I don’t have much of an introduction because Stephanie Yuhas says it all so much better. She is truly an inspiration and tells a powerful story about overcoming bullies by finding her own voice, and it is a very powerful voice indeed.
I do want to include an excerpt from an interview she did for her book, American Goulash, because it highlights one of her bully’s point of view. Also, at the end of this post Stephanie gives us all a peek inside her book. Please Enjoy!
Your book is a work of creative fiction. How do you define that term?
All of the events that happened are true, but I had to change many of the names and some of the places to protect the guilty, ha ha! I feel that all memoirs are “creative fiction” because your perception of the events are often seen through your particular shade of glasses. For instance, as a result of an eye-opening ten-year high school reunion, I’m now really good friends with my childhood bully “Mohan”. He’s read the book. While he remembers many of the incidents at hand, he did not see his behaviour as very harsh because he felt that he was just deflecting the bullying. “I was the nerdy kid in class, and then you walked in, with that stupid hat and haircut, and I thought, oh man…what an easy target. I don’t remember what I specifically did to you. But I remembered thinking, ‘I’ll point at her and no one will look at me.’ All you would have needed to say was, ‘Mohan’s glasses look stupid,’ and that would have ended it. But instead you ran into the corner, cried, and drew mermaids. Like a sucker.” And then he punched me in the arm. Mohan is still an ass and that’s terrible advice, anyway. But it’s interesting to see how some of my big moments are his faint memories. At least I’m bigger than him now, so we can be friends.
From Poverty to Publishing and Bullies to Business:
How a Successful Female Business Owner Starter Her Company in 5th Grade
by Stephanie Yuhas
Philadelphia, PA….“Everything I learned about running an arts business, I learned in fifth grade,” says Stephanie Yuhas, professional writer and producer. “My family was poor, so I had to figure out how to help pay the bills, with maybe a little left over for arcade games and art supplies.”
In her new tell-all book, American Goulash, Yuhas describes adolescence, art and awkwardness, growing up with her single mother and eccentric old-world grandmother in a 425-square foot shack in the middle of suburban New Jersey.
“My family emigrated from Transylvania in the 1970s with nothing but the clothing on their backs. They worked hard and never asked for help because they felt it would shame upon our family,” Yuhas said.
But in the neon-colored ‘80s world of designer blue jeans and the introduction of light-up sneaker technology, Yuhas stuck out like a sore thumb when she went to school in rags. “Sometimes I had to wear the same patched-up sweatsuit for over a week, until the teacher would call about its stain or smells. But I also didn’t help the situation because I was a weird kid. I once went to school wearing a garbage bag because I thought they could pass for MC Hammer pants.”
Equipped with only her crayons courtesy of her grandmother’s job at the local Howard Johnson, she created drawings to escape the uneasiness of her world. “I never spoke because I was self-conscious of my accent. I would draw The Little Mermaid, because she also had also had no voice and I was inspired by her transformation.” And then one day a crowd of classmates formed around her for the first time, to watch her draw. “It was like being a Disney magician. Even bullies got off my back when I drew Mickey Mouse!”
Gaining confidence in her new skills, Yuhas decided she wanted a bicycle and entered a national competition sponsored by Mattel —and won. “Although the bicycle was too small for me, it was still a victory.” When she needed a Mother’s day present, she entered a contest at the local mall and won her mother a spa day. But her mother never cashed in the coupon because she couldn’t understand why Americans would “allow strangers to put mud on them.”
It wasn’t until fifth grade, when classmates started approaching Yuhas to draw them comic book characters that her hobby became a business. “I had to fight a lot to get people to pay me. It was weird to talk to a bully that was bigger than you and ask him to give you HIS lunch money. It dawned on me that I had to be more like The Little Mermaid who learned to be human through trial and error. I needed to grow some legs, even if it meant that I had to battle some scary sea monsters along the way. Even today as a female small business owner, I have to fight twice as hard to make sure that I can get everyone at my company paid, including myself.”
Her business grew into high school, where she sold mosaic tables and homemade lamps. “My most popular item was a palm tree lamp. I found out years later that people were taking out the light bulbs and using them as smoking apparatuses for marijuana. I was so naive.”
Yuhas won more prizes for her art, eventually winning the Presidential Scholarship to the Philadelphia University of the Arts. By sophomore year of college, she officially founded her freelance illustration business and worked part-time at Utrecht Art Supplies to cash in on their employee-discount on art supplies. Before being old enough to drink, Yuhas already had an established list of clients and her work exhibited in bars, cafes, and galleries at Rutgers University and The Well Fed Artist in Olde City.
