My last day of work was on the 16th, and I just had my first week completely left to my own devices! I'm trying to get a lot of the important stuff out of the way first: registering for classes and submitting grad school paper work, signing up for Mass Health, doing a deep clean of the apartment and donating things we don't need, planning a couple of family visits coming up, and doing some thinking about wedding plans. But I did reserve a day last week to get back on the saddle with drawing. It felt great! I'm now returning to the fishing scene I had started with back in 2017. Comparing these two panels, can you see a bit of growth? The one on the right I photographed in 2018. I feel like I've learned so much in terms of style, composition, and inventing images out of my head.
Going back to the last day of work, it was incredibly bittersweet as expected. I spent the days leading up to it conducting some virtual trainings and documenting a lot of the paperwork stuff I'd been handling for future reference (nothing too interesting – mostly dense material like sending employment contracts and creating competency-based interview feedback forms). On my last day it was a race against the clock to tie things off before losing access to my email account, like discussing the fate of my 401k, recording my remaining PTO time for my personal records, and cleaning out my inbox once and for all. It's surprisingly hard to let go of the vast number of documents I've referenced for years and projects I've chipped away at, even though I am excited by my next career steps.
In the afternoon, my colleagues set up some pastries, berries, and bubbly out on the deck at work and we had fun reminiscing and enjoying some long-awaited time in person and not in front of a screen. There is a common practice of wearing "animal print" (prints with literal animals) on our team, and without consulting, my manager and I both wore outfits with birds printed on them. One of my coworkers composed a number of beautiful (and funny!) haikus for me which I read aloud. My manager gave me a felt pennant of a gold sunrise to symbolize new beginnings, along with a red lightning bolt pin, a symbol of the Polish pro-choice women's marches (half of our coworkers are based in Warsaw and we discussed the movement in a recent team meeting). The group gifted me a custom book stamp ("From the Library of Hannah Dunscombe") and beautiful bound book from Etsy that collected photographs from my time at work and library due date cards filled out by hand with well wishes.
I spent the following day pasting in a box load of additional work photos and memorabilia that I had stored up, so much so that the book is now practically bursting at the seams! Assembling all of those memories and preparing myself to treasure the happy times for years to come was such a lovely way to balance out my sadness of leaving behind some of the greatest coworkers I've ever had the pleasure to work with.
Also I did end up getting into Simmons! Three of my former managers very kindly wrote letters of recommendation for me as well, which helped me get some extremely helpful scholarships too :)
Aside from working on the script, I haven't worked on the comic in two months. That said, this has been for fairly productive reasons that I hope will result in more time to work on the comic long term. In May I shared with my employer that I planned to leave my position mid-July. I gave eight weeks of notice as I am not immediately moving onto something with urgency. However, for some time I have struggled to find genuine fulfillment in my work as a recruiter and finally reached a point where I felt ready to make a change.
My plans are still coming together, but I have a rough sense of what I would like to happen. First, I am not looking to jump into another job immediately. I plan to take some time off and evaluate when I am ready to take on a part-time position to help keep us afloat financially. I am also currently applying to an online Library & Information Science masters program. My parents each served as librarians for over 30 years, and in considering where I have found the most fulfillment in my (non-art) career thus far, it has been in organizing information, creating systems, and helping people navigate them. Once I've found a rhythm with school, my ideal part-time position might be shelving books at a local library or serving as a cataloging clerk. Outside of that, I hope to have more bandwidth and energy to devote to the graphic novel as well as some commissions that I have not been able to take on.
For a long time, I felt that I had two options for work. Either I commit to a day job that offers me benefits, a salary, and financial security, at the expense of my capacity to do art on the side. Or I resume what I had been doing before that: a part-time position with unpredictable hours, no benefits, but more time for art; essentially I saw this as assuming the "starving artist" state where one scraps together income to stay afloat. There seemed to be a third option, in which I force commissions and original artwork sales to be my core source of income, but I cannot imagine putting that much pressure on those sources of comfort and passion and living with that much risk in ever-fluctuating markets for the arts. This has become especially clear in the last year. For a while I considered whether the graphic novel was a possible exit strategy – perhaps if I could get some traction with a book, then it would justify leaving my full-time job? – but again, placing that much pressure on something that has only ever been a cathartic and personal effort just didn't feel right either.
