Allyson Wilson has been a graphic designer for over 12 years, but her experience as an illustrator is little over two. Yet, within this time frame, Wilson has accumulated thousands of followers on Instagram and become a freelance artist and children’s book illustrator, all while primarily being a mom of two.
EnVi sat down with Wilson over Zoom to chat about her journey into having a passionate career as an illustrator – from the joys of growing in an environment full of art, the unexpected turns of life that may push you to pursue a lifelong dream, to persevering despite having self-doubts.
Artful Upbringing Turned Career
From Ohio, Wilson grew up in what she calls a “very art-centric household.” With a grandparent and aunt whose professional careers involved art and an equally creative mother and sister, Wilson recalls art always being there. “I grew up with a very supportive art loving family,” recalled Wilson. “It was easy to just get into that whole world.” This sentiment was brought to life as Wilson recounted her grandparent making a space for her and her sister in his studio, to an aunt who would help her learn how to paint. Almost expectedly, Wilson became a creative person herself.
Coined as the “artsy kid” from a young age, Wilson leaned into that image growing up. It came as no surprise when Wilson decided to attend the Art Institute of Pittsburgh after High School. Yet coming from a small tight knit community, Wilson soon realized art school in a city wasn’t for her. “When you go to art school that is it, you dive into it [art]” explained Wilson. Craving a more rounded education that involved extracurriculars and socialization, Wilson transferred to a state school back in Ohio. Where, in addition to double majoring in graphic design and business, she got to experience the other extracurriculars she had been missing and even meet her now husband.
After graduation, Allyson interned for magazines, had a couple of jobs as a junior graphic designer, and eventually landed what would become her job of 11 years – a graphic designer at a nursing association. “The subject matter wasn’t exactly very creative, but it was a good job,” explained Wilson. “I had good friends, it was flexible, and when you start a family it’s kind of what you want – something where you just go in, do your job, then you go home.” While Wilson was comfortable with her job as a graphic designer, this comfort zone would soon come to a halt.
Disrupted Security and Restabilizing Dreams
At the beginning of 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted the world, Wilson was one of the many employees who were laid off from her company. Wilson had just returned from maternity leave and, now with a three month old son and three year old daughter at home, had her life upturned. “That was definitely a low point,” said Wilson. “I didn’t know what I was gonna do. I wasn’t gonna go find a job right away, I just kind of, I don’t know, I was just in it. What else can you do? You know, when you are in something terrible, you just kinda gotta work your way through it.”
During this confounding period, Wilson decided to buy an iPad and learn how to digitally draw to stay creative. “Before 2020 I had never picked up an iPad, nothing. I didn’t even know how people did it [digitally drawing]” explained Wilson. “So, I just got it to feel like I had a sense of me during this really bad time.”
With very limited time as a full-time mom, Wilson would listen to Skillshare classes on how to use the iPad and digitally draw in Procreate. “Basically when my kids slept, or when I was up with my son at night, you know still like wee hours in the morning with a newborn,” said Wilson. “I just totally self-taught. I just started practicing , learning, with no intention of anything.”
To share the art she was making with her family, Wilson then started an Instagram account. She soon found herself involved with the art community online, partaking in art challenges, meeting other artists and growing a following. Around November of 2020, Wilson received a message with an opportunity that not long ago seemed like an unachievable dream.
One Proposal, and the Courage to Accept
Kellie Gerardi – a bioastronautics researcher for the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences (IIAS), book bestseller, and social media influencer – reached out to Wilson with a proposal to illustrate her upcoming children’s book series titled “Luna Muna.” After exchanging correspondence and confirming Gerardi’s proposal was legitimate, Wilson couldn’t help but feel unqualified for the task. “I had zero confidence in myself,” confessed Wilson. “I was upfront with Kellie, saying ‘Please I have never done this before, maybe you should find someone who is more knowledgeable, this would be a huge learning curve for me.’”
In addition to the self doubt on her skills as an illustrator, lack of time was also a major source of anxiety for Wilson. With a husband working full-time and two young children still dependent on her, illustrating was a project Wilson would do in her spare time. “When am I gonna do it? Who is gonna give me the time to work on this book?” expressed Wilson. “You know that’s not on the cards for us, we don’t have childcare.”
