at me and say “Oh that’s cute, but fashion’s just a hobby, what are you actually studying in college?” I was super fortunate that my parents were supportive. 

My mother works in a more creative industry, so they really pushed me to pursue what I was passionate about. It was definitely a frustrating time to hear people in the community speak this way. I even had some acquaintances my age question my passion and interest just because it wasn’t a stereotypical path that Asian Americans typically take.

It helped that I was taking a business perspective to fashion. I knew I wasn’t necessarily going to fashion school. I was going to business school, so it didn’t directly limit me in terms of my industry. I think that probably made them feel more at ease.

I also think with running AA BATTERIES, something that I’ve just been lucky to have with it is that I don’t look at it necessarily as a clothing brand that has to make a profit. From day one, I started it because I wanted to learn as much as I could about entrepreneurship and about this community.

Ultimately, I just call it a passion project that happens to have customers and bring in profit and have a community around it. It’s just really a passion project at the end of the day. When I describe it that way to my parents, it also helps them feel comfortable.

What advice do you have for young BIPOC women who would like to start their own business? 

This is gonna sound super cliche, but know that taking the time is super valuable and that you only get to launch once. I remember when I started my clothing brand, I was a freshman in college. It was over winter break; I was super naive. I launched within four or five days from having the idea.

I essentially launched because I was like “Oh my gosh, I can print a shirt, this is amazing,” and I just put it out there, put like six designs; there was no cohesive mission. The name was really bad. The website looked kind of janky. 

I remember I was so excited about it, but I didn’t do that much research into the best manufacturing that could have been done or if these were really the best designs. I was relatively narrow-minded and just thought, “I’m so excited about it, so other people are just naturally going to be excited about it.”

Then there were so many mistakes and things I had to fix that I had to do after I had already launched. Not only do you only get to launch once, but your reputation in potential customers’ minds is set once you have it there.

First, it’s very very hard to change your first impression. So there are a ton of people, I’m sure, who saw my brand four and a half years ago, and maybe they don’t even realize I’ve rebranded. They don’t realize I’ve changed my printing production partners and manufacturing process, or my whole website.

I’ve noticed that your website has a vast range of collections. What inspires the creation of each collection? 

The collection vision and theme is really driven by the artists that I collaborate with. I think my favorite part about the brand is the fact that we collaborate with these artists. These Asian American artists are so talented — their work deserves to be showcased and also financially compensated. That’s a huge part of our motto.

There are other Asian clothing brands out there, but I personally have never seen one that collaborates with artists and financially compensates them in the way that we do in our business model. 

When I collaborate with an artist, the mission is to give them full respect and do their talent justice. I want them to feel comfortable with the collection and their product. Therefore, I don’t mandate, like if it’s a Korean artist “you have to do one of our vintage Seoul.” I’m more like “What do you want to bring to the designs that you have? What do you think would work?”

It’s a super collaborative process, which is awesome because we’ve been able to work with a number of Asian American artists. A lot of those collections are really driven by the artists and what they’re looking for.

What is your advice for an Asian American designer who wants to design for AA BATTERIES?

We love seeing every single artist that submits work. We’re always open to seeing their work. We’re never going to reject artists on the basis that we have too many artists right now. I think the collections that work best with our customers, as well as our whole brand and mission are ones that feel cohesive as a collection.

There are some artists who have individual pieces but lack the cohesive look of a collection. Pieces that do well typically reflect an artist’s ethnicity or something related to their identity. For example, we have collections inspired by Seoul, Japan, or Indian Culture.

I think those functions feel, at least to me, like the most authentic. For instance, I have a Japanese artist creating Japanese designs for clothing, and only they can really tell that story. I think that’s when the designs to me feel most successful.

Young short-haired girl lying in the sun covering her eyes, while wearing a white crew neck sweatshirt with an anime picture.
Source: Lea Chen

AA BATTERIES not only sells apparel but advocates for important issues such as the Model Minority Myth, Asians for Black Lives, and Asian mental health awareness. Tell me a bit about that. What made you decide that you wanted to bring awareness to that? 

