I STALKED KELLY SMITH for a good few months before we connected. I was such a fan-girl of her truly incredible work, I started re-tweeting her tweets (like all good fan-girls do) then one day she replied to something I had posted on Twitter (!). Over the years, I have been lucky enough to work with Kelly on many projects, from her lending her talents to many SW projects over the time, as well as all the assets for YELLOWGLEN Peacock Lane By Samantha Wills & also each campaign I did for Mount Franklin / McGrath Foundation included Kelly's signature artworks. I obviously admire her freakish incredible talents, but what I most love about her, is her beautiful down to earth nature & self deprecating sense of humor. She truly is one in a million. Here is her story on how she started her brand; Birdy & Me.
NAME: Kelly Smith
COMPANY: Birdy & Me
How would you describe yourself in 5 words? Erratic. Perfectionist. Determined. Creative. Dreamer.
What is the long version of how you got to where you are today? I’ve been drawing for almost as long as I can remember and I’ve always been creative, but it wasn’t until I was asked the question ‘What do you want to do for a living?’ in year 11 that I actually asked it of myself. I wasn’t really sure. I’ve always been one of those people that liked a lot of things, and had a lot of passions. I could quite easily have pursued a career in writing or publishing, but I suppose my biggest passion was always art – in particular drawing. I didn’t think about it a lot, I just did it. Half habit, half hobby. So that’s why I chose to do a Fine Arts degree. I was just drawn to my artistic side more.
I majored in both Photography and Graphic Design and I was always interested in fashion and fashion photography from an aesthetic point of view; the texture, the colours, the lighting. But the most conventional career path at the time was in design work. It seemed the most practical in terms of finding a job placement after graduation. However, in my third and fourth years of my degree I discovered the world of commercial fashion illustration. It opened my mind to a whole new realm of possibility and I began to wonder if I could pursue that instead, as drawing had always been the one constant in my life. I think my artwork, and what I try to achieve in it, has become a culmination of all of the disciplines that I love – fashion, photography, film, story-telling!
It felt like quite quickly after I graduated - with a little help from a burgeoning social media - I began to carve a little niche for myself. I worked hard to promote myself and my work, submitting to magazines and open-calls. Very gradually I built up my business and in 2010 I was signed to an agency and have since had the most incredible opportunities to work with some much-admired brands.
I think it is really important people can explain their main message in a concise paragraph – if the above is the full version - What is you elevator pitch on what you do?
I try to capture the sense of fantasy and theatricality I find in fashion imagery with only a pencil and a touch of colour.
Are you doing what you thought you would be doing 10 years ago? (If not, what did you think you would be doing?) I’m doing what I HOPED I would be doing, but never in a million years believed I would be doing. It’s all a bit surreal, sometimes.
What does ‘success’ mean to you, and do you consider yourself ‘successful’? Personally, I believe that success comes from achieving your own personal goals, and obviously those goals will be different for everybody.
If you have a passion or a determination to do something, and you’re able to make it happen for yourself - to make a living from it, to find happiness and fulfilment from it - then I define that as successful.
What do you still want to achieve (personally & / or professionally) I’ve been so fortunate lately to travel to many parts of the world and there’s still so much more that I want to see. I believe that travelling opens you up to so many possibilities and personally it revives my passion for what I do. I’ve never been somewhere and NOT come back full of ideas and determination. So I’d love to have more opportunities to travel in the future.
Professionally my dream is to write/illustrate my own book. I have many ideas and a potential project in the pipeline. That is definitely the next target.
To have complete creative control over something and make it 100% mine.
Did you study anything specific for the career you are in? I completed a Fine Arts degree, majoring in both Graphic Design and Photography. Two disciplines that I think lend themselves heavily to the work that I do now. But funnily enough, I almost stopped drawing while I was studying as it wasn’t the path I was intending to follow. I was looking towards more financially viable/realistic career paths. In my final years I started to become more aware of Illustration and its growth in the editorial and advertising worlds. That’s when I realised that potentially I could pursue it.
What have been the most rewarding things in your career to date? I think just to have people respond to your work in such a positive way makes the whole thing rewarding. There are days when I, like everyone, get a little bit despondent or unsure of what I’m doing. A simple compliment from someone can remind you that it’s all worthwhile.
I’ve been so fortunate to work with some incredible clients and each one has taught me something about the industry and also pushed my work further. I think every little thing that you learn on the way just helps you to strive for improvement.
Tell us about your workspace (Office / café / couch / aesthetic) what inspires you about your workspace? I work from home, which is a mid-century house in a quiet suburb in Tasmania. We have a lot of beautiful natural light that comes in from one side of the house, so I find myself quite often setting up camp and drawing in the lounge room upstairs. My studio space is downstairs and all digital work and finishing is done there, along with the logistical stuff for my online store.
