Full-Time Shift with Cheyenne Smith
Artist interview with Cheyenne Smith, author/illustrator from Austin, Texas. Her work is a love letter to the coming-of-age genre. Whether she's working in YA fiction or graphic memoir, all of Cheyenne's comics attempt to capture the magic of girlhood and painful comedy of growing up. If she can manage to make someone cringe and cry within the same story, she's done her job. In this interview, Cheyenne shares their journey into comics and talks about the incredibly frightening shift from a full-time "real" job to being an artist 100% of her time.
MP: How long have you been doing your art thing?
C: Oh man, nearly 20 years now! I started making comics pretty young – around age 12 or 13. By high school, I'd convinced my mom to get me a cheap Wacom tablet and started sharing my comics on Myspace and DeviantArt (hellooo early internet)! That positive [online] feedback led me to submit editorial cartoons and longer stories to my high school and college newspapers. And by the time I entered the working world, I was starting to find my artistic happy place in the YA genre.
Through all of that though, I never really took classes or knew people who were making similar work. It's only now, in my early 30s, that I feel like I've really started on an art journey that prioritizes continued education and creative relationships alongside the solo work of making comics.
MP: You've mentioned making a career shift from a "real job" to working as a full-time artist. Can you talk about why you've decided to make that shift?
C: You only live once, baby! In all seriousness, I'm one of the millions of people who got burned out during the pandemic and had to make a very difficult choice about what I wanted my life to look like.
After college I dove headfirst into Austin's startup scene and spent 8 years honing my digital marketing skills at early-stage companies. By the time I reached a Director's level, I was exhausted, completely money-motivated, and found myself having less and less time and energy outside of work to focus on what actually mattered to me: comics.
And though "time and energy" are resources we're all fighting to have more of, I'm not sure there are many artistic mediums that require as much of those resources as comics do. You hear about musicians who write a hit in 10 minutes that pays dividends for the rest of their career, and comics are basically the opposite of that: long hours, unpredictable pay, and a niche audience that spends 1/1000th of the time you spent making your art actually consuming it.
You have to have time and a pinch of insanity to want to do this. And luckily, after 8 years of saving, I could buy myself some time.
MP: How are you using your previous work experience to help build your art career?
C: I feel incredibly lucky to have the professional background that I do. Being an artist these days also requires us to be marketers, graphic designers, video editors, and social media personalities. And though I struggle with the demands of being chronically online, I have nearly a decade of experience developing content, analyzing engagement data, nurturing audiences, and launching products.
In retrospect, those 8 years of marketing now feel like an indie-creator bootcamp. Especially when I launched my Patreon, I found all of those skills working together – only now instead of peddling software, I'm getting to share and profit from my own art and creative process.
MP: What are some challenges you've faced with making this career shift? What are some of the rewards?
C: Y'know, as unhappy as I was in my previous career, I had a lot of confidence. Moving to art full time feels like being a transfer student mid-semester in the 6th grade. You're meeting new people, facing rejection that feels much more personal (because it's about your art rather than your work performance), and having to disconnect your self worth from a pay check. It's terrifying and liberating.
That liberation is a side effect of the challenges, though. I was in a place in my life where I had to take a chance on myself and imagine a different path forward. Taking on a new career has been humbling and rewarding. When I released the first chapter of my book in June, I felt a level of self-actualization and pride that I'm not sure I could have achieved in a more traditional job.
MP: What tools do you use (or plan to use) to help build and maintin your art career?
C: I'm a firm believer that in today's creator-centric landscape, people care about the process as much as the product. So for me, tools like Patreon, instagram, and Youtube where I can show how the sausage gets made are just as important as the places where I share my actual comics. Especially when it comes to monetizing your art, sharing your creative process is one of the ways to financially benefit in an otherwise free-image economy.
Of course, those tools are just platforms, and behind content creation is a bevy of other devices and softwares that can help people upgrade their content game: Phone tripods, Canva for graphic design, Scrivener for writers, hell – you can make a podcast with the voice memo app on your phone!
MP: What's one important lesson you've learned from your creative practice?
C: You have to show up. Dreaming is not doing. Planning is not doing. Talking is not doing. In comics, you simply have to get your butt in the seat and draw. There are no cheat codes, just people who showed up day after day until the work was done.
MP: Any other closing thoughts?
C: Conversations about "pursuing your dreams" can often ignore the reality and privilege of money. The truth is, I spent 8 years saving from high-paying jobs, I have a gainfully employed partner, and still have marketable skills to return to the workforce if I so choose. My full-time pursuit of art as a career is coming without the risk of financial ruin, and that's just not the reality for most people. If you're making art in what free time you have – that is a valid way to live a creative life. Being an artist is an identity, whether it's your job or not.
Thank you, Cheyenne, for participating in the Artist Talk series!
Be sure to check out Cheyenne's work in the following places: