“Music is sort of what bound us together.”
A lot of lip service is paid to the term “soul mate.” Every now and then, you see people come together in a way that feels destined in some way. There’s a kind of instant connection.
Usually when someone says “soul mate,” they’re referring to a romantic bond. But it also happens, wonderfully, between friends.
Two people who bring the term to mind for me are Emily Chen and Amanda Putz. They’re both extremely talented and accomplished women in their professional lives, and I’ll get to that shortly. But first, let me introduce what’s at the heart of their story—an unbreakable friendship based on admiration, compassion, generosity… and music.
How it all began
The three of us met while playing competitive women’s ultimate Frisbee. Emily and I were on the Ottawa team Stella for years, and often lined up against Amanda’s Toronto team Ruby Cruz at tournaments around the country. But it wasn’t until Amanda moved to Ottawa in 2004 that she and Emily really connected. Amanda’s then-boyfriend Tim Edwards (they were married in 2006) was posted to the capital through his job as a diplomat with Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada (DFAIT). Both ultimate players, they signed up for an indoor league that autumn and wound up on the same team that Emily and I did.
The bond between the two women grew over the next few months, but the spark they shared was immediately obvious. Each week, they seemed to chat more and more on the sidelines. “We’re really similar people,” says Amanda. “We’re outgoing ‘people’ people, we thrive off the energy of others, and we noticed that right away, I’m sure.”
They also shared a great sense of humour and passionate love of music. When Amanda featured Joel Plaskett, one of Emily’s favourite musicians, on her CBC Radio show Fuse, she made sure Emily got a front row seat in the live audience. Before long, the two friends became inseparable.
“I don’t think I know a warmer person than Amanda,” says Emily. “She makes me feel like I’m the funniest person on earth because she just loves to laugh and loves to enjoy herself. She’s a really good sport, always game to do just about anything. She just knows how to make anybody feel welcome in any circumstance… and it’s genuine.”
Leaders in their fields
As mentioned earlier, Emily and Amanda are both very successful in their working lives. Among many other things, Emily runs her own design company, Emily Chen Design & Illustration, and Amanda is the host of CBC Radio’s Bandwidth and a producer for Radio 2’s Canada Live. When their friendship really took off in 2005, Emily was mulling over new ways to do more illustration in her day-to-day life (a process that eventually led to the creation of her own clothing line), and Amanda was getting started on a fantastic new program with CBC called Fuse.
I featured the women jointly as Kickass Canadians because I’ve always been impressed not only with what each has achieved on her own, but also with the way they seem to thrive off the other’s success. Here’s a look at how the women got to where they are today, and what they’ve been up to since becoming bosom buddies.
A bit about Amanda
Amanda and her two younger sisters were born in Regina, Saskatchewan. She always loved music, but says her interest was heightened when a former boyfriend made her a mix tape with an eclectic selection of songs. “It opened up this whole new world from what you listened to on the radio and what MuchMusic was feeding you. It was full of Brit pop and it really changed everything. It was the first time I ever heard The Smiths and bands like that.”
From then on, Amanda was driven to discover a much broader range of music and artists. She took a job at HMV, and then studied journalism at the University of Regina with an eye on becoming a music journalist. In 2001, she moved to Toronto where she interned with the Discovery Channel before going on to help with the production of CBC Television’s Newsworld.
When Tim’s job prompted her to relocate to Ottawa, she made the switch to radio and hasn’t looked back. She started out as host of the show Bandwidth, which she describes as an Ontario-music magazine for the radio. “It’s just a little bit of everything. Sometimes we do reviews, little fun interviews, and lots of talk about fresh new music from around the province.”
Just a few months into her job at CBC Radio, she helped develop the concept for a new live radio show called Fuse. “Fuse was a music show that was bringing together two disparate genres in an effort to cross genres and cross styles and cross people,” she says, who also hosted the program. “It was collaboration and (a way of) getting people to think outside their comfort zone or work outside their comfort zone.” The show, which aired for three seasons, paired artists like Ron Sexsmith with Sam Roberts, Gord Downie with The Sadies, and Feist with Amanda’s sister-in-law, Kickass Canadian Kathleen Edwards.
A little on Emily
Emily was born and raised in Ottawa, the youngest of three children. She had a variety of interests and talents, including drawing, music and sports. (In Amanda’s words, “Emily’s brain is multifunctional.”) So when the big question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” arose, Emily wasn’t sure what to answer. Finally, she chose art because, as she says, “I didn’t know what else to do. I liked a lot of things, but I really liked art the most so I just studied it.”
She enrolled in Fine Arts at Queen’s University. By her fourth year, she’d decided to specialize in silkscreening, which she recalls as being an “amazing” experience. The other students in her specialization had chosen to focus on lithography, so she had the silkscreening studio to herself. “I was all alone in this huge room,” she says. Emily spent hours making prints that used up to 13 colours, taking advantage of the 24-7 access the school provided to its facilities.
Throughout her degree, she fell in love with art and knew she’d be happy making a career as an illustrator and designer. But when she graduated in 1999 and began looking for work in Ottawa, the market was somewhat limited. “The only job I found on the Internet that had ‘artist’ in it was ‘Subway sandwich artist,’” she says.
