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Koosje Koene

Using colored pencils, pens, watercolors, and a sketchbook, Amsterdam-based visual artist and art instructor Koosje Koene creates lively, expressive, and humorous images, recording the colors and textures of her surrounding world in vivid detail. Objects, places, people, and landscapes that normally recede into the background—a pair of coffee mugs, a plate of brussels sprouts, a deli counter at a local restaurant, even an orange peel—all of these become the subject of Koosje’s affectionate artwork, as she imbues the things we encounter in everyday life with the joyful light of wonder and curiosity. In the following interview, Koosje—who also happens to be co-founder of an innovative new online platform called Sketchbook Skool—talks to us about her life, her inspiration, and her art.

Q. Can you tell me about your background?

After completing my education in graphic design, I went to art school to study photography. I hadn’t considered learning photography as an option before, but while I was learning some fun stuff in school—like black and white photography and developing in the dark room—I realized that I really, really liked it. Since I was still young when I graduated, I applied to art school to become a photographer. Afterwards, I worked as a freelance photographer for magazines, advertising agencies, and designers, doing mainly portraits, surroundings and ambiance photography.

I love photography, and have happily worked as a freelancer in the field. But at some point, it felt more like a ‘job.’ After almost ten years, I got itchy. I didn’t feel that I was following my passion. That’s when I started getting my pencils and brushes out more often. I realized that I am still more passionate about making pictures than I am of taking them.

I wanted to start making things that I wanted to make, instead of making things I was told to make. My pens, pencils and brushes allowed me to do that, and while I took a job on the side—I was a chef in a lunch restaurant, worked in a cubicle, and made many coffees as a barista—I began exploring my drawing skills, and took a few online courses. Then I started a blog, because I wanted to have a place to share my art. I realized that I had developed a nice range of drawing skills and felt the urge to inspire and help others. So that’s what got me started with developing online classes.

Q. Were you introduced to art at an early age?

Before retiring, my dad, Frans Koene, was a professional photographer. His specialty was food photography. My mum was an occupational therapist and later worked for my dad’s studio as a food stylist and cook. Both of my grandfathers were creators. My dad’s father was an architect, painter and sketcher, and my mom’s father was an artist and art teacher.

In the beginning, my dad ran his own professional studio from home, so as a baby, I used to crawl around on the studio floor. Later, he found an amazing place where he successfully expanded his business—which, by the way, still exists and is flourishing. So I was brought up in a very creative and entrepreneurial environment. On the walls of the house I grew up in, there were many art photos, taken by my father, as well as paintings by both my grandfathers. As a kid, I always used to draw, and never really stopped.

Q. I've noticed that your food illustrations are remarkably evocative. What draws you to sketching food?

I love cooking, eating, food in general, and the social aspect of eating with others. It’s an important part of my life, and therefore I sketch it. Plus I often think food looks so good—it’s appealing in so many ways. A well-prepared dish can look like a gorgeous painting, but also the ingredients themselves often have wonderful colors and shapes. They are perfect to draw. I really enjoy looking at botanical illustrations of fruits and vegetables too. And, we all eat at least something every day, so food is always good to draw when you don’t know what to draw.

Q. I've noticed that you often work with colored pencils. Why are colored pencils your medium of choice?

The technique of layering with colored pencils allows me to create realistic drawings. To me, the process of making an elaborate colored pencil drawing, and seeing the picture grow with every layer, while the colors deepen and the illusion of depth gets stronger, feels like a meditation, and is very satisfying. It takes time and patience to finish such drawings, so when I go for quick sketches, I often choose pen and watercolors, which I love to splash around with.

Q. Can you describe your creative process?

The process totally depends on the thing I create. When I draw in my daily art journal, I sit down and draw whatever appeals to me at that very moment, in whatever medium I feel like. It could be a quick sketch of my coffee, a drawing of something taking place outside, or an elaborate self-portrait, to name a few things. When I make an illustrated recipe for example, I need to prep some more. I will, of course, first check all ingredients and instructions, then sketch and doodle to find the right shapes and to plan the layout. Then I choose my materials carefully and make the final illustration.

I love making elaborate and realistic drawings using colored pencils, but I also really enjoy drawing with a fineliner or fountain pen, and then loosely coloring with watercolors. I can enjoy myself for hours with a simple piece of paper and a cheap ballpoint pen, or study values and gradations using a simple pencil. So far, I’m not much of a painter, except for those watercolors, but you never know what’s still to come.

In all cases, there’s always a large pot of herbal tea at arm’s length, plus I keep myself well caffeinated throughout the day, drinking coffees ranging from slow brewed filter coffee, foamy cappuccinos and strong double espressos—to iced coffee in the summer.

Q. What do you think of formal art education? Is it something that you would recommend to young artists?

It depends on what their goal is. I think in formal art education, you can learn a lot of techniques and get deep into art history, find out about styles and conceptual thinking. I myself never finished art school because I got a little tired of all the talking and just wanted to get to work. I guess it also really depends on the school, and perhaps art schools in Europe are totally different from the ones in the US.

Partly maybe, I was getting tired of going to school. Right after high school, I went to study graphic design for four years, and after graduating, I hopped right into Art School. The teaching approach was very different from what I was used to—a lot of conceptual thinking, less productivity. I am a do-er, if that’s a word. If I have an idea, I like to execute it, create it, or at least start planning the project. In Art School, we talked a lot about ideas, the ideas behind the ideas, and so on. It made me feel less enthusiastic about starting a project, since the idea wasn’t fresh anymore. All the thinking sort of sucked the passion and excitement out of me, and that showed in the results. In a bad way.

Once I found some commissioned work during my third year in Art School—it was the intern year, which I loved!—I realized that I just wanted to work as a photographer, instead of being educated as an ‘image creator’ or an Artist, with a capital A. So in my fourth and final year, I made the leap and left school. It was quite a relief, I have to say.

I like the principle of, “Jump off the cliff, and build your wings on the way down.” This is actually a quote by writer Ray Bradbury. I also found something else he said: “Don't think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It's self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can't try to do things. You simply must do things.” I think that pretty much boils down my way of working. Of course I do think. In fact, as an entrepreneur, I’m a bit of a strategist. But when it comes to making art, I am totally with Ray.

Q. I understand that you teach art classes online, both on your own and as a part of Sketchbook Skool. Can you tell me more about that?

For several years, I taught online classes on my own, starting out from scratch, with no budget. I offered my first online course on a blog. It was protected with a password, and people could share their work for feedback in a private Facebook group, or through email.
The very first online course I developed was “Just Draw It!,” a five-week online drawing course with lots of drawing techniques for both beginners and students who are more advanced. I launched it two years ago. In November, it will be running for the tenth time, and in those two years, I updated, changed and improved the material based on the needs and feedback of the participants.

