Mailande Moran: Writer, Artist, Website Designer

Creatives in Conversation: I believe that we can learn so much from each other and I am fascinated by the ways in which artists of all mediums move through the creative process. Each month I feature a different local artist as we discuss the challenges and joys that come from accessing and living with their creativity. 

Mailande Moran is an artist, entrepreneur, and self-described “creative weirdo.” Her career has been an exercise in understanding the intersections between art, business, and social change. She currently offers writing, speaking, web design, and illustration services as a creative consultant. In 2014, she co-created the first tablet classroom in a Kyrgyz village school; in 2015, she drew on the backs of all of her leftover grad school business cards and put them on Instagram (#TheBizcardProject), which ended up changing her life. She also co-founded Nakta Designs, a rug & interior goods company run by artisan women in Kyrgyzstan. Mailande earned her A.B. and M.B.A. from Duke University in 2006 and 2013, respectively. You can learn more about her at www.mailandemoran.com and follow her adventures on Instagram via @mailande.

You do a lot of different things. How do all of those different things interact and build off each other?

 I write for the Internet, things like websites or articles or blogs. I’m also an illustrator, and I make websites for people. In the past couple years, I’ve also started helping people de-clutter. 

In some cases, there are logistical ways in which those things might go together; for example, I might edit someone’s blog post and draw a picture for it. Or I might rewrite an entire website on an agency project and use those same skills to make websites for individual clients—things like thinking about how words appear on the internet and how people perceive them. 

I think a lot of that, including the de-cluttering work, comes from my love of editing. I’m always editing in my mind. And, in many ways, editing a bunch of words or editing a webpage or editing a pile of stuff is all the same thing to me. How do I take the material I have in front of me and reshape it into something that better serves its purpose—and better serves the person who is dealing with it? It’s all about trying to find the essential in things, the essential truth. 

You’ve been creating a lot of artwork lately. When did you start practicing visual art and what inspired you to go there?

If you’re thinking about starting a creative practice, I always encourage people to look at what they did when they were a kid. And I was drawing all the time. Reading or drawing all the time. Even in high school, all my folders were covered with doodles and lettering, I taught myself basic calligraphy in third grade when I was home sick one day. I couldn’t get enough of it. But I never thought of it as something I could do professionally. 

In 2015 I started the Bizcard Project, where I drew on the backs of old business cards every day and put them on Instagram. And it wasn’t even supposed to be a way for me to be an illustrator, it was just a way for me to get over my perfectionism and put more work out there. I wanted to get over my tendency to over-work things and never be done with them. So I created a system where I [couldn’t do that] over a period of 140 days—I had to draw in pen, I couldn’t start over, and I had to post something every day. 

That project was just for me. I didn’t think anyone would care. But they did. And that’s what launched my first commission: I illustrated a poem for my friend’s mom for Christmas. I was like, What? You want me to draw something and then you’ll give me money for it? It was a total surprise.

What does living a creative life mean to you?

 There are a lot of different ways to be creative and live a creative life. Because there is so much variation in there, I think a lot of being creative comes from the ability to be introspective and honest with yourself. It comes in finding the answers to questions like what is really important to me? And what do I want my life to include?

And I think everyone has something that’s uniquely theirs that they can offer. We are not trained to figure out what we want to offer. That’s not something that school teaches us. It’s not considered part of being an adult, necessarily. It’s something that you have to come upon yourself and decide to excavate. Some people have lots of different offerings. Some people have one thing that they love to do. And it’s all amazing.

I think everyone has something that’s uniquely theirs that they can offer. We are not trained to figure out what we want to offer. That’s not something that school teaches us. It’s something that you have to come upon yourself and decide to excavate.
— Mailande Moran

I don’t think you have to be a public person to be a creative. You can just make pots in your studio and never show anyone. But I think that giving yourself the space to be honest about what you want to experience making and giving yourself the time and space to do that—I think it changes you as a person. I think it helps you to see yourself in a fuller light. And I think that, in itself, is an offering. 

When you feel like you’re really giving yourself what you need, I think it helps you be more generous, grateful, compassionate and loving, so that you can give the best version of yourself to other people. If part of your creative thing involves sharing it, then all the better. And maybe not everyone likes it, but someone will. You will resonate with somebody. 

My favorite thing about being a creative person is that when you take a creative risk, other people see you do that and they think, if she can do that, I can do that. That helps us take that first step toward being honest and more fully present in our own offerings. It helps us see both ourselves and others as more fully realized human beings.

