A GIRL FLOATS in zero gravity, engrossed in a weightless book as her hair wafts around her head. "THE NEW COLONIES," proclaims the text, "Find Your Place... IN SPACE!"
That poster, part of a promotional campaign for the educational nonprofit 826LA, is the work of Amy Martin, a Portland-based illustrator whose second children's book, Night Life, comes out from McSweeney's in October. (The publisher released her first picture book, Symphony City, in 2011.)
Martin began her career at age 24, doing stints at the Advocate and Detroit Free Press. Her big break came from work she did for free: 826LA commissioned her to do a series of promotional posters advertising space exploration and time travel. Martin didn't get paid for the work, but it did get people talking about her. "They were up in Echo Park in Los Angeles," she says. "[They] got a lot of press."
In 2007, Martin netted a designer job at the LA Times, which she left after a year to move to Portland. "When I moved to Portland from Los Angeles I was well aware that I was going to be taking a substantial pay cut," she says. "I wanted to move to a city that was less expensive so I could afford to make less money."
After moving to Portland, Martin worked for a year exclusively as a freelance illustrator. She describes that experience as "very free," but emphasizes the need to constantly look for new work and hoard money. "You might get a commission that's $15,000 and you're stoked on it," she says, "but you don't want to spend a cent of it because you might not get another job for three months."
Her time as a self-employed artist came to an abrupt end when her mother got sick and Martin was faced with the very real possibility of having to be a bone marrow donor. She needed insurance and stability. "I think had my mom's sickness not come up, I'd have been able to stick with it for a few more years," she says. "I was so freaked out from that experience that I needed a job where I was going to sit at a desk and someone would tell me what to do."
She took a day job as an art director at a local paper; of her life now, she says that "for the most part it's pretty comfortable. I'm not wealthy by any stretch, but I can pay my bills and I can do work that I love. I'm aware that if I chose to have a higher-paying job and be clearly middle class or upper middle class, that's something I can do." Martin declined to give specific numbers, but emphasized that success has not brought riches. "I think I've chosen a kind of relative poverty, deciding to focus on picture books especially... but it's not that bad."