After “Just Draw It!” I developed an online workshop on drawing food and illustrating recipes, called “Draw It Like It’s Hot!” I also developed an online workshop on developing your own character for a cartoon or children’s book called “How to design a Character,” and an online class on art journaling, “Awesome Art Journaling,” which is basically a kick-in-the-butt to make art everyday, and have fun with it too.

I keep my classes fairly small, so I can give feedback to help participants develop even further during the courses. It’s so rewarding to see people develop their art in a few weeks time, and I always feel very inspired by the participants, their enthusiasm, questions, and art.

I very much believe in just jumping in and building the things you need as you discover and go, working with the resources you have and expanding when you can. So I decided that once I could afford it, I would use a course platform that was designed for my needs and the needs of the participants.

Q. How did you meet your business partner and co-founder, Danny Gregory? How and why did the two of you decide to start Sketchbook Skool?

A little over a year ago, on his blog, Danny wrote about his upcoming visit to Amsterdam, where he was going to be the keynote speaker at an event. He was hoping and planning to use his visit to Amsterdam to have a few encounters with Dutch sketchbookers and asked if anyone reading his blog was familiar with the drawing scene in Amsterdam.

Several people—friends and followers—referred that blogpost to me, so I posted a response and sent him an email. He replied that several people on his end were pointing him in my direction, and that he wanted to pick my brain about the online classes I was teaching. We made an appointment to meet for coffee.

That’s how we met. We drank coffee, sketched, and chatted about sketching, art journaling, blogging, and teaching. After coffee, we drank a beer and decided to also have dinner. We had a great time.

After that, when Danny was back in NYC, we emailed each other. I had been walking around for quite a while with an idea that I hadn’t quite found the right shape for—Since I was teaching and developing online classes, I realized there was so much more knowledge out there. Through blogging, I had found out about many artists worldwide, and I knew that I would love to learn from them. I wanted to bring all those inspiring artists together, so they could spread their knowledge and show their skills. Should it be a seminar, a webinar, a book, an e-book, a course, a workshop…? I just couldn’t quite wrap my head around it, what it could look like, or even where to start.

So I asked Danny if he would like to collaborate and think about this idea with me, to help find a possible shape or form. He replied, “When can we Skype!?” And a huge brainstorm started. Danny claimed the url sketchbookskool.com and from there on, we took off and molded the idea into a real and very exciting product.

For Sketchbook Skool, we invested a little bit right from the start, since we wanted a solid platform, with reliable customer service for us as a Skool, and most importantly, for the students. We are learning a LOT as we go, and we are lucky that the team at Ruzuku, the course platform we chose, is eager to learn and develop, and improve the student experience.

Going to Sketchbook Skool is an experience you won’t find elsewhere. Students are learning from and getting inspired by six different teachers in six weeks, looking over their shoulders as they fill their sketchbook pages, while the teachers talk about their approaches to making art. The students are encouraged to make art in different ways, do it more frequently, and enjoy it. The beauty of it all is that you’re not alone. At Sketchbook Skool, there is a growing community of like-minded people, young and old, beginners and more advanced, who are learning from each other. It’s a very warm, safe, and encouraging environment.

Q. What advice would you give to artists who are just starting out?

The only really effective way to do it is—Just do it. Every step you take is progress, and all of us never stop learning. It can be very scary to pick up that pen and put the first line down, not knowing whether your drawing in the end will look anything like the masterpiece that’s in your head. But if you don’t even start because of the anxiety, you’ll never know. And you might as well enjoy the ride while you’re at it. The process of making art may actually be more important than the art itself.

And also: Don’t measure yourself by what others do. You might feel intimidated by great artists you admire. But they didn’t start out as talented creatures that just created fabulous art without needing any practice. Once, they were beginners too. Just like learning to play an instrument, making art needs a lot of practice.

Q. Does the work of other artists inspire or influence your work? If so, can you tell me who they are and how they have influenced your art or your life?

Each time I visit a museum or gallery, I feel inspired, no matter who the artist is and no matter what kind of art. I think being surrounded by the art made by both my grand dads has influenced me in some way, and I definitely inherited the clean style of my father’s photography. But I also love to see Van Gogh’s art—and Vermeer, Magritte, Mucha. Looking at old botanical drawings inspires me, illustrations by Quentin Blake, Shaun Tan, Robert Crumb, Maira Kalman, and many bloggers and urban sketchers. And to state the obvious—all of the teachers at Sketchbook Skool, and the students too.

Q. How have people responded to your work so far?

Since first sharing my art on my blog, I have received comments and responses from people all over the world. The very first time that happened, it felt like a revelation! People responded in such an encouraging way. And I love it when someone leaves a comment, saying they feel inspired. I also sometimes get commissioned assignments because of the art I make and share, so I guess I can say the responses have been very positive so far.

Q. Why is sketchbooking important to you?

It keeps me sane. I do it every day and whether it’s a five-minute drawing or a two-hour spread, I enjoy every minute of it. Drawing empties my head, and as if that’s not enough already, the results can be very satisfying too.

I like giving myself mini-challenges by picking a theme or a certain subject. This way I keep broadening my comfort zone and skills. Keeping a daily sketchbook is a valuable way of documenting my life. When I worked as a photographer, I always carried a small camera with me in my bag. I took photos of random and not-so-random things, on a daily or weekly basis. I guess I just feel the urge to document my days in some visual way. The camera has been replaced by a sketchbook and pen, and instead of taking pictures, I am making them, using basic tools.

Q. Why do you think people are so intimidated by the idea of making art?

It’s mostly expectations and “what if’s.” What if I mess up the drawing? What if the drawing doesn’t look like the one that’s in my head? If you sit down with a blank piece of paper and a pen in hand and you expect to draw a masterpiece, then the blank paper is indeed very intimidating.

If you learn to get rid of those thoughts, and just let go and enjoy the ink flowing onto the paper, the drawing unfolding in front of you, that’s what it really is about. When you enjoy the process, it will show in the results. And if you’re not happy with a drawing, you can always make another one.

And of course, when you make art every day, it will become a habit, and you won’t even think about it anymore. With practice, your skills will grow too and you will get more confident. That threshold will start to shrink and maybe even disappear.

As an artist, you need to keep developing and learning. When you finish a piece, you will realize that there are always things you could have done differently. So then you take that with you next time. Perfection is something that can be paralyzing. You can learn so much from so-called mistakes—or are they happy accidents?—and also, flaws can add a lot of character and personality in art. So let’s feast on failures!

Q. As an artist and as an individual, what are your aspirations for the future?

To immensely enjoy the process. To feel satisfied and proud, and challenged. To inspire others. I want to always keep learning and developing. Not just in art, but also in life. I love traveling and exploring to broaden my horizons. And while doing so, I want to share everything I’m learning so I can inspire others to make art. Art has always been there in my life, in some form. And I can’t imagine a world without it.

