The Autonomous Creative with Martha Rich

Navigating the midlife pivot to a creative career, with Martha Rich

with your host Jessica Abel

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you are the boss, Martha Rich (2014)

Martha Rich is commercial and fine artist who took a long and circuitous route through many day jobs (Workman’s comp insurance. Hotel front desk clerk. Repo woman?) to pivot to an art career at the age of 37.

Now Martha makes a full-time living as an artist making work that brings her joy.

Her secret to building an absolutely custom autonomous creative life?

When bad things happened in her life (and they did, with regularity) instead of curling into a defensive crouch, she saw opportunities to rethink her assumptions about how her life “should” look, and instead take big leaps into new ways of living and working.

Over and over, Martha took a flyer on something untested. She took risks that others would find really scary.

Every time she landed on her feet in some new place, and it taught her to trust herself.

Successfully navigating so many life pivots, she came to trust that she can and will continue to land on her feet.

Acting with courage before confidence taught Martha that optimism is a good plan.

More from this episode…

  • Martha describes her escape from cubicle land and finding her creative calling: “It was a miracle… finding what you’re supposed to do. Not everybody gets to do that.”
  • When following society’s rules didn’t work out for Martha, she made her own: “Once you take the first big risk, then it’s a little bit easier to take another one.”
  • “Every bad thing that’s happened to me has been a blessing.” — Why Martha returned to school at thirty-seven, and how it launched her art career.
  • What are the benefits of a rigorous art education, particularly for older adults?
  • Part of Martha’s story is about the relationships she built with mentors and creative influences, including the Clayton Brothers and Esther Pearl Watson.
  • “Networking is the one thing that has kept my career going” — How to make a living as an artist even if you’re “no Leonardo da Vinci.”
  • Martha shares her strategies for attracting clients, including the project that helped her sell more than three hundred paintings.
  • A self-described commercial and fine artist, Martha explains the difference between the two and how it affects her creative process.
  • The secret to transforming your art career: “Make some dumb stuff.”

More from Martha Rich

Martha Rich lived the typical, suburban life – until she followed her husband to Los Angeles where, just short of a picket fence and 2.5 children her average American life unraveled. To cope with divorce, fate lead her to a class taught by painters and brothers Rob and Christian Clayton. They persuaded her to quit the pantyhose, corporate world, leave her human resources job at Universal Studios behind and become an artist full-time. She graduated with honors from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and got her MFA in Painting from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Her commercial clients include Blue Q, Fringe Studio, Mincing Mockingbird, Chronicle Books, Green Thumb Industries, Penn Gazette, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, Penguin UK, McSweeney’s, Portland Mercury, Village Voice, Bon Appetit, San Francisco Chronicle, Henry Holt Publishers, and Country Music TV to name just a few.

Her work is featured in the Beck video “Girl” and a book about her sketchbooks,

Sketchbook Expressionism, was published by Murphy Design. In 2019, Chronicle Books published her book, The Furious Notebook, Release Your Rage, Use Your Anger for Good and Chill the Heck Out.

Rich’s artwork has been shown in galleries throughout the U.S. and internationally.

She is currently living in her hometown of Philadelphia and teaches classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.

Connect with Martha Rich

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Navigating the midlife pivot to a creative career, with Martha Rich

Martha Rich: It was like a miracle, you know, it’s like finding what you’re supposed to do. Not everybody gets to do that.

And it was like, I knew, like I knew. Other things you don’t always know for sure, but I was like, this, I’m going to do this. I don’t know how, but I’m going to do it.

And, and here I am. 21 years later. .

AC intro3: What does it take to become a successful writer or artist?

There are some destructive myths out there about what a creative career is supposed to look like.

And we’re kept in our lane by the undermining belief that, as artists, we’re somehow incapable of building autonomous, sustainable careers– if we choose the work that’s closest to our hearts.

So we’re going to tear down those myths and get the truth by going to the source:

Incredible professional creatives who’ve followed every path but the expected one to success on their own terms.

I’m cartoonist, author, and coach for creatives, Jessica Abel.

And this is the Autonomous Creative.

Jessica Abel: Our guest today, Martha Rich, is a commercial and fine artists who took a long and circuitous route through many day jobs, including workman’s comp insurance. A hotel front desk clerk. Repo woman. To pivot to an art career at the age of 37.

Now, martha makes a full-time living as an artist making work that brings her joy.

And her secret to building an absolutely custom autonomous creative life. Well, you’ll find out more in the episode, but short version when bad things happened in her life. And they did with regularity. She’s not magical. Instead of curling into a defensive crouch, she saw opportunities to rethink her assumptions about how her life should look. And instead take big leaps into new ways of living and working.

Over and over martha took a flyer on something untested. She took risks that others would find really scary. And every time she landed on her feet in some new place, it taught her to trust herself.

Successfully navigating so many life pivots, she came to trust that she can and will continue to land on her feet.

Jessica Abel: Acting with courage before confidence taught Martha that optimism is a good plan.

Let’s get into the interview right after this message.

Let me guess.

You want to get more done.

You want to be sure you’re doing the right things.

You want to stop feeling so slammed and overwhelmed.

You want flexibility and autonomy.

You want to have time for the big ambitious projects you’ve dreamed up that, you know could change everything for you. If you only finished them.

I’ll also hazard a guess that you’d find it difficult to do all of that without working 70 hour weeks, missing out on time with family and friends damaging your health. And burning out.

And if you would, that puts you in very good company. Most of my clients, and in fact, most of the creative professionals I meet struggle with those same issues.

Modern life just isn’t designed to make it easy for creative people to do great work and make money while also taking care of their mental and physical health, their relationships in their communities.

It’s not even fair to ask.

And yet, that’s what we’re faced with.

The good news is this problem is crackable.

The bad news is there’s no magic formula.

That’s why I’m excited to invite you to the simplify to amplify round table, a free live monthly conversation, where we get together to tackle the big questions, celebrate our successes and plan out what to do next.

Running a creative business is no joke. It’s complex. Issues crop up out of nowhere.

And more often than not, we have no one to turn to to ask for help.

If you have a creative business at any stage of development from nascent to veteran. You’ll get a ton out of these sessions. Bring your questions and join me and an amazing group of creative peers who take their business as seriously as you do. At the free simplify to amplify round table. Check out Jessica to register for the next session of the simplified amplify round table.

