Katie Vaz: My Life in Plants

I love plants.

They exist as personal metaphors for me; and as well, gardening is a hobby of mine, after studying and dealing with a fair bit of them during my university days as a landscape architect. Suffice to say, when it comes to plants, I do have a soft spot for them.

So when Katie Vaz sent me an email to let me know about the release of her new book, My Life in Plants, I was curious. I wanted to learn more about Katie’s process and journey, and requested an email interview, to which she’s obliged! Read on to find out more about Katie and how a personal project that she started in 2017, came full circle and became her fourth book.

Hi Katie! Could you tell us a bit more about your background, and how you got into illustration?

I’ve loved drawing for fun since I was a little kid. I decided to study graphic design in college because it seemed like a decent field to get into where I could still be creative. I got a bachelor’s degree in graphic design from the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, NY.

I was planning on moving to New York City to get a job afterward, but my dad passed away a month before I graduated and it threw all of my plans out the window. My world had flipped upside down and I no longer felt grounded with any sort of plan. I decided to apply to a graduate design school in Germany and the reason for that big change was a combination of wanting to: escape my current reality, make up for never studying abroad during undergrad, and partly follow a boyfriend who was moving to France for school at the time.

My dad had always instilled in me the idea to prioritize traveling and to see new parts of the world whenever possible. It just felt like the right thing to do at that time. I spent two years in Germany and it was an incredible experience. Not only was I able to travel around Europe easily and cheaply, I was also exposed to so many different cultures and experiences while immersed in my international design program. It was there that I learned more about illustration and hand-lettering from a fellow student and fell in love with it.

After graduating, I moved back home to live with my family in the states again. I was in my mid-twenties at that point and smack dab in the middle of the “quarter-life crisis” and had no idea what I was supposed to do next. The original plan was to move to someplace like New York City to get a design job because all throughout design school it was sort of drilled into you that you could only be successful if you lived and worked in big cities like that. In my heart, it wasn’t what I wanted to do, so I stayed at home with my family for a little bit to figure out something else closer to home.

I opened an Etsy shop a couple of months later as a way to practice illustration and hand-lettering for fun on greeting cards. They started selling pretty quickly and I realized I really enjoyed that kind of work. That led to getting some freelance illustration projects from art directors who had seen my work on Etsy.

Each project was like a stepping stone to getting another project. I kept thinking that when that was over, I’d have to go find a traditional design job, but it just kept going. I did pick up some random freelance graphic design work on the side which helped provide some stability (and I still do some of that on the side to this day for the same reason), but I’ve never loved it as much as I love illustration work. One of my freelance illustration projects eventually led to a literary agent seeing that work randomly at a gift shop in New York City. She reached out to see if I had any interest in creating books and of course I did, though I didn’t expect to have the opportunity to do any until much, much later. We’ve been working together ever since and my fourth book was just published this September.

From sketches…
… to the final layout

The first book that she helped me pitch was an adult coloring book called Don’t Worry, Eat Cake that came out in 2016 and it was inspired by my experience of going through a quarter-life crisis and feeling lost, like I was getting left behind while everyone else around me was moving forward and knew exactly what they were supposed to do in life.

My second book is called Make Yourself Cozy, which is an illustrated guide to practicing self-care, which was inspired by a winter trip to Norway where I experienced hygge firsthand as well as my experience of living with anxiety and how I’ve used self-care to manage it.

My third book is called The Escape Manual for Introverts, and it’s a humorous, illustrated book about how to get out of social situations as an introvert. I feel like I’m a classic, textbook introvert, so it was quite easy to pull from real-life experience on that one! My fourth book that just came out is called My Life in Plants, which is an illustrated memoir that tells the story of my life through 39 plants and flowers that have been an audience to the various chapters of my life.

Today, I work primarily as an illustrator and author. Creating books is the thing I love the most, but I do enjoy taking on commissioned illustration work and continuing to run my Etsy shop where I still sell illustrated and hand-lettered paper goods.

Katie’s studio

You mentioned that this book had its roots in another personal project that you started in 2017. Could you tell us a bit more about that and where the idea of writing a memoir came from? What was the reason you decided to embark on the project?

Back in 2017, I was working on this fun little personal project called “Plants I’ve Killed,” where I documented all the green things I couldn’t keep alive. It was just for fun and meant to be a way for me to practice illustration and entertain myself (because I thought it was really funny how easily plants died while on my watch). Around that same time, I was starting to illustrate people for fun, and did a few sweet, but more serious, illustrations that looked like there were stories behind them.

