Back in 2015 I went to a branding conference and wrote about it here. You can read about it if you want. But the premise was that there was a lot to learn by going to an event with creatives who are outside of my illustration bubble. There are also some business advantages to making friends with people who are more likely than your fellow illustrators to hire me!
Last year, I finally went to ICON, a real illustrator's conference. That, for sure, ended up being my favourite conference for all kinds of reasons. I should definitely follow up on what has transpired since then. If there was an ICON every year, I would have planned to go there this year too. But since ICON is a bi-annual event, I had to find a new conference to attend this year. And out of all the conferences that most interested me, Yeah Field Trip came out on top.
Yeah Field Trip took place at the end of February, in the cold and unexpectedly snowy mountains just east of LA. Now, Yeah Field Trip bills itself as a conference for "artist entrepreneurs", and under that category I most certainly fall. But it is mostly a conference for photographers: most of the attendees are photographers, and most of these are wedding photographers. On the surface, there couldn't be a less relevant creative profession for me than wedding photography. It's not that I don't admire and appreciate the line of work, but from a strictly business perspective, it's not likely that I will be working in the wedding industry. My work is decidedly commercial, and in many ways, it is anti-photography (in that people choose either photography or illustration for commercial work).
So why on earth did I sign up for a trip I knew was not for people like me? Well, for one, I took to heart their "artist entrepreneur" language. I had the sense that they were looking to expand the scope beyond photography and more into a broader category of creativity, and I felt that I could be a voice from the frontier. The idea of a pan-creative conference, where commercial creative disciplines could cross pollinate appeals to me. Designers, photographers and illustrators have a lot to teach each other. Perhaps the most important things to learn are the things we don't even realize exist. I'm not talking about learning about f-stops and new portrait lighting techniques. It's more about about going with an open mind, with no specific questions, and just seeing what happens when I go hang out with a bunch of people who are decidedly not like me.
A huge component of my decision to attend YFT was just this: going somewhere where who I am and what I do doesn't matter. I have less credibility and fewer bragging rights, and certainly a less relevant repertoire of conversation topics to bring to my fellow attendees. Not that I feel like a big deal at illustrator conferences, but I can at least expect to meet people who care about what I do, and I can expect to find mutual admiration. Instead, at YFT, I went with the question: what happens when I take myself far outside my comfort zone?
For five days and four nights, I was faced with a lot of discomfort. Some of it directly related to being an outsider, and some of it more incidental, such as being away from my wife and kids for so long. The most striking thing about the trip for me was the feeling of vulnerability and insecurity. Back at home, in my daily life, I am actually pretty confident, happy and comfortable. I am surrounded by people who know and love me, and I don't feel the need to vie for anyone's attention. I don't worry about whether people know what my accomplishments are. If every I feel unsociable, I can hide in my studio or in my cozy, quiet house. I don't experience much loneliness or of not being needed. All these essential needs humans have that I take for granted. And for some reason I deliberately jettisoned myself far outside this for almost a week. And the feeling of vulnerability and discomfort that I felt was in fact what I had sought.
One of the most important questions I left asking myself was, What matters most to me?
The best way to summarize my experience was about halfway through the trip, when my wife asked how things were going. I said I wanted to hide. She seemed sympathetic. I followed up by saying "I came to feel this way". As all artists know, feeling is essential to creativity, and complacency kills it. I went there to unhide from my feelings, these feelings that were deep down inside me, buried underneath all the comfort and safety of my day-to-day back home. Perhaps that is a lot to ask of a conference that actually feels more like summer camp than a spiritual retreat. But it was the perfect recipe, for me, for teasing out real feelings (something that is hard to find when things have been going well for so long). The recipe was: lots of people I didn't know, whom I couldn't assume cared about what I do, or who I am, and somehow try to make meaningful connections and share meaningful moments. In another word, empathy. This is probably more about travelling in general than any specific conference, but being outside the safety and comfort reminds us how it feels to not have these things.
