Sylvia: Should You Quit School To Find True Creativity?
Before I introduce our third conversation, I would like to acknowledge an overarching theme present in all three interviews thus far: Each woman bought a one-way plane ticket without any expectations, and each woman embarked on a trip with an open mind and a sense of vulnerability. Solo travel can be scary, and travelers are constantly confronted with challenges they must overcome, but it’s within the process of overcoming these challenges that the biggest discoveries are made.
Sylvia Annelise Hecht dropped out of art school two years ago and bought a one-way ticket to Southern Mexico. “I was in art school and I felt like I was spending a lot of money to have access to these cool facilities, but I didn’t have enough sense of my own style,” she told me. “When I set out, it wasn’t necessarily like, I’m setting out to do art and work on my career. It was more like, I need something new. I need to get inspired. I need to get some fresh air and just experience new things.”
Sylvia is now traveling Latin America and working as a freelance mural painter. I sat down with her, in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Mexico, to talk about the different ways in which her environment shapes her art, and in-turn, shapes her outlook on life.
“I feel like I’m on auto-pilot when I know I’m having to fit myself into certain societal norms.” -Sylvia Annelise Hecht
Erika: When did you start traveling?
Sylvia: I started traveling at the end of 2017: six months after I decided I’m not going to continue going to university. I started out in Southern Mexico, and then spent almost a year on the road before I went back to the States.
I started out with a friend for a while—doing the vacation travel thing. But within my first few weeks in [Tulum] Mexico, I came across this project at a hostel. They were asking about my art and asked if I wanted to come paint a mural there… That was my first large-scale painting project.
Erika: What significance did that first project have on your career?
Sylvia: Before I was traveling, I honestly didn’t consider myself a painter. It was really this one project that changed my life. I felt such a passion for it immediately; being outside in the fresh air, doing something large-scale where you’re moving your whole body and interacting with it on a larger scale… What was supposed to be this little volunteer project turned into this giant mural that became very complex and took a lot of my time. It’s something I’m very proud of. It set the course for my artistic career and how the last couple of years played out.
Erika: How do you set boundaries when volunteering your talents for free? How have you moved away from that as a working freelancer?
Sylvia: Now, I like to be selective about what I’m receiving in exchange for my worth, because I know what I’m worth… When you just show up somewhere and you’re like, “This is what I have to offer. This is what I’ve created before,” people see you as a real person and people see the value of your work and they really want to support you.
So many times, I’ll go to a hostel and someone will be like, “My friend owns a hostel in this other city—you should go work for them!” I’ve honestly been finding the painting opportunities are too abundant, which is a good problem to have, because then I’m able to be somewhat selective with where I’m putting my energy.
Erika: What has been your worst work-exchange experience?
Sylvia: I had a brief window where I just needed somewhere to stay for a week or two, so I took on this project [at a hostel in Colombia] in reception, to do their logo and all their information. I’m proud of how it turned out, but it was just a weird project because my boss was the one sitting at reception the whole time. He was basically breathing down my neck, and I felt like I couldn’t take a break, or work on my own schedule.
Erika: What did you take away from that experience?
Sylvia: I know now that I really don’t like having my work be hourly. It really doesn’t work for me, because I feel a lot of pressure to work faster, and the work isn’t going to be as great in quality. So now, when I’m planning projects, I quote the price based on the area and square footage… I have to create when I feel creative.
Erika: What piece of advice would you give yourself one year ago when you started traveling?
Sylvia: To believe that my creative talents are enough, and that I don’t need an education, or financial backing. I just need my skills that I’ve been using to create with my entire life. I never would have believed that. It took me a long time to believe that.
Erika: What advice would you give others who want to be freelance artists?
Sylvia: You can get so much done by just showing up—vouching for yourself. Have faith in the fact that people are going to see you and see what you have to offer... It’s about talking to people, and proving to the world that you have something to offer that someone else can’t.
Erika: Would you be able to do this work back in the U.S.?
Sylvia: I do have a mural back in my hometown [Madison, Wisconsin] … But my artwork changed a lot living in situations where I was spending time in nature and being influenced by my travels. One thing I love the most about creating murals, is that each piece is so specific to the space in which it is created—It couldn’t exist anywhere else… I look at the specific wall, the environment, the colours that exist there, and the different animals I see walking around.
