Should you go to that conference? How to decide on events that are worth your time and money



If you’ve subscribed to my newsletter, you might know that I recently went to Amsterdam and Berlin. Prior to my trip, I asked my fantastic readers to share their best tips for traveling over there, like what’s the best place for food and what to do (pssst: If you’re not on my private mailing list yet, head here to sign up!) The trip was mainly to attend Pictoplasma 2016 in Berlin, which I have heard so many good things about for the past few years. It was my first time in Europe. It was also the first time I sat in an airplane for 14 hours. It was exciting.

It was also scary.

Before I decided to attend Pictoplasma, I thought of going for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content in Singapore – AFCC (an event that I’ve been attending for the past 3 years, invited both as a moderator and speaker). But when I realised that I didn’t have to go this time round, I asked myself – where should I go instead? Maybe it’s time for a change, I thought. I’ve always wanted to go to Europe to see what it’s like. Pictoplasma is two months away, and by a stroke of pure luck, there was an ongoing promotion of cheap flights to Europe at the time. Fifty percent off the normal ticket price was a pretty good deal, I thought!

Once I started thinking, I then asked myself – what’s stopping me from considering other events? So I turned my focus on another event – the ICON 9 Conference in Austin, Texas. Both were within mere months from each other. I had to decide: Europe or the US. I could only pick just one.

I calculated the cost of accommodation, flight and meals for both to see if I would be able to afford the trip – and it turns the Europe trip was the one that I could afford. Tickets to the US were expensive (50% more), and to cut a long story short, I was able to take advantage of more cost savings that Europe had to offer – including a standing invitation from a lovely friend to stay at her apartment throughout the duration of my trip.

So Europe it was.

To be honest, I never thought that I’d be able to set foot in Europe so soon. For those who traveled often, it might not seem like a big deal but it was always something that I had dreamed of doing, but was something that I waved away as pure indulgence and was out of reach for me. Because it was so far away (14 hours by flight!) Maybe when I had more money. Maybe it’s a trip I should go with my family. Maybe I should stick to Asian countries first – there’s quite a few that I haven’t been to. I’ve set up so many imagined roadblocks for myself that I hadn’t realised that I was holding myself back.

But you know what? Screw it. There’s only so much time I could waffle on about this, so I booked a flight, and bought a ticket to Pictoplasma two months before the event. I was really lucky because the stars all aligned for me in terms of budgeting. If you’re wondering how I did it – there’s no magic here. I’m as boring as can be:I took on more projects to defray costs. I saved up.  I’m a very frugal person, plus I don’t have other responsibilities beyond my mortgage and miscellaneous living expenses, so I am lucky to have been able to save up a fair bit for stuff like this. And if you’re a scrooge like me, you’ll know that it’s hard to let go, especially when things like this are right in front of you – even though you saved up just for it. It’s a complex, I know.

What if you’re thinking of going to an event? How would you decide if it was worth your time and money? I’ve been to my share of events – both in and out of the country to further my skills and open up my horizons. I’ve also learnt when to say no to opportunities that I felt were not the best use of my time. But like the above, I’ve also learnt to take risks and to just say a big huge yes. I used to get big pangs of FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out when I was first starting out. Having to say no would make me hyperventilate with fear at the thought of losing out on experiences, contacts and networking opportunities. These days however, I’m weighing the pros and cons of every invitations I get carefully before deciding if I should go. My heart doesn’t give off a weird, awkward twang anymore when I have to write an email to decline an invitation. Instead it’s more of a relief, I’d say.

So if you’re curious on how I’ve managed to stave off the ugly FOMO monster, here’s my personal checklist of considerations that I run in my head before I say yes to an engagement or event:

1. Return on Investment (ROI)
In a perfect world, you wouldn’t have to think about ROIs for when you’re attending events. In a perfect world, I’d love to say yes to everything and every event I’m invited to. But I have only one body, one mind (which I’d like to keep sane) and a pair of hands and legs that can only be at one place at any given time. You know how people make a list of pros and cons and then weigh it against each other? This is no different. What would you get out of the event? Are there other events that would be able to provide you with the same opportunities? Who would you like to meet? Could you email or phone them instead? Could you watch the rerun online later? Factoring the practical side of the equation will help you make a more informed decision.

