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Conversations with Sam Soper

Today we’d like to introduce you to Sam Soper.

Hi Sam, can you start by introducing yourself? We’d love to learn more about how you got to where you are today?
I spent the first ten years of my life in Harvey on New Orleans’ west bank. As a young child, the giant murals and street artists at work in the French Quarter were hugely inspiring to me. My father had a rendition of Picasso’s The Old Guitarist that he painted in high school, so at 5-years-old I dreamt of being Picasso when I grew up. My parents, a teacher’s aide and an engineer, are very practical people who were blatantly realistic about the pitfalls of such a choice. They only wanted the best for me and continued to attempt to curb my trajectory in a more secure direction.

In 1997, we moved to a small evangelical Christian town on the outskirts of Northeast Houston. This was my first time taking an art and computer class due to Louisiana’s underfunded public school system. I loved art class but never got too invested because I’d already internalized that my future wasn’t in the arts. Fortunately, computer class I took to like fish to water. Making friends was difficult, especially since I didn’t go to anyone’s church, so the Internet became my refuge.

The next many years of my life were exclusively dedicated to design and web development. In 2005, I moved to Austin to attend the University of Texas, a decision made partly due to the street art reminding me of New Orleans and partly because art school was entirely out of the question. I interned and freelanced throughout college, building web experiences, pursuing the fields I wished my degree was preparing me for. December 2008, in the middle of the recession, I graduated with a BS in Advertising, focused on interactive media and user research. I charged full steam ahead, ready to start my career, and fell flat on my face.

As I began struggling through it, I discovered a previously undiagnosed cocktail of mental health issues, including ADHD, bipolar disorder, and anxiety. Working in web design and development, I cycled through deep depressive and overloaded burn-out episodes; suffering multiple lay-offs and a failed 3-year stint of self-employment. In the chaos of my professional existence, a friend urged me to start drawing again. Creating became the only thing that kept me alive. I did my first group exhibition in 2009 and several more followed. Five years later, I was side-hustling at weekend markets with my partner, under the pseudonym BAMFaktory. This was a great introductory experience, but by the end of 2016, as my day job filed for bankruptcy, we decided it was necessary to direct all our focus back toward survival. As my extended contract came to an end and my next full-time step eluded me, freelance clients fell out of the woodworks. Putting my trust in what was available, I cautiously went back into self-employment mid-2017.

Surprisingly, my years of failure brought me clarity and drove me to make some big changes. From understanding my worth to bookkeeping to project management to finding a solid client base, I realized I had access to resources and mentorship galore. A mix of web development, UX consulting, and brand design projects filled most of my time but was drawn to spend more of my free time on artistic creation. I still held some doubts in my future as an independent artist, but I’d successfully run a business for a year and felt it was now, or never, to start taking baby steps toward that dream. Dedicating a fraction of my time and the cumulative skills I’d gained throughout my career, I began to establish my name independently in Austin’s art scene. When I took personal ownership of my journey, doors blew open. I worked through the rejection sensitivity and fear that had held me back for years and started applying, showing up, and inserting myself where I wanted to exist. Clear and empowered to ask for what I wanted, I was able to discover the wealth of support, mentorship, collaborations, and inspiration I had among my family loved ones, and community. Once I shifted focus away from the struggle and towards making my dream a reality, the abundance that surrounded me revealed itself.

After taking a year and a half break, I made my debut back into public exhibitions launching my long-term Krystalline Kaleidoscope tarot project. This was the first time my parents came into town for my show. For my own enjoyment, I started messing around with some original characters, the Alien Cuties, based on emojis from a childhood mood journal, but then people really connected with them. The more of myself I put out there, the more things picked up and the wider my network grew. Organizations I’d always admired from afar, waiting for my chance to get noticed, like Almost Real Things, BossBabes, SprATX, and Austin Witches Circle, were suddenly people that I knew and worked with. The SprATX Ignite residency program took me under wing in January 2020. Through this, I learned to spray paint and bid murals, as well as introducing me to an even wider community through Block Party ATX and Polis Creative. When quarantine hit, I was worried these new connections would dissolve, but kept putting in the work to stay present, keep relevant, and improve my newly learned skills.

