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A colorful path less traveled: My journey as a professional creative after DPS

Editor’s note: This is the latest installment of monthly contributions to Boardhawk from Ednium: The Alumni Collective. It was written by Brayan Montes-Terrazas (see bio at bottom of article). Brayan’s podcast with Ednium will be released in April.

Last December I had the honor of being recognized as Ednium: The Alumni Collective’s artist of the year, or as they call it, The Creator Award.

The Creator awardee is described as an individual who creates art that authentically reflects their Denver roots. I was so honored to be awarded this as it has not always been easy being an artist, especially as a low-income, undocumented, DPS alumni.

My name is Brayan Montes-Terrazas. I am an independent artist and illustrator based in Denver, Colorado. I currently own and operate YAMZ: World of Color, a small boutique design and illustration agency focusing on helping women-owned, queer-owned and BIPOC-owned businesses across the world.

When I’m not doing that, I’m creating art that reflects my identities as a queer person, an undocumented person and my Mexican heritage. I get to sell that work across the US under the banner of YAMZ World. It wasn’t always like this, to be honest, in the grand scheme of my life this is probably the most recent change and yet it has been the most profound.

When I was a fourth-grader at Traylor Elementary, Denver Public Schools was having an art competition. The theme was safety. The chosen art would be used for the district’s calendar, and you would win four tickets to Elitch Gardens.

While the theme felt lackluster, I remember being excited because it was a chance to be competitive in something I liked, art. I went at it right away; I picked up my Crayola colored pencils and made an illustration of someone complaining the music coming from an adjacent building was too loud.

I remember thinking I was so smart because instead of drawing an entire brick building, I made a couple of brick clusters and scattered them throughout the image. I think the district found my technique contemporary because I ended up winning the April slot of the category and took home four tickets to Elitch Gardens.

I was on top of the world.

An artist since early childhood

Ever since I can remember I have been a student of art. Much of that didn’t come from formal training or an advanced degree in art. It came from an active imagination, a dedication to my school’s library and way too many Saturday morning cartoons.

I remember my dad showing me his pencil sketches from his pueblito in Mexico. He had always been creative, but upon moving to the U.S. in 2000, his passions were dimmed by the need to support a family with three kids and no formal education past middle school.

I came from an immigrant family that always put education at the forefront. My parents came to the United States when I was three years old. We are part of the 11 million undocumented people in the United States. My parents came here to give me and my family a better life and that meant education and security above all.

My parents would always say “wouldn’t it be so cool if you were an engineer, lawyer or even the CEO of a company,” and I would always respond with an enthusiastic “Yeah!” because I knew that was their expectation of the sacrifice they made. In return I would get a degree and a stable job. That was the sacrifice I paid.

I knew that wasn’t meant for me. In high school I remember redesigning PowerPoint presentations to be as creative as possible; I remember going above and beyond painting and designing sets for my high school production of Romeo and Juliet. I would create short films in my IB film class about topics I wanted to see in the world.

When I told my parents how I excited I was to be creating, their response was an eager, “Those would be great hobbies but keep your eyes on what matters. What job will pay you in the future?”

There is this stigma when someone hears the word “artist.” People sigh at a successful future for artists and creatives. There’s an assumption that all artists are starving, and they don’t know where their next paycheck will come from. That their very struggle is why they’re an artist.

Even I believed that! That belief caused me to keep my creative self on the back burner, hidden from the world, and minimize it to a hobby that only ever added value to my monetary pursuit. Additionally, I was never exposed to a world where I saw people with the same identities as me become artists and successful creatives.

Pivoting to creative work

It wasn’t until my third year in college at Colorado State University, when I was failing my finance courses, that I decided that no matter what I did with my life, it had to be creative.

I dropped my finance degree and switched to marketing. I quit my job in the office of financial aid and applied for a job as a graphic designer in the college of business. For the first time in my life, I felt like I had chosen myself.

My parents were not thrilled. They didn’t speak to me for a couple of weeks after I broke the news. “You’re not going to find a job! Does this even make money? How are you going to survive?” Part of me did feel like I was dishonoring their sacrifice, but I quickly learned, in order to honor them, I had to honor myself.

I can safely say that the rest is history. I went on to intern at a prestigious firm in Boulder called Interact. There I learned the ropes of the creative industry and what it meant to be in the creative business.

While I enjoyed my two years there, I wanted more meaning behind my work. So, when the world was shaken in 2020 I decided to shake it up even more. I was furloughed and I started a design service that would help people of my background and my cultural language. YAMZ World was born.

My time in Boulder came with many realizations. I saw a lack of diversity in the creative industry, and I wanted a life where my creativity reflected my lived experience and showcased the color of the identities I hold. I also wanted to show my younger self and young folks all over the world that success in the creative field can be possible.

I think about how excited my younger self would be if he knew I was working with clients like XBOX, Nestle, DoorDash and New Belgium Brewery.

Those ideas birthed a business and a lifestyle that allowed me to share myself and my culture with the world. Today I dedicate my life to sharing my experiences through art to show queer and marginalized people that we can succeed in this world and in creative roles.

I think back to that art contest in fourth grade a lot. It was my first “win” in art and I didn’t find another win creatively until 2020, almost 15 years later. This was the power of choosing myself and choosing creativity.