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For more information about Koosje’s art, please go to: http://koosjekoene.blogspot.com/

For more information about Sketchbook Skool, please go to: http://www.sketchbookskool.com/

At Sketchbook Skool, Koosje teaches in the BEGINNINGS Kourse which is about drawing in public and playing with colored pencils. She also teaches in the SEEING Kourse—which is about self-portraits and how we see ourselves as artists—as well as in the STORYTELLING Kourse—which is about communicating visually with others and about how to explain things clearly through illustration.

*****

Image Credit: Koosje Koene

Read more at The Art People

Rivvrs

by Udoka Gabriella Okafor

San Francisco-based independent singer-songwriter Brandon Zahursky, who writes and performs under the moniker “Rivvrs,” is well known for his beautiful, heartfelt single “I Will Follow You” which was recently featured on NBC’s TV series “About A Boy.” Cheeky, introspective, and full of affection, “I Will Follow You” speaks directly to the heart of every person who has ever been in love. Characterized by the artist’s signature raspy whisper, poetic lyricism, and a humorous kind of optimism, Rivvrs’ four-song debut album “Hold On” explodes with color, rhythm, and youthful sincerity — and once again, speaks directly to the heart.

In the following exclusive interview, our contributor Udoka Gabriella Okafor talks to Rivvrs about his life, his music, and his debut album—which was released on August 15, 2014.

*****

Gabriella: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself—your likes and dislikes?

Rivvrs: As a musician, it may not come as much of a surprise, but I love listening to music. I have to listen to an album start to finish. Usually a certain song attracts me and then I get the album and play it on loop for a few weeks. I don't do it as much as I used to, but I'm also a pretty avid reader. When I was a kid, I walked around with a book in my hand, whether I was at the grocery store or at a soccer game.

My social life is definitely based around live music, even if I'm not performing. I love going out to see people perform. I love movies. At the end of the day, I look forward to mellowing out and falling asleep to a good movie. I really dislike driving. If I can walk or take a cab—these days, it's Uber—I prefer that.

Gabriella: Tell me a little bit about your early life and your favourite childhood memories.

Rivvrs: I was born in San Francisco. My dad raised my little brother and I as a single parent and we hopped around the Bay Area of California for most of my life. I graduated from Capuchino High School in San Bruno. I won't get into the details, but my mom wasn't around when I was a kid. It was just my dad, my brother and I. Because of that, my dad worked really odd hours to support us. He was usually gone from the early afternoon until we went to bed. In middle school, my uncle moved in with us to keep an eye on us kids. He's a carpenter and some of my best memories were at job sites he went to. I liked to tag along and watch, or do really simple tasks like digging holes. I don't know why—I just really liked the smell of a house being built.

When I was fourteen, I got my first guitar and [started] religiously watching YouTube videos to learn how to play it. Since my dad wasn't around to tell me to do my homework after school, I usually played for hours at a time and did my work at the last minute. Early on in high school, I was a bit of an introvert and only had a handful of really good friends. One of my best friends was someone named Vince and he was my partner in crime. There were a lot of firsts that he and I experienced together, and it definitely helped me get out of my shell.

My favourite memory is [of] the trips I used to take to the record store. Being a teenager, I relied on the bus and train to get me around. Every weekend, I used to take a train to Rasputin Music in Mountain View. I would buy ten to fifteen used CDs for a few bucks apiece and listen to them for a few months. I would trade the old ones in and get new ones, and I was able to get a healthy dose of music for practically nothing. A day without headphones was a weird day for me.

When I was sixteen, I met a girl named Gina who was a singer. I would play guitar and she would sing. Up to that point, I was very shy with my voice and didn't really write much of my own music. When she heard me sing for the first time, she was nothing but supportive and gave me confidence to sing in front of people. I really wouldn't have had the courage to do it without her help.

Other childhood favourite memories… We used to camp a lot with our family and extended family. My dad's best friends from high school are still very much in our lives and we spent a lot of time together growing up. All of our families became one and it made for really awesome get-togethers and trips. I love spending time near the water, jet skiing, swimming, fishing, anything that's outdoors. I spent a lot of time outside as a kid and still do to this day.

Gabriella: Who were your role models growing up, both inside and outside of the music industry?

Rivvrs: My dad listened almost exclusively to classic rock, and I fell in love with it. He was my biggest role model growing up and still is. When I was thirteen, I wanted to be Angus Young from AC/DC. I bought the electric guitar he was notorious for playing—a Gibson SG —and that's the guitar I learned on. I must have listened to the AC/DC records a hundred times each. Bon Scott, their singer, was my favorite vocalist. I also idolized people like Freddie Mercury, Jim Morrison, Paul Simon, and Tom Petty.

Outside of the music industry, I had a couple of teachers who were huge role models to me: Mrs. Rutigliano and Mr. DeLacy. They were both incredible people who encouraged me to be creative and follow my dreams.

Gabriella: When did you decide that you wanted to pursue music as a professional career?

Rivvrs: Well, I've always wanted to pursue music—as far back as high school. I remember a conversation when I was fifteen, on a bus. My friend and I had been playing music together and we had the whole “What if we could do this for a living when we're older?!” conversation. I took it to heart and remember vowing to myself that I would never stop playing music.

I remember having the idea to “pursue” music fully when I was about eighteen. I read a book called “The Celestine Prophecy” and it totally shifted my thinking and gave me this excitement to get out and experience the world.

Gabriella: The first time I heard your music was on the television show “About A Boy.” How did your song come to be featured on the show and how awesome was it to hear your music on the show, knowing that millions of people were hearing it as well?

Rivvrs: That was all my manager's doing. I have tremendous faith in our relationship, and his ability to kick total ass. He's a really great guy. It was very random. We were talking on the phone and he goes, "Guess what?!" and I had a hard time grasping what the placement really was until things became more official. It was very surreal to me, and I just feel incredibly blessed.

Gabriella: Okay, I have to ask, what inspired the name Rivvrs?

Rivvrs: Ha-ha. It's not a very interesting story. I used to go by the moniker “River Shiver.” It was kind of a band, kind of my solo project. It always felt awkward to call myself “River Shiver” on stage. I opened a show for a larger artist last year and mentioned “River Shiver” before I performed. The whole night, people called me “River,” assuming that was my name. It didn't feel as weird as I expected.

In February when I got the “About a Boy” placement, my manager, Tony, told me I had to decide on a name, because it would be mentioned in the show. “Rivvrs” came up as an idea pretty naturally and my manager threw out the idea of a double “v.” For copyright purposes—and maybe some originality—we decided on the spelling R-I-V-V-R-S. It feels comfortable, and keeps the moniker pretty arbitrary. It doesn't really have any hidden meaning, otherwise.

Gabriella: I know that you are a singer-songwriter, so did you write or co-write all of the songs on your debut album “Hold On?”

Rivvrs: I write most of my songs on my own, but for this four-song EP, all the songs were co-written. I had all four songs started at home and brought them down to LA and sat with different writers/producers who helped me fill in the gaps.

