Interview with Ellen Million aka The Boss
Stars: A Walkthrough
Interview with Ellen Million aka The BossArtist Spotlight
by Constanza Ehrenhaus
Ellen, you are an engineer if I am not wrong. What brought you to take this path?
You are correct! I have a degree in mechanical engineering with an emphasis in aerospace (yes, a genuine rocket scientist!).
My choice for this degree is somewhat unglamorous. I wanted a 'practical' degree I could fall back on in hard economic times, a choice I have not regretted at all. When trying to decide which to get, my criteria was simply: what's the hardest degree this school offers? I'm always looking for a challenge! Electrical engineering almost won, but that was my Dad's major, and I didn't want to follow too closely in his footsteps. Mechanical engineering seemed like it had some fun real-life applications (I like airplanes!), so that was my choice.
Mind you, I haven't actually done any mechanical engineering since I graduated! I have worked in civil engineering, architecture, done technical drafting, and a lot of programming that wouldn't fall into the engineering category. I've also worked in a machine shop, been a housekeeper, and done a whole host of miscellaneous jobs.
What attracted you to the arts when you followed such a technical career in college/work? Are you an artist yourself?
My first passion has always been creative writing, artwork and particularly projects that combine those! I've been drawing and writing stories as long as I can remember; I have several 'books' I put together when I was five or six.
I still do artwork, as regularly as the rest of my life allows, as well as writing, both creatively and nonfiction! I make time for Sketch Fest every month, and try to do a big piece or two every year. I work in ink mostly -- it's easy to carry around with me, and I love the simplicity of story-telling in linework. I also dabble in graphite, colored pencils, watercolors, and more recently acrylics. While most of my work is highly-detailed illustration, I do some expressionistic landscape and abstract pieces, too.
How did you decide to become a patron of artists and encourage others to do likewise?
It wasn't a conscious decision -- when I first sent out advertisements for the stationery I was making, I had a few friends who were also artists ask me how I did it, and would I ever consider selling their work, too? It hadn't occurred to me prior to that, but it made sense for everyone involved to pool our resources and customers. By including other artists in my business, I gave my customers more choices than I could with just my own artwork, and I was turning 'competitors' into 'support staff.' It was also a lot of fun, and it felt good to be able to offer the opportunity to other struggling artists.
How was Ellen Million Graphics born?
From just selling a few stationery designs, I began experimenting with other things that I could print -- postcards and then greeting cards were my first additions, then I began doing magnets, mousepads and more. Before I knew it, there were more than 200 artists providing artwork for me, and I was printing t-shirts, prints, totes, purses, tea tins, coloring books, soap, calendars, and a host of other fantasy art products.
What about your other projects, like Portrait Adoption, Torn World?
Portrait Adoption stemmed from my own desires -- I love to sketch character portraits, and I had sketchbooks full of them. But random portraits don't really sell well as products (I was constantly rejecting them from the giftshop, too), so I felt like they were a waste of time. At the same time, I was starting to take portrait commissions more seriously, and I received a few comments on existing sketches that got my brain spinning. I set up a page (with only my own work) offering existing work exclusively for 'adoption' as a character and bounced the idea off a friend. She took one look at the page, thought it was brilliant, and came up with a way to program a site to automate some of the functions. We launched the site in 2004, with only our own work, and soon added other artists.
Torn World was a personal project I started in 1997, first with sketches, then with stories. I was involved in a few fanclubs at the time -- Pern and ElfQuest based -- and was enjoying the collaborative process I found there. I decided Torn World had a lot to offer as a shared world, and worked for several years to set it up for other creators to jump in on. I started recruiting other writers and artists in 2008 and we launched publicly in 2010. Since then, we have been releasing new material -- art, writing and 'metafiction' -- almost every weekday. The world has become a rich and complex playground, and the storylines continue to grow and develop.
That's just the tip of the iceberg, of course -- there is also Fantastic Portfolios, and Sketch Fest, and I'm still selling Fantasy Coloring Books...
Why did you decide to publish a monthly zine, given that you were already so busy?
I've wanted to publish a 'zine since I knew what one was -- even before they were on the Internet. My first vision of a zine was a monthly collection of fantasy and science fiction stories and artwork, printed in a hardcopy format. The logistics of such a project were pretty daunting, so it was only a wistful idea until I began selling on the Internet.
With EMG growing in leaps and bounds, and attracting new artists from all over the world, I found that I was repeating myself, over and over again, regarding certain topics and subjects. I began writing nonfiction articles, at about the time that Elfwood launched a mixed fiction and nonfiction 'zine aimed at Elfwood users called Woodworks. I enthusiastically provided material for them, and later for Epitome, the Epilogue 'zine, until Epitome fizzled out and Woodworks eventually closed up.
I missed doing nonfiction work, and a few months later I was brainstorming with a creative friend and lamenting the lack of a fantasy and science fiction 'zine that was aimed at artists and writers. "We could do that..." she said, and it was a snowball downhill from there.
Why have you decided to close down EMG-Zine?
One of the most important things a leader can recognize is when to end something.
The giftshop became a struggle to maintain, and my attempts at finding a reliable distributor met with complete failure. I knew it was at the point where the business needed to expand out of my studio, or fold. Continuing to juggle my personal life with the growing demands of the business was becoming more than a minor challenge, and I wasn't willing to sacrifice quality or service. Since there were other business in the market that were starting to fill the same role, I made the decision to close the business. It was probably the hardest decision I've ever made, and it was undeniably the right one for me.
Closing EMG-Zine was significantly different -- the site is automated at this point, and these last two years, it has been self-supporting. But it has been challenging keeping quality submissions coming in, and I knew that my columnists were beginning to suffer burnout. Writing on a topic monthly is a unique challenge, and after seven years, we've hit a lot of the big topics of interest; people were starting to spin their wheels coming up with new things to write about, and my own brain was beginning to dry up on the subject. 72 issues is a lot of material to come up with! I've been involved in enough projects over the years to recognize the general slow-down of inspiration, and I've watched a lot of those project fizzle, which is painful and depressing to watch. As soon as I saw those signs start to stack up, I contacted our editor, Jennifer, to see how she felt about pushing EMG-Zine on for another year, versus closing it up with a bang at the end of the calendar. At this point, she's been directing the project so long, I wasn't willing to pull it out from under her if she still had fresh energy for it.
My timing was pretty fortunate. She was just considering how to best pull out of the project -- recognizing some of the same signs I was, and also facing a change of her own schedule that meant cutting back on projects that were 'just for fun.' We agreed that it was for the best to make the end of EMG-Zine a deliberate thing -- and a celebration of our work -- rather than let it fade away.
What will happen with your other projects? What are your plans for the future?
Projects are organic things, and they will continue to grow, require weeding and pruning, and sprout new ideas. For example, I never expected that Sketch Fest would become as popular as it has, or that it would provide a little modest income for the artists involved!
How has motherhood affected your work?
I draw a lot more babies! *laughs!*
Honestly, I have a lot less time now, but I'm still finding ways to work in writing, art and managing projects. I've been a little better about delegating tasks, and I try to make sure people know my responses may not be as immediate as they used to be. My daughter has been artistically inspiring, as well, and I would expect to see her as a model in many of the future pieces.
Do you have any message for our readers?
Thank you. To all the readers, contributors and supporters: thank you.
We could not have done seven years of this awesome 'zine without your unflagging support, questions, ideas and comments. I hope you have had as much fun with EMG-Zine as I have, and I hope you continue to use our extensive archives as a resource!
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