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Erin O'Neill: Finding Her Voice as a Human and Creative

[All designs in this article have been created by Erin O'Neill]

“I am a human being before I am an artist. I am a human being before I am a creator,” were some of the most profound words Erin said to me during her interview. Erin is 20 years old and is in her third year of getting her BA in Graphic Design at Oakland University. She grew up in Michigan and is on her way to finding her voice as a woman and a creative.

We chose Erin as our Kathy of the Month because as a team we want to recognize the voice of younger females who are in the throws of finding their place in society, at home, and in their community. Erin is an artist with her pen and with her words. She is reflective, thoughtful, and introspective. She is establishing herself and identifying the things that really matter to her.

The immediate energy that Erin radiates is like Aloe Vera: calm, soothing, and cool AF. “I think that being a human being in essence is a very creative act.” Erin shared with me her journey of finding out her passion after high school and why she chose Graphic Design as her major.

“I’ve always been a creator and a curator,” she said when talking about her childhood. Erin’s favorite medium as a kid was to collect tons of printing paper, fold them in half, staple them, and turn the pages into illustrated children’s stories. Toward the end of high school, academia was her forte. She loved math, excelled in her classes, was a youth leader at church, and even ended up on the homecoming court. Art was placed in the back of her mind and took the back seat as she planned college.

“There are moments I don’t know how else to explain other than actual magic… There’s always these magical reminders and moments that this is worth it. And that means something.”

Erin’s original plan was to go to nursing school with a full ride scholarship earned from her exceptional grades in high school. She remembered a pivotal moment, when she heard someone say, “Erin is going to nursing school,” in front of a large group of people. “I immediately thought, ‘Wait. Did you say ERIN is going to nursing school? My stomach dropped. You can’t ignore those feelings.” Erin entered college and changed her degree to undeclared.

During her first semester of college she decided she would try a 2D studio class. “I fell into it.” After that class Erin found her roots again in art and her desire to create again. It was not without challenge, “I was in an intro to drawing class and all of these people in the class had been doing it forever. I can’t even remember what kind of pencils the teacher said we needed, but he said something like ‘You might want to use a 4H or a 6B for this.’ And all I could think was, are you gonna tell us what those are?? Because home girl don’t know!”

Erin’s falling back into art hasn’t been the smooth segue we often hope for. In class and during her time alone creating, she started to struggle with ‘The Imposter Syndrome.’ “I didn’t know what it was. I just learned about it a week ago, but it is this feeling of 'what am I doing?' What have I been doing for these last three years [in college]? And now it’s a conscious effort of saying, 'I’m doing fine. I’m capable.' I’m making things that I like. I am making things that I don’t like.” Every creative can relate to these moments of insecurity and the pitfalls of comparison to other artists. Erin says that now she is slow with the things she makes, she takes her time, and is contemplative. She reminds herself, “I am a human being before I am an artist. I am a human being before I am a creator.”

I asked Erin if along her journey anyone has been really influential to her. “Chris [her youth pastor in high school], he listened when other people wouldn't. He just cared what you had to say and what you’re thinking. And Amy Fitzpatrick. She’s a badass. She is so unapologetically herself. She said a bunch of stuff to me growing up about boys and even how to carry yourself… She asked me one time if I had a list for what I wanted in the person I want to be with one day. She was like, ‘Number one, he has to make you laugh because looks don’t last forever.' It’s so cliche now but at 15 I was like ‘OMG, you’re right.' I don’t know how she stays sunshine all the time. That is her real life. She’s super amazing and she is super inspiring. She is always so excited about what I’m doing even if I don’t think it’s that cool. She’s so encouraging.”

Erin has now made it her passion to create a space for other women in her life that the can grow, have conversation, and can ask questions. “I want to be intentional and uplifting. I try not to comment just on how people look, but instead say ‘Wow, you look happy, you look healthy today.' I don’t want to just say, ‘Your hair looks bomb today.’ It’s so easy with the mass consumption of media constantly that we fill ourselves with crazy ideas of what we should and shouldn’t look like as women. We grow insecure and sometimes we take these insecurities out on others.

I had asked her if she remembered any pivotal moments in her life that changed her, and she had mentioned a moment when her insecurities led her to say something that haunted her for a while. “I was at a meeting for a trip I was going to take to Italy. One of the leaders there was wearing these cool Free People like pants kind of like Mick Jagger-y. For some reason I decided to say something. I thought I could say anything, but I was so insecure. [she said] ‘Those pants, I know you’re excited about them but I’m not really on board with them.’ I didn’t realize what I had said. It was everyone’s reaction that made me realize what I had done. That has haunted me for so long. She [ the leader ] was also in a place where she couldn't really handle that. I really hurt her. Am I really that insecure of myself that I am going to say things like that? I left and drove home and thought, ‘Oh my god, what did I just say?’ It just showed me where I was mentally. Am I really that person that I’m so insecure that I bring other people down to feel better? It’s been a whole year long process.”

"I can lose myself in a project and I can tell it is where I need to be."

“In high school, you’re jumping through all these hoops but in college you are doing things for you. You choose what you invest in and who you invest in, because it gives you life. All that other shit doesn’t matter anymore.”

It’s stories like these that remind us that we share the same narratives. We have all put ourselves before the person next to us one way or another. Some of us can do it with our words and others can do it with their actions. It’s our ability to self reflect, change, and grow from these situations that we can change the community around us.

“In high school, you’re jumping through all these hoops, but in college you are doing things for you. You choose what you invest in and who you invest in, because it gives you life. All that other shit doesn’t matter anymore.” Erin is transitioning her story into a narrative where she wants to create and listen to her inner voice. She is learning the ways to respect herself as an artist, as a woman, and as the woman next to you in line at Target.

"I base a lot off of feelings, I need to be able to have conversation, human interaction."

The journey to finding our worth and self respect can be brutal but so entirely worth it. Sharing coffee with Erin and listening to her words I was reminded again that as women we are all in this together. We are all trying to figure this shit out one day at a time. We just have to learn to be gracious with each other and be intentional. “If you don’t have life in you at the end of the day, and some days no matter what you do you won’t, but being intentional about finding something that fills you and gives you life… then you can make the world around you better.”

Written and Photographs by: Jenifer Veloso

Graphic Designs by: Erin O'Neill, our March Kathy of the Month

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