Alison Garwood Jones

The rebirth in failure

August 8, 2018

This is post was first published eight years ago. Egads, I’ve been blogging a long time! Some people said  it made them feel hopeful — even brave. Your morning dose of hope. 

The ability to focus and commit to something through thick and thin is a quality I admire. Writer and comedian Craig Ferguson describes his route to success, saying, “I kept failing until I didn’t.”

But the ability to court failure after experiencing success fascinates me even more. Here are a few examples of established successes who pushed themselves in unexpected directions and put experimentation ahead of standing ovations. For many, confidence didn’t pull them through, feeling lost did. It fueled them to find a new focus in life.

Nicole de Vesian: At 69 she spiraled into a deep depression after the death of her husband. Her friends were scared for her. After a stellar career as a designer at Hermés, de Vesian lost her passion for living and loving, and abandoned the projects piled up on her desk.  She left Paris and retreated to Provence, finding solace in the sunlight and flowers of this mythical corner of France.

De Vesian never went back. She changed her focus from luxury textiles to designing gardens and made communing with nature her new life and career. She collected  and hauled rocks like some women collect gems, and spent the autumn of her life feeling more alive than she ever had.

Pablo Picasso: He copied the drawings of Leonardo and Raphael with astonishing skill. Everyone cooed he had the makings of a successful society portrait artist. But Picasso struggled. How could he keep exploring naturalism when the world around him looked so ripped and torn to shreds? It was 1914 and Picasso was living in Paris and was too physically weak to join the army. For a man who prided himself on his machismo and physicality, it was an embarrassing blow. Feeling isolated from his family and friends, overwhelmed by the war and bitter and angry over the declining health of a girlfriend, Picasso poured every ruthless emotion he had onto his canvases, turning his fractured sense of self into a new style: cubism.

Pablo Picasso in his studio. Source: Shutterstock

Shaquille O’Neal: At 38, basketball great Shaquille O’Neal is preparing to duck under the TD Garden exit sign for good. From what I’ve heard, he has no plans to open a sports-themed restaurant with a 7-foot wax replica of himself at the host stand and signed photos of his game-winning layups over the banquettes. Nor does he plan to become a real estate agent, coach, GM, sports announcer or Shopping Channel pitchman. Nuh uh. “I want to do something bigger,” he told The New York Times Magazine,” last weekend. By the time this MBA (yes, an NBA-er with an MBA) says goodbye, he plans to have defended his Ph.D. thesis from Barry University in Miami, Florida. “My topic is ‘How Leaders Utilize Humor or Aggression in Leadership Styles.'” O’Neal is determined to turn what, for most athletes, is the most depressing time of their life into a period of huge possibilities. Oh, and after he leaves the court, it’s no more “Shaq.” “I’m done with the nicknames,” says Professor O’Neal. Class dismissed.

Shaquille O’Neal dunking. Image: Shutterstock

Michael Kinsley: He quit CNN for what? They’re calling it, “the Information Superhighway.” This was back in 1996, and after 10 years co-hosting CNN’s Crossfire, Kinsley left behind the studio lights and pancake makeup to become the editor in chief of Slate, a journal that couldn’t be bought on the newsstand or bound in volumes at the library; it was only available online. Now why would a Harvard grad, a Rhodes Scholar and a former editor at The Washington Post and The Economist willingly post himself in “Siberia” (that’s what the Worldwide Web was called back then)? Kinsley did it because he trusted his instincts about the internet’s potential, because he knew talent will travel, and because he has the guts to try new things.

Renée Fleming: She’s opera royalty. Last summer, however, Fleming released “Dark Hope,” her first “rock” album. It’s a collection of covers, from Peter Gabriel to Mars Volta. “I an interesting adventure,” she told the LA Times. “At this stage of my career, I’m facing a kind of maintenance program. I’ve been on this plateau, where there’s no place to go, other than to stretch myself artistically. And this seemed to fit.” Decide for yourself if you like her sound. Either way, you have to admire her courage to sing outside her comfort zone.

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The Toronto Island Ferry Tote Bag is here

August 6, 2018

Toronto Island Tote Bag by PenJarProductions.comMy thanks to Dani of the Ward’s Island Trust for this shot.

Pen Jar Productions, Toronto: When you convince the gruff and sunburned ferry workers to hang a poster of your ferry-themed merch in their common room at the Jack Layton Ferry Terminal.

I’ll be selling these babies (via Shopify) at the Craft Fair during the Ward’s Island Gala Weekend. See ya from 12:00-4:00 pm on Monday, August 6 at the Ward’s Island Association Club House, next to the tennis courts and just steps from the Ward’s Island Ferry Dock. There’s an all-day beer tent, as if that wasn’t enough.

Toronto Island Totes and Throw Pillows by

FREE SHIPPING on all items for island residents.


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Your dream job after 50?

July 24, 2018

PEN JAR PRODUCTIONS, TORONTO: Lately, I’ve noticed a lot of folks on Instagram and Facebook expressing a resistance to certain persistent social markers: #MarriedBy25 has been revised to #MarriedBy35, and beyond. #DreamJobBy30 is also getting plenty of pushback.
That’s why I thought I’d do a cartoon for you describing a recent episode in my work life. It revolves around getting discovered for doing what you love at any age. Sure, it’s about having a digital strategy (study up on SEO, friends), but more than that it’s about putting the work and the enjoyment of making ahead of a determined and desperate campaign for attention.
Do what you love and the money will follow is true some of the time. I’d say it’s true enough of the time to make it worth the effort. Don’t forget to negotiate if the budget you’re being presented seems too low to you. #KnowYourWorth #LeanIn
You can see my latest set of illustrations on display at the Kimpton Hotel at 280 Bloor St. West (at St. George). Go past the front desk and turn right.

My thanks to Joel Hunking of Mason Studio.

#HotelLove #TheAnnex #Toronto #YYZ #TheSix #HotelGram #KimptonLove #TorontoLife #DowntownToronto #TorontoIllustrators #PentelBrushPen

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Say no to racism

July 11, 2018

I grew up in a multi-racial family.

The Garwood-Jones family at the Huron Haven in Southampton

From left to right: Catherine, Alison, Richard, Trevor, Peter, and our 1972 orange Volvo wagon.

My brothers and I were born at time when Martin Luther King Jr. was doing his most important work, standing up to segregationists in Georgia and organizing non-violent protests in Alabama. Meanwhile, a young couple in Dundas, Ontario — he from London, England, she from Cape Town, South Africa — offered up their bungalow to three babies whose DNA pointed them to Holland, Ireland and Jamaica.

By the time Dr. King’s message became a national, then an international movement, Catherine and Trevor Garwood-Jones were already aligned with the Civil Rights Movement. Mum had travelled between Cape Town and London as a child in the 1930s and forties, but stayed away from South Africa as an adