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Amy Zhang and the power of paper

//Denver area illustrator Amy Zhang works in her studio on April 24. Photo by Madeleine Kelly | mkellyindependent@gmail.com

Jump in, even if you don’t feel ready. That’s Amy Zhang’s most well-worn advice.

 “To me, it’s like exercising a muscle,” Zhang said. “It’s difficult and uncomfortable when you take that first step, but eventually you broaden your comfort zone a little and establish a kind of new normal. Then you face the next step, and it feels impossible and scary and unattainable all over again—until you do it.”

As the founder of AMY ZHANG, her namesake Denver-based illustration studio, Zhang knows firsthand the fear behind taking leaps as an entrepreneur. With time, she’s learned that comfort zones grow, and sometimes shrink, as you go through life. It’s up to the individual to make sure they don’t become stagnant. 

Spurred by national unrest due to the pandemic and rampant racial injustices, Zhang’s journey shows how prioritizing self-care and joy is an act of defiance in a world that attempts to temper the aspirations that women of color hold. 

Zhang’s method is self-taught. While earning a master’s degree in graphic design, she birthed her illustrations through trial and error paired with a desire to authentically express her creativity. She left her library job at the Colorado School of Mines to become her own boss and create full-time, a trend that is growing each year among millennials

“When I started my own stationery business in 2018, I knew I wanted to bring my voice and my point of view to the greeting card world,” she said. “I wanted to create a more modern type of card—one that is created with specific people, rather than specific occasions, in mind.”

To Zhang, a card is an experience. They are with people for births, deaths, promotions and breakups. They help celebrate, commiserate and everything in between. Whether a loved one is down the street or halfway around the world, greeting cards are keepsakes many hold onto for years. 

During isolation, paper cards made a comeback as many Americans rediscovered the value of postal connection. In a survey conducted by the Postal Service last year, 65% of respondents agreed that mail lifts their spirits during the era of social distancing, contributing to the rise in greeting card sales nationwide

In light of Zhang’s success in the past six months, her line of products has expanded from wildflower confetti cards complete with seed-paper hearts and plant puns to products like feminist weekly agenda planners and sexually suggestive fruit stickers.

“You’ll never truly know if you’re going down the ‘right’ path until you’re on it, getting into the nitty-gritty, not-so-dreamy details and receiving real-time feedback,” she said. She later added, “I’d love nothing more than to just hang out in my studio and create the work. But as a product-based business, how does anyone find out about your designs unless you show up?”

After three years as a small business owner, Zhang has faced the expected trials of an entrepreneur, many of which have been magnified as an Asian American woman. Her namesake brand is built upon the pillars of connection and unity during continued national division. In fact, she designed her UNITY Postcards last year in an effort to support broader social movements. 

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the rising epidemic of anti-Asian American violence across the country, Zhang places an emphasis on tangible aid, supporting organizations like the Food Bank of the Rockies. She believes that to create an even playing field, addressing basic needs like food is essential. 

“It was cathartic for me to channel my feelings into creating, but it also allowed me to contribute in a more tangible way,” Zhang said. 

For much of 2020, Zhang donated 100% of proceeds from postcard sales to the ACLU of Colorado in support of Black Lives Matter. She is currently working on a new project that will contribute to the Asian Americans Advancing Justice nonprofit.

“Being Asian American and seeing the uptick in attacks on Asian Americans and Asians, I was feeling—the call to focus my energy on a group that was closer to me,” she said.

Under the stay-at-home orders, Zhang felt herself longing for comfort and reprieve. It highlighted the importance of self-care during harrowing times for her. 

“I found myself experiencing so much anxiety on top of the regular stress of life as we used to know it—struggling to adjust my life and business, trying, and often failing, to find a balance between staying informed and simply doom-scrolling,” she said. 

As the brand’s bestseller, her Self Care Card Deck was created to help alleviate stress and allot time to oneself. Zhang’s focus was to keep the card prompts simple and accessible, not requiring too much time or resources so users could ease into the practice. Various body shapes and colors are used to highlight her message that self-care is for everybody and every body. Further, her focus remains not only on diverse appearances but income levels. By demonstrating various low-cost or free self-care ideas, she hopes to expand the practice to people who have previously denounced it as inaccessible. 

“I still struggle daily with creating boundaries between my work and personal life, how to let go of perfectionism and recognizing that it’s no longer feasible for me to do it all alone,” she said. “In spite of, or maybe because of, the growing pains, I find that I’m more focused than ever on trying to craft the life that I want to lead—to be proactive instead of reactive, to define how my business serves me and vice versa.”

Zhang is not alone in her struggle to find balance. In a survey conducted by Business Insider and LinkedIn, 85% of the 1,000 working professionals surveyed report feeling burned out, with 18% of them suffering from burnout every day. 

The illustrator’s response is that there is no one-size-fits-all method to steadying one’s footing. Each entrepreneurial journey looks different. 

“I love my work and I love to work,” she said. “Of course, there are tasks I wish I didn’t have to do, and there have been times when I’ve dealt with burnout, but I’ve also found myself in situations where I literally felt pressured by very well-meaning loved ones into taking time away from work because I regularly, and happily, put more hours into work than most people find enjoyable.”

Each individual’s definition of balance might not make sense to everyone, she explained, but the goal is not perfection; it’s about sustainability. By regularly checking in with herself, Zhang found her own way to replenish her energy stores in a world that constantly attempts to drain them. She deems this mindfulness practice essential for those like herself looking to overcome self-doubt and uncertainty. 

“There’s that saying that the ‘magic’ happens outside your comfort zone, and while that may feel cliché, I’ve personally found it to be very true,” she said.

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