Drawing, videogames, movie studios, academic studies and work (plus ninjas).
Shawn is the creator of Shawnimals, a universe made of plush, toys, and videogames! He created Ninjatown, Moustachios, Dumplings, and tons of art.
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Sim Salis (host): Shawn, how do you label yourself? Because some people will be like, "Artist, creator…”
Shawn Smith (guest): A long time ago, when I was younger and maybe more naive (and, perhaps, more pretentious) it'd be like: "CEO and Creative Director." It's like, "Oh, my gosh." Now, I really just call myself an artist and designer. I just keep it simple. Anything that I do creatively, I really often — almost always but not always — try to take an artful approach to what I'm creating. But then other times I'm really designing, I'm communicating through visual design. I think that there is a lot of overlap but ultimately, there's a different intent and perhaps a different end result.
Sim: What are the different intent and the different end result from artful and designer hat? How are they different to you and how do they overlap?
S. Smith: Art can often be — and maybe should be — for art's sake. It's not the same as communicating words. There's very artful design and I am certainly not a designers’ designer nor am I an experimental designer. But say for instance, the work that I do for the brewery: we have a restaurant, we need a menu. I want it to be on brand, I want it to have cohesion in terms of composition and color, but you're ultimately communicating words and prices. There's a very different intent and then, ultimately, end result — versus if I'm in the studio working on a painting or a sculpture. The thing I'm communicating may be very abstract, it may be highly personal, and the end result is not going to be the same. It doesn't need to be the same.
Sim: It's interesting to me. The thing you're talking about — design — it seems that it comes more from here. And I'm tapping my brain, my forehead.
S. Smith: For you listeners, at home.
Sim: It comes more from there, whereas the artful one is more from your guts.
S. Smith: Yeah, I have a very intuitive approach in all the creative work that I do. That includes design. I didn't go to school for design, I took some classes but a lot of it is self-taught. It's a way of seeing, it's a way of thinking, there's a lot of empathy. I've worked in marketing before, there's a lot of empathy in marketing as well. I think that that's true for design, or it should be. But it's a very intuitive approach in very much the same way in the art and illustration and other more purely studio work that I do.
Sim: Is there any goal for yourself when you take the more artful approach?
S. Smith: I always joked about the artist's statements when I was in school where it was like, "Artists have become increasingly more interested in this, this, and this," and just these artist statements that were just so ridiculous.
Sim: More academia then.
S. Smith: Very much, very much. And really now, I want to inspire and delight people as much as I want to be inspired and delighted and that's really the extent of what I try to do in the studio.
Sim: How did you start? How did you realize that this was a path for you?
S. Smith: I'm the youngest of six kids. I have brothers who would draw things and draw comic books and I'd grow up around that. My dad enjoyed drawing although he didn't consider himself an illustrator or artist or anything like that, he was much more blue collar most of the time. But growing up around that, I think it fostered a certain kind of interest and curiosity about drawing in general. And then once I started drawing, I was hooked. I remember in second grade specifically this art project that I made. It's a piece of paper, there's a mine cart and there's a little guy in a mine cart and there's a track, and that's on the left side. And then on the other side, there's a little cave entrance. So what I did was I cut a slit in the paper, which would be the opening of the cave, and then the mine cart actually ended up being a separate piece of paper with a strip. So I pulled the strip and the mine cart would go into the cave and this was all inspired by Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
Sim: Oh, man! [Laughter]
S. Smith: I made this in second grade and my teacher — I went to Catholic school so this was a nun.
Sim: Yep! I get it!
S. Smith: Thankfully I didn't start talking about Temple of Doom too much.
Sim: She didn't know.
S. Smith: Yeah, yeah. But she was really tickled by this and she ended up making an art project for class. That stuck with me, that was a moment where I really felt that I created something that then she made into a project for the class. It was a moment of pride and creative fulfillment and all these things I certainly didn't identify then other than just being a happy kid. It was always this thing that I wanted to do. My parents would kind of encourage me but really more through the lens of a designer, architect, something that would be more of a professional path, more of a career in the true sense of the word. I thought about that but I ultimately didn't go down that path.
Sim: Yeah. So you were like, "Okay, I don't need a professional approach. I want to do the guts approach." [Laughter]
S. Smith: I have a little bit of a weird path. Not really. I guess it is, it is very different than most people. I did start going to college at a junior college, a two-year program, I was about to go on and finish my degree at University of Illinois. I started working part-time for a video game magazine called Electronic Gaming Monthly. It used to exist, I don't think there's any version of it or form of it in the world anymore, print. I started doing part-time work there and then I was doing full-time work there, and I was actually laid off because I was working on an early version of our website. It was way early for Internet gaming journalism. After losing that job, I was like, "Well, I'm just going to finish my degree," and then they offered me a job on the print publication — this was still going strong at this point, this is many years ago — and I couldn't say no. Even though I was very much a visual person, a creative person, how could I say no to being a game reviewer, a professional, legitimate? This was the biggest publication in video games at the time. One or two, depending on the month. I couldn't say no. So I tried it out and I was writing about video games and video game systems and accessories, etc.
Sim: How did your family take that?
S. Smith: Oh, they loved it.
Sim: They loved it? Okay.
