Arts / Social media

How @bymariandrew went from doodles to Instagram fame in one short year

The D.C. illustrator on being vulnerable, finding her community and “the dark place” that led her to drawing.

Illustrator Mari Andrew works out of The Lemon Bowl, a shared art studio in D.C.’s Park View. (Courtesy photo)
Mari Andrew had never drawn before.

A doodle here, a doodle there — but nothing real. Nothing meaningful. So last September, she decided to try. And try and try some more. Now, one year later, she’s finalizing a book of illustrated essays and posting her cartoons to more than 140,000 Instagram followers who have fallen in love with her relatable cartoons depicting the hopes and heartbreaks that come with being a young single woman in a city
For the 29-year-old writer and illustrator, based in D.C’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood, the story really is that simple.
Andrew has spent the last year working on a 365-day illustration project: every day since September 13, 2015, she’s posted one cartoon or sketch based on her real life to her Instagram account. It’s taught her a valuable lesson in the “transformative power of a daily practice.”
“I guess if you do anything once a day, you develop a sort of muscle for it, even creatively,” Andrew said. “I don’t think of myself as a very disciplined person, so it was a happy surprise to see how easily I fell into this artistic habit and how much it influenced so many areas of my life.”
There’s no doubt it was an uphill battle. After moving to D.C. four years ago (“For a guy,” she said, adding, “We immediately broke up.”), she felt isolated next to the city’s career-driven and ambitious young inhabitants.
“I was in a pretty dark place and wanted some uplifting hobbies, so I tried guitar, surfing, Latin dancing and illustrating,” Andrew said. “The last two stuck. The first two, not so much.”
Go back far enough in her Instagram account and you’ll find her first few drawings. (While she initially posted her drawings on both Twitter and Instagram, she eventually stopped posting to Twitter: “Instagram felt like such a natural platform for this, and my following really took off there.”) Flip forward and you can see her distinctive lettering — uppercase and lowercase mixed quirkily — become more refined, her lines smooth out and her following grow.
Even as her audience grew from a meager 80 followers to tens of thousands, she hasn’t shied away from illustrating her anxieties honestly.
“The more personal my posts are, the more engagement they get,” she said, “so it’s only encouraged me to be more vulnerable.”
Andrew spends her days working a nine-to-five marketing job. Outside those hours, she works on her writing and illustration at Park View’s The Lemon Bowl, the shared studio that recently replaced a deli on Georgia Avenue. The space was developed last summer by local artisans Holley Simmons, Kate Zaremba and Linny Giffin as collaborative art space where creatives could teach and learn from one another.
“I have tried working from home, but like many D.C. apartments, mine is teeny and I don’t like doing art at the same table where I eat and watch Netflix,” Andrew said. “It really helps to keep it all separate. I see going to the art studio as a similar discipline to going to the gym. It really keeps me accountable and focused.”
Andrew is one of four members of The Lemon Bowl. Just last week, on Sept. 13, the studio celebrated the completion of her yearlong illustration project. She’s currently working with her agent to find a publisher for her book.
“It’s so easy to get into the creative scene here because people are so willing to help and embrace new artists,” said Andrew.
And there’s always hope for new artists, she told New York City-based jewelry and accessory designer Susan Alexandra in May, in an interview on Alexandra’s blog.
“No experience is wasted,” she told Alexandra, pointing to how a tedious job writing labels as a 23-year-old birthed her unique handwriting. “If you keep creating throughout the hardest, loneliest, ugliest, directionless times of your life, you’ll [someday] wake up and realize you paved a highway heading toward a really spectacular place.”
Involved as she is with D.C.’s community of “hardworking and prolific” artists, most of her engagement with the art community is online. Connecting with local artists, like D.C.’s Elizabeth Grabber, Kathryn Zaremba, Rania Hassan and Kelly Towles, is particularly easy on Instagram as well, she says.
To follow along with Andrew’s own journey as an illustrator, find her Instagram @bymariandrew.

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