Katie Zychowski has worked her fair share of odd jobs in her life: call center, library assistant, and gravedigger.
It is hard to image the petite blond sipping a frothy café meil in one of Grand Rapids’ most kitschy coffee shops would ever be breaking earth for the dead. Especially in her artistically studded loafers and light-wash trousers. But now, she is in her element in the art world. She fittingly works in communications at the Grand Rapids Art Museum, co-owns a photography business, and even teaches classes at Kendall College of Art and Design in that made-up idea of free time.
“I had this idea of what life will look like,” Zychowski explains of her past experiences, “What’s difficult… is finding out that life doesn’t always work out that way.”
Zychowski just laughs at the path that got her to the place she is now. She has picked up quite the amount of deep philosophies on life in her young 24 years. Some would say she is wise beyond her age. Zychowski knows life is not a straight-shot to get to this ideal final destination.
She is speaking for a generation at this point. They are professionals, and yet still students in the young career-world.
“I’ve learned to redefine opportunity,” Zychowski said, “I used to see it as this shadowy figure that only came about twice in your life. But that’s just not how it is. It’s proactive, not a fleeting moment.”
Zychowski took an 8-hour leap of uncertainty when she left her small town in the upper peninsula of Michigan for her first stab of opportunity: a scholarship to Kendall College studying photography. Since graduation in 2011, she has made her mark on the art world in Grand Rapids.
“A professional to me feels like someone who has it all together,” Zychowski said, flattered by the term but feeling disconnected from it. “Technically I am, but no, I’m still figuring it out.”
She pulls out a quote she’s written down. It’s something she obviously comes back to often, not surprisingly spoken by famous artist Georgia O’Keefe. Zychowski uses it as a model for her career: “My whole life I have tried to find someone who can teach me how to paint, but no one could, they could only teach me how they painted.”
The project development and communications title is a learning experience for Zychowski who started out as a photography intern and moved her way up.
“I work with some really talented, thoughtful, and community minded people,” Zychowski explains of her colleagues, “Passionate about what they do and about this great city. The energy behind the scenes is truly inspiring and I’m moved everyday by them.”
Zychowski says she continuously is uncovering her “undiscovered strengths.” She sees the GRAM as a “wonderful arena,” and motivated by those as she steps into work everyday.
Her passion for art is evident beginning with the way her voice raises in pitch when she begins to talk about being enclosed with great works of art on the walls everyday.
James and Katie Photography
Owning a photography business can be tricky in a flooded photo market in Grand Rapids. Especially when Zychowski and her business partner, and boyfriend, James LaCroix are still saving up to own their own cameras and studio, relying currently on rental equipment. Student loans are a looming reality for many young professionals like Zychowski.
But for Katie, her professions are not fueled by money, but drive.
“Let’s be honest,” Zychowski said, leaning forward, hands on the table, changing from her philosophical perspective to a realist mentality, “A lot of time it’s keeping your head out of water. It’s a lot of work. But if what you are passionate about is what you do professionally, you’ll learn you have to take a hit.”
However, the art she produces is nothing less stunning than those she works behind the scenes at the home of at the GRAM. Zychowski says her partnership with LaCroix is “really natural.” They take on projects from city events to weddings, but are also refocusing their photographic subject matter.
“We come at photography from two different places,” Zychowski explains, “but we have a shared goal in our work together.”
So, every day after her 8 hours at the GRAM, she’s booking models, scoping settings and clients. This is, naturally, mixed in with a lot of strong, but sweet coffee.
“It can be difficult building a life where personal goals and professional practices blend,” Zychowski says, “but in both areas, do things with integrity. You are leaving a legacy.”
Thankfully for Zychowski, her legacy has moved past digging graves. She claims not to have everything figured out, but says she does not believe that is a real thing anyway. Instead, she says, she encourages others to just find a few things they love doing, and keep doing them.
“You have something within you that is so close to you, natural to your way of being that you may not even think to materialize it. Understand that sort of wonder, and it can bring you closer to yourself and your motivations.”