2. Can I afford it?
Budgeting is a real concern when it comes to traveling; particularly when the event takes you out of the country. Would I have enough funds to get there and back? What about food, living and traveling expenses? What if I run into problems over there? Money, however, is an issue that can be settled if you have enough time. Most of the time, planning well ahead will afford you cheaper tickets (much like accommodations, where you can find better rates and locations to cut down on the need for commuting). Not enough funds? If you plan ahead, you can factor in your planning to get some extra money. Take on extra freelance work, or set up a stall or online shop. Hustle, hustle and hustle some more. Get a sponsor. Talk to people who might be able to benefit from your opportunity. Get creative – there’s only so much you can save, but your earning potential is limitless, especially if you do it thoughtfully and purposefully. Stay local – I usually opt to stay at an Airbnb or a local bed and breakfast whenever I traveled so that I had someone to consult when I was there – this time I picked Airbnb as it was on a short notice and having hosts who could give you tips on transportation and general tips is tremendously helpful especially when you need to orientate yourself quickly. When you’re there, pack your own lunch too to save money and time. Discover the local markets/grocery store – this makes me giddy with joy because I enjoy learning how to live and eat like a local.

3. Am I going for someone, or for myself?
I’ve been invited to events where I’d turn up as a favour to the host or invitee. And while some of these events have been great and I’ve come away from it inspired and energised; there have been a few that has made me regret wasting my time because I was trying to be polite. If you’re a freelancer or if you’re self-employed, you might get this guilt more often than not: should I go, or should I not? If I don’t go, maybe my client won’t give me more jobs. If I do go, there’s also the possibility that I might enjoy myself and learn something new. It was mostly the latter for me, luckily, when I was first starting out. I approached a lot of these events with an open mind and was ale to learn lots of cool things, form friendships as well as collaborations that has lasted until today. Remembering this point can sometimes bring up the FOMO monster again, but I’ve since learned to make better decisions.

5. Can you get your things in order before you go away?
Can your business still run while you are away? Can you get time off from work? Can you relax for a bit and not have to think about work while you’re somewhere else? Could you work while traveling? Do you want to? Or would you prefer to line things up so that you can clear your desk and pile ahead of time before you disappear for a few days (or weeks – it’s up to you!)

6. Can I also explore other things and places, and meet other people within the vicinity?
I love to kill two birds with one stone. For me to travel to Europe, I’d really like to max out my time there since it takes about 14 hours (not including layovers) to get there. Being the sort of person who likes to soak in a particular place for a few days (to get better acquainted, and fall in love with it) instead of being the harried traveler, the maximum number of big cities/countries I’d like to cover is no more than 2-3 at one time. I took 17 days to cover 2 countries, which has been a really nice pace – your mileage will vary though! In between, I made sure I had time to meet up and visit lovely friends who I’ve only spoken to via emails, which is a real treat! I also was fortunate to have a roof over my head to call home, hence I was able to stay longer without denting my budget. Recently, I time and plan my travels to also coincide with flea markets happening in the area – I love finding gems that won’t break the bank, while buying directly from local residents.

7. How much do you need/want it?
Sometimes things don’t make sense. You might not get everything you want from that just one event. Maybe it’s just a small chunk of knowledge that you’re itching to get. Maybe you’d really like to say hello to that hero of yours that flew in all the way from someplace far that would be see hell freezing over before you could get there (talk about meeting halfway, eh?) Life can be irrational sometimes. People can be irrational sometimes. And it’s okay. If you think that going to this event would or could change the course of your career or even life (hey, it happens!) then by all means, you don’t need people telling you what you should or should not do.

I won’t be the first to admit that when I want to travel, it’s not just because of work. Like the above considerations, there’s lots of things that go into a decision to get on an airplane, but one of the biggest deciding factor for me is also one that’s very subjective, and sometimes a little selfish. Very often, when I decide to go away by myself, it’s for me to clear my head or for when something bad has happened and I would need some time to process things through. I liken it to having new memories to replace the not-so-good ones!

