Back in 1995, I was an illustration student at the Portfolio Center in Atlanta months away from finishing up my studies and venturing into the world as a professional noob. One afternoon, the head of the illustration department called me into his office to “discuss” something with me. I sat down in his office looking around at the random assortment of objects scattered on his desk wondering what he wanted to talk to me about. He shut the door, sat down in a squeaky chair, and said, “I have an opportunity that I wanted to discuss with you.” It turned out that a local businessman contacted the school inquiring whether or not he could hire a student for an illustration job. He explained that he almost always turned away work inquiries because he didn’t want his students to get taken advantage of by someone who was merely looking for free work. Illustration was a business, after all.

This was a paying gig: $1200. Granted, it was a low-ball offer but it was reasonable for a student with zero experience and would provide an opportunity for me to learn how to deal with a client under the guidance of my department chair. And the job was one he thought I could knock out of the park. I accepted without a second thought.

I was tasked with creating an illustrated map for the Sweet Auburn Festival which is an annual street festival held on Auburn Ave in downtown Atlanta. A week later, I met with the organizer of the event to discuss the project requirements, deadline, and deliverable.

The very next day, I was walking down Auburn Ave taking photos of every building on the street, mapping their location, and familiarizing myself with the surroundings. I even managed to talk with with a handful of locals to get a sense for the history of the area and their familiarity with the festival.

I had two weeks to finish the artwork and was fortunate enough that the job coincided with another job I had at the time—I was a house-sitter for another instructor at the school. When she was out of town, I would stay at her place and take care of her dogs in exchange for use of her art studio.

Detail of preliminary concept sketch

With the photos I’d taken splayed out in front of me, I started sketching the concept for the map, plotting each building along the street using my notes for guidance. I completed the concept sketch within a day or two and was satisfied enough to meet with Gary, the illustration chair, to discuss progress, make changes, and get suggestions how to improve my work.

A little over a week later, I had finished the map—a watercolor and pen and ink illustration that measured roughly 20” x 10”. After a final check-in with my advisor, I scheduled a meeting with the festival organizer to turn in my work. It’s worth noting that, at the time, artwork needed to be drum-scanned in order to use it in any media. There was no such thing as a PSD or PDF file and the “internet” had literally just been invented. My client had previously arranged with the school that he would be responsible for having the artwork scanned due to the cost of prepping art for printing. My deliverable for this project was only the artwork.

I met with the event organizer, a sharply dressed man who was a consummate salesman, at a downtown office building. He was blown away by my work, showering me with praise as if I was the second coming of Art Jesus. He shook my hand, told me to look for a check in the mail the following week, and walked off down a brightly lit hallway calling for his assistant. I left the building with my ego riding shotgun on my left shoulder whooping as if I’d won the lottery. I was a professional illustrator … And it felt really really good. At least, it beat the hell of weed-whipping at my local golf course (which I’d been doing for work a year before).

A week passed and no check arrived. Two weeks passed and still no check. I was told this happens and to be patient because clients can be very slow with payment. A couple months later, after class, my department chair called me into his office again. This time, he shut door, sat down, and said as if someone in my family had just died, “I have some bad news.” He went on to explain that he had just received a call from a local attorney. The organizer of the Sweet Auburn Festival was being sued by the City of Atlanta in a class action lawsuit. I didn’t understand what this had to do with me. It turned out that my client had scammed everyone, taking all the money he had been given to organize the Sweet Auburn Festival and left town. He was a thief, a scam artist. And he screwed me out of payment for my time and effort along with hundreds of other vendors and volunteers.

Needless to say, my illustration chair was beside himself. He apologized profusely and said he’d never seen anything like this over the course of his decades long career.

My very first professional job was a scam. I never got paid and I never saw my artwork again.

The only evidence I have of this job is this preliminary sketch.

Concept sketch for the Sweet Auburn Festival Map, Circa 1995

Note: The Portfolio Center is now a campus of the Miami Ad School and no longer offers illustration as a course of study.