I collaborated with Dear Asian Youth, this student-run organization run by Asian American youth. I actually reached out to Dear Asian Youth to do a collaboration before the George Floyd murder happened and before The Black Lives Matter protests started.

For Asians for Black Lives, for every purchase, 30% of the profits go to an organization tied to the Black Lives Matter movement. It might be Black Lives Matter itself, or the NAACP, or the Black Visions Collective.

It was just the perfect timing because they were like, you know, we want something that not only looks good on clothing but really advocates for a specific mission. In the Asian American community, there is this anti-Blackness rooted in generations in the United States, like my grandparents and even my own parents. 

A lot of it is just unfounded in the sense that it’s just rooted in a lot of fear. I think that comes from the immigrant struggle or the model minority myth. I don’t think my parents are malicious, but there’s just like this lack of knowledge and understanding.

For example: In the beginning of COVID, there was a phobia against Asians. Therefore, when Black Lives Matter movements happened, a lot of Asians were speaking up, saying “We were being attacked in the beginning of COVID and no one spoke up for us, so why do we really need to speak up so loudly for the Black community?” 

However, our community would not be where it is today without so many leaders in the African American civil rights movement. I think there was just this education piece and gap there. So by having this collection, one it was really perfect timing, but two, it allowed us to take a mission and put it on something tangible and really let people show that this is something that’s important to them.

What are some challenges you’ve faced as a young Asian American Entrepreneur?

One of my biggest challenges that I think is a challenge for any brand starting out is just really building your customer base and really building that community of people that will follow you.

I’ve been lucky to manage other social media accounts, just because it’s my day job. It’s definitely interesting running an account that’s for a brand where you sell products versus an account that’s all about empowering and community-driven.

At the end of the day, people are like, “Oh, yeah, we’re passionate about Asian Americans,” but they’re like, “you’re trying to sell me a product.” I think messaging is super key. When people wear merch and buy stickers, I love it. But ultimately, AA BATTERIES is more about clothing, stickers, prints, and tangible objects. Our brand is about the feeling of pride and belonging in our AAPI community.

If someone comments on my Instagram post and says “Oh my god! This is so enlightening! I learned a lot!” that honestly might be more valuable than producing a product. The messaging was pretty key, and that was a challenge. I also had a rebrand, so I had to build this new customer base — tell people who I was and also prove that you can trust our brand and who we are and our authenticity.

Who are some of your greatest influences in fashion?

A lot of my influences are not necessarily fashion brands, but just Asian American creators. Another clothing brand that I looked at in the beginning was Asian American Girl Club. It was started by actress Ally Maki. 

There are so many cool people in the Asian American community who are really speaking up lately. Those are the people that really inspired me to want to create AA BATTERIES. The theme here is that it’s beyond the products and just the physical items for me. I’m trying to foster this kind of environment.

Design-wise, Asian American Girl Club hasn’t been really the inspiration, but more so how she’s fostered this community. It’s cool that people are happy to wear those designs, because on every t-shirt it says “Asian American Girl Club,” and people are proud to be a part of this “club.”

What are your plans for the future of AA BATTERIES?

Over the next few months or next few years, I really want AA BATTERIES to be representative of the whole Asian American spectrum. For example, having the Desi collection was super important to me. Growing up in Edison, I was so fortunate so many of my friends were Indian American.

For most Asian Americans I know in college, they assumed that when I said that all my friends were Asian in high school I meant East Asian. However, it wasn’t like that for me. 

I’ve noticed a lot of my collections are from East Asian designers and that’s still cool, but something I’m really trying to work on is having more representation of the South Asian and Pacific Islander experience.

It started when I had the Desi collection. I was super excited, but I feel there’s still so much work I could do in terms of having more of those designers and making them feel like they’re part of the community as well. I often reach out on digital forums asking if anyone knows any South Asian creators I can collaborate with. 

I want to make sure that my media content is representative so that when people see AA BATTERIES, they’re like, “Oh, yes, this is actually an Asian American brand.” Stay tuned for when we do have another South Asian collection in the future.

I want to continue working with as many other types of Asians as I can, so I definitely want that for the future. But I’m really glad that the Desi collection is there.

