June 3, 2013

A Crafty Life: Angeliki Jackson And AstrODub

This is Birdy27 and I'm stoked that June is finally here! I'm ready for warm summer breezes, free kayaking on the Hudson River, Shakespeare In The Park, skating season, and hanging outdoors all day. And I hope you're ready for another intriguing installment of the in-depth interview series "A Crafty Life." I'm having a great time interviewing talented artisans from the Etsy NY team and helping them share their stories. I try to mix things up a little, so this month I decided to focus--pun intended--on photography. Angeliki Jackson of AstrOdub immediately came to mind. The exotic Angeliki--with her trademark bangs--is a exceptional photographer, fine artist, DJ, and graphic designer. Through her photography and fine art, Angeliki explores the gritty yet beautiful world of urban decay and street art. I finally met the statuesque photog during the holidays and immediately loved her spirit. I knew that Angeliki had an interesting story to tell and I'm elated she let me into her world.

Like many New Yorkers, you weren't born here. Where were you born?

I am from a small island in the Aegean Sea in Greece named Chios. It is a great off-the-beaten-path destination with beautiful beaches, medieval villages, and amazing food. It has a population of around 50,000 people. My town is the second biggest on the island with 3,000 residents.

Wow! It must be incredible there.

It's pretty amazing as far as beaches and nature go. It's a great island to visit when in Greece. It's very close to Turkey, so you can kill two birds with one stone as there are day trips to Turkey daily.

You were surrounded by so much history and culture. How do you feel your formative years in Greece influenced your aesthetic sensibility?

My aesthetics are heavily influenced by my upbringing. In my fine art, the Byzantine influence derived from religious imagery. This imagery is very evident in the ornamentation of many of my pieces.

Also, growing up on an island that flourished in the Middle Ages and then was ravaged by wars, I was surrounded by stone, aged buildings, and a lot of ruins and abandoned houses with an abundance of texture and color.

You have a great eye, but I now see why you are so enthralled with decay and ruin. You must miss aspects of Chios. How often to you go back? 

I last visited in 2006 when I went to baptize my daughter Isabella. (She's now eight years old.) My husband Stefan and Izzy met my extended family for the first time. It was very homogenized community growing up, but that has changed in the past decade.

Isabella is great in this shot. So what ultimately brought you to the Big Apple?

I grew up in a society with very limited opportunities, especially when it comes to jobs. I left Chios after I graduated high school at 17 and came here to go to college. In the past 20 years or so that I've lived in the U.S., globalization has reached the island. With the current economic crisis in Greece, even if I hadn't left in the 90s, I'd be immigrating now. 

Did any of your family members relocate with you?

My parents had been traveling between New York and Greece since the mid 70s, trying to figure out where to settle. When I came here in 1990, I lived with my father and, a short while later, my mother joined us. They lived here until they retired to Greece last month. My entire family--aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.--is in Greece, including my younger brother.

You mentioned you came here to go to college. What did you study?

I have studied Greek literature, Latin and ancient Greek, attended Queens College for a few semesters, and eventually got a BFA in Graphic Design from the School of Visual Arts (SVA).

I love that you have a graphics background to support your photography. That background is evident in the "FWIS Geometry" photo. It's graphic and personal.

Heh! My stockings always make a statement. I wanted to showcase them in an Instagram, but there was nothing but asphalt and concrete around. I work in a very industrial neighborhood and see the same landscape three days a week. This photo is a perfect example of how I shoot. I observed my surroundings, took a moment to look down and reposition myself in the center of a Con Edison manhole cover, five feet from the entrance to my office, while on a ten minute break.

I can't believe this was a spur of the moment shoot--it's like guerilla photography. The design of the stockings match the manhole cover so perfectly. I have to ask you about your moniker. "AstrOdub" is such a cool name. How did you choose it?

I have been a DJ since I was 13 years old and through the years have taken different alter egos as stage names. "AstrOdub" settled in as my DJ alias in the 90s. Since the internet was popularized at the same time, it became my email address at Yahoo and it is now my alias in all social media, including my street art persona.

You do so many things! Do you still work as a DJ?

I love music so much! But I never got paid to DJ. I did it out of sheer pleasure. (I bartered with artists, though.) I did it regularly until I was five months pregnant with my daughter. It started to get harder to fit my growing bump behind some of the DJ booths. I still keep up with new music and discover old music. I mostly DJ at art openings these days because the club hours are not family-friendly.

We have a lot in common. My day job involves music, singing, dancing, and I act a bit like a DJ. Do you feel music influences your photography?

