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Conversations with Mai Ly Degnan

Today we’d like to introduce you to Mai Ly Degnan.

Mai, we appreciate you taking the time to share your story with us today. Where does your story begin?
I grew up in a tiny town in central Florida. Definitely, as a kid, I was always drawing nonstop. I carried a sketchbook and always had microns and markers on hand.

However, even though I was always drawing, I never quite knew that it could be a career. I never really had the opportunity to take art classes, and viewed my drawing as something “just for fun”.

It wasn’t until my 2nd year of college, while I was on a pre-med track, that I took my first art class. That was a huge turning point and an eye-opener for me because I all of the sudden found a passion that had always kind of been there throughout my life.

Taking those few art classes that semester really changed my whole perspective on what I wanted to do as a career, and I transferred to art school where found my passion for illustration. I earned my BFA in Illustration at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

Later, I moved to Baltimore where I earned my MFA in Illustration Practice at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Since graduating I work as a freelance illustrator and illustration professor at both MICA and Towson University.

I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle-free, but so far would you say the journey has been a fairly smooth road?
It hasn’t always been a smooth road. The transition from graduation to the professional world is different for everyone. For me, it definitely did not happen immediately.

I think there are a number of things that I learned when I graduated, but one of the most important things was finding my place in the market. While you are in school, understanding your style and personal voice is something that you really get to cultivate in a very controlled environment.

But also understanding how your style fits within the real world is a different kind of thing when you graduate. I think much of where I am today came from trial and error. Seeing over time what works and what doesn’t, was a big eye-opener once I was on my own.

Thanks for sharing that. So, maybe next you can tell us a bit more about your work?
I love creating work that empowers women and I also want my work to be relatable to a broad audience. I myself am half Vietnamese, and I never really had shows or cartoons to look to when I was growing up.

Because of this, I really try to make sure that I show diversity within my characters and illustrations so that everyone can find someone to relate to. I also try very hard to make sure my images are inclusive, body-positive, and always illustrate women in a strong and positive light.

Seeing kids today being so confident, open, and honest about their feelings is so inspiring. Wishing I was more like that as a kid, I really try to create art that empowers young girls.

As an illustrator, I am probably best known for my colorful lifestyle illustrations and stylized characters. I have a deep love for visual storytelling and enjoy creating images focusing on strong female characters, busy patterns, and bright colors.

I work in a variety of markets including editorial illustration, licensing, greeting card design, book, and children’s book publishing. The project I am most proud of was my first children’s book about Martin Luther King Jr. for the Little People Big Dreams series, written by Maria Isabel Sanchez Vegara.

Is there any advice you’d like to share with our readers who might just be starting out?
My advice to any budding illustrator is to make personal work for jobs that you wish you had, try not to be afraid to put your work out there, and that patience is key.

My tips would be to make sure to have a cohesive portfolio, curate your client list of who you want to reach out to, and don’t get discouraged when you aren’t getting replies right away.

When I first started out, I did not get freelance jobs immediately and this was a really difficult thing for me to process. I felt like I wasn’t quite good enough and I was afraid that I had made the wrong career choice.

However, in time I found that not every art director has an article ready that fits your work right away. While I waited for replies, I kept on creating personal work that got me excited and helped push my portfolio.

Once I really began to tailor who I was reaching out to, I finally did begin getting freelance jobs, which really helped build confidence in my work.

The more and more art directors end up seeing your work outside of a submission email (things like social media, other freelance commissions, or applying to competitions) they will definitely start to recognize your style and keep you in mind for specific projects in the future.

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