My literary agent and I were talking about new book ideas around that time, and after seeing those she encouraged me to consider creating a more personal book with writing in it to accompany my illustrations, maybe even a memoir. I brainstormed a bunch of possible themes, but kept circling back to plants. I kept thinking about how so many of them were an “audience” to particular experiences in my life—some were plants I killed accidentally myself, while other plant memories involved things from my family’s garden or just simply the nature I noticed around me.

They were all a mix of experiences, some heavy and serious like the plants from my dad’s funeral, or the fern that died while I was depressed after my cat, Spanky, died. Then there were also things that were much lighter and funnier, like the succulent I bought that looked like a plump butt, or the Venus flytrap my sister and I fed flies to when we were kids. Plants remind me of home and where I come from—they’re also intertwined with my best and worst memories. They’ve just simply been in every sort of significant or memorable moment in my life. It really felt like a natural theme to talk about, and with the encouragement of my literary agent, the idea to create a memoir around the various plants in my life was born.

The process of writing about my life was surprisingly emotional. It brought a lot of things to the surface that I thought I had already worked through.

I embarked on the journey of creating a memoir to share my experience in the hopes that someone else might relate to and find comfort in my stories. I’ve always had this feeling of not being “normal,” like there is a memo that everyone else has gotten about how to do something in life, and I just always somehow miss it. I also often have felt like I’m not experiencing or feeling things the way I’m “supposed to,” like every experience is somehow not as good as someone else’s. But getting older, learning how to be more forgiving and patient with myself, and going to therapy, all of those things have taught me that this is a pretty normal thing to feel in the end and I’m not at all alone in it. This has made me want to be more open and honest about what I’m feeling because I know there are others out there who are still struggling with that.

I know that I would have liked to hear more honest and transparent experiences about life when I was younger. Growing as an illustrator, I’ve noticed how the themes in my work have become more and more personal—I love drawing things that show what my human experience is like. To have the opportunity to create something that is put out into the world for others, I thought it would be important to use that chance to create something that might normalize that “not feeling normal” sensation. By talking so openly about my experiences with growing up, dealing with death and grief, and forging my own path in life, I wanted to show that it’s okay to do things your own way.

You wrote the book, and also illustrated it. Did you encounter any challenges in merging the two in your book?

I really enjoyed getting to write and illustrate the book myself, but there was one issue I encountered. Because I love illustrating scenes and details, and also because it’s about my own life, I often tried to squeeze too much into some of the artwork and got stuck on illustrating a room or landscape exactly how it was from memory. I had to pull back and leave in only the details that were important to the story. I also had to make sure that the featured plant didn’t get lost in the “clutter” since that really was the star of the show! I think I got attached to certain bits of the artwork, so it was hard to let some of it go, but I know it was for the best because I’m extremely happy with how the final product turned out.

How long did you take to come out with the entire book? How and what has the process been like for you?

In total, it took right around 2 years to create the book. I spent about a year and a half on the manuscript alone and that was even before it was pitched to a publisher. My agent helped tremendously with the editing process, so there were a lot of back and forth reviews of my drafts between us over that time period. I started with making a list of all the memorable plants I could think of that I would want to write about. Then, I fleshed out some memories attached to each one and wrote about the details of it and if there were any significant life moments surrounding it. I didn’t set out to write about any particular themes in the beginning (other than plants), but the themes of nostalgia, family, learning to be present, and dealing with death and grief, they started appearing naturally once I wrote more about each plant.

The process of writing about my life was surprisingly emotional. It brought a lot of things to the surface that I thought I had already worked through. My dad passed away in 2009, and though you never truly get over things like that, I thought I had processed it well by now. It turns out that I hadn’t! My cat, Spanky, got sick and passed away in 2016, and that was a particularly difficult time for me, too.

In order to survive and get on with life, I guess I had buried a lot of emotions surrounding those incidents. Though it was painful to relive those memories, it was incredibly therapeutic to write about them. It was a big purge of emotions and in the end, it felt kind of like going to therapy! Some of the things that used to haunt me just aren’t there anymore. I certainly didn’t have to include those experiences in my book, but because they are such pivotal moments in my life, it felt important to walk the reader through them. It was also helpful to revisit some past experiences where I felt like I made mistakes in how I handled those situations, like my botched engagement to the person who is now my husband. I think I discovered a lot of patience and forgiveness for my past self once I could look back on what happened from a distance.