Whether it’s to get away after watching my first dog die of cancer, or because I felt stuck; traveling – going away and then coming back – keeps me sane. The line “I need to go away” is one that I’ve used a few times when life knocks the wind out of me, and I’m very lucky that my family understands my need to do so. Experiencing different sensory inputs and being in a new place, meeting new people and trying out things I don’t normally get to do – it refreshes and rejuvenates the way I can’t describe it. Yes, I do come back to the same situation at the end of it. My dog is still dead. My teeth issues are still there, waiting for me. I have work that’s piled up sky high. But I come back a different person, with new eyes. I’m itching to get back to work, sleeves rolled up and ready to go. And this alone makes going away worthwhile (in addition to all of the above reasons that I’ve mentioned).

And so I’m back from Europe. And you know what? I’ve built up the idea of visiting Europe so much that when I was in Amsterdam I kept touching the many bridges there while I was crossing the canals to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. I thought to myself: hey, it wasn’t that difficult to get here. It was doable. Yes, it took many years to save up for it, but it also took me the same amount of time to get over my money issues – let’s just say that I am so thrifty that Asian parents everywhere would be proud of me.

As for Pictoplasma? While it was a fun event, I doubt that I would go again in the future as an attendee. First, the good stuff: I learned a lot of new things, met some fantastic artists and made new friends. The not-so-good? I thought the organizers could do better with the opening party and hosting better programmes in the evenings after the conference, so that everyone could maximise their time there, as there were quite a few people who flew in from around the world just to attend (eg. the ability to procure drinks at a bar does not make it a programme for me, really). I say this after having been to a few conferences that was managed a bit better in terms of giving attendees value for their money, and were more proactive in organising ice-breaking events for attendees. But because I managed to cover most of the items on my checklist above in addition to the conference, I had a brilliant trip that’s worth so much more than if I had flew in just for the event.

So if you’re ever wondering about whether going to an event would be worth it, I hope the above checklist is helpful! For me, this trip isn’t just about Pictoplasma, or about going to Europe for the first time in my life; it’s also learning that nothing is out of reach. Yes, I consider myself very fortunate to be able to travel as it’s never lost on me that not many have the opportunity as I did. It might take you months, or even years (like me), but with the right planning, budget and timing, traveling outside your comfort zone is highly recommended to expand your horizons – physically, mentally and emotionally.

Just don’t do it because you have FOMO.

[Illustration by Matteo Berton]

Working in 6 cities in less than a year: an interview with Sara Gelfgren

Berlin Co-working

Today’s interview is with Sara Gelfgren, a London-based illustrator who has lived and worked in 6 different cities – all within the span of less than a year – and has illustrated the experience on her blog Illustratour. I’m currently away in Japan for 2 weeks and so I’m really intrigued with how she has managed to pull off such a feat – it’s always been a dream of mine to work in different cities, and she’s proof that it can be done! I get the dish on how Sara has pulled it off right here in the interview below. Enjoy!

Tell us a little bit about yourself!

I’m a Swedish illustrator normally based in London. I moved to London almost a decade ago to do my Art & Design Foundation at Central Saint Martins. I went on to completing a BA in Fashion Management. After graduation I realised that working in fashion wasn’t for me so I ended up working at a business/lifestyle magazine instead. That didn’t feel like my calling in life either so eventually I decided to do what I wanted to do all along: illustration. Rather that going back to studying I jumped in at the deep and tried learning on the job. It took me a over a year to start making any money to speak off, but for the past 2 years I’ve been able to support myself working exclusively as an illustrator.

6 cities in 6 months – that’s quite a feat! What was the inspiration behind this project, and why did it come about?

I went to a talk in late 2014 were ‘Nomadlist’, a website that lists the bests places to live and work remotely in the world, was mentioned. That website made me realised that there’s a large group of people around the world living nomadically as their jobs are location independent and as a result they can work from anywhere. The term ‘digital nomad’ is usually used to describe them. I then had the ‘aha’ moment were I realised that my job as an illustrator doesn’t actually require me to be in London. Most communication required to do my job is carried out via email and I can easily do meetings over Skype. I decided that I wanted to give living nomadically a shot over a fixed period of time and try out living in as many cities as possible, whilst still staying long enough to be able to set up a routine. Hence 6 cities in 6 months felt right.


Beach Taghazout

How did you determine which country you would venture to? Was there a list?

I thought that finding a good co-working space was essential to not get isolated and have a functional work routine. So that was one of the most important criteria for choosing the cities. I was on a budget, so the cost to rent a room through Airbnb in the city was important and the lifestyle I would be able to afford. Climate was also a deciding factor and how expensive it was to fly there!