Gabriella: Can you describe your song writing process?

Rivvrs: There's not really a set process. I actually really dislike the idea of sitting down to write intentionally. I feel like it's kind of forced if you do it that way. Usually it starts with a concept and an acoustic guitar. Once I know what I'm writing about, I have every lyric tie back to that same theme. For “I Will Follow You,” the first line I had was “You make it all go away” which ended up being used in the bridge. From that one line, I based the whole song around someone who makes everything bad go away.

Sometimes I'll just randomly get a lyric or melody stuck in my head and I instantly record it onto my phone. After a few weeks, I go back and listen to everything and usually end up with little sparks that become full songs. Other times I can write a song in one sitting in a matter of minutes. I never know how the moment will strike. Overall, I fancy myself a strong lyricist above all. I won't be winning any awards for my guitar playing.

Gabriella: Can you describe the production process that your album underwent, from draft to finished product?

Rivvrs: It was really laid back! There was no set release date and no immediate plan to release “an album.” The lack of pressure was very helpful. I started writing songs and as they started to take shape, I began to record them. Each song began in my living room and ended in a music studio. I knew I wanted to do something new and I went into my writing sessions with a fresh outlook and no limit on what I could [do]. Next thing I knew, I had a bunch of songs finished. Once I finished “I Will Follow You” I set out to release a set of songs that were happy and represented hope and optimism. I used to write a lot of sober stuff, and having some upbeat material really inspired me to keep things positive and happy. I chose to release a small batch of songs to start, even though there are plenty more to be released. Consider it a teaser for what's to come. More music is coming soon!”

Gabriella: Before your album was released, you published an official list of songs that were to appear on the album. One of the songs “Terrified” never made it to the album. Will we ever get to hear that song?

Rivvrs: Ah, you really must have been watching closely! I regretted posting that after I released the album. “Terrified” will be on the next release. I wrote and recorded that song about two years ago and it ultimately didn't vibe well with the other four, so we cut it from the final EP. It was nothing more than a creative decision. It didn't feel right. The song is done, and will definitely be out someday. I just can't say when. I definitely love the song, though.

Gabriella: How difficult and rewarding was it for you to release your first album? And what do you think are the pros and cons of being a new musician in the industry?

Rivvrs: “Hold On” is technically my first album, though I have released previous material as “Brandon Zahursky” and “River Shiver.” Knowing this is the first set of songs that I am truly proud of feels like a tremendous personal accomplishment. It wasn't really difficult. It just took a lot of time to progress. I'm just grateful that people like the songs.

I think as a newbie to the music industry, it's easy to be overwhelmed by what you haven't done yet. I try not to focus on that as much as [to] be grateful for the opportunities I've had. Since “Rivvrs” is a whole new thing to me, a pro is that I have this feeling of being reborn. All the old albums, the old songs—good and bad—the trials, the errors, the regrets, they're all gone because I started over. It feels amazing! It's definitely gone into the feeling of the record.

Gabriella: Are you currently working on any new songs or musical projects?

Rivvrs: Always! Aside from the other batch of songs that are already recorded, I have about fifteen other songs either finished or half written. I'm going to wait a bit before releasing another album, but the songs are done!

Gabriella: Can you tell prospective fans why they should pick up your album?

Rivvrs: I wouldn't know. I'd say that's for someone else to say. I like to think that these songs will all have one underlying tone—optimism and hope. Whether or not that separates me, I'm not sure. I just think there's so much negativity in a lot of music, and my goal is to focus on the happy stuff.

Gabriella: What advice do you have for young and aspiring artists out there, or to young people in general?

Rivvrs: Keep your eyes and ears closed to the world—to an extent. No one can tell you who you are. Don't be afraid to be different, or to pursue a career that isn't traditional. Also, definitely don't choose a career based on money. If you have a passion in your heart, follow that passion with every ounce of your soul and you will find happiness.

For more information about Rivvrs, please go to his website: http://www.rivvrs.com/

To purchase Rivvrs’ debut album “Hold On,” please go to: http://goo.gl/B5ImzK

*****

Image Credit: Steven Bailey
Cover Image Credit: Steven Bailey
Featured Track: “I Will Follow You”
Music and lyrics copyrighted to Rivvrs/ Brandon Zahursky

Read more
at The Music People

Jessica Stern

On stage, New York-based comedian, voice-over actor, and radio show host Jessica Stern crackles with wit and good humor. Her cheery, effervescent energy is nothing less than contagious, like a transfusion of bright yellow sunshine, and her affection for her work and for her audience is both palpable and genuine. In the following interview, Jessica talks to us about the inspiration behind her comedy, and tells us what it's like to be a stand-up comic in NYC.

*****

Q. Can you tell me about your background?

My interests have always been in all things art and entertainment. My work aka “day-job” experience is as a radio show host and voice-over talent for an advertising firm and as a paralegal with a bunch of odd jobs in-between. I went to the University of Tampa, got my BA with a major in Spanish and a minor in sociology. I went to Lawrence Woodmere Academy, a private high school that had a great number of foreign exchange students and programs. I love learning about different cultures. I think I'm one of the lucky few who can say that high school was an amazing experience!

Q. What does your family think about your being a comedian?

My family are nice Jewish lawyers on Long Island NY. As a comedian I'm obviously the black sheep of the family. They support and love me, but they’re Jewish and I’m twenty-eight, so they pray every day that I’ll change my mind and marry a nice Jewish lawyer instead.

Q. Were you the “funny girl” in high school?

I grew up on Long Island NY. I have always been the “funny girl,” ever since I could speak. Since elementary school, I was the class clown. I was always a good girl but my jokes would often get me in trouble with teachers when I was young. I got detention countless times, and was made an example of to the class to keep others in line, so they wouldn’t speak out like I did. Then later, privately, the teacher would admit to me, “That was actually really funny, how did you know about that?”

Q. When and why did you decide to become a comedian?

Throughout my life, I was told by everybody I met, “You're so funny, you should be a comedian, you're crazy!” I finally decided to take action when I was twenty-four. I had just lost the three most important things in my life: my paralegal job, my apartment and my four-year boyfriend. (Don’t worry. I dumped him.) There was nowhere to go but up. In that moment I decided to chase my dreams and finally do what would make ME happy instead of what other people wanted me to do.

So, I went to the Manhattan School of Comedy to give myself an idea of what I was getting into and how to structure jokes a little bit. It took about a year or so to get my career going. I still wouldn’t say that my career is ‘on track,’ because I’m still underground and have much bigger goals and aspirations.

Q. Have other comedians influenced or inspired your work?

Richard Pryor, Dave Chapelle, Kathy Griffin, and Jessica Kirson. I was obsessed with Dave Chapelle during college and saw so much of what he was doing on The Chapelle Show in myself and my friends. I think it was specifically because of the way he told stories. I was always a funny storyteller, just like him. He made me realize I was already a comedian and I just needed to take it to the stage and take action.