So, back to the timeline, about a year and a half after I started writing, we were ready to pitch it. My agent submitted the finished manuscript along with 4 sample spreads of artwork I had created. My publisher (Andrews McMeel) that I worked with on my previous three books liked it and decided to publish this one as well. They’ve been so good to me and it’s really been a dream to get to work with them on multiple books.

I signed the contract in late summer of 2019, and then the final artwork was due mid-October that same year. That was an extremely fast timeline for completing the illustrations—normally you might have 6-9 months for something like that, but we all wanted it to be released the following summer to feel relevant with the gardening season.

Once you submit the final artwork, from what I have seen at least, it takes about 7-10 months before the book will hit stores. So, if I wasn’t able to meet that deadline, we would have had to wait until sometime in the spring or summer of 2021. I made the deadline, but it was rough! Even though it was stressful at times, I really do love the process of creating books and I know myself and how I work best under pressure.

The thought of getting to see my work printed in a book someday was definitely fuel to push through those many early mornings and late nights. Each time I have finished a book project, I feel such huge relief that it’s completed, but there’s also this small feeling of wistfulness. After working so intensely on a project I loved, it’s a little disorienting once it’s over. As a creative person, I’m often overwhelmed and paralyzed by all of the ideas of things I’d like to do. Having a book project to work on sort of eases that anxiety in a way because there’s a specific list of tasks and a clear deadline over a somewhat long period of time.

How has the publishing of the book affected your business so far? Did you gain more clients and interest in your work?

Each book I’ve done definitely leads to more growth and interest in my work. Some of this starts a couple of months before the book comes out, when I start to promote the book online. My publisher landed a pretty cool pre-order collaboration with Bloomscape this summer—the incentive for readers was to pre-order the book and then get an exclusive discount off a plant from their online shop. It was really helpful in getting the book in front of a new audience because Bloomscape promoted my book to their followers and email subscribers.

I’ve also been a guest on a few podcasts this fall and that’s been another great way to expand my audience. Marketing the book to bloggers, reporters, influencers, and podcasts is really useful in networking and developing relationships with various media contacts. If you can connect authentically with some of those people, they’re often happy to help promote future projects as well. I haven’t gained any new clients yet from this book, but I’ve definitely seen a noticeable increase in interest in my work. That’s always a good thing because when it comes time to market another book in the future, there’s a bigger audience already waiting.

Katie Vaz | Etsy shop | Books (via Amazon) | More about Katie’s process

Thanks so much Katie! You can get a copy of My Life with Plants here (via Amazon).

Note: The links to the books you find here will lead you to Amazon. I earn a very small fee if you do decide to purchase any books through these links. Being an affiliate of their program does not affect my choice of books nor the reviews I post.

Things money can’t buy

Thomas Bayrle

Note: This was a post that I wrote for a local student magazine a few months back which I think would be useful to share here too. Enjoy!

Thomas Bayrle

Whenever I step into a classroom, the first question that I get asked is this: which profession in the design world makes more money: animators, graphic designers, or illustrators? Or how about multimedia artists or videographers? My reply was that there’s plenty of ways to make money – lots and lots of money perhaps. Not all of them are in the design industry. But all of it comes with a price. Heck, sometimes jobs that make the most money aren’t even legal, and you can bet that they’re dangerous. So again. There are plenty of ways to make money – not all of them are good. So herewith the question beckons: why all this talk about money first?

I can understand – I was once a student myself.

I was once so poor that I had to split a plate of economy rice with my friend. For those who don’t know what economy rice is, it’s a shop where they have 20-30 different kinds of side dishes that go with rice, ranging from meat dishes to vegetables, to other condiments. It’s popular with students because it’s fast and cheap – just grab a plate of rice and scoop up whatever you want and go to the counter to pay for what you’ve scooped. Back to the story: we had RM2.00 between us left for food. We went up to the lady in the restaurant and showed her the coins we had left and asked her what we could have from her array of dishes. I wasn’t sure if it was pity, or understanding – but she scooped what ever was left over from a few dishes and gave us each an egg to top it all off. We were thankful for the meal and conveyed our thanks to the lovely shopkeeper – whom we fondly patronised for as long as we studied there.

We weren’t flush with cash. We didn’t have shopping malls. And we didn’t even have McDonalds around each corner (this was in the year 2000). Money was tight – purchasing art supplies, books and endless trips to the printing house made sure of that. Whatever was left we scrimped on food. Bread was a staple at the time too – when we’re running out of time and cash, nothing fills you up faster than a roll of chocolate bun with a sticky black pseudo-chocolate filling with a side of lukewarm water.

