Kiri Leonard has worked as a full-time freelance illustrator in the US for over 10 years. Her whimsical and imaginative artwork is collected by people across the globe and has been exhibited in museums in many different countries. She has illustrated board games, RPG games, tarot decks, magazines, and children’s books, among other things, and worked with various publishers.
Kiri grew up in Denmark but chose to immigrate to the US to pursue her dreams of becoming an artist.

Why leave Denmark to become an Artist

Before moving, Kiri lived in Aarhus, where she worked retail at a local grocery store. She is not an Aarhus native, though (Danish: Aarhusianer); Kiri was born and raised in the tiny village of Boeslum on Jutland’s nose, near the beautiful town Ebeltoft.

“I was struggling with depression at the time, working a retail job, and deeply unhappy with my life. I wanted a career in the Arts, but I had to move to achieve that.

I attended a few art schools in Denmark, but the curriculums didn’t cover what I was looking for. I wanted to learn how to illustrate: How to draw what you see, instead of abstract expression, and from that foundation; how to draw what you can imagine.” Kiri says.

Pratt Institute of Art

New York City

Applying to Art Schools in the US

Kiri was recommended Pratt Institute and Parsons The New School of Art by an American Artist, both prestigious art schools in New York City. She applied in the spring of 2010 and was accepted into both. The programs are the equivalent of a university degree, and you earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts when completing the 4-year course.

“The application process was nerve-wracking. It is a much more comprehensive process than applying to school in Denmark. I also didn’t just have to fulfill the school applications, I also had to find out how to obtain a visa to study abroad and how to finance it. In Denmark, most schools are covered through taxes, but in the US, you have to pay tuition yourself. My artistic skills were also severely wanting at the time, so putting together a strong portfolio to get me accepted was a challenge. I think I barely made the cut.”

In the summer of 2010, Kiri boarded a plane from Billund, DK, to New York City, USA. Before taking her leave, she promised her mother she would come back home again. A promise she knew in her heart that she couldn’t fulfill.

“I was in love with an American illustrator (he is now my husband). When you meet the right person, you know, and I knew. Because of that, I also knew I wouldn’t be returning home. Of course, I miss Denmark, but I love my life over here, and this wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t immigrated. I was at a point where I had to shake up my life or fall into permanent depression.”

Kiri Leonard at Pratt Institute

The Artist’s version of The American Dream

“Studying Fine Arts in New York City sounds very glamorous, and while that year was one of the best years of my life, it wasn’t glamorous at all.

I lived in a small apartment in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, with two roommates, one of whom was the illustrator mentioned before. We had made the apartment cozy, but it was a mess! We couldn’t run the coffeemaker simultaneously as the toaster without the power blowing out. There were holes in the floor into the apartment below. The living room completely flooded from the apartment upstairs several times. We had mice and roaches in the kitchen we couldn’t get rid of. The super never responded to inquiries, so nothing got repaired and we were constantly broke.

It’s expensive to live in NYC, but it’s a trade-off. New York City has this buzz of potential. You feel like anything can happen anytime you step outside your door. It was such a thrill to live there. Here I was, a girl from a tiny village of 180 people in rural Denmark, living in massive New York City, pursuing a career as an artist! I was living my version of the American Dream.”

Kiri in front of a Brooklyn Brownstone

Brooklyn, 2010

School Assignments from Pratt Institute
School Assignments from Pratt Institute

Drawing Class, Spring 2011

St. Johns St, Brooklyn

The apartment building where Kiri lived.

It didn’t last, though. In the summer of 2011, one year later, Kiri was faced with a hard decision. New York City is one of the most notoriously expensive cities to live in in the US, and colleges in the US are no different.

“I could only afford one year at the school that was as far as my bank loan stretched. After that, I didn’t know what to do. I applied to other schools where the tuition was less, and while I was accepted, I still couldn’t cover the tuition costs. I applied for over 500 scholarships, but as a Dane on a visa, it’s very hard to get a scholarship. I was only awarded one, and it didn’t cover tuition.” Kiri says.

Kiri had to decide whether to give up on her American Dream and return to Denmark and her retail job or find another way to make it work. “I began working as a freelance illustrator. It’s what I wanted to do all along, but it’s challenging when you first begin, especially if your artwork isn’t there yet and mine wasn’t. I still had so much to learn, but I talked to my husband about it. We decided to make the sacrifice together. It meant we were going to be pinching pennies until my art business got up and running, but it was an opportunity. We wanted to at least give it a go.” Kiri says.

