Unless you’re taking the Staten Island ferry, there are no free rides in this life. The question is whether you can find a way to pay your way without selling your soul.
Four years ago, a soap merchant in Bryant Park helped Jamel Saliba find just that—a way to make a living doing something she loves.
Today, Jamel’s a prolific, New York-based fashion illustrator whose fans call her “Melsy.” Her whimsical pastel drawings have found homes at Hallmark, TJ Maxx, Home Goods, and Marshalls. They’re hanging on walls and printed on throw pillows around the world. She’s also worked with Bloomingdales and Reebok.
But Jamel wasn’t Melsy yet when she met the soap merchant in 2014.
She wasn’t a New Yorker.
She didn’t have fans.
And her drawings were…
“Terrible.” she says. “I took one art class in college and I got a B.”
Jamel graduated in 2009, when money was tight and jobs were scarce. She ended up moving back home to work in the family business.
“My father came to America to go to college, but he ended up starting his own gas station and repair shop,” she says. “He’s an entrepreneur at heart. I think that’s where I get it from.”
While Jamel shared her father’s childhood dream of owning a business, she didn’t share his passion for car repair. So when a customer offered her a corporate desk job, she took it.
That’s how she became what every child dreams of becoming when they’re older: a technical writer for a large corporation.
Jamel soon discovered that steady jobs aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.
She was treated well, but her work made her miserable.
She considered quitting, but couldn’t think of anything she wanted to do instead.
So she just stayed on at her job—for one year, two years, three years, four years.
Around this time, Jamel discovered Brittany Fuson, a fashion illustrator with whom she would later split an In Style feature.
Inspired by Fuson’s art, Jamel decided to pass the time by throwing herself into a new hobby: drawing.
Every night, she’d come home and practice. She’d research techniques online and in books. She’d experiment with different media and styles.
She didn’t expect that her drawings would ever earn her prestige or money. She just wanted to work hard at something she enjoyed.
People started noticing her doodles on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
Friends commissioned pieces.
Some even asked her to illustrate their weddings.
And while she still had no intention of turning her hobby into a livelihood, Jamel decided that it was time to give notice.
After four years of waiting for the perfect day to quit, Jamel finally settled on a Friday like any other.
“I was sitting at my desk and I realized that it was never going to be the right time to quit. I had to just do it.”
But quitting didn’t pay off right away.
Jamel’s first effort to monetize her hobby was a dismal failure. She opened up an Etsy shop and struggled to make a single sale.
She did better in person, when she popped up a tent at Boston’s SoWa Open Market. In exchange for her drawings, she got a few bucks and some advice.
“People kept telling me that my work would take off in New York.”
A year later, Jamel visited the Bryant Park Holiday Market. And that’s where she met the soap merchant who encouraged her to double down on her art and invest in space at Bryant Park.
The costs are high, the soap maker told her, but so are the dividends.
Jamel cashed in her 401(k), moved into her cousin’s New York apartment, and rented out a vendor space in Bryant Park.
Everyone told her that she was making a mistake.
Turns out she wasn’t.
Today, she’s a sought-after talent.
She does regular pop-ups at Bryant Park, Columbus Circle, and Artists & Fleas in Chelsea and SoHo.
And she’s drawn for some of the biggest brands in home goods, gifts, and apparel.
Her latest project is a series of promotional illustrations for a book called Pick Three by Randi Zuckerberg (whose brother you may have heard of).
The gist of Zuckerberg’s book is that time and attention are scarce resources, so you have to be intentional about how you spend them.
That message sits well with Jamel, who got where she is through sheer focus.
“It’s not about talent,” she says. “And it’s not about your college major either. You can veer off the path and get clear of your pigeonhole. As long as you’re focused and determined, you can pretty much do anything.”
So why not do something you love?