It should be clear that I wouldn't have gone to YFT if all they had were photography workshops and photographer keynote addresses. One of the most enticing things about the event was that a sizeable portion of their workshops were more on the life and metaphysical side. While I did join in classes like Photography 101 and Colour Correction for Portraits, I expected to get more out of such classes as Discovering Beauty Through Pain (Ruthie Lindsey) and Life is Magic, Death is Magic (We Are The Parsons). My intuition was right. The latter workshops were intensely meaningful, poignant reminders of what is most important in life; they were also a call to reevaluate the very reason I do what I do as a profession. It seems so obvious, but one of the most important questions I left asking myself was, "What matters most to me?".
Of all the workshops, Life is Magic, Death is Magic was the most life-altering for me. I was interested in the workshop mostly out of intrigue by the speakers, We Are the Parsons, a family-based wedding video studio. My interest was not so much in their trade, but that these world-renown creative professionals have eschewed social media. Don't we all at least sometimes wonder if it would be possible to get off social media, to escape the online rat race? Don't we all have a secret desire to jump into the void of social media death and for once be free? So I was eager to hear how these people did it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they didn't really teach me anything I didn't already know. In fact, their presentation was largely borrowed content, including a clip from the film The End of the Tour and another of Louis C.K's Forever Empty bit on Conan O'Brien. Through their various media clips, quotes and personal story, I was simply reminded that we are wasting so much of our lives staring at these little screens in our hands. It sounds overly simplistic, almost trite. But what gave gravitas to their presentation was that they are living out their principles, not just talking about them. They curated an atmosphere of attention and reflection that exposed my deepest convictions about how I spend my days, my life. And often, this is all we need to reconnect with our deepest selves, and by extension, with our fellow brothers and sisters on this wet rock we call Earth.
Personally, I reconnected with my feelings. With feeling things, in a way that can be so alien when you have a life that you feel you are in control of. I have my routines, both at work and at home. Work at 9 am. Home by 5:30 for dinner with the family. Kids in bed by 7pm. Saturdays at home, Sundays at Church. Professionally, creatively, it's harder to say whether this trip gave me a boost. I didn't improve as an illustrator nor did I learn any new techniques. However, there was one shining moment for me, the lone illustrator at the wedding photographer conference: doing bad portraits on the last night. My friend James Moes thought it would be a good idea to set up an impromptu portraiture station at some point over the event, even going so far as to buy me some art supplies in LA on his way into the mountains. I kept those supplies on my person throughout the conference but was never quite sure I could naturally work myself into the flow of the weekend's activities. But after a few days of letting go of control and self-consciousness, I decided, on that fateful last night, that it was now or never. I grabbed James and said I was ready, grabbed two chairs (one for me, one for subjects), and James hyped me up. In minutes, I found myself drawing new friends and strangers, and a long line of willing subjects waiting for their turn. I can't tell if it lasted 30 or 45 minutes or longer, but it felt like forever. And the drawings were terrible. But it was for me a satisfying culmination of the trip, where I found a place as an illustrator among photographers. I had built that bridge, and at least in part, answered the question, "what happens when I go hang out with a bunch of people who are decidedly not like me?".
p.s. In another, deeper sense, I shared a common experience with these photographers. Unlike illustrators like me, who can hide in a studio and literally never actually meet my clients, photographers have to build a real, physical, personal connection with theirs. Drawing realtime portraits requires similar interpersonal engagement. I have to sit there and look at the person for as long as I'm drawing them, and they just have to sit there looking back at me. It's intimate in a way I am not used to. If there's anything that makes me squirm under normal circumstances, it's being watched while I work. So it's extremely vulnerable. I have to create this thing and show it to someone right away. I have no time to edit or polish it up. I also realize how much pressure there is on photographers to represent their subjects in a positive, flattering light. There were definitely a few drawings I did that night that were possibly unflattering. It was all in the spirit of fun, but I was nervous about offending people. They may love it or hate it, but once it's made, there's nothing I, nor they, can do about it.