So she pounded the pavement and lined up interviews at various advertising and communications firms. “I went in with my fine arts portfolio and everybody said the same thing: ‘Get some computer skills, then come back,’” she recalls.
It wasn’t until her last interview that she got a better offer. Cyndi Kennedy, owner of the home-based design company Themeweavers, took Emily on part-time and taught her the computer skills she’d need as a graphic designer. “I basically got paid to go to school,” says Emily. “Cyndi absolutely changed the trajectory of my career.”
When Cyndi closed shop to take time for maternity leave, Emily found other communications work, including with the University of Ottawa. In 2003, she decided it was time for a change: she started up Emily Chen Design & Illustration and became her own boss.
“If you’d asked me even a year before I became self-employed if I wanted to run my own business, I would have said absolutely not,” she says. “The idea of being responsible for keeping myself busy was overwhelming.”
It turns out Emily needn’t have worried. Since launching her business, she has been on the go almost non-stop. And that was before she launched two wonderful and impressive “side” projects, as she calls them.
m chen wears
I mentioned that when Emily and Amanda started connecting in 2005, Emily was looking for ways to do more illustration. She often thought back fondly on the long hours she’d spent silkscreening at Queen’s. Creating a clothing line seemed like the perfect way to renew that passion while satisfying her penchant for sewing and capitalizing on her drawing skills.
With strong encouragement from Amanda, Emily decided to give it a go. She began with a line of t-shirts, and later added scarves, belts, fingerless gloves, and baby hats and onesies to the mix. Now in its fourth year, m chen wears has done well for itself. It’s also increased Emily’s visibility as a graphic designer, leading to high-profile contracts with clients such as the Ottawa Folk Festival and Ontario Parks.
“It’s incredible how one thing can lead to another,” she says. “This is something that as an entrepreneur I have learned over and over again. You are always planting seeds, whether you know it or not and whether it comes sprouting out two months later or a year or three years later. Everything is a possible seed. I cannot believe how things come about sometimes.”
The D.A.D. Project
It was a sad development in Emily’s life that brought about one of her most special projects to date. In May 2009, her father Bob Chen was diagnosed with metastatic stage 4 colon cancer in his lungs and liver. At a loss for what to do, Emily came up with a brilliant idea. She and her elder sister Serena, who is also a gifted illustrator, launched The Drawing A Day (D.A.D.) Project, “an ongoing, online, art-based fundraiser for the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS), the largest national charitable funder of cancer research in Canada.”
Every Monday to Thursday since June 2010, Emily and Serena have taken turns creating a fun, colourful piece of artwork that showcases the sisters’ drawing talent and incorporates their love of puns. On Fridays, the Project features contributions from other artists, in many different media. “We’re always looking for donations for Feature Fridays,” says Emily. From every print sale, $10 goes directly to the CCS. From every Feature Friday sale, 100% is donated. The rest is used to cover costs of the not-for-profit initiative.
Amanda isn’t the least bit surprised by Emily’s enterprise and generosity. “She is so give-give-give-give-give,” says Amanda. “Whether it’s her creativity, her person, her time, herself. She’s just so fantastic and I feel so honoured that I’m one of her closest friends.”
Sadly, after a courageous year-and-a-half battle, Bob passed away in October 2010. But Emily, who says she feels as if she “won the dad lottery,” is happy that he got the opportunity to see the Project. “He thought it was pretty cool,” she says.
She feels good about the fact that her father’s illness was a catalyst for an initiative that has already made significant gains in raising money for cancer research. In its first quarter, The D.A.D. Project raised $1,800 for the CCS. Serena is still crunching numbers, but it looks as though their donation will be even bigger for the second quarter.
“We thought we’d maybe be able to donate $500 in the first year,” says Emily. “It’s been really overwhelming. I cannot believe the support people have given.”
Amanda isn’t at all surprised by the positive response. “It speaks to Emily’s talent,” she says.
From sports to arts to motherhood
Emily is still busy as ever with her “side projects,” and her design and illustration business. But things are changing. She and Amanda are about to share their most profound bonding experience yet. In September 2010, Amanda became a first-time mother when her son Elliott (named after the band Elliott Brood) was born. Emily is expecting her first child in May 2011 with husband John Bagnell—who happens to be a wonderful photographer.
Amanda is currently on maternity leave, with plans to return as the host of Bandwidth and one of the producers of Canada Live in September 2011. She misses having her finger on the pulse of Ottawa’s music scene, but wouldn’t trade a second of her time with Elliott. “He is the joy of my life,” she says. “The love that you think you have for your husband or your friends or family is nothing compared to what it’s like to have a kid. Every day it gets bigger and bigger.”
The idea that these women—who give so much to the community—will be passing on their creativity, generosity, and passion for art and music to future generations is heartwarming. Music is already having an influence on Elliott, who attended his first concert (Danny Michel) at only six weeks of age. When Emily’s baby arrives, she plans to follow Amanda’s lead and surround her child with song.
Both moms are well aware of the capacity music has to enrich lives and unite people. “Music is sort of what bound us together, even more than sports,” says Amanda. “We don’t really play sports these days, but we still have music.”
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For the latest on The D.A.D. Project, follow along on Facebook or Etsy. For more on Amanda, ‘Like’ her Facebook page or follow @amandaputz on Twitter.