Fireproof Optimism

Eric doesn’t usually create in the early morning; his best work typically happens at night.

But on this particular morning, he got up earlier than usual to paint a sign for his friend’s tattoo shop. He opened all the windows of his second-floor apartment that day.

He smelled something weird, but brushed it off. This was New York, after all. Things smelled weird sometimes.

“If I did die tomorrow or today, am I happy doing what I’m doing right now?”

He closed the window closest to him to keep out the smell.

But it kept getting stronger.

And stronger.

It smelled like burning rubber.

He got up and walked to the window again to see if he could find out where it might be coming from, and that’s when he saw that the entire alleyway that made up his “backyard” was completely engulfed in flames.

And they were rising toward his apartment.

His whole body went into panic mode. Flooded with adrenaline, he went into accelerated auto-pilot, driven to survive.

His first instinct was to close every window to protect himself further from the rising flames; he burnt his hands on the now piping hot windowsills.

Then, the last window he closed exploded all over his face.

He heard more glass bursting. One by one, every single window exploded, shards thrust into his apartment like confetti.

Cat

Everything inside of him told him to run.

Get out.

But what about Pocket? His cat. He looked everywhere for those gray and white stripes, the pink nose, but she was nowhere to be found.

He had no choice but to get out of there as fast as he could, leaving his cat, his sign, and all his art, behind. There wasn’t even time to put on shoes.

He ran.

He got out.

He stood on a New York City street in socks.

He waited.

The fire department came and put out the fire and assured Eric not to worry, his apartment would just have some smoke damage; his stuff, his art, his cat, would all be fine.

Two hours later, once the fire was out, Eric and his then-girlfriend (who came as soon as Eric told her about the fire) went back into the building to look for their cats (she had one too).

apartment fire
The aftermath.

They couldn’t believe what they saw.

Everything was black, charred, reduced.

The mattress was just a small chunk of foam rolling on the boxspring.

And as Eric remembers it, “the ceiling was on the floor.”

In two hours they’d lost everything.

In two hours, they were homeless in New York City.

Also their cats were gone.

Before they turned to walk out and find a place to sleep for the night, Eric noticed that the scanner he used to save his sketches still looked almost intact, aside from the fact that it was melted shut.

Something compelled him to pry it open.

Inside was one of the only things that survived the fire, a small scratched lettering sketch he’d done earlier that week and had forgotten about.

The letters spelled just one word.

Optimist.

Eric Friedensohn Optimist Art

He could make more art

The sketch had survived, but it was damp, fragile; it could disintegrate easily. No one would have blamed Eric for letting it fall apart, leaving it there, renouncing optimism for a while.

But he did something else.

He paused, right in the middle of the char, with the firemen in the background saying they needed to leave the place immediately – it wasn’t safe. But Eric stood, holding the only thing he had left, and remembered who he was two hours ago.

He remembered what he was thinking when he created that optimist sketch: that he was an optimist. And that he could choose to still be.

Eric Friedensohn painting

Because optimism, as Eric shares, isn’t the same as happiness. It isn’t the same as life always working out or believing that people get what they deserve or that everything happens for a reason or always works out for the best. (He’s the first to talk about all the privileges he’s had in his life, especially compared to the injustices and suffering he’s seen first-hand in his travels for art projects around the world).

But he decided that optimism could in fact be a choice – that you can feel pessimistic and still choose optimism.

The most powerful optimism is the kind that still stands after a fire, even if it’s fragile, even if it’s still grieving.

What binds all true optimists together – wherever they fall on the spectrum of wealth and power and privilege – is a single belief:

I can get through difficult things.

And in that moment, holding that soaked, barely-holding-on sketch, Eric knew he was going to be okay.

He also knew that he wanted to do more with his life.

If he had slept in that day, hadn’t woken up early to do art, he likely would not have made it out alive.

Eric Friedensohn Art

He started questioning everything:

If I did die tomorrow or today, am I happy doing what I’m doing right now? Or am I waiting for something on the horizon that might make me happy?

Though he was now without a home, any physical stuff, and without his cat, the optimist sketch reminded him to think about all he still did have, like his life.

“I think that everybody starts creating art when they’re a kid and they are technically an artist, because an artist is someone who creates art. But then at some point, they stop.”

He’d made it out alive. That alone made him incredibly grateful.

He also still had his family – his brother even created a GoFundMe campaign to help after the fire – and he had his health.

And while he lost the art in his apartment – sketchbooks, art supplies, that sign he was painting for a client – he still was an artist.

He could make more art.

And that, when he really thought about it, was exactly how he wanted to spend whatever days he had left.

Creator Eric Friedensohn Quote Optimism

“I guess I just never stopped.”

