Working for Yourself: Balance, Passion, and Building a Brand with Austin artist Corey Carbo

modern merfolk vegan artist corey carbo

Hey there beautiful people!

While I am an artist in some ways, I cannot take credit for the gorgeous illustrations and brand presence that have been bestowed upon Modern Merfolk this past year.  

As a matter of fact, the accolades belong to Corey Carbo, a brilliant and amazingly mermaid-esque being who could go by many different titles, but could be aptly named an "artist" in every sense of the word. 

What I admire about her is not only her brave focus, talent, and attention to detail, but her vision of life that so beautifully embodies the modern woman: creative, intelligent, passionate, diligent, empathetic, ambitious, independent and strong. 

I started this little company with a few missions in mind, but a cornerstone of our philosophy is the support of local artists.

When was the last time you thought about who designed the beautiful things in your life? Why do you love that rug, that shirt, those leggings so much? Did you ever think about someone sitting in an apartment, free-handing some drawings and turning them into works of art? Maybe you will now ;-)

Below is my conversation with Austin artist and amazing branding designer of Modern Merfolk, Corey Carbo. 

austin artist corey carbo workspace modern merfolk

It's 7:30 pm on a Wednesday in August, and I've just had a super long day at work. I'm sitting in a zero-gravity chair on the front "porch" overlooking the expansive array of permanently parked Winnebagos and Jaycos across the concrete at Tiki Tom's RV Park.

Today, I'm excited about a phone call with my budding woman-crush, Corey Carbo. 

We chat on the phone for some time, updating each other on summer travels and bucket-list items we want to get around to. Conversations with Corey are always uplifting, leaving me on the other end of a dark, battery-depleted iPhone screen feeling like I can stop the world from turning and dive into my passion projects with gusto for days on end.

She is the image of everything my middle-class Gen X father told me was impossible:

1) a female artist

2) making a living

3) doing what she loves in the creative mecca of

4) Austin, Texas.

Thriving, in fact.

I remember the first time I actually got to talk with her in person. I saw her gorgeous studio studded with succulents, a sleek iMac desktop, a vintage rug, a nice window shedding golden light onto a clean art desk, the Skittle-colored tops of paint pens freshly used. It was an artist's space, meant for creation. 


corey carbo skittle colored pens silver_signings

I found Corey on Instagram after attending a local Houston Christmas event called the Girl Crush Market at Pop Shop America, and worked up the courage to ask about a potential freelance project after falling head-over-heels for the branding she created for The Paper + Craft Pantry. I never expected that the internet could lead to finding such amazing networks of real, inspiring women doing things that they love, but it did. 

After we finish updating each other on summer time travels, I tell her about my updated dreams for Modern Merfolk and explain my reasons for the interview. It's important to me that people see a design and know the story behind it. 

So how does one tell the story of an artist?

You don't. 

Like the beautiful goals and dreams Corey and I tossed back and forth, maybe this isn't about trying to do everything at once. Maybe we'll just take it slow and break it down, one small section at a time. 


The Making of a Maker

An only child, Corey tells me that she has been attracted to making things and creating art ever since she can remember. Side note: her memory is pretty crazy. She can remember all the way back to being in diapers. I can barely remember back to the age of 4. 

I ask her to tell me about where it all started.

"Ever since I can remember, I was always off in a corner making things".

Easy-bake ovens. Clay fake bakes. DIY paper craft kits. 

"I loved doing things with my hands", she notes. 

"Pre-K was pretty art heavy", she says. By middle school, she was in a "legit program". And by this time, the medium of interest began to evolve. She became interested in painting and [mostly] drawing, and high school allowed her to take college-level art classes early on. 

Her high school art teacher introduced her to the world of graphic design, and it just so happened that her father had friends in the field. 

When I asked her about what made her choose this as a degree, she didn't hesitate. 

"I always liked art with a purpose".

corey carbo art with a purpose modern merfolk

Infusing Skill with Passion

I asked Present Day Corey to tell me what she's passionate about. What her goals are. What her typical day looks like. What her ideal life would look like. 

The responses she gave might come as a surprise to Gary Veynerchuk evangelists and pre-Instagram era starving artists. There is a perspective that comes from Corey that reminds me of that cliche' called an Old Soul married to the love child of an optimistic youth and the distinctly female superpower heart of Queen Bey. 

"We all have to work and make art", she said.

An ideal day at work for Corey would be spent hand drawing everything. "Fun textures, fine art that's useful and functional. T-shirts, logos, patterns on a website", she describes. 

Despite being encouraged by a college professor to work more on her "corporate voice", she has thrived using her love of illustration. She currently works in three prime arenas: personal creation in her studio, freelance creation, and part-time work at various small businesses in Austin. 