I love the idea of all that courageous energy making its way outward so that we’re all being inspired by each other. How can we get the country and also the world to value art and creativity more highly and what would it look like if we did?

Starting from what it would look like if we did: I think fulltime creators would be able to make a living without having to worry about it every waking moment of their lives. There would be more structures to support us—like, I wouldn’t have the worst healthcare in the universe (laughs). Anyone working for themselves has a lot of extra challenges because our world isn’t set up for it. Back in the day, [artists] had patrons. [Artists] had people that were literally sitting around watching [them] make stuff. [Today] there’s always this feeling of scarcity around it. 

But that’s such a mistake, because everyone has been moved by a piece of music or has read something in their life that’s changed their perspective. And that stuff doesn’t make itself. It frustrates me to see some of the most talented artists I know not be able to support themselves. There’s a lot around [this subject] that I haven’t solved. 

[One] way that we can teach people to value art more is to not give it away for free. But that’s really hard because if you’re just starting out,  there is some conflict in there. If you’re starting a new thing that you don’t feel comfortable with yet, it can be helpful to say I’ll try this out for free so I don’t feel a ton of pressure around it. But once you’ve got your skills and you can demonstrate them, stop doing shit for free. You wouldn’t ask a plumber to fix your toilet for free. Yet people can point to creative works that have literally saved their lives, and we still don’t equate creating that art with legitimate work. 

And don’t ask [your] friends to work for free. I am happy to barter. But my friends don’t expect me to work for them for free, and I wouldn’t expect it from them, either. 

The more you can create value that’s just yours and that isn’t filtered through a giant company that doesn’t care about you, [the better]. For example: having your own listerv that you send your thoughts to instead of using Facebook. Facebook can ruin your professional Facebook page in a second by using a new algorithm. When you have a direct conduit you can retain the most value. So start building that in whatever way is the least filtered or mediated by other entities. Keep that authentic channel, and [then] when you do write your book, you have an audience that’s waiting for it. 

And my advice for creatives is always charge more! Charge more than what you think you’re worth. You can always have a sliding scale, but charge what you need in order to buy some peace of mind as you’re working. 

Lastly, given the way the world actually is: don’t feel confined to one version of being an artist or creative. Plenty of artistic geniuses have day jobs. Plenty of people do many different things to support themselves and live their versions of the good life, the true life, or the life that makes it all work. Be patient with yourself, prioritize time for what you most want to make, and don’t fall into the trap of trying to live someone else’s version of how things should be. 

What are some creative challenges you’ve come up against and how have you moved through them - or have you?

Because my creative practice has been expanding— I started off as a writer and I accidentally started drawing, and now I am [also] working as a speaker, etcetera—it’s been an ongoing series of me being like, can I do this? Maybe? For me it’s becoming more natural to just jump off that cliff of I don’t know what I’m doing but I’m going to do it anyway. And I think that the step of doing it as a barter or discount—testing it out in a safer space—is really helpful. 

For example, my first time speaking professionally was at Duke University. Because it was my alma mater, they knew who I was. And I still worked really hard at it, but it felt like a safer environment. When you’re in that test mode, working with people you know well is really helpful because they can give you really honest feedback. 

There’s something scary about constantly doing more stuff that you don’t know how to do. And it’s both something that I love about my career and sometimes I’m like, can I just do the same thing for more than three seconds and not have to constantly be learning and feel insecure all the time? But I love expanding. And if my career remains as dynamic as I want it to be, then I have to always be learning and feeling like I don’t know what I’m doing. That growth feels exciting, but it’s also uncomfortable. That’s my main challenge: the discomfort that’s inherent in growth. But my desire for growth outweighs my avoidance of discomfort, so I’m just going to hope that continues to be true for a long time. Getting comfortable with discomfort is also helpful for general life, because being an adult is generally uncomfortable. 

[I also struggle with finding] the balance between my very Type-A everything goes in this stack self and my artist self that just wants to throw paint everywhere. One of them is like, you need to write out a schedule and the other one is like yay I just want to read! Also, the balance between wanting to have some kind of a schedule so I don’t have complete decision fatigue every day, but also not wanting to make things overly rigid because then why don’t I just get a normal job? If I am going to be so regimented that I feel trapped, then what’s the point of doing this? That doesn’t give me the space to make things.  

