When I discovered Grace Miceli's work on Tumblr, it changed the way I saw myself as a woman living in the world. Truly. And it wasn't just her art — her perfect portrait of Gwen Stefani with blue hair and braces, or the painting that simply said GIRLS AT NIGHT ON THE INTERNET — it was her selfies and the other feminist artists she reblogged that opened up new worlds for me. It was like Grace's work allowed me to fully embrace my womanhood in every single way — my femininity, my feelings, my sadness, my desires. As soon as I found out she was moving to New York City, in 2011, I invited her out on a friend date (we had become Internet pals by then, so it wasn't totally creepy).
Since then, I have seen her thrive, whether because of her art, or because of the supercool clothes she makes emblazoned with her colorful, almost childlike illustrations, or because she's traveling the world as a freelance curator with Art Baby Girl, the online gallery space she started while still in college. Most recently she was in Taiwan and Taipei, where she curated a show featuring young feminist artists. I've always admired Grace because she's so uniquely authentic and fully understands the art of the hustle. She knows it's never-ending, and essential.
As we were thinking of people to feature in this issue, I thought Grace would be such a perfect person to talk to: she's self-made and she is also still at the beginning of her career. I figured she would have valuable advice and perspective to everyone else who is also trying to make their side gig into their main gig, or even if they're just trying to start their own creative business. Grace was candid and funny because she just simply cannot be, and we talked about early Internet usage, why Instagram matters, and why cute bunnies that say "Fuck the police" are important.
Laia Garcia: Did you always want to be an artist? Were your parents supportive?
Grace Miceli: Yes. It was something I always knew I wanted, but it took me a very long time to realize, and to gain the confidence to actually pursue it as a career.
My parents both are the type of people who have day jobs [while still pursuing their creative interests]. My dad's in a bunch of bands and my mom's an artist. They said, "You can study whatever you want, but when you graduate you have to support yourself." They were always super supportive, but they were like, "We're not going to pay your rent if you just want to be an artist."
LG: And you studied photography while you were in college, which is a bit surprising.
GM: My major was photography because at Smith, if you couldn't paint or draw well, like in a realistic style, then that is your major. I had an interest in it, but it was more of a, Well, I guess I'll do this.
Toward the end of school is when I started to draw in my own style that I've developed. My attitude was much more, Fuck it, I'm going to do whatever I want. It took me a while [to get there]. It took Tumblr and finding people who were into my art online to have the confidence to do that, because in school that wasn't encouraged. I couldn't show those drawings in a crit.
LG: That segues perfectly into my next question: Did you always have an online presence?
GM: LiveJournal is where I started. I used it as a diary type of thing, but that's where I started posting my art. At some point in the middle of college, I got Tumblr, and that became the main thing for a while.
LG: When did you first start selling your art?
GM: Toward the end of college, I started making zines, and I'd sell them online for a few dollars. It was always a very slow thing, like I'd post drawings and a lot of people would be like, "You should make stickers!" Or, "You should put this on a shirt." You have to listen to people. I tried it, and it worked. Obviously for years I was not even covering my production costs because I always sold things for very cheap. But it was more important to me that people could buy what I was making than making money from it.
LG: Did you have a plan when you finished college and moved to New York?
GM: I thought I was just going to work in museums, work in galleries. That's how you work in the art world. I didn't think I could actually be an artist.
When I moved here I was working at American Apparel, interning at a gallery, working as an artist's assistant. Just doing all the things. Back then I thought, The Art World. It's so perfect. It's so amazing. I was desperate to be a part of it in any way I could.
As I started working in that world a little, I felt like, Oh, this kind of sucks. It wasn't what I expected, so that pushed me further to try to do my own thing. Before I moved here, my dream was to be represented by a gallery in Chelsea, but it's not anymore.
LG: What was the point when you realized you could devote yourself to your own work full-time?
GM: It's been about a year now, so I guess it was about three years of working a full-time day job while doing my own thing. I was really scared to do it for a long time because I was terrified of not being able to pay my rent, not being able to buy groceries. Probably three or four months before I quit my job, I felt insane; I was definitely working two full-time jobs, and I was having to say no to art opportunities.
My bosses at American Apparel, they were very great. They were very supportive. They would let me change my schedule last-minute. But it just got to the point where I couldn't be in two places at once. I just was like, "All right, you've just got to try it." It's been going really well so far.
LG: You also have a really big Instagram presence. At what point did you realize it was helping your business?
GM: With the clothing, a lot of it started with Lena's Instagram post. At that point, I was printing to order, and I'd get maybe one or two orders a week. After she posted it, I woke up to 40 orders. I realized how powerful it is, how much it directly drives sales. It's free marketing.
I'll post a drawing and just ask, "Should I put this on a T-shirt?" It's really important to me to know what the audience wants, what they respond to. I think the whole past year I've really tried to value that.
LG: What has changed the most now that you are running your own business?
GM: I have an LLC now, Art Baby Girl. I slowly got into it. Now I also have someone in LA that produces all my clothing and does all the shipping and customer service. Now I can focus on the creative stuff; I do clothing, but then I also do freelance illustration, and I'm also a freelance curator.
LG: Can you tell me a bit more about what you do as a curator?
GM: When I curate, it's like "Art Baby Gallery presents...," which I think maybe convinces people that it's more of a legitimate thing [laughs]. Ever since I was in college, I was drawn to analyzing other people's work, putting two pieces of artwork together and having them almost talking to each other. Those pieces can then have this new relationship and become this new thing.
I started doing art shows at Alt Space in Brooklyn, a gallery that was also a DIY space. I did three exhibitions there, and now I'm at the point where brands are hiring me to create an exhibition of young artists. It's something I'm totally still figuring out because there's a few other young curators, but I think it's still a thing that doesn't really exist that much outside of museums and galleries. I love to do it. I get bored if I'm just working on one project. It also gives me a chance to step outside of my work and what I'm making, which is important to me.
LG: Recently I feel like your work has definitely taken more of an activist stand. Can you tell me why that's important to you?
GM: I've always been outspoken about these things in my personal life, but I think I was worried. I didn't want to seem too aggressive; I wanted to be likable or something. I reached the point where I was like, Fuck that. I have way too big of an audience online to not use it responsibly. I think that's why I started to make stuff that was a little more in-your-face. I just felt like it was irresponsible of me to not use my privilege in a productive way.
I have a shirt with a cute bunny on it that says, "Fuck the police." Maybe it's silly, but I feel like cute things and humor can be used as access points for talking about stuff that maybe people are too shy or uncomfortable to bring up. Also a lot of activist apparel, the aesthetic of it is just not my thing. All black and white and block letters. It just is not cute to me.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Laia Garcia is the deputy editor at Lenny.