That’s Jessica

Okay, let’s start the show.

Martha Rich: I’m actually kind of busy right now and, I’m working on several projects at the same time. I’m doing some things for Blue Q, About four or five different new products that they’re developing.

Jessica Abel: And so Blue Q is?

Martha Rich: Oh, Blue Q is this really great company that makes kind of funny gifts, like socks and shopping bags.

And they do lots of kitchen, like kitchen towels, but they all have kind of quirky, funny sayings on them. I’ve been working with them for a very long time. And right now we’re working on, I think it’s four new products.

I’m also working on another project that’s going to be, I don’t know if I can talk about it, but it’s like little animations, that little funny animations that we’re just starting out on and it’s turning out to be really interesting, but challenging. Cause I have to draw people, which usually draw full like full people. I mean, I can do it, but I haven’t, I’m rusty. So I’m working on, drawing, again. People.

And then I have a couple of shows coming up this So, little studio, just for sawing wood. So I have a show in Joshua Tree in December and then one in Waxahachie, Texas in September. I think right now.

Jessica Abel: Awesome. That’s great.

Martha Rich: cool.

Jessica Abel: such a wide variety of things.

Martha Rich: Yeah And I’m also doing a book. But it’s a longer project. Like I’m illustrating a book for somebody.

It’s crazy.

Jessica Abel: Very cool. Do you bounce back and forth or?

Martha Rich: Yeah, because some of them are faster than others and it’s just a matter of…

My nature is to put things off until the last minute. So it’s really hard. I’ve got like a schedule now. And I, I got these plastic folders that I saw somebody else using and they’re kind of cool. And I’ve got them all on my wall, so I know what I’m doing, instead of just shuffling through the world like, oh shoot, I’ve got a deadline tomorrow. I mean, I’ve been doing this for a long time, but I’m not, the most organized person.

So, I’m trying.

Jessica Abel: I think it’s a good lesson that you don’t have to be the most organized person and still get where you are now.

I mean, I am super organized and do all this strategic teaching about how to organize projects and all this stuff. And I always find there are tons of people who don’t need the level of organization that I have, you know, they just don’t, they don’t need it. They don’t need what, what I do to get to their goals. It’s like some subset of that is all you need in order to get there.

Martha Rich: I need a little bit of it, but it’s, I think it’s mainly because I’m juggling such different things for once. I don’t usually have this much going on at the same time. So I kind of have to do it because it’s stuff that I can’t put off to the last minute, which is my true lazy nature.

I mean, I’m, I’m a very busy, lazy person. If that makes sense.

My true nature is to like, not do work. I’d rather just sit around and, you know, do fun things, even though art is fun, but

Jessica Abel: That’s what I was going to say is I feel like this idea of, of you as lazy when you’re just, art stuff pours out of you at all times in different ways, different directions, and maybe that’s fun. And so that feels lazy to you, but I think.

Martha Rich: No. I think my nature is lazy but I force myself to go against my nature. Cause it’s fun. But like, if I was like a bazillionaire, I would just make like one piece of art every month. But I challenged myself to not be lazy because… I mean I know lazy probably isn’t the right word, but you know.

Jessica Abel: Yeah, no, I get it. I get it that you want to just take your own time with it and just, it just feel your way through it.

It was funny I had a conversation with my son the other day, who’s 11 and I was trying to get him to not play more video games and do something else. And he just got really, not, really upset, but just tense, you know, emotionally tense.

And he’s like, it’s just so… it’s easier. I was like, yeah, it is easier. It’s easier to have fun when somebody is feeding it to you. Do something hard. You know, I get it, you know, it takes a certain amount of effort to actually put yourself into these things, but then the reward is so great. Right? I mean, once you are in the middle of it.

Martha Rich: Yeah, but there, you know, there are days I’d rather go and eat nachos and have at margarita at Blue Corn with my

Jessica Abel: hear Ya. Um, so let’s, let’s talk a little bit about how you got where you are now that you actually do have all these really awesome, widely diverse projects running. And you’re in demand, all this stuff. I mean, it takes, it’s a path, right? It takes a long time.

So when I was reading through articles and things about your history and doing some research for this, it seems like there are a series of kind of pivotal encounters for you, both positive and negative that redirected your course in a way. And the first one seems like your mom.

Was she a really big part of this?

Martha Rich: Yeah. my mom. I grew up outside of Philly in the suburbs and we were kind of like hippies in the conservative bastion of Devon, Pennsylvania. craft room.

So when we were little kids, me and my brother… she taught me how to develop film.

She had an enlarger down there in a black room and, um we did batik and macrame and tumbled rocks and just like creative stuff. So I’ve always been like, that was just normal, but I never really knew that it was something that you could do as career.

I was doing the normal thing that you do when you grow up in the suburbs, you go to, you know, go to graduate from high school and then you go to a normal, like a regular college. You know not an art school. I got a degree in sociology.

did take art classes at Denison university that I went to. And it’s kind of foggy now, but like somebody kind of discouraged me and said that I couldn’t draw. Which I was like, hm. I mean when you’re 18 and you’re just like, kind of, 18 and you’re in college and there’s cute boys on the quad and someone tells you, you can’t do something you like, you know, my lazy nature, I didn’t fight back.

I got an a in sociology 101 I’m like, okay, then I’ll major in that and I’ll quit art.

Jessica Abel: That was one of the other encounters I was going to mention. you’ve mentioned it in a few different times, which is this, an art professor who told you that you couldn’t draw. And maybe I just misunderstood this, but what I understood is you were sort of on an art path at that point in a college.

Martha Rich: I mean, I did like. The high school, I went to also had like an art major and I did art and high school. And then I was at Denison and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do so I took art. I was like art, art major. But then I got discouraged and then I just went with the thing that I did well in. I got the A, and I’m like, oh, I’ll do this.

And then, I became a sociology major, and barely graduated I got like a 2., you know, something.

Cause I’m not, I mean, I’m, uh, I’m smart. I got good grades in high school, but I wasn’t, I was in college. My mom- this is another thing where my mom comes in. She had cancer while I was in college.