One of Eric’s greatest privileges was his grandma, Rita.

She was a stained glass artist who made a living doing the work she most loved, welding colored glass together by hand in her basement to make windows and lamps. (After she died, Eric was given one of her glass lamps. It’s in his studio now, cracked in places, but he plans on restoring it soon.)

Tiffany Lamp
Eric holding the lamp his Grandma Rita made.

Grandma Rita bought Eric art supplies and art books, always encouraging him to keep his imagination alive.

He grew up with a unique and precious gift – the belief that doing work you love for a living was possible. In fact, it never even occurred to him that you couldn’t make a living in the arts.

I think that everybody starts creating art when they’re a kid and they are technically an artist, because an artist is someone who creates art. But then at some point, they stop. Because other things get in the way or they don’t see it as a viable career option. I guess I just never stopped.

And while he lost the art in his apartment…he was still an artist.

And as Eric got older, his love of making art only grew.

By the time he was in high school, he knew he wanted to be a professional artist.

I felt the most alive when I was making something. I knew that that was a pretty good sign that you should do that for your career: if you feel really alive while doing something and there’s also demand for it in the world. That’s the sweet spot, right?

He went to school for graphic design and started doing paid projects as soon as he could, finding most of his clients on Craigslist. For his senior thesis, he did a project on the art of hand-painted signs, and ended up designing a sign for one of his favorite coffee shops. He loved how it felt to have his art on a wall, connected to a place, a community, he really cared about.

Eric Friedensohn working

He also loved the freedom of having his own business, even during the times when things were slow and he’d have to take projects he didn’t like or find temp work to pay the rent that month. He thrived on the adventure of it all – an artist in New York City. He was grateful for the privilege.

But when the fire happened, freelance had to take a pause. He lost a lot of money in the fire, and he was mentally frazzled and burnt out from the trauma. He needed consistent income to help him find a new place to live and replace everything he lost.

He got a job at an agency that specialized in event design. He hoped the day-job would be a great learning experience and a chance to make more connections.

It ended up being another opportunity for him to see his art on a larger scale – they produced designs that wrapped entire busses and served as huge backdrops for big events.

Eric saw his designs literally get bigger.

But then, thrown away.

A lot of this stuff would get thrown in the trash just a few days or weeks after I designed it, because it was for events. Most temporary events lead to a lot of waste and I didn’t like that. I just thought to myself, How can I make large scale art that’s a little more permanent?

“There was no client, there was no art direction, it was just me.”

At the office, there was a big wall covered in chalkboard paint.

No one really used it.

One day, compelled to create, Eric stayed at work after hours to create a huge chalkboard mural lettering piece, just for fun. It was the first time he’d created something like that since the fire, since the optimist piece.

When everyone walked into the office that morning they were floored. They loved it. It changed the whole feeling of the office that day, and Eric saw first-hand how art could bring people joy and change an environment, in an instant.

Eric hanging art

It was also the first time he realized his personal work could have an impact on others. “There was no client, there was no art direction, it was just me.”

Eric didn’t know when, didn’t know how, but he knew that he wanted to do more work like that – he wanted to get back to creating his own designs, from his own vision, not someone else’s.

A year and a half after the fire, he quit his job and decided to give freelancing another try. He started traveling more, getting inspired by the world around him, and channeling it all into large-scale pieces.

He was especially drawn to murals, their sense of permanence and community.

During this season, he also broke his leg skateboarding and endured multiple surgeries and intense physical therapy.

He couldn’t walk unassisted for 14 months (and he lived in a fourth floor walkup apartment).

But that setback only fueled his creativity.

Since he couldn’t actually skateboard, he channeled his love for skateboarding into his designs. And people loved them.

Eric Friedensohn skateboarding

Skateboard pin
The skateboarding hotdog design Eric created when he couldn’t skateboard.

Unable to skateboard, Eric also had a lot more time to share his work online.

Eric street art

And while painting murals was difficult at this time too, he started using photoshop to design the murals he dreamed of painting, drawing over photos of real walls, hoping he could eventually use them as mockups to pitch to local businesses.

That’s how WeWork found him.

They needed someone to paint murals at their locations around the world, and they reached out.

Eric was hesitant at first; he didn’t want to go back to another day job, making art to meet someone else’s vision.

But the more he got to know the people and the job description, the more he realized he would have a new kind of artistic freedom here.

It would also be a chance to do a lot of murals, his favorite.

He took the job.

And the artistic freedom wasn’t a false promise. Eric’s skateboarding hotdog design was turned into a neon sign for one WeWork location.

He worked there for three-and-a-half years and loved the experience he got painting things that felt more permanent. He also never stopped creating his own personal work and sharing it with his audience online.

