Greetings and Salutations
Lafayette native Cayla Zeek’s illustrations go big for Festival International
This is harsh, but true:
Cayla Zeek’s career goals — to this point in time, anyway — have been a complete failure.
“I was going to be a veterinarian or Robin Hood,” says the 25-year-old Lafayette native.
Zeek is neither. Nope, she’s a visual artist, a designer and a former teacher at Ascension Episcopal school. Zeek left the teaching post at the end of the year to focus more on “Mattea’s Hand,” her self-started and budding stationery and greeting card business. She also was also official artist of the 2017 Festival International after creating a poster of a brown pelican that has flags of other regions both on its feathers and extending from its body.
Festival organizers gave Zeek a VIP Pass for the extended weekend celebration, which blew her mind. A VIP pass? For her? It was her first, and like most firsts, she’ll never forget it. At the time, Zeek wasn’t quite sure what the pass was for, but suspected it meant she got to “use the nice bathrooms.”
So no, it’s no Robin Hood, but even Zeek admits this whole art thing is a pretty cool consolation prize.
“It still doesn’t feel real,” Zeek says of the Festival International honor. “It’s not real to me. Making that poster, I was almost having a panic attack, because I’m putting this out there, and I’ve never done this before, and so many people are going to see this and this represents something so big. I scrapped what I had and started from scratch the day before it was due — re-did it all. But I was much happier with the way it turned out. I felt a sense of relief: OK, what I’m putting out there not only represents everything this festival is about, but it represents me.”
Staying true to herself has been Zeek’s signature throughout her still-young art career. Her visual art pieces feature a mixed media layering technique of watercolor, pen, charcoal, acrylic and oil on canvas. Subject matter varies from nudes to playful trips through nature or stories from children’s literature. A 2015 graduate of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Zeek’s work has hung in shows and galleries throughout the state.
Being named the 2017 Official artist of Festival International was both a source of pride and panic for Lafayette’s Cayla Zeek. A festivalgoer for years, she was floored by the honor but at the same time fretted about living up to the high standards of posters past. So, with about 24 hours left until deadline, Zeek scrapped poster version 1.0 and created the current poster from scratch. The final product features a brown pelican with international flags emblazoned on its feathers and extending beyond its body. Even now, months after the circle-your-calendar event, Zeek says the Festival distinction “doesn’t feel real.”
“Whatever I create is going to draw a reaction, but I’m not trying to force a reaction,” Zeek says. “Much of what I do is what I enjoy looking at. I enjoy the way it feels to sit down for eight hours, or however long, and just get engrossed in the painting. It’s not a search for shock value, but more it’s an expression of something I was going through at the time.”
Zeek’s venture into greeting cards — which she’s now doing full-time — also sprung from an expression of something she was going through at the time. Specifically, boredom. As a cashier at Red Arrow Workshop, Zeek doodled drawings of birds accompanied with bird-related puns during slow periods. The puns were things like, “Have No Egrets,” and “Hard of Herrin” and “You Pelican Do It.” Apparently, the store owners thought they were clever enough to convince Zeek to make a few cards to sell in the store, at the monthly Art Walk, and outside of a downtown bar called The Green Room.
Soon a handful of designs turned into more than 100 designs. A few cards at Red Arrow turned into cards on shelves in stores across the country, including two designs recently picked up by Trader Joe’s. Zeek attended her first industry event, and convention goers at the National Stationery Show in New York were curious about the work of the “Louisiana girl” whose booth — one of about 2,000 — was way back in the “boondocks.”
“Honestly, the best thing I could have done is not know anything about (making greeting cards),” Zeek says. “Because my cards didn’t look like anyone else’s — all hand-illustrated, lots of line details and watercolored. It was so bizarre that it was actually eye-catching, even though I was in the back corner. I don’t know everything about the industry and I’m making mistakes every two seconds. I don’t really know what makes a good greeting-card designer. I’m just going with it and the hard work and passion is what fuels it.
“All the work I do for the greeting cards and in that design or illustration, I really do enjoy it and it’s super creative and fun, but it doesn’t really have the emotional intensity or sort of research my visual art or paintings have,” Zeek says, later. “I don’t have any pressure to try and sell those to make a living. Really, I have to do it for myself, so I can express myself since I’m not always capable of verbally communicating that.”
Though grateful for all her early success, Zeek is learning to push aside anxiety and fear that she’s experienced from having too much good fortune too soon.
“This is just crazy,” Zeek says through a nervous/excited laugh. “I’m just headed into another unknown territory where it’s like, ‘What am I doing?’ I don’t really know the standard of how fast things should be happening in your life, so I’m just kind of living. I sometimes worry, is this the peak of my career? And I have to keep reminding myself to stop it. That’s like a teenager worrying about high school being the best years of their life. They’re not.
“I’m making an effort to try and embrace living in the moment,” Zeek says. “My entire life I’ve been reflecting on the past or looking toward the future. I need to not worry about that. But if I could, just enjoy this day now.”