Kiri and her husband moved to another neighbor in Brooklyn to save on rent. “Prospect Heights is a very popular neighborhood in Brooklyn because it’s close to the park and to the Brooklyn Museum. That means rents are higher, so we found a little one-bedroom apartment on the bottom floor of a building in Brighton Beach, near Coney Island. It’s about 1.5 hours ride on the subway to Manhattan. The apartment was okay; it was newly renovated, but it didn’t get any sunlight. Brighton Beach is a heavily Russian neighborhood, which gave my husband culture shock but to me, it felt like living in Denmark. Danes can be a very reserved people, as can Russians. We don’t tend to strike up conversations in the street or smile at strangers like Americans do. I always thought Americans were so nice, cheerful, and warm as a people.”

“I began working as a freelance illustrator. It’s what I wanted to do all along, but it’s challenging when you first begin, especially if your artwork isn’t there yet and mine wasn’t.” – Kiri Leonard
Fall Semester at Pratt

Drawings from Kiri's Fall semester at Pratt Institute

Building an Art Career and Business

After moving to Brighton Beach, Kiri set about building her art business. She spent most of her time working on her drawing and painting skills and finding clients for whom to illustrate. She participated in online art communities and joined fantasy art and comic conventions, which helped her build a network of contemporaries to learn from.

“I’ve worked full-time as an illustrator and artist since then. It has been ten years now, and while it can be feast or famine, I love it! You have to be patient, though; it takes a while to build a reliable income as a freelancer. You have to diversify your income streams. Don’t just rely on one client or one source because if something happens to it – there goes your living. You need to spread out. Do client work, sell art online, in person at conventions, maintain a newsletter, create personal projects, advertise on social media, make tutorials, teach, build up a Patreon, and always reach out to new prospective clients and publishers. Advocate for your artwork and be dedicated to it. It is a lot of work to make it work as a living, but it is also very rewarding. You get to set your hours.”

“You have to be patient; it takes a while to build a reliable income as a freelancer. You have to diversify your income streams. Don’t just rely on one client or one source because if something happens to it – there goes your living. You need to spread out.” – Kiri Leonard
Kiri Leonard's Artists Alley Booth at Gencon
Exhibiting at Conventions in the Artist's Alley

Artist's Alley, Gen Con, 2019

Aerial view of Austin, Texas
Austin, Texas

Photo from Canva.com

Moving to Austin, Texas

The high cost of living in New York eventually encouraged Kiri and her husband to look around for other states to live in. They settled on the Lone Star State, packed all their belongings into a rented van, and set off to Austin, Texas.

“I never imagined myself living in Texas. I had a lot of wrong impressions about what Texas was like, but after visiting, it turned out that my prejudices were completely unfounded, and I fell in love with the place, as did my husband. It’s a much more relaxed way of life than New York City, like what I am used to in Denmark. We are paying the same mortgage for a house with a yard in Texas as we paid in rent for a one-bedroom apartment in New York City. Austin also has a great art community, bursting with creativity. You see it on every street corner – not to mention the weather is amazing! Though it does get a little too hot in the summer.”

Austin Howdy Mural in Austin, TX
Austin Howdy Mural

Austin, TX, 2020

Balloon Decoration in Austin, TX
Balloon Art

Austin, TX, 2020

What is Next?

Kiri continues thriving as a full-time artist in Texas and is excited to grow her career further by focusing more on her artistic vision and less on client work.

”Most of my time is spent working on fantasy art and children’s book projects. I am writing and illustrating my own two books, Montague Mouse and Locke the Legend, which I am very passionate about. Still, I also have other projects in mind – next up will probably be a sketchbook collection. And I recently became a mother to a beautiful baby girl, so my schedule is quite full! Motherhood is amazing, though. Other than my own projects, I am working with a select few clients on bringing their books to life. I have paired down the number of clients I have to work more on my projects. I also run a Patreon and share my work and experiences on social media, and I also teach one 3-hour class a week at Shawnee University. I like being able to help students and aspiring artists with the knowledge I’ve gained over the years.”

Montague Mouse: The Story Begins

Illustration by Kiri Leonard

You can see more of Kiri’s artwork here and here. You can follow Kiri on social media on Instagram and Facebook, and if you want guaranteed updates, sign up for her newsletter.

You get a free digital sketchbook download when subscribing, which features a selection of rarely seen drawings.

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