It’s all very different now, of course. You have malls, left, right and centre. Fast food kiosks as far as the eye can see. Gourmet restaurants abound; and you’re spoilt for choice. Temptation in its many forms that clue you in on what money represents. And that’s just food. Let’s not even wander into the fashion industry, or the giant virtual malls that reside within the internet – one that offers a gateway to everything and anything your heart desires; open and available 24/7 with a mere click of a button and a working credit card.

I don’t blame you at all for thinking that cash is king. Money buys you lots of things. It buys you good food. Rad clothing. Fun toys. The best equipment and art supplies. And all these things make you happy. It’s a rather straight forward equation. Or is it?

The thing about money though, is that it doesn’t buy you freedom. When you’re doing things purely for money, you’re a slave to it. And it becomes your master. You’ll find yourself slaving away for him, in exchange for something that won’t be able to buy the things that truly matter. Things like love, friendship and time.

We’re living in a time where we constantly consume. We don’t create as much as we should, and this is a shame; because if we’re not creating, we are most likely consuming instead. Our eyes are fixated on screens while our wallets are empty. Our hearts grow heavy with greed; an endless, bottomless pit that desires more, more, more. The indescribable emptiness that spreads across our chest even as we move from one novelty to the next. One day we’ll find ourselves wondering what happened along the way that made us lose more of ourselves, little by little, piece by piece.

We’re all essentially broken – in fragments and bits, scattered around us in the people we love, the places we live in and the experiences we’ve yet to discover. Gathering those pieces and putting them together is what makes us human, and it’s what makes us special. We’re made up of everything, and yet we’re nothing. Money is merely an enabler and not the destination.

Do the things you’re good at, and the things that you love. Pick up the fragments and pieces of yourself through the work you do, so that you may put yourself back together. Figuring out how to do it is the best part about growing wiser. In the beginning you will be poor. You might have to share a plate of economy rice with a friend to get by (I hope not). But you’ll do better. The trick is to get better at the things you love, and to be nourished by the things you learn and the experiences you pick up along the way. Always endeavour to leave a mark. So much so that other people start to notice and respect you for what you do, and why you do it.

And you’ll realise along the way that the “why” isn’t always about the money.

It rarely ever is.

[Illustration: Thomas Bayrle]

One foot in front of the other


We’ve all been there, haven’t we?

We made grand plans. Big, big plans. Ginormous plans that make us toss and turn at night, giddy with excitement. Plans that you try to hide inside you that could just burst right out of your chest in a big bloody showdown, much like in the movies. You know,  Aliens-style. But instead you grin. A secret smile that only you know why.

There’s a list. There’s even a list of lists. A list so long that you continuously add to it until it becomes this snake of a paper trail that makes you beam even more in excitement.

A dance in the dark, a skip here and there.

It’s BIG. Oh yeah.

But then.

Nothing happens. You might cross one thing, or two off that list. But then you forget.

Days pass. Weeks. Months. And then before you know it, it’s been a year. Where did the time go?!

I’ll tell you where it might have gone:

Kids. Chores. Being a household manager. Dogs. Cats. Canaries. Parents. Relatives. Simply put: we all have lives outside of our dreams.

Full-time work. Part-time work. Freelance engagements. Contract work. Shitty day at the office. Hey, all valid – we need to eat, don’t we all?

Facebook. Twitter. Pinterest. Youtube. Etsy. Ebay. No? Really?

It’s easy to let other things creep into the cracks of our already fragile plans, hopes and dreams. Nothing is holding them together quite yet.

It’s easier to see what’s right in front of us, and wanting to settle the problems that’s plaguing us before we can even try to grasp something that isn’t quite there yet. Not yet.

It’s easier to say we don’t have enough time, instead of being ruthless with how we spend it.

No time is ever perfect, no situation is ever calm enough. The baby will cry, the dog is sick (and probably vomiting all over the lawn), your house is in a mess, and you have 20 tabs open on your web browser. You’re everywhere, and yet you’re nowhere.

Breathe in. And out.

Close your eyes.

Lie down.

Face down if you feel like it. (it helps me sometimes)

Take some time to think about that BIG dream you’ve been holding on to. 5 minutes. 10.

And when you get up, instead of going straight to your kid/dog/chores/*insert whatever needs your attention*, how about you take that one small step and cross one thing off your list?

No matter how small.

One step.

And wouldn’t you know it: you’re already on your way, getting back on track.

[Illustration credit: Hilarious comics by Sarah C. Andersen]
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