Alumni Spotlight // Entrepreneur

Portrait of an Artistic Entrepreneur
Illustrator Sadie Solomon `08 on crafting a creative business

Sadie Solomon’s pet cat inspired the name behind her online shop EmmieBean, a custom portrait business that grew from her digital illustration work at UC Santa Barbara. Customers can send in favorite photos of favorite moments, people and objects to be rendered in Solomon’s clean lines and vibrant colors. When she isn’t working on her next custom portrait or advocating for the handmade movement at craft fairs around the country, Solomon can be found right here at UC Santa Barbara advising the next generation of artists and communicators at the Word Magazine class taught at the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center.

In this Alumni Q&A, Solomon talks about getting rid of the term “starving artist” and embracing the potential – and the profits – of a building a creative business.

Why did you choose to study at UC Santa Barbara?

I knew I wanted to attend UCSB after a high school field trip my freshman year. It was so beautiful, and I could really see myself living in Santa Barbara. I was pretty sure I wanted to pursue a major in art, but since I wasn't 100 percent certain, I decided to forgo art school and instead attend a university where I could study other subjects as well. During my first year, I took Communication 1 to fill a general education requirement and found it fascinating. I decided that I couldn't choose between art and communication, so I ended up double majoring in both, while minoring in art history. I'm glad I made that decision because both my art and communication degrees have been very useful in my career as an illustrator and business owner.

What drew you toward the visual arts?

My grandfather, in addition to being one of the original aeronautical engineers at GE, is an artist, and he inspired me from an early age to pursue that skill. I also had some great teachers along the way that offered the training, encouragement, and critique I needed to develop my confidence as an artist. So many people have innate creative talent, but not everyone is lucky enough to have great mentors that mold and encourage that talent so the person feels confident enough to see it as something they could actually do for a living.

It's my personal belief that we need to lose the term "starving artist" and start teaching young people that being a creative is a reasonable career path for many, and that it can be just as stable and economically viable as jobs in other fields. I'm surrounded by an entire community of people who have proven this to be the case.

What inspires you as an artist?

All of the artists and makers of the current handmade movement inspire me. Right now there is a new generation of creative entrepreneurs making things with their hands, selling their own creations, and creating businesses for themselves outside of corporate America. And if they are collaborating with corporate businesses, like West Elm or Urban Outfitters for example, they are actually setting their own prices, still creating their own items by hand and in-house, and forcing these larger retailers to alter the way they've traditionally acquired and sold goods. We're seeing this collaboration between small and big business happen all over the country in response to consumers demanding American-made, quality items that are not mass-produced, and I'm lucky enough to call many of these game-changers my friends and colleagues.

What is it like to reach out to the next generation of creatives at UCSB

I have been lucky to advise the Word Magazine class for about six years now with my fellow advisors Ellen Anderson and DJ Palladino of Isla Vista Arts and the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center. I was one of the founding members of the magazine in 2008, and our goal then was to celebrate art and culture in Isla Vista, which is still the mission of the magazine today. Some amazing creative talent finds its way to Word, and I find a lot of joy in helping those students develop and hone their skills.

When mentoring the artists, I spend time discussing current editorial trends in design, illustration, photography, and typography, and train them in programs like InDesign, Photoshop, and Illustrator so they will be able to turn their conceptual ideas into a physical magazine. When students are able to apply the skills they've learned in Word to their creative careers when they graduate, I know I've done my job.

Tell us about your business - and what is behind the name EmmieBean?

I started EmmieBean Custom Portraits in 2009, shortly after graduating from UCSB. The concept behind EmmieBean is that people email me their favorite photo, I draw it, and mail them the print. I always knew that I wanted to make a living doing something that was creative, but I don't know that I specifically planned to run my own business. I had been developing my illustration style while in college, and showed my work a few times at Gallery 1434 in the art department on campus.

It was very generous of the art department to offer this gallery space to students, allowing them to put on their own shows and have the public interact with their work. After receiving positive feedback from attendees who came to my shows, I began to wonder if there was a way to leverage this new digital illustration style I was developing into freelance illustration work when I graduated. I opened an Etsy store in 2009 to test the waters, and was lucky enough to get some good press by the Los Angeles Times and MSNBC's Today. That sort of gave my budding business the boost it needed, and the orders started coming in.

In the early years I was only working on my EmmieBean portraits on nights and weekends while I worked full-time as an in-house graphic designer. After a few years of doing this, I had enough orders flowing in that I was able to quit my day job and move to full-time. Now I do about half of my business through my online storefront www.emmiebean.com, and the other half through various indie handmade marketplaces across the country.

How important is it for alumni to reach out to current students at UCSB - especially in your field?

It is really important for UCSB alumni to mentor and connect with current students. Especially in the arts, it is often a challenge for students to figure out how to apply the knowledge they've learned in their majors to a lucrative career, and speaking with alumni who have been able to do just that is really encouraging and informative. During my time at UCSB, I conducted many informational interviews with creative professionals while I was trying to decide which career path to take, and their wisdom and guidance was incredibly helpful in sussing out what I did and did not want to do for a living.

Even if a student reaches out to you and you might be in a different creative field than they want to go into, chances are you have a friend or colleague in another field that you can connect them with. It really is important that as UCSB alumni we all pay it forward.

In fact, we welcome creative professionals in the arts and writing to come and speak with the Word Magazine class every quarter, so if alumni are interested, they can contact me at ssolomon@ihc.ucsb.edu.


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