Q. I understand that you are a radio show host. Can you tell me a little about this?

I actually just left the company, but it was a wonderful experience. I had my own office, I was a manager, I would host anywhere from one to thirty short radio shows per day advertising people’s companies and personal interests. I wrote commercials and voiced them. Short and sweet, my job was simply to make people feel comfortable, to keep the conversation flowing in the right direction, and to make their company sound like the best company.

Q. Can you describe a typical day in your life?

It's always changing. My life is crazy. Let's just say I'm a workaholic.

Q. I am particularly struck by your vivaciousness. How do you manage to stay so energetic?

Drugs! No, no, I'm joking. Don't worry! Honestly, I love my work and my joy for comedy keeps a bounce in my step and a smile on my face. I am known as the bubbliest, nicest, and most energetic female comic in New York and just being myself got me my reputation because I never have a second thought about why I'm happy to do comedy. It just makes perfect sense to me. My purpose in life is to make people happy and comedy is literally the act of making people happy!

When I meet people in person, they see my bubbly bounce and joy. It’s a good time! I maintain my positive and exuberant attitude with support. I'm human, I get down when I get beat around. That's when I vent to my dad, to my best friend, to somebody I trust, like anybody would! It's always good to have somebody you love to back you up, to remind you of how amazing you are, so you can pick up the pieces and get back to doing what you love. I was born a comedian and I'll die a comedian, it doesn't matter how life gets in the way. That’s who I am.

Q. Do you think that people should laugh more? Do you think that we don't laugh enough?

Of course, people should laugh more! Joan Rivers, lord rest her soul, just passed on and that’s all she wanted. People don’t laugh enough. A lot of people take themselves too seriously, and stress themselves out over nothing. Stress causes so many diseases. I think we would all be much healthier and, of course, happier if we laughed more!

Q. What's it like being a comedian in New York City?

Tough! Sometimes you get paid, sometimes you don't. Sometimes, I'm just doing a favor for a friend, or sometimes the events are so low budget nobody’s getting paid except the bartenders. It’s very ‘starving artist’ and there’s some ugly politics in there too. Comedians are the cockroaches of the entertainment industry because people treat us like shit, there’s a million of us, and when the lights go on we all run away. LOL

It's a lot of running around and doing a million shows, mics, podcasts, social media, etc! The audience never stops to realize all the hard work that is behind a comedian. It really takes 24/7 passion and drive to achieve even mild success, but they shouldn’t realize it. All the audience has to do is laugh, and I want to keep it that way. It should seem effortless!

Q. I've spoken with several comedians who have all given me the same piece of advice: “Don't burn bridges.” I know this is advice that is applicable in all industries, but I find it interesting that this seems to be of particular concern among stand-up comics. Are connections very important when you're working stand-up in NYC?

Connections are extremely important when you’re working stand up in NYC because the comedy community is very small. We all know each other and it can be almost like high school at times, sadly. If you burn bridges or don’t exit a bad situation gracefully, people never forget and won't work with you or help you. Comedians help other comedians get work, simple as that. Most of us don’t have managers and agents out here and depend on each other to progress.

Q. What is it like for you when you're on stage and something you say or do makes people laugh? How do you feel in that moment?

Getting laughs on stage is a cheerful acknowledgement that you are doing something right and the audience likes you. The more laughs the better. When I get an applause break, a standing ovation, a crazy laugh break–honestly, it’s like a soul orgasm!

Q. How do you deal with hecklers? Do you find a way to integrate them into your show?

Hecklers come in a lot of forms. I’m a lady and very kind, so I never had a rude heckler yell rude things at me or try to attack me the way they do to men. For female comedians, I think, hecklers are more often people not paying attention, talking too much, getting distracted by our appearance, etc. I’ve had audience members yell sexual things at me, but I turn it back on them and put it into my act. I’m not offended. “I know my boobs are huge, I carry them around all day and my back is killing me, good to know you’re not blind, sir, thanks....” For example.

Q. Where do you get your material for your stand-up shows?

Life! Life is hilarious. Just from everyday things, relationships, etc.

Q. What do you do to prepare for a show?

I record all my sets in my phone voice memos so on my way to a show, whether I’m driving or on the train, I’ll listen to a good set or a new set I’d like to ‘work out’ just to remind myself of what I’d like to put out there–although it’s mostly improv and in-the-moment that makes a great performance for me.

Q. Do you ever get nervous before you go on stage? If so, how do you deal with it?

Sometimes before a really big show I'll get nervous. I try to transfer that nervousness into bubbly energy and jam it into my act like I did it on purpose–except that I didn't! LOL

Q. What are your future aspirations as an individual and as a comedian?

I want to take it to that Jerry Seinfeld/Chris Rock/Ellen level, honestly–and I don't care how unrealistic or ‘dreamer-y’ it sounds. If it doesn't work out that way, then I’ll survive, but my dream is to someday have my own show, a series, a talk show. I’d like to be in movies and in an HBO special–the whole nine yards. And I'm going to keep breaking my back for it because nobody said it would ever be easy and nothing will ever make me happier then comedy and entertainment.

As an individual I would love to marry the right man and have kids some day.

Q. What kind of advice would you give to comedians who are starting out?

Be yourself, be kind, never burn bridges, and have fun!

*****

Image Credit: Used with Jessica Stern's permission

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Ivan The Superhero

by J.D. Coburn

In the following article, American writer JD Coburn shares the story of Ivan, a transgender man who lived in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century and at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Publicly, Ivan was known to the author and to his family as “Great Aunt Ivan,” but according to the author, “he lived his life as a man, a good man, maybe the best man one could know.”

To honor his memory and his life, JD has agreed to publish Ivan’s story here.

(In an effort to illustrate the profound lack of understanding that existed at the time, the author has chosen to use the female gender pronoun “she” and the female term “Great Aunt.”)

*****

To most people, ‘True Grit’ is a movie. They think grit is something that gets caught in your teeth. Back in the day, before the nightfall of the present, grit was the element a fellow possessed that made it impossible for him NOT to ride toward four or five highwaymen, reins between his teeth, a pistol in each hand, and the love of home and family in his heart. They were people of character who gave America its strength and built everything you see around you today.

My Great Aunt Ivan was my maternal grandfather’s sister. She shot from the hip of righteousness with barrels a foot long.

Ivan was a true super hero.

*****

My great aunt had not been christened Ivan.

That was not the name with which she had been baptized. She chose the name, Ivan, after a long succession of trials with other names. Women’s names, names of small towns, dogs, proper nouns, adjectives, seasons, colors, weather features—like Sunny, Cloudy, Stormy, etc.—and finally, men’s names. All took their turns as Ivan’s monikers. Rex and Lumber were both strong contenders for permanence, each lasting years, but once she reached the age of eighteen, she pretty much stuck with Ivan.

