Designing costumes for Lady Gaga didn't lead to this artist's big break. A website did.
'For someone who's part of a marginalized community, I feel like I'm finally being seen.'
Artist Fin Lee was living the not-so-glamorous freelance life, when they got the gig of a lifetime.
In fact, if you watched the 2016 Grammys, you probably saw their work. They designed and illustrated the costumes Lady Gaga's backup dancers wore during her tribute to David Bowie.
After years of struggling to catch a big break, Lee (artist name: Lostboy), who identifies as queer and uses they/them pronouns, finally got a foot in the door.
You'd think designing costumes for Lady Gaga would be a career-changing milestone. But that's not how things went for Lee.
Lee continued to get the occasional illustrator job, but still had to work as a barista to make ends meet. Occasionally, they'd be in the running for a big, exciting gig again, only to watch as someone else got the job instead. Lee noticed a troubling and frustrating pattern to who that "someone else" often was. Though not always the same person, these artists had a few traits in common — namely, they were male, and often white, straight, and cisgender too.
"I think the way our society is — we’re used to seeing a certain type of person in a certain type of field," Lee explains.
Employers or potential employers often aren't aware they might have subconscious biases influencing their hiring process, but the data doesn't lie. This is a problem.
According to a study recently published in the American Sociological Review, white men are more than three times as likely to get called in for a job interview than a woman with the same qualifications. And that discrimination gets exponentially worse for transgender women.
So where do you go to find work when a potential employer's subconscious biases about who you are prevents them from seeing the good work you're capable of doing?
The turning point in Lee's career came when they became an early user of a new website called Women Who Draw.
Women Who Draw is a database of artists designed to give marginalized artists visibility and a deeper sense of community in a competitive field. The website specifies that it is "trans-inclusive and includes women, trans and gender non-conforming illustrators."
Lee was brought on as a beta tester by one of the site's creators, San Francisco illustrator Wendy MacNaughton. MacNaughton, together with fellow creator and artist Julia Rothman, hoped Lee, a queer Asian artist, could offer advice on how they wanted to see the site operate.
Lee happily obliged. "It's the first of it’s kind that I’ve seen where it’s so inclusive," Lee says.
“Women [on the site] can choose how they want to identify in terms of their race, orientation, location, religion," says MacNaughton. "There are many other ways people identify, but those four seemed very relevant in terms of visibility, and useful for art directors when they’re looking for specific people who might have specific experience, expertise, or perspective."
For employers who want to hire more diverse illustrators, Women Who Draw is an incredibly helpful resource.
Heather Vaughan, an artist and art director for a gaming company, explained over email that "[Women Who Draw] actually came at a really great time. She says she was "specifically looking to find female artists to work with ... since women in games are an even smaller group."
Today, Women Who Draw features over 700 artists, with portfolios that are an incredible representation of diversity, both artistically and demographically. Gracia Lam, who is Asian-Canadian and identifies as gay, says that Women Who Draw makes it so much easier for clients to choose illustrators who can help tell "fuller, more well rounded" stories.
Similarly, Annelise Capossela, a Brooklyn-based illustrator, says that Women Who Draw helps art directors who are looking to diversify their hiring pool and make the conscious choice to search for illustrators and artists who have "uniquely personal insight into certain topics or experiences."
Shortly after Women Who Draw's public launch in December 2016, Lee got their first big editorial job.
On Christmas Day, Lee got a call from Rodrigo Honeywell, the Art Director of the travel section at the New York Times, offering Lee an opportunity to illustrate the feature image for an upcoming article.
Honeywell found Lee through Women Who Draw's database.
Lee has also seen a major uptick in visits to their website since WWD's database launched — over 600 hits on the first day alone.
Lee has come a long way in the year since the 2016 Grammys. But it was Women Who Draw that really helped them open the door to a full-time career as an artist.
Thanks to all the exposure from Women Who Draw, Lee now has a full-time job with an illustration agency that represents artists. They no longer have to serve coffee.
While that's great news for them, equal opportunities for artists like Lee may diminish under a Trump administration. There couldn't be a better time for a site like this.
"For someone who's part of a marginalized community, I feel like I'm finally being seen," Lee says.