Music influences everything I do! [The lyrics in this photo by Radiohead.]

I find it immensely important to my creativity. I whistle while I work, so to speak. And I am very glad when I am able to listen to music when I do consulting. It makes the day go by faster.

Consulting? Is that your day job?

I am a freelance graphic designer. I have a steady gig three days a week working for a textile company in Richmond Queens. I'm very proud to be living and working in Queens.

Can you tell us a little bit about your "street art persona"? 

My street art persona is my avatar. A fantasy. If we were in The Matrix, I'd be AstrOdub, a femme fatale that could kick ass! If Christopher Walken had a female counterpart, I'd be it. [The quote in the first photo below is from the movie True Romance.]

 LOL! I can definitely image you that way. I see you're heavily influenced by film, too. How early did you start thinking about being a photographer?

I started taking photographs regularly in high school. At my foundation year at the School of Visual Arts, I fell in love with photography. I entertained making it my major, but since dark rooms and prints were expensive, I went into graphic design. So my training consists of two semesters in photography back when you developed your own film. That said, I consider myself a hobbyist and ultimately self-taught.

Interesting. I taught myself the basics of graphic designing and now make money doing it. Can you briefly describe your "self-education"?

Practice, practice, practice. The more photos you take of the same thing in different angles, the more you'll find your desired angle and establish a style. Observing other photographers' techniques can be inspiring. Apps like Instagram and EyeEm offer weekly challenges, which essentially are themes/tasks/projects to get you out there and shoot. I am also part of a local Instagram community--Instagram NYC--which is basically a meetup group of like-minded individuals (i.e., photo geeks). We take photo walks and exchange tips. 


When did you buy your first camera and what kind was it? What were your first subjects?

My parents financed my first professional camera for my class at SVA in 1996: a Minolta X-700, which was one of my instructor's recommendations. I mainly shot  in black and white. My subjects were commuters in the subway, nature, and family and friends.

We talked a little bit about your aesthetic sensibility. What are some of your other influences?  

I tend to photograph architectural details, all kinds of textures and urban decay. Lines, geometry, symmetry, and vanishing points are aesthetically appealing and interesting to me. 

Thanks to you, I now know that a vanishing point is "that spot on the horizon line to which the receding parallel lines diminish."

I love learning new things! Please continue.

The textures, colors and shapes of urban decay--be it graffiti or a weathered structure--capture me at a deeper level because they convey the age and history of a given environment. One can't help but wonder and imagine the stories those walls could tell if they could only speak.

Yes, I get that. When you see ancient architecture or even vintage furniture and clothes, you immediately wonder about the designer, the builder, the owner, or the wearer. It is clear your upbringing in Greece led to your fascination with the urban landscape, nature, and decay. Can you trace it to anything else?

I always had an affinity for paper collage and what can be achieved by manipulating and layering paper. In the same way, graffiti on a wall, a rusty bridge, and abandoned and forgotten structures are layers of history in the landscape of our every day lives. There is some insanely good street art out there, original pieces created and placed on a wall for everyone to enjoy.

And when this art gets weathered it becomes all the more interesting to me. In a graffiti piece the paint cracks and peels, someone tears a posted bill, someone posts or writes over something else adding or revealing layers and so on and so forth. Whenever possible I go back to see if something I have photographed is still there and whether it has changed.

Love this! What is your theory regarding composition?

Composing elements to fit an allotted space is one of the main principles of graphic design. It is the same in photography. Anyone can push a button and take a picture. Not everyone composes it. It's a matter of taking the time to study your subject, ask yourself what attracts you to it, and find the right angle to shoot so you convey what you saw to the viewer.

That is something I'm learning about as I take photos for my Etsy shop. I'm also learning that lighting is everything. 

Indeed. Good lighting and the right angle can make even the most boring subject come to life and ultimately produce a successful photograph.

The lighting in the "Industrial Workspace" image is amazing! Do you prefer natural (outdoor) light? Or do you prefer indoor lighting that you can control?

I always shoot in natural light--overcast days are the best--and do not like to use flash. That said, I would love to be able to control and manipulate light and one day would love to have the opportunity to shoot in a professional setting.

I learned the hard way that overcast days are best. You mentioned that you didn't have a dark room. How do you think photography has changed in the digital age? If so, do you miss the good ol' days or are you totally down with digital?

