Double Life How Triangle artists support their craft

Double life: Illustrator-grocery cashier Amy Richards

aweigl@newsobserver.comMarch 15, 2014 

  • Double Life

    Once a month, we’ll share the story of a local artist hidden in plain sight. You never know what talented person may be waiting tables at your favorite restaurant, sitting in the office down the hall, or even working as a cashier at the grocery store. Meet them here.

Next time you’re at Trader Joe’s in Raleigh buying that bottle of Three-Buck Chuck, the cashier ringing up your bill might be an actor, a graphic designer or Amy Richards, who illustrates children’s coloring books.

Richards of Raleigh pays the bills by working the cash register at Trader Joe’s, but her true calling is as an illustrator. Her art career got a boost last year with a Kickstarter fundraising campaign that helped her publish “The ABC’s of N.C.,” which is being sold online and all over the Triangle.

Her story

Richards, 32, studied art education at Kent State University in Ohio. Her friends were graphic designers, and she found herself drawn to illustration. An aspiring teacher, she enjoyed thumbing the pages of children’s books at a local bookstore, studying the illustrations of Shel Silverstein and others.

After graduation, she moved to North Carolina in 2004 to teach art at an elementary school in Stanly County, about an hour east of Charlotte. Two years later, she relocated to Carrboro to work as a nanny and later landed a job teaching preschoolers in Cary. That’s when she found herself struggling to find images for her pupils to color that corresponded with her lesson plans.

“I wasn’t liking what I was finding,” Richards said. “I started creating them myself and sharing them with teachers.”

What pays the bills

About four years ago, Richards decided to pursue her art while holding down a day job. She found that job at Trader Joe’s, where she does turns as a cashier, stocking shelves, even unloading trucks. Her schedule is flexible, and she has benefits. She does her pencil and ink illustrations at a home studio before work and on her days off.

Many of her co-workers are artists in their own right: actors, painters, novelists. They are supportive of each other’s artistic endeavors; a co-worker posted a newspaper clipping about Richards’ recent watercolor show at The Morning Times in downtown Raleigh.

“Part of what makes Trader Joe’s fulfilling for all of us,” she said, “is that we have this other outlet.”

What feeds the soul

Richards, who enjoys creating art that helps children be creative, turned her homemade handouts into mini-coloring books to sell on Etsy for $4. Then, last year, she decided she wanted to design a 27-page coloring book, which turned out to be “The ABC’s of N.C.”

“I love North Carolina,” Richards said. “It is a gold mine of people, places and things.”

In the book, B is for Blackbeard, F is for forsythia, L is for the Lemur Center at Duke University, N is for the Nasher Art Museum in Durham, Q is for quince.

Richards launched a campaign on the online fundraising site Kickstarter in September, aiming to raise $1,500 to print 100 books. She raised $2,700, which funded production of 300 books with enough money left over to fund a second coloring book, “Winter Friends.” Both books, which sell for $9.95 each, are available on Richards’ Etsy site.

Illustration isn’t Richards’ only artistic medium. She also does embroidery and watercolors. Last month, she was an artist in residence at Marbles Kids Museum in Raleigh. She’s not making enough money yet to quit her day job, but she finds it rewarding to capture not only an audience but also people willing to help underwrite her art.

“I met my goal in the first week,” Richards said of the Kickstarter campaign. “That’s a really gratifying feeling.”

Weigl: 919-829-4848; Twitter: @andreaweigl

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