S. Smith: Oh, yeah, yeah.
Sim: It was a legitimate professional thing that you were doing?
S. Smith: Exactly, yeah. In my mind, to be clear, it was exactly what it sounded like. I was in my early 20s, I was playing video games for a living.
Sim: You probably had friends going like, "Ah! How does he do that?!"
S. Smith: I read the magazine. My friends read the magazine, they were like, "What the…?" It was a really remarkable thing. I feel very lucky. I was very interested in writing, I loved communicating, I loved the medium. There was so much creativity in it, right? Storytelling, character art, illustration, etc., all these things I was already interested in so it was easy for me to take that very seriously. And then learned a lot through friends on the job who were actual writers and journalists. I stuck with that for six years, then I decided it was time to go. The dot-com boom was happening, it wasn't really going the way that I wanted it to, I didn't want to move out to the coast at that time. And I had this moment during a road trip — as you do — I had a moment of clarity with a really, really good friend of mine, John, and I was trying to figure out, "Am I going to go to another company and continue this career path?" and blah, blah, blah. I felt as if I was beating myself up so why am I doing this? And it just dawned on me that, "Oh, yeah! I could just go back and finish my degree that I never did and study Fine Art," and that's exactly what I did.
Sim: So you went back to school?
S. Smith: Yeah. I gave them six months' notice.
Sim: Wow! That's a good time.
S. Smith: I loved these people, many of them are still very close friends, so I didn't want to leave anyone high and dry. I liked the work, it just was time for me to do something else. A very hard decision but also very much the right one, I knew it in my heart. So I went back and I studied painting. It was during that time that I started really embracing. Obviously, I was in school and I was an adult. I had a job where I had money so I saved a bunch of money. I went back to school at Illinois State University. I had friends there and a lot of Chicago artists were teachers there who I'd known, because we're pretty much the same age at this point. It was really a wonderful time because I had virtually no expenses and I could just really focus on making work.
Sim: It's different when you approach school and university as a conscious choice after you have been working. I did the same thing. I went to school, I didn't finish and eight or nine years later I saved enough, I was like, "You know what? I'm going to just study comedy and theater because I want to." [Laughter]
S. Smith: That's awesome. There's virtually no distractions at that point, right? The only distractions are the one you provide for yourself. I definitely went to bars and went to parties and had a really good time. I was legitimately having fun but I was not trying to find myself in this sort of coming into adulthood way. What I was trying to find in myself, it was more of like fulfilling a promise in a way to myself, to study this and see where it goes. And then I started, during that time, getting my BFA degree, having a BFA studio at university that I had an opportunity to make these weird stuffed animal-like things that were extensions of my drawings and paintings. Which then, of course, became Shawnimals and started the website and so on. That's really where a lot of that began, as any body of work, despite it ultimately becoming a product too, that body of work devolved in a lot of different directions. As I grew, I just understood my aesthetic more and more.
Sim: Yeah. It's very clear and very defined. If you take a look at Shawnimals, I think there is still that love for the word or explanation or the back story that you're framing. [Laughter]
S. Smith: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I think for me, being able to tell a story and provide illustration and just this general sense of play. It's creating the problem and then solving the problem. I love that there's this thing that happens in your brain where you can kind of tap into both things. I need to populate a world because I created a world. Now, who's going to live there and why? And what are the relationships between these characters and how are they going to look? Why do they look that way? It's just this string of questions and answers but it's all make-believe, ultimately. There's a level of ridiculousness but for me, creatively, it's such a wonderful place to be.
Sim: It looks like you're playing a game with yourself a little bit. [Laughter]
S. Smith: Yeah. Well, there's that thing where — puns are wonderful and terrible, they're cringe-worthy things — but the pursuit of a great pun is such a wonderful exploit, however miserable it makes other people feel.
Sim: Shawnimals.com, there are these very cute and pop characters that are there. Over the time, I think you accumulated them and started to integrate these lands and to divide it into lands. There is a Bean Village and there is the Bean teenagers.
S. Smith: Yeah. The three Bean Teens.
Sim: The three Bean Teens and every character has a little bit of a pun, some of them.
S. Smith: Yeah, definitely. There's a lot of word play. I love alliteration, I love word play, I love juxtaposition of ideas or words that are at odds with each other but somehow then create something more when you combine them. Especially when you add a character illustration or some other design. I'm always very aware of a formula and I don't want to adhere to one simple formula to create everything that I create. So I will react. If I find myself going too far down one path, I will pivot to something else. Essentially what I found out after making a lot of these characters, I was simply adding a "Y" to a word. There's one character Nosey, was running Nosey or something. Basically, it was just a nose with feet and it was running away and I can't remember specifically why. But it's like, "Okay. Really, Shawn? That was the best you could do?"
Sim: "That's where you're going?"
S. Smith: Yeah, yeah. You throw a "Y" at the end and that's what makes it a name. But for a long time, I was doing that and I realized like, "What am I doing? I need to have at least somewhat more imagination." There is a simplicity to the names. A lot of that's on purpose and it's the same for the aesthetic. That I do want people to find themselves in it, I want them to project. So if I give too much away, if it was a very specific name and a very, very specific design that everything was told, it may still be wonderful and people may still enjoy it, but they may not necessarily find themselves as much or project as much of themselves. Obviously, being vaguely inspired by Asian pop culture in a lot that I do, I can't speak to the reasons for that aesthetic, that those artists and illustrators and designers made a lot of those characters, whether in Korea or in Japan. But I know that for me, I love that people can find themselves somehow and just make it their own, make up their own story. Whether it's my story or not is okay with me. The fact that they're making it their own is such a huge compliment.