“I’m not all here,” Ivan complained as a child. The family chuckled and agreed, tongue in cheek, and referred to her complaints as her ‘growin’ pains.’ From the age of four to the day she passed, Ivan’s ‘growin’ pains’ never quite produced the growth for which she pained.

Ivan tried many jobs. Being from my family, she worked her first job at age four when she was introduced into ‘the show.’ Vaudeville is the family business, and has been for over one hundred and sixty years. My family is theater, in every sense imaginable. In Ivan’s days, every member of the family worked in the show in some capacity. Ivan would come center stage dressed half in knickers and suspenders, sporting a boy’s shirt, one bare foot, and half a cap. Her other half was in a pink tutu and tights, a slipper, and a bow in a curly blonde pony tail. There she would sing a plaintive ditty about being ‘different’ called “They Always Always Pick on Me.”

When I was born
My Ma and Pa
They looked at me and said,
“Oh, pshaw!”

The doctor said,
“It’s a boy, I think”
Then Pa went out
And got a drink

Then Ma said I looked just like Pa
Pa said I took after Ma
Aunt Jane said I looked like the Sphinx
And I’ve been a stepchild ever since.

They always always pick on me
They never never let me be
I’ve been so lonesome, oh so sad
It’s been a long time since I’ve been glad

I know what I’ll do by and by
I’ll eat some worms and then I’ll die
And when I’m gone, you wait and see
They’ll all be sorry that they picked on me!

Ending with a one-legged tap dance to lively exeunt music, off she’d go, stage left.

All six of my great-grandfather’s kids did this bit.

All six of my grandfather’s kids did this bit.

I did this bit when I was four. How do you think I know the words?

Ivan didn’t have a lot of options as a woman in the work force. She was, however, fearless and anxious to best the fellow who could not be bested. Ivan was best at lumberjacking. She looked completely alive and at home in her costume of red suspenders and plaid wool shirts, her cuts, and corks. Her stage was the forests of Wisconsin during the previous turn from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries.

Ivan wielded a double bitted axe with aplomb and adroitly handled her end of a buck saw or a peavy. Donning cleats, she could scale a hundred feet of Douglas fir in a matter of seconds, not minutes.

She even introduced herself as Doug Fir for a while as she worked in the forests.

She loved the animal energy of the wilderness, and put great thought and care into everyone’s safety. The job spoke to both sides of Ivan.

The side that really spoke to Ivan was the little freckle-faced boy in her—frog in one pocket and slingshot in the other. With scuffed knees and bruises, she held a rock in one hand and a bouquet of dandelions in the other for her sweetheart, her mom.

She never courted, and, well, no fellow ever courted her either. She would readily arm wrestle a fellow but that was about all the physical contact she needed from a man. Ivan pined for no man but herself, resulting in a predictable and omnipresent heartbreak.

There is a family story that she once won a bet with a fellow, waging that she could, in fact, pee over a barrel. The ‘how’ of it was sketchy but everyone agreed that she’d done it and that it involved lying down on the ground, making it all the more difficult.

If Ivan wore a dress, you could bet that she wore a pair of dungarees under those ruffles—and you’d win. Ivan walked with purpose. She stood tall, and didn’t stand long for those who did not. She didn’t suffer fools. (I’m told I inherited this characteristic from Ivan.)

I thought for a long time that I would one day write a play about Ivan. The coincidence of Chekov’s “Uncle Vanya” (Vanya is Russian for Ivan) kept me from doing it. And Patrick Dennis’ story “Auntie Mame” also treads perilously close on many levels to Ivan’s story.

So, I decided I’d try telling her story. This was almost impossible to do since everyone who knew her had died. I knew that Ivan was a transgender man, and that Ivan lived at a time when there was little understanding of what it meant to be “different.” I knew that she loved dogs, that she took on men’s and women’s names, that she worked as a railroad conductor, and in logging and farming. Based on these facts, I began to come up with stories about her life, hoping that other people—like me—who are “different” in any number of ways, who don’t quite fit in, might find grace in her stories.

That’s what Ivan did.

Ivan was a sparkling, imaginative, elegant and terrifying storyteller. She told stories about life—by living out her life.

I only wish that I could write the one happy ending for which she yearned—to be who she really was.

Who Ivan really was, was delivered in her values and character. She described values as those things in life which mean nothing to anyone else but everything to you. Ivan said character is making sure that the world knows what you stand for and what you will NOT stand for.

My youngest son, Nikita, believes in super heroes. I want him to know one, his Great Aunt Ivan.

The following stories are for him.

*****

Story One: Ivan, The Storyteller

A jerk-line skinner might hire out and keep a team of eight to twenty horses or mules but Ivan only had tack for two: Archie and Pearl.

Archie was a spanking Bay, while Pearl was a Dapple. Warmbloods, each stood at eighteen hands high (about six feet to the withers). Alone they could pull a day’s wage out of the hay fields. But with the brace, Aunt Ivan never needed to look for work. Work looked for her.

It wasn’t just her team or her reputation as a first class skinner that brought joy and lightened the load of the buckers. It was the very look of Ivan, reins in hands, a stub of a pipe clenched tightly between her teeth, her broad-brimmed hat worn at a rakish tilt that made the day go smoother, and that alone was worth her fifty and found.

Plus, Ivan didn’t seem to bother much about bunking with the men. Her presence tended to make the younger hands jumpy at first but the older fellows knew her. They knew there was no holding back and NO holding at all with Ivan and woe to the fellow who entertained such thoughts.

The sunbaked fields gave every man a ruddy flush to his countenance. Ivan’s cheeks were rosy in winter but by harvest, after a long hot season, the rose blushed to ripe red against the brown leather of her face. Now, Ivan was firmly built, tall but not soft by any stretch. “Big boned” they called her, and she swore she could consume her own weight in prime rib. She could certainly drink to capacity and put many a man under the table when the stakes were right.

Some nights, Ivan would sing to the stars with a softness and lightness that brought a tear to the eye. Ivan sang for the men, who day dreamed of their homes and the lustful pursuits that had made up their rough pasts.

The farm made its own music. Crickets and frogs sang their night songs, the buzzing of mosquitoes and fireflies making up the string section, while the windmill churned rhythmically in the distance. A stand of poplar along the windward horizon silhouetted the dusk sky, like a lace border to heaven.

The musk of fertile soil would stay in the nose of a farm hand for months after harvest. Dirt filled pores never seemed to scrub out, and that which found its way beneath the nails of knotted fingers remained for years after a man’s day was done.

Ivan’s contentment was one that came directly from earning her way. A day’s wage for a day’s work was all she craved, after, as a matter of course, Archie and Pearl were well groomed, well fed, and well stabled for the night. Ivan got what she gave with those horses. The only male who ever wormed his way into Ivan’s heart was Archie. Pearl, Ivan surrendered, was her equal—and that earned her respect.

