Building A Sustainable Creative Life
Each month, over on Instagram, I chat one-on-one with talented creative professionals across various industries and communities to engage in uplifting conversations around creativity, entrepreneurship, mental health, and how we can show up in our work as our authentic selves.
Today I want to share highlights from my conversation with Reyna Noriega, a visual artist, designer, and author born, raised, and working in Miami, Florida. I first caught sight of Reyna’s work on Instagram and I was instantly captured by her earthy tones, use of texture and commitment to capturing the beauty and elegance of Black and Brown women.
Since diving deeper into her work, I’ve been super impressed with other aspects of her art practice, from her bold fashion and unique earrings to her journey into developing Reyna Noriega Studios and her amazing new line of nail art!
Watching Reyna scale her art business has undoubtedly inspired me, and many others to think bigger and bolder in our creations. In this conversation, Reyna and I discuss how to sustain your creativity and overall wellness as you grow your business and elevate your art.
Lo Harris: Can you start by sharing a bit more about yourself, your work, and how you got started?
Reyna Noriega: Yes, I am a visual artist and an author. And I think art has always kind of just been another language and another way to express myself or understand my feelings. And so, I've learned that through sharing that it can be healing and uplifting for other people. That's what lit the fire under me. I'm not just creating for me. I'm not just sharing for me and for likes. It's actually building community. It's actually building confidence and just a method of conversation that can lead to a better future.
I was doing a lot of like grassroots organizing and trying to do a lot of work on the ground and that would leave me feeling very depleted. And so I needed to find a way to restore, something that would fill me as I was giving so much away and seeing so many things that make you say this world is like hopeless.
And so for me, it's art, and it's writing, and it's connecting with people and seeing how it affects them. So luckily, I'm able to make that my life.
When I got out of college, from age 22 to 25 or 26, I was a high school art teacher. After that is when my full-time artist journey began.
It was me preaching to my students every day -- you can do whatever you want, you could be an artist, you can be this, you can be that. But I wasn't taking that same advice. So I was like, let me show them that I can practice what I preach. And it was empowering for me and empowering for a lot of them.
LH: How much pride you must feel having one of your former students reach out and say, oh, Miss Noriega, you're an inspiration! That has to feel so amazing.
RN: Yeah, I love that. But it doesn't feel as good as when they share something that they're creating, or something they're doing, where they use something that I taught them. That always makes me even happier. In the moment, there were a lot of them that, you know, I was like, are you getting it? Are you picking up what I'm putting down? And after they graduated, a lot of them ended up incorporating a lot of the things that I taught them into doing different things freelancing, whether it was making stickers for cars, or T shirts, or editing people's photos on Photoshop.
LH: I really love how you're reflecting on some of your experiences with being a teacher and how you brought some of those experiences into your art practice. The power of self-reflection that you have as an artist – I’d love to steer the conversation in the direction of being self-reflective and leaning on your intuition, and how that's a necessary component of your art practice. And how much of your practice is informed by what's happening around you and in the industry around you?
RN: From very early on, when I saw where [my art career] could go, my focus was sustainability, not just the instant gratification of going viral. I was always thinking about the other side -- what if I go viral right now and I don't have the means or the infrastructure to supply all of the demand coming at me. Instead of having a million fans, I have a million people that hate me because I promised something that I couldn't fulfill.
So I've always kind of seen that the focus needs to be internal on just healing and doing things that are restorative for you, and letting all of the good things kind of flow in. Any time you're chasing, you're not able to really hear what path you should be taking. And so, you're focused on monetary goals.
It's always kind of like, our version of success is like being better than somebody and having more than somebody. I wanted to challenge that within myself, because I've seen where that road leads people and it's never anywhere good.
LH: What have been some helpful tools or even thinking strategies to use that you've developed to help you block out the noise and draw inspiration from that introspective place?
RN: Focusing inward and finding things that I love just for it being what it is. Taking care of my plants. I always say that taking care of them taught me how to take care of myself. Watering a plant, keeping it alive. When I was selfish about it, and it was just like, I want this plant to look good in my space, they were not living because I was not like, paying attention to them. I would forget, whatever, then when they would die, you just bought a new one.
I had to be able to give love. And so by doing that, you have to kind of look internal and heal and grow and do all those things. By having that foundation, though, it's helped me to not get jaded or distracted as things get really busy.