It was only recently that I started thinking about whether there is a middle ground. Perhaps there was a profession and opportunity that would not result in 50-hour work weeks and 15 hours of commuting weekly, but with a stable salary, benefits, and a set of responsibilities that I would enjoy. I don't know why it took me so long to seriously consider libraries, but the instant I started thinking it over, I felt a shock of realization and relief and I could start to imagine other parts of my future coming together. It also feels like an opportunity to continue a family legacy that I've always been proud of.
I am very excited to dive back into drawing the graphic novel once I depart. Lately I have spent my weekends preparing materials for my grad school application and hope to have that submitted by next weekend, and then will wait and see about acceptance from there.
It is a very hard decision to resign after over five years at my current workplace, because I love the people at my current job and will miss them very much, and it means letting go of a version of my future that I had become familiar with over time. Leaving can be so bittersweet. But it is also healthy for me to feel optimistic about my future, so I'm trying to focus on embracing that.
I heard about a small bright spot coming out of the Cambridge community this week: Danielle Geathers just became the first black woman to serve as Student Body President at MIT. In the article linked above she reflects on the importance of prospective students seeing their own culture and background reflected in the student and staff community - especially in leadership positions.
The Greater Boston community has a long way to go though. I work in an MIT-owned building in Kendall Square, a Cambridge neighborhood and business community often criticized as an ivory tower exponentially driving up property prices and rent largely due to the presence of Google, Facebook, Amazon, plenty of biopharma companies, and more. My company’s main function is to provide affordable and flexible workspace and accessible networking opportunities for startups and innovators, in an otherwise expensive, exclusive, and densely occupied business neighborhood. But, as the price of rent continues to sky rocket, the company ends up having to charge more per square foot just to cover our own rent, which works in direct opposition to the goal of accessibility and affordability. (Note, we offer free events and donate space to/partner with various community-oriented initiatives and nonprofit orgs, but this is obviously not enough to fix the issue of inaccessibility overall.)
With the current exclusivity in our neighborhood in mind, last year, the Kendall Square Association kicked off a monthly Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion learning community bringing together local KS business leaders. The focus of this discussion group was "Can Kendall Square pilot and scale ways of building inclusive institutions, by applying its [Research & Development] mindset to the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) issue?"
Since that group started, it sounds like there has been a lot of openness to accountability and self-criticism and lots of thoughtful ideas for future changes and initiatives to support the goal of making KS a more equitable and inclusive community. But of course there is still a lot of work to be done and a lot of those ideas are far from being rolled out. (Read more on the KSA DEIB initiative here.)
Because it’s easy to point to everyone else and whether they are/are not doing enough, I’m trying to turn the mirror on myself as a cog within the greater Kendall Square wheel. My big questions for myself within this context are:
1. What can I do as a member of a Talent Acquisition team in a Kendall Square business to make sure I am helping create a company that provides a welcoming, safe, worthwhile, and engaging community for existing and prospective BIPOC staff?
2. How can I work with my company to bring more BIPOC into positions of leadership and other parts of our work that are not accurately reflecting the community and population within which we operate?
Given that my team works in hiring and HR, DEIB (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Belonging) naturally surfaces in our work every day and it's something we always address up front when hiring for the Talent Acquisition department. But I am challenging myself with the questions above because my professional identity has always felt secondary to me; I've often felt like my individual identity is that I like to make art and that my professional day job is a way to pay the bills while I also work on creative things during my free time. But I'm recognizing that with my line of work, that's a place where I can make a tangible impact in the Black Lives Matter movement.