Each brush stroke across the broad backs, bottoms, manes and legs of those horses was accompanied with a whisper of the horse’s name. The sweetest sounds those horses ever heard was that of their own names being sung by Ivan. So, when she barked “HO, ARCH” or “WHOA, PEARL” they responded with heads held high, nostrils flaring with pride. Devoted stable mates, they tugged or stopped with a unified might.

Ivan’s life was that of core virtues, of goodness prevailed, a life of candor with God Almighty. In her heart of hearts, she struggled with her secrets, but knew that hers was a noble use of life—even if she couldn’t have what her heart desired.

Dawn cracked and Archie and Pearl burst forth from the barn, rearing and raring to pull. Three wagons in tow, the buckers got to ride to the North 40. In mid morning, they gulped hot breakfast pie and even hotter coffee. Hocks, beans and cob corn came ‘round by five, then a big chuck back at the bunk by sunset. Great black roasts, carved paper-thin were piled high on sourdough with a gravy so thick it spoke with an accent. Fresh from the kitchen garden, the spuds were steamed and mashed and buttered to fattened perfection. Ice-cold buttermilk dripped and drooled from mustachioed lips to the tune of belching and loosened belt buckles. Gas was passed outside by decree of the bunk.

As the night slipped into cool, the boots came off and stocking feet met the brass rail that surrounded a sweet little pot-bellied stove in the center of the bunk house. Out came a secret pint of sippin’ whisky, carefully snuffed cigar remains, a deck of cards, the spots near worn off, and the stories and jokes typical of a bunkhouse. All of which made the air thick with smells, smoke, lies and laughter.

Given her misspent youth in Vaudeville, Ivan’s stories elevated the air of the room to the rarified. She had actually been in the dressing rooms of the Burlesque dancers and told of the sights she’d seen in tormenting detail. For effect, she would hesitate on words like, “nipples,” “lips,” and “garter belts,” lingering on the adjectives, “tight,” “round,” and “firm,” and in so doing she sent many a stout fellow to the outhouse, a tightly held collection of French paste cards in hand.

Ivan’s exclusive platform of delivery was the other fellow’s imagination.

Ivan loved women, and knew innately what these men would like.

*****

Story 2: Ivan, The Protector

Ivan was a conductor on the Coast Starlight, a rail line that travels along the western edge of America, from the Mexican to the Canadian border. She rode the bone rattling cars with grace and purpose, and was a welcome sight as she meandered through the aisles of the rail cars. She shared a bawdy joke with the carpetbaggers, a warm word of assurance with the mail-order brides, and a penny’s worth of rock candy with the distraught young’uns. She looked smart in her conductor’s cap and blazer, the stripes down the long legs of her trousers meeting her old steel-toed corks (hob-nail boots worn in logging) which she wore for extra traction.

On sleeper cars in particular, aisle-passing maneuvers, especially when trying to edge by men in the early twentieth century, could sometimes take on an unwelcome measure of intimacy. Ivan had discovered a few moves that seemed natural on a lurching train but always resulted in a painful lesson for any gent who thought too well of himself. No man ever complained that she’d made the transition ‘rough’ on purpose.

Ivan knew well that for men, humiliation meant silence.

Ivan had feelings like a woman, but she never felt like a woman.

She felt like a man.

Civil War veterans on both sides complained that they felt pain in legs that had been amputated and were no longer there. Ivan knew that pain, but it humiliated her in the same way that it humiliated the veterans. She never spoke of her humiliation, not once, to a living soul. Still, everyone seemed to know that she suffered.

People admired Ivan for her strength. Ivan had the iron will of the soldier—the ability to set aside her fears and stand up.

As happens sometimes, big things break. When a thing as big as a train breaks, there is a lot of damage beyond the train itself. Some of that damage can have a human toll. It’s terrifying when a train derails, but even more so in the moments that follow because there is no way to predict what will happen after that first car turns or tips too hard. The cars and trucks weigh many tons each, their payloads of coal, grain, rock, and crude oil, not to mention mail and passengers, all moving at high speeds adding exponentially to the impact.

Through the steam, smoke and flame, through the wreckage and chaos, strode Ivan. Emerging from hell’s fires, surefooted and with assurance, she would find the lost parent or child, reunite them, then head straight back into the fray.

The children and dogs were easily distracted with a treat. The adults, particularly the wealthy, felt the entitlement of birth and rank, believing they should be helped first. Ivan’s priorities were—as my grandmother would always tell us, “To help the ones who need it the most.”

Protecting those who were smaller and weaker was built into Ivan. She was put together with steel in her convictions, a power plant for a heart, and the impermeable malleability of a cloud. She moved through chaos like a breath of life because she intended to do so.

Ivan did those things because she said she could, not because anyone else said she couldn’t.

*****

Story 3: What Does It Mean To Be A Man?

If you want to learn how to be a man you need only look to my Great Aunt Ivan.

Even in the schoolyard, she never picked on the smaller, weaker kids. Ivan was the one who stood up to the bullies and faced them down. In doing so, she earned the respect of both the weak and the strong.

That’s what a man is supposed to do.

Do men fall short of this ideal?

Many do.

Aunt Ivan did not.

Growing up in farming country, Ivan learned very young that what happens to your neighbor can just as easily happen to you. A bumper crop, ruinous draught, a good well dug, even a small fire, and much more can be the impetus for wealth or ruin.

A fire at a neighbor’s barn could be seen burning for miles across the tops of the fat grain and corn, day or night. While others ran away, Ivan rode into the fire.

Out of the darkness, Ivan faded into the firelight like a glowing red demon. Roman-riding her team, Archie and Pearl, one foot planted firmly on each of the broad backs of her horses, Ivan’s shrill whistle broke the air. Holding the reins in one hand and their ends in the other, snapping side to side, pulling a water wagon, Ivan looked like some fiery ancient war goddess riding into battle!

From atop her horses, she could survey what needed doing first and would direct the relay of buckets. The poor fellow who didn’t move fast enough was tossed aside like stale candy so that Ivan could step in and show him how it was done. By example, the others imitating her, Ivan led her neighbors to victory over disaster.

After a barn raisin', a celebration would follow, and Ivan would be pointed to as the hero of the day. “Ah, freeze your teeth and give your tongue a sleigh ride,” cried Ivan, as she would have none of it.

When it came to foaling, calving, and whelping, people came from miles around to see Ivan. Puppies were her specialty. She would take the pregnant bitch out to the shed or the barn, curling up with her in the clean hay and softly speaking her name. Petting and rubbing, she would help her through the rough spots of labor and delivery. The morning found Ivan with the new mother happily nursing, and eight to twelve happy, healthy pups napping, nuzzling, and sniffing about.

Life was precious to Ivan. No pups drowned on her watch. If there were too many for the mother to feed, Ivan would bundle one or two of them up, zip them up inside her jacket, and take them home. She would nurse the pups with good cream and keep them warm in a box by the stove. Once the pups were strong enough, they’d come along on the wagon with her where they got ample love and attention all the day long.

