That we might spend our days being creatively challenged is undeniably tempting, especially for those of us with jobs without a lot of room for daydreaming. The archetype of the troubled artist is still embedded in current narratives, but it leaves little room for a productive discussion of mental health. Thus Brooklyn-based illustrator Ilya Milstein’s willingness to candidly discuss both his efforts towards wellbeing and the overblown stereotype of an artist stands out.
Milstein’s meticulously detailed illustrations have been featured in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and by brands including Apple and Spotify. His work is imbued with a distinctive wit and complexity, without shying away from the realities of finding the self both in work and outside of it.
After some early success at home in Australia, Milstein found himself struggling to find a sense of purpose and direction. He now credits ongoing mental health care as being instrumental to his wellbeing and his career. “I owe most of my early success in New York to my therapist,” he mentions, “she enabled a sense of confidence and lucidity that I really needed at that time.”
Milstein talked to us about his hard-won sense of self as an artist, chafing against the cultural myth of the tortured creative, and the exercise as important as keeping a sketchbook for any aspiring illustrator or artist.
Q. What was behind the decision to move to New York?
A. I wanted to move to New York since I was a kid, and I think that’s far from unique. I didn’t really grow up around any artists or designers. Despite the fact I’d spent my entire childhood drawing, and that I had developed a bit of a reputation for my zines, I still couldn’t reconcile that with making a living. After a very intense year working in architecture, in which I didn’t really have any time to make my own stuff, I decided to apply to study drawing at the Victorian College of the Arts. I was overconfident and they knocked me back [ed note: translated from Aussie vernacular, they rejected him]. I was severely anxious about certain things…but I did feel that I could do this one thing better than many of my peers.
Q. And that was drawing?
A. That was drawing. Getting knocked back was the first thing that had ever gone really wrong for me in that kind of way. Despite a line of traumas throughout my life, I always felt that I could set my watch to a certain achievement in the arts. So I was at a bit of a loss as to what to do.
I spent from age 20 to 26 in a near-catatonic state of depression and confusion. I enjoyed some small success in Australia, with shows in the National Museum in Canberra and the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art. Things were happening for me, but what I didn’t understand at the time was that I had fallen into a depressive episode.
Q. Had you not felt that before?
A. I always thought I could pull myself out of funks. I was closeted about my depression, and kind of ambled through life. I was so confused and in such a long-held state of self-hatred that I couldn’t stick to any one thing. I would do these [art] shows, and traction would bubble up. Then I would have a complete change in direction, and a need to start from scratch. I did this many times.
Q. It’s funny you say that after success that you could point to.
A. None of it was enough, and none of it felt like it actually related to me. So I said, “I’m going to move to New York and first move back to my dad’s place for a little while to save some money.” As soon as I walked in with my boxes, I just thought, “I’m back to square one.” That’s when I plummeted into a very black depression, where it became clear that I needed help. I managed to get to a psychologist.
Q. It sounds like you were honest about it in a way that you hadn’t been to that point.
A. I was finally honest about it with myself. I’d never really spoken about it. I had a period of intense revelation, mixed with extraordinary pain. The one thing I could recognize was that I needed out, and I moved to New York without a plan other than survival.
I was reminded of a time in my life when I did feel happier, in my teenage years because of how much I love drawing. I had a hodgepodge of a portfolio, but I decided that I needed to pick the one thing that felt most natural to me, start producing my own folio, and then tried to get work.
Q. How did you go from that point to where you are now, making a living as an illustrator after two years in New York?
A. I worked tirelessly when I got here, putting a great deal of energy into small commissions, some of which were spread around enough that they led to bigger opportunities. I chose to develop a style that could function at varied tones and levels of detail, and seemed to be friendly to a range of applications. This decision was less calculated to enable a range of commissions inasmuch as borne from a desire to have a visual voice that mimicked my actual one – which, like anyone else, can be garrulous or terse, comic or glum, absurd or dead-serious, depending on what mood you’re in.
Q. As an artist working for someone else, is there a pressure to express what you know is wanted from you?
A. Absolutely. The people who commission you have less of an understanding of what you do than you do. They’re always going to hire you on the basis of previous results, so there is a great expectation to repeat yourself. That’s why working on personal projects is so crucial, to develop and expand. I’ve seen a lot of people who have fallen into the trap of doing the same thing again and again and again. They’re miserable but don’t see how they can reframe their career.
I spent years without a sense of self, trying to be version of me for other people. So it’s really important now that I focus on whoever I am to me, and try and carve out an identity that feels natural and true, both in my work and otherwise.
I’m planning on taking some time off commissioned work this year to solely focus on my own projects. I think that a lot of commercial artists who derive meaning from their personal practice take this time periodically if they’re able to – the trick is being able to live off your former commissions for a while and making the leap of faith that there’ll be more when you’re ready to work again.
Q. Did you have any fear of failure when you arrived in New York?
A. I didn’t give myself that option. I had a new lease on life after receiving the care I needed and for the first time as an adult, I felt lucid and had a degree of motivation that I may never have again. What I did in my free time was all about enabling that – trying to be fit and healthy. I recently told a group of students from Brighton on a studio visit that [physical] exercise as an artist is as important as keeping a sketchbook.
Q. Why’s that?
A. To expect that an unhealthy lifestyle won’t impact one’s thinking seems absurd. Be kind to yourself in small ways and take joy from your daily rituals. Have your morning coffee on your couch with the news rather than nervously gulped over the kitchen sink. Self-care and self-understanding will obviously make you a better artist and person — the two are quite intertwined — and knowing your limits will keep you afloat.
Q. Do you think it shatters illusions when you tell someone young that being an artist is sitting down at a desk working rather than simply the romantic, tortured ideal of it?
A. I think a lot of people are in awe of the life of the artist. It’s convenient for people to believe that the pratfall of the ideal life is that you’re miserable. That myth is convenient and born out of slightly blood thirsty impulses.
Q. You’ve talked about routine being a way to counterbalance the ever-shifting life of a creative. What kind of schedule do you keep in the studio?
A. It’s funny – I think part of what made me decide to study fine art was a disdain for things like regular working hours, but now I maintain them quite closely (9-6, Monday-Friday). Part of this is practical, as it allows me to promptly communicate with the U.S. throughout the day, Europe in the morning, and Asia or Australia in the late afternoon. I take very short lunch breaks and don’t have many meetings so I’m at the desk almost all that time. Discipline gives a sense of stability to intrinsically unstable careers paths.
But if a deadline isn’t demanding otherwise, sometimes it’s healthier to stay in bed and arrive at the desk later, both calm and invigorated, rather than risk spending the whole day mercurial, tired, and inefficient. Being self-employed is strange, because you’re both the boss and the employee. In any working dynamic, a boss might be militant with time and overly demanding with workloads at the expense of the employee’s quality of life. Why punish yourself by being a cruel master?
Like anyone, I work weekends and very long hours during intensive periods, but I hope to do less of that – it doesn’t help the quality of work, and working slavishly tends to come at the expense of meaningful relationships.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.