Working from home can feel a little insular at times, so it’s important that the work space feels warm and inviting. You have to want to be there. So there are a lot of books, artwork and plants around. Inspiration at arms’ length. I find the bright, open spaces upstairs much more conducive to productivity but unfortunately for my husband it means that half of my studio ends up in other parts of the house.
What are some frustrations you have experiences on your career journey? I think one of the main frustrations can be feeling a little limited in how much you can grow and experiment as an artist in between client work. It’s trying to find a space between what you want to be doing and actually having the time to experiment with new ideas and exploring that. Clients can only take you for what they can see in your portfolio, so at times it can be quite a long cycle of creating similar imagery. When I do get free time between jobs, I try to create new prints for my store and play around with ideas that I’ve jotted down on an ever-growing list.
When was the last time you were overwhelmed & cried from something provoked by work / work load? A few months ago I had a really intense workload over the space of about 3 months. They were some amazing jobs to work on, a lot of fun and great clients, but each job overlapped and it all became quite overwhelming and I experienced a lot of stress and anxiety. It’s really tough when that happens as all you can do is push through it and remember that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. But it can result in a bit of a creative burn-out when you get there. You lose a little bit of that drive and passion. I’m a bit of a perfectionist so sometimes the pressure of a really strict time-limit can result in some anxiety over how the end-product will look. Which will sometimes bring tears.
Would you say you put pressure on yourself? Has this gotten more or less as you progress in your career? Definitely. I can be a perfectionist and a chronic over-thinker. There’s always an on-going battle to ensure that the work you’re delivering is the best that it can be without always having the luxury of time, or full creative control.
I think that’s when the pressure can become most intense. Racing the clock. I don’t think it gets worse as your career progresses, necessarily, but perhaps to an extent when you’re always striving to be better. You do add those pressures yourself.
If you are a business owner – and you often can’t just check out / have a week off when you are dealing with personal things – how do you keep on keeping on with your business when things get tough? This is one of the hardest aspects of the job. I always say that it’s great that you can easily allocate time off in advance for holidays etc, however the flip side is that if there’s an unexpected need to step away from the job, there’s no one to cover for you. If you make a commitment to a client you need to follow through before you can take any sort of break or time away.
The one thing we do have is flexibility in work hours. So sometimes it’s just a case of working through the night, or over weekends, or in between emails. Whenever you can find the time you just squeeze it in.
When things get stressful, or a little overwhelming, I find that the best thing to do is start every morning with a bath – chamomile tea (NO COFFEE!) – and try to kick things off as calmly as you can. Just get your head in a good place so that you can push through for the rest of the day.
It can also be so beneficial to just get out of the house; meet a friend for lunch, have a conversation about something other than work. We can sometimes get so caught up in what we’re doing that we forget that there’s a whole world turning outside. To stop and remind yourself of that always brings you back to reality.
Has your career affected your personal life / relationships? If so how? I don’t think so. Not in a negative way at least. In terms of new relationships I think that my career has led to some amazing friendships and client relationships. The great thing about a creative industry is that every job is different, every client is different. You meet so many people throughout and every now and then you can really click with someone! Social media is great in that way, also.
Has your journey at times felt lonely? How? Definitely. I think freelancing and working for yourself can be incredibly isolating at times. Not just in missing the regularity of human interaction but also the energy of a shared work space; bouncing ideas off other people.
I mean emails are great and I have a strong network of friends that are in the same creative industry, so it’s comforting to have them to talk with, but you do miss the physicality of being with other people.
However I'm so lucky that I have an amazingly supportive husband. He is always happy to be a sounding board and talk things through with me, especially when this crazy brain of mine gets overactive. I can't tell you how many "what do you think of this?" emails and texts he receives a day.
What causes you anxiety / sleepless nights? I am a chronic over-thinker and I analyzeEVERYTHING. I find it hard to switch my brain off.
I can literally lose sleep over ridiculous things.
I also find nights tricky when I’m working with International clients as the time zones are always clashing. You can finally be ready to switch off and go to bed, and then receive an email from a client that needs to be addressed straight away. So again, it then becomes difficult to stop thinking about the job.
If you had your time over again, from when you started your career to right now, would you do anything differently? I don’t think so. I’m a big believer in everything - not exactly happening for a reason - but everything that you go through being a building block that gets you somewhere else. So if I had have done things differently I potentially wouldn’t be where I am now.
Although I was very young when I started out so I’d probably be more aware of the scope of the internet and how public everything is. I think you should be a little selective about what you publish as it floats around forever.