Can you give us a sneak peek for the collections coming up?

We have recently released the “taiwan on the streets” collection. This Taiwanese artist’s style is kind of this color block graphic style of Taiwanese street food, which is cool. Another one that’s coming in the works is from an artist, Valerie Lam. She created these Mahjong-style earrings and promoted them on a Facebook group for Asian creatives.

This will probably come out maybe next month or the end of this month. Another one that I want to do is something that’s a little bit more focused on social justice. I’m not sure exactly how it will look yet; either it will be a text-based collection or drawings of Asian American icons or something more like the vibe of “we’re not your model minority myth.”

A dark blue back ground with black and white text saying, "YES I'M ASIAN, NO, WE AREN'T ALL BASICALLY THE SAME THING."
Source:

Recently, one of our posts blew up. The post says “Yes, I’m Asian. No, we’re not all basically the same thing.” Over 80,000 people have seen that post, which is crazy. I posted that at least over a week or two ago, but people will still — like, dozens of people — will still like it every day.

And I’m like, there’s something about that post. I think it’s just something about this very blunt text in your face, talking about who we are as Asian Americans and breaking down these myths and stereotypes that people dislike. That was kind of the inspiration behind why I want to eventually do this text series.

You can shop for AA BATTERIES products on their website and stay connected with Lea’s journey on AA BATTERIES’ Instagram.

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Spotlight

Meet Steve Schwartz: Coaching Students Through LSAT Unplugged

Carolyn Martinez

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LSAT Unplugged coach Steve Schwartz with buzzed hair, glasses, a mustache and a beard  wearing a red and white striped shirt standing in front of the camera.
Source:

None of us are strangers to the barriers that standardized testing poses to students. Most of us have gone through exams such as the SAT, ACT, or SAT II exams, which are notorious for being inherently abstruse to students without test preparation programs and similar resources.

Beyond these college entry exams, which some schools have made optional due to these reasons, there are also graduate school entry-level exams. Like the SAT and ACT, exams like the GRE, LSAT, and MCAT serve as gatekeepers to graduate school for many students for several reasons, ranging from financial difficulties to no access to preparation materials.

According to a study by Harvard scholars, the LSAT was linked to the marginalization of aspiring black lawyers. 

Even so, individuals are working to alleviate these barriers; Steve Schwartz, one of these remarkable individuals, is making his LSAT preparation materials more accessible to all demographics through his blog and YouTube channel. BLENDtw had the pleasure of interviewing Steve about his journey to becoming an LSAT coach. 

In your blog, you mentioned that a lot of other LSAT coaches tend to be geniuses that didn’t have to study for the LSAT for a good score. But, you worked extremely hard for your impressive score, and you can help others accomplish the same for themselves. How do you adhere to your promise to make LSAT prep and impressive scores accessible to all?

Well, it’s really about getting into the student’s mindset and seeing the questions from their point of view. Going back in time to when I was prepping, I would feel dumb sometimes; I wouldn’t always get it the first time, the second time, or even the third time. So, it’s really about adjusting to the way they think about it and getting them to understand it using their way or their approach. 

In 2019, there was a study published that linked the LSAT to the marginalization of aspiring black lawyers. How are you working to alleviate this marginalization?

So first off, aside from my courses, I release 98% of my information for free via the YouTube channel, Facebook group, and Instagram. So 98% of my information is free, that’s a lot of information. That being said, I also have scholarship programs for my class.

Earlier this year, I ran a special interest scholarship, where all you had to do was submit a short video, really anything you want. I got over 100 submissions. I was initially going to give 10 students access to top tier courses for three months, but I got so many good submissions that I accepted 30 students for free.

Going forward, I have several scholarships I am running, through which you can get 50% off the classes if you have a fee waiver, are active or former military, and if you’re committed to practicing law in the public sector, you can get an additional 10% off. I am doing my part and always looking for more ways to make my materials more accessible. 

How do you believe standardized testing gauges one’s abilities? What is your opinion on the belief that assessments like the LSAT are barriers to achieving one’s dreams? 