So I was kind of just partying. It was like Frisbee and, you know, I wasn’t an A student anymore. And I just, I was just getting through and dealing with being in college and knowing your mom is sick and not knowing what’s going to happen. I think that’s why I just, I was like, I can’t, I’m not going to focus on art, and I’m just going to do what’s easiest. So I can still go to the frat house and have a kegger Um, so I kind of

Jessica Abel: I mean, there’s safety in that, you know. I feel safety that you were heading towards the anxiety of losing your mom, or potentially losing your mom, it is going to make you head for safety. Somebody an art professor telling you you’re not good at this.

And you know art’s hard and it’s supposed to be hard. Like, well, you know, maybe I need to go someplace that’s a little easier, a little safer.

Martha Rich: Yeah writing. Reading dry books and writing 20 page papers on a typewriter. That’s what I did instead. And barely finishing things, but just, just getting by. So I passed. And just getting out of there.

And then after, right after I graduated, my mom came to my graduation. It was like one of the last things that she able to do. And she, um, she passed away like three or four months later. So it was a weird time. I still don’t, you know, a very thing to do when you’re in your twenties dealing with all these different changes. Like you’re trying to move out and become somebody and then all this other stuff is happening. And it’s just, you know, I didn’t think about art at that point.

I just was like, okay, I gotta go get a job somewhere doing whatever. Really have a plan at all.

Jessica Abel: But so you didn’t have a plan. Did you have any idea of what success looked like to you then? Not necessarily right out of college, but within a couple of years out of college were you, did you have some idea of this is where I’m headed. This is what I want. Not necessarily in terms of a career goal, but like what your life looked like.

Martha Rich: I had absolutely no idea. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I, you know, I just like, oh, where can I get a job? And, uh, I got a job at the Sheraton Valley Forge as a front desk clerk. I was like, that’s what I got. And I’m like, okay, well I’ll do this. And then as I worked there a I met a whole bunch of people.

This is probably where I learned how to be a networker. I would, was at the front desk, so business people would come in and stay at the hotel. And then on the weekends they had these weird fantasy suites. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of that. It’s in Valley Forge where like the top of this tower there’s like a caveman room room. I don’t know if they still have them. I think it’s a casino now. I don’t know, but it was very bizarre. So I dealt during the week, I would deal with business people. And then on the weekends it would be like, having like an anniversary in the caveman room. So it was very weird.

I learned how to deal with people there. And talk to people. at one point I was like, I gotta get out of this. Because it’s, it’s hard. The front desk is hard. People like throw things at you.

And if the hotel’s booked, you get a businessman he comes late and then, the only room left is a space room. They’re like, they don’t really like them. Because they’re kind of weird. It’s like, know, a jacuzzi. There’s no windows. And, uh, they’re really funny. I have to go check to see if they still exist. But anyway, I learned how to deal with people there because you’re dealing with all walks of life.

There’s also, uh, like a dinner theater there too. So you would get people coming to go see Lily Langtry’s Dinner Theater. I’m like, all these memories are coming back. I didn’t expect that I was going to be talking about that.

Jessica Abel: I didn’t know go down this road at all. And then how did you transition from that to the next thing? Cause I know it plan, but like what

Martha Rich: I would talk like business people would come in and I’ve got to know who they were. And then one person offered me a job um, it was like a, a workman’s compensation insurance company. PMA, but I can’t remember what it stands for it, but they had offices downtown, downtown Philly, City. And

so I was all set to leave and I had given up my apartment in Chesterbrook. I moved, I was supposed to move to North Carolina and then I was like, okay, well I’m, what am I going to do now?

My college roommate was from Atlanta and she said that I could move down and stay with her parents till I could find another job. My whole life has been a series of like bad things that have happened you know, that forces me to do something. I think if no bad things that happened to me, I would be in this like comfort zone and I would be like doing workman’s compensation claims for the rest of my life because it was comfortable and easy.

I mean, I don’t know for a fact, but I feel like everything that I’ve done has been as a result of something bad, like getting fired, death, divorce. Everything big has led me to make a big change because it’s almost like, oh, well, I’ve got to do this now. So I’m like forced to change.

Jessica Abel: Looking at it that way, I mean, all kinds of opportunities come out of weird things. I mean, there were good things that came out of COVID for some people. There are opportunities that come up as a result of disasters of various kinds. And seeing those opportunities and then walking into that, I think is an interesting kind of takeaway from this, for me. Instead of figuring out how to back up and batten down the hatches, and oh my God, I lost my job. I gotta find another job right now. Instead of that, giving yourself some space to do something.

Martha Rich: Yeah. I mean, and I also didn’t have any plan. Like I’m not a planner, too, I think. I realize. Now that I’m going back over my life, I realized I didn’t plan pretty much hardly anything.

So I ended up moving to Atlanta just because somebody was like, oh, well you can stay with my parents until you find an apartment. My friend Margaret. And, um, I got a job at Ford motor Credit Company.

Well, first I got a one day job where I was a head hunter. know, like I was, it was like doing cold calls and I did it, I did it for one day, and I’m like, this is not for me.

And I ended up somehow I got a job at Ford Motor Credit Company collecting money for car payments. that was, that was well, yeah, I mean, it was, interesting. I ended up doing pretty well there. I was just talking to some people last night about this it’s very strange.

So I would repossess cars and, you know, people all day with a headset on and ask them for car payments.

And then I looked at a lady sitting next to me in another cubicle. This place only let us have a plant and one picture in our desk area. And I was just like, this is, you know, ugh. I would draw little pictures were like critical of the company and put them on post-it notes. we, I got in trouble for that.

But this lady next to, this lady next to me was like, probably my age now, you could smoke inside. And she just would smoke cigarettes her headset on and just get money. And she was just like, mehh. But she was, she was there for a long time. She been had a lot of, they gave you stock Ford and she couldn’t, she probably could never leave.

And I’m like, if I don’t get out of here now, I’m going to be that person.

So here, I guess this is something I did without anything bad happening. I decided to leave on my own because I didn’t want to become a cigarette smoking money collector. That doesn’t seem like a fun thing.

Jessica Abel: Right. So there are boundaries to this whole go with whatever. There’s like, there’s the edges.

Martha Rich: I actually did something. But I was like, I, I loved magazines. I would always read magazines and I was in Atlanta, and I’m like, I’m going to find the Atlanta magazine. I’m going to work at Atlanta Magazine. And I just, I bugged them until they gave me a job. And I got a job as the assistant to the business manager at Atlanta Magazine.

