I’ve been reading Brenda Ponnay’s blog, Secret Agent Josephine, before her daughter Bug was a twinkle in her eye. I adore Brenda. She’s talented, immensely creative, self-deprecating and funny. Her blog is filled with creative inspiration, fun DIY projects for adults and kids, tales of adventure of her life as a single mom and tons of photos of her adorable daughter, Bug. Brenda is a freelance graphic illustrator with a really fun style. I’m so pleased to feature her here to share a glimpse of what inspires the woman who so generously shares her creativity with so many of us online.
1. B, let’s start with your online name—what inspired you to create your spying alter ego, Secret Agent Josephine?
It was a fluke actually. I was just poking around the internet looking for a free online journal program (I didn't even know what blogs were) and I stumbled across Blogspot. I opened an account and named it the first random thing that popped into my head. It's loosely based on the movie La Femme Nikita. At the time I thought my journal would be secret from the world and I'd go by the anonymous name of Secret Agent Josephine.
2. Your blog is one of my faves because it’s filled with so much fun and delight. Even when you’re documenting a hard or painful experience, you often still manage to find kernels of beauty, creativity and humor. How has living a life grounded in creativity helped you to maintain perspective through big life changes?
I think being creative is the best way to handle obstacles no matter what size they are, whether that's an artistic project or a big life change. I probably learned how to be creative when I was really young as a way to solve boredom. We didn't have television and my mom wasn't really the type to drive us to the mall or put us in soccer, etc. If I ever complained of being bored, my mom would tell me to sit on my bed until I thought of something to do. I always thought of something to do. And I still do. I never sit still long. I would credit my Dad for my eternal optimism though. We're just born that way in my family. I may freak out at night and feel overwhelmed with negative thoughts but I usually bounce back every morning with new reserves. It's a blessing really.
3. Your daughter, Bug, is passionate about color. I remember when she went through her green phase; these days it’s pink. How does color affect you? Are there certain colors that you like to have in your home and/or wardrobe? If so, what do you love about them?
I'm not as passionate about color as you might think. I tend to like warm colors and colors that are in the same tonal range. I hate combining light colors with dark colors or medium colors with light or dark. I'm kind of strange that way. It might be a generational thing. I find my mom loves dark and light together and so does Bug. Just not me. I do have some basics I love though. Red, of course. It's just my power color. Not that I think of myself as a power-monger but I find strength and beauty in it. It's happy and warm. I also love orange and pink but those are just more moderate forms of red in my opinion. There are certain things I do really like in my home and wardrobe though. I like neutrals and black and white or navy blue and white stripes. The neutrals I think are space holders for me. I need space and quiet and peace in between the big pops of color in my life. Black and white or navy blue and white stripes are just a Paris thing. I'd have a dozen black and white striped shirts if I could!
4. You’re a graphic illustrator. Was drawing a part of your young life? When did you know you wanted to pursue illustration and design as a career path?
I always drew. My family always tells stories of me turning over my placemat at restaurants and doodling all over them. I've always drawn stories and put together newspapers for my family as long as I can remember. My Grandpa paid for me to have oil painting lessons when I was six from a friend of his who needed some extra money. I learned a lot of basics at a very young age that has really helped me all my life.
I always wanted to be an artist or a book writer when I was young. But when I got serious about a career, I put art on the back burner. I thought there wasn't any money in art. So I majored in journalism in college because I liked to write (and my grandmother majored in it as well, it seemed like the romantic thing to do at the time). Of course that led to working on school newspapers and magazines and I picked up my computer layout skills there. Journalism never really worked out for me but graphic design did. I worked as a graphic designer for years and then in the last seven years or so have wedged my way into the illustration field. It's taken me a long time to take myself serious as an illustrator so maybe that's why I call myself a graphic illustrator. I do a lot of graphic design with illustrations thrown in.
5. As a single mom who’s a freelancer—and someone who readily admits to keeping odd sleep hours—how do you manage to juggle work, play and down time?
By drinking coffee! Just kidding. I try to work solidly from 9am to 3pm with a break for lunch with Bug. After 3pm I run errands and do household things. Of course Bug is with me a lot of the time while I'm working so I can't say I'm always working when I'm supposed to be working. I try though. Bug is in preschool two days a week which gives me some good solid work time on Tuesday and Thursdays but the rest of the time she sits next to me at her little desk doing her own "work" or she is off playing in the house or in our great big backyard. She often will spend time with my Mom who lives next door. They garden together and once a week take a shopping trip and go out to lunch at McDonald's. I go to bed early (8pm!!) but I often wake up around midnight and do more work. I usually stay up from midnight to 3 or 4 in the morning and then crash from 4am until 6am. It's strange but it works for me! Every Friday we go into Orange County so Bug can visit her Dad. While she's with him I usually meet up with friends. So that's where I fit in my playtime. And of course work for me is playing so I don't think I really have to juggle that hard to fit in playtime. :)
6. One of the things that makes your blog so fun to read is all of the projects you create to do with your daughter. What have been some of Bug’s recent favorite projects?