Here's some sobering context: Boston was recently voted last in a survey on how welcoming eight major US cities are to people of color. Last. In a region of the world know for being extremely progressive and liberal. On average, I interview anywhere between 5 and 25 people every week, have worked on entry-level to C-level searches, and my team reviews hundreds of resumes and applications from all over the world each month. We are responsible for finding valuable contributors who reflect the fabric of the community around us. And right now, we have a number of ongoing initiatives to keep ourselves accountable... but we are continuing to listen and learn and admit where we can do better.
Layla F. Saad held an Instagram Live lecture on the topic yesterday, titled "The Revolution with not be Colonised... by White Business Leaders" and this has been a nice resource to make sure I am pointing the finger back at myself and my company whenever I think about racism. She reminds me that it is a shield to simply call out others who are not doing enough when the most effective calling out should be happening within myself and my immediate sphere. View Layla's full session here.
Some helpful words written and emphasized by Layla that white business people like myself should keep in mind:
“The revolution will not be businesses, brands, and leaders who have silenced black voices for all these years, only now to post a black square and proclaim “Black Lives Matter”. The revolution will not be white-washed into a movement where people with white privilege get to feel like benevolent white saviors once again. The revolution will not be slotted into capitalism and used to sell white supremacy back to us.”
Over the last couple weeks I've been thinking about how I'm adapting to working from home and what has been working for me. My job normally keeps me quite busy when I'm onsite, so working entirely from home has been a relief. I know it has gotten old for a lot of folks who are able to do their jobs from home, and for various reasons, but I'm still feeling really positive about not needing to leave the house. This got me thinking about how much solitude I can handle, and I think it's quite a lot. Even as a kid, on the weekends I would keep to myself in my room doing crafts or reading while a lot of my friends were doing sports or going to parties, so I think I've just been restored to factory settings.
This has come up before the pandemic too. Last year I learned about a personality type called “highly sensitive person”. As the name suggests, this is a personality classification that indicates a high sensitivity to various triggers in daily life. I'm not totally bought into the idea that personalities fall into one bucket or another and imagine that for most traits there is a broad spectrum on which people fall. But in reading about the idea of 'high sensitivity' there are definitely some highs and lows that I can identify with. For instance, when I'm engaged with a project I'm often submerged for hours if there aren't any distractions. And when I hear a story from a friend I feel like I can visualize it with them. On the other hand, throughout my childhood I was constantly told that I was “too sensitive” by adults because I would cry over little things and I often felt like the emotional parts of my personality were weak and fragile. I'm also very sensitive to criticism and I may take a simple offhand comment as a lack of trust in me as a person. Small disruptions like misplacing an object really get to me too, and I sometimes agonize over certain kinds of violence in the media.
On top this, three years ago as part of a work offsite meeting, I took the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator, which is basically a personality test with 16 different classifications. Again, I try not to put too much stock in personality tests and think they should only be used to better understand your personal motivations and tendencies. Much like astrology, these things are pseudoscientific, but I think if there is something you can relate to that is inspiring or causes more self-reflection, that's great. In this case, I was classified as an "INFJ", which is basically the highly introverted bucket. The pillars of this classification are a gravitation toward meaningful connections + guarded personality/aversion to superficial connections, lofty goals + need to socially withdraw/recharge, creative nature + unrealistically high expectations and stubbornness, and compassion + oversensitivity. In reading through all of the material on INFJs, I felt like I had identified the source of a lot of my hangups and felt a little more comfortable in my own skin.
A few months later, I read Debbie Tung's graphic novel about her decision to leave her tech job and pursue a creative career. At the end of the story, she takes the Meyers-Briggs and is also classified as an INFJ. It was comforting to read through the experience of someone feeling the push and pull of managing the demands of a day job with the creative impulses of a personal career. Fastforwarding to today and the circumstances that the world is currently experiencing with COVID-19, I find a lot of her thoughtfulness about the sanctity of solitude and the value of chasing one's passions to be reassuring. Society is being told to stay home, so finding ways to cater to your defaults eases that adjustment.