One pup stayed with her for many years. Born with only three legs, “Trip” lived up to her name as a puppy—but like Ivan, she never quit and she never gave up. Ivan understood that dog and often spoke of their time together as “the best ten years of my life.”

She too was missing a part, but nothing could ever stop or slow her down.

*****

Image Credit: Used with author's permission


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at The LGBT People

Absence of Clothing

Twenty year old American biology student and entrepreneur, Frank Skiff, is the founder and owner of Absence of Clothing, a clothing manufacturing company based in Florida that creates ‘atheist T-Shirts,’ and that donates half of its profits to charitable organizations. The company’s mission is to challenge existing taboos about atheism by encouraging atheists to wear their ‘non-belief’ proudly on their chests. In the following interview, Frank talks to us about his life, his atheism, and his future aspirations for his company.

*****

Q. Did you have a religious upbringing? If so, what faith were you raised in?

Well, I was raised in Bronx New York in an old Italian family. My parents were not “Bible jockeys” so to speak, but they did take me to church weekly as well as CCD every Sunday night, instilling the good ol’ fashioned Christian faith. The only religion that actually impacted my life until I turned sixteen was Christianity, but I had always appreciated Hindu and Buddhist values. They seemed much more peaceful, and they did not promote the singular belief in an all-powerful omnipotent god.

Q. How would you describe your worldview?

My worldview is limited, like anyone who was raised in a sheltered environment. My parents watched over me, and moved to the suburbs when I was very young. I completed my first two years of college while in high school, and didn't travel much. Right now, I’m in my third year in university. I’m studying biological research, with an emphasis on Entomology. Now that I am finally getting out of the house and exploring the world, I try to talk to people and learn about their life experiences. Absence of Clothing has been very rewarding for me so far. We’ve shipped our merchandise to over twenty countries, and we’re showing others that being atheist can be a great thing and that people shouldn't be afraid to show it off. So I've had the opportunity to talk to people from all over the world, from different social standings and with different views. They’ve really helped open my mind.

Q. Do you describe yourself as an atheist? If so, when did you become atheist? And why?

When it comes down to it, I would consider myself to be both an atheist and a humanist. If I had to ‘believe’ in something, it would have to be science. I first realized I was an atheist when I was in my second year of high school. My parents had stopped taking me to church as often and science had become more important in my life. Then, in my first couple of years of university, I began studying the Bible during my free time, and I took a few classes on world religions. During my second year, religious studies had a huge impact on me, and the classes themselves made me realize that religion should not be taken seriously, and that there are so many branches of religion that it goes against common logic to follow any one.

Q. When did you first discover that there was a taboo about atheism? And why do you think it persists?

When I told people that I was ‘coming out’ as an atheist, people would look at me strangely, as if they were judging me. They still do to this day. It’s terrible the cringes and scowls I get from people when I tell them I’m atheist. Since then, I have always wanted to work towards eliminating the taboo from the word ‘atheist.’ In today's world, I see that the taboo persists, but not as strongly as it used to. Although it is still looked down upon, I think that people are becoming more accepting of atheism, and that society is becoming more progressive. As atheists, the only thing we can do to dismantle this taboo is to be good people, do good things, and make a positive difference in our communities.

Q. Are your friends and family supportive of your atheism?

I have always been surrounded by people who have the same values as I do. All my friends are supportive and have the same frame of mind, though there are always those few who do not support the idea and fall silent when my atheism is brought up.

My family have their own religious values. They support my viewpoint, in the same way that I support theirs. I choose not to debate and argue with them, and I respect that their views are different. My family and I discuss my atheism and we respect that we have different opinions on the subject, although over the last few years, I have slowly introduced science to my family, and I find that they are slowly becoming more and more logical in their thinking.

I will not attack others’ beliefs, especially the beliefs of the people I love. My family support my taking a step to make the world a better place. Sometimes, they don't ‘love’ some of the quotes on our merchandise, but they have bought and showed off the ones they like.

Q. Can you tell me about Absence of Clothing?

We're an atheist/science based clothing and merchandising company that donates half its profits to various charity organizations. We are small at the moment, a project I've held together while working and studying full-time. In the last year, I worked full time as a sales representative at a local pet store while going to school and working on Absence of Clothing. I also did volunteer work and helped a few non-profits with their charity work and event coordination, so I have had a busy last year or two.

Absence of Clothing is based out of Melbourne, Florida, and we ship from Texas. The company itself started in Wisconsin, but when I took over, I moved everything to Florida. Since I'll be returning to college in September, shipping from Texas may become more difficult, so my wonderful graphic designer Nonnie will take on that role. She loves the cause and I am extremely lucky to have her.

Our t-shirts are manufactured in Milwaukee, WI. We only supply and distribute from small family owned organizations. I try to support small businesses as much as possible. They’re made of 100% fine cotton and our messages are screenprinted in very large print. We put a lot of effort into the design, and want our merchandise to look good. We want people to have to ask the wearer where he got it and how they can get one. Design is key. Quality is key. The messages are strong, but we never want to be insulting. We don’t want to start playing games and making fun of people who are religious. We want to show that we are proud, but at the same time we don’t want to be immature about it.

Q. When and how did you start Absence of Clothing?

We started it a year and a half ago, on the premise that something had to be done to promote atheism and to challenge the taboos associated with atheism. We started by working with Teespring. When we designed, marketed, and reached a certain level of sales, Teespring printed and shipped out the order for us.

From there, we decided that we wanted to expand the company so that people could purchase more than one t-shirt at a time and receive them without having to wait several months for their order, so we started producing our own merchandise and opened an online store. At the time, I had a partner, but he had trouble handling the stress, so he left, leaving the business in my name. Since then, we have been growing and shipping our merchandise around the world.

Q. Why did you call your company "Absence of Clothing"?

Absence of Clothing's name came from a kind of play on words with ‘Absence of.’ Absence of religion. Absence of hate. Absence of clothing.

Q. What are your future aspirations for Absence of Clothing?

In the future, I want Absence of Clothing to become the voice of atheism and humanism. We’d like to venture into podcasts, radio shows, and comics. My plan is to expand the company, and branch out in new ways to challenge the taboo that is currently associated with atheism.

Q. What do you think is the role of atheism in today's society?

I feel that atheism is finally getting a stronger grip in society. We are starting to make a difference and actually impacting the world around us. Atheism can make the world a better place because it pushes people to ask questions about the universe. If we can accept that the answer to these questions is not "God,” then we can expand our horizons. We can discover more, learn more, understand more, and then we can start making things better for everyone.

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Absence of Clothing is currently offering a 10% discount to our readers. Just enter the following discount code at checkout: “THINK”

Here is the link to their website: http://absenceofclothing.com/

To watch Absence of Clothing's promotional video, please click here: http://goo.gl/j6M3Me

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Photo Credit: Lauren Rita Photography

Cover Photo Credit: Graham Photography


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