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Check Out Keely Imai’s Story

Today we’d like to introduce you to Keely Imai.

Hi Keely, so excited to have you on the platform. So before we get into questions about your work-life, maybe you can bring our readers up to speed on your story and how you got to where you are today?
According to my mom, I was an artist the moment I picked up a pencil. We were not a family of means, but my parents did the best they could to equip and encourage me in my art well until I reached college.

Trips to the Smithsonian and other art museums in the area were big influences earlier on… and then when I was in high school, my dad took me to my first comic book convention in Baltimore. There were at least a couple dozen artists there, selling their work and doing drawings on the spot. I marveled at the skill and range on display in pen and ink.

My little creative ember burst into a flame of ambition as I thought, “You can make art like this AND get paid for it?!” In the years that followed, my parents agreed to help me attend my dream art school to become a professional illustrator and animator. For a while, things went according to plan! I attended my first year, learned a ton, and came home for the summer, optimistic about the future… and that’s when my family fell on hard times.

I couldn’t return to school in the fall. I started working for part-time and cherry-picking classes at community college when I could afford them. My artwork had been received well at Otakon (a then-staple of anime culture in Baltimore), but I had to shelf the idea when my parents divorced and I had to be financially self-sustaining. I picked up two jobs, moved a couple of times, and forgot about finishing school or applying to convention artist alleys.

All the while, I tried to focus on letting every diverse experience feed into my art somehow. Whether it was a sincere worldview or just a way to lessen the blow that had been dealt to all my well-laid plans, the thought kept my head above water. Doodles and sketches were the best I could muster for a few years. Little did I know that my humdrum existence was about to be slapped awake by pastel-colored ponies.

A dear friend introduced me to the show My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. At the time, this newer iteration of a childhood classic had inspired a robust community of creatives— there were artists, musicians, animators, sculptors, cosplayers and so many more.

The show itself was delightful, funny, and just the ray of sunshine I needed to rekindle the embers of a lost dream. After moving back to Maryland, I found out about BronyCon (which Baltimore hosted for several years), and that was the boost of confidence I needed to begin regularly pursuing conventions to participate in.

From 2016 on, I have been in artist alleys in four different states across the U.S., while continuing to develop my skills and establish my brand. I’m working a day job to ensure some stability, but otherwise, fulfilling my dream continues to be a lifelong pursuit.

The looks of joy on customers’ faces when I present them with a piece of custom artwork or create a piece that inspires them is worth every hill I have climbed to get here. And now that I have added the role of “mommy”, my motivation to succeed is even greater!

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way? Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
Having the rug pulled out from under you when you thought you were doing everything the ‘right’ way is probably the biggest reality check I had to face. I got into the school I wanted with good grades and test scores, I was awarded a small scholarship, financial aid was ready to go… then SHWOOP!

You’re at square one, just making sure you can pay for your basics. Not only is this a big financial rut, but a psychological one too. My mental health suffered for years in trying to reason out why I wasn’t making progress. Most of the time it would end in depression and anxiety. I was managing it well enough to function leading up to the birth of my son.

Pregnancy was not kind to me, and the transition to motherhood has been anything but predictable. Limited amounts of sporadic sleep and raising a very active toddler means that I have to use every spare moment purposefully. Sometimes that happens, and more often it doesn’t!

I’ve also been having to be a lot more proactive in not only managing my mental health but actually seeking professional help and guidance. Postpartum struggles are a beast. I’m definitely a work in progress!

Appreciate you sharing that. What else should we know about what you do?
I am an illustrator, specializing in creatures and characters (usually of the fantasy, mythological variety)! My medium of choice is colored pencils, though I love to mix them up with a pen, ink, marker, and watercolor.

Much of my current artwork depicts some of my favorite characters from pop culture and old-school fantasy but often applies playful textures and colors that enliven the visual context. Lately, I have been creating more original works, derived from my own imagination.

I’m proud that all the continuous learning I’ve done throughout the years is manifesting itself in rich coloring techniques that draw in the viewer like a warm invitation from a friend. My ability to embrace emotion and playfulness in my work is a common remark given by customers and fellow artists alike.

Is there any advice you’d like to share with our readers who might just be starting out?
Create goals, and have a plan (or plans) to accomplish them… but don’t be upset if the car derails!

Life is a winding road with all kinds of detours, shortcuts, and even dead ends. But it is NEVER too late to change course for the better. You are not a failure when your plans fall through. Remain flexible, remain teachable. There’s always something new to learn!

There is only one you. Do the things that YOU are passionate about. Have that come out in your artwork. If you haven’t found your voice yet, don’t worry! Keep at it and it will come to you in time.

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