Felicia Chang is co-founder of Plantain, a company that helps people tell their life stories through combining oral histories, with historical research and beautiful design to create timeless books and digital heirlooms. She’s a trained scientist, and somewhere along the way, she became an entrepreneur, a businesswoman, a researcher, a collector of life stories and an explorer of cultures.
We sat with Felicia and had a wonder conversation, the result is this podcast episode. Listen and enjoy.
Cover photo by: Marlon James
Listening time: 30 mins
How do you define creativity, and what does it mean to you?
To me, creativity is the ability to see and build connections between what often seem like disparate ideas, sectors, systems, skill sets, people, places, times, etc. It means continuously learning, experiencing and portraying life from new and unexpected angles.
How much of your creative ability do you think is innate? Or is your creativity a skill that you have developed?
I have always been inquisitive, which I believe is critical to creativity. My father, an engineer, encouraged my brothers and I to ask, “Why?”. We were always told to think through how things did, or could, work. We were also surrounded by rare books and unique memorabilia that belonged to my mother. In hindsight, both these factors shaped my creativity, as I enjoy pairing the pragmatism of pure sciences and the more nuanced philosophies and articulations you can achieve through the arts. I also believe that it is a continuous process, and the work that I do pushes me to develop my creative skills daily.
When did you realise that you wanted to express your creativity? Was it encouraged by others (e.g., parents)?
This realisation was a slow journey rather than a decisive moment. After my first degree, I was under extreme pressure to dedicate my life to a defined career/passion. That didn’t resonate with me, so I decided to combine the fields and skills I enjoyed, wanted to learn or be better at. In this way, I figured, I would be continuously building or doing something interesting that I loved. This has worked for me thus far, and my current work melds pure and social sciences, culture and art, and business and sustainability. My family doesn’t fully understand what I do. I am still supposed to be a doctor! However, they are great and have always supported me in their own way. I am also very determined and stubborn, so to be honest, encouragement or no encouragement, I knew I was going to find a way to get things done.
What is your standard for evaluating your creative work and the works of other people? Do you think that monetary rewards can be compatible with creativity in general? Are financial rewards relevant to your projects?
When we help someone capture their life story, our goal is to make them and their loved ones feel that the product we create is a physical representation of who they are. Every detail is thought about to help them connect generations (past, present and future); to make them feel special and loved; to show them things about themselves they hadn’t known; to demonstrate how connected they are to other people, places and times in ways they may not have previously seen. I evaluate my creative work by assessing that I have done everything I can to achieve this. In the same vein, I believe that you can tell when someone invests deeply (thought, work, skill, time, etc.) in what they create. This stands out, and even if their work may not be my aesthetic, I really respect that. Our reality is that we live in a world where money is our main unit of trade. Therefore, in many ways, we choose what we value by what we choose to invest our money in. What does it then say if creatives are asked to work for free? I believe that as long as money is a critical part of our world, creativity can, and must, be compatible with financial rewards. Thus, our company operates on a dual bottom line: social good and sustainability.
Do you think the views of other people influence your perception and evaluation of your creative endeavours? What role do you believe the culture that you live in plays in your creative efforts?
I aim for all my creative endeavours to resonate with people on some level, and so I do my best to learn from the views of others. The perception of our clients and their communities is especially important as we are simply facilitators for them to tell their own stories. They must see themselves in whatever we create. Culture inspires and shapes how you think and see the world, so it definitely plays a role in my creative efforts. At the company, we’re shaped by backgrounds that have roots in the Caribbean, Europe, Africa, China and Canada, so the melding of all that is quite fascinating. Just as an example, being from Trinidad and Tobago, I have been shaped by an incredibly unique and complex mix of cultures due to the generations of people who have landed on this tiny dot from all over the world, intermingling and shaping each other’s perspectives within a backdrop of simply spectacular nature. From another perspective, Trinbagonian culture is one that does not entirely seem to see the value of creative endeavours, and this can be a challenging environment to work in.
Does your creative work come easily, or do you struggle with your ideas? What obstacles (if any) do you experience when you are creating? If you do face obstacles, how do you get past them?