When life is normal and we are not in the middle of a pandemic, things like a stressful commute, lots of meetings, and professional commitments are all out of my control and I find I am generally quite sensitive to all the hustle and bustle. I compensate for the sensation of being carried by the tide by building in subtle illusions of control in other parts of my life. I haven't done this consciously, but I tend to create order whenever I can: I use the same products everyday, make my bed the same way, organize my clothes by style and color, heavily use a label maker, and generally live by the "everything has a place and everything in its place" mentality. I have a high bar for order in my apartment, and get more upset over the messes of others than those of my own making. It's comforting to come home and feel that my environment is predictable.
With self-isolation/working from home, my daily life is free from a lot of my normal sources of stress and so I've been able to embrace routines even more. Despite being at the mercy of a global crisis, with small routines in place and without the need to navigate outside my home I feel a lot more centered. The catch phrase right now is "stay home", and because that is where I feel most at ease, the expectation is comforting in a way. I am lucky to still have a job and financial security and my health, and while I fret just as much as the next person about family members getting sick and longterm personal finances and the collapse of the economy, these little illusions of control allow me to let go of my existential worries.
The way things have been the last couple of months, I don’t have a commute, I don’t have to interact with strangers out in public outside of the handful of trips to the market around the corner, I don’t have a large part of my brain occupied by spacial awareness while I’m in a busy office, and I'm making less surprise small-talk. The roads are quieter, I can spend more time with my guinea pig, I have my own kitchen at my disposal, and I can be alone to recharge when I need to be. I still have virtual places to be at certain times during my work day, but meetings feel more under control when taken from my room and my desk, both meticulously programmed to my optimum comfort levels. I am also able to work by a window and out on my deck, whereas in my office, I usually don't see daylight. During a period when the passing of time has become quite imperceptible because each say is so similar to the last, I'm hyper aware of the weather (can I crack my window?), the quality of the sunlight (do I need to draw the blinds to avoid a glare?), and the change of seasons (does that tree across the street always bloom so slowly?). This helps me feel more at peace with the world outside - as scary and as unpredictable as it is.
Everyone is responding to the virus in their own way depending on their line of work and what helps them cope. Some are in an essential line of work and are keeping society running and as healthy as can be, some feel called to act through volunteerism, and others are learning something new or finding comfort in what they know. I'm certainly not an essential worker and in terms of volunteering, have only signed on to run errands for people in my community but have not actually had the opportunity to do so. So my area of expertise is mostly in "staying home" and finding ways to be productive, I'm going to try and share what has been working for me over the course of the next week.
Here's a little slideshow of what I've been working on since mid-March... the images are terrible quality because I haven't scanned them in or anything, but you get the idea.
Social distancing in response to COVID-19 has been a strange experience for me so far, as I'm sure it has for everyone.
I'm lucky that 1. I still have my job and it can be done 100% from home and 2. my natural default is to stay at home working on quiet things. I know that considering oneself an "introvert" is all trendy right now, but being in the comfort of my own home working on quiet things is where I'm happiest. I've slowly realized that it's how I recharge, so being able to do that every day - even take work calls from the comfort of my personal desk - means that my social battery is full much more consistently, and a fuller battery means that I have more energy to work on projects.
My company asked my team to work from home the week of March 9th, which was fairly early in the Boston area, and so it's been almost a whole month already. Time slips by pretty imperceptibly and the days melt into each other without the normal commutes and different surroundings to break up the day and mark the time. But I'm really grateful to have an activity that keeps my mind so occupied during such a scary time. I save at least 10 hours per week not having to commute, I get more sleep, and I can still stay up a little later working on projects without worrying about being tired at work the next day (I'm naturally a night owl, as much as I've tried to be otherwise).
