It's Summer 2021. Brooklyn. A young artist receives a request from a stranger. “It's my anniversary. My wife really likes your stuff. I want to commission you to make a piece. I’m really late on this. Can you turn it around this week?"
This story is going to turn south, but first I want you to know more about the artist.
Clarice Cho is a twenty-seven-year-old hand-lettering artist known for whimsy expressed in language, styles, and hues that are bold, bright, and at times sarcastic. "I’m not making fluff unless I feel like making fluff. I’m making art about things that need to be addressed. Things that align with my beliefs. It's honest."
Clarice makes her living by creating art. This is incredibly hard to do given the finances of it, and given her young age. Yet, as Clarice's life path demonstrates, it's definitely possible. I ask her how she makes it all work and how she even knew that this was what she wanted to do and that it was worth fighting for. (After all, when we parents hear our kid say, "I want to be an artist" it doesn't necessarily light us up with delight; case in point, my twenty-year-old daughter is an artist but–and it shames me to say this–I didn't accept this about my amazing girl for probably the first half of her life.) I want to know how Clarice overcame these societal and perhaps parental presumptions in her own life.
"I've been a lifelong doodler," Clarice tells me. "As a child I was always making handwritten notes in class and making handmade cards for people on holidays and birthdays." In college at UC Berkeley, friends started paying Clarice to make cards for special occasions such as a thank you note for a favorite instructor. This showed her that there was the potential for money in her designs. It was only $5 a card, but it was a market nevertheless. Yet, Clarice's parents weren't so sure a person could make money from creative work. So, she chose business, took a lot of economics courses, and ultimately majored in Media Studies–the theory and business of film, television, journalism, and books. It felt like the happy medium, satisfying the creative side but potentially also leading to lucrative jobs.
After graduating from Cal, Clarice got a job at Facebook, and then as the social media manager for the Sheryl Sandberg & Dave Goldberg Family Foundation (SGFF) in Silicon Valley. SGFF houses the nonprofits Option B and Lean In, and Clarice's role was to source content and create copy for the social media accounts of both organizations. Occasionally she'd get to design a piece of original art for one of the posts, although it wasn't part of her official job.
One day, one of her posts caught the eye of a nonprofit that reached out to ask if they could commission her to design an exclusive print for International Women's Day. They paid her $40. She told herself, "Oh. This is something I could do.” She asked herself, "What if I don't want to do anything other than this?"
Here was Clarice, working for Lean In, when all of a sudden she realized Maybe 'lean in,' matters when it comes to me, too. Her mentor at the foundation helped her think of ways to bring her passion into her 9 to 5. "With my mentor's encouragement I just raised my hand and insisted on doing art for the foundation. I didn’t want to have the 'daytime thing' and the thing I really enjoy doing at night. I wanted the daytime thing to be the thing I like to do." The foundation agreed. Now she was going to get paid to produce art full-time. She was twenty-three.
By mid-2019 she'd been at it for two years. She was now twenty-five and hungry to try her hand at the bigger opportunities available in New York. She'd been putting her creative work out on Instagram for some years, and was attracting a following. She'd budgeted and saved with incredible discipline since college, and had told herself "I can move there and not make anything for three months and be fine." As for a backup plan, she says, "I knew that I had other skills. I knew that if it didn’t work out I would just apply for jobs and get a job and it would be fine." She calls this, "The uncertainty and also the certainty." She found an apartment and a roommate, relocated to Manhattan and began freelancing. One of her new clients was... me! (Perhaps you'll recognize some of these images Clarice created for my social media:)
Fast forward to where this story started. It's Summer of 2021. Clarice gets an out-of-the-blue message from the guy with the upcoming anniversary. He wants to pay her $2,500 for a painting. It's a huge deal to be a young artist with a big commission. It's also wonderful for Clarice to know that her work is known and loved by some woman she likely hasn't ever met. She asks the guy what kind of piece he has in mind for his wife, and he replies "climate awareness." Clarice finds this an odd choice for an anniversary gift, and recommends some other concepts. The guy picks Let's Stay Playful Together. They agree on a size and price. "Get it to me fast," he reminds her. Clarice drops everything and gets to work.
