This post was originally written for the blog Artists Tell Their Stories.
I’ve wanted to make art for as long as I can remember. I spent my childhood drawing more than anything else. I took every art class I possibly could as a teenager and never considered not studying art in college. I had a brief flirtation with graphic design when I attended the Rhode Island School of Design Pre-College summer program. But this was before computers and it held no appeal for me. I much preferred the time I spent in RISD’s Nature Lab where I was able to check out a taxidermied squirrel and take it back to my dorm room to draw it.
Unlike a lot of artists, I was also always really good at and very interested in math. I may be the only art major who actually took calculus as an elective in college. When computers became easily accessible, I was immediately hooked. But it took quite a few years before my art and my computers joined forces.
My undergraduate studies (University of Georgia) were in fine art – drawing and painting and my graduate studies (Savannah College of Art & Design) were in fibers. In between I’ve also flirted with printmaking, ceramic sculpture and jewelry. But drawing was always my first love.
My first job when I finished grad school was for an apparel company in Alabama, designing t-shirts for organizations like National Audubon Society, Ducks Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy. Getting paid to draw plants and animals all day? Yes please! I got the job based on my drawing and (limited) design skills, but I had only used a computer for design for the one test assignment I was given for the job. So when I started working, and was presented with a computer to use to design t-shirts, I panicked (on the inside)!
And so began my self-taught computer design career. I still spent the majority of my time drawing by hand, but learned how to use the computer to complete my designs. My professional life has been a tug-of-war between art and design ever since.
Art and design have some similarities and quite a few differences. They are both very creative endeavors that encourage problem solving and satisfy my lifelong need to create something. However, fine art (to me) allows me to be creative with no confines other than my own imagination and skill. Design is being creative in solving someone else’s problems.
After the job at the apparel company, I moved back to Atlanta and freelanced for a while doing design and illustration for local businesses. This was in the mid 90s and the internet was just starting to be a place where people presented portfolios and looked for jobs. I taught myself enough web design and coding to put up a portfolio website to show my design and art work in the hopes of getting more freelance work. I launched a website for my newly named design business – Blue Frog Designs – in early 1997.
I started listing web design and HTML skills on my resume and job searching websites. In late 1997, after one freelance web design/development job I was contacted by a contracting company looking to fill a 30 day temp job doing HTML for IBM. That temp job turned into a 10 year career ending with me as a Creative Director working with clients like The New York Times, Carrefour (the second largest retailer in the world at the time), the 2000 Sydney Olympics and other global companies.
It was an amazing experience that I have no regrets about, except that it took me away from working on my own art for many years. I was working 80 hour weeks and traveling quite a bit and when I had any free time, I had no creative energy left to make art. I had an amazing creative career with impressive clients and better salary and benefits than any art major ever imagines, but I was dying inside. I knew I needed to make a change.
I decided to go back to freelancing and brought Blue Frog Designs back to life, with the thought that I could control my own schedule and do enough design work to pay the bills while having the time and energy to get back to my own art. I decided that I’d need to leave Atlanta, since I wouldn’t be able to afford to live there any longer without the high-paying job. I found Paducah, Kentucky and the Artist Relocation Program while looking for a smaller, more affordable town that still had something going on culturally. This was in early 2003. By the end of that year, I was living in Paducah’s LowerTown Arts District. It was another four years before I left IBM and went out on my own again, but in that transition time, I got back into making art and settled into a community that I love.
I’m still walking that line between art and design, but as time goes on it’s more and more on my own terms. The design still pays most of my bills and I’m working on tipping the balance more towards art – but the tug-of-war between art and design is now feeling more like a nice balance and not a struggle. I used to see it as two different worlds that I went back and forth between, and now I’m feeling as if it’s merely two sides of who I am. My biggest project right now is merging those worlds conceptually and literally. In the past I have always considered it two separate businesses and maintained two separate websites for the art and design. I am currently working on merging the two – from Blue Frog Designs for my design work and nikkimay.com with my art portfolio – I am forming one business, one site under the name Nikki D. May Art + Design, where you’ll be able to see all of the work that I do for myself and for my clients.
It’s been a long road, but I’m well on my way to living the more balanced life doing the art and design work that I love!