Preschool in Brooklyn

Although born in East Orange, NJ, where my Mom worked as a nurse pre-marriage, my early years were spent in Brooklyn, NY. I recall joyfully riding my tricycle in the alley on Avenue U. One day, my Mom explained that a big truck would arrive. We’d load our belongings and move to a new place with a big backyard. The name of the town was Livingston.

We settled across from Harrison School, ensuring my brother Dean and I could access quality education. My Mom, though having completed only a 2-year program at Fairleigh Dickinson, was a big advocate of education. My Dad, who didn’t finish high school, later earned his GED with my Mom’s support.

My Dad grew up in Brooklyn and we’d visit one of his two brothers, his two sisters and parents there. I loved traveling through Manhattan to get there. I knew from these drives, and later visits to museums, shows and dinners, that Manhattan was where I wanted to be.

At LHS

What I cherish most about Livingston is the lasting friendships cultivated there. I’m grateful to remain connected with Barbara Sullivan, Betsy Weiss, Diane Becker, Elise Weber, Jane Wagner, and Tricia Curtain (maiden names). We try to schedule an annual trip with occasional dinners in between.

In High School, my academic interests weren’t being met. My first love is art, but I also loved liberal arts. I was unfortunately put in AP math and science but had no interest in either. When my required classes were completed in senior year, I scheduled three lunches and a study!

Attending Art School

After High School, my aspiration was to be a Fine Artist. But I recognized the need for a sustainable income and studied both Fine Art and Design. I graduated from the Hartford Art School with a BFA in Advertising Design and Fine Art with a minor in Psychology. I was also a DJ on the school’s radio station and considered DJing as a job, but later converted that interest into documentaries and public speaking.

My Early Career

Reflecting on my early career, I discovered that much of what I needed wasn’t taught in school. Planning to freelance as a designer, I scoured the classifieds for opportunities. A crucial turning point came when I connected with a family friend in advertising. He advised me to list my top 20 agencies and reach out to them. Armed with a roll of dimes, I commuted to NYC to make cold calls in public phone booths, eventually learning where the best ones were located.

Signing up with freelance agencies jumpstarted my career, leading to city-wide assignments across various businesses. This provided invaluable experience in navigating different business types, corporate cultures, and behavioral dynamics. It also honed my ability to stay calm in high-pressure situations.

After a short time, I realized that advertising didn’t align with my values. I remember an Art Director asking me, “Which headline should we use: Shiner Hair, Smoother Hair, or Healthier Hair. I naively asked, “Well, which does it do?” He said, “None of them.” 🤔

Working with AIG

However, I could relate to graphic design – it was more functional. Working for an in-house design team on brochures, logos, and related output was more strategic. My Aunt referred me to a friend who referred me to a friend who worked at AIG, the insurance company of “too big to fail” fame. He was the company printer and needed a Mechanical Artist (the art from which they made a plate to print) for their forms department. Though initially uninspiring, I saw potential for advancement within the company. After answering a few technical questions, he instructed me to start the next day.

I thought I’d be working at the company headquarters in New York, where I met him. Instead, the office was in East Orange, NJ. Appropriate to start my first job in the city of my birth!

Despite initial skepticism, this role laid the foundation for my graphic design career. Designing forms is the simplest vehicle through which to learn the principles of layout, typographic features, user interface, and branding. Within months, I earned the trust of internal clients, expanding my role to include logo, brochure design, and other print materials. I spawned a small internal agency!

After two years, I realized the company was spending a lot of money on typesetting. Typesetters are now extinct, but they printed the requested type on a galley, then a Mechanical Artist would cut and paste the words onto a board. (Yes, that’s where the computer commands cut and paste comes from.) I created a proposal for leasing our own typesetting equipment and decommissioning the typesetters. To create the proposal, I taught myself IBM’s Lotus 123, which was an early version of Excel.

Senior Management got wind of the proposal and I was invited to present to the CEO’s son. He offered me a job in Procurement. I was very thankful but had no interest in that career path. Instead, I negotiated with my manager to get laid off. I collected unemployment while I started my own design boutique.

Artworkspace: A Design Studio Space

Still living at home, I was getting weary of traveling into the City. I found an artist’s loft workspace in Flatiron. There were about 20 artists of all types working there, each in their own plywood-ed stalls, either side of a very long aisle. I loved it! The area was scary at night, consisting of photo studios, a few bars and clubs – well before the national chains took over.

This was another valuable lesson in navigating diverse individual needs. There were potters, jewelers, painters, a basket weaver, a (now famous) hologram artist, an airbrush illustrator (who went on to a top job at Disney), a toy designer (who created many toys your children played with), an older Belgian designer who flirted with all the women, and two fashion designers. Our monthly coop meetings would have made a great reality TV show! I started by sharing a space with a potter and eventually expanded to have the largest space there. (Footnote: I heard from a realtor friend – that space is now a multi-million-dollar residence)!

Establishing MET Design

The business I ran in Artworkspace, MET Design, was a boutique design studio. I serviced hundreds of companies and hired other freelancers to help me. I taught myself business by trial and error. And there were many errors: not realizing how taxes worked, ensuring contracts for payments, and hiring the right people. I ran this business for over 20 years.

The first big break was winning AIG as a client.