And it was like the best place to work. It was actually owned by the same person who owned at the time who owned Philadelphia Magazine. And yeah. I, I learned magazine-ing it was, I was more on the sales side and I ended up becoming the promotion manager for the magazine.

So I got to put on events and parties, like the Best of Atlanta Party and that was really fun. And I met all the writers and art directors and I kind of was like, looks really cool over on that side of. It was two sides of the building. They didn’t mingle. they were pretty cool. The advertising people didn’t get to tell the editorial people what to do and vice versa.

So, met really, really interesting people and I was like, kind of want to be on that side. But I didn’t get, I never got to that point. But that thought comes in later. I ended up getting married to a dude from Atlanta. From Marietta, Georgia. And we ended up leaving Atlanta to go to Los Angeles. So he could get his PhD in German philosophy.

Jessica Abel: Well!

Martha Rich: Which is like a barrel full of monkeys. No it was fine. I mean, we get, we went to Los Angeles and

Jessica Abel: I wouldn’t say if I didn’t know the end of this story, sounds like a catch.

Martha Rich: I mean, you know, he had his moments, but we moved to LA right as, uh OJ Simpson, verdict went down. And we had an apartment right, like two blocks from where Nicole Simpson was murdered.

And the restaurant that she was at was right across from our apartment building. So we got there, we’re like living in, you know, LA apartment with a mattress. And there were like TV cameras all outside and we like didn’t go outside for awhile. So it was interesting to go to Los Angeles at that point.

And, I was married for a year. And then we got divorced. then, I was like, I all the things I’m supposed to do. I got married, wah and I’m going to do what I want to do. And I was like, I want to be a designer. And I, so I enrolled in classes at UCLA Extension in graphic design and it was, you know, it was okay.

I think I had a knack for it. So it was like, not that challenging.

And I found out about Art Center College of Design. They also had a night program and It a better program. And I started taking classes at night while I was working at Universal Studios, Hollywood in the human resources department. And, um, it was great. I was like, oh, there’s an illustration class. I’m going to take that too. I took graphic design and illustration.

And the rest is history. Because I got an F in graphic design, cause I was like, this is not what I want to do. And I loved illustration so much. I just, put all my focus in that. And the teachers were like, you, you should quit your job and go back to school. I like, okay.

Jessica Abel: Right. So pivot point. Yeah. Pivot point right? This other influential, brothers, right? The Clayton Brothers.

Martha Rich: The Clayton Brothers. They were really supportive and cool.

And I didn’t know how I was going to pay for it. I, I managed to get some scholarship cause you put your work up then they dole out money by little on it. By the end I had a free ride there. So it was interesting. It was a really great experience. I loved going to Art Center. like amazing, magical time.

Jessica Abel: I mean, it’s so interesting to me that they would say that to you. I’m just speaking as somebody who teaches artists. The idea of telling somebody, oh no, you should definitely go to school and drop everything in your life and go do this, go to art school. it was a different time, I know, but I don’t know if I would do that. It’s pretty, pretty remarkable actually.

Martha Rich: it was a different time. I don’t know if I would tell someone. I don’t know, I, I would just be realistic about it. They were realistic, but they, I was, was like gung-ho, like overachiever. They would give me an assignment and I would just be like, oh my, This Is so much fun. I love every minute of this.

So I feel like they got that feeling. And I was an older student. Everybody else was younger. I was 37 at the time. And I think maybe it’s a little bit of a different situation than telling some like 18 year old or somebody super young. you know, I had some lived experiences, and was mature as they say. And I, I was like ready for it. So it worked.

Jessica Abel: Yeah. I mean, I had a conversation about this just yesterday with a coaching group that I was leading where I was saying how much I enjoy teaching adults. Like mid-career people, because they, they know what they want and if they want something they’re like, okay, I’m going to do it.

Where 18 year olds are so self-protective sometimes they just don’t, they’re not able to throw themselves into something. They feel, and it’s still the relationship a kind of punitive relationship in some sense of like turning your homework. And you’ve got, a da da da, and grades are dropping and it doesn’t work with art. For me, it just feels like totally out of sync so I love working with older students. I’m sure they were really excited to have you in class.

Martha Rich: Yeah It was incredible. It was an incredible experience. And I learned so much there. And it was, I was like the most insecure cause I was older than everybody. But none of the, none of the people who were younger than me cared that I was that old. I was the only one who cared. They were all just like, oh yeah, Martha. You know, they didn’t care that I was like, 15 years older than them. So was as old as the teachers.

I was actually older than a few of the teachers. So it was, um, it was cool though and pretty much all the teachers that I had there are my good friends now.

Jessica Abel: Did you wonder, though? I mean, cause I get this question all the time. Did you wonder, am I too old for this?

Martha Rich: if I was too old, but I didn’t think of it as like to make a career out of it. I just like, what am I doing?

but I didn’t really think about it cause I was having such a good time there. Like it was a miracle, you know, it’s like finding what you’re supposed to do. Not everybody gets to do that. And it was like, I knew, like I knew. Other things you don’t always know for sure, but it was a certain, I was like, this, I’m going to do this. If I, I don’t know how, but I’m going to do it. And, and here I am 21 years later

Jessica Abel: Have you had a day job other in that period?

Martha Rich: ahhh

Jessica Abel: it sounds you’ve, you’ve managed to find those, little like nooks in all these different places you’ve worked, where you can find some people to connect with and ways to make it interesting. Find some find what’s interesting out of it in some ways.

Martha Rich: interesting about them.

Jessica Abel: Which gets back to the relationship building and networking angle again.

So the other, the last person on my list of major pivot points, you just hinted at at one point. And I’m just wondering if this is, if I’m correct about this, but you talked about the influence of Esther Pearl Watson on you professional.

Martha Rich: Yeah. What was really interesting is that when I was at Art Center, they have a really good library. I filled with all kinds of books and I would go in and just look at books just randomly and I found or somebody had told me about her work because she made a book while she was at Art Center about her sister.

And I would get that book out and look at it. And like, she was like completely unique. It was very unique. And the colors were wonderful and I would steal her color palette.

Um, so I was like I knew about her on while I was at Art Center. And then when I graduated, I was like, I’m going to contact Ester Pearl Watson.

Because I was going to, because you would go to New York to show your portfolio around. And they lived in New York at the time.