Which country has been your favourite so far?

That’s a hard question to answer, because I had really different experiences in each place. I’ve had a really good time everywhere!

Lisbon things


Cycling Barcelona


How did you sustain yourself on the project? I know a lot of artists and illustrators who would love to do what you’re doing, but money is a big concern. How did you address that on your travel?

Throughout these months I’ve been working full time and I haven’t actually seen any decline in clients, quite the contrary. So I’ve been earning the same amount as I did in London, but many of the cities have been cheaper to live in. So I’ve actually had more spending power than in my normal life. The main problem was that I’m a bit of a compulsive planner and wanted to have all my flights and accommodation sorted before I left London. I booked most of my accommodation through Airbnb which requires you to pay in advance. I had some savings that I could use for this advance payment. But I’m able to pay off that dept to myself now. So I’m returning to London having not seen any decline in earrings and without having had to dip into my savings, so that feels good!

Hong Kong


Food - Hong Kong

What was the biggest takeaway or life lesson that you’ve gained from this project?

I’ve gotten insight into so many different ways of living over the last few months. For me the difference between being on holiday somewhere as opposed to living and working there is immense. Because I’ve been living in Airbnbs with locals and working in co-working spaces I’ve got a much better idea of what a normal life looks like in these places. I feel like this information makes me much better equipped to make decisions about where and how I want to live going forwards.

Another life lesson (which may sound like a no-brainer!) is that I’ve really understood the importance of relationships. I’ve met a lot of incredible people during these months, many of which I was sad to move on from when I went to the next city. And that for me is the biggest problem with living nomadically. I want to maintain longterm friendships and also be able to create new ones by having a stable base in one place.

What’s next for you?

I do feel that I want London to remain as my base going forwards and I’ll be coming back to live there permanently on the 1st of January. My friends have started up a new co-working space so I’ll be working from there.

Although if the opportunity to work somewhere else temporarily presents itself I’ll definitely be open to it!


Thanks Sara!

She’s now in Indonesia, and you can catch up with her on her blog!

Interview: Damon Kowarsky

I’m so thrilled to share an interview I recently did with Damon Kowarsky – an artist who has exhibited regularly in Australia and abroad and worked as a scientific, courtroom, and archaeological illustrator. His latest exhibition with Kyoko Imazu is currently held from from 7 – 30 March 2014, entitled “Life Along the River“, and is installed at the Aesop headquarters in Hong Kong while also being shown at the Odd One Out gallery.

Collaboration is the the focus of my interview this time – Damon has worked with Kyoko Imazu and Muhammad Atif Khan, and I dig a little deeper to find out more about how he works with others, how the collaboration with Aesop came about, and what advice he has for young artists.


Damon Kowarsky

Hi Damon! Could you tell us a little bit more about yourself and the work that you do? What is the primary medium that you work in?

I’m primarily a printmaker and make etchings from copper plates. It’s a very old technique – 500 years or so – and has evolved from a commercial process into one that is used exclusively for fine art. I tend to make images of people, places and things. These could be models from local life drawing classes, cityscapes of New York or Cairo, airplanes, plants or portraits of friends.

You’ve travelled intensively to South Asia, Europe and the Middle East – how has this influenced your work?

Hugely! Travel is when I do the research for all my images. There is nothing like being a stranger in a new place to force you to look around. I was fortunate to work on an archaeological dig in Egypt and study miniature painting in Pakistan. These experiences changed the way I make pictures and opened all sorts of unexpected doors.

What’s the core message behind what you do?

In terms of the meaning of the work I have no idea. I simply make images that I like to look at and say something about the places that inspired them. If there is a larger message it is that picture making is critically important, and that hand crafted images are even more essential in these days of everyone having a camera and access to everything you could ever have seen with a few clicks of a mouse.

You’ve done a lot of collaborations – most recently with Muhammad Atif Khan and Kyoko Imazu; how did that come about?

The collaboration with Kyoko began because we were both working in the open studio of Australian Print Workshop. One day Kyoko came up and said that she’d like to ‘vandalise’ my work. It was impossible to say no. This was in 2008 and we’ve been working together ever since.

