Michelle Ciarlo-Hayes had a choice: stay in a safe job as a university librarian or go after her dream job in photography and digital art. “What sane person leaves their dependable job with steady salary and excellent benefits to make a living in the art world?” she asks.
But that’s exactly what Michelle did. She took the leap and today, is the artist, creator, designer and maker of several product lines decorated with her artwork and featured in nearly 40 stores in the U.S. and Canada. Michelle says some of the best parts of her career are working from home and the flexibility owning her own business gives her as a mother. Michelle hopes to keep expanding her reach in the next year, which—attention, job seekers!—means she might be looking for an intern soon.
“If I’m spending too much time working on a piece and it’s not coming easily or not looking right, I should move on. Art takes time, but the creative process shouldn't be painful.”
At what point did you decide you wanted to leave your job as a university librarian and become a photographer?
Leaving my job as a university librarian was not an easy decision for me: I truly loved my job, yet I knew that staying in that role prevented me from focusing on this creative part of my life that kept resurfacing. Right before I started my family with my husband, I made the leap: I decided I wouldn’t be getting much rest at home with a newborn, so why not use those extra waking hours to let my creativity bloom?
What was your thought process like making that leap?
I was scared! What sane person leaves their dependable job with steady salary and excellent benefits to make a living in the art world? But I knew I had the perfect opportunity to combine my taking the time off to raise my very young children with making a go of it as an artist. I was extremely lucky to have a boss and mentor who believed in me and encouraged me. I’m still grateful to her for that.
What does your current job involve on a daily basis, and what types of responsibilities do you have in your position?
My responsibilities run the spectrum: I’m the artist, creator, designer, and maker of all the product lines that feature my artwork—like my children’s growth charts, art blocks, etc. There are nearly 40 stores in the US and Canada that carry my work, so on any given day you’ll find me in the studio making, packaging and shipping art. I also have to carve out time to simply create, so there are days when I’m just out with my camera and notebook, dreaming up the things that are yet to be.
What is your favorite part of your job?
I have to pick just one favorite thing? How about three? My daily commute is 10 steps to the studio in my house. I’m there every afternoon when my boys come home on the school bus. And twice a year I go to New York for one week to exhibit my newest work and take orders at the New York International Gift Fair while my husband cooks and makes lunches and does the laundry. I love my job.
What challenges keep you awake at night?
The mental to-do list for the next day tends to keep me up at night: my company is made of just me, myself and I, so there never seems to be enough hours in each day ... although, somehow, I seem to get it all done.
Is work/life balance ever a problem with you? If so, what is one no-fail tactic you use to create balance?
Because my studio’s in my house, it’s definitely a challenge to keep the work/life balance. When 5 p.m. happens, I leave my phone in the studio and close the door, just as I would if I worked in an office.
What are some of the rules you live by?
Rules I live by:
1 / If I’m spending too much time working on a piece and it’s not coming easily or not looking right, I should move on. Art takes time, but the creative process shouldn’t be painful.
2 / Everyone in the house has to help out with daily duties — just because I’m home most days doesn’t mean I’m not working!
What qualities does one need to possess to be successful in your line of work?
Artists have to have thick skin. Your work won’t be the perfect match for every person or every store on the planet and there’s nothing wrong with that. You have to know and be comfortable with your own voice and not lose sight of that as you go.
What one piece of advice do you wish you could tell a 21-year-old version of yourself?
My 21 year-old self was a very ambitious and driven individual who always wanted to race ahead. I’d tell her to still be tough and to work hard, but I’d remind her to stop every now and then to enjoy the view around her.
What plans do you have for your company next year?
My plan is to keep growing the number of stores that carry my artwork—which also means I’ll either need to clone myself or hire an intern. The intern option is probably a little more practical than figuring out the cloning business, so I think that’s where I’m going to focus my energy.