And I, emailed her and they were her and her husband, Mark Todd were super kind and they’re like, yes, come meet us and we’ll give you advice about being an illustrator. So I went there and met them in Brooklyn. And now I mean, now they’re like family to me. I’ve shared a studio with them. Um, they’re really close friends. So just from contacting somebody from a book that I loved, I’ve made friends and it was really cool. I know.

It lucked out cause they, they ended up moving to Los Angeles. When I heard like they’re moving to Los Angeles, I was like, oh, well, I’m going to throw a party, a welcome party for you. Yeah and then they started doing drawing nights at their house and it was, we’d just become very good friends. I’ve traveled across the country with them a couple of times and I’ve taught with Ester and It was fate.

and I guess, know a little bit of a, had no, I was like, I’ll contact people. I don’t care. I’m going to go show my portfolio to people. And it took a while though, before I could make money to live on for

Jessica Abel: Right. So that’s what I wanted to ask you next, is how did you, you said that you don’t need to be a super drawer and know how to draw hands, for example, to make money.

So how did you learn how to make money? How did you figure that out?

Martha Rich: I didn’t figure it out. What I did was… so I didn’t get a lot of work at first. And I would come up with projects for myself to keep me going. And also working at a job that wasn’t art-related was very helpful because you’re motivated to… You know I know a lot of people who for illustration then get like an art director job. And they like it cause it’s creative.

But I didn’t want to be in an office anymore. So I was like, I’m going to work somewhere where I don’t want to stay.

And then I would make projects for myself. I would just get little jobs here and there. I sent out postcards. I would go to New York and go to the American Illustration Party and keep networking and constantly send out postcards and I’d get work here and there.

then I did this thing where I was like making a piece of art every day for a year. I know that’s like a thing everybody does now. I did it in 2006. I’m sure someone did it before that, but made my own little blog. Like I designed it in Dreamweaver and I posted a picture every day and wrote a little blurb about what I made.

And then you can put those, this is when you can just put a PayPal button on your stuff. And I started doing that and I don’t know, somebody found me and it just started, would buy the stuff. And they were just like why, they were fast things. Like I didn’t think too much. And I was just like, to draw whatever I’m inspired by today.

And it, it the way I worked. I wasn’t doing, you know, trying to do really traditional illustration anymore. And that I started getting a little bit more attention and just kept building on it and building.

I did, I did a painting a day for a year. A couple of them, I would cheat where I would do two in one day like if it was Christmas, I didn’t want to do it. But on the whole, I did a painting a day for a year.

Jessica Abel: And you sold them all.

Martha Rich: yeah I sold them. I have maybe one or two that were lame, like really where I was just like, blech. And um, yeah I would say I sold them all and It was kind of like, oh. And then I started meeting people who thought what I was doing was interesting.

And it was, it was also a networking thing because I started making friends with some of the people who would like, people would buy like two or three things. People who have my same weird sense of humor.

So I found like you make the work that is you and it somehow gets out to the people who into that. If that makes sense.

Jessica Abel: It makes total sense. I say that all the time, it’s like you have to, you have to get out there and do what you want to do and be true to your own vision and opportunities open up.

I mean, the fact that you’re doing the things you’re doing right now, all of these different, you know, the shows and the animations and whatever is because of you having such a distinctive voice. Right. You’re so clear about what, what it is that you will bring and they’re like that is what we want. We want that.

Martha Rich: Yeah So it all happened just by keeping on doing stuff. Constantly doing new things. Until something starts clicking. And everything builds upon the thing that I did before.

The thing that’s even very weird is when I was a kid, I would do my own, I did my own magazine, like the 70’s called Ye Olde Continental Times.

It was, I wrote it and illustrated it. So maybe I was, should’ve just paid attention to that.

And I did speech bubbles and all kinds of stuff. And it’s like the stuff that I was doing that I’m kind of doing now still. It’s still my same sense of humor and it’s still, it’s crazy.

Jessica Abel: You going to republish bring it out again?

Martha Rich: I dunno.

Jessica Abel: The to this.

Martha Rich: It’s really funny. Like there’s a whole thing about exercises to do and there, it’s ridiculous. But I have like a twelve-year-old sense of humor still. On the

Jessica Abel: It’s a very, it’s a, it’s a sense of humor that communicates very well to large numbers of people. So I going to be just fine. But what I love about your story about deciding to do this daily painting or daily drawing project, and then selling the, just directly selling the things, is that, you know, I remember 2006, I know what I was doing in 2006.

I remember going through the same process of trying to become a published illustrator that you were going through. I didn’t go to school for it, but I was doing postcards and to meet people. I was living in New York and all this stuff.

And the, just like skipping around the gatekeepers is something I’m really interested in. That you saw the value in creating your own project and, and just seeing it through independently without waiting for anybody to give you permission.

Martha Rich: Yeah you know, I didn’t fit into any kind of one little space. So you just have to make your own thing happen. And I actually, I was very inspired by Mark and Esther, cause they’re super, going to do it our way. We’re making our own thing. making our own projects. They come up with ideas constantly.

Like they’re exhausting. They’re so, like, always. They’re not lazy nature. They’re the opposite. They don’t know how to just like, you know, I maybe I helped them with that.

You know, like you can be a little bit lazy right now. You don’t have job today.

But, um, inspired me to come up with my own projects. They, I saw that they could do it. So just seeing someone else be able to do that. Make your own way. Because I wasn’t, you know, I wasn’t low brow. I wasn’t, you know, fancy illustration. I was kinda like just floating and not knowing what it was. I just did what I wanted to do. And I’m lucky that I was able to not everybody can do that.

Jessica Abel: I bet more people then realize it could, though, you know, because I think you were just willing to- one of the things I see as a, as a theme here is that you’re willing to take risks. And they’re safe risks, not crazy risks, but trying stuff that are, that is going to feel dangerous to other artists. It’s going to feel challenging to them. And you’re just like, yeah, I’m just going to do that. And that’s, you know, whatever, like so-and-so said I could do it. So I’m gonna do it.

Martha Rich: I

think that comes from, you know, where I did, I followed the rules of what you’re supposed to do and like society rules, and then it didn’t work out.

So I’m like, well then why am I following the rules like that? I was supposed to get married, have kids, work for, you know, some corporation and live in a nice house and raise kids. In a specific suburban way.

