Turning a passion into a profession: An interview with Holman Wang

After practicing law for seven years, Holman Wang took a hiatus in 2012 to pursue a career as a children’s book maker. He and his twin brother, Jack, set out to create a new series of board books called Cozy Classics, which abridges classic novels into word primers with beautiful needle-felted illustrations. The first two books in the series, Pride and Prejudice and Moby Dick, came out in December 2012 and received both critical and popular acclaim. There are now 11 Cozy Classics titles, with The Nutcracker just out in September 2016 and The Wizard of Oz coming out spring 2017. The brothers also produced a second series of board books, called Star Wars Epic Yarns, which offers a fun take on the three original Star Wars movies.

I recently spoke with Holman about his unique career journey and how he was able to turn his passion for doing creative work into a viable profession.

Holman, can you tell us a little about your work?

HW: In a nutshell, I make word primers (along with my twin brother, Jack) that are ostensibly for babies. But our books hold appeal for older kids and adults, too, so we like to describe our creations as “all-ages board books.” Our board books abridge beloved literary and cinematic classics into just 12 words and 12 illustrations. We have one series called Cozy Classics that abridges classic novels, and another called Star Wars Epic Yarns, which abridges each of the three original Star Wars movies.

Our illustrative technique is unique, since we don’t draw or paint or do digital illustration. We create three-dimensional wool figures through a process called needle-felting, then photograph the figures in scale-model sets or on location outdoors.

When did you know this is what you wanted to do for a living and how did you make it happen?

HW: I really didn’t choose to be a children’s author and illustrator so much as simply choose to lead a creative life. My brother came up with the idea for Cozy Classics back in 2010, and as a full-time lawyer who was a frustrated creative person, I just wanted to help him execute on his idea. I didn’t think I could compete with professional children’s illustrators by just picking up a paintbrush, so I tried to think outside the box for a way to create the images. That’s when I came up with the idea of taking photographs of needle-felted figures. I literally taught myself to needle felt by watching some YouTube videos, and then plowing ahead and learning through trial and error.

It was just a fun side project to start, but when the books came out, they were a hit, so I kept on needle felting and making books. So I’m a bit of an accidental children’s author. The emotional and psychological driver was simply to work creatively, but the final form might well have turned out differently.

Needle felting involves repeatedly stabbing loose wool with a specialized barbed needle, which entangles wool fibers, allowing the wool to be sculpted.
Needle felting involves repeatedly stabbing loose wool with a specialized barbed needle, which entangles wool fibers, allowing the wool to be sculpted.

 

What do you love most about your work?

HW: What I really love about being a children’s book-maker is that my work has become a form of personal expression that people all around the world are responding to and enjoying. Through social media, school visits, and speaking engagements, I’ve had the opportunity to hear people tell me that they love my work, that they’ve enjoyed bonding moments with their children through my books, or that they’re inspired by my career change story. That’s the kind of wide-reaching impact on people’s lives that I would have never had if I remained in a downtown office tower.

It’s inspiring how you’ve developed your career around your passions. Would you say you’ve found your true calling?

HW: From a very young age, my identity was always tied to the notion of being creative. So to be able to be a professional “maker,” “illustrator,” or “artist” is certainly a big step towards self-fulfillment. But I wouldn’t call “needle felting” a true calling. I really enjoy the craft, but I definitely think that the creative work itself could have very well taken another form. The other caveat to the notion of finding my “true calling” is this: I want to be able to pursue my creative pursuits in an economically viable way. There was enough of a success-driven slant to my upbringing that for me, a true calling is defined as a successful artistic career, not a marginalized one that doesn’t find an audience or any remuneration. I’ve done the “starving artist” thing in my younger days, and for me, fulfillment is not just in the doing, but in the successful doing.

On location near Tucson, Arizona, Holman's brother Jack shoots for a scene on Tatooine for Star Wars Epic Yarns.
On location near Tucson, Arizona, Holman’s brother Jack shoots for a scene on Tatooine for Star Wars Epic Yarns.

 

You spent seven years working as a lawyer. Then you made, what many people would consider, a risky decision to leave a lucrative career path to become an independent artist. What compelled you to take this leap of faith?

HW: I’ve met people who describe themselves as “without passions.” This is a concept that is foreign to me. I’ve always had a passion to be a creative person, so the compulsion to take a leap of faith and leave the law was there on a near-constant basis: disenchantment with my day job, feeling distant from my true self, etc. The gravitational pull of creative work was always there, so when there was an opportunity to work on an artistic side-project (Cozy Classics), I was happy to spend evenings and weekends working on it. For some people like me, these kinds of decisions are less a choice than a necessity or inevitability.

If you had to choose one thing, what’s the biggest life lesson you’ve learned from your career journey? 

HW: The biggest thing that I’ve learned is that what holds people back in their own pursuit of fulfillment is themselves. So many people tell me they are inspired and awed by my career change, and these kinds of feelings are really rooted in their own fear of change or risk. And when I engage people in conversations about career change, or reflect on my own circumstances, I realize that there really is a tremendous amount of societal pressure to lead fairly conventional and conservative lives. Even in an era when the perception is that everyone is tremendously selfish about their own happiness, I think the opposite is true. Most people make decisions to please others, not themselves.

For The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Holman created a scale-model forest to capture the image of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn camping at night. The set was made with tree branches, real dirt and moss, model grass, and includes a real rock pit in the middle. He even lit a real fire in the rock pit for effect.
For The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Holman created a scale-model forest to capture the image of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn camping at night. The set was made with tree branches, real dirt and moss, model grass, and includes a real rock pit in the middle. He even lit a real fire in the rock pit for effect.

 

Here is the completed campfire scene, from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
Here is the completed campfire scene, from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

 

If you were to do it again, would you do anything differently in the transition to your new artistic career?

HW: One thing to keep in mind, at least with non-traditional careers in the arts, is that you can’t chart a career trajectory based on initial success. Maybe early success is the precursor to great things ahead, or maybe it’s the peak of your artistic endeavors and it’s all downhill from there! Don’t draw a straight line from early success and assume that there’s just going to be more opportunity, more exposure, or more anything else. Artistic careers cycle, so expect the dips as much as the highs.

What advice do you have for others who want to make a big career change to focus on their own passion?

HW: It’s possible for you to take risks to explore a different career while playing it safe. I did this when I starting making children’s books, since I moonlighted for two years as a book-maker, illustrating only on evenings and weekends, while holding down a full-time job as a lawyer. What this means is that you have to be willing to double down on work and sacrifice pleasures like TV, some family time, going out, and even some sleep! If you’re not compelled to sacrifice your leisure time to work on your alternative career, it probably isn’t a passion after all.

You don’t need to tell your boss to take this job and shove it, even though this is a huge temptation! Hang on to that job as long as you can, but make room in your life for your true passion. This gives you a low-risk space to explore. If the alternative career takes off, you can go part-time or even quit your day job. If the alternative career doesn’t materialize, you’re not left destitute and directionless. Doubling down on your workload is career change the hard way, but for many people, it may be the only way.

Holman Wang and his twin brother, Jack, are the authors and illustrators of the popular board book series Cozy Classics, which abridges well-loved novels into word primers with needle-felted illustrations. The series has been featured in the New York Times, People, The Wall Street Journal, and Parents. Their latest series is Star Wars Epic Yarns, which offers a light-speed take on original Star Wars trilogy.

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