That audience, and their support, he says, always gave him a sense of freedom – that whenever he was ready, he could still leave the day job and go back to freelancing.

Which he did.

Eric Friedensohn painting

He loved the WeWork job, but as happens to many hard-working creators in a day job, his work was recognized and he was promoted.

But sometimes, moving up means getting further from the art, more into management.

Pretty soon, Eric was only doing art 20% of the time, managing others the other 80%. At the same time, he got an offer to do a big freelance project from someone who had been watching his work online.

That’s when he knew it was time to move on.

Eric black and white mural
Commissioned piece Eric did for the USA Network/SYFY offices at 30 Rockefeller Center.

“Try to be a regular human being.”

Before the fire, Eric had also been blogging and emailing weekly for years, sharing what he was learning about lettering, designing, and New York City.

Eric Friedensohn working

People loved getting the behind-the-scenes of his creative process and hearing the stories behind the art he was creating. He used his email newsletter to interact with people who liked his art, and they became some of the first people to buy his pieces directly.

He cares a lot about trying to reply to all the emails and comments he gets in return. His online audience-building strategy might be one of my favorites; he doesn’t care much for the latest online marketing advice. His guiding light, his goal for everything he does online?

Try to be a regular human being.

Seems like something you wouldn’t have to remind yourself of, but it’s surprising how fast the “rules” and “advice” of the digital space can drown out your own voice, that special thing people are looking for more of online.

Eric Friedensohn typing

 

Stats EricFor Eric, being a regular human being means communicating online in a way that feels authentic to who he is. He enjoys sharing his process, sharing the stories behind his work. In his blogs and emails, he tells people exactly how he makes things, breaking it down step by step.

People love that. I think a lot of artists want to keep their secrets to themselves because they’re worried that other people will steal them and take their business away and do it for cheaper. But I do think there is enough work to go around and I don’t like to think about it as competition.

Creator using ConvertKitHe gets email replies like “I can’t believe you’re sharing all this. Thank you for showingup each week and spending the time to share the behind the scenes or to just tell a story that’s worth telling.”

Most people are surprised he even takes the time. But when he started emailing, it wasn’t about sales for him.

I wasn’t doing it to get their sales,I was doing it because I really wanted to share and I think the internet is a great tool for just finding other people that are into the same thing that you’re into. I like making new friends. I think at that point, I was trying to make more friends.

Today Eric has his own business getting commissioned to do murals, selling prints, and teaching art workshops (we even hired him to share his story on the Craft + Commerce stage last year). He’s made a lot of friends.

If there’s one person out there that deeply resonated with something I made, that has to be enough for me. I try to drive myself back to that because being able to see how many people liked and commented on every single thing, it’s easy to forget about the deeper connection of it, not just the superficial number.

Like, did this actually resonate with anyone deeply? If I get one really deep comment or direct message, that just makes me feel really excited that I’m doing this for something bigger than myself and that’s really rewarding.

Creator Eric Friedensohn Quote Optimism

“Optimist tips.”

A few days ago, Eric got a text from a friend whose apartment had completely flooded. She asked him to give her some “optimist tips” as she called them, because she wasn’t, in that moment, feeling very optimistic.

He pulled out his phone and read me what he texted back:

I’m sorry to hear the news. I’m glad you’re okay. Remind yourself of everything you still have and be grateful for it. You are an optimist. Good things happen to you and because of you. You are okay and it will be okay. It only gets better from here.

A few weeks after the fire, Eric got a call from his old building superintendent who lived atop the building that shared the alley where the fire started.

apartment fire
Firefighters at his apartment that day.

The super found Eric’s cat, Pocket.

After the windows in Eric’s apartment exploded, Pocket also decided to make a run – a jump – for it. She jumped over the fire, window-to-window, and escaped into the opposite building.

The super found her hiding beneath a couch, ash on her face, paws scorched. She had to be admitted to an animal hospital and given oxygen for a few days. But she was alive. And Eric was grateful to now count the optimist sketch as one of two things the fire didn’t destroy that day.

Eric will never forget that kind of life audit – where you are forced to step back, literally and metaphorically shoeless, and remind yourself of all the good things you still have, how much worse it could have been.

And while after the fire he longed for murals, for that sense of permanence, he also came to appreciate the myth of permanence: even a mural could burn up, get torn down, graffitied.

Eric with mural
Street art commission in Mexico City that Eric painted with his girlfriend Jessie Mordine Young.

Anything can disappear in an instant.

His goal now is to make the most of every instant that he does have, spending it in the ways that matter most to him, making beautiful things for people, just like Grandma Rita used to do.

Eric Friedensohn art portrait

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