And luckily, fate came in and, cause I’m not supposed to do that. And then I realized you don’t have to do it, which is hard. Cause it’s, it’s scary to kind of do something that’s a little bit out of the ordinary for your, wherever you’re growing up. You know people

Jessica Abel: For sure. Yeah. I mean, I think too, your observation that every time, every time something horrible would happen, and it happened plenty. It was not like you had a blessed life where nothing bad happened. Whenever that happened, you would land somewhere unexpected, go some different direction.

And sometimes it wasn’t, it sounds like occasionally it wasn’t amazing, but it was fine, you know, and, and interesting and different. And you survived. And so as you go through this process, you start to trust that you’re able to Yeah land your feet .

Martha Rich: Once you take the first big one, then it’s a little bit easier to take another one I mean I’ve had many times in Philadelphia sitting at my friend Matt and Gina’s they helped. You know, there’s been tears. There’s been tears.

Jessica Abel: I would be surprised if there weren’t. I mean, tears in this kind of path, you know?

Given all that, what would you say is your, was your biggest mistake? If there is such a thing? And what happened?

Martha Rich: Getting married.

I don’t, I don’t think of anything as a mistake because Everything’s a lesson. And if I hadn’t gotten married, maybe I wouldn’t have been brave enough to do the other stuff. So I don’t I mean I would guess my-

all right, using credit cards without knowing you can pay them off every month, a mistake. And I had a moment where like one person didn’t pay me and it spiraled me into financial chaos.

So that would be a mistake. there was a time when I was just like living on credit cards. If you can pay them off every month, they’re a tool. But if you can’t, they’re an evil, it’s bad.

Jessica Abel: Yeah. I mean, I guess I was kind of getting at both things, right? So this is an actual mistake.

But also marrying this man was a big mistake. I’m sure it was incredibly painful for you, but on the other hand, that’s why you were in LA. That’s why you hit bottom. That’s why you were like, screw it. I’m going to art school. Would you have felt freed enough and under enough pressure in some sense to do that, if you hadn’t made that quote unquote mistake.

Martha Rich: Yeah. I think actually, now, think that I would.

I think I would have done, I think, cause I forgot before that there was an, a job opening in LA before I got married and I applied for it. It was at like LA Style Magazine. So I like kind of wanted to go to LA anyhow. feel like it’s like that Sliding Doors movie where you know like two different things, but you end up in the, ultimately in the same place.

I think I would’ve gone. I would’ve ended up doing this at some point somehow. No matter what. I mean, I can say that, because there’s no way to say otherwise. way to prove that that wouldn’t happen. But Inside I think that I would have just kept going towards this cause it’s what I like. It’s what I like to do.

Jessica Abel: At the top of the show, I invited you to the free simplify to amplify round table where I meet monthly with a group of awesome creative professionals like you to dig into the challenging questions that come up all the time when you’re out there on your own. Trying to run a small business and make it work.

This is just a quick nudge.

If you’re listening to this episode and questions are popping up for you. If you’re thinking about how, what we’re talking about would apply in your case? Or maybe new ideas are bubbling up.

I got to say our simplify to amplify sessions, start for short are the perfect place to get more clarity.

Save your zoom window at Jessica And let’s get you moving in the right direction.

It’s free. It’s live and I’d love to see you there. That’s Jessica to save your spot. All right back to the show.

So in the last, whatever, 10 years or so, you went back to grad school when you got an MFA. And now when you talk about your work and your bio, whatever you say, you are a commercial and fine artist. So I have a couple questions about that.

Number one, where’s the line between these things? And number two, is this like a one-way street? You know, you go from being a commercial artist to being a fine artist. Can you go back and forth? Does it, you know, what, what does that change for you?

Martha Rich: Um Commercial art, someone pays you for a specific job. Fine art is what you do for fun and what you do on your own.

Jessica Abel: So you were already doing that. Like you would say that what your project in 2006, when you were doing your own work for 365 days, that’s a art project.

Martha Rich: Yeah.

Jessica Abel: Yeah I mean, I would agree. I’m just, I’m just curious how you think about it.

Martha Rich: I think it’s simple. And for some people it’s more complicated, but for me, it’s like, you get a job, you do something commercially, you get paid.

You make something in your house just for fun. You don’t know what to happen for that and it’s just yours.

That’s one thing I wasn’t very good at it, at my master’s degree, like all the discussions. That’s just not how my brain works. I’m very, I’m a simpleton. I want to make something funny that makes me laugh or that’s a really beautiful color I’m going to experiment with that.

It’s gut. I follow my gut. But there’s people who really liked, it’s all about the concept and the discussion and what it’s representing and that kind of thing. And that’s awesome. It’s just not me.

Jessica Abel: I mean, I, you know, I’ve worked in an art school, so I see this all the time that there’s, especially at the MFA level, but even at upper level of BFA, there’s this pressure to, even for very straightforward observational art, which yours isn’t. But there’s a lot of that where I, I work, to have some kind of conceptual underpinning for it.

Some reason that this is being expressed in this way. And that sort of feels sometimes like it’s the only valid reason to make this thing, is because you have the idea of what it’s supposed to mean in a larger kind of more abstract sense.

Martha Rich: I mean, that’s, that’s the way it is at Penn too It, it’s just, I think there’s different, there’s different ways of making art.

Jessica Abel: Yeah. Yeah. And I mean, I, I came up with this, to me, mind blowing thing of a couple of summers ago when I was working on a project about, professional practice, professional development for undergrads, trying to talk about what it is and stuff. And, I head up an illustration program and suddenly I was like, cause I was trying to think, what is illustration?

You know, we’re calling this illustration department, what is it? There’s no boundaries to what. And I just had this moment where I was like, it’s art as a service. The way can have software as a service, it’s art as a service. It’s art where you’re, you’re putting your artistic brain in the service of someone or something else to express something.

And then versus art as a product. To speak from a commercial point of view, that’s fine art. You make an object because you want to make it and then you sell it.

Martha Rich: You hope you sell it.

Jessica Abel: Yeah. I mean, from a commercial point of view, there’s still a commercial instilled, commercialized art, but the way that you’re using your artistic sensibility is totally different in those two modes.

Martha Rich: Yeah. I agree with that.

Jessica Abel: So I know you teach, I know you have contact with younger artists. What do you try to tell them that might help them along the path towards being satisfied with artistic life?

