Lakeville Grad Jim Schuessler Charts His Course in Art World
Updated: Oct 3, 2020
At what age did you know you wanted to be an artist? Was there a defining moment or time period that launched you into that career?
I’ve been drawing and making things for as long as I can remember, but it wasn’t until fairly recently that I was comfortable calling myself an artist. I have never made a living off of my artwork alone. These days, I am fine referring to myself as an artist. I do make art. I’m a professional artist in that I get paid for it as well. Maybe I would say referring to myself as an artist was a defining moment for me. How could anyone view me as an artist if I couldn’t even refer to myself as one? How can you get something out of life if you are afraid to ask for it? So maybe for me, a big part of being an artist was accepting the fact that I wanted to be one, and that I am one. That, and making stuff is all it takes right?
As for a CAREER, I’m not really sure how to define that. I get paid to do illustrations, I get paid to do graphic design, I get paid to do production design. I’ve been involved in some art shows. I had tables at comic fests. I’ve also been a project manager, an app designer, a web designer. Is that an art career? I went to school for graphic design, so I guess you could say that decision launched me into my career.
As a child growing up in a rural area of Michigan, do you feel that environment hindered or helped your career?
Probably hindered. I just remember this overwhelming sense that art was a hobby. I certainly never thought of it as a career choice. Also, this was pre-internet, so access to art could be challenging.
Were there any teachers or artists who encouraged you to pursue the arts?
Of course! Ms. Satkowiak was a high school art teacher who was very supportive. Mr. Schmid was a band teacher who really inspired me.
As for artists, my first design job out of college was at Interlochen Center for the Arts, and that place was filled with artists and teachers that really inspired me and showed me that there is a whole world of art out there. Interlochen also showed me that being an artist takes a lot of work and dedication. Those kids were working there tails off to hone their skills.
While I was there, I also got to meet Philip Burke. He is an artist whose work I knew from Rolling Stone magazine. He did these really cool portraits. I showed him some of my work, and he treated me like I was an artist too. He even asked for one of my prints. I think he had me sign it. That was a pretty big deal to me. I’ve tried to treat people, especially aspiring artists, like that ever since.
How would you describe your art style and how did you hone your skills?
I would very much describe my style as comic art, so it’s probably not too surprising that I honed my skills copying comics. I would draw stuff from X-men or MAD magazine, and try to make it look like the original art. I was a great mimic, but my own stuff didn’t look the way I wanted it to. I kept working at it and developing as an artist.
These days, I’m usually pretty satisfied with the way my work comes out. Once I had my drawings where I wanted them, I started branching out into other things like painting, silk-screening, inking with a brush, and even some sculpture.
Developing a career in the arts takes (fill in the blank):
I guess making art and making a career in art are not the same. You can make art and not have a career in it. The career aspect is something that I haven’t completely figured out. But I know it takes drive, determination, and a lot of hard work.
I think there is a misconception out there, I know I had it, that you’re either good at “art” or you’re not. I think it’s a skill more than a talent. I’m self-taught and I’ve been drawing constantly since I was 3 or 4 and this is as good as I’ve gotten so far.
People often say, “I wish I could draw like that”, and I think if you spent over 40 years doing it, you probably could. I think the difference is that I stayed interested and active with drawing. Anyone can draw. If you can write the alphabet, you have enough hand control to draw. It may not look like my stuff, but I’m already making stuff that looks like my stuff. Your stuff will look like yours. That’s the beauty of art.
But a career in art is different, obviously. In my opinion, you have to hustle and work at getting your art out there. There is also the business side. For me, with illustration work there are deadlines, revisions, client feedback, quoting, invoicing.
To make money in illustration, you need to be able to turn around a piece fairly quickly, while still keeping the quality high. But when I sell a painting, it’s different. When I make some t-shirts to sell, or even comics, it’s different. They all have different ways of working, and the way I do it could be completely different from someone else. I imagine, art school probably helps with all this. So like most things, developing a career in the arts takes hard work, like anything else. Probably not the coolest answer.
What were some of the most important lessons you learned while earning your Visual Communications BA at Ferris State University?
The most important lessons I learned at Ferris were how to figure things out and how to get things done. One of the things that has really helped me in my career is that I find a way to get things done. That started for me in college. Using computer programs for design work was still fairly new. Most of the time you had to figure stuff out yourself.
I have been an independent contractor for close to 15 years. Technologies change, styles change but if you can figure things out, you’ll be fine. Every time I walk into a new job, I have to learn what the hell is going on and quickly. After a while, you get used to getting thrown in the deep end because you know you can swim.
How did you come to the decision to move to the New York area?
While working at Interlochen, I met Jeremy Turner. He’s one of my best friends to this day. He was there guest teaching for a summer. He lived in New York. He had me come visit. I was there for a weekend and that was it. I moved there a year later with a bag of clothes and a tiny bit of savings. Jeremy let me crash on his couch for a month as I tried to get my feet under me. I really owe him a lot. He literally changed the course of my life.