To create and ship the piece in time for the anniversary, Clarice has to be a painting fiend, and she is. Three days in, it's all going great. Then she hears from the guy again. “I’m in the process of moving to the Philippines," he tells her. "But I have a shipping agent moving all of my assets. So, coordinate with him to get the piece to me. Because I’m overseas now, I will need to pay you a check and you will have to give part of that check to the shipping agent." Clarice balks. Why should she be the one to pay the shipping agent? Why can't the guy pay her and the shipping agent separately? She asks for two checks. The guy replies, “This is very important that this happen. I’m not there to figure it out.”
"I was worried," Clarice tells me. She realizes that if she pays the shipper out of her own pocket, but the guy's check to her doesn't clear, she'll have paid for the shipment without receiving any funds herself. She'll be out a bunch of money and her piece will have sailed off to wherever, for free. But she also feels a sense of duty to the guy and wants to assume the best about people. She finishes the piece.
Then the guy's check arrives. Something inside Clarice says Wait. "I look up the company associated with it, and it's closed. I tell him I’m not going to ship the piece until the check clears. I deposit the check into my account and it's immediately flagged by Chase. They said it's either a fraudulent check or not enough funds.”
Clarice goes back to the client. She says, "It looks like your check is not clearing." She hears nothing back. He disappears. He's gone. All that remains is the completed painting gleaming at her day after day after day in her Brooklyn apartment. It's work she's proud of yet which reminds her that she was mistreated.
I've since learned that this 'make-this-for-me-and-ship-it' scam happens to artists regularly. Of all people to scam, why folks choose artists feels so extra cruel to me. They call them "Starving Artists" for a reason, right? They're trying to make their way in a cold cruel capitalist world. They're trying to make sense of that very world and bring more beauty and understanding to it through their art. And they get scammed? I feel like Cindy Lou Who with the Grinch when she pleads, "Why Santy Clause, Why?"
Here's how it felt to Clarice:
"When you have that first inkling that something is up, it's your head and your gut being at odds with each other. You feel a pang in your gut, but your head goes no no no that's not what it is, because your brain has hope about the world and doesn't want to believe people would come and do this to you. Pretty quickly my gut was like no no no, though, and my brain was like okay there ARE too many red flags for this to be legit. So then my brain aligns that this is sketchy, off, odd behavior. I had so much hope and was really excited that someone would come to me for this reason, like a really thoughtful gift for his wife, to see that none of this was true.... To pay me what the work was worth, and then to find out that they were trying to get something from me?"
Outside of being scammed by this jerk, life as an artist and designer is going well for Clarice. Her daytime client is a major consumer product company and the job is fully creative. It includes design, art, social content, shooting TikToks and reels, and designing Instagram stories and feed posts. And as I've said, one of her side hustles is me! And I feel lucky, truly, to get to work with her.
Clarice says, "I think part of being a small business owner is it ebbs and flows. I’ve been doing this for two years. I'm taking a class to learn about next steps, about scaling, growing, and not being stagnant. The place I’m in right now is a strategy session with myself. I get requests for work often, which is nice. Every project teaches me something."
The way I see it, Clarice is living the dream. She's in a cute apartment in Brooklyn with a roommate and a pandemic puppy and she's a designer and artist, period, not on the side. “I’m in the field I wanted to learn more about but did not go to school for. I told myself this was the goal when I moved to New York. To do THIS kind of work, and to not sell out. I don't need to compromise by taking projects that don’t relate to what I love to do. I’m learning from other designers who've been doing this work way longer than I have."
I know that Clarice is just getting started and will continue to create beautiful things. (As Clarice says, "Keep sketching, kids.") I just want to see her painting find a good home, though. SO! Drumroll please... Clarice is auctioning "Let's Stay Playful Together" which is on display in all its glory here:
Clarice's original commission for the piece was $2,500 and as I've said, she actually received $0 for it. I'm hoping that through the magic of social media + the holiday spirit, this painting can find its true home and this artist can get paid for her talent and hard work. So if you dig "Let's Stay Playful Together," hop on over to Clarice's Instagram and BID! Bidding starts at $500, and I'm going to do my part by paying for the shipping (U.S. only). The deadline for bidding is midnight (EST) on Friday 12/10/21.
And if you want a glimpse of how Clarice creates these gorgeous pieces, watch this wonderful short video. Might a young person in your life be a Clarice Cho in the making?
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Cover Image courtesy of Clarice Y. Cho