Martha Rich: Well, I think one of the things that came from the pandemic for me with teaching online. It kind like freed me from the normal teaching mode. It was like having a conversation with people in your house.

And I was like, if you’re not enjoying this, if you’re not fun and having some joy and making art, you have to make time for that.

Because I found a lot of people in art school are very driven about getting portfolio piece and it just, it’s so stressful. And it’s so like work. And people forget about the playfulness and the joy that comes from making something. You know, sometimes it gets really frustrating because you’re trying to make something and it’s in your head and it’s not coming out.

But it’s like the most important thing, above everything else, I think to be able to set aside time, to make some joyful art. Angry art, or something that is purely just for you and not constantly like work, work, work.

I think that’s the main thing that I started teaching this time. I’m like, should be having some fun. We should be making a mess. We should just, I mean, I know that’s all that’s happened the years, but I’m teaching grad school and everybody’s very serious about what they’re doing. I made them have time to play. And I think it helped a little bit, cause it was such a stressful situation getting your degree while you’re online and not having the same experience.

But you know, we came and made some dumb stuff. And sometimes the dumb stuff is what ends up making you money.

I think it’s hard. It’s really hard to have people believe that because it’s, there’s not a direct, there’s not like this, this and this and you’ll be successful. It’s really hard. Because people want that. They want the formula, but there’s really no formula.

But one of the things I do is I take a class to Los Angeles and we just do studio visits. Every single story you hear, there’s one theme and it’s people making something for themselves that has turned their career into something different.

It’s not the trying to be like a certain comic book artist or certain style over here. It was a moment where somebody made something that meant something to them, turned their career into something different. So I mean, that is a, it’s just finding that and being able to recognize it while it’s happening to you is the hard

Jessica Abel: Yes. Yeah, because I find that if you, if, if students are if they’re in it to try to make money, like how can I find the thing that’s going to crack this nut? It’s just a struggle. It has to come from some larger impulse on your part.

Martha Rich: Yeah. Being able to recognize it’s the hard thing. Now I get like a feel– when I can tell something’s or maybe I don’t always know, but you just put it out there and sometimes you’ll fail. Sometimes you won’t.

that’s the secret.

Jessica Abel: Yeah. Well, and the other secret that I want to talk about is, and we’ve referred to it a few times is, is just your talent for relationship building. Your interest in relationship building. How networking has played a role in your life.

Martha Rich: Yeah. Networking, networking is the one thing that has kept my career going, I think. cause I’m not, you know, the Leonardo da Vinci of illustration. You know, I make some cool stuff, but I think my personality and just like talking to people and meeting people wherever I go, has been helpful.

Because then- like one of these jobs that I got just recently, and I, this is from 2006, I did a paint, one of the paintings a day. One of the people who hired me this time one of those paintings way back then, and just now I’m working with them.

So think just always talking to people and connecting with people. It helps. Every, every long-term relationship, because I work with people and it’s all people that I’ve met through somebody else. Those are the most successful working relationships I have.

And it’s all just from… I’m good at like chatting people up, I think. Cause like, I think most people are interesting. But I always say most, cause there’s a lot of people out there I would not talk. I’d be like get away from me. But anyway.

Jessica Abel: Yeah.

Martha Rich: I, you can just get a vibe off of somebody and it does, it really works. know, you talk to one person and you have a good experience. And then they’re like, oh, I met that, that lady who does the speech bubbles, she’s a la la la, you know, and then they tell someone else. and it could happen 10 years later.

That happened with Blue Q too. I’d sent them cards way before they hired me.

So it’s also patience. Persistence, patience, and just talking to people, but not talking to people like you want something from them, just talking to people because they seem like they’re interesting.


Jessica Abel: And maybe keeping track of it, like not in a formal way, but remembering, oh yeah. I did send stuff to Blue Q. These are the same people coming back.

Martha Rich: I used to keep track of it way more back in the day. I had like a spreadsheet where I’d be, like I sent out posts. You know, I, I was a little organized, but now I’m less so because, I don’t have as many people. I haven’t been sending postcards out. I want to do that again.

Jessica Abel: Well, and things come to you organically now because so many relationships and so many, so much history that stuff just rolls in your door. I’m sure there’s lean periods, but, you know.

Martha Rich: Yeah Yeah.Last year. But yeah It’s been a long journey and um, still pinch myself. I still can’t believe that this is what I do. after you know, working in repo woman. I can’t believe I did

Jessica Abel: love

Yeah, I did. I sold a subscription to the opera to, cold calls. Yeah. long.

Martha Rich: cold calls

Jessica Abel: That was awful. Uh,

At night. It was bad. Um, yeah, you reminded me of that. When you talked about your, uh, you know, uh, telemarketing or teller job,

Martha Rich: what was it? Head hunter

Jessica Abel: Flashback to the basement of the Lyric Opera.

Martha Rich: Yeah, yep. Builds character, right?

Jessica Abel: guess so.

Martha Rich: Like who needs kind of character

Jessica Abel: Exactly, not the character I want.

Martha Rich: Well you know actually it was good because I can always collect. them Nobody everybody pays me I’m not afraid to call someone up and be like where’s my paycheck? Where’s my

Jessica Abel: Right. There’s something good out of everything, all of these different weird jobs. Like I I heard you talking about that. I was like, oh, she’s got to be really good at negotiation and collections, you know,


definitely good at that.


fear No fear.

Martha Rich: Yeah. Well, there’s still fear, but I’m good at it. Overcoming it.

Jessica Abel: I think that’s a really good, a good point that you don’t have to be over the fear for it to something, you can

Martha Rich: I was afraid to talk to you today. I was nervous. At first.

Jessica Abel: Awh

Martha Rich: Yeah

Jessica Abel: I’m normal, right?


so we’re going to, we’re getting close to the top of the hour and I want to have, I have one question in here. I think maybe a second one’s come in. So I just want to get in there and ask those before we run out of time.

Peter asks you are very consistent in your art and illustration. I think he’s talking about fine art and illustration, just consistent styles between the two.

Can you describe a specific project in two categories to help see the difference for you? I think between what you see as fine art, and what you see as illustration. I think I’m interpreting, but I think that’s what it means.