I never had any dark room experience besides my foundation year at SVA. I would love to have one, absolutely. I am totally down with digital, especially mobile photography. Ninety percent of my photos are taken with my iPhone. You cannot beat the convenience of an instant capture, being able to edit on the spot, and not have to schlep a DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) camera at all times. However, the phone lacks the quality of the DSLR. There are also other limitations including aperture control issues, lens versatility, etc.

I'm surprised you use your iPhone camera for so many of your shots. Depending on which model you have, you're talking about up to 8MGPs (mega pixels). Is that the minimum requirement for good pictures?

There is no minimum requirement for taking good pictures. I have seen amazing pictures taken with the first iPhone. It all depends on your style. The more MGPs, the more detail in your image. My iPhone has high-dynamic range imaging (HDR); however, my camera does not. In a low-light situation, my phone takes a better photo than my camera. For example, I took this photo when I went urbexing--"exploring urban areas generally off-limits to the general public"--at the Freedom Tunnel. Light is very limited there.

I don't have an iPhone, but when I get a new phone, I'm going to think about the camera in a whole way. And I might even go "urbexing" for my next photo shoot. When you do use a DSLR camera, what kind of camera do you use? And, for the amateur photog, what is the key to taking great photos?
My DSLR is the first one that SONY produced, the Alfa a 100. It is 10MB and came with an 18-70 lens. I have been faithfully using it for the past eight years and only recently bought a fixed 50mm lens for it. It's very basic, has no bells or whistles (no video capture, no LCD display). It's the closest thing to my manual camera as far as operating it, but with the convenience of digital. To the folks like me out there that want to buy a DSLR but can't afford the Canons and Nikons, just remember: It's your eye that ultimately takes the picture. Your equipment can only get you so far. A good lens is very important, using the rule of thirds, always have the grid and HDR on your device, and compose, compose, compose. Don't just shoot!
I'm so relieved. Last year when I needed a new camera, I wanted a DSLR badly. The cost, however, was prohibitive. But you're saying I can get the job done with just about any camera as long as I have an aesthetic that works. Excellent! What is your biggest seller?

It's probably the photo on the Woodside No. 7 train platform with clouds around sunset (Woodside Clouds). It seems that everyone who has bought that picture has a special connection to that station. It's great to hear from the customer why this photo is so special to them.

I like this one, too, even though I don't know that particular station. I like the off-center vanishing point. Where in Queens do you live? Do you have a dedicated studio? What is your work space like? 

I live in the Briarwood section in Jamaica, Queens, in a two-bedroom apartment with my husband and daughter. No dedicated studio space. I have spray paint and block prints in the kitchen, my working surface is my dining table, and I have two armoires full of working and potential art supplies. It's tough to operate as an artists when you have to lay everything out and clean it up immediately afterwards. It really messes with the creative process which is why I work in small scale.

I understand completely. My living room used to be just that. Now it's my studio and, unfortunately for my living room, I like to have my tools an projects handy. So it's taken over by yarn, projects in progress, my mannequin head, a dress form, my laptop, tools, etc. Let's switch gears a bit and talk about social media. How do you deal with it? Has it helped your business? Do you long for the days when you didn't need to spend time on all the different social media sites? Or does this energize you? 

I started with My Space then moved to Facebook, then Twitter, and then Instagram and Tumblr. I don't have much time to spend on social media. Thanks to Instagram's push feature, my posts are mirrored on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Flickr. My popularity on Instagram has not boosted any of my sales unfortunately, but I get other perks from time to time like a free ten-day all inclusive trip to Israel last summer, a New York Rangers playoff game backstage tour, going to the MET museum when it was closed, shooting for Panasonic at the U.S. Open, an exhibit at the W Hotel in Times Square, a lecture on mobile photography at the Apple Store, and many more. 

Nice perks indeed. This brings me to time management.  How do you manage your time?  Do you spend, like, 75% on the actual photography portion and 25% on everything else?

It's a wonder I can get anything done! I work 9-5 three days a week. I take my daughter to after-school activities on Mondays and Wednesdays. I also cook every day, clean, and do the laundry for my family. I wish I had more time to spend on my photography, art, and urban exploration, and I do just that whenever possible. I don't take many pictures and, with time, I learned to edit as I go along, sort of like shooting with film. I hear of people shooting thousands of photos at an event. Somehow I can't do that. I shoot what I find interesting, not everything. But everybody has their own way of doing things.

I like that. Doing more doesn't necessarily mean higher quality. What do you do when it all seems to be too much?

When life gets too much I take my camera and ride to 5 Pointz. That's how this whole "I gotta go take some pictures" startede first place.