Upon graduation, Yuhas won a pitch contest at the Ottawa International Animation Festival and her work was featured on the front page of YouTube, MySpace, and aired on Nickelodeon. She transitioned from animator to producer, so she could manage larger projects and hire other freelancers.
In 2006, she “met her prince charming”, fellow filmmaker Matt Conant. The two had a movie-theme wedding at the Colonial Theater and are living happily-ever-after in the Norristown. They merged their small businesses into a new company, Crystalline Studios, serving clients like Longwood Gardens, SEPTA, and Ebay with video, animation, and graphics services. They used their combined profits to start a non-profit, Project Twenty1, to help other emerging media artists how to form and build their careers. The non-profit now boasts the largest film competition in Philadelphia, the 21-Day Filmmaking Competition. Still under 30, Yuhas and a team of community volunteers co-founded an arts district, Norristown Arts Hill, to aid economic development through the arts in downtown Norristown. She also recently co-produced a film called Choose (dir. Robbie Bryan), that raised thousands of dollars for cancer charities and Turn that Phone Off, an animated campaign against texting while driving.
Yuhas’ other notable film work includes The Mystery Science Theatre 3000 Turkey Day Specials and Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie. “You have to wear so many hats on an independent or cult-level,” Yuhas added, “One minute I’m helping my husband into a giant robot costume so he can smash a miniature of Las Vegas, the next I’m attaching a triceratops mask to Tom Servo’s head, and moments later I’m running to make 40 banana and peanut butter sandwiches to squeeze one more shot of the day.” Her recent web series, Nerd vs. Geek, got the attention of the team at Articulate: With Jim Cotter, they commissioned 12 episodes of Moot, a series of shorts about teachers to air on WHYY-TV and WHYY.com.
“I can’t say it’s a rags to riches story yet because I’m still in the trenches, making sure I have enough work to support family, my employees, and my nonprofit community,” said Yuhas. “But I feel thankful every single day that I had arts programs at my public school and local library to help guide and shape my career. To me, the arts are not just a hobby or a side job that I can leave at 5 p.m. Art is how I communicate.”
Chapter 15: Everything I Learned About Being a Professional Artist, I Learned in Fifth Grade
I was always good at drawing, but I didn’t realize until the end of fifth grade that it would make an effective deterrent against bullies. People always found some reason to pick on me, but as soon as I started drawing popular animated and comic book characters, everyone, bullies included, gathered around to watch.
One day, Mohan, a now-humongous bully, spotted me at the drinking fountain. I froze like a deer caught in headlights as he came toward me. One of the reasons he got away with everything was because his mom was the lunch lady. He looked around to make sure the coast was clear before he talked to me.
“Uh, can you draw me a picture of this?”
He reached into his backpack and pulled out a weathered comic book featuring a big-breasted Amazonian woman with white hair.
I blushed. “Uh, I dunno who that is.”
“Don’t you know anything?” he snorted. “It’s Glory from Youngblood Strikefile! I want a big poster of her for my wall. Like, life sized. Or bigger! Can you do it?”
I considered the logistics of the project for a moment. Something told me that parents and teachers would not approve of this young lady fighting crime with her boobs hanging out like that. And if I didn’t do the project well, Mohan would tell the other kids that I was a lousy artist, and the bullying would start again. I figured that if I worked after school before the late bus came every day for a solid month, I could create a great-looking poster without getting into trouble with my mom. But I would need resources.
I bit my lower lip and told him my price.
“Aw, come on, can’t you do it for free? That’s like three weeks allowance!”
“I don’t get an allowance. I have to get paid making drawings so I can buy stuff.”
“That’s weird. Why doesn’t your mom buy you things? Oh, right, I forgot. Your family’s poor.” He laughed. His family was poor too, but Mohan’s bullying style was to take emphasis off of his own deficiencies through diversion.
I blushed, put my head down, and turned away. “Well, okay, I gotta go now.”
He stomped his foot. “It’s not fair. Why won’t you do this? I can’t draw, and drawing is fun for you.”
I turned back around. “Nuh-uh! I don’t even like this character!”
“But she’s popular. And if you make it good enough, maybe Disney will be impressed and let you work there.”
“How’s Disney gonna see the picture if it’s in your house?”
He thought about that. “I have an uncle who works at Disney.”
I considered this for a moment. “Awesome!” I said, furiously flipping open my sketchbook. “I have a bunch of my own ideas I want to show him, and maybe we can make them together.”
“Oh, he’s far away in Hollywood. Come on, please? Are you gonna draw this for me or not? My mom will give you an extra chocolate milk at lunchtime for the next month.”
“My mom says chocolate milk makes you fat. And I can’t trade chocolate milk for art supplies. I’m gonna need a lot of peach crayons to color all of this boob skin.”
“Wait a sec.”
