Member Spotlight: Sandy McDermott

Sandy McDermottBushwhack. One definition says “to make one’s way through woods by cutting at undergrowth, branches, etc.” This is how I ended up rolling through life. 

Born into a family with an alcoholic father and a mother busy working to pay the bills and raise three children, “nurturing” was virtually non-existent in my rearing. We hear this sort of story all the time and most certainly there are people who had it much worse than I. But, this environment guided my early years and led me to seek attention and acceptance outwardly, have poor study habits in high school, low self-esteem, no long-term vision, etc. Fortunately, I soon realized the surrogate environment and bad attitude were just more dead ends and not the life I wanted. It took a while for this lost soul to find the confidence to start a journey completely alone. But I did. And that’s what matters in this story.

The journey to finding myself and becoming an artist is filled with fits and starts; a rather long see-saw of personal and professional learning where the ups and downs seemed unbalanced; the downs were agonizingly slow while the ups flitted by. I was behind the eight-ball at the start, causing me to wait until almost adulthood to take an art class, and my first application to art school was met with rejection. What may have hurt most early on was no clear guidance through the college I eventually attended. My professors didn’t know what to do with my interest in both science and art, but then, neither did I. I was forced to continue bushwhacking.

Through my efforts, I found, applied and was accepted to a graduate level program that embraced both interests. I moved 3000 miles from home for more schooling with virtually no cash, a small car and the few things most important to me: my boyfriend, a small bunch of clothes, a bike and camping gear. Graduate school and the subsequent four years in California were rewarding and exciting but also the short upswing of the pendulum. I incurred debt to achieve my goal of becoming an illustrator (something I face again with my daughter starting college), right when the illustration field was experiencing a major transformation from traditional to digital techniques. The classroom setting hadn’t kept up with the pace of change in the professional setting. Not having learned what I should have to compete on the digital platform, I finished school feeling behind the eight-ball again. Still, I was terribly excited and not the least bit concerned. And then there was starting a family sooner than intended. Hands down my little family is the best thing that ever happened to me, yet it was also a major challenge to building a solid freelance career. Through debt, changing technology, volunteer ‘work’ and a new family, it was a long way to bushwhack. Like a hiker cutting a new path, stopping was not an option.

watercolor by Sandy McDermottThe journey was not without a bit of good fortune as well. First I realized that I could create a different destiny for myself, something other than what I was handed. Finding the courage to journey alone ready to seek the unknown was another catapult. Being accepted into the only graduate program I cared about (one that admitted only six students per year) and finding the right partner in life (that unsuspecting guy who followed me to California) were equally important. Lastly, meeting a few people along the way who believed in me, instilling a sense of reassurance in my soul with each passing, has been key. For these things, I am eternally grateful.

For all the good decisions and fortunate realizations I made, there were as many not-so-fortunate decisions with “oh-crap” consequences: essentially, I created my own roadblocks. Choosing to pursue a freelance career with no business plan or capital funds was perhaps not smart. Choosing to render using traditional techniques rather than digital methods, while it seemed easier than sinking thousands of dollars into the new equipment and further education, resulted in me being left behind in the wake of progress. Finally, devoting my early years to a non-profit client was personally rewarding but not fiscally rewarding. I wanted to devote my work to educational endeavors, not realizing the title “non-profit” would extend to me. Each of these decisions was made willfully but had unanticipated consequences.

Those consequences required me to keep a side job throughout my freelance career. At some points, the illustration work was so slow that I took up other forms of art just so I could still feel like an artist. From home and garden portraits to handmade felted handbags, I thoroughly enjoyed other means of creating and brought happiness to the many who purchased or commissioned my work but these efforts pulled me away from what really fed my soul. So, not only did I encounter roadblocks but detours, too.

illustration by Sandy McDermott

Persistence pushed me on, however. Staying true to my passion and experiencing any semblance of success has required one consistent theme: never give up. Those three words carried me through for many years.

One day, a conversation started me thinking: the experiences that I viewed as “hurdles” were not my biggest challenges to becoming or being an artist. Confidence, or lack thereof, was. Really, my experience was no different than any other student trying to find their way in the big world. My biggest challenge was me. Funny thing is, I managed to secure clients and build a modest list of interesting projects but for many, many years, I did not see myself as an “artist”. I achieved many artistic endeavors and was involved in many creative projects including book and magazine work, t-shirt designs, trail signs, murals, logos and more but I still did not see myself fully as an artist. My sense of “artistic self” didn’t quite fit any genre of art I was familiar with. I didn’t feel like I was on my way to mastering anything. I certainly didn’t dress like an “artist” and my home didn’t look like an artist lived there. To boot, identifying myself as an artist was deeply rooted in the fact that I was not able to maintain a living as a freelance illustrator and contribute to the family finances in a meaningful way. This idea plagued me with self-doubt. I was a failure in my view. Ugh. This was the ultimate low point.

The breakthrough! It took letting go of preconceived notions, releasing the desperation to be more before I could be, and accepting with confidence that from the start I am an artist. Freeing the mind in this way has been life changing for my art and myself. How did I come to this realization? Not on my own this time. It was that guy who followed me to California, my partner, my husband. The one who believes unconditionally in the spirit that is me. When I was at my lowest point, near giving up everything I’ve worked for, he compiled every bit of creative work I’ve done since childhood, held my hand and took me for a walk through it all. It was cathartic and magical and exactly what I needed. Somewhere along my journey I had lost myself and let fear, self-doubt, and frustration take over.

watercolor by Sandy McDermottSince then I’ve refined my professional art goals to fit the priorities of my life, rather than fight those priorities and pine away about “not being an artist” because of too many other obligations (a.k.a., attitude change). Where once before, my side jobs were viewed as burdens and a source of great agony, my current position is one of the best jobs ever, second only to my work as an artist. The workshops and classes I offer now fill up and demand a waiting list (many years of hard work to get here). Taking on watercolor painting and the fine arts was a recent and brave decision. It has been a wonderful change of direction and has propelled me to define a clear, concise plan that will circle me back to my first love: natural science illustration. I am not done with my work as an illustrator. I don’t believe I’ve reached my peak yet. I have much more to offer and believe there are still opportunities for the traditional illustrator. There are projects out there waiting to collide with my style.

It has been a long and convoluted journey to nurturing and revealing my artful self and there is a happy ending. It lies in removing the box I put around myself, becoming open to new possibilities, and accepting an ever-changing world. 

Here’s another definition of bushwhacking: “to defeat, especially by surprise or in an underhanded way”. This defines the next chapter of my life.


This article appears in the Journal of Natural Science Illustration 2013, number 4.

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