Sim: Sometimes you need to detach yourself and take a look at what you're doing?
S. Smith: Yeah. I think that there's some truth to that. Kind of like what we were talking about with this idea of social media. But this idea of I'm just making something and then I just simply forget to put it on social media. Sometimes I worry that that's generational and then other times I think it's just because I'm in the moment. I'm doing problem solving and then I make something that I enjoy and then I move on to the next thing.
Sim: Sometimes it's just a flow and you can't interrupt it with that.
S. Smith: Yeah. It's not that I don't care. I very much appreciate people who interact with my work online and like it and comment, it's really an amazing thing. But I just forget. I just really like making things.
Sim: Are you okay with that? With just forgetting about social media sometimes and focusing on your work?
S. Smith: Sometimes. I think the down side to that is that we live in an age where whether you like it or not, it is important.
Sim: A one-person corporation for yourself and your job.
S. Smith: Yeah, right. Exactly. All the hats that you wear, you somehow have to… I think that's part of it too. Maybe part of it is it wasn't fully integrated into my childhood or in my adolescent years and therefore it is a mental shift for me to stop and do that. And I just like to be in the moment so since it's not integrated, it is a stop and I just don't always want to do that. So maybe there is this sort of latent reason.
Sim: How did you get in touch with Asian culture at first? Why do you say "vaguely inspired"? Do you have any reference?
S. Smith: Yeah, I know. [Laughter]
Sim: I don't want to say maybe like, "Oh, do you like Murakami?" [Laughter]
S. Smith: Right, right. Yeah. I think it's just this otaku kind of idea. I am not a fan boy, I very much love Asian pop culture, like a Japanofile or these sorts of terms. I would not consider myself that. I think the vagueness that I talk about comes from growing up with these cartoons and video games that were very much Japanese or Asian generally, but never explained. Because they were purchased or they bought the license to bring this to…
S. Smith: Yeah, yeah.
Sim: They get it and then they change the yen to a dollar.
S. Smith: Yeah, yeah. Exactly. They kind of whitewash it or sanitize it of a lot of the things that made it very much culturally Asian. The earliest example of that is Muscle which is Kinnikuman in Japan. These little pink wrestlers, very weird little creatures. Now, I grew up with them as Muscle and there was nothing that I knew of, back then it's not like you had access to the Internet.
Sim: Yeah, of course. Yeah, you just watched it.
S. Smith: Yeah. I'm of a certain age. There wasn't even a cartoon here. There ended up being, I think there was one, but I never really saw it. It was a Westernized, Americanized version of it. But loving them. I had no idea what these were about. They didn't have names that I recall but I loved them. They were weird, they were very imaginative, and they were little sculptural things that I collected. I don't collect things often but that was something that I very much loved when I was young. And they came in a little garbage can.
Sim: What? [Laughter]
S. Smith: Why, I don't know, but that's wonderful.
Sim: [Laughter] I think the name in Japanese actually means "muscle" or something.
S. Smith: That's hilarious.
Sim: They come out of the garbage can like, "Huh." So that was your first. Then after years, you recognize there might be a thing maybe.
S. Smith: Yeah. It wasn't until years later. Obviously, I played video games and so much of video game culture and the industry was very squarely Japanese whether people realized it or not. Now, of course, it's common knowledge. But back then, unless you were kind of hard core into games, you didn't really know. I had a lot of friends who did a lot of import games and you'd go to these import shops and you'd have to have the region unlocked.
Sim: Yeah, the specific console. What years were you working for the…
S. Smith: For the magazine?
Sim: For the magazine.
S. Smith: '94 to 2000.
Sim: So you were there for the best years? [Laughter]
S. Smith: Yes, yes.
Sim: '94, the PlayStation came out-ish.
S. Smith: Ish.
Sim: In Japan. It was later than that, but N64.
S. Smith: Oh, yeah. My first video game that I reviewed was Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals for Super Nintendo, which was one of the last games to come out for Super Nintendo. And then I worked at the magazine through the launch of PS2 in the States.
Sim: Yeah. And 1998 was the Dreamcast?
S. Smith: Oh, such a great system. I still have one.
Sim: Well, it's there. It's near the TV.
S. Smith: Right by Sonic. Perfect.
Sim: Well, yeah. Those were very Japan… You're right, they were very strongly identified. And some things in Dreamcast and Nintendo consoles, and PlayStation too. They didn't come out to the Western world at all.
S. Smith: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, particularly Nintendo. That was the most direct path to Japan.
Sim: For you.
S. Smith: Yeah, yeah. Just because there was clearly all the big names in gaming in terms of developers and sort of the creative minds were often Nintendo. And then you would look at games that would come out for Nintendo, whether it was Capcom or Konami, and it was like, "Oh! Yeah!" Yeah, I'm very much inspired by Japanese pop culture, squarely video games, and then vaguely through things like Kinnikuman and a handful of others.
