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Uprising: Wild Creativity and Unschooling with Sarah Kdosi


The VMLY&R West art director on the self-reliance, bravery and wild creativity that an alternate education and poverty taught her, writes LBB’s Ben Conway

Uprising: Wild Creativity and Unschooling with Sarah Kdosi

“My first inkling that I would end up in design was at the library. As an unschooled family of voracious readers, we spent a lot of time there, but I was only ever interested in the books with the beautiful covers. I knew I wanted to be a part of making the world more interesting to look at.”

An extremely talkative kid who was convinced that she was already an adult, Sarah Kdosi, now an art director at VMLY&R West (Seattle), knew her future lay within the arts from a young age. Growing up as “unschoolers” - a step beyond home-schooling that advocates learner-chosen activities as their education - Sarah’s family weren’t concerned with the traditional learning pathway that conventional school systems adopt.

“Getting a good grade on a test or memorising a set of facts were of no consequence to us. What mattered was that you understood the value of curiosity and the way that ideas can open doors to new ways of thinking.”

Thanks to the freedom of unschooling and having two poets as parents, she quickly became obsessed with art and poetry - having her first publication at around six years old. This creativity-first culture in her home allowed her to express herself and develop artistically, overcoming the financial difficulties that her family faced. “We were very poor but never lacked art supplies. We always had the biggest box of crayons and endless supplies of paper, plus we knew anything could be an art supply if you wanted it to be. We’d use those paint samples from the hardware store to make collages and rip up junk mail for paper mache.” 

She continues, “Growing up in a low-income housing area has been one of the most defining experiences of my life. It colours the way I look at everything in the world as well as my personal life. I don’t think I would have grown into the creative I am today if it wasn’t for the resourcefulness and resilience that were modelled by my community. To survive in America as a poor person, you have to be wildly creative.”

Taking her unschooling education and sharing her knowledge with the neighbourhood, Sarah helped run the local community centre for 20 years alongside other residents, becoming experts at their crafts and passing on their skills to the next generation. “That was home, that was family,” she says. “I wanted the kids growing up there to feel the same pride and sense of belonging that I did.”

After steering clear of mainstream education until adulthood, Sarah then decided to get a degree in art, primarily to “be in a room full of other artists and learn new things.” She studied graphic design at Madison College in Wisconsin, describing the “incredible”  experience as “hands-on, relevant and inspiring”, and Sarah takes great pride in how far she’s come professionally with just this associate’s degree as a ‘conventional education’. She says, “People often underestimate me, and I love proving them wrong. It’s a small win in the fight against academic gatekeeping and elitism. I wasn’t sure about the graphic design degree I was slowly working on until I took a class called concept development. It was all about conceptual thinking and blowing out an idea, stretching it as far as possible. I was hooked.”

During these formative years of her career, Sarah interned at a creative studio where she worked on a series of illustrations for a children’s theatre and first sensed she had found her calling. “I remember the light coming through the window where I sat drawing, the music the designers would cast, the brainstorming sessions, endless sketches and the overwhelming feeling of being in Oz - of finally seeing behind the curtain. It was magic.”

Back at Madison College, her favourite professor, Jorel Dray, then recommended that she apply for an internship at the advertising agency Hiebing; she was accepted, later being offered a permanent position as associate art director. Speaking of this time, she says, “The most important lesson from the early days of my career is to set boundaries. Imposter syndrome is the real villain, and listening to that voice can lead to doing unreasonable amounts of work to feel valuable. Know your worth.”

Interestingly, the process of landing her current role at VMLY&R West started from within the agency and was prompted by a potentially delicate, political piece of art that other people might have dissuaded the art director from featuring in her portfolio at all. “A copywriter [at VMLY&R West] found one of my illustrations on Instagram and encouraged me to apply. The piece they found was political and could be considered controversial or incendiary, the kind of thing some people warn you not to share if you want to make it in advertising. I think back on that whenever I notice I’m watering myself down to be more palatable. It changed my career not just because it triggered me to find this job, but because it reaffirmed that success comes when you’re brave and honest and do your work with integrity.”

Being an art director draws on Sarah’s “passion for storytelling and love for big wild ideas” and to this day, her growth and creativity is guided by the courage and self-confidence she acquired through her non-traditional upbringing. “Self-directed learning will always influence my art and development,” she says. “At work, I credit it for my fearlessness. I am not afraid of taking on a new project, or learning a new technology, because teaching myself is just what I do. That self-reliance touches every part of my life. I don’t wait for experts; I get things done.”

Because of her art director role, the young creative often finds herself mostly involved in the idea-creation process of a project. Despite loving this aspect of her job too, she admits that her ‘self-reliance’ and background in illustration can sometimes make it difficult to resist the urge to jump in and start crafting with her hands straight away - or to lean on the fine arts aspects of a campaign.

However, Sarah’s favourite moment as an art director is when she gets a big idea that excites her; one that invites her to harness her own visual skills to make others just as excited as her. In this vein, she recently worked on the ‘Quest Night’ campaign for Meta’s ‘Quest VR’ project, finding creative ways to introduce a VR game to an audience via social channels. “Meta Quest was an interesting challenge because it often required us to capture footage in the headset to edit into funny and engaging videos on social media. Getting scrappy and making things from scratch is always a fun challenge.”

Looking at the broader industry, Sarah expresses her excitement that leadership and powerful figures within advertising are being held to higher standards than ever before, when it comes to the representation of marginalised, underrepresented and underprivileged communities. Growing up in poverty and experiencing an alternative education herself, she praises VMLY&R’s attitude towards finding talent from less traditional backgrounds but suggests that the wider ad world may have some catching up to do. “My team here at VMLY&R West, Glen Scott, executive creative director, and Kyle Gracey, group creative director, are incredibly inspiring creative leaders,” she says. “One thing I love about VMLY&R is that we look for talent coming from unconventional backgrounds, like myself. The industry should take note and look beyond the ad school track to find new voices.”

When she’s not illustrating, creating and sharing exciting ideas with her team at work, Sarah enjoys taking advantage of Washington’s beautiful natural surroundings, as well as the creature comforts in life. She says, “I love hiking and biking around Washington, playing music, and cooking good vegan food (like kale from my backyard garden). On a random weekday night, you’ll likely find me in bed with my iPad, drawing while binge-watching the latest true crime documentary series. Also, we just put a hot tub on the deck — that’s great for a little midweek decompression!”

Also a musician in her free time, creativity is the heartbeat that sounds constantly throughout her life; each mode of artistic manifestation that she adopts intertwines and reciprocally inspires, feeding into one another. Most of her song lyrics, she says, start life as sketchbook scribbles and it’s not hard to imagine how her musical expression returns the favour, providing ideas and keeping the creative juices flowing before returning to work. 

What motivates Sarah’s drive for expressing the intangible through so many avenues of creative expression? “Endless curiosity,” she says. “About everything. All of it.”

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VMLY&R North America, Thu, 04 Aug 2022 15:40:00 GMT