I’ve always loved nature, and that’s always been a theme in my work, but it’s hard to represent it when you’re not being directly influenced by it. Now, I’m so used to my pieces being influenced by the environment, that I wouldn’t be able to separate myself from that.
Erika: Why do you prefer working in public spaces (hostels, bars, restaurants, etc…)?
Sylvia: I love the idea that other people are viewing my work and being influenced by it. I think of how it’s going to be perceived and I hope other people are going to be positively affected by it… It has affected my art in interesting ways. I feel like everything I make now is cheery and colourful. The stuff I used to create would be a lot more black… Traveling has made my attitude more positive, and so my art has become more positive. I’m also trying to create things that are perceived as nice, cheery and inviting [for public spaces] and that has made my attitude more positive because I’m creating positive art.
Erika: How has that transition from “black art” to “cheery art” had an impact on you personally?
Sylvia: I’m lot more in-tune to how the different stimuli around me is affecting what I create… If it’s having that much of an impact on my artwork, then what kind of impact is it having on my psyche?
Sometimes I’ll look at a piece that I’ve created and feel like it wasn’t me that created it—like it just kind of manifested itself. Especially when I look at things that I created a while back. I’m just like, where did this come from? What was going on in my mind then that contributed to that? I would like to increase the frequency and the volume of the projects I’m doing, but at the same time, it’s kind of nice that I have these landmarks of big projects that each changed me in a different ways.
I’m very lucky to have been in a position where I could take breaks and check-in with myself creatively and see how I felt as I progressed project-to-project. Now that I’m back on the road, and wanting to be doing this full-time, I just have a better sense of what I’m capable of.
Erika: What is the scariest part of being a full-time freelancer on the road?
Sylvia: My biggest fear is my ability to stay motivated and keep doing it… In some ways, not having bills to pay, and a boss to impress, is a little scary because I know I’m not always consistent in my personal motivation. Sometimes, my life looks all bright and shiny on the internet, so I’m getting all this support from people saying, “You’re creating all these things—so fun!” And I’m like, “Oh… it’s been like six-to-eight weeks since I created my last mural.” What have I actually been doing?
“Even if I kept traveling a circle around the same country, each experience would be different: there would be different seasons and different flowers would be in bloom. I love that it’s never static.” -Sylvia Annelise Hecht
Erika: How do you stay motivated?
Sylvia: Because I love what I do… Working for yourself doesn’t mean working without other people. There’s always going to be that give-and-take and that’s why it’s fun that each project is new and different because I’m getting new ideas or getting involved in things that I never would have come up with on my own. Even if I kept traveling a circle around the same country, over-and-over again, each experience would be different: there would be different seasons and different flowers would be in bloom. I love that it’s never static. I’m never going to be working in an office *giggles*.
Erika: Why Latin America?
Sylvia: In the States, I feel like productivity is held to such a higher standard than creativity. But it’s also that I feel the culture and the attitude of the people [in the U.S.] isn’t well-suited to me. In Latin America, people are very warm and that’s had a positive effect on my life and artwork. When I go home, I can find work, and I have people that I like there, but I don’t feel like it opens me up in the same way. In order to be creating stuff that’s real and true, you have to be vulnerable, and you have to be emotionally available. Sometimes I feel like I’m on auto-pilot when I know I’m having to fit myself into certain societal norms.
Erika: What would your life look like right now if you stayed in school and never went traveling?
Sylvia: I would be about to graduate from university, be in a lot of debt—I’d be really depressed. I would be trying to figure out a way to convince myself that my creative passions could fit into the professional world and that sort of mentality. If I was still there, I would be untrue to myself. I’m lucky to have a family that is supportive of travel, and that I was able to see it as a feasible option.
If I want to create art, I need to be inspired to do it. That’s a lot more than just having the training and a piece of paper that says you can “do art.” No one would care if you have an art degree and then you have a portfolio that’s worth nothing. Then, I would have spent one hundred-thousand dollars on nothing. I would like to go back and finish my degree, but I don’t think that’s what you need to be successful as a creator. If I hadn’t left to travel, I still would have done something to majorly switch up my life and get out of that cycle… But I also just don’t like the cold *giggles*.