Sim: What about the video games? What do you recognize now as interesting to you at the time? Like, some games that you liked. For example, I always go back to REZ or Space Channel 5…
S. Smith: Oh, yeah. It's so good. Yeah.
Sim: Just because I love them.
S. Smith: Yeah. Oh, they're just wonderful creative games and they're so different than the typical idea of a game, like a platform. Although I have a lot of love for platform, it's probably by favorite genre. So, early on, it was definitely things like going to the video game rental store where they had video games and renting Mega Man.
Sim: Ah, okay.
S. Smith: "What is this?" This wonderful character design, all these characters that were either good or evil even if you didn't interact with them. These imaginative if not incredibly frustrating and annoying levels that you died constantly on. But then ultimately battling these robotic boss characters and making your way to the final. There's this rich story that you only scratch the surface on. I was so curious about what this was. It was implying so much. It alluded, I should say, to so much that you wondered if there was this epic story behind this that was more like a Star Wars. But you could only get so far because they didn't have true animation and the audio was so rudimentary compared to what you have now and so on.
Sim: So okay, that blurry line between knowing and not knowing was there, was in those games?
S. Smith: Yeah, exactly. I just had this hunch, I remember having that hunch. It was true for Castlevania, particularly Symphony of the Night on PlayStation. That was the one where the art style, obviously, is very, very different than mine. Wonderful, absolutely wonderful and detailed and gorgeous. But again, this richness of story, this richness of character development. Such a wonderful immersive game that you could literally play for hours and hours. I think it was a 40- to 60-hour game for full completion.
Sim: Yeah, yeah. You worked with Rotofugi, Kidrobot, and also clothing lines…
S. Smith: Yeah, yeah. Mm-hmm.
Sim: This kind of work is taking life into physical products now for you. But you also create, work on some public mural projects, they're more exposed to the public community.
S. Smith: Yeah, absolutely.
Sim: I think I've seen one of yours at the headquarters of Cards Against Humanity?
S. Smith: Yeah, yeah. I have two now at Cards Against Humanity. One is in their Lego room because, of course, they have a Lego room.
Sim: Mm-hmm. [Laughter] The Lego room! Yes, the very important Lego room.
S. Smith: Yeah. Doesn't everyone have one of those? And then there's one on the exterior of the building as well. Yeah, it's part of this mural program they had over the summer of last year. Yeah, that was a really interesting thing for me because although I've worked in large scale in the studio on some paintings, I really hadn't done much in the way of wall murals or otherwise, particularly ones that are in the public. I saw a lot of stuff happening in Chicago and beyond, and I've always been a fan of street art and graffiti. Despite people kind of assuming that I was somehow related to that because of this pop art. And so many other artists that were involved in designer toys, particularly early on, were very much street artists or graffiti artists, putting up wheat paste and tagging and doing bombs all over the place, all over the world. So I think there was just an assumption that I was doing that in Chicago. I never fronted, I was very clearly like, "I love that stuff but no." I don't have the courage, I don't think.
But I also knew that I very much enjoyed what I saw. I think once I got over the bit of, like, a lack of confidence in myself. I was with my friend, this guy Brain Killer, and he invited me over to collab with him on this door, and it was a big door, we had to have a big old ladder and stuff. It was one of those moments where I was like, "All right. This is out of my comfort zone but I like your work. You're offering this opportunity to do this. The Threadless office, sounds great." So I did it and it was like, "Okay, that was much different than how I normally work but there's a lot that I liked about it, there's a lot of freedom. Way more physical than working in the studio on a painting." So I was kind of like, "I want to do another one of these," and I started letting folks know.
And I didn't exactly know where it was going to go yet. The body of work that I work on with the shapes in particular wasn't around yet, so I was thinking more in terms of the amorphous and blob shapes of Shawnimals and some of those characters and then how that might sort of represent itself on a larger scale mural. And then it was a couple summers after that that I started working on the shapes. Working in the space that has blurred lines is that at the end of the day, you're still a creative visual artist and bodies of work will develop over time. You don't have to just stick on one thing forever. So many visual artists do and I'm certainly not going to point fingers because people make amazing work and it can often be a similar same character. But I just know myself, and I know that for better or worse, I'm going to keep exploring things.
Sim: It seems a tough balance to find because you need to accumulate some sort of experience to be confident enough. Have you ever looked at what makes you interested in pursuing a switch or do you just wait for it to happen, like it happened with the murals?
S. Smith: I think for me, when you're pursuing something for a long time and you're iterating, it's like, "Have I exhausted it? Is it not providing me joy anymore? Is it becoming formulaic in some way, shape, or form?" And I think if we're truthful with ourselves, I think we know when we're done with something, truly.
Sim: That's very hard to be honest with.
S. Smith: It's so hard.
Sim: You just need to look at yourself and go like, "Fuck. I'm done." [Laughter]
S. Smith: Yeah, exactly.
Sim: It is a little bit sad partially because you're like, "Now I need to change again."