Mailande presenting a talk on curiosity at the  RDU chapter of the Creative Mornings  series. (Photo:  Miller Taylor )

Mailande presenting a talk on curiosity at the RDU chapter of the Creative Mornings series. (Photo: Miller Taylor)

What – or who – are some of your creative influences?

My favorite thing about being a creative person is that when you take a creative risk, other people see you do that and they think, if she can do that, I can do that.
— Mailande Moran

Honestly, a lot of my biggest creative influences are here in Durham. They are all in that process of crafting a life around what they do. That’s one of the reasons I stayed in Durham after school —because I was like whoa, there are a bunch of different people here who are all trying to figure out this stuff. And maybe we can figure it out together.

The first one that comes to me is Saleem Reshamwala, a videographer/storyteller who has been a creative partner for me for over 5 years. We have been able to help each other through a lot of different challenges. We have similar questions a lot. And he always reminds me to embrace what makes me weird and unique.  

My friend John Laww is a hip-hop artist, but he’s also been on this amazing journey in which he’s always expanding his range of skills. He’s a rapper, he organizes festivals, he does voiceovers, and he’s learning video production at the moment. He can do anything. And once he convinced me to film a music video for a song we did together in a swamp at 5 AM, which gives you a hint about how much faith I have in him! 

Justin Cook is a huge influence on me not only because his photographs are so beautiful, but also [because of how] thoughtful he is about the process. He sees photography as a force for social justice. He inspires me to find the why in whatever I’m doing.

Katie DeConto [founder of The Mothership Coworking + Event Space] is a musician—we sing together—but is also so thoughtful about building community. She’s someone who can basically convince me to do anything, and I think she contains limitless possibilities.

It’s so exciting, because so many careers are just being invented. And that’s why sometimes our parents might be like, what are you doing? and it’s also why a lot of systems aren’t set up to support us. So it’s super crucial to have people around you who are figuring it out. One of my favorite things that Saleem and I do is just set out an hour where we just get access to each other’s brain. [In that hour] I try to my best to make Saleem’s life better for half of that time [and he does the same for me], whether that’s editing a proposal, talking through a weird question, or figuring out pricing stuff. I’d highly suggest finding a smart, close friend that you trust and trying that out. But generally, that kind of support is why I love this local creative community so much. Everyone wants the people around them to succeed. 

I mean, there are famous people that I love too, but I’d just rather talk about people here. 

What advice would you give to someone who wants to be more creative?

My first piece of advice is something that we already discussed: look back on what you loved doing as a little kid, and give yourself more space to do that. Also, pay attention to how you spend your free time now. Like, if you have a few extra minutes, what are you reading? Where does your brain go when it has a moment to wander? 

Also, carving out some amount of time every day to write is crucial. I don’t even do this as much as I should, but it will always give you clues about what you need to do. Give yourself thirty phone-free minutes to do whatever you think is cool. Is it doodling? Is it writing? Is it breakdancing?

Once you’ve got your skills and you can demonstrate them, stop doing shit for free.
— Mailande Moran

In terms of sharing things you make, I think starting small is really good, and public accountability is really good. 

Especially for people who are older, it can feel really daunting to try something new. But that’s such bullshit. Some of the most amazing artists started when they were literally seventy years old. When you think about people like J.K. Rowling, the illustrator Lisa Congdon, Vera Wang, Ava DuVernay, they all started in their thirties, forties or fifties. Lisa, for example, started illustrating when she was thirty-one, didn’t start her career until she was forty, didn’t start writing until she was forty-one, didn’t publish her first book until she was forty-two, and then got married at forty-five. The longer you wait the older you’re going to feel, so just start now. Our culture has a tendency to idolize youth, especially with women—don’t get me started on that—but twenty-two year-olds are often idiots, so we need to start looking toward people who have more life experience and get them to try new things and share their stories.  But regardless of your age, you’re the person who has to prioritize what’s important to you. Nobody else can do that for you.

 There is a cartoonist named Tom Hart who was freaking out about a graphic novel he was working on. And he was worried that nobody would like it and then his friend Brian told him, “Tom, nobody is watching and nobody cares.” Of course, that’s not always 100% true, but the point was that we forget that other people are too wrapped up in their own lives to be too worried about what we’re doing. We downplay the generosity with which people are hardwired to look at each other. And we forget that we don’t have to please everyone.