We’re made up of tangled strings

 Amy Ng, Ball of String

There were bags and bags of potato chips around. A container full of soda and a seemingly never-ending supply of ice around each corner of the room. The floor was littered with bean bags of all different shapes, sizes and colours, like oversized candy pillows.

As I step into the room, friends greeted me left and right. “Hey Pikaland!” they’d shout as they gave me a fist bump. It’s a place where your Twitter handle’s your first name and other things immaterial slide to the wayside. Race, gender and language dissipates: leaving behind only the love of ideas and the technology that can bring them to life. It was a place where fingers worked hard to keep up with the stream of code that pours from one’s mind.

It was 2011 and a hackathon (a hacking marathon) was in full swing. But I wasn’t a hacker.

I came to the event, knowing full well that my coding skills were amateurish at best, and riddled with problems at worst. But that didn’t deter me at all. I knew these amazing bunch of people from monthly meetups that brought together people from the tech industry. This included everyone from big corporations to small start-ups; from entrepreneurs to family businesses – all looking for a way to leverage technology to help them navigate this new era we all live in. The hackathon was one of the many events that brought them all together to work on ideas that could change the community, or the world for the better.

I saw a friend sitting in a booth with 3 other guys, and scored an invitation to come join them. I’m an illustrator, I said – and they all remarked that it was incredibly cool that I get to work with my hands. I told them that they’re doing exactly the same thing – the only difference was the output; everything else was generated through good old-fashioned brain power.

We talked a lot during my time at the hackathon – we talked about business, competition and how developers find freelance jobs (oDesk was a good place to find talent, and elance.com can sometimes come up short). I got myself a Dribbble invite and learned that one of the guys at the table worked for Envato. We talked tech, but we also talked a lot about business, and life as an entrepreneur. The room was 98% guys and I was just one of the few girls who participated – but I wasn’t made to feel any less competent. Instead, I was celebrated as a wild card, a secret weapon that the group had over the rest. It was tremendous fun.

Though our group worked through the night, we didn’t win. It was a dating app called Icebreaker that offers introverted, shy tech guys topics that they could talk to girls about. At first I was a little perplexed by the idea, but then I came to understand why they might need such a thing to kick start a conversation (remember, this was back in the day when the term introvert hasn’t blown up yet!) I contributed quite a bit to the cause: I came up with most of the topics and lines for the app and vetoed the ones that didn’t fit (or would most likely scare girls away), and an illustration for it as well (boy, were they tapping into my strengths!)

All in all – I had a great time. Why?

  • I didn’t let the fear of not belonging stop me from being there.  (remember, I could count the number of girls on my hand, in a room full of guys)
  • I didn’t feel bothered that I wasn’t adequately skilled in programming – I had other skills to offer
  • I genuinely had an interest in tech and I wanted to learn more by immersing myself head on in this intense event! plus;
  • I’m a geek at heart

Why am I telling you this?

I wanted to remind you that you’re more than just an illustrator or an artist.

Your skill set isn’t just limited to what you can physically and technically achieve. Drawing, painting, and illustrating may be your output – but what matters very much is the input too: the things you read, the people you meet and talk to; and the experiences you collect along the way. The combination of all these inputs manifests in an incredible process that makes you truly unique, along with the output you produce.

We’re all more than just a label we put on ourselves – we’re complicated and unpredictable – a giant tangle of strings that come from many different sources. Each string mingles, crisscrosses and even blends into others to form new strands – of personalities, knowledge and beliefs – that further defines who we are. We’re not just one ball made up of one homogenous string.

So let’s do a bit of an exercise: let’s put the term artist aside for a while – what else do you consume? What else do you do? What else do you know? What topics do you love? What defines you as a person? Share them with me in the comments below!