S. Smith: I know, I know. Yeah, and you can't force that either. People often ask, "Well, aren't you sick of doing all the ninjas and Ninjatown stuff?" I'm like, "No." Because I feel like despite doing a lot with it and having video games and so on, the story hasn't really been told. You know what I mean? It's been told but if we look at the creation of stories and how that narrative could play out and life as an analog to that, who knows where that could go? Because of that, there's never been an animation, there's really only one-and-a-half video games. Not to be too hard on the iOS Trees of Doom game but it's like an arcade game, so although there's a concept behind it, it's not an epic story. Whereas the Nintendo DS game was clearly a narrative and it was clearly a story of good versus evil and how that plays out, and much more immersive, relatively speaking, than the iOS game. But that said, those still I think in a lot of ways only scratch the surface of the stories that I have for Ninjatown.
Sim: So it's not complete yet?
S. Smith: Exactly. Therefore I will continue to do it. Now, if I do a little drawing or a painting or something, or include a ninja in a mural, that's just a fun little aside. I'm not going to try to make that more grandiose than…
Sim: Than what it is?
S. Smith: Yeah, exactly. That's fine. Those are just like a fun little scratch an itch for me.
Sim: But the video game, you mentioned one for iOS and DS. So those for you, they were definitely a different approach to just creating the characters themselves. It's different if it's a mural, it's an illustration, it's a video game, and you get all the different layers of narrative with that. At some point, you were working with DreamWorks?
S. Smith: Yeah.
Sim: On your website it says, "So, let's talk about that because that's an option no more," and that's why I'm asking, that's why I'm daring to ask.
S. Smith: Yeah, yeah. No, that's fine. There was a long time where I couldn't talk about it. I don't know technically, not to sound coy or something. But in 2011, DreamWorks called us on the phone and just called the office number and I thought it was a joke. And the guy emailed me his info while we were talking and that's when I knew it was real. It was a Friday and I know this because it was a couple days before my wife's birthday, and on Fridays during the summer, employees didn't work on Fridays. We had employees at that time. It was just my wife and I kind of doing admin stuff and I had this great conversation with this guy and got off the phone. And I just sort of sat there for a moment because it was like, "Wow. That was DreamWorks and they want to talk more about Ninjatown," and I just sat with my wife and we just kind of looked at each other for a while because we were like, "This might not mean anything, but whoa! If it does, this could be the thing."
So that was the start of a very long process that culminated in DreamWorks optioning Shawnimals. Not just Ninjatown but Shawnimals including Ninjatown. They flew here, we flew out there twice, we toured the studio, we talked with them in great detail about what could be. So the path would be to hit on something in terms of story that the higher-ups, up the food chain at DreamWorks, would be interested in, and if they were interested in it, then they would execute that option and then they would start on something. It would take a very long time. Friends who've worked in the industry for a long time basically said, "To get optioned is one thing, that doesn't always happen but it happens a lot more frequently than most people understand. To have that option executed, that's like winning the lottery." For them, for DreamWorks as a studio, that's a huge investment, potentially a huge risk, and it's a multi-year, potentially decade-long commitment, just the nature of how it works. And it's squarely relying upon not just the feature film or TV show or anything else they do, but the products.
Sim: It's probably a constellation of products, yeah.
S. Smith: Absolutely.
Sim: I was wondering. That can become anything. It can become a TV show, it can become a physical product that you sell in the store.
S. Smith: It could become a musical.
S. Smith: Like Shrek the Musical.
Sim: Yeah, sure. At that point it's the universe.
S. Smith: Yeah, exactly.
Sim: Of that franchise, okay.
S. Smith: It was a wonderful experience, it was a mind-numbing experience, it was highly contractual, it was a battle. We spent six to eight months on the contract, just negotiating terms. Mainly because we had in business for a while and we had stuff that we were doing that we cared about and wanted to continue in some way, shape, or form. Even if it was niche. It was difficult for them to understand why we'd want that but it was also difficult for us to understand why they would even care because it's so small by comparison. We didn't have a stalemate or anything like that, it all resolved itself. Perhaps it took too long. Who knows why things didn't progress? The economy wasn't great during that time either, they were suffering as a company. We weren't able to really innovate because we were figuring all this out with them.
It was a complicated time but it's still a wonderful experience. They paid us for the privilege of the option and it was certainly a validation of sorts. Because it didn't move forward with them — we worked with them about two years to try to figure something out — and it just was time to part ways. They could have renewed that option and worked on it for a couple more years, we would have gotten additional money, but they decided not to. So when it wasn't renewed, those rights that they'd kind of optioned were reversed back to us. So free and clear. So that's why in the website I talk to that because if someone wanted to talk now about a bigger license or optioning us for something…
Sim: That is on the table again.
S. Smith: Certainly, certainly, yeah. Here's the thing. What I created and what we created as a team back in the day, whether we realized it or not, was a huge portfolio of intellectual property that could be turned into a lot of things, whether that's animation, video games, or products, or all the above. I think because of that there's a kind of turnkey-ness about the Shawnimals world now, including Ninjatown. We're now working with a licensing agent, Surge Entertainment. They're working on getting us deals. Which is new, it's relatively new, but it makes sense because I needed some time off after all that option stuff happened. Creatively, I was just sort of a shell of my former self. We were having a child, just a lot of stuff was happening. It was too much, frankly. I had to take a step back from a lot of that. That's what I needed. At the time, it was super painful just to figure out what my identity now was and the fact that I wasn't doing the same thing. In a lot of ways, I felt like stuff was failing. The business, certainly creatively, I was feeling completely exhausted. I wasn't able to do what I would always do every day for the last 10 years or whatever it was. And what am I going to do now?