An ideal life?

Full-time freelance isn't the goal. 

Corey has a heart for helping others. To her, that's the meaning behind freelance, even if there are some mixed feelings. "Graphic design can be very transactional", and she cites the example of a bank logo. She wants to "make stuff that gets people excited". 

"Everyone has a story".

"It's worth it when you see it on the street or [get] notes from clients. [Freelance] gives constant content and inspiration... It's gold when someone comes to you for work and inspiration". 

But her ideal life doesn't include dedicating her entire career to commissioned work. In contrast with the internet hype of turning a side hustle into a full time self-employed business, Corey has a different, perhaps more mature outlook. 

When asked about her career goals, she says, "Primarily working for myself, with a part-time day job, somewhere in the South. The end-goal would be to make art that I care about". 

corey carbo modern merfolk feature austin vegan artist

Finding Balance

Corey and I talk about the struggle of balance. 

How does one maintain all the things without getting overwhelmed?

  • Family

  • Friends

  • Entertainment

  • Health

  • Happiness

Family and friends demand time and energy, but bring lightness to the daily grind. Cooking, working out, and cultivating happiness through hobbies outside work can bring much-desired relief and energy to a tired creative mind. Should you forego one for the other? Rotate each like crops with the seasons? Add another manifestation to the morning routine?

Corey stops for a moment after we mull these things over. Then, as if to prove her worth as both my hired artist and mentor, she channels wisdom into perfect quotes as if Yoda himself were speaking into my iPhone, minus the subject-object-verb agreement and warnings against the Dark Side.

"Everyone who is saying they have it all is hiding something".

She wants to eventually launch a product line one day. She won't get specific yet, but for now, she focuses on each project at hand. Her #SilverSignings creations are among my favorites of her work. These she focuses on during her off days, and [most of the time] she's patient with herself. Each sign takes hours to complete, which means that a finished project could take weeks while juggling work, relationships, and life in general.

Be sure to check out #Silver_Signings on Instagram

Be sure to check out #Silver_Signings on Instagram

"Start small and simple. Grow with time".

Corey realized early on that she might have to separate earning an income from "graphic design freelance love", as she puts it. This isn't the sexy narrative that we like to read about in Entrepreneur, but it's a reality that she feels is right for her. I feel myself nodding repeatedly in agreement, like a downbeat to the metronome. 

"We all make sacrifices".

We talk more about click-bait headlines on blog posts saturating the internet; it seems that while it may be somewhat satisfying to read the backstory of larger-than-life entrepreneurs who relinquished health routines and time spent with family/friends in favor of long nights and sedentary weekends building a sustainable business, what may have started out as an inspiring origin story morphs into the reader's shame and confusion.

In the end, what is success, really? 

"Sometimes I just need to get myself off the internet", she states. She refuses to maker herself unhealthy in order to achieve something that her future self may not even want. We talk about the internet and lament the struggle of those cursed with ambitious perfectionism. The topic twists and winds, ending at the cliffside of abrupt truth. 

"Comparing yourself to the internet = bad".

I nod again. The metronome agrees.

Motivation and Inspiration

In the end, I ask Corey about the role of community and mentorship in her career as an artist. She names Anna Bond of the Rifle Paper Company, and Emily McDowell's eponymous studio of hilarious designs. I sense a brewing quote. 

"Surround yourself with like-minded folks".

Motivation can come in all forms. She finds it in the relationships built through freelance and work in the Austin community. Surrounded by strong female entrepreneurs and artists alike, she notes that this environment lends a powerful impetus to create art. 

finding motivation artist corey carbo

We talk about finding the motivation to start something like a big product launch or passion project while reckoning with perfectionism. In the interest of perspective, I tell her about my struggle with making things beautiful and authentic at the same time.

 "We [people] want to watch reality TV, but then we sit down and watch a rom-com fantasy", Corey agrees. 

The idealist in me is saddened, but the artist deep down raises her hand, like a daisy pushing through snow at the beginning of spring: hungry and fragile, yet persistent.

Art is a balance, delicate and enduring. Its craftsmen pull strands of reality into focus, arranged by skilled hands to draw one's eyes, heart, and mind into another world that binds the familiar with pleasing flashes of imaginative possibility. 

Those same skilled craftsmen are the ones that bring the imaginative possibility of a brand's hopes and dreams into the reality of wearables, book covers, or simply beautiful words of encouragement on signs in our neighborhoods. 

So if you haven't already, find an artist in your life. Show them some love. Because they help our world to be more beautiful, one maker at a time. 

corey carbo on life and balance of an artist in austin