Moving to New York

Three years after graduation, I fulfilled my childhood dream by moving to NYC after securing the AIG account. I realized that my connection to the city was more about its spirit and lifestyle than its proximity. While most from high school didn’t relocate to NYC, I met people from around the country and the world who shared the same spirit and lifestyle.

After a long search and much strategizing, I located a share with two other women in a Soho loft. I’m still in NYC today and have lived in five other locations. I’m now in the Battery and it is my fave spot. More on that later…

NYU’s Gallatin School

Following my move to NYC, I pursued a Master’s at NYU’s Gallatin School, where I crafted a program tailored to my interests in liberal arts. While attending liberal arts classes, instead of taking the standard test or writing a paper, I responded with an artwork. It was a great experience through which I learned about interpreting complex information visually, innovative educational techniques, and the value of optimizing processes.

The Extraordinary Experience of Mail Art

My thesis focused on Mail Art, a movement that predated social networking and challenged established systems through creative expression. Our social networks, meetups, picture sharing, and short form writing all find their conceptual roots in Mail Art. I had the great fortune to meet the primary figures and interview them. This exploration proved invaluable in understanding art as a tool for interacting with others and forming networks of mutual interest.

The Mac

In 1985, I witnessed a demo of Adobe Illustrator at Parsons. It blew my mind! It was love at first sight! I invested all of my savings to buy a Mac, software, and printer. Everyone thought I was crazy, but I didn’t think twice.

I met other first adopters and together we proposed and launched the computer graphics department at Pratt. Writing the course was exciting as I expanded my knowledge, but teaching wasn’t for me. I was more excited for Spring break than the students!

My First Partner

At this point, you may be wondering about my personal life. Although I never hesitated to “come out,” it was difficult to discover how the LGBT “underground” worked. When I moved to 14th street, I met two lesbian couples who became great friends and helped me connect to the scene.

On the dance floor of a club, I met my first long-term partner. We were together for 14 years. She eventually joined me in the business. We frequently traveled to the Caribbean and Central America.

I’m thankful to her for introducing me to LGBTQ+ activism. We were very active in the cause to support equal rights and marriage equality. We also ran a long-standing TV show on local channels which featured interviews successful women, later, a woman on the street segment. Together we produced several award-winning documentaries. We also produced the first digital art shown by the MTA on digital screens and a video installation for the Hilton Times Square.

As our relationship was dissolving, I ran into a long-time friend at an AIG reunion – where we originally met. Lena and I have been together since my breakup, going on 19 years. A really wonderful dream – I couldn’t be happier.

Websites and American Express

Another “aha!” moment occurred viewing a web page in 1995. While working in publishing, I was mesmerized by a slowly downloading JPEG. That week, I read a book on how to code in HTML and created my company website. Transitioning from print to websites, I gained Fortune 500 companies such as IBM, Merrill Lynch, and American Express.

Through working with Amex, I heard of an opportunity to establish their first in-house digital team. It was a great experience, like getting an MBA! I moved to the Battery to make my commute a beautiful short walk along the Hudson. Five year later, after building the team to 14, I returned to entrepreneurship to launch a consulting business. An incarnation of the team I established at Amex still functions today.

Today

Nearly two decades into my relationship with Lena, I continue to find joy in our shared experiences. We’ve traveled and taken many weekend trips to the surrounding areas and visited friends.

Running Skwair, a consultancy for Design Operations and User Experience Design, is the latest incarnation of my design career. Most recently, I’ve worked with Marriott, Coach, and Etsy. I speak at industry events and also volunteer at NYU to help students with networking skills.

As for my artistic practice, I explore emerging technologies like NFTs and Generative AI. In November, I received a grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts to create an NFT and was featured in an exhibition in midtown as well as an innovative virtual gallery. I’ve exhibited in art fairs, galleries, and museums. Most recently, I created an 80’ mural for the American Museum of Natural History’s Vivarium, create customized commissions, and sell my artwork online.

Stuff I Like to Do

I’m very thankful for the life I’ve been privileged to live. In addition to my professional endeavors, I love to travel, participate in 3-5 long bike tours each season and rode over 3,500 miles on the Citibike around NYC. Audiobooks are great and usually have one running. Speaking of books, I wrote a book called Career X, a guide to career development. It was torture, but it made me a better writer! I love to volunteer and am currently supporting a local tech organization and an LGBTQ+ org. As a vegan, I’m passionate about food and love cooking. I’m close to my brother Dean, his wife, and two nephews who live in NJ as well as other family members.

The Future

Maybe every generation senses this, but we’ve experienced dramatic change in our lifetimes. I’m concerned about the future with increasing wealth inequity, climate disruption, and unregulated AI. Amidst this scenario, I focus what I’m best at: creating art that I hope brings people joy, being a good friend/partner, and bringing humanity to everyday interactions.

Let’s Connect!

I’d love to connect with anyone! Please do reach out. You can contact me:

Email: mtriandafellos@gmail.com

LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/marya

Instagram: @marya.nyc

If you’re interested in checking out my art or business services, see the two sites below:

Art Website: marya.nyc

Business Website: Skwair.com

Many thanks to Michael for coordinating this series and inviting me to participate. I’ve really enjoyed reading everyone’s stories. And thanks to the entire committee that has done such an amazing job coordinating our reunions and other events.