As a kid, Jeremy Sniatecki used to ride his bike to the North Tonawanda Public Library, checking out "The Art of Return of the Jedi" and "How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way" time and time again. Halley's Comics, a comic book store on Oliver Street, was another favorite stop. Around age 16, he began painting watercolor pet portraits for $35 a pop.
Later, a high school guidance counselor suggested Sniatecki apply his artistic ability and love of science to a career illustrating medical journals. So he enrolled in a program to do that at Rochester Institute of Technology. But that path took a sharp turn as Sniatecki was staring down an expensive junior year in the program with dwindling funds. Leaning in the back of a classroom waiting for his friends to finish their biology tests one day, his elbow nudged a Rubbermaid bin.
"Inside was a bag of cats. A bag of cats!" Sniatecki said. "They were gonna be dissected that afternoon by a different advanced class. And the one that had its head closest to me, in this bag of cats, looked like my cat back home that I missed. I just said, 'OK, that is my sign.'"
He shifted his focus to commercial illustration and ended up designing product packaging and advertisements. Later, when he left the corporate world, his background in comics and superheroes came in handy. He began sending illustrations of movie and comic characters to companies that make toys, and was able to break into a career designing such things as a plush sword toy for the latest box-office-smashing Wonder Woman movie and a dragon figurine collectible for the blockbuster HBO series "Game of Thrones".
Today, he's "turning down work regularly," said Sniatecki, who lives with his wife and two sons in Rochester.
Q: How did you end up leaving the corporate world and becoming a freelance graphic designer and commercial illustrator?
A: I had a very bad reaction to a pharmaceutical that a doc put me on for some PTSD and anxiety disorder issues I was working through. I was wrecked physically, my body chemistry was hit by a truck essentially. So, in 2007, the days that I could sit up straight, I sat at my computer at home and tried to drum up some freelance work. I got rolling with different little jobs here and there, catalogs, whatever I could do to pay the bills.
My health was getting better, and God bless my boys. They were 7 and 8 at the time. Every lunch break we would just take a walk around the block. Over time, I could get farther and farther around the block. When I couldn't walk anymore or sit up at the computer anymore, they'd pull the coffee table up and bust out the Stratego boardgame. It was a very dark time. It was a big, dark cloud for months, but the silver lining was the freelance career that got rolling.
For every 20 places I'd call or email saying, "Could I send some samples for some freelance work?" one out of 20 would say, "yeah, go ahead." Eventually, you get enough of those people saying yes, and some of those give you work.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I'm working for a kind of virtual company based in California, London and Tokyo called Molecule 8. We're working on a John Lennon, 1/6th scale action figure. High-end, super realistic, Yoko Ono's involved, the whole thing. It's a museum-quality replica of this famous person. It's a big industry in the U.S., but huge in Europe and Asia. People go nuts over it. It's like an art form, these little 12-inch-tall movie characters, collectible figures that look real. The clothing is tailored, everything. The next one we're doing is Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka and then the new "The Tick" series on Amazon Prime, based on an old comic book. We're doing some "Lord of the Rings".
Q: What a dream job!
A: I got the gig because I wrote to them and said, "Hey, I really like what you're doing. My mom's a huge John Lennon fan. I'd love to work on this. Do you need any help with your packaging design?" They wrote back the same day and said, "We're not looking for anybody yet, but you were the first person out of about 300 people who asked permission first before sending us samples. You were polite about it and you're the only person who was, so we're gonna give you a try." Just normal, what you think would be common courtesy politeness and being respectful, that's what got me chosen out of 300 other people.
Q: What are you doing with the John Lennon project?
A: I'm designing all of the packaging, I'm helping design the patterns they're gonna print on the tiny clothing and help figure out what accessories he comes with, and a lot of the marketing and the writing and promotional stuff. Another one of my duties is to go through and make sure all of the little tiny accessories are movie accurate because the collectors want that. It's fun. It's kind of like hunting and sleuthing. Is Willy Wonka's inventing-room key going to be the right size? Are John Lennon's sandals the right style for that era? A lot of research goes into it. I'm taking screen captures, researching what kind of leather was used on the boots. I gotta find just the right picture of the bottom of Willy Wonka's shoe. There's like twice in the movie that you can see the bottom of his shoe. I spent today working on John Lennon's glasses, determining what shade his glasses are going to be; the yellow glasses from the "Imagine" video.
Q: What is it like working in the global economy?
A: It's literally global competition at this point. It's pretty wild. Versatility is what's made it possible to make a career out of this. I can say, "Hey, I can do your packaging, but I can also write your press release" and they go, "oh boy, come on out," you know? When I do pitch, it doesn't matter where they are. Another company that I just finished a bunch of Harry Potter and Hunger Games boxes for, they're in Japan and Hong Kong. So I just sent them some samples and said, 'Hey, I don't speak Cantonese, but if you can speak some English, we'll figure it out," you know?
Q: So many art majors don't end up doing what they love or have a hard time marketing their skills. I'm sure people ask you for advice all the time.
A: That's a huge thing. I know some people who are brilliant artists, better than me, and they don't go anywhere with it. And they try. But being successful has got to be a marriage of talent and self promotion. You gotta learn how to promote yourself. Even if it just means being friendly and down to earth and saying "this is what I do, I don't know if you need any help with this kind of stuff but I'd love for you to consider me if you ever have a need." As simple as that.
Because you know what? In the business world, I've found there are thousands and thousands of very creative people but, you know, some of them are jerks. Some of them are lazy, some of them take deadlines as suggestions. So if you can be friendly and responsible, and you've got the talent to back it up, it's very doable. If there are any nerdy kids out there like me who like art and are willing to put in the work, it can be done.