Sim: How did that guy? Well, it's a process, right?
S. Smith: Oh, it's totally. And then just like working in the studio, you can't force it, you just have to kind of work your way through it, however long it takes. Except it's harder in life sometimes, most of the time. Yeah, there's a lot of stuff that happened during that time. I wasn't trying to force myself but I just also didn't know what the end of that was going to be. So I just took basically 2013. Most of that year was me just kind of checked out, from March on.
Sim: Then you just restarted?
S. Smith: Yeah. I got a job for a couple years. So starting in 2014, I started working as a marketer for a web development company.
Sim: Nice, yeah!
S. Smith: Yeah. The thing is really great people, I really legitimately wanted to learn more about that, in the same way that I've been intuitive about my art.
Sim: There is a movement of skills, the market skills.
S. Smith: Yeah. I like to communicate, I like to understand things, I play this empathy game where I try to understand what you need and why. So it was really great traits to have as a marketer, and I also was the marketer for Shawnimals and I had a lot of success doing that. So even though working with a web development company, it's a service-based company, it's very different, they saw something in the way that I worked and the way I talked about what I did that was analogous enough to what they envisioned. Also an incredibly privileged position to be in, where I would luck into this job. And obviously, I'm very proud of the skills that I've developed, it's not like I was Forrest Gumping my way through life or something. But at the same time, I do also recognize that I was very privileged to be able to land on my feet in that way. So despite it being a very challenging year in 2013, into 2014, to be able to have a job like that that paid well and sort of learn a new skill and have the luxury of just getting back on my feet without being completely without money.
Sim: Yeah, of course. Basically during that time, you were able to survive financially and also you were working on a different side of yourself. It wasn't necessarily the artistic and creative 100% for yourself but it was geared toward something else while you were gaining skills.
S. Smith: Yeah, and while I was learning what it meant to be a father.
Sim: That's not a small one.
S. Smith: Right, exactly. In January of 2014, my son turned one. So very early but starting to sort of come into focus.
Sim: So you were becoming a father and getting a regular person's job for a while.
S. Smith: Yeah. You want to talk about identity, are we doing that?
Sim: That's the adultness moment. [Laughter]
S. Smith: I think there's a lot of truth to that statement. I considered myself some form of an adult. Supposedly.
Sim: The social archetype of doing professional, like, the thing.
S. Smith: Yeah, the kind of construct, right?
Sim: Yeah. Perfect, yeah. That's what we're talking about.
S. Smith: Yeah. I had an identity crisis because the thing that I did for so long, now I kind of couldn't do, or certainly not in the same way. I really couldn't do it because I was now a father and I was also now a marketer for a tech company, in essence. And this was an internal struggle, to be clear. Anyone who knew me was like, "You're still Shawnimals, right?" But I'm just like, "Oh. I'm not that anymore. What am I?" I was not trying to be angsty legitimately. It was actually a very dark period. I was very depressed and anxiety-ridden and had no idea what I was doing. I'm going to knock on wood and say that I hope that was my midlife crisis because if I'm still going to have one, this is going to be a problem. But yeah, that was really a very, very challenging time.
Sim: Sorry, because I had the same thought. A few years ago, I had a moment, I was like, "Man, if there is anything more than that, I'm not sure I can do it."
S. Smith: I'm good. I'm going to live on a mountain.
Sim: Nobody's going to ever see me again.
S. Smith: Yes, absolutely. There has to be a mountain somewhere just full of these people.
Sim: I was like, "Oh, you couldn't take it anymore? Come here."
S. Smith: We're not going to say words to each other because we don't actually want to talk to anyone anymore.
Sim: But you went through that period somehow?
S. Smith: Yeah. I went through that period. I learned a lot from the job, I knew when the job was coming to an end, I also knew that opportunities were coming. Everything was coming to a head where those feelings of wanting to be creative again were finally coming back. I was much more comfortable with myself as a father, I was more actively communicating with my son because he was talking to me. He could talk to me, he could communicate more. My wife and I were reconnecting, the bonds of marriage that were so difficult during those dark times for me that obviously affected her greatly. We were starting to mend those fractures in our relationship. I think because things were kind of getting the house in order, so to speak, I was able to start to start feeling creative. I wanted to be creative again. It wasn't just this frustrated desire. And don't get me wrong. Obviously, I still drew, I still made things. But it was a very slow, mostly inactive period.
Sim: Mm-hmm. It was a different spirit that you were coming into.
S. Smith: Very different.
Sim: Like a different spirit was rising.
S. Smith: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And then I started feeling good again and work started coming through. It was really during that time and going into 2015, 2016 is when I started doing a lot more murals. It was a rebirth and part of the rebirth was realizing that although I can be good at business, it doesn't mean that I necessarily need to focus on the business side, and in fact, I'm much better at being an artist and a creative.
Sim: Shawnimals. [Laughter]
S. Smith: Yeah, yeah.
Sim: Okay. So you're confident with it and confident enough to say, "This is not what I need to do. There is nobody forcing me to do this side, the business side."