In the last 3 weeks, the only places I've gone are the grocery store around the corner a total of four times, and the local Blick art supply store, which I rollerbladed to for a curbside pickup order of art supplies. That's it. Otherwise I've gone for walks around the neighborhood, sat on my deck, and stayed in my house. There are moments where I'm a little concerned about how much time has passed with me moving within such a tiny radius for days at a time - mostly because it's just strange - but for the most part I feel in my element being tucked away in my room with my guinea pig and headphones and a very clearly demarcated 8 hours for work each day that end exactly at 5pm. Then I usually eat dinner with Chris and spend 4-5 hours working on art.
I've made so much progress in the last month and it really knocks me on my butt how productive I can be when I'm not feeling tugged in every direction at work and getting deflated by the rough commute. It's like art school again, where the main expectation I had of myself was to be at my desk getting things done. The more I do that for my day job, the more I can build a routine for it on my personal time and it feels less intimidating to sit at my desk.
Obviously it's not all sunshine and daisies; there is a different kind of stress always looming, you know, the big, lumbering kind that comes with a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and economic crisis and dread that I have the virus and am asymptomatic. When I go to the store, I've started wearing a mask that I use for oil paint mixing, just in case. And I know I'm lucky that I still have a job and that I can put myself at minimal risk and that Chris is still working, while so many people in my life have been furloughed or laid off entirely or have to put themselves at risk. Chris works as an electrician and technically falls under the "essential" category of work, but he also works with his dad and stresses every day about either exposing his dad to the virus or his dad being exposed on a job site. They just applied for a small business loan to keep them afloat so that they both have the option to stop working and stay home. Chris might even stop at the end of this week just to reduce the risk that his dad is facing, even though they tend to go everywhere together anyway and are exposed to the same people and surfaces. But he worries that if they don't get the loan, they won't have any income.
But it is a relief to carve out a quiet part of this bizarre period to work on something I cherish. I started working on much bigger paper, and am really invested in the idea of working with colored pencils all the sudden. I may incorporate watercolor washes still, but I do love simple contour drawings. That said, I kinda feel like the crayon/colored pencil look with monochromatic shading has been done a lot lately (especially with digital drawing platforms) and it's a bit uninteresting; I don't just want to choose to do it that way because it's popular right now and I know it will be accepted fairly easily. I still don't see that much watercolor out there in the graphic novel world and it's one of my favorite mediums because it can both be extremely bright and extremely subdued without feeling all over the map. I may still push to see if there is a way to incorporate it. But the last thing I want is to make unnecessary work if what I have stands on its own, or to trash something by incorporating too many ideas.
Looking over the year so far, I've made a ton of progress with thumbnailing which is a huge relief. It's not the most interesting thing to post about, but I've tried to force myself to chip away at that and now only have maybe a quarter left to thumbnail somewhere in the second half of the book. It still seems like a lot to go, but I was worried if I didn't start allowing myself to dive into the finished product, I would stall out and get discouraged.
A couple weeks ago, I decided to illustrate a full chapter as a test-run: working speed, efficiency, practice with different faces, level of detail, color pallet, material, size, and texture. So far I have three pages done and I'm loosening up. I'd like to have this as a proof of concept by the end of the summer (I know that seems far away but I'm still learning and drawing comics is still foreign to me). Then by the start of 2021, I'd like to have a couple chapters to start shopping around and see if this could go anywhere. But that's not really the important part. Regardless of where it goes out in the world, I need this story to be on paper and not just in my brain, so it will always be something I'm working on even if people don't appear interested in reading it.
Anyway, yesterday I accidentally messed up some shadows in the last two panels of the third page and they really felt like eye sores to me... so now I'm going to spend the next couple hours tracing everything. Womp womp. At least I can fix some other little things that were bugging me I guess.
PS: I think I can actually draw a bike now without the need for a visual reference! I love the feeling of being able to invent something in my brain and put it on paper without needing to crosscheck Google images; though I do have a rich collection of bike images and other tricky-to-draw things on a Pinterest page, not gonna lie. Reference photos are always super important, but it's a relief when you can stop relying on them all the time and trust your own brain. The easier that becomes, the faster the drawing goes!
Hannah Dunscombe is a painter and portrait artist based out of Mansfield, MA.