When I met Aimee Sicuro at her Brooklyn apartment, her electric, contagious energy made me feel comfortable as soon as I walked into her kitchen where I immediately eyed the strawberries, nuts and various cheeses she had already set on the table for me.
The petite illustrator, dressed in skinny jeans and a soft flowy blouse looked like someone who paints regularly but also who knows when to enjoy herself. It was her idea we'd make it not just an interview, but a special Sunday brunch.
The friendly bright New Yorker welcomed me with a smile as she started to prepare the generous mimosas for our talk. Each layered story of how she struggled to find her way as an illustrator and the major life changes (including becoming a mother) she's had from one city to the next left me curious to know more. It was a warm day in May and the light coming through the wide set of windows in her living room transmitted the most tranquil view of nature. It all looked pleasing and vital to me. It was the room where Aimee creates and where her 4 year old son can also be found playing Legos next to her large drafting table. She works while her young son is in school, picking him up at 2:30 and staying up late after his bedtime to meet deadlines.
Whether it’s illustrating children's books, book covers, patterns for fabrics, or her daily sketchbook for her Instagram feed, Aimee manages to keep a steady, consistent message to her viewers. A hopeful, positive and playful tone. “I just finished a book that took me about eight months. Now I would like to explore new techniques, I want to allow myself the time to do that.” Sicuro took on the challenge of the ‘100 day project’ that many illustrators were already participating in, “It gave me permission to explore personal work and kept me accountable to friends that were also posting daily." she said.
“I just want to make things. When I don’t produce work I get depressed, I feel down,” she said.
The illustrations Aimee posts to her Instagram followers on a daily basis provide not only quirky, original and whimsical characters, but also hand written messages that give the viewer a real sense of her everyday thoughts. ‘Giving What We Hope to Get’ or ‘Start with One Mark’, are some of the many inspirational words she writes under her relatable vignettes. Her work has a genuine vulnerability that feels true when you meet her in person.
“I think I am a late bloomer. I think I am a person who has just never stopped trying,” she said.
Sicuro credits her independence and passion for her craft to her mother’s ability to raise her and her sister as a single parent. “She always believed in me, and was always supportive of my dreams," she says. "She taught me the importance of being determined and disciplined." Which might explain why the daughter of a culinary arts teacher with a passion for fashion ended up becoming an illustrator. "She was constantly reading Vogue and redesigning clothing patterns in the basement at night to better fit her body type and taste. She would always invite me to her sewing room after dinner and try to teach me the basics but I resisted. She should have pursued fashion design but claimed that it wasn't an option for her and she was encouraged to become a nurse or a teacher."
As much as she loved her family, leaving Ohio was a something Aimee knew she needed to do. "I knew at a young age I wasn't going to be a person who stayed in the same city. Ohio was a sports oriented culture, and I couldn't relate. I remember just thinking to myself; these are not my people. I don't really fit in here."
After college she took her first job at American Greetings in Cleveland Ohio where she designed cards for seasonal holidays. While working there she met an intern from SVA that was moving to the San Francisco area to work for a Japanese company specializing in Flash animated greeting cards. She offered to help Sicuro get an interview. Three weeks later Aimee found herself driving west for a new job and a new adventure. The start up company she worked for lost it's funding after two years and she found herself unemployed in an economic downturn that lasted for several years. Feeling lost and in a very expensive city, she decided to spend six months living and traveling in Europe with the remainder of her savings.
During this time she also spent time building an illustration portfolio in hopes of getting creative work when she returned to California. Eventually Sicuro did go back to California, broke but determined. She got a waitressing job at a popular tapas bar in the Mission district in San Francisco and started sending out postcard mailers. Small illustration jobs started coming in that led to bigger ones. Eventually after a couple of years of free-lancing during the day and waitressing at night, she realized New York was where she wanted to be, surrounded by publishing and a faster paced energy.
“NY challenged me in a way I never imagined,” she says. “I worked until 4 am waiting on tables at a bar with a bunch of actors and actresses who needed to support themselves as well. It was much harder to survive financially in New York and I started to crave stability and health insurance."
She eventually landed at a boutique design firm in Soho and took a job as a project manager. The companies owners believed that her illustration skills could be used for one of their leg wear clients, HUE. She was given a steady stream of free-lance packaging illustration work on top of her day job. This allowed her to save enough money after a three years stint to quit and try again to launch her illustration career.
“Looking back now I see how many dreams that I had in my 20’s and early 30's, I remember I used to beat myself up for not being where I thought I should be in my career. But now all of those experiences (good and bad) have given me a lot to say within my work. Lots of scars to tell stories about. She admits that if she wouldn’t have gone through those dark periods, she wouldn’t have been able to be so full of joy now, so appreciative and generous.
"It was a long road of being uncomfortable.”
If she had to give any advice to a young illustrator starting out Sicuro would say "try not to compare yourself to anyone, follow your own path and just keep going. It doesn’t mean you are failing if your work hasn’t taken flight. Maybe it's not your time yet, you might need to keep developing your individual voice. These are the things I repeat to myself when I feel stuck or disappointed with my own work. It helps"
Listening to Aimee's story made me realize as a creative you just have to be determined, work hard and not afraid to fail. Eventually, if you surround yourself with good people and keep challenging yourself, things will work out. It might not look the way you thought it would but maybe someday you will be happily sharing interesting stories over a couple of well deserved mimosas.