Profiles in Art: Moira Ratchford

Moira Ratchford is Maryland-based graphic designer and artist. She addresses a variety of subjects in her work, from war in the Syrian refugee crisis to climate change. You can find her portfolio and other work here.

Q: What is your story? How did you fall in love with your current field of work/study?

I’ve always loved art. Being an introverted child, I loved having time alone to draw, to escape into line and color. For some reason, I was born with a distinct sense of the fleeting nature of life. So the staggering beauty of the things I saw as a child, like the delicate white blossoms of our backyard apple tree, or the glint of morning light on a fresh-cut orange, was tempered by the awareness of their brevity. It’s a metaphysical melancholy that I think many artists grapple with.

Art offered a way to crystallize that moment in time, depriving mortality of some of its sting. Whenever I drew or painted, I went into a flow state. The colors I saw resonated so deeply. Just walking into an art store and seeing the hues of paint made me feel as if that was where I truly belonged. When I walked into art class, I knew  “these are my people!” It was an intuitive thing, an intrinsic passion.


Q: What was your professional path like? How did you get to this job?

When it came time to go to college and get serious about my future, I was strongly encouraged to pursue something more practical. What followed was a winding path that ultimately led back to my passion for the visual arts. But it took many years to complete that arc, and it is still in progress.  

Because I was strong in languages, had international experience, and idealistically hoped to have an impact on the world as a peacemaker, I ended up majoring in Political Science. At Wellesley, my alma mater, the emphasis was so much on breaking gender barriers in non-traditional fields that it seemed like aiming to be Secretary of State was a much worthier goal than pursuing art. But my heavy poli sci course load left no time for art. I found myself increasingly depressed without it.

So when I graduated from Wellesley and was sent to Geneva to study international relations on a Rotary Scholarship, the identity crisis hit hard. That year, when I should have been shining, taking off on the fast-track into a diplomatic career, I was sliding into a depressive, confused, and frustrating miasma. I knew I was not being true to myself in continuing the path I was on.

I had to change my life. But paying the bills was the first necessity. So I leveraged my existing skills to make my way back to art incrementally.

Since I had excelled at Russian during my undergrad years, I gravitated to the richness of Russian culture and art, earning a scholarship to a Master’s program in Russian Studies. I wrote my thesis on Soviet cinema of the Stalin era, epitomizing the interplay of art and politics. I was then offered another scholarship to do a PhD in history, but I knew I would be unhappy unless I pursued a career in the visual arts, so I graciously declined. A fellowship to work at the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg also came my way. I turned that down too, finally feeling the confidence to forego attractive opportunities that would not lead me in the right direction, and instead taking the risk of pursuing a creative career. I mention this because there can be a great deal of pressure to continue the path you have been on, and sometimes, it takes courage to pursue something different and uncertain when it means turning down what looks like a stellar opportunity to others.

My career was a series of stepping stones. With my Russian language and connections, I then landed freelance work in documentary film, traveling throughout Russia and Turkmenistan for the Discovery Channel and PBS. I learned a great deal about the art and craft of documentaries, and also learned that I was not cut out for a career in that field. I was a still-image, not a moving-image, chick.

All this time, I would of course have happily immersed myself in fine art if I were independently wealthy, but that was not the case (and rarely is). So at age 30, I taught myself graphic design, and have been able to support myself on that ever since. After 15 years in that business, I finally had the financial stability to launch back into fine art part-time. Without art, I would have perished inside. It sounds dramatic, but it’s true. Any artist knows that it is an essential part of their being, without which they will wither spiritually.

My current challenge is finding a way to make a living from my fine art! Once you have a child and a mortgage, it’s much harder to do. So do it when you’re young, if you can. If you can’t swing it, at least you will have given it your all before hanging back and punting with a day job until you can manage a living on the art.

Glacier, Retreating by Moira Ratchford. Acrylic ink and airbrush on canvas
Q: What are the biggest challenges you faced at your job?

In fine art, every time you lay your brush on the canvas to create something out of nothing, it’s a leap into the void. There’s a shiver of terror, as you never know quite what you’ll end up with. Every painting seems to be a judgment of your worth. I know it’s supposed to be about the journey, not the destination, but I’m still working on the “being happy with it no matter how it turns out” attitude. An accomplished artist I know says the three biggest challenges are fear, impatience, and laziness. Most artists grapple with at least one of these, but hopefully, just one at a time!  


Q: What are the greatest rewards of your job?

When you complete a painting that captures your inner vision, there is a tremendous sense of accomplishment, a validation resonating deep within. It doesn’t matter if no one else likes it. You know it when you’ve created something that expresses just what you intended and that opens up a door into your unique experience of life. A part of your soul is laid bare on the canvas.