As Wilson put it, she was “shaking in her boots, but trying to stay professional.” After all, illustrating a children’s book was a lifelong dream that didn’t seem within her grasp. “Especially once you get older and have a job,” recalled Wilson. “I am like ‘oh-well, I am never gonna be an illustrator,’ just kind of let that pass. But here it was, right in front of me… That’s when I start to look at, this is meant to happen. I have to put aside all of my fears. This is too crazy you know for it to not be what I should do.”
While Wilson grappled with the proposal, Gerardi never wavered in her confidence in Wilson and the quality of her work. “She said ‘Your art is awesome,’ she really liked the detail that I put in it,” recalled Wilson from her conversations with Gerardi. “The only confidence I had is what she was giving me, which I totally appreciate. So yeah, I said yes and got going.”
The Making of “Luna Muna”
Gerardi had a distinct vision for the illustrations – a homage to her daughter and making the theme of outer space more feminine. “Lots of sparkles, pink and things like that,” said Allyson. “Which is right up my alley because that is sort of what I gravitate towards as well.”
Beyond the core ideas, Wilson was given the liberty to have fun with the imaging of the “Luna Muna” text. Wilson drew inspiration from other children’s books, as well as her own kids, especially her daughter – her current likes and even the trinkets in her room. From learning angles and how to carry the same look for forty pages, Wilson described the making of the first book as a learning experience.
Something Wilson emphasized is the amount of detail that was poured into the pages of the book, “I knew she [Gerardi] liked a lot of detail, so especially one bedroom scene in “Luna Muna,” it has a lot of detail,” said Wilson. “She wanted little Easter eggs hidden throughout her book too… So in Luna’s room, she has a stack of books and one of them is named after Kellie’s first book that she wrote.”
An anxious process from the beginning, Wilson’s overarching goal throughout the making of the book was simply finishing. “It was an absolute learning curve and self doubt the whole way,” recalled Wilson. “It never got easier because I always was doubting my next move or if I can do the next spread… but I just kept telling myself ‘You gotta do it. You gotta do it. Just take the reins and do it.’”
Wilson did eventually complete the illustrations for “Luna Muna” and got to experience the successful release of the book into the world. “I mean, seeing the book in real life or going to the store and seeing it, it’s surreal,” shared Wilson. “I did a little video of my kids, husband and I going to Barnes & Nobles and seeing it on the shelf. Everytime, it doesn’t get old.”
Wilson now finds herself working on the second book of the series, this time with more confidence and grace to her efforts. “I feel like I got this. I can do this.” said Wilson. “I tell myself, ‘It’s okay, you are still learning. You are nervous because you are still learning, and developing your style, also how quickly I can do things.”
Onward With Growing Confidence
In addition to the second book, now under an art agency, Wilson also keeps herself busy with other small projects. From stationery to stickers and greeting cards – projects that are manageable under her busy lifestyle as a mother and now children’s book illustrator.
Another way Wilson continues to stay creative is through the art community she found on Instagram. “They have been an integral part of how far I’ve come to this point,” said Wilson. “With friendships I’ve co-hosted art challenges, those always have prompts attached to them… When you are stuck for ideas, it’s always nice to have those challenges that give you a prompt, little words to think about.”
Despite the harsh beginning that almost pushed her to becoming an Illustrator, Wilson agrees there was a silver lining to the bad. “I am glad how everything happened because I feel like this is what I want to do,” expressed Wilson. “This is what makes me happy, this is a passionate career now that I have. Rather than one I was just floating on… So while this is harder, I feel more fulfilled by it.”
Looking forward, Wilson hopes she can continue to create feel-good art that people find relatable and uplifting, but also art that takes viewers away from reality. “I think a lot of people go to artwork to escape or just feel happy or to feel like there’s people out there that can translate emotion into the visual.” said Wilson. “Whenever I post things it’s just I hope that people respond to it and it brightens their day… especially with the children’s book. What I really hope is, the kids who are looking at it – who might not be able to even read yet – they are transported into this world and it’s making memories in their head of ‘Oh, I used to love that book. That page in that book!’”
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