I see these aspirational messages on social media, with sayings like, “Your job doesn’t define you,” that are meant to be positive affirmations. Like your job is not your world and you’re more than just what you do; for me, I feel like my job actually does define me — and I want it to. This is the fullest expression of who I am.
In the northern Virginia suburbs of D.C., I grew up in foster care until I was adopted at 9 years old, by a social worker who is now my mother. She was my first foster care placement when my original home got disrupted earlier in my childhood. I was 4 when we met but, because of the system, I didn’t get adopted until I was 9. At that time in Virginia, there was a rule that you had to be adopted by a black parent if you were a black kid, and to adopt you had to be married — which, for me felt really counterproductive, because what’s really fucked up is my biological mom is white.
My adopted parents had only known each other for a year, but my mom met me and knew she wanted to adopt — so she and my dad rushed into marriage to make it happen. That’s just how it was: You had to be married to adopt, and she wanted to adopt, so she got married.
Through all this I kept in touch, off and on, with my biological parents for several years. My biological father was killed in drug-related violence; then my biological mom was hospitalized at a mental health facility. That year, when I was 21, the health facility came to my sister and I and said our mom was going to be a ward of the state, and asked if we wanted to be her legal guardian. We had to say no.
I remember being filled with so much sadness over being unwillingly put in a situation to answer that question; how it had all became a full circle. We became wards of the state and grew up spending most of our childhood under the legal guardianship of Virginia. Now here they are, asking us to be the legal guardians of our own mother. At the age of 25, I felt old enough to go back to her and see what she needed, what could I do for her, but by then, only four years later, her mental condition had deteriorated to the point that she didn’t even know who I was.
The thing is, I know my mother felt so much guilt about everything that happened. The most heartbreaking part is not being able to share with her the life I have made for myself. I am truly happy with the life I’ve gotten to lead after being adopted. She doesn’t need to feel guilty and I want her to know that.
I went to high school in Albuquerque, and briefly studied architecture at college there. I didn’t really have any other creatives in my family. My adoptive dad was a really talented man but never really realized it. He was what we like to call a “folk artist” – which is a polite term for an artist who didn’t have a formal education but is really talented. There were just no other creatives besides him in my family, so it was something I just did on my own.
I left and had a career in Texas and briefly in Chicago, before returning to New Mexico. I really felt so proud of how far I’d come when I returned; but in my community, I felt that I was looked at as if I went out into the big bad world and got chewed up and spit back out. There was this online narrative of my life after leaving New Mexico, so that was all people knew. They knew I had this great career working for a design firm in Texas, but I didn’t share that I was struggling on a personal level. It was my first experience being away from my parents, so I kind of spiraled out of control. I was dabbling in drugs and having a really hard time with the end of my first relationship, but that’s not what people saw online. I’m invested in how to tastefully and sincerely share these struggles online and through social media. And in the design field in general, I really want to honor industry standards, but I want to be sincere and helpful with what I’m sharing online – and answer the questions that people aren’t talking about.
So when I moved back, I resumed college, this time studying fine art history, but again, I left after a year. Though I had big design clients asking me to do work for them, not having a degree is something that I didn’t bring up to them. I’ve always been concerned about how they would react. It is the path less traveled, not having a degree and trying to be successful. And I don’t think I’ll go back. I’m only 26, so these are decisions that I’m still actively making.
I am dealing with becoming comfortable being someone who is a black female who doesn’t have a full college education and who grew up in one of the worst school systems in the U.S. I know that I’m an intelligent person and I can hold a conversation, but there’s always still this moment when I’m in a gallery setting or at a party when everyone who went to a brand name university is having this conversation. When people said “Where did you go to school?” I used to say, well, you know, I went to UNM for years and I studied architecture; now I just say I didn’t go to school or I didn’t graduate.
I sometimes think that the main reason why I pursue the work that I do now is because I once felt unhireable as an inexperienced, black female without a formal education. So my option was to make this work for myself. There would have been two paths if you finished school: You either become the creative director of a really reputable company or you open your own firm. I’m kind of on the path of opening my own firm, but it definitely wouldn’t have been my first choice. But I can honestly say now that I am constantly amazed that it’s working. I’m in this place where I’ve been doing this for two years and making it work. I’ve never had to cold call, which I feel incredibly lucky about, and I don’t have to take every new client that reached out to me.
I started with graphic design, then social media, then signs. And signs are such a different market. I’ve always had a design background, and I’ve never had the luxury of just designing something without an understanding of how it will be actualized. There’s always been that direct tie to my dad and my family growing up. My dad didn't have the faith to believe in himself as an artist and we never had that much money, so I feel like I've never had the luxury of just being hobbyist or an academic – just designing for the sake of beauty or as an exercise. So designing and building environmental signage that is functional as well as beautiful is a big part of the work that I like do.
Now, there are all these initiatives to make makerspaces and fabrication communities more inviting for women. And I think in some ways that’s great, but it’s also counterproductive. Don’t make women or gay people the exotic other. We definitely want to have a dialogue about being women of color, people of color and people from different backgrounds other than white privilege in that community of high-end fabrication stuff. But I think sometimes just by letting it be it, it will be more productive than anything else. We have to keep the dialogue about it, of course, but just being woke about it is really all you can do.
I was at a graphic design conference a few weeks ago and this male speaker drew a triangle on the board and said you have to be two points on this triangle out of three, so choose which two you’re going to be. The three points were be nice, be good, and be fast. What I have learned – and my advice – is: Don’t try to be just two of those. You need to be all three. You need to be fast, you need to be nice, and you need to be good. I know now, just being fast and nice is not enough.
Considering where I am now, I think these levels of experiences at a very young age affect all of my relationships – professional relationships, friendships, and intimate relationships – in terms of how I navigate them, but I have grown comfortable with it. I feel like growing up with a lot of hardship, a lot of back and forth, it’s definitely informed who I am as a person and really guides me to be the person that I want to be.
When I started, I could subsist on $2,000 a month; I wasn’t motivated to grow and attract new clients – I was just happy to be making a living. But there has been a recent shift for me. Every day I am taking those steps toward becoming a bigger firm, which looking back to when I returned to New Mexico two years ago, was not what I thought I’d be doing at 26. But this is what I am doing, and what I’m doing does define who I am.
Kelsi is the founder of Sharp Design Co.; A full service creative studio for sole proprietors and small businesses in the desert Southwest including graphic design, environmental design, content creation, and fabrication.
Narrative written by Tricia English in collaboration with Kelsi Sharp