Thursday, September 17, 2015

"Life" in "Visual"

It was an average day in spring when I realized my job wasn't getting me anywhere, I wasn't making enough money, and I wanted to get myself to a better place in life. I quickly resigned, before I really had a new job, and took a few interviews during my "two weeks notice" period. One of the jobs I interviewed for was this new trendy thing I had been hearing about: merchandising. I knew of a few artists who worked in the field and seemed to like it because it made use of their visual talents.

After four interviews, I accidentally landed the perfect job for myself. It was within biking distance of my home, it paid more than my last job, it was full time, and it fell under the "visual" category, meaning, in some small way, I would finally be putting my art degree to use. I entered the job with my head held high and my self-esteem in much better shape than it was in the winter.

Now, about four months later, I find myself trudging to work with a miserable feeling in my heart, wishing I could turn my bike around, crawl back into bed, and forget I ever thought this job was a good idea in the first place.

But let's rewind. When I started the job, I had little to no idea what would really be expected of me. I had heard I'd be dressing mannequins, making displays, "making windows," and setting up for the different "seasons," whatever that was supposed to mean. Since I started four months ago I feel that I have learned enough to fill an entire manual, or perhaps write a small novel about my experiences.

Here is a brief overview of what I do on a daily/weekly/monthly basis:

1. Dress mannequins

Yep, I'm required to dress the ladies and the dudes. Dressing the ladies came pretty easily to me, as I am a lady, and have always enjoyed fashion. The trickiest part was learning how to disassemble the bodies of the mannqequins in order to maneuver the clothing onto them, often during store hours when tons of people were walking by. I dropped more than a few arms and legs on the floor in front of a full audience during the learning process. Dressing the men had equal technical challenges, but with the added obstacle of not knowing anything at all about men's fashion. The first couple of times I dressed male mannequins I had a few sales associates approach me and tell me that they looked "gay." [While there are several reasons why this probably wasn't the best word choice, the point was well taken]. On top of these challenges, the male mannequins are probably about twice as heavy as the female ones, which means that I often have to lay their entire bodies down on the floor to dress them. I once had a woman walk by me and gasp because she thought there was a dead person on the floor.

2. Set up cosmetics displays 

Cosmetics displays can be charming or annoying. The one directly above this sentence was my favorite display that I have worked on so far. This is the only part of the job in which I am regularly allowed to use "props" such as the roses pictured above. The props nestle peacefully alongside the product under shiny vitrines on pedestals in order to promote their divine smelliness. The purpose of the vitrines is so that people don't steal the product (there is a lot of stealing where I work). I am told that we only set up displays for the fragrance companies that have enough money to promote their product in the store. We do a lot of set ups for Chanel. On my first day on the job, I dropped and broke a glass vase (a prop), making me look very much like "the new girl." I have not broken anything since.

3. Put up signs and hang art

There is a lot of corporate art that needs to get hung and moved around as the merchandise in the store moves throughout the selling period. There are also signs, like the Chanel sign above, that get hung for different events, sale sets, seasons, and products. Sometimes they hang from the ceiling, otherwise they are placed in impossibly heavy sign holders that I have to haul from floor to floor. Unfortunately, I have only gotten the chance to do a bit of vinyl lettering here and there throughout the store. My boss used to have an entire sign shop in his office, but apparently now even cheap vinyl is too expensive and time-consuming for many retailers.

4. Make window displays

Making windows is fun! It is what makes my job unique to other visual merchandisers who work in giant concrete block buildings without windows. The mannequins above are wearing merchandise that is on loan to us from Goodwill for their 150th birthday celebration. We have a history with Goodwill, which is why they chose us as their advertisers. The window displays are not always as extravagant as this. Sometimes they are simple, with just two forms, and a sign. They have gotten less and less complicated throughout the years, largely due to the store's decreasing budget. The worst thing about windows is all the dead spiders that accumulate in the corners in the summertime. 

5. (Sometimes) put up lettering

The store has been undergoing a significant makeover since I started working there, with many vendors getting added to the mix or getting moved around the store. Corporate wanted us to put vendor lettering on the walls so buyers would know which vendors were located in each department. My boss warned me that lettering was difficult and tedious, and that not many people were good at it. Needless to say, he was a bit surprised when I turned out to be very good at it! I am not sure if it was my experience in a sign shop that gave me a steady hand, or my determination to get a compliment from my boss, but I totally killed this project. Unfortunately it was kind of a one-time deal, and I likely won't have to do it again for awhile.

In general, this is what I do on the job. There are other tasks that have to be attended to daily such as; walking the store to make sure nobody undressed a mannequin or moved around a display, dusting mannequin bases and shelves, moving around clothing fixtures so that they stay in a gridded pattern, etc., etc. All of these tasks, when analyzed invidually, are things that I like doing, and I do well. I cherish the fact that I have a job that has me on my feet all day rather than sitting in a cubicle, and I realize how lucky I am that I am able to work with my hands.

What I don't like, I realized [after hours and hours of analyzing why the heck I am so unhappy], is the going. The trapped feeling that you get from not being able to leave your place of employment for X amount of hours unless previously approved by a supervisor. The pitifully short lunchbreaks in windowless break rooms, the mind-numbing din of commuting the same route every single day, week after week, month after month, knowing exactly what awaits you when you walk in the doors. I swear I could work as a garbage collector and be happy just as long as I didn't have to be confined to a soul-crushing schedule. The longer I am in the workforce the more I realize that it's not necessarily the job that gets me down, but the schedule.

I apologize for this self-reflexive post, but I am proud that I finally realized this about myself. I have been beating myself up for not being "normal" [which in my twisted vocabulary book = able to work a real job], and to start trying to figure out a way to work [because I love work, I really, really do - I'm the hardest worker that I know!] in a way that doesn't feel so much like work. I used to think this was impossible, and that there was never going to be any way for me to develop skills that would allow me to work on my own terms, on my own schedule, and be my own boss. Even now I am not quite sure exactly what I'm going to do. But at least I have been able to identify one thing that I WANT in my life, and for me that's a huge accomplishment.

And so here I am again - stuck in a job that isn't getting me anywhere, waiting for the moment when I can leave, trying constantly to get myself to a better place. But this time, at least, I can see very clearly where that place is. And it's awesome.

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