She's getting the hang of scissors these days so her favorite thing is probably cutting out hearts. I'm constantly picking up bits of paper all over the place. Thankfully, she doesn't mind cutting up recycled paper. Otherwise I'd fear for the trees! She loves all the craft projects I do with her. She loved the noodle monster project we did for Alpha+Mom. In fact I often struggle with her over when we can throw out projects we've made. I think she'd like to keep every craft doodad we ever made forever. It's sort of a battle between us. I do love the collaborations we do though. She makes me a better artist.
7. You recently relocated to a mobile home in your hometown near your family. It’s been fun to read how you’re redecorating it in your own wonderful style. I know you love a good thrift store as much as I do. Can you share a few of your favorite thrifting tips?
I'm always looking for anything that remotely reminds me of the 60's or 70's. If it looks like something out of Mad Men or something that my parents might have liked when they were hippies then I'd probably like it. I also look for old paintings too, real oil paintings (not prints) are the best. I don't like cliché paintings of boats or somebody's high school art project but a portrait from the 60's is like gold. Pottery is probably next on my list of things to look for. It's like a treasure hunt to find something that might be valuable. If it's stamped with USA or McCoy on the bottom, I seriously consider snagging it but of course I look for form and color first. If something is pretty to me then it really doesn't matter to me if anybody else thinks it's valuable. I guess I just use my imagination. If I can imagine something looking cool in a magazine spread then it's probably something I'd probably buy. I'm always creating stories and vignettes in my mind about where something might have come from. Would James Bond use this? Maybe Audrey Hepburn or Amelie!
8. Part of your relocation has been a change of landscape. You previously lived in a beach town; now you’re inland. What do you love about your new locale and how have you incorporated some of your previous beach life into your new setting?
Since I grew up in the desert there has always been a part of me that loves it out here. The big skies, the mountain views, the cactus that perseveres in any kind of weather... It can be desolate but it's also quite pretty. Also, there are things out here that I didn't have at the beach like a big backyard. I love my backyard. I think that really helps me from getting homesick. I can't take long walks on the beach anymore but I can garden and play with my daughter and dog in my very own space.
The second part of your question is hard for me to answer! The town I live in is actually very poor and depressed and it can be a real downer to see so many people who can't catch a break. I think one of the traps I see here that bothers me the most is how easy it is to mindlessly shuffle between the big box stores and fast food chains. That's all there really is out here. People don't have time or money to live well. We don't have gourmet sandwich shops that offer healthy vegetarian options or boutique clothing stores selling handmade organic items. It's pretty much Wal-Mart and Target. I think living at the beach sort of made a diva out of me. I want better things. I like to cook home meals that are better for me. I like to exercise and take care of myself. I'm not saying that all people out here are slobs. That's not true at all. But it is definitely a lot easier to be healthier at the beach where the community is more upwardly mobile and people have more leisure time for these things. So I guess I can say I've brought my healthy beach habits with me.
9. You’ve had to deal with creative theft online—with others taking your content and publishing it on their own sites. It’s an uncomfortable situation that we often don’t like to discuss, but I suspect it happens more often than we think. How have you addressed it when it’s happened to you? What safeguards do you take to try to block future thefts?
There's not much you can do. Especially when the theft is happening by websites set up in China. I don't have the time or money it takes to hire a lawyer to track them all down. If I see overly blatant stealing I contact the offender and ask them to take it down or link me. Most do. Most people don't know better so I try to kindly educate them. I've watermarked my photographs mostly so I can prove they are mine if one ever gets lifted. It won't stop people of course but it slows them down. I know there are programs you can set up on your website to stop right clicking but people take screen shots so it's sort of a hopeless battle. I think my best revenge is knowing that I have a thousand more images in my head that I can create on a whim while they will always have to copy me.
10. I love the idea of creative bartering—helping each other with creative projects by swapping skills. You often write of you and your family members helping each other in this way. If you could put out a wish for creative bartering right now, what would you wish for?
I love to trade graphics for website coding. I don't code but I get asked to design websites all the time. So often I'll design a website in Illustrator and then hand it off to a friend who does know how to code. I'll trade anything though. Less taxes!
11. What adventures might readers see in the lives of Secret Agent Josephine and Bug in 2011?
I'm dreaming of travel. I'd like to go to a trade show in New York and possibly a road trip to Northern California to visit my family. I don't know if that will happen because funds are tight but I'm dreaming. I'm also thinking of making marmalade and of course lots of crafts. I've got an idea of making my own book light brewing in my head right now. I've never played around with electrical wiring before, that could be a real adventure. Bug also starts kindergarten this September so I'm sure that will bring a slew of adventures into our lives too.
With a nod to Brenda's mom, Susan McConnaughy, in #6, I couldn't end this interview without mentioning her equally creative dad, Tom McConnaughy. Tom the Trucker has been my online pal for years. He's an avid knitter who's been featured in the Wall Street Journal. Tom specializes in slippers. He's making me a pair with black and orange stripes--San Francisco Giants colors--which I plan to wear as good luck charms during baseball season. ;) You can check out Tom the Trucker's Etsy shop here. "Honk if you knit!"
and finally, a word from Bug:
All photos copyright Brenda Ponney. Used with permission.
Blog: Secret Agent Josephine
Flickr: Secret Agent Josephine
Facebook: Secret Agent Josephine