I have many, many (many) ideas, and I can sometimes become overwhelmed by how to make these come together in real life. When I feel stuck, it helps me to talk to people, and I am grateful that I have a fantastic community of friends who I can turn to. In particular, Zaake, my partner in many creative endeavours, is brilliant, creative and practical, and I can lean on him for anything.
Is there something that you do to put yourself into a creative state of mind? If so, what? How do you make the leap from a “Spark” in your head to the action you produce?
I seek out even the smallest opportunities to experience something different, and this often puts me in a creative state of mind. I also immerse myself in nature, which is always new and so beautiful - it inspires me and reminds me that I am part of something much bigger. Those “sparks” are many for me, so my first step is sorting through them. I talk to people, and because I am very visual, I write a lot down to organise my ideas. Reaching a sort of panic point is also part of my creative process. I don’t enjoy this at all, but I’ve accepted that I often have to get to that point before I achieve clarity. This clarity is something I can’t really explain, but I recognise it very strongly, and I’ve learned that I can often figure it out how to produce from that point.
Was the way you express your creativity now always your ambition? If so, when did you know for sure?
Definitely not. I had no idea I would end up helping people capture their life stories. I knew for sure I had to do this the moment my granny was in front of the cinema screen at the 2012 Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival, answering questions about the film we had made about her life. She was shocked that so many people cared about who she was, and she was filled with pride. I want everyone to understand that they are special - because they are.
What has been the most significant sacrifice you have made for your craft?
Which creative people do you admire? Why?
I admire people who work hard, have humility, are thoughtful about what they create and stay open to learning.
Who or what has helped you to persevere and not quit?
Life stories help show us who we are and unlike the younger generations whose lives are primarily online, every day, we are losing thousands of our older loved ones, and the stories with them. Every time we hand over a completed life story project, our clients and their loved ones express how loved they feel and how priceless it is that their stories are preserved for generations. No matter how hard it gets, this drives me. Every single person who has shown belief in our work has helped me to continue. The smallest gesture counts.
Do you believe that it is essential to be accepted by others as being creative or is just doing what you love to do enough to justify your work? Explain.
More than acceptance, I value respect. I don’t have to be “accepted”, but if what I do and how I do it is respected then that means a lot. To me, just doing what I love to do is not enough to justify my work. Love of what I do is necessary to maintain my drive, but my current work has to help people tell their life stories in a way that can contribute to more self-aware, empathetic and connected societies.
Has rejection ever affected your creative process? Explain.
Definitely. Rejection makes me doubt that my vision and decisions are flawed. That makes it challenging to produce work and to keep moving forward.
Have you ever doubted your talent? If so, how did you work through your doubt?
Yes, I have many doubts about my talent. I am a scientist by training, and it can be very intimidating working in the creative sector. I work through my doubt by detaching my “feeling” of uncertainty and articulating the facts around why I feel like this. That helps me to understand what I need to work on to be better or what I need to ignore. When I decide there is something I want to be better at, I seek out situations where I have to face this. That helps me to build that skill and as I work (very hard) towards that my confidence strengthens.
What piece of work are you most proud? Why?
I am most proud of building a company and a community we love that is based on our values. Plantain is the synergy of Zaake and my ideas, our beliefs, our perspectives, our creativity, and our skill. It has been a rollercoaster, and I am very proud of us for having taken it from a little idea to one that has impacted people in a real way, for what I hope will be for generations.
What is your ultimate creative goal, and how attainable do you think it is?
I don’t have an ultimate one, but one of my creative goals is to inspire everyone to want to tell their story. I genuinely believe that by celebrating each other’s lives in beautiful ways, we can build more self-aware, connected and empathetic societies. I am not sure how attainable this is, but I am going to try my best to achieve it.
What is the best advice you’ve received that helped you move forward on your creative journey?
Some of the best advice I have received to invest in people – both yourself and others.
To a young Creative emerging in your field, what advice would you give them?
Be caring and curious about others and explore the factors that have shaped them and their communities. Broaden your perspectives by getting involved in many different fields – this will help you to understand others better, and to build unique solutions. Work hard and respect others through developing your own skill – you are the facilitator of their story, and this will help you do their story justice.
For what would you like to be most remembered?
The sum of whatever it is I’ve achieved when I die.
If you were a crayon, what would be the name of your colour?
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