Martha Rich: I don’t see a diff- the only difference is that someone hires me. Like the art, is exactly the same. you know, there’s more of a specific, like, I have a specific thing to do for an illustration project, but I mean, I come at it the same way, I guess.

Jessica Abel: It’s all kind of the same in my brain, but one is just more directed.

Martha Rich: You know If you’re doing specific story you have to, you can’t like story about cookies. You can’t paint a bra. guess you could put cookies

it you can, um, I think that’s the gist of the question.

Jessica Abel: Yeah. And I think, I mean, what I would add to that, I think going from what we said earlier, what you said earlier, is basically the reason for that, the reason that there isn’t really a distinction is that you went out there and did your own private projects. You did it your own way, and then that’s what people then come to you for. What you do.

People don’t come to me to a realistic portrait now.

Right. And even early on in your career, when you’re doing, cakes or whatever, and you’re doing illustration commissions in a certain painted style or whatever, they would come for that painted style for objects, not as refined as what you do now, but what you put out in the world is what people come to you for.

When people ask you to do stuff. So if you’re doing your own projects that follow your own loves, then that’s what people are going to come to you for cause that’s what they see.

Martha Rich: Yep And if you put something up out there that you don’t like to do, that’s the thing everybody will hire you for.

Jessica Abel: Exactly. I call that my No Cowboys Rule. is the thing I teach my students all the time where it’s like, if you don’t like drawing cowboys, do not put a cowboy in your portfolio because the number one thing anybody’s going to ask you for is a cowboy.

Martha Rich: The thing that you, the thing that you don’t like.

Jessica Abel: Whatever you hate in your portfolio, that’s what you’re going to get hired for. So don’t put it in there.

Martha Rich: that’s true.

Jessica Abel: I’ve experienced that.

Okay. One more question here. Jen says she’s a big fan. Her question is, would you recommend sending physical cards nowadays? What do you recommend is the best way to reach out to people? Meaning art directors, I assume.

Martha Rich: I think maybe sending out cards, well, not right now until you know, that people have gone back to their offices. Like I wanted to send out cards, but then everybody was at home, so it would just sit somewhere.

But I don’t know. I like the idea of a personalized thing.

Like there’s somebody that you really want to work with. know people have sent out like zines specifically for people. So I do think if you’re, if there’s somebody you are interested in working for send them something that you’ve made, that’s unique.

I want to kind of do that if I want to like branch out and maybe send something cool to an art director, you really love their work. I think yes. until you know that everybody’s gone back to their offices, it’s just going to sit there and you’re going to waste your postage.

I also think, you know, going to events, there’s lots of events and like, not right now, everything, this is for later when things are more, but like going to Creative Mornings or kind of AIGA thing, or go to New York. Like meeting people is really the best

Jessica Abel: Yeah. Yeah.

Martha Rich: because

Jessica Abel: I started to go to Creative Mornings when they were, the year before everything closed down and I’m sure they’ll come back pretty. I did a talk actually there, because I went and said, “hey, I’d be interested in doing a talk.” And so they said, okay. And so, you know, that’s how it works.

Martha Rich: getting involved with local chapters of things and it’s, it’s the way. I mean, maybe, maybe now’s the time to like, make the cool old portfolios that we used to do, like, and see if somebody will meet you. Once… it’s all about non-pandemic times. But I think personalized stuff is the way to stand out.

Cause I mean, how many emails do we all get you’re just like, delete, delete, delete. It’s hard to get attention on an email.

Jessica Abel: Yeah, to stand out in that format is really difficult, I think. And so thinking creatively about how can you do something that’s gonna catch somebody’s eye or get them to see like, oh, there’s a brain behind here. It’s not something. Yeah,

Martha Rich: But the world needs images. That’s not going to end. I like there’s room for all of us. now you don’t have like one specific gatekeeper who is everybody. You know, you might not be like a worldwide sensation, but you might be- like I’m like a smaller sensation in smaller area. You could be a small sensation instead of the worldwide sensation.

Jessica Abel: Right. And then there’s still tons of opportunities and weird things you would never think of. You can’t, you probably couldn’t have, you know, half the things you’ve done in the last five or ten years, you wouldn’t have ever thought to pitch that. You know, somebody was like, I need a thing.

Martha Rich: Yeah I’m a sock designer now.

Jessica Abel: Yes.

Martha Rich: like five years old. I’m like, “mom, I want to be a sock designer when I grow up.”

Jessica Abel: Some people, you know, that’s a thing.

Martha Rich: know I didn’t even know it existed, but. I dunno I’m an optimistic person, even when things are horrible. might make it through this pandemic. Something good is going to happen.I hope.

Jessica Abel: Well, I mean, I can feel that from you, but I also feel like you’ve, you’ve learned the lessons in your life that optimism is a good plan.

Martha Rich: Yeah. it’s helpful. Yeah. It’s actually helpful if you’re just like nothing’s ever going to go right ever again, it kind of does happen. I mean, everything’s stinks and nothing’s going to go, right. That doesn’t really help too much. I mean, nobody wants to really hang around with that. Like, you’re going to be hired by somebody you also want to be pleasant to work with and nobody wants to work with somebody who’s like a stinker. like Ennnh…

Jessica Abel: Yes, absolutely.

Martha Rich: I’m sorry, I’m myself up. Yeah.

Jessica Abel: Well, that was amazing. Thank you so Uh, Thank you for hanging out with me. It’s been such a pleasure to talk to you, get to know you a little bit. where find you?

Martha Rich: My Instagram is martharich63, That’s my art one. And then my, I have another one where I just post like weird stuff like like the 3-block hoagie or no, it was a cheesesteak. martharichworld. Did you see that?

Jessica Abel: Yes. Well, I saw the pictures of it. Yes, I was like, this is this really a hoagie when you have like 18,000 hoagies, like stuck next to each other.

Martha Rich: But it was cool. There was like helicopters flying over and we’re like, what is going on? hate helicopters. And then it was all about the

Jessica Abel: It’s about the hoagie.

Martha Rich: Yeah. “Hoagie.” gonna go get a hoagie.

I love that.

Jessica Abel: Thanks Martha !

thank you so much for joining us today for the Autonomous Creative.

Our show is produced by Matt Madden. Our production coordinator is Lousine Boyakhandjyan, and our production assistant is Rhiannon Sunday. Music is by Matt Madden. And I’m your host, Jessica Abel.

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