S. Smith: Well, yeah. I think the other thing was a long time I was plush designer Shawn Smith of Shawnimals. Well, what is a plush designer? It's not what I ever signed up to do. I didn't know how to make vinyl toys. The people I knew who made vinyl toys, it was incredibly expensive. Well, what could I do? I can sell, I know how to do that. Well, I didn't know how to do that but I learned how to do that. And a lot of the stuff I was making were essentially pillow forms. It's not like it's some super-complicated pattern in a fully realized 3-D shape. They were essentially pillows. So I think there was this practical outlet and my aesthetic obviously lended itself to it, so that also worked.
Sim: Well, you have lumpy characters.
S. Smith: Yeah, very much. Yeah, they're literally little lumpy pillows, especially the early ones. Then that morphed into a product. I was artist designer, product designer, plush toy designer — whatever that means — and then losing that identity and then refinding it again many, many years later. Realizing that really what I always want to do is draw things and make things so I don't really care what form they come in. And if I enjoy murals right now and paintings and drawings, then why wouldn't I do that? Anything can come from that and this clarity of thinking may be more mature or something but there are people that are way better at making products than me, in terms of manufacturing. I can assure you there are people better at marketing them and they're a lot better at selling them, there are people better at shipping and distributing them. I realized that to me was the big paradigm shift is that these things that I could kind of figure out, and kind of do okay, why? At what cost? And the cost to me was always less time for creativity, less mental bandwidth for creativity, and ultimately not being able to draw and make things and work in the studio.
Sim: So how did you address that?
S. Smith: I stopped making products, it was very easy. Or if I did make products, they were simpler. They were stickers, buttons. But I also could license. Again, I had this big portfolio of things. I could go to someone who makes toys and say, "Hey, are you interested in making these?" and they would say yes or no. If they said yes, "Awesome! Let's figure it out." If no, I'm like, "No problem. I'm going to go back in the studio now."
Sim: So you learned to choose how to invest your time.
S. Smith: Absolutely. There's this impulse, I think, when you're an entrepreneur or creative whatever. There's a lot of terms, it's hard to categorize.
Sim: Sure. The person makes into the market things.
S. Smith: Yeah, yeah. Right. There's this impulse and curiosity and like, "I can figure this out. How hard can it be?" and it's like, "Oh, yeah. It's actually really hard." "But yeah, but this time it's going to be easier because I'm going to figure it out different, and, "Hey. High five." And part of that's being a parent, make no mistake.
Sim: How is it being a father? This is an honest question.
S. Smith: I love it. I was really torn about having a kid. Not because of my wife. We've shared so many things, we're friends as much as we are a married couple. So I was never in doubt that we as partners would work well together as parents, but it was more of this fear of the unknown, certainly, on some base level. But also the creative project and business of Shawnimals was my baby and I didn't really have. Hey, Brody. When you hear this later, sorry, buddy, this isn't anything personal. I didn't have that need, like some people have a need to have a kid. They have this desire to have a kid and I didn't have that. I felt fulfilled. There's a lot of questions in life. I didn't have everything figured out but I didn't feel like I needed that.
So I was torn. Through the process of talking with my wife and figuring out, and she really wanted to try to have a kid. Well, I don't know if I want to but I also know that if I don't go through this with her — it's not like I felt strongly against it — what is going to be lost if I say, "Yeah, I'm not going to go down that road"? Even if it didn't happen immediately, eventually there'd just be a really difficult conversation, it'd be a rift in our relationship. And I wasn't willing to take that risk because I didn't feel strongly enough against having a kid. So we tried to have a child and by gum, it happened pretty quickly. So then it was like, "Oh, wow. This is happening." That was one sort of reality and then moving forward to the first time I heard a heartbeat was another kind of plateau where I was like, "Oh, wow." It was a really wonderful and amazing experience to know that there's a child forming and that I had some little hand in that. It was a really beautiful moment. When he was born, I was there for his birth which was an epic and surreal, literally 48 hours of labor for her, and almost as much for me in terms of bearing witness. Not nearly as hard to be clear. Everyone out there, I'm not trying to…
Sim: Not to compare.
S. Smith: Yeah, there's no comparison. Mainly surreal because I was just up for so many hours, severe sleep deprivation, and just the fact that a baby is imminent was like, "Wow." But when he was born, literally when he was born, it was just this moment. It's like when you fall, the wind was knocked out of me. And then there's been kind of plateaus of experience since. Now, he's six and I couldn't imagine my life without him. It's really a remarkable thing. He is flesh and blood, he is very much both of us. Some of his personality is very much me, some of it's very much her, some of it is very much his. Like these ideas of nature, and nurture, and how they manifest themselves as he grows up. Because there's different stages of development certainly, and the version of him you know at age one month to one year to two years, etc., they're all different people. There's some common threads but they're very much different and it's remarkable and I never knew that. Now do I want another child? If we were younger, that'd be cool, I think it would be great. I think it would be really interesting to have a family, allow him to have a sibling, etc.. But at this age, no. It's just simply not in the cards. But I wouldn't change it for the world. I very much enjoy that identity.
Sim: How did you change through your work? How did you change as a person through being a father? What do you think would be the main different points from Shawn when he was 20 to Shawn now?