I’ve written a Master’s thesis, designed annual reports for major companies and traveled to faraway places, but nothing imparts the same sense of fulfillment and peace as when you have created a meaningful painting out of a fistful of colors and brushes.


Q: What advice would you give to young people just starting in the field?

I would give the same advice to everyone, regardless of the field: “Follow your bliss,” in the words of Joseph Campbell. Pursue your passion. Be true to yourself.

Once you have identified your passion, approach the best people in that field, and find a way to get your foot in the door. Use whatever connections you have to see if there is a possible link to one of your dream employers: your alumnae office, childhood friends, neighbors. Tell everyone you know what you’re hoping to do.

If your potential dream list of employers has no paid opportunities, suggest interning for them a couple of days a week, while you work the other 3-5 days supporting yourself. You must be bold and persistent, and eventually, you’ll find an opening. By working with the most accomplished people in your field, you’ll learn the best practices and set yourself up to continue working on a higher level as you advance in your career.

I used this strategy when I made the move from documentary film to graphic design. Since I’d worked on Discovery Channel films, it made sense to look up openings in Discovery’s design department. It happens that they needed an assistant photo editor just three days a week, and though I hadn’t had experience specifically in photo editing, I applied anyway because of my experience in documentary film. The woman who interviewed me felt confident that I could handle the job, and hired me.

While that job was just enough to pay my meager overhead, I took night classes in design and invested in Photoshop and other software so I could build a decent portfolio of work on my own. Portfolio in hand, I began looking for a two-day-a-week internship with a top design firm. I attended a showcase of the top studios hosted by the Art Directors Club of Metropolitan Washington DC, approached the head of one of those studios, and managed to secure an internship there. Six months later, after I’d proven myself, they hired me full-time. It was a tough place to work, a real design boot camp with long hours and intense critique, but after two years, I had the skills I needed to go out on my own and find my own clients. 20 years later, I’m still on my own, doing graphic design out of my home and happy to have a flexible schedule and total autonomy.


Q: In your opinion, what is an under-researched topic in the field?

The most under-researched topic is YOU. You have a unique story to tell. Even identical twins have different experiences of life: no one sees and feels things exactly the way you do. So go tell your story through whatever medium resonates with you!


Q: What is one (or two) things you would like the general public to know about your field of work/study?

I think it’s important to paint with a purpose. In the beginning, I was happy simply painting beautiful images. It was just so great to be painting again. But I no longer can paint something that is simply decorative. Art has the power to give voice to the voiceless and draw attention to critical issues in a unique way. I did a series of airbrush paintings on climate change. When the Syrian refugee crisis hit, I was moved to portray it in my work. There is so much to be done in this world. Find an issue that’s important to you, and incorporate it into your art. Doing so elevates your work to another level.

Of course, the reality is that it’s much easier to sell a painting of sunflowers than of a mother agonizing over her dying child. So if you are hoping to earn a living, you have to strike a balance. I’ll give a shout-out here to an artist who does that with such grace: Helen Zughaib, who invited the Wellesley Friends of Art to her studio a couple of years ago. Her paintings open a conversation between the Western and Arabic worlds, but they are also gorgeous masterpieces in their own right, with their intricate and vibrant patterns and images. She has achieved that elusive sweet spot, conveying a powerful message through the beauty of art.


Q: Some parents might be concerned about the financial stability of a creative career and actively discourage their children from pursuing one. How would you address those parents’/their concerns?

I think my life story partially answers that question. I completely understand wanting to make sure your son or daughter has a secure future financially. And sometimes, as in my case, the absolute need to pursue an artistic career does not assert itself strongly until you have had time to get to know yourself better, and have experienced life without art.

I tell my 15-year-old daughter to pursue her passion. We’re given just one life, no redoes. Living to your fullest potential means being authentic. No one wants to wake up in the morning depressed about the “Death of a Salesman” job they’re heading to day after day.  And yet, it may take some courage to walk away from a higher-paying job in exchange for a lesser one that is more fulfilling. Only you can decide what is most important to you, and whether you are able to live on less. People may call you foolish, but you’ll know in your gut what the right path is.

Live with passion, be kind to others, and stand up for what you believe in. As Etienne de Grellet once said: “I expect to pass through this world but once; any good thing therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to my fellow creature, let me do it now; let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”

Just for fun…

Q: Can you recommend a wine (any alcohol) and cheese (any drunk food) to us?

Actually, my favorite pairing is a mug of chai with dark chocolate! Particularly Endangered Species chocolate, as it not only tastes fabulous, it also helps out a great cause. Kind of like that sweet spot when a beautiful work of art achieves a higher purpose. Chocolate, of course, is a key inspiration for my art!

A Slice of Summer
A Slice of Summer, Moira Ratchford (2011). Acrylic ink on canvas

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