Those I met at Creative South 2015 will remember me primarily for one unfortunate occurrence: I was the guy who lost his voice. But even while I hoarsely whispered my way through the weekend, I felt like my voice inside was growing stronger.
The past several months for me have been full of highs and lows, hopes unsubstantiated. I felt frustrated and isolated. A number of people I knew were going to Creative South, and many of those I spoke with beforehand were exhausted, mentally and emotionally. One friend had been dealing with a persistent follower. Another friend was struggling with the feeling that her work wasn’t her own anymore; we were texting about how we were looking forward Creative South and she said, “I think we both need this.”
I didn’t realize how much I needed it until I stepped off the plane at ATL and started running into friends in the airport. There were friends I knew well and had seen several times, friends that I’d known online for years but had never met in person, and people whose names I’d heard but hadn’t interacted with. Hugs were given, introductions made, and thus the highlight of 2015 so far began. It felt like coming home.
Right away, on reaching the venue, it’s evident that Mike, Lenny and other Creative South co-conspirators set the tone for the entire crowd—there’s an incredible sense of welcome and warmth. It’s disarming, drops barriers, opens people up. It’s almost like you walk in to the room and can feel Mike’s bear hug surrounding your soul—OK, maybe that’s a little weird, but am I wrong?
Thursday was workshop day, which I spent primarily hanging out with great people, and that evening kicked off the conference in style with an amazing party held on the bridge over the river separating Georgia and Alabama. Mat “The Beard” Helme brought the Ink Wars; there was music, chicken-and-waffles, drinks and a massive crowd having a good time.
The next few days were a blur, and I regretfully missed more talks than I made, even ones that I had wanted to be sure to attend. I had to intersperse a few naps and wash my hands excessively to overcome the cold I was dealing with, although nothing could save my voice, which faded to a raspy whisper by Wednesday evening and remained that way until a day after I returned home. But what made the greatest impression was the people. The talks were great, but we really come here for the face-to-face relationships, the personal connections. Meg Robichaud, in her talk, reminded us that we are humans first, designers/illustrators second. We may bond over our work, with similar struggles and interests; and particularly in creative fields, we often invest a lot of our personal selves in our work. But viewing someone simply as their work flattens them. They’re now an entity, not a person. (Don’t do this to people! They don’t like it.) We’re all just people, after all, with our failures, weaknesses, hopes and fears.
You know the great thing about opening up? It’s that people open up to you in return, and an acquaintance becomes a friend. Learning to open up has been a struggle for me, but I felt comfortable sharing portions of my experience that I’d kept mostly to myself, and this to people I’d just met or have only seen a handful of times. There’s an element of risk in being real—sometimes people push back or are scared away—but everyone at Creative South was incredible. There’s an aura of realness (is that a word?) that pervades the conference, and it’s like a drug.
A few conversations, thoughts, people and experiences that really stood out to me, in no particular order: the party on Thursday, and the fireworks? Wow. Great job to everyone involved. Nick Slater, such a great dude; love your infectious enthusiasm and realness. The incandescent emcees Justin and Rogie, you guys were amazing on stage and off. Jen Mussari, Meg Lewis and Laura B. of the Ghostly Ferns crew, and Jonnie, always a pleasure hanging out with you all! Danielle Evans, the type of person you want to have as a friend; thanks for continuing to be awesome but still staying humble and real. Some great conversations with Jen and Danielle on the curse of trends, pushing limits, historical precedent and the future and health of the field; incredibly thoughtful and intelligent people. Getting real with Mattox; always great to talk with you, and hope to do so more often. Shauna, a long overdue meeting; you’re awesome. Molly—funny that we both live in Michigan but meet in Georgia! Great talking with you and good thoughts shared. First person I ate with there, Scotty, your enthusiasm and drive to learn. Mackey and Trisha Saturday, great meeting you and hanging out, good perspectives. Allan and Maria, good to meet you in person finally and chat about family, work, and everything in between. Bob, and Colin, more long overdue meetings! Great to meet up in person. Rob, it’d been too long—and Peter, finally got to meet you! Lenny, great to see you again and wish we’d been able to hang out more! Dave and Laura—wonderful meeting you two, impressive dance moves and good conversation! Meg, whose great thoughts I mentioned earlier. Shuttle ride back to ATL with Sean, Laci and Cory. Tad Carpenter on the importance of concept: “We’re not cake decorators.” I’m sure I’ve left so many people out, as my list is already getting long; but when you get hundreds of amazing people in one place, of course it will be a long list! So many people I wish I’d been able to spend more time with.
Mike, amazing job putting together a conference that is more than a conference. If you think you can come to Creative South, pass out business cards and act like a professional, you’re probably wrong. You could if you really wanted to, but you wouldn’t enjoy yourself much. Make friends, not connections; your work may be personal, but it’s not you. It’s about dropping the façade and being the person behind the name and the work.
The first day at Creative South, I already knew I wanted to come back. I had arrived feeling down and isolated (a common malady amongst freelancers), but left encouraged and surrounded by people I can trust and be real with. My friends came away with similar experiences—struggles alleviated by being around people who legitimately cared; we’re a community, and we look after each other. “Come as friends, leave as family” was more than just a conference catchphrase—it’s really what happened. The conference was over all too quickly, but the feeling lives on in the friendships started, relationships deepened, the thoughts shared; I had come as an individual, with my struggles and doubts, but left as part of an amazing family.
I can’t be the only one already looking forward to the family getting back together next year—who’s with me? Here’s to Mike, and Creative South ’16!