I think standardized tests play an important role, but they’re also overemphasized in the admissions process. They have some validity, and they’re a better objective method than GPAs are because of grade inflation and variations among different kinds of programs; one standardized test plays a role in leveling that field.

But, at the same time, people can afford prep while others can’t. That creates barriers because some people have certain backgrounds that make it so that they can perform better in these exams. So, I wish that these exams didn’t have as much importance as they do. But, I still think they play a role. People should always be looking to make these exams better and more equitable. 

You mentioned in your blog that you became an LSAT coach upon obsessing over it, achieving an impressive score, and wanting to help others to do the same. How did you reconcile your dreams of becoming a lawyer with your desire to help others surpass the “roadblock” the LSAT poses on the journey to law school?

First off, once I took this exam and became obsessed, my natural process of studying it naturally forced me to help others. So, since I was a political science major as a pre-law student, I had friends who were also looking to take the LSAT; it just felt natural to help them. I kind of fell into teaching the exam in that way.

At the same time, I was working on my law school application and personal statement, and that really is a journey to self-discovery, and you wonder why you want to go to law school and what you are doing here.

Through that, I realized I didn’t want to go to law school; all the things I loved about it was an idea I had created for myself. But, I loved teaching the LSAT, so I decided that it was really for me.

I discovered this by writing a personal statement. I started my blog a few years later, and it just took up from there along with the YouTube channel.

And from here, we really are just looking to expand mediums to get as much information out there for people to have. 

What advice would you offer a college student on a predetermined path, like pre-law or pre-med, about not reaching a traditional endpoint?

I would say to talk to some people doing what it is that you want to do. I would say to do some exploration and talk to people in the field and ask them what they do. Maybe you can shadow them so you can understand what it is that goes on so you can get a clear idea and not just something you make up in your head. Talk to the professionals in the field and get their advice. 

What is the most memorable or impactful coaching experience you have had thus far?

There are so many, it’s hard to think of just one. I have a lot of online coaching sessions; I even release them on YouTube where students get those flashes of insight. And whenever that happens, that’s really powerful. And, of course, due to COVID, there are more online classes. I play with different formats and the most interesting is group coaching.

In this format, the students support each other and present information to one another. It is an extremely powerful moment when students begin to support each other. It’s empowering to have someone learn by teaching others. I have learned a lot from teaching, but those moments where one student supports another and grow through that process, I think that’s the most powerful thing I have experienced. 

Steve’s commitment to making his classes accessible and his passion for teaching shines bright. He is making a monumental difference in his students’ lives and he is providing accessible courses in an attempt to eliminate the unfair barriers that standardized exams pose for students.

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Spotlight

Meet Deema Alawa, a Non-Traditional Illustrator Paving the Way for Representation

Aanandi Murlidharan

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A woman rolling her eyes, wrapped in a blue scarf with 'your hypocrisy hurts' on the front

Art has always been used to tell a story. Many of us grew up reading fairy tales filled with beautiful illustrations that still stay with us today. However, many of these illustrations tell primarily white stories and emphasize Eurocentric beauty standards.

BLENDtw had the opportunity to interview Deema Alawa, a rising illustrator and art director at The Tempest who is paving the way for diversity by creating non-traditional artwork.

Tell us a bit about yourself. What’s your background? Where did you grow up? 

I was born in New York, which is really bizarre, considering that I live in the countryside right now. I am someone who is Syrian-Danish, although it’s always very apparent in the way that I design or illustrate.

I’m a minority, so I’m really attracted to working in minority spaces, where people are similar to me, especially as someone who has serious imposter syndrome. I am a designer, illustrator, and currently an art director at the Tempest, but the fancier term that they use for it is “Chief Creative Officer.” I’ll always use “art director” because it’s more on my level.

How did you discover the world of illustration and design? 

I started illustrating when I was a child, but I don’t actually have a specific age for it. It was just like “here’s a piece of paper, let me just illustrate some horrible animal work.” I decided at one point to move to digital because I felt that it was too easy to be working on paper.

I’m the type of person who doesn’t like to get bored easily, so digital art was the next challenge or the next level up. When I started digital, it was on a really run-down laptop.