Years of UX work and practically living on the Internet left me flush with ideas for blending my art and web backgrounds to generate fun community experiences online during quarantine. I developed an Alien Cutie-moji iPhone sticker app, live-streamed on Twitch, created resources to help people learn to make Animal Crossing custom designs, and wrote and illustrated my first Alien Cutie Adventure over Inktober, revealing bits of story and lore to my audiences daily. I continued practicing spray painting whenever I could and soon started getting referrals for my own mural gigs.

As quarantine progressed, hearing people struggle in this new solitary WFH landscape, I realized my unique position, as someone who’d been through many lay-offs and worked from home for three years, to help others navigate the situation. The privilege I had through education, connection, and assistance coming into my career as a mural artist, illustrator, and entrepreneur, I wanted to make more accessible to everyone regardless of financial situation or background. Inspired by the community-building work of my grandmother and my peers, I launched the Creative Cuties community in January 2021 to give everyone a chance to find and nurture their creative spark. Initially, I thought a couple of friends might sign up to come have artsy park picnics with me once or twice, but I announced and was overwhelmed with response. So many people joined that my one group chat quickly split into two micro-communities listing open calls and serving as a hotline for all of us to openly ask for help, share business advice, celebrate our successes, and relate over the trials and tribulations.

Though my art journey has been over a decade-long experience, I still feel as if it’s just begun. My self-employment work is still split between my practical career and my dream career, but every year my art-related income occupies more and more of that share. Everything has something beside it and I eagerly look forward to what the steps ahead will bring.

I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle free, but so far would you say the journey have been a fairly smooth road?
Every struggle is an opportunity to learn: about yourself, about humanity, about existing in this world. I was laid off six times and survived three beyond that. I went through antidepressant withdrawals and came through the other side of self-medicated addiction. I’ve experienced sexual assault and abusive relationships multiple times between middle school and my early 20s. I’ve worked in some hyper-toxic environments and allowed my talents to be used by an equity partner who had no intention of paying for years. I’ve witnessed many friends lose their lives too soon. Less than a decade ago, I’d destroyed my credit and couldn’t open my own bank account because of bad debt. I went through years of suicidal ideation, starting in high school because existence felt like a hopeless struggle.

In the end, the only person that could make things better for me was myself. I wasted a tremendous amount of time on envying others’ success, not focusing on pursuing my own, doubting that I could achieve it alone, and setting unrealistic goals and expectations to cast those intentions in stone. Meeting my partner did help me take ownership of the responsibility I had in enabling my struggle and finally realize that I was worthy of love and support, as we all are. I mistakenly thought that was supposed to rescue me from being miserable and disillusioned with my life’s direction, but that part was still on me completely.

I had to practice being nice to myself, changing my internal dialogue, focusing on my happiness, not comparing myself to others, having patience with my individual process and path, and staying present with my next step forward. In our instant-gratification society, no one tells you how hard that is and they so often encourage positivity but leave out the lesson that it takes consistent practice. Capitalism works best when we feel constantly lacking, dissatisfied, and unable to reach our goals, so these lessons aren’t taught. And when they are, it’s for a hefty fee.

If you want to create a reality that brings you happiness, you can get there with slow and persistent effort that direction. Being kind helps, too. Having a solid network of friends and peers will carry you through and create opportunities in places you wouldn’t expect. Pour your energy into those who fill you back up and you will be lifted. On the flip side, pour your energy into people who drain you and you lose yourself. It’s beautiful finding mutual respect and emotional support of people that understand you on a level you didn’t think was possible, but you have to choose to foster those friendships. It can be scary putting yourself out there, but there are so many wonderful organizations and supporters within Austin’s art scene, like Almost Real Things, SprATX, BossBabesATX, Austin Witches Circle, Block Party ATX, Vandals Container, Unknown Collective, Something Cool Studios, Raasin in the Sun, HOPE Campaign, and even my pals and I in Creative Cuties, waiting with open arms and good vibes for you to show up for yourself and make your introduction.

Always keep in mind: Rejection is hard, but it just means the opportunity wasn’t for you or you’re not quite ready for it yet, but you will be. Keep trying. Keep learning. Keep growing. Keep shining.

Thanks for sharing that. So, maybe next you can tell us a bit more about your work and what sets you apart?
I’m a mural artist and illustrator specializing in colorful, highly-detailed, pop-surrealist portraiture, character creations, and concept art. I work primarily in aerosol spray paint, latex paint, pen and ink, and Procreate on my iPad. My artistic mission focuses on promoting joy and inclusivity. To the inclusivity end, my work often features real and inspirational people I know personally who showcase the broad scope of human experience and, on the joy end, super cute and happy characters, like animals doing human things. I also strive to make every piece an educational experience, highlighting the beauty present in the natural world and researching flora, fauna, geology, symbolism, and worldwide environments to accurately represent them.