Now I'm going to have to check out the 5 Pointz Aersol Art Center. You have a varied product line. Please tell us about what you offer.

I sell photographic prints in various and custom sizes, repurposed cigar boxes that feature my photography, journals for charity that feature my photography, tote bags, and calendars. I just debuted my new black and white 2014 calendar in my Etsy shop! (All the photos were taken on my iPhone.) For my fine art, check out my other Etsy shop, In Stitches.

Thanks for announcing the calendar debut in this interview. Do you sell at craft fairs?  If so, approximately how many per year?

I did craft fairs regularly for the past four years. I only do two a year now. The craft fair thing was not profitable for me and it was not worth the time away from my family.

That makes sense. I, too, am trying to do craft markets in a smarter way--again, quality, not quantity. I struggle with this, though, because I think that people really need to try on my hats, scarves, ear warmers, etc. They also like to feel the items and that means in-person contact. So selling online may not work well for my crochet and knit items. What about you? Do you think people are best served by seeing your work in person?

As far as my fine art goes, yes. It has to be seen and touched. Photo prints not so much. They look the same online or in person. Only the size only changes.

Yes, you're right. My handmade items sell well in person and my graphic designs sell easily online. Do you have any wholesale accounts?

I have one for my fine art and one for my photography. The product moves slow, but it's nice to have it out there.

No matter how much you sell on your own, being in a store is great validation. Marketing is challenging for most creative artists.  How do you approach marketing and advertising?

I don't have much money to spend in advertising so I market myself the best I can. I am always thinking of more ways to reach an audience online, but let's face it, it's very competitive out there and unless you have a big advertising budget it's hard to stand out. I do my social media thing, send some Mail Chimp blasts every once in a while, and did craft fairs for a while.

You offer fine art as well as photography and photo-related items. How do you approach pricing for the different arms of your business?

All my "In Stitches" cards are original one of a kind pieces of art. Each of them takes me an average of 1.5 hours to complete and I couldn't even sell them for $12! That's when I decided to try to capitalize on my photography. The overhead is reasonable and it takes almost no time to produce compared to fine art. My photography sold better than my fine art, but not well enough to make a living out of it.

Stefan and Izzy must be proud of you. How do they help you? Do you have any pets? 

Yeah, they are. I wouldn't be able to pursue any of my hobbies without their support and my husband's chauffeuring and babysitting. I am very grateful to have them in my life. We recently adopted a gray tuxedo cat that came with the name "Dante."

Nice. It's wonderful when you have a supportive family. Where do you see your business in 5 years?

It is very difficult predict an art/novelty business in a fluctuating economy. For the past 3-4 years I tried new products, vended at pretty much every market in NYC, and placed my product in consignment shops. It was not enough to get by, so I had to go back to being a graphic designer and took a 9-5 gig. Needless to say, that does not leave me much time to create. However, I am redoing my business plan and focusing on selling on more online outlets and vending at art-specific markets--which are very rare in NYC. I am returning to the Better Than Jam’s pop-up shop on Governor’s Island this summer with a pretty eclectic collection of photographs, where I will also be offering  a free workshop on making collage postcards. The new 2014 calendar will be available there, too.

I hope you do really well on Governor's Island. Well, it's time for my last question. How has being part of the Etsy NY team helped you?

It has helped me immensely as a business advice resource, a materials resource, and for vending opportunities. On a social level, I have made some great acquaintances. I love being part of Etsy NY and try to give back to the team as much as possible.

Thank you, Angeliki, for an incredible interview! I learned a lot. You are a gifted artist and a wonderful person. I have no doubt you will be hugely successful in the near future.

The fourth of July is on the horizon and so is another exciting installment of "A Crafty Life." I hope you've enjoyed meeting some of our team artisans. These interviews aren't like the four-minute fluff segments you find on your favorite morning TV shows. We go deep here at ACL! Our amazing artisans need your support, so don't just read the ACL interviews. Comment below and share the ACL series with your friends, tweeps, and family. This is Birdy27 signing off. Please support the handmade community. Successful creative artisans change change the world! Chirp, chirp!

Birdy27 is an actor/writer/singer/songwriter/graphic designer/
knitter/crocheter/yarn-based accessories designer/jewelry maker/entrepreneur and founder/president of Birdy27 Designs. Please join the action at the Birdy27 Designs Facebook Fan Page


Anonymous said...

Awesome interview!


Metalicious said...

Great interview, love Angeliki's work!

Simone said...

This was so wonderful. Thank you for a truly inspiring interview.