Bailey Sullivan, 30, has been putting her personal stamp on her work since she was a yearbook student at Pine Tree High School. This month, the KC dual credit alum and graphic design professional, is seeing her work sent around the country, via the U.S. Postal Service.
Sullivan has designed the U.S. Post Office’s seasonal “LOVE” stamps for the past two years. Last year’s design was a “colorful and lighthearted digital illustration,” according to the postal service website. The art featured the word ‘love’ and three large hearts “in an unconventional palette of color duos, strikingly set against a dark blue background.”
The new 2022 stamp leans more toward classic European folk art with colorful blooms and curling vines. It comes in teal and coral and is being sold as a Forever stamp (58 cents in a sheet of 20). Its first-day issue was January 14 in Romeo, Michigan.
Sullivan, a freelance illustrator and muralist in Poconos, Pennsylvania, finished a semester’s worth of work at KC while attending high school. She then transferred to University of Texas at Austin where she studied advertising art direction. Upon graduation, she moved to New York City where she did studio work for five years.
She recently joined us for a Q&A about her educational journey, the creative process and her works in progress.
When did you become interested in art? What was the first piece you remember creating?
I think growing up I always had a knack for creative things but was never really an artist. I didn’t take art classes in high school or college and still can barely draw to save my life. I really got into my career in illustration through graphic design. I did yearbook in high school and totally loved it and sort of immediately knew that using those computer design programs was something I wanted to ultimately do in some capacity. Even though what I do now isn’t quite the same, it introduced me to the Adobe software that I still use every day and helped build basic design skills. I just loved spending time in yearbook class playing around with techniques and fonts and editing photos. Seeing any of the work I did back then now would make me want to hide behind a rock, but that learning and exploration was super critical!
Also, my mom will deny it, but she’s a huge inspiration for me. She has no real background in art, but growing up she would always paint murals in our playroom and make custom woodcut gift favors, and put together crazy creative birthday parties for my sister and me. Looking back, I think growing up with that example of someone who would get an idea and then figure out how to make it happen in whatever way you can, even though she wasn’t a career artist or muralist, was something really formative to the way I approach creativity.
At what point did you think you could make a living as an artist?
I think just sharing my work and process and refining my style over the years has helped me build a community of people who are interested in what I do and gave me the confidence I needed to feel like I could really make illustrating purely in my own style work as a career. For a long time I was just sharing personal projects I did on the side because I liked those so much more than the client work I was making working full-time. My first big freelance client was around 2016 when I did a gift card for Lowe’s. I had no idea what I was doing at the time, had terrible communication skills, way undercharged them and was just a nervous wreck! But I feel like that’s when I realized real brands were recognizing me for my style and perspective and this could be something that I can make work.
How did dual credit courses at KC support your path?
I took dual credit government and history over a summer. I have some fun memories of car pooling with friends from Longview to Kilgore for class. My senior year, my English class with Miriam Lancaster was dual credit but taken at Pine Tree High School. I don’t believe she teaches at Pine Tree any more but she is one of the teachers I remember most from all of my years in education.
For me, getting into the routine of driving from Longview to Kilgore and being totally responsible for getting there and getting the work done was definitely a helpful step into preparing for college life, whether it be at a junior college or university. I’m super grateful to have had the opportunity to do dual credit and knock out some of those core courses ahead of time so I could focus more on the classes that interested me when I got to UT. I didn’t realize until I started school that the first year or two are really about university-wide core classes like math and science, so the more you can do ahead of time to earn credit for those is really a huge help.
As a first-generation college student, how were you able to adjust to life away from home?
Moving to Austin was a bit harder than I expected and something I don’t think anyone can really fully prepare for. Academics came to me pretty naturally in high school but suddenly I was taking really challenging classes I knew absolutely nothing about. It takes a lot of self-discipline, and it’s just naturally a hard year emotionally transitioning if you’re homesick; but at the same time that first year was one of the most fun, interesting and exciting times of my life. I struggled a bit academically my first semester but was able to adjust my study habits and my expectations and bounced back the next. The first few months are a pretty crazy transition so if anyone else goes through that, I’d say cut yourself some slack and don’t give up - just learn from it and figure out how to move forward.
I think in order to be successful in school it takes a lot of self-motivation since you’re going out on your own and taking the time to figure out what classes you need. That is just the first of many things that you’ll be responsible for. I imagine a huge benefit of starting somewhere like KC though is having more direct access to mentors and people who can walk you through these new processes step-by-step versus a large university where there simply isn’t enough staff to dedicate a lot of individual time to every student.
How did the university experience shape your creative future?
