Portrait of an Independent Artist in Boston
by Erin Christie
When one thinks of the “arts,” images of the bright lights of Hollywood Boulevard and the glitz and glamor of Broadway twinkle in the eyes of many. In a large sense, cities become a metropolis where creatives of all different platforms can thrive, network, and craft at ease. Boston, though, hasn’t exactly garnered a reputation for its representation of the arts because, frankly, it doesn’t have much as say, Los Angeles or New York City. However, that isn’t to say that there isn’t a budding scene in the works, one that’s filled to the brim with talent that deserves far more recognition and projects that should be screamed about from rooftops in the middle of Downtown Crossing.
As I moved to Boston impending my debut at Emerson College during the fall of 2017, I knew that I wanted to become as involved as possible. As archaic as it sounds, Facebook became a haven: a place through which I could discover new popular hang-out spots, niche events where local creatives could congregate, and more. Through one of my bouts of digging and searching through various Emerson-affiliated comedy troupe meetings, religious gatherings, and more, I came upon an event sponsored by a local group known as Boston Hassle, the Black Market. Immediately compelling based on its title alone, I drew upon images of coolers filled with severed limbs and illegally-obtained documents as I entered the Massoit Elks Lodge in Cambridge for my very first outing with BH. There, I was greeted with something entirely more wonderful (and definitely less visually scarring): a space beaming with amazing artists, musicians, and other creatives from all over Boston, promoting, selling, and socializing. There, I came to know that despite being lesser-known, Boston’s art scene is bustling with promise.
During my first time at the Black Market, one booth in particular stood out to me, that belonging to Julia Emiliani of Over it Studio. Decked out in an aesthetic sweeter than bubblegum, tinged with feminist values and spooky accents, I was immediately drawn to her craft like a moth to fluorescent light. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Emiliani over e-mail, prompting a discussion of the local Boston art scene, her artistic history, style, and influences, as well as the stigma against artist’s in our current climate.
To introduce yourself, feel free to just write as much as you want about you, your passion, your style/ aesthetic/ your work!
Hi! I’m Julia and I’m an artist and illustrator based in Boston. I work full time as an illustrator and run an Etsy shop of goods and accessories called Over it Studio. Currently I find a lot of inspiration in fashion, vintage finds, cult comics and cartoons, domestic themes, color and pattern. I love cats and the color pink!
How did Over it Studio come to be?
Over it Studio came to be shortly after graduating from Massachusetts College of Art and Design from the Illustration program in 2015. I graduated on a Friday and started my first “grown up” job the following Monday at a fast-paced marketing agency as a graphic designer/illustrator. It was really challenging in the beginning! Between learning the ropes at my day job and adjusting to full-time “adulting”, I felt like I needed to create a consistent personal practice to both channel some frustrations stemming from my 9-5, and to ensure I was making art every day despite a busy schedule. I had some ideas kicking around and decided to try selling some t-shirts and stickers I made at a Black Market presented by the Boston Hassle in 2015. I ended up selling nearly all of those items and decided to open an Etsy shop. I continue to vend at local art markets and have some stock with a few shops!
How would you describe your personal “aesthetic?”
Colorful and cluttered. I love a good color palette with gratuitous use of bold, saturated colors. If it wasn’t already obvious, I really love the color pink — I love how any shade can evoke a different mood and still plays well with lots of other colors. I’m a big fan of illustrative patterns and metallics, glitter, gradients, rainbows, that kind of thing. On the flip side, I also really love densely cluttered old homes and interiors, kitschy chachkis and collections of vintage ephemera. Lately I’ve been very drawn to contemporary fashion and brands like Gucci especially, who for me embody all these qualities.
How has living in Boston affected your art? Would you say Boston is a good place for “the arts” despite places like NYC, LA, etc being regarded more highly?
Living in Boston has hugely affected my work. I feel very #blessed to have been able to find affordable housing, a job, and friends in this city, so I think that gratitude for getting to be here every day has found its way into my work. I tend to be very affected by my surroundings, and as I’ve lived in different places in and around the city for the past seven or so years, I feel like I’ve been able to experience the city from many different perspectives. Plus I do a lot of sketchbook drawings during commutes on the T.
In terms of artistic representation in the city, personally I feel like I’ve had access to a lot of artistic resources available here. I know Boston hasn’t exactly earned a great reputation with the arts, among other areas (where huge improvements can still be made), but if you want to thrive artistically in this city, I think you need to know where to look. You have to dig a bit to find your niche, but I would imagine the process of finding your niche in this city would be easier than trying to do that in New York and LA. To me, cities like that, while great, can also be very overwhelming, over saturated, and may be a bit harder to find your footing. In my experience, the Boston art scene has been relatively accessible because it feels tight-knit and unpretentious. Plus, we have some great artistic institutions and galleries in and around the city where people are doing great work.
What has been your experience as a self-made entrepreneur, especially as a woman, in Boston? Have you encountered any roadblocks?
I think the biggest roadblock I’ve experienced is censorship. My work, especially my earlier work, was very unapologetically blunt and there have been situations where that did not sit well with people. I’ve received criticism for a painting called Code Red which shows three women menstruating through their panties. I made it for Fem Project (@femproject) which is a non-profit that provides menstruation supplies to the homeless and works to de-stigmatize periods. I’ve upset some people by using vulgarities in my work and have been censored at some markets and events. Those instances were a bit challenging, but I totally get it. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and I think art is most effective when it stirs up some emotion in people! I’d also say a general roadblock at some markets would be a lack of inclusivity and representation of queer or POC artists and artwork from emerging artists that explore themes or executions that may be less mainstream, but are still valid works that deserve attention.