S. Smith: I think the biggest one for me is waking up. I wouldn't consider myself that I was too naive or too square. I think there's a certain level of naivety that I've maintained in my life in general but also creatively. But I think with that kind of comes this — not that it's a cool thing I consider myself square — but I just wasn't fully present, I wasn't fully grounded, and I don't think I even realized it at the time. There wasn't this thing gnawing at me where I was like, "I just don't belong." It was never that. I just was sort of going about my business and making these things and I never really stopped to consider, I think, just period. I didn't really stop to consider things often. I think then having a child, going through what I went through during that dark time when there was deaths in the family and there was other stuff going on during the same time my son was born, so it was a very dark period. But that experience woke me up. Two, three years of that, to be clear. It wasn't quick. But that's what I needed.
But coming through the other side of that, I really truly feel like I woke up. I have my moments of stress and anxiety just like anyone does but there's also this calmness that is different than when I was younger and I don't worry as much. I still suffer from FOMO now and again too. Which is especially at my age, I'm 43, so it's like, "Really? FOMO? Dude, you sure?" But it's true. But that's it. I'm often like, "No, this is what I'm doing." Something just feels different now. Maybe part of it's being kinder to myself about when I'm unable to do something, that I'm not freaking out about it, I'm not pushing myself to the absolute limits. In other words, harming myself, in essence. I think part of it is I want to be around for my son, I want to be around for my wife, and I want to be around for myself. I like what I'm doing creatively so why would I jeopardize any of that to push myself in some direction that I don't really feel strongly about?
Sim: This person I was chatting with, his name is Dave Vasquez, he was like, "The main thing for me is looking at myself and trying to honestly answer what do I want now. Sometimes it's money, sometimes it's family time. There is no judgment. And then I go like, 'What is the first step towards that?" It's incredibly hard.
S. Smith: It's so hard. But I think he touches on something really important, is that judgment. Self-judgment. I always think about it and this is complicated too, because there's so many stressors in life and there's so much noise everywhere. That's the next part of this episode. I think that I do often think about it… right? When you're about to fall asleep. Not when you're still too awake but not when you're no longer conscious basically. There's this twilight sage and I think that I often have really wonderful moments of clarity and it's brief and you may not even remember it. But sometimes I do remember it and it's like, "How do I feel about that right now?" and if I'm able to identify it, I often find that there's almost absolute clarity in that moment. When you have a moment when you can cut through the constructs, cut through the judgment, get to a place of clarity in the way that you're thinking about something.
Sim: Do you identify yourself as having any kind of spiritual approach or belief in life? It doesn't have to be religious, it doesn't have to be major or anything, but what do you make of that?
S. Smith: I am glad from a moral standpoint, when you cut through the complicatedness of the Catholic Church and Christianity in general, there's some moral basis that I'm glad I was privy to through the Catholic Church but I am not religious. I certainly do not identify as Christian or Catholic for a lot of reasons but spiritual, yes, absolutely. The world is amazing, people are amazing, the fact that however this all came to be is less important to me. What's more important to me is that we are all not the same but we are certainly all in this together. And the fact that all these things around us have been created is amazing to me. I don't really care about what kind of spirituality or how you explain it, but I just resign myself to the fact that it is amazing and there has to be something greater to the universe than this bookshelf from IKEA. That's wonderful that someone designed that, it's very nice.
Sim: Yeah, it's very green…
S. Smith: I just know that all the stuff that people are concerned about in life, that it may be very real to them and very important to them. Down to our essence, it's just there are so many greater things to worry about and think about. And I think that's where my spirituality — somewhere in there — my spirituality lies.
Sim: Awareness and delight in watching what's around you…
S. Smith: Yeah. There's a lot of truth to that. There's a holistic view that it's not just a singular thing, it's all the things combined.
Sim: In a few decades, what do you want to be able to look back at and go like, "All right. I didn't have FOMO on that. I cared about that"?
S. Smith: Yeah, that would be an amazing moment when I'm 73, "Ah. I didn't have FOMO that day. That was a good day."
Sim: [Laughter] What do you care about now? What do you want now?
S. Smith: I want to provide a really good life for my son. I want him to be him. I don't want him to be me, that's for sure but I want to be a shepherd to him. Pardon the Christian reference. I do want to help him understand the world and answer questions that he has honestly and provide a very broad world view. That he understands that Chicago or our neighborhood or that the Midwest is only one very, very, very small part of this world and an even smaller part of this galaxy or universe. To let his mind be as open as he wants it to be, his imagination to run as wild as he wants it to be or he wants it to. And then for me, I just want to be able to look back and see the creative work that I've made and feel good about it and feel a warm nostalgia. Not the kind of nostalgia that includes any kind of regret or the sense of missed opportunity or, "I really should have tried that." You can't do everything, I'm a realist in that way. But I think again, cutting through some of that and knowing, "What do I really want now?" And then fast forward those 30 years and say like, "You know what? I'm feeling really good about that."
Sim: "It looks good. It was fun."
S. Smith: Yeah, it was. I hope I have that level of peace at that age. That would really be wonderful.
Sim: Shawn Smith from shawnimals.com. Thank you, Shawn.
S. Smith: Thank you very much.