Mohan dug through his backpack and handed me a mangled box of dirty crayon stubs with a small pad of drawing paper. “There, now you can do it free.”
I looked at the powdery mess of wax. “There are no peach crayons in here, and the paper is too small.”
“You can melt the other crayon colors into the one you need. Then you can glue the pieces of paper together to make them big.”
“I’m not allowed to use matches. And gluing paper together looks crappy.”
“Fine. I have a thing of quarters next to my bed.”
“That sounds fair.”
Our complex negotiations were complete. The next day, he brought in his barrel of change. We counted every coin and it was still less than half of our agreed-upon price.
“Well,” I said. “Maybe I can do a little-er picture.”
“No way. I want the biggest picture ever! Wall sized. Can’t you do it for cheaper?”
“It’s gonna take me a whole month to make it. I won’t be able to make my own art projects or do drawings for other people that whole time, and I’m saving up quarters to beat Darkstalkers at the arcade.”
“Well, if I give you any money, how do I know you’re gonna finish it?”
“I have an idea,” I said, doing math in my notebook. “If you give me the change bucket now, then you can pay me the rest when it’s done. Like layaway or a deposit or whatever you call it. I’ll make a receipt thing like they give at the store. One for you, one for me. And I guess we both sign it?”
“That’s a good idea. I’ll get the rest from my brother. I’ll tell him that if you ever become a famous artist, the picture will be worth a lot of money. And then you’ll buy it back from us, right?”
“I’m not sure that’s how it works. I think teacher said the value of art increases when the artist is dead.”
“Okay, then we’ll wait for that.”
As expected, it took me about a month to draw the semi-pornographic poster in secret. I was constantly looking over my shoulder, afraid that someone might see it and take my barrel of precious video game quarters. The delivery day arrived and we met in the lunchroom by the trash cans.
“You got the picture?”
I pulled it out.
“Whoa. Her boobies are the size of my head!” He moved to grab it.
“Hold on a sec. Do you have extra money?”
“I forgot it. I’ll bring it to you tomorrow. But I want to show this to my brother tonight.” He made another grab for the picture.
“I think it would be better if you gave me the rest and then I gave you the picture.”
“Give it to me now,” he said in a louder voice.
“Stop. You’re gonna wrinkle it!”
Mohan’s mom happened to walk by, donning her lunch lady garb.
“What is going on here?” she asked in a booming voice.
We both froze in place.
“Uh,” we stammered.
“Give me whatever you are fighting about. Right now.”
Her eyes grew wider as she unrolled the picture. I was terrified she was going to rip it up and toss it into the heap of discarded green beans and tater tots.
“You drew this?” she asked me.
I nodded but didn’t look up at her.
“Why were you trying to take away her drawing, Mohan?”
“I paid for it, fair and square.”
“Nuh-uh!” I dug around in my backpack and pulled out my copy of the receipt.
His mom looked at it closely. “Mohan, this is your handwriting.”
“Yeah, make her give it to me.”
“Why did you lie to this girl? You don’t have any money.”
She dug around in her apron and pulled out a twenty-dollar bill. “Here you go, dear. Keep the change.”
She turned to glare at Mohan. “I’ll take some of it out of your next allowance. The rest you’ll earn by mowing lawns.”
“Hey, if you buy something on credit, you need to pay for it, Moha.”
“Mom! Don’t call me ‘Moha’ at school!”
Mohan was miffed at me for about a week, but forgave me when his friends saw the blazing Glory art across his wall. He was the only kid on his block to own boobies the size of his head. Word spread and he was a hero among the fifth grade boys. One of his friends commissioned me to draw Rogue from the X-Men on his Trapper Keeper. (Her boobs were more reasonable). Much later, in high school, Mohan even bought a bunch of my weird ceramic palm tree lamps.
Of course, I was horrified when I discovered that the lamps were popular because they were easy to convert into bongs, but that’s another story. Some of the bullies were off of my back, I had video game money, and I was officially an artist, a paid artist at that.
 Always consider logistics before giving a quote. Rule of thumb: (time it takes to make project x your hourly wages based on experience) + Materials + 10% contingency. Additional fees for rush jobs, “hazard pay,” and travel.
 Yes, artists have bills too. Even in fifth grade.
 If a client is being abusive to force you to lower your rates, walk away.
 Commissions are not fun. It’s called artwork, not arteasy.
 Beware of the promise of “exposure.” Most people are full of malarkey.
 Bartering is good, but make sure it doesn’t hurt your final product.
 Do not skimp on materials if you know if will affect the final product.
 With a limited budget, offer a mutually beneficial scaled-back solution.
 Clients and artists both benefit from a contract.
 Do not deliver your final project without your final payment.
 Sometimes involving a third, unbiased party can be helpful.