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12 thoughts on “We’re made up of tangled strings

  1. Hi Amy,
    I have found that illustrators are a diverse group of people with diverse interests. I have a number of illustrator friends who are musicians and enjoy the company of not just discussing art but
    playing music. A great way to meet many people and start some
    dialoque.
    Thanks for all your commentaries to encouraging creative people
    to become more effective living people.

    regards,

    Paul

    • Really spot on! I think it is pretty much the case with most creative minds, being interested (and try) a lot of different things, including odd jobs. All the experience adds up and make us able to move forward artistically. It is defo an organic process, and I don’t know anyone amongst my artist friends who would’t have their fingers in, at least, 3 different things.
      I have an art degree, but I had so many different jobs so far, some very weird and some average. I enjoy museums, reading, Formula 1, playing a bit of bass here and there. I love science travelling and the great outdoors. And baking! Oh Cakes! 🙂 Not to mention the list of things I would like to learn in the future. Speaking French for example…

  2. Good point! I was thinking something similar today as I went on a walk with my boyfriend in the woods this morning. I love how the shapes of leaves, their shadows, and the hungry bugs and birds refresh my soul and inspire me! I also love eating and cooking good, filling “peasant” meals. I am a cat-mom and a collector of tiny pretty objects like snail shells and feathers. I love playing the piano and bicycling on a long trail. I love to write and document my life. And i like being a granny at heart – a homebody, lover of soup, and silly weirdo.

  3. Wow, what a great article. I love this, and right now I do need to put my Artist hat aside for a while and just breath. I definitely fit into the artist stereotype — introverted, visual, quiet, focused, moody, sensitive, obsessed with making things! But I’m also into all kinds of books, music, outdoor experiences, hobbies. I like meeting people who are smart, kind, and silly — OK, just silly. I have had so many jobs — mostly great ones — any I’ve been to college several times to study various things. While I could not begin to define myself, I do know that what grounds me in life are my art and motherhood. That said, children grow up and our identity changes over time. It can be really hard to define yourself outside of relationships. That’s one of the reasons I value my art so much; it simply can be by, for, and about me.

    • Dana, loved your comment. I can identify…
      I think the art allowed me to go through the
      empty nest without falling apart.

  4. Love the article, so true! Sometimes people already say I’m too diverse with my art and design, but it might also be a product of who I am and that is someone who likes and is interested in a lot of things.
    Anime/manga, cosplay, sewing, animals/pets, I also had lots of side jobs, I also went to three kinds of high schools. I also play the guitar, I am also in a relationship already for 7,5 years, I was part and once a leader of a student club, I am the admin of a facebook group (full of Dutch Illustrators!).
    At the same time I also experienced some things in life that were less fun but made me learn a lot. It all sums up when it comes to usefullness actually :).

    • I had to respond to your comment because this is something I have been challenged with as well. I have been told that my work was too diverse and that I had to pick a style and stick with it in order to make it as an illustrator. I want to applaud you for staying true to yourself and not compromising your interests. Being diverse, as a person and as an artist is something we should all strive for in every aspect of our lives. No boxes. We are wild, beautiful and diverse and that’s as it should be.

  5. Buenisimo, soy diseñador y la ilustracion la inicie como un pasatiempo de viaje en tren todos los dias en la oficina, hago otras cosas como tener una huerta en la terraza de mi casa, y cocinar, que es otro aspecto creativos y sin pensar demasiado entre en un taller de arte el año pasado sin conocer a nadie y armamos un gran dreamteam, y como hobbie toco la guitarra y paso exactamente lo mismo, sin conocer a mis actuales compañeros de rock armamos una banda que funciona barbaro, gracias y saludos

  6. Outside of being an artist I love trying new foods, either out at restaurants or by cooking and baking at home; I also volunteer in the kitchen of a group called God’s Love We Deliver that prepares and delivers meals to people with HIV and cancer. I am always game to attend parties, explore my city (NYC), go to the beach, or travel much further away, as long as I have a good book packed in my bag.

  7. Hi Amy, I love your illustration, I would love to use it in my teaching materials about cross cultural communication, all strictly for academic purposes and referenced. Would you mind?

    Kitty

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