What advice would you give your 21 year old self? Have confidence in your decisions. It’s okay to say ‘No’ to things. And you can’t please everybody.
Who are some women in business you admire & why? Well without playing favourites, because you know that I love you, I admire people like yourself who don’t rest on their laurels. You have achieved so much through the personal goals that you set yourself, but you are always looking towards the next thing. I have huge admiration for that. It’s so easy to achieve a certain level of ‘success’ and then just sit back and enjoy the fact that you made it there. So to take further leaps into the unknown is so admirable.
What traits do you admire in people you surround yourself with? A bit of the above. I love people with real passion, for what they do and for life in general. I find that sort of enthusiasm really infectious! There’s nothing better than spending time with someone and leaving the encounter feeling inspired and motivated.
I think I’m someone who can be a little insular and stuck in the ‘bubble’ so I love to be around people that remind me how nice it is to just relax, laugh, and get a bit silly.
Work life balance… Does it exist (I don’t think it does!) and how to maintain it, or a sense of it? I think you can create a balance, but at the end of the day, if you work for yourself it’s almost impossible to totally separate work from life. Especially today with social media being such a huge part of what we do. You can certainly switch off devices, but everything is still there - the wheel is always turning. I think setting some general rules for yourself is the best way to deal with it. Trying to maintain a sense of ‘normal’ work hours when possible. I try not to work after about 6pm. It’s not always possible, but my nights are generally my ‘home’ time, when I can unwind with my husband and veg out.
Have you ever thought about giving up / quitting? If so, does that feeling hit from the same triggers? Why haven’t you quit? When things get overwhelming you can start to question why it is that you’re doing them. If you feel like something’s not making you feel satisfied or fulfilled then it’s pretty understandable to want to walk away from it. But the beauty in this job is that it’s always changing. Most of the time any negative feelings are always curbed when I think about the amazing experiences that come out of what I do. I think, for me, those feelings always come when I feel like I haven’t had a break or taken some time for myself to work on my own projects. It’s a sort of creative burn-out. After a holiday or a few weeks spent doing my own thing I always bounce back and appreciate how lucky I am to be able to call this my job.
What is the biggest misconception about what you do? People definitely have a bit of an idea that most freelancers / creatives that work from home have this blissful existence of sleeping in, working in pyjamas, taking a break whenever you like. But in reality it can be a very challenging and isolating experience. There is no separation between work/home life and you work to very erratic schedules. Clients can be anywhere in the world, in any time zone. There’s also no one else cracking a whip over you, you’re solely responsible for getting the job done and doing it on time. There’s also the idea that creativity is this constant, flowing fountain of ideas, however it’s not always easy to be creative on demand. You need time to think up and develop a concept; to try new things, make mistakes. Which, of course, is not always a luxury afforded.
What advice would you give someone who is starting out in your industry? Be passionate about what you do, and stick to your own ideals. It can be so easy to try to emulate what others are doing because you think that’s what it takes to get you to where you want to be. But in doing that you’re not creating any point of difference. You want to stand out in this industry and you do that by being your unique self. So be confident in what you’re doing - and do it well.
If you knew what you know now, about how much work was involved to get you to where you are now, would you do it again or do something different, if so, what?
I would absolutely do it again! I think from the start you have to be aware of your boundaries and have a clear direction, as it’s so easy to say ‘yes’ to everything and compromise what you do. There’s a fine line between fitting to a client’s - or popular - aesthetic, and also having your own work/identity be recognisable.
I like the quote ‘Don’t just have a job, have a purpose’ - What do you want your legacy to be? I love that! I heard this similar idea from a documentary about Jiro Ono – one of Japan’s most celebrated Sushi chefs - who still goes to work every day at the age of 85. He says that even if you don’t love what you do, you have to have respect for what you do. You accept the job that you have and you never stop learning how to be great at it. The more you aspire to be the best at what you do, the more fulfilling that job will be.
I think that if I can inspire anyone to follow their passion in life then I’ll be happy.
I also think that you can never become complacent in what you do. You always have to strive to become better at what you do, to never stop learning, to experiment.
The SAMANTHA WILLS FOUNDATION is about bringing women in business together – why do you think this is important / (why did you want to be involved in this interview)?
I think that there’s a certain idea of a competitive energy that surrounds women in general, especially on social media, and it can feel so negative.
I love the idea of a platform from which women can support and celebrate each other’s achievements for what they are.
Collaboration is also one of my favourite ways to work as whenever you bring something new to the table it always creates something interesting! Two minds are better than one, as they say!
What are some of your favorite quotes?
“You may say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one.” - John Lennon.