Putting Ann Arbor artists on the payroll

Ian Nagy was 18 years old, with just one year of school at Eastern Michigan University under his belt, when he "practically begged" for a job as a staff artist at Zingerman's Deli. Twenty-four years later, Zingerman's has swollen to an empire of 10 businesses, and Nagy is still working full-time churning out the unique visuals that define them. 

Does he feel fortunate?

"Oh my God, yes," Nagy laughs. "Talk about a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

Whether you're looking at a business titan like Zingerman's or not, finding a staff position outside of a creative services firm is an uncommon proposition for Ann Arbor-area artists. Most businesses, even those who rely on a distinct visual branding, still tend to rely on freelance creatives. Ypsilanti artist Kristen Drozdowski has designed everything from wedding invitations to T-shirts to chalkboard displays for Ann Arbor gift and stationery shop Rock Paper Scissors since owner Lisa Roberts hired her part-time in 2013. Drozdowski says she scored that opportunity by diligently networking and marketing herself at craft fairs.

"It's not very often that people are looking for an artist if they only have one or two people," Drozdowski says. "I wouldn't say that it's super-rare, but it's not the easiest job to find."

In their time on staff with their respective employers, Nagy and Drozdowski have both found a variety of benefits. Coming to Zingerman's almost straight out of high school, Nagy says his "goofy and cartoony" artwork won his employers over, but he still had a lot to learn. Although he's continued to take classes at EMU over the years, he says he's learned much more just from being around his coworkers in Zingerman's 11-person creative department. In his early days, Nagy says that included some pretty basic lessons.

"I remember doing a sign and I had worked really hard on it but I was like, ‘Why does this suck so bad?'" he says. "I realized it was just because there was no hierarchy at all. I didn't know what I was doing."

Drozdowski says her time at Rock Paper Scissors has been useful for the learning experience of working on some new kinds of projects, but she particularly values the close relationship she's developed with Roberts. Whether throwing together a quick design for a social media post or working on a product for the store, Drozdowski says the one-on-one connection with her employer makes projects flow much more smoothly than in a freelance gig.

"[Roberts] can tell me some details about a project and I know exactly what she's talking about because we've worked together so much," Drozdowski says. "I know what she's looking for and she knows what to expect from me. I just think that's a huge benefit."

From the Big Apple to Tree Town

Although Rik Cordero recently moved to Ann Arbor from one of America's biggest artistic centers, he's found some unique surprises of his own working here in a staff creative position. Until this summer Cordero had spent his entire life either living and/or working in New York City, where he directed music videos for major acts like Asher Roth and Nas and commercials for clients including Levi's and MillerCoors. When he first began getting into making music videos in the mid-2000s, Cordero says he was interested in combating the "materialism" and wasteful spending he saw in a lot of mainstream videos at the time. But as YouTube and video "content" in general became big in the late 2000s, the kind of work Cordero's clients were looking for changed even more drastically and Cordero began to sour on New York's creative scene.

"The push for more content started to overtake the need to tell a story," he says. "Creativity started to dwindle, in my opinion, because there wasn't a need for it. For me it was a little disappointing to see video as more just a corporate thing."

In addition to that shift, Cordero found himself taking on extra freelance work on the weekends just to support his family (he and his wife have a six-year-old daughter). Seeking better quality of life for the entire family, Cordero began investigating Ann Arbor because of its proximity to Detroit, his wife's hometown. Through Elena Chesney, an admin of the Ann Arbor Mamas Facebook group, the Corderos connected with Linh Song, wife of Duo Security CEO Dug Song. Cordero interviewed with Duo and scored a job as the company's senior media producer just the week before he and his family moved to Ann Arbor in July.
Cordero says the Ann Arbor community in general –and Duo in particular– reflect some of the values he found lacking in New York. He says he's been impressed with his new employer's embrace of creativity –as seen in the humorous promo video Cordero directed for Duo's car security system, in which a man blows up his own car to deter a hacker.

"The skill set of everyone on our team is as good as, or maybe even better than, some of the creative agencies that I've worked with in New York," Cordero says. "That was something that was really surprising to me –not that I didn't think that kind of creativity existed outside of New York, but I think it was interesting to see it happen in a tech company."

And perhaps most importantly, Cordero says the move has allowed him to recalibrate his work-life balance, freeing up more time not only for his family, but for his own personal creative projects. Cordero says he recently participated in the Ypsi24-Hour Film Shootout,the first such film challenge he's entered, and was immediately struck by the "camaraderie" he discovered in the Ann Arbor-Ypsi creative scene.

"It was raining and cold that day, and we were all here just to do something, just to tell a story and express ourselves," he says. "That was a really cool feeling. That's when, right away, I knew that this was a different place. I was searching for this place in New York and I couldn't find it."

Duo Security "Spray Skating" featuring CEO Dug Song from Rik Cordero on Vimeo.

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and a senior writer at Concentrate and Metromode.

All photos by Doug Coombe .

LIKE us dang-nammit! Our Facebook page is here so show us a little like. OR follow us on Twitter @ConcentrateA2
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.