I look back at my time at UT all of the time and feel like it will forever be one of the greatest periods of my life. There were highs and lows for sure but I feel like that’s when I was really able to figure out who I am as an individual, develop my style, form friendships with people who had similar interests as me and experience so many things I never had access to at home. I was lucky enough to be accepted into a really wonderful program within Advertising called Texas Creative, which was a program that focused specifically on copywriting and art direction and really I think the propeller to where I am today. Not a lot of students were admitted to the program so because it was such a small group of us we really got that individual mentorship that I wasn’t getting in any of my large lecture classes. Those teachers took us on trips, (such as to San Francisco to visit agencies), would bring industry professionals into class to network with us, help us get jobs after graduation, etc. That’s really what I loved about school, and the faster you can get through those basic core classes, the faster you can get to something like this where you’re really getting to spend time learning about what you’re really interested in.
What did you hope to accomplish by studying Advertising Art Direction? Did New York work out for you the way you thought it would?
I saw the art direction program (Texas Creative) as the perfect way to do graphic art and be able to have a professional and financially stable creative career. I realized early into that journey that I was more interested in making the ads I was working on look a certain way, rather than the marketing bit which is really the start of how I got to where I’m at now as an illustrator. While I was working professionally as a graphic designer in the ad industry or at other jobs I was truly spending most of my free time outside of work creating personal illustration projects on the side and developing my style and just putting my work out into the world on social media until people started noticing it. New York was a major boost for my career. There’s just an opportunity to do literally anything you could ever want to do. There’s so much more opportunity to work at a big name company and to do creative and fun things, and eat incredible food and see amazing installations and meet really cool people. One thing that I’ve gotten into is translating my work into textiles through punch needling which is something I learned from a class that an artist I follow happened to be teaching in my neighborhood in Brooklyn. There are just some experiences like that that you just don’t have access to in smaller towns that have really shaped my career. After five years I made the decision to leave New York so I’ll be the first to say it’s not for everyone forever, but spending those few years there were really and truly life-changing.
I know the freelance life can be a roller-coaster. What types of assignments prepared you to take the big step to self-employment?
I do have some amazing months, and then some months where I’m so stressed I can’t sleep. The most helpful thing for me to transition into full self-employment was freelancing on the side while working full-time. It’s not for everyone. There were weeks where I would wake up at 7, get dressed and spend 45 minutes commuting to work, work a full day, freelance on my lunch break, commute another 45 minutes home and then go directly to my desk and work through the night and repeat. Being able to build up that experience of getting clients, completing projects, building my name as a freelance illustrator and growing financial security on the side to comfortably make that leap was the only way I was able to do that. I’m very risk averse though, some people just jump right in and make it work for themselves and that’s great too!
I’m excited to be able to work on illustration projects that are 100 percent my point of view, whereas at work I was always working with a brand’s POV in mind and not necessarily getting to design in a style I liked. I love having the authority to say no to projects that don’t align with myself, where before I had very little say in what I would be working on and how long I had to complete it. There are scary and tedious and overwhelming parts of freelancing but I love the flexibility it gives me. I’ve got a few large projects on the horizon that are going to be very time-intensive and something I realistically never would have been able to take on only freelancing on the side and am excited to get started on those.
How did the opportunities to create the two LOVE stamps come about?
Some time around February 2019, an art director named Greg Breeding from Journey Group reached out to me to see if I’d be interested in working on a stamp design. Greg’s agency works consistently with the USPS to design several of their stamps. I believe he had found me through Instagram and felt that my work would be a good fit for what he had in mind for the Love Stamp. When I was working on the first stamp I had pitched several options for them to choose from and luckily they liked both my deconstructed heart design that came out in 2021 and the floral one that came out this year. They purchased the rights for both, but because it’s such a long process getting the stamps produced I wasn’t sure whether or not the floral ones would ever actually get released. I was pretty shocked when I found out they’d be coming out so soon after my first Love stamp. So it really was just a happy accident that I was able to do two stamps — not something that was planned!
What’s your next big thing? Do you have a dream piece you would like to create?
I’m really getting more into murals and hoping to do more traveling and showcasing my work that way. For a long time murals really intimidated me, and still do, but I’m starting to find my groove and wanting to do more of that. Another big dream of mine is to illustrate a children’s book or book cover. I feel like anything’s possible and if I keep working at it I should be able to get there some day!
Find more of Sullivan’s work at baileysullivan.com and follow her on Instagram @bailzy. Photo of Sullivan by Mina Hami. Photo of stamps taken at U.S. Post Office in Longview, Texas, by Rachel Stallard.