A few years later Atif saw the work Kyoko and I made on the web and suggested doing a project with him. This was a great opportunity to get further involved with the country after having taught and studied there. Atif and I produced 20 prints for ‘Hybrid’ in 2012, and in the process become very good friends. We are working on part two of the project for when I return to Lahore in September.

Damon Kowarsky

Could you tell us a little bit more in detail about how you come up with collaborations, and what does it entail? (some details about who bears the cost, what happens when there’s a sale, etc)

With Kyoko I generally give her a drawing that she then modifies in some way. In the series ‘Along the River’ those drawings came from a 3m panorama that I made of Kyoto. Once we have both worked on the drawings and are happy with the results we process and print the copper plates together.

With Atif there is a bit more back and forth as we each take turns to provide the first drawing. Atif works mostly with found and appropriated images and I work mostly with drawing. In ‘Hybrid’ we tried to synthesise these two languages. We are sticking to a similar plan for ‘Hybrid II’ as we wanted the images rather than the process to be central focus.

With both collaborative projects we’ve been lucky to have support from partners including the Japan Foundation Sydney, Arts Victoria and the Australian High Commission Islamabad. We have also used our own resources to make sure things happen. Sales are divided equally between the artists.

Do you think collaborations are important for artists?

They can be. If you are lucky to find one that works that’s great. But there is no pressure to do so, and there are many artists for whom collaboration would just be a bad idea. Collaborating is like have a conversation. Some people are easy to talk to, others are not. And there are always times when you prefer to be alone with your thoughts for a while.

Damon Kowarsky

You are also a teacher – has it influenced your own work in some ways?

I teach very little really. Most of what I do is in Pakistan where there is a strong sense of responsibility between practicing artists and students. Even artists with enormously successful international careers [like Imran Qureshi who recently won the Deutsche Bank Artist of the Year Award] are still involved in the education system. I can’t imagine artists of equivalent stature teaching in Australia.

Teaching is demanding, but it is also fun. It is a chance to pass on what you were taught. For me many of those lessons came from Godwin Bradbeer during my time at RMIT. Godwin is a brilliant artist and educator, and has influenced generations of young artists in Melbourne.

I understand that you’re a part of Odd One Out – an artist agency based in Hong Kong.  For your latest exhibition with Kyoko Imazu that’s going to grace the walls of Aesop’s Head Office in Hong Kong, how did it all begin?
What role does Odd One Out play in the exhibition?

The collaborations with Aesop began in 2009. The Australian Print Workshop was then under renovation and I was doing a paste up of proofs [the trial copies and mistakes in any edition] on the hoarding outside the building.

Just as I was finishing a man asked if I’d like to do a paste up in his shop. Without asking who he was or which shop I said yes. The man turned out to be the founder of Aesop and the shop was their Gertrude Street store. Since then I have installed work in six Aesop stores in Melbourne, Sydney, Tokyo and Hong Kong. It’s been great to work with a company that has such a strong focus on contemporary art and design, and is keen to support it in concrete ways.

Odd One Out represents my work in Hong Kong. Phemie Chong, Odd One Out’s director, is extremely dynamic and is always looking for partners and opportunities to promote the gallery and the artists she represents. Phemie is also a lot of fun, and was happy to spend a day with her hands in wallpaper glue sticking proofs to Aesop’s walls.

Damon Kowarsky

Do you have any advice for young artists and illustrators out there?

Keep going! Too many people stop too soon after graduating. Say yes to stuff. The projects with Aesop happened because I was out on the street doing wacky things with old prints.

Be nice. Or failing that be damn good.

Read Paul Arden’s “Whatever You Think, Think The Opposite” and “It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be” and take his advice. Especially the bits about working hard, setting your standards high, and showing an utter disregard for where you think your abilities end.

Listen to or read Neil Gaiman’s 2012 speech to the University of the Arts Philadelphia.

Keep going!

Work hard. Make the most beautiful things you can. Remember that beautiful is not always pretty. Or even nice.

Go out and look at the world. Draw from life. Travel. Visit museums and galleries but also listen to music and read books. Learn from the past but don’t be a slave to the present. Tell anyone who tells you it can’t be done to f*** off. And mean it by making those impossible things happen.

Work hard. Have fun, but work hard. Really hard. Really, really hard.


Thanks so much Damon! Life Along the River is happening now in Hong Kong until 30th March 2014, and you can read more details about the exhibition here.

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