Welcome to My First Year as a Creator, a series where we ask creators how they got started, and how they have gone full-time doing what they love the most.
“I was such a Tumblr teenager,” says Gab Bois with a smile and a laugh. The Montréal-based artist is reminiscing about her formative years as a creator, spent scrolling the platform’s digital dashboard, an endless mood board of ideas and images which inspired her to first pick up her family’s old point-and-shoot camera to snap some of her photos. In 2016, the artist — like most of us — made the leap from Tumblr to Instagram. “I started posting on there for fun, shooting between classes or at night,” she says, of creating her signature, surrealist works. “I was doing it super DIY, in my bedroom.”
Just as quickly as Gab had hopped social media platforms, it seems, her work began taking off. “Pretty much overnight,” the artist says, her posts — sculpture-photograph hybrids featuring DIY Evian tears, condom lollipops, or a set of Nike braces — began accumulating thousands of likes.
When Nike reached out to Gab in 2019, she thought the jig was up. “I thought they were going to ask me to take [the post] down,” she says, referring to the viral braces, created with bootleg stickers sourced from Montréal’s Garment District. Rather than slapping the artist with a cease-and-desist, the sportswear giant offered to buy the image, printing it on T-shirts for its 2019 women’s collection. “That was one of my first brand deals and it was a huge one. I was freaking out,” Gab says. “I also love the concept that a real brand would put the bootleg logo on their real shirt.”
Gab’s art dabbles, precisely in this kind of duality, the line between real and fake, physical and digital, sculptural and photograph. It’s her knack for the uncanny — the delightfully novel and the unsettlingly familiar — that has struck, and continues, to strike a chord with social media scrollers, from Tumblr to Instagram and beyond. Today, the artist has garnered over 645,000 Instagram followers (and counting!), and has landed contracts with massive brands like VSCO and SSENSE, and fashion labels from Balenciaga to Jean Paul Gaultier.
Here, we sit down with the artist to talk about the precarity of social media, how to know when you’ve burned out, and, of course, about making the leap to become a full-time creator.
Can you tell us a bit about your career journey before becoming a full-time creator?
I always knew that I wanted to do something creative — whether a hobby or just as part of my life — but never really as a job or career, because it was too scary! I wanted to be a kindergarten teacher because I really love children; I love their imagination and being inspired by the craziest things that they say. I did two years of visual arts in CEGEP [a public college in Québec that bridges high school and university] where I learned painting, sculpting, art history, and a bit of everything, but nothing about having a career in the arts or the business side of arts, which I find is still very taboo. Because of that, I was like, “Let’s pick something stable, something I know I’m going to enjoy.” So I started a bachelor’s degree in primary school education.
During my undergrad, I was working part-time for a luxury consignment boutique in Montréal. At some point, I decided to pause my studies because my photography started getting a lot of traction on Instagram. That decision was super nerve-wracking, but I was always planning on going back to school if it didn’t work out.
After about a year and a half, I quit my part-time retail job and got a nine-to-five job doing photo-editing for a brand’s e-commerce platform.
What pushed you to leave your 9-to-5 and focus on being a full-time creator?
In 2019, the company I was working for went bankrupt and I was let go. I’ve always loved security and, to be honest, I don’t think I would have quit that job for a long time if the company hadn’t gone bankrupt. But I think that news came at a really good time for me, because I knew I could make a decent salary doing my creative work full-time. I told myself, “This is a good time to try it out. I have a little money saved up. And if it doesn’t work, I was going back [to another nine-to-five job].” [Laughs].
I was super lucky to have that time and space to try it out, to do a lot of outreach, and to focus on putting out really cool work that would get brands’ attention. It worked out and I ended up getting a lot of commissions after that. And it just kept going.
Can you tell us more about the support you’ve received from your community in growing your business?
In 2019, I flew out to New York City to meet up with some other artists whose work I admired and who I wanted to collaborate with: Nicole McLaughlin (who became one of my close friends after that trip); Didi Rojas (who does really amazing ceramics); and John Yuyi (who’s also a photographer and multi-disciplinary artist). We were in touch via Instagram DM and on FaceTime before I came, and when I got there, we did some collaborative pieces together.
Seeing how they work and connecting with them about what we do for work really helped me feel more secure as an artist. I felt much more solid having these key people in my life to reach out to when I had questions about certain aspects of the work, or even specific clients, bouncing questions back and forth.
What are some of the challenges you faced in your first year as a creator?
I think the main challenge is being scared that what I do is just a trend, and that people will move on and forget about it. It started overnight, and it will end the same way. Especially in the beginning, when I had no track record, I was scared it would all go away as quickly as it started.
Even today, when I tell myself I have a good track record, my mind always goes there: “This is your last month. Take every deal that you can. This isn’t forever.” That feeling is something I have in me every single day and is definitely a source of stress, but it always keeps me on my toes, so it’s good and bad.
You came up on social media platforms like Tumblr and then Instagram. Can you tell us about the unique experience and challenges you’ve faced using social media as a creator?
I think it’s important for me to say that my experience with social media has been mostly positive because I owe, like, 95% of my success today to it.
In the beginning, I was confused as to how much of myself I wanted to put on [Instagram]. I work with social media, but posting about myself is not a reflex that I have. I take photos of things I’ve put together, but not everyday moments in my life.
I had this idea that putting my face on social media and talking to my audience would create a closer-knit community. I felt that pressure but I didn’t want to do that at all; I wanted to keep it all about the work and not about me. At first, it was a weird balance to find and it took some time, but now I never post my face and I’m a lot more comfortable with that.
Can you speak with us about your experiences with burnout as a creator?
I don’t think I’m a role model for this at all [laughs], because I have a huge tendency to never take breaks and push through [with my work]. Especially during COVID, I really burned myself out, taking every job I could because I didn’t know what was going to happen in the future.
The only time I’m ever able to stop is when I start feeling anxious or depressed in my personal life. That’s when I’m like, “No, this isn’t worth sacrificing my health or my mental health for.”
What are some tools or services you’d recommend to freelance creators who are just getting started?
I recently got this website as a sponsored post on Instagram. I always hate sponsored posts but I’ve been telling my friends to check it out. It’s called Artenda and it provides information about a lot of artist residencies and grants, including the duration, where it is, how much it costs, and the application deadline. All of these things are really good resources. I’d also say hire a good accountant.
What’s some advice you would give to someone who wants to pursue a career similar to yours?
Surrounding yourself with one or two key people who know about the business side of freelancing is super important. There are so many things [about freelancing] that we don’t get taught in schools, like taxes and contracts. It’s super boring stuff, but it can really impact your business. Administration is 30 to 40% of my job. It doesn’t show, but that’s a huge part of what you do [as a freelancer]. I do it myself, but at first I didn’t know how to do it, and there weren’t that many resources available. Having a few people who knew about that side of freelancing helped me a lot.
Something I would do differently, in terms of getting my work out there, is doing more outreach in physical contexts — more physical exhibitions, more physical work, not always taking apart my pieces after shooting the photos but keeping them. I wish I would have found more of a balance between the digital and the physical. I think those mediums really complement each other. Together, they build a strong base so that you’re not so dependent on social media, because you never know what’s going to happen with it. The real work is much more stable, in my opinion.
Photo: Courtesy of Pegah Farahmand