I always challenge people to focus on that first. Don't ask the question of how do I get this many followers. When do I quit my job? Those answers will come to you, when you're really aligned within and you’re really able to block out the noise. You're not listening to what this person thinks you should do or what the world says you said you should do. You can really hear what your purpose is on this earth.
And that comes from just going back to what things make me feel good, what things am I passionate about? Maybe things that you didn't have growing up that you want to do for somebody else, or maybe spaces where your heart feels full versus places where you feel like you can't be yourself, and you just try to create more of those positive spaces and positive feelings.
LH: What advice would you give to an artist who is struggling to maintain the core of themselves, struggling to water those plants? They're still trying to be themselves, but they're also trying to balance the money and trying to have a sustainable career financially.
RN: Bills and responsibilities are real things and you cannot Eat, Pray, Love yourself out of paying rent. That’s why I never rushed it. There's a very, very real mental toll that this kind of lifestyle puts on you. And so, you have to really be ready and really be at a place where you believe in yourself.
So my advice would be to take your time. You're an artist from the moment you start creating. It doesn't matter if you have a day job. Really figure out what it is that you're trying to say because, if not, you will find yourself pulled in different directions of “this is what I think people want to see and this is what goes viral.”
You have to really be aligned and knowing what it is that you want to represent in the art world and what space like you want to fill up. I remember like when I was starting and I was trying to be a part of everything -- National Donut Day, National Coffee Day, Beyoncé’s birthday!
I know a lot of people work better when they can focus on one thing. I never put my eggs in one basket. I am a multidisciplinary artist. I was doing photography. I was doing logos, I was doing party flyers, T-shirts. I was doing anything just to keep the number of clients that I needed to make my end goal to live and sustain myself for that month. Slowly I was able to stop doing things that weren’t feeding me anymore. But it was step-by-step. It was a day-to-day process.
LH: Let's talk about sustainability. How do you recoup? How do you bounce back? How do you keep yourself going? I’d love to just dig into your philosophy around how artists can create and contribute to the world in a way that is sustainable not only financially, but also creatively, mentally. What does working sustainably look like to you?
RN: In this season, I've really had to use discernment because a lot of what we're being pushed to do, I've had to ask myself, Will this make me better or will this take me away from something that I really should be focused on. So when we think about posting [on social media] every day, and just how much like effort that takes. At one point, I was posting every day to get to this point. But how do I create my Sistine Chapel if I'm just trying to get out content all day long? So, I think there's a season for both.
LH: Was there a specific come to Jesus moment that totally empowered this mindset shift?
RN: I think probably being in Europe -- Rome, especially -- and going through all the churches and just finding out how long it took them to be built. That really like reaffirmed that for me. These places that have existed for a long time, they were built with love, and they were built with art. They weren't built like our neighborhoods are built today -- how fast can we get this up so that it's functioning and profitable. I don't want my art to be that soulless because it's how fast can I get this out to be profitable for me.
I think sustainability first came to me, because before I was writing and creating always from a place of sadness and heartbreak. But I don't want to be waiting for heartbreak for my next book because that's not sustainable. And that's not the kind of life that I want to live, or what I want to be remembered for.
LH: Do you have any daily practices or any tangible things that you do in your business or personal life to keep you excited about what you're creating?
RN: Keeping a mindful routine definitely helps me to be able to soak in inspiration in the long run. Meditating in the morning or journaling. I like to walk to the beach. I like to be outside. When I walk my dog, I don't take it for granted. The things that I see, like different plant shapes, I saw I'm gonna save this for later. So I think that's always a good headspace for me.
And I always encourage creatives to not just stick to one medium and to try new things. Do something that you have to start from scratch, that you'd have to be embarrassed about, or you have to feel uncertain about. Try something like outside of your comfort zone, like dance or sculpting.
LH: What has been one of your favorite projects to work on?
RN: Probably my Goody hair products. Seeing my work and my patterns transformed in that way, in a full collection it was really special. It was really nice to see how my colors and my patterns, how they can create a whole mood.
LH: What can we be looking out for and how can we support you in general?
RN: Just follow along for the journey, send me words of encouragement, send me questions. I love to connect with people. I want to be engaged with people. I want to know what's going on in your world, what other people are struggling with or what my art is helping you through. I don't forget those relationships and I don't forget those conversations.
Follow Reyna Noriega on Instagram @reynanoriega_.