It was very bootleg photoshop that was breaking down every fifteen minutes. Awful illustrations came out of that. I’m never going to post those anywhere!

In 2016, I started taking it professionally, and that’s when I got the position at The Tempest as a Design Fellow. The Tempest is a global media company that is very focused on giving minorities and women a place at the table.

This is a platform that is for women, by women. Just being in a space where people are constantly trying new projects or being immersed in things that you never thought you would actually try out was amazing.

With the Tempest, it was like “you’re good at illustration, but you need to work on design a bit more, just for the internship.” When I got into this, it was like a new world, and I loved it because it was challenging.

My thought process was “I’m really horrible at this, but we’re going to try it out!” Hopefully I can say I’m a little better at every single facet I’m working on. I would say I’m a jack of all trades, master of none, but it’s been four or five years, and we’re getting there!

Your art primarily features women of color. What is the reason behind that?

I grew up in a very white neighborhood. It always felt like there was a divide. For example, I was talking to my little sister, and we realized that we’re never going to see someone like ourselves, and even if we do, it’s going to be in very limited areas.

That’s when I decided that I was going to work on a book featuring women of color, or anyone who stood out to me in some way. I also feel like there are so many perceptions of beauty, and it’s very white-focused.

Now, it’s recently changing to white people using black features. For example, the Kardashians. When you take things from other cultures, what are you contributing to society?

You’re not contributing anything but the idea that “I can take this and commodify it for my own needs.” That’s not helping anyone in the long run. If you could see yourself in even just one space, it does change your own perception of yourself.

On your website, you said that you create non-traditional artwork inspired by your Danish and Syrian heritage. Can you tell us more about how you manage to do that? Have you always been able to do this? 

When it comes to design work for brands, I’ve realized, especially with the New York Times, you’re going through artworks and you think, “I love this because it’s so individualized,” but you realize online that it’s another thing they stole from another platform.

Through my own artwork, I try pulling my own designs and what inspires me. A lot of that comes from my Syrian-Danish heritage. I’m not interested in mimicking very European or already-used designs.

I’m a very big fan of Pinterest. I know that’s a very niche website, but a lot of that is made up of very cultural things that tie into my Arab background.

Even in my website, I’m very into simplistic design. I pull a lot from Danish design, which is very simple. It gets the point across very quickly.

The Arab part of my heritage goes into illustrations. I don’t want to commodify everything. I always have journals with me that are filled with illustrations that are very much the cultural aspect of me.

However, those are not the works I will be publicizing. I don’t want someone to be viewing it out of the context of “oh that’s cute! I can use it as a wallpaper” or something. I want it to be just intrinsically mine.

Your first book has come out! Congratulations on that! How did you get this project? What is it about? 

In my first semester of college, I was just sitting in the dining hall on the phone with my sister, and then I got an email from Penguin Random House. It was for the book Amazing Muslims Who Changed the World by Burhana Islam.

I am one of those people who turns down more projects than I take because if a project isn’t tied to my values, I’m not going to do it. So when Penguin Random House reached out to me, I negotiated a bit, but I knew I was going to take this project.

I got to illustrate a couple iconic figures that mean a lot to me. For example, Muhammad Ali is someone I really look up to. I am very much into the idea that you have to give a platform to people who are like you, or even people you look up to.

The book is about Muslims way back in history to those in the modern day, the most recent Muslim being Malala. The age range for this book is 8-12. This is the point where those sorts of books that stick with you will stick to kids.

This is exactly the sort of book I would have wanted my ten-year-old sister to read when she was younger. Every single person who worked on this was Muslim or in that minority sphere.

I got to work with the art director, editor, and the author herself. I didn’t expect to illustrate a book until I was forty, but now I’m nineteen and I’ve done it!

Unfortunately, Hijabi Muslim American women often face the most discrimination in the workforce. Have you experienced any challenges as a hijabi Muslim American woman? 

One of the things you can see in my illustrations is that I don’t try and brand myself as this or that because I know it is limiting.

For example, if I was to brand myself as a hijabi illustrator/designer, I would then get very specific projects and then hardly anything after that. Even as just a Muslim American, I am getting projects that are very specific, such as Amazing Muslims.