You’ve worked for years using your art skills for O at Home Magazine, Food Network Magazine, Condé Nast and Bon Appétit, to name a few publications and companies. What did you take away from these experiences?
OK, I think I need to clarify things here if possible. I get hired to do all kinds of things at these companies. I’ve done design, illustration, but mostly its production design (which is probably the least sexy of the design jobs.) It’s kind of like being a project manager and a designer combined.
For Food Network Magazine, I did design, production design and illustration at various times. At O at Home Magazine, I was a production designer. I was the tablet designer for Bon Appétit, which basically means I designed the iPad edition of the magazine. I’ve worked at Vogue, Showtime, Elle Decor and a bunch of other places, and one of the most important things that I took from these places is a paycheck. I mean, it’s a job right?
I decided to work as a freelancer so I could have time to work on and develop my own artwork, but you still have to pay the bills. I also gained experience from these jobs. More importantly, I created relationships. Most of my opportunities come from word of mouth, so the relationships I make are very important. Sometimes I’ll get an illustration job from someone I did production for. You’ve got to let people know what you do. You’d be surprised how often it comes back around.
When did you decide to found your own company, Shoenami? Can you tell us a bit about your company? Where does the name come from?
I founded Shoenami LLC in 2012, basically, because it gave me a tax ID and provided some tax benefits. Sometimes a company will hire me personally. Sometimes, a company will hire the services of my LLC. Illustration work usually takes this route. I have my own clients that I do work for, and then I also do artwork and things that I sell. Sometimes I make stuff to make it. To me, it’s all part of the hustle of being an artist. That’s why I think it is hard to gauge success.
For me, I am successful because I am finding a way to make it work. I’m making cool stuff while still paying my rent. I am still driven to make new things. For example, in the last few years, I have really gotten into the indie comic scene here in New York. I love it!
Shout out to my favorite store on the planet, Desert Island! It’s an indie comic shop in my neighborhood in Brooklyn. I walked in there and was completely blown away. The owner Gabe Fowler, told me, “If you make something, I’ll put it in the shop.” I did, and he did! For me, there is nothing quite like going in to Desert Island and seeing that someone bought something I made.
I started volunteering at Comic Arts Brooklyn (CAB), which is an annual Comics Fest that is also run by Gabe. I’d help set up tables, usher, clean up, anything to help out. I would get to see all these cool comic artists whose work I loved. Wouldn’t you know it? They were nerds just like me! Eventually I applied to get a table at CAB. It’s the highlight of my year.
The name Shoenami comes from college. It’s a combination of my last name and tsunami. It started as a nickname for my Foosball shot, but when I finally put a website up I needed a name that wasn’t taken yet. Shoenami.com was born.
What have been some of surprises, lessons, challenges and rewards during the last 8 years you’ve been working for yourself?
For me, the surprise, challenge and reward has been the fact that I can chart my own course. I don’t really know anybody who has had a career quite like mine. It’s been ALL over the place, from working for a tech start-up one minute to having an art show at a bar the next.
You created artwork for the Arts in the Armed Forces organization and FLOW (For Love of Water). Can you tell us more about your connection to those two organizations?
Both of those organizations have friends who asked me to help, and both are extremely worthy causes. Arts in the Armed Forces provides the military with access to the arts. For Love of Water (FLOW) is concerned with Great Lakes conservancy. Check them out, they are great organizations.
What artists inspire you today?
A bunch of the comic greats: Jack Kirby, Wally Wood, Moebius, Druillet, Andrew MacLean, Rafael Grampá, Paul Pope, Geoff Darrow, Barry Windsor-Smith, Bernie Wrightson, Mike Mignola, Charles Burns. Too many really. I keep thinking of more. Frank Frazetta has been a life-long favorite.
What are you most proud of?
Probably the comic stuff, or the stuff for Arts in the Armed Forces. Maybe the cardboard robot I just finished?
What are you currently working on?
I have to figure out what to work on next. I have a half-finished painting that I need to get back to. I recently finished a robot made from a card board box that I am very excited about, as well as a really cool poster for Arts in the Armed Forces. I am always drawing on beer coasters to put on my Instagram page. All this while also currently working a pretty sweet day job. (Plus, Jim's comic was recently featured in an article about a really cool project, Rescue Party, that brought together over 250 short comics from more than 50 countries, all expressing a Utopian future post-COVID.)
If you could give a young artist advice on creating a successful career in the art world, what would it be?
Work hard and keep at it. Take in lots of influences, travel, music, books, etc. Follow your passion. Make the stuff you think is cool. Don’t listen to the negative people. An artistic life will probably never make sense to them anyway.