Among the projects that have brought me the most pride were the Lotus Pond Garden mural, which I completed at the Sanctuary Gardens home for domestic abuse survivors with the assistance of local artist DeLoné Osby, and the Playin’ Hooky Alien Cutie Adventure I wrote and illustrated last October. Additionally, painting the Space Whale mural at El Tacorrido downtown was a huge moment for me because it was the first time I’d added my own creation to Austin’s public street art scene. I’m currently working through a cutie-style zodiac calendar that I am pretty stoked on and my tarot deck is a continuing slow moving labor of love.

Creative Cuties has denied all of my expectations. I’m honestly still amazed that people signed up in the first place and continue to show up to the Sprout Sessions. They are all beautiful individuals. I experience a vast range of emotions when fellow cuties tell me they booked their first show, applied for their first press opportunity, spent some of their free time creating when they hadn’t in a while, were inspired to start gathering inventory to open a shop, or that the group is helping heal them. It’s been unlike anything I have ever experienced and fills me with a tremendous amount of love and gratitude for everyone who’s been involved in making this a reality with me.

Professionally, I don’t have an art school background, but have a wealth of business and research knowledge. I’ve had a lot of experience writing pitches, consulting businesses on interactive marketing, and am highly familiar with formal review processes. I’ve developed an efficient concept process for my commissions, ensuring each clients’ satisfaction with the end result. My user research background allows me to write unbiased surveys and analyze data to take pulse with a community and grow it in the best possible direction. I have a symbiotic relationship with many friends in the community who’ve had a formal art education because we can help each other fill knowledge gaps.

Can you talk to us about how you think about risk?
I take calculated risks with firmly established boundaries. You need to know yourself and be completely comfortable advocating for yourself to set good boundaries. It’s especially hard to calculate and even more so create when you’re struggling. My failures in setting solid boundaries with clients, with coworkers, and with friends in the past exponentially increased my struggle and made it harder to find my path to creating a life that makes me feel whole. The whole “risk it all; throw yourself in 100%” attitude is dangerous advice. A financial gamble of that magnitude falling through can leave you down in a hole and fearful of trying again. Slow measured progress and adaptability, with a solid safety net, leads to way less burn out and disillusionment. Be the turtle.

Everyone has something beautiful to offer the world deserving of some of their time, even if it’s just an hour or two every weekend. Maybe it doesn’t become a business but a fulfilling lifelong creative practice, but if it lights the fire inside and makes life a little more worth living, it’s valuable. There is little risk in pursuing something that fuels you creatively.

Introducing yourself to your local creative community carries little risk, though it might feel that way if you’re shy, introverted, or socially anxious. People are more friendly than you might think. Posting your creations on social media also carries little risk, even though we see celebrities get dragged time and again. That’s not reality and you can build a super supportive global community online.

There have been some times that I thought I was taking risks by being vulnerable or exposing something I would have been teased for in high school, only to find out it wasn’t a risk at all but people actually resonated with it super strongly. If you create work that heals the child within you, you might find other people who need that healing, as well. Those are the kind of risks worth your time.

Pricing:

  • Outdoor & Indoor Murals — Estimates upon request, $150 deposit to start process
  • Pen & Ink Illustration commissions — Estimates upon request, $150 deposit to start process
  • Cutie-Style Digital Portraits (depending on scope, 4″x6″ & 8″x10″) range from $60-$200
  • Online Shop Offerings (buttons, matchboxes, originals, & more) range from $2-$150

Contact Info:

Image Credits
Isra Sharnez (photos: headshot, Alien Cuties book, tarot cards, basket, Creative Cuties meet-up) D. Green (photo: Block Party ATX live painting) Marion Soper/Nanny’s Creations (pine needle basket collaboration) N. Yarden Spooner, Ashtyn Nyx, Chalk Moon, Sam Soper, Sarah Gustafson, Jesseca Soper, Bibi Musachia, Panda F. (Krystalline Kaleidoscope tarot models) Aerica Raven, Sarah Murphy, Amanda Z. (CryDye), Jem Hazel (Creative Cuties: Sprout Session attendees) Kristin Hillery (editor)

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