I haven’t had anyone, yet, directly me tell that I don’t fit into their brand because I am a hijabi Muslim American. My identity as a hijabi did play a lot into my imposter syndrome.

Even applying for roles, it was always a question of “am I even going to get this? Are they just going to go through my bio and say this will not be a fit?”

In terms of imposter syndrome, it goes into the fact that the people I looked up to in design starting out were all men.

Obviously, the art world is a bit wider than that, but even if you look at older artists, you have Frida Kalo, but then beyond that, it’s just men. It’s really important, in the beginning especially, to find a place where people are similar to you.

You’ve worked with the famous publishing houses Penguin Random House and Kastor and Pollux. What advice do you have for young women who want to pursue that path of design and illustrating?

One piece of advice I have is that you have to put yourself out there. With Penguin Random House, the art director actually discovered me off of Instagram.

I also involved myself with platforms on the side such as Girl Gaze, Women Who Draw, and networks that are free to illustrators. These are especially great for those who don’t want to pay fifty dollars a month to join an art directors’ club.

Those are the exact sorts of things that, if you have a presence online, even if you don’t feel like you’re ready to be serious about art or design, as long as you have a presence online someone is going to be looking for you, even if you don’t realize it.

With Kastor and Pollux, I actually emailed them and said “hey these are my designs! I would love to collaborate with you.” I would say also be completely ready for rejection, because that has happened ninety-eight percent of the time.

For example, in the past month, I probably sent out fifty emails to different publishing houses and different art directors saying “here are my services, I’m one hundred percent here to talk about any project in the future.”

It probably isn’t going to happen now, but once you’re on someone’s radar, it might maybe in the future. I also think having a website does legitimize people a lot.

It is someone publishing houses do go over. Once again, even if you can’t afford it, Wix does have free websites. It does have a watermark, but you’ll be fine. No one cares about that. 

Tell us a bit about Speak Up and what inspired this project.

It’s not set fully. I’m still working on getting an agent and the rest of the logistics. Three years ago, I wanted to make sure that my sister didn’t have only Hermione Granger to look up to.

In my family, the idea is that if you feel like there’s an issue, you have to take a stand on your own, or you have to find out what you can do. So I started this book of people who I personally look up to.

One of the people featured in it is Yusra Mardini. She was a Syrian refugee escaping Syria. The boat was damaged, but she and her sister swam in the ocean to shore.

They saved fifty people. From there, she got to go to the Olympics. I felt that this story needed to be shared with the non-Syrian audience as well.

Everyone should know these powerhouses. Gloria Steinem is great, but we need to know the others. People don’t want to hear the same stories about suffragists, who were part of a white movement.

The Tempest’s “40 Women to Watch” campaign is such an interesting project. What brought this idea to fruition, and how did you find these women?

This was a campaign for The Tempest and it was something that I was very excited about because I’m very into the idea that everyone should get a platform. 40 Women to Watch is coming out next month.

It’s similar to the Forbes Under 40 list, but it’s focusing on women and others who do not fit the cisgender male category. It’s made up of the people you knew in history and the people that you didn’t realize existed, people who have not had a platform in the past.

One of the fun things about this is that we did throw nominations to people in the team. For example, we have two members who are extremely passionate about what they do. The list is divided by categories such as “sports” and “design.” It’s going to be similar to the way Teen Vogue does 21 Under 21.

What’s a typical day like for you for illustration? 

If I were to get a project now, it would take a couple days. Typically I start at night, because I’m most creative at night. I go and make a mood board, and that would be just Pinterest for two hours.

It’s just “here are some ideas that would work with this project.” The second day would be me thinking about the idea and what works best.

Once I actually start the illustration process, it’s once again very late at night, when I’m fully de-stressed from everything going on in the day. It takes about three hours to perfect the line art and move on to the coloring. The color theory itself is interesting.

For me, I don’t use a color palette setup. I just use one swatch to cover the whole thing. Right now you’re seeing a lot of reds because when I start out my illustration, the background color is always red, and I work over it with skin tones to create a warm, lively undertone.

