If you live in the East Lansing area, and have visited the Whole Foods Market, then you’ve seen the work of Elaine Yehl. She’s not bagging your groceries, and you won’t find her in the butcher shop or baking bread. Her work is on display all throughout the market, as the store graphic artist.
Six years ago, the recent University of Michigan graduate was working at an asbestos company as a seasonal air quality monitor. When her roommate left U of M to attend medical school at MSU, ‘Lainey Mae’ followed and the two rented a house in Lansing.
“I thought Lansing might be a good place because my degree was environmental science/environmental policy. I was thinking maybe I could get some sort of government or lobbying job,” Yehl said.
While she hadn’t bet on art as a career, life had other plans for the graphic artist and illustrations enthusiast.
“I always thought I should do graphic design because I’m an artist, and I didn’t go to art school because I didn’t think I wanted to do art as a career for whatever reason.”
Due to societal expectations to finish school in the traditional four-year-time frame, Yehl received her undergraduate degree in Environmental Science, but quickly realized her brain didn’t think in the field research kind of way. Her heart for art was never far behind.
The twenty-eight-year-old laughs at cheesy inspirational messages about following your dreams, but admits that finding a job that uses your passion can be very fulfilling. She admits, though, that she wasn’t exactly sure how to identify what that true calling might be.
“It’s hard when you don’t know what your passion is,” Yehl said, “and I really didn’t until I went back to school for graphic design and realized it was kick ass. Like ‘oh my gosh, this is what I’ve been interested in’ and I didn’t even realize it.”
She compares herself to her brother, who knew from about six years old that he wanted to be an engineer, a passion that was both found early and further developed into adulthood.
“I probably knew I should be an artist since I was six years old,” Yehl said, “but I ignored it because society is like ‘you can’t make money in art.’ ‘You’re smart – you should go to school, and be a doctor or lawyer or whatever.’ So that’s why I ignored that and got a liberal arts degree, when really, I should have been focusing on what my natural skills are.”
Today, thanks to a graphic arts degree from Lansing Community College, and internships within the industry, Yehl is proud to be the store graphic artist at Whole Foods in East Lansing. Each day, she gets paid to be creative.
She works on store signage, chalk board drawings, front and back of house posters, special event flyers, and sales signs scattered all throughout the store. While her favorite tools are currently chalk markers, many of her job still utilizes computer software like InDesign and Illustrator for making templates, using the Whole Foods designated fonts, and laying drafted designs out.
Some displays have been up since the store opening in April 2016, and some rotate and change depending on the season or current sales. Yehl said her job includes a nice mix of using her creativity, whilst keeping the final product unified.
“There’s official lists of messaging that we use to remain cohesive from store to store,” Yehl said. Although, each store does have its own graphic artist that brings their own personal touch to the artwork scattered throughout. She receives direction from store team leaders, but much of her job is self-directed.
Working in a grocery store is fun and convenient since she can walk a few steps to lunch, and describes it as a light-hearted, fun environment. Being surrounded by food, colors, packaging and typography is inspiring to the artist. Working with different team members proves both challenging and rewarding.
“I really work with a lot of people – like the whole store,” Yehl said, “that’s part of the challenge is that team members have ideas a lot of the time, and I kind of have to take them and make them, like basically any client-designer relationship. They have an idea, but you’re the professional so you have to figure out what to do to please both you and the person,” while keeping [the corporate] messaging on point.”
She described her hardworking co-workers as a joy, and enjoys learning about food and cooking while working in the market. Her job and home are very close, and keeping things local is very economically important to the environmentalist/ graphic artist. “I enjoy the size of East Lansing,” Yehl said. “I love where I live because I’m five minutes from anything, but I also live in a quiet, wooded area with a lake and trails where I can walk my dog. I feel like I have the best of both worlds.”
In an ideal world, her dream job would be illustrating children’s books, from a home studio overlooking the mountains, with nobody else around except for her husband and dog. Books and colorful illustrations make a profound impact on the young artist, who would stay up late and use her rainbow nightlight to read books long after bedtime. Stories have infinite possibilities, and so can art, which can sometimes lead to being overwhelmed.
“That’s why it’s helpful to start with an idea to represent Whole Foods, you know your possibilities aren’t infinite, so it helps you made decisions,” Yehl said. “When I’m doing personal work, sometimes I want to make something - I just don’t know what it is - because you have all the colors in the world and all the space, so it is overwhelming.”
In her spare time, the artist creates small business logos for friends, enjoys gifting art for holidays, and sharing her work on Instagram. Given today’s many platforms for creative expression, Yehl described Instagram as a great tool for exposure.
“I think Instagram is the perfect community for that -- kind of like how Myspace became a musician mecca, I feel like Instagram has become an art mecca. It’s the new magazine.”
Whether it be a detailed, chalk shrimp sign or a colorful octopus for the seafood section, a Mother’s Day flower board, or a cartoon S’mores figurine to hang from the ceiling, the artist gets to be creative every single day, her favorite part about the job.
“And on top of that, you can see yourself growing as an artist when you do art all day every day,” Yehl said. “You feel yourself improving, you realize different ways to look at objects and to represent them on a 2-d surface, and you always have new ideas for illustrations. The more you do something, the better you get at it.”
No matter what the assignment is, Yehl described her work as cohesive and colorful. “I just always try to create things that are vibrant and uplifting, positive and have clear messaging.”
Based on her education and experience, Yehl encourages students to job shadow and not be rushed to finish school in a specific amount of time, but rather take any and every opportunity to learn more about the field of interest. She landed her current job after talking to another store’s graphic artist to help prepare her for an interview.
“You’re not going to be happy if you go into an industry that you have no idea what is like to actually work in the industry. The working world and the liberal arts college world are not intertwined enough. You go to college to get a degree to get a job. But then when you go to get a job, you can’t unless you have five years of experience, which is where internships come into play. But those are hard because a lot of them aren’t paid.”
What’s next for the local artist is hopefully a new foray into the East Lansing art gallery scene, maybe an Etsy shop of prints, and continuing to make her mark on chalkboards across the city. Next time you run to the store for a carton of milk, or some artisanal chocolate, don’t forget to look up at Yehl’s colorful chalkboard displays. That’s what they’re there for.