I became familiar with your work when I came across your booth at the Black Market last October- Boston Hassle is a huge help in terms of artist exposure and working with local creatives. What other kinds of organizations/ events have you found solace in/ worked with?
I second that! The Boston Hassle is made up of some really great volunteers who are enthusiastic and open-minded towards all art forms. They’ve done a great job providing a platform for local creatives to get their work out there. Recently I’ve also had a great experience working with Spaceus (@spaceus.co). They’re a local organization that transforms vacant properties into gallery and studio spaces around the city. In these spaces, they provide lots of resources and support for local creatives like life drawing nights, workshops, calls for art, and weekend artist takeovers where local artists can sell work there. I’ve collaborated multiple times with The Bettys (@thebettyz), a radical art collective based in the NYC tri-state area that work with like-minded artists to create products and zines distributed across the country. Seek and Find Boston (@seekandfindboston) puts on great local markets, panels, and workshops regularly. HausWitch (@hauswitch) in Salem is a great resource for forward-thinking workshops, events, and really great artwork from a mix of local artists and beyond. I’d also definitely recommend visiting the Boston Art Book Fair when it comes back around next year. There’s lots of incredible artists exhibiting printed material there and provides a good mix of DIY zines to art books published by institutions.
As a creative, how would you respond to the stereotype that being an artist is a “pipedream” and that you can’t actually make a living doing what you love?
That stigma really bums me out because it’s often perpetuated by people who don’t realize how deeply their lives are affected by art and design. Architects designed the house you live in, the building you work in. Industrial designers, sculptors, fibers artists, craftsmen are behind the design and sustainability of the chair your sitting in, the mug you’re drinking from, the rug on your floor, the print on your shirt. Graphic designers make it so you’ll be able to read that sign for your exit from a distance on the highway. Designers, illustrators, filmmakers, actors, copywriters work together to create most media we consume in print and digital channels from marketing campaigns, to animations, to feature length films. Of course there’s a market to be an artist. People who call it a “pipe dream” don’t realize how deeply the arts are woven in their lives. It’s because artists do such an amazing job of creating a seamless and enjoyable experience for consuming their work, that you don’t even realize it’s there. But it’s essential. It’s hard work to make a living in the field but it’s vital work that deserves recognition.
Starting out at Mass College of Art and Design and having progressed to where you are now, what had been your goals in the beginning? Have you reached them or have they changed?
I started out at MassArt as an Illustration major. My goal upon graduation was just to survive. Just get a job in the arts. Something, anything, whatever you can get. I didn’t have a lot of faith in my abilities and knowing how competitive and over saturated the illustration world is, I set the bar low. At the same time, I always found the idea of creating and selling original goods appealing, so I figured I’d do that in some way at some point. But now I’m admittedly a little bit surprised that I’ve met and surpassed my goals. Like I said, I got a job right after graduating as a graphic designer/illustrator and now I’m a full-time illustrator. In addition to running Over it Studio, which has gotten more attention that I ever thought it would, I’ve also taken on some freelance work with clients like Zappos, the ICA/Boston and Terrorbird Media. Now I’m not quite sure what my goals are moving forward, but I do know I’d definitely like to keep my day job as an illustrator, maybe one day pivot into illustrating for a different company. I’d definitely also like to keep Over it Studio going and keep freelancing. I contemplate potentially going full-time freelance one day as an illustrator or maybe even a fine artist painter down the road, but who knows. I must say, I do like the security that comes with a 9-5, so I’ll stick with that for now.
Going off of the previous question, what has been the most rewarding/ personally gratifying part of your career thus far?
All of it! I’m so thankful that I’m able to work full time as an illustrator. I also never thought I’d be able to collaborate with the organizations and clients that I have so far, so I’m really grateful for that. And it’s always a really good feeling when someone connects with my work from Over it Studio. That definitely makes me happy. I love it all.
For artists attempting to make their own start/ get exposure, what would you recommend, especially considering how competitive the industry is?
My first recommendation would be to make sure pursuing the arts is something that you absolutely love and something that you have to do. It’s important because your love of what you do will serve as motivation to keep pursuing your goals. It’s a notoriously tough field to break into, and takes a lot consistency, passion, and dedication to get where you want to be. Your best work will come from things you are truly inspired by, so make art from what you love. I would recommend keeping a sketchbook to help grow these ideas.
I would also recommend taking on commissions from friends or work with local arts-focused organizations when you're first starting out. Even if you’re doing it as a favor or a trade, it can be a great place to start to build on your portfolio and gain some experience making art for others. I would avoid art contests or work opportunities from large companies with low/no compensation though -- they can definitely pay you. I'd recommend keeping an online presence and/or an online shop for your work too. For some, it can help evolve your work and gain a following. I'd try to update those accounts on a regular basis and have fun with it! And on a more pragmatic note, if you think you'll want a full time job working in design/illustration, I'd definitely take the time to acquaint yourself with Adobe Illustrator if you haven't already! In my experience, most commercial art is made in this program or at least touched by it at some point. It's possible to learn the program through experience on the job, but you'll feel much more confident in your role if you familiarize yourself beforehand.
Whether in Boston or Timbuktu, the importance of artistic expression still remains relevant as a means to express oneself, connect with one’s community, and more, as Emiliani clearly expresses. With artist censorship and attempts to move the societal spotlight away from the arts, it has become increasingly important to support local creatives, whether monetarily or simply by word of mouth. With that in mind, paying attention to events such as the Black Market (and other projects hosted by Boston Hassle), projects sponsored by local art-collectives (including Spaceus), and so much more. Though it can seem difficult to find, Boston’s art community is one not to miss, especially with talented power-houses like Julia Emiliani and the work that she creates in mind.