Lastly, do you see illustration and design as a long-term career goal for you? 

Art and design is something that has been working out for me so far. I do think it’s going to be something that’s going to be in my life in the long run.

I am very much the type of person who gets bored easily. I like always having something going on. Creating in itself is a passion for me. So I do see this in the long run, but I’m not sure how it will turn out.

Amazing Muslims Who Changed the World is available to purchase on Amazon and from other sellers in both ebook and hardcover format. To keep up with the rest of Deema Alawa’s work, check out her website.

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Spotlight

How Matt Fussell Turned His Love of Teaching Into an Art Empire

Alla Issa

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Matt Fussel wearing a blue shirt, holding paint brushes, in front of a white background.
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Though he does it exceptionally well, Matt Fussell did not envision himself teaching for much of his adolescence. In fact, as the son of two teachers, he actively resisted entering the education field. It was only after Fussell got a recommendation from his instructor-turned-mentor at his art school that he decided to pursue art education, graduating with his teaching certification and entering a school he would teach at for the next 10 years.

It was at that point that Fussell was able to do something extraordinary. He and his colleagues wrote a grant that awarded their administration $1.5 million so that they could turn that school into a visual and performing arts magnet high school. Fussell was overjoyed, especially when he got the opportunity to help write a brand new curriculum for the brand new school and later become the lead art teacher for the entire school system, overseeing 120 K-12 art instructors.

While the full conversion of school and its curriculum was underway, Fussell was laying the bricks for his own little empire, long before he even knew that it would become one.

“A little bit before then, I was making videos anyway, because that was something that I enjoyed doing. I created painting videos and drawing videos in my garage and actually called it the ‘Art Garage.’ It was a lot of fun and my students enjoyed getting those DVDs. Plus, it was really easy to stand up in front of the class, and when I had a more in-depth demonstration to share with the students, I could just pop in that DVD and they could watch an oil painting developed from start to finish, where you can’t do that in a normal art classroom.”

Fussell posted these same videos onto his new website, TheVirtualInstructor.com, which quickly gathered a large and dedicated following. Seeing the success of his website and the impact of his lessons on the greater public, Fussell understood that his career path was going to change. He stepped down from his Lead Art Teacher position and re-entered the classroom at his magnet school, intending to teach there for a few more years before switching his full-time occupation to making content for his website. The decision was not an easy one, according to Fussell, but it ultimately paid off.

“I ended up just being in the classroom for one more year and then I went in and quit my job, and that was very scary. That was about seven years ago—the website’s been my full-time job since then. Currently, we’ve got people from all over the world that visit. The site gets over 3 million visits a year, and we’ve got a huge number of users in our database that are members or have purchased a course.”

The website turned out to be a hit not only with art students and hobbyists but also with fellow visual art instructors, who Fussell catered to immediately. He designed a year-long program for visual arts teachers called “The Ultimate Lesson Plan,” which has everything a teacher needs to teach a course, including handouts, examples, and even assessments. With this dedication to serving the needs of art instructors, it comes as no surprise that Fussell thought of them first when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out.

“Part of being a teacher is sharing. When the pandemic started, I immediately thought of the teachers who were all of a sudden out of the classroom. Many of them are out of their element. They’re having to learn new technologies, and a lot of them depend on what I provide to aid in their instruction. I thought, ‘what can I give teachers so they can continue to give content to their students so their students can continue to benefit?’ And immediately I thought of opening up several live lessons series.”

Fussell, who has a popular YouTube channel where he posts art tutorials and relevant videos, posted a video on March 16, announcing that he was making a portion of his members-only courses, which amounted to over 25 hours of art lessons, free for anyone to access. He specifically mentioned that art teachers could utilize these lessons with their students in order to make distance learning easier.

The response was overwhelming. Many, teachers and art hobbyists alike, were quick to both take advantage of this offer and praise Matt for his generosity and quick thinking. After all, many teachers were given little time, some as few as two days, to completely readjust their curriculums for distance learning. Matt was overjoyed by the positive reception of his decision.

