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Meet Kaya Dzankich

Today we’d like to introduce you to Kaya Dzankich.

Kaya, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
I grew up in rural Oregon, surrounded by nature and animals. Since day one, drawing has been my passion and my comfort. As a kid I loved to draw dragonflies, honey bees, butterflies and, to date myself, E.T. When we weren’t inside drawing or building Lego, my younger sister, Angie, and I was outside exploring, building forts, running from imaginary bears, etc. Our imaginations ran wild. We were happy kids, but life wasn’t easy.

My parents divorced and my mom raised us by herself. To support us, she put herself through college while still working full time. My sister had Cystic Fibrosis, a fatal, genetic disease that required special medical treatments and a lot of medication. Despite her diagnosis, my sister’s sheer strength and will kept her living a fairly normal life throughout high school. Thanks to my mom, I was instilled with a strong work ethic at a young age. I got my first job when I was 14 and I’ve worked steadily ever since.

After graduating high school, the allure of the “big city” took hold and I moved to Portland, Oregon. I still had goals for a career in art, but I wasn’t ready for college. I was too distracted with personal relationships and the excitement of being on my own to focus solely on school. I had a lot of fun in Portland and continued working at odd jobs for a couple of years. My sister’s health started to decline. I felt lost and moved back to my hometown. I got a job at a record store, enrolled in community college and lived at home with my mom and sister.

Then, in 1999, my sister passed away at age 19. I was 22. Life turned upside down. For the first year, I was totally off the rails. I got into a horribly abusive relationship, quit school and isolated myself from friends. Thanks to the amazing people I worked with, my job was still there for me and that ultimately saved me. When a loved one dies it feels like life should stop, but it absolutely does not. Life shows no mercy. It feels unfair, unrelenting. There is no choice but to keep going, keep working, keep living. The one thread that has kept driving me and kept my aspirations high is art.

I moved back to Portland and was finally ready to commit to school. I was 24 and could now claim myself as an independent which meant I could take out my own financial aid for school. I was rebellious at the idea of art school. It was too expensive and I was worried my own style would be compromised. I realized I could take all the basic classes at community college and transfer the credits to a four-year college, saving myself thousands of dollars. After two years, I transferred to Portland State University. At the time, graphic design seemed like the practical career path for an artist. While in school, I worked part-time and took freelance design jobs to make ends meet. I loved college and soaked up every minute of it. I graduated with a degree in Graphic Design and immediately started looking for work. At the time, Portland was saturated with artists and designers, but there was not a lot of work.

Incidentally, I took a road trip to L.A. with a good friend who was moving there. I spent a couple of weeks and was hooked. The huge urban sprawl of L.A. was so exciting and it really felt like the land of opportunity. Within a month I sold almost everything I had in Oregon, took my new kitty and moved to L.A. I dreamed big. I wanted to work in animation or anything creative that L.A. had to offer. Almost immediately, I got a design job at a band merchandise company designing web stores.

I worked steadily in design for a couple of years, but I always had a thirst for more. I wanted to keep learning, keep growing and keep being challenged. A big turning point was a design job I found, serendipitously, on Craigslist. I was first to answer an ad for a print/web designer at a small design boutique that was doing exciting work. The owner, Kelly, and I clicked and she hired me on the spot. We were doing work for high profile photographers and artists. I worked for her for two years and learned so much. Then the recession hit. She reluctantly laid me off but sent my resume to one of our clients who is a producer for TV animation. To get my foot in the door at an animation studio would have been the biggest dream come true, but I thought there was no possibility since I didn’t have animation experience.

To my surprise, I got a call for an interview. The ‘Family Guy’ spinoff show, ‘The Cleveland Show’ was just getting started and they were hiring a new crew. The position was entry-level, as a producer’s assistant. At age 30 I’d be starting from ground zero. This might be a terrifying thought to some, but this was the big opportunity I’d been dreaming of. I wanted it more than anything and I got it! I knew once I got my foot in the door I could prove myself as an artist and I was extremely determined. While in production, I learned the animation pipeline and all about the different art positions. I had experience in traditional painting and was advanced in Photoshop, so the color department was the natural fit. I took advantage of free classes offered to studio employees and learned more software and skillsets specific to animation.

After a year, a color position became available and I went for it. I tested with a few other artists from the industry and got the job! It was life-changing in every way. Since then, it’s been onward and upward. For the last ten years, I’ve worked as a color designer and background painter for a lot of the major animation studios like Dreamworks TV, Disney TV and Cartoon Network. I worked on Family Guy for the last few years and in 2018 I was hired as the Color Supervisor on Bob’s Burgers. I’m at a comfortable, stable point in my career and I don’t take a day for granted.

In this next chapter of my life, I’m committed to growing and developing my own, personal artwork and seeing where that goes. Art is a constant force, driving me to explore my own creativity and push my imagination to new places. The possibilities are endless.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
Professionally, there have been struggles. Before getting an art position the pay was barely a livable wage. I had to borrow money and defer student loans at times. There were periods of time of unemployment that were not only hard financially, but psychologically.

Now that I’ve worked my way up the ladder, the challenges are very different. Most people in the industry are very supportive of one another and great friendships are formed, but in some cases, there are bad apples. Whether it’s tip-toeing around inflated egos or simply dealing with difficult personalities, it can be very challenging to find ways of coping and communicating, especially for an introvert. It’s a constant learning experience. It’s challenged me in ways that ultimately become a positive thing because I learn a lot about myself and try to be more patient.

We’d love to hear more about your art.
I create mysterious, otherworldly drawings and paintings with watercolor, acrylic and/or ink. I also specialize in digital illustrations created in Photoshop and Illustrator. It’s easy to let the day job take focus away from doing my own work so I’ve committed to drawing every day, even if it’s just a sketch. I like to experiment with different techniques and keep pushing myself to new levels. In the last year I’ve been in a couple gallery shows and opened an online shop where I sell prints and originals.

My day job is as a Color Supervisor for the animated show Bob’s Burgers. I have years of experience in background painting and color design, which are painting characters and props. To stay afloat in animation you have to be versatile and be able to adapt to any style that is thrown at you. Between the many freelance jobs and in-house jobs I’ve had, this is something I’ve learned to do quickly and efficiently.

Any shoutouts? Who else deserves credit in this story – who has played a meaningful role?
Especially when I was younger I didn’t have a lot of self-confidence, so I credit a lot of people for pushing me forward. My friends, family and teachers have always been supportive and encouraging. Once I got into the thick of it, there were a lot of people that helped me to the next level. My old boss and friend, Kelly Hanna, always believed in me and has been one of my biggest cheerleaders throughout my career. She not only taught me a lot about design, but she helped give me the confidence in my own work to keep creating more.

The first producers I worked with played a big role in giving me the validation I needed to keep fighting for an art position and they educated me about the animation world. The first supervising directors I worked with totally opened my eyes to new challenges and I learned invaluable animation lessons from them. They raised the bar high and I’m glad I learned at those standards on my first animation job.

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