Taking the leap was a gamble, but it’s since paid off. Today, Tsurumi juggles clients like The New York Times, The San Francisco Bay Guardian, and Penguin Books while still making time for personal projects, teaching, and speaking engagements. Her comic, Andrew Jackson Throws a Punch won a MoCCA Award of Excellence in 2013 and Dance Party, another comic, was selected for the 2013 Best American Comics notables list. This May, she’ll release a new book, Why Would You Do That? published by Hic & Hoc.
I spoke with Tsurumi about personal sacrifice for professional success, seeking out inspiration, and how she keeps herself on track as both the employee and the boss.
What has been the impact of going freelance?
In the grand scheme of things, I’ve been incredibly lucky, but the instability and time required for this career are considerable. It takes a hell of a lot of time— years of developing your skills and launching your business, and years of getting good enough to capture the thing in your head. That means months of working two or more jobs, of working seven days a week, sometimes for 11 hours a day. Working through weekends and evenings and holidays and then getting up and traveling for indie comic festivals like CAB (Comic Arts Brooklyn), MoCCAFest (Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art/Society of Illustrators).
In a lot of ways, illustrating and cartooning are a labor of love and a lot of that labor can be long and unpaid or underpaid. As a freelancer and a workaholic, it’s hard to know how to set my own boundaries because the work could just never end. And that’s definitely not good for my art and certainly not good for my health, so I’ve gotten better about being firm about my time. It’s why I reassess so much: What do I need to make good work? What do I need to make the work I want to make? What do I need to do to make enough money? What do I need to do to nurture my relationships in my community and lead a good life? What does that even mean?
I don’t know anyone who doesn’t struggle with this in some way. Some have found ways to lower the pressure by moving to a cheaper place or focusing on a different part-time field, or redefining what kind of art they want to be making (and how often, and for whom) and deciding what they need to sustain that. I’ll never have enough time to budget for work, passion projects, exercise, and a personal life if the business isn’t sustainable.
Getting as clear a picture on my situation as possible is helping me choose my projects more discriminatorily, budget my time, and generally make major life decisions to get me into a healthier work/life balance. Tracking and organizing my practice gives me the information I need to make better business decisions and reaching out to my peers helps me brainstorm better ways to work and provides some communal support in a usually solitary practice.
Everything I choose to do is at the expense of something else, and sometimes that’s taking care of myself or building good memories, and the kicker is, sometimes I sacrifice making the work that matters most to me. This is a path that constantly has me questioning my choices and options, which is frankly exhausting and scary. But remember the bit about it being a labor of love? I know I love this. I don’t know if that’s enough to build a thriving and lasting career on, but it’s definitely something to build a life on.
Do you have a specific daily routine that prepares you for work?
I like starting early, at the same time several days in a row, and I like getting outside for a bit before sitting down to work. However, for me, and for most of the illustrators I know, my time is more chaotic. There are day jobs and commuting and families and several rush freelance jobs at once, so sometimes the time to work gets sliced up into the early morning or late night, lunch breaks, and irregular days at the studio. I’m a creature of habit, but one of the best things I’ve learned from managing this is: a) you can work anywhere, b) you adapt, c) adapting and working is better than waiting for the perfect time and mood, and d) try not to work hangry.
What is your idea generation process like?
Sitting down and getting my hand moving with a pencil/pen usually leads to something that leads to something else, and then I’m working. There’s rarely a bolt from the blue. Discipline (showing up regularly and often) intersects with play (screwing around with different elements, improvising) and creates the work.
Do you critique your own work? If so, how? If not, why not?
When I’m drawing or planning a project, it’s part of the calculus running in the back of my head when my head or my hand is making decisions, and it comes forward more when I’m actively editing. It’s less the kind of “is this good or bad?” critique and more “what is this doing? or not doing?” I show it to my peers and find out if it’s confusing or if they react to specific parts of it.
There’s always the “oh God, this is crap,” part of every project, which usually shows up at the beginning or the middle, but it’s kind of useless. Good critique is all about what’s useful to your work and what isn’t. The more work I make and the more I draw, the better I’ve gotten about clocking myself, so to speak. Does this moment need another page? Is this unnecessary? Is this spot color distracting? How is this turn working? etc. If I have time to put aside something for a few hours or a day, it’s easier to edit it because sometimes your mind is just a cranky child that will fight you about something you worked on, and after it’s had a nap it can admit, “yeah, I should probably redo that and add two pages.”
What do you do to keep yourself motivated and interested in your work?
There’s drawing I do for projects and jobs, and then there’s low-to-no-stakes play drawing (which usually happens in a sketchbook). What’s funny is as a business person, I need to give myself space to do both kinds of drawing or my work doesn’t move forward. It’s like recess or taking a shower in the middle of figuring out a problem—all of a sudden, you have these great ideas because you took the pressure off. It’s also a great time to play around with new materials.
Unfortunately, when I’ve got a list of other things to do, that kind of play gets pushed way to the back, but when I don’t make time for it, I feel it. I once spent days finishing the boring part of a job-that-would-not-die, then ran out to get a burrito. Some words popped into my head and when I got back I made a fun, ridiculous comic on the spot that later became part of my thesis. It was like my brain was making a break for it.
I also find it helps having a balance of being alone and with being around people who inspire me, which is one reason I work in a studio. One of my favorite collaborations was with fantastic illustrator (and studiomate) Maëlle Doliveux. In 2014, we wanted to work on a yearlong project together, so we launched The Sexy, an illustrated online parody pinup calendar. She’d do one week and I’d do the next, and we kept switching off like that (and with guest artists) for the year. It was great motivation, because she’d up the ante with each hilarious post, so I pushed myself on my own.
Do the opinions of others impact your work? If so, to what degree?
It’s weird, because making work that connects with an audience is the whole point of what I do, but I can’t think too much about what that actually means or it gets awkward. It’s the best possible feeling in the world to have someone read your work and say, “I understand this,” but I also can’t control how people are going to react to it, I can only control what I put into the piece. I have to push away thinking about what other people are going to say and focus on the work itself when I’m making it, or else it’s too paralyzing.
How do you strike a balance between personal projects and paid work?
It’s an endless preoccupation for me, my friends, and colleagues. I’m getting better at setting and enforcing boundaries and I am at least self-aware enough to know when my balance is unhealthy and want to fix it. I don’t know what the fix would be – move somewhere cheaper? Make more money? Quit one creative pursuit to focus on another? Use collective bargaining to push for change? Right now, all I can do is to take a hard look at my time and pursuits and do the best I can, just like everybody else.