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“It turned out to be a great thing for everyone because people were able to benefit—there’s a lot of people that are stuck at home that aren’t teachers that have all this time on their hands now. Under normal circumstances, they like to kind of delay things that might make them happy or passions that they might want to pursue because they’re so wrapped up in work.”

Opening up those lessons for those folks too has helped them realize you only live one life, you only got one chance at this. We shouldn’t have to have a pandemic to make us realize that our lives can be more fulfilling if we just take the time to do the things that make us happy.”

While putting content together, Fussell did his best to think of all the obstacles teachers and students were facing. He immediately recognized a major issue that many students and teachers would be dealing with: a lack of access to art materials, especially those materials for specialized mediums and tools that students rely on their teachers to supply them with.

Thinking ahead, the live lessons Fussell chose to make available use very basic materials like charcoal, oil pastels, and even things that everyone has around their house, such as pencils, pens, and so on. This was so that viewers did not need the inventory and materials found within an art studio in order to succeed. Since he has been a teacher for over 10 years, Fussell understands that there is a general lack of accessibility to both art supplies and art opportunities for many students across America and the world.

“Obviously there are students that you have in a classroom that fall into all different types of economic categories. If they’re on the lower end of the economic scale, that’s not their fault. They deserve to have the same access to the same materials as a student that might be a little bit better off financially. So I think that the playing field, as far as art materials go, is definitely leveled when you’re dealing with a student in a physical classroom.”

Fussell also recognizes, however, that there is an increasing lack of accessibility not only to art materials but also in art courses. As academic budgets become increasingly strained and schools shift their course offerings to prioritize classes that require standardized testing, creative programs such as visual arts, music, and theatre are often the first to be cut. These changes often occur at the elementary level, depriving hundreds of thousands of young students the opportunity to not only develop a passion for the arts, but also to refine their art skills in an academic setting. The unfortunate result is that many grow up to see art as a hobby, and not a reasonable means of income. Fussell, of course, takes issue with this.

“If you ask a child what their favorite activity in school is when they’re in first and second grade, a lot of them are going to tell you that it’s drawing or coloring or some form of being creative. As we get older and as we develop, we start to become a little bit more self-conscious. We also have adults and people in authority tell us that anything that’s a creative form of expression is not going to lead to financial success, which totally is not true through these days!”

If you look at the people who are most successful in the world right now, they are the creative people. They are the innovators. Look at all the apps that we use, all of the websites we visit; all of those things are designed by artists. This is a wonderful time to be an artist right now. The people who are cutting the art programs, the people who are making these decisions, just don’t understand how important being creative and being innovative is.”

Despite his valid critique of these curriculum mishaps and the general lack of adequate recognition for the value of art, Fussell is hopeful for the future. Although the long-term impact of the pandemic on the American public is still hard to predict, many are speculating that life could be changed for years to come. Some of the biggest concerns right now are school reopening plans for the upcoming academic year, and whether the move to remote teaching will become a more permanent one; at least while the threat of spreading and contracting COVID-19 still looms large.

Fussell believes it is possible that, as more creative programs begin being cut, they should start turning more towards virtual instruction, such as the type that he does himself; to give students access to high-quality art courses. While these courses cannot replace the experience of in-class instruction, they offer school systems that are considering cutting creative programs and taking away their opportunity to use an economically-friendly alternative that ensures their students’ creative capacities are still nurtured. Fussell also thinks that the stay-at-home period may have a long term impact on Americans in that they’ll be more conscious of doing things that make them happy and actively improve their lives in the future.

“I think the pandemic is going to change all different aspects of the way that we live going forward. It’s my hope that there’s a greater appreciation for art, but I think the big thing here is not necessarily that. I think that people have been forced to slow down, and they’ve been forced to step out of their normal day-to-day routine. In my opinion, this is gonna sound harsh, but I think a lot of people kind of go through their life like zombies.”

They’re going to work each day and they’re coming home and going to sleep and getting up and going into work the next day. They basically live for the weekends. I think that we need, as a society, as the world, to invest ourselves in the things that we’re passionate about, the things that make us happy. These are the things that we should live for, not for the job that we hate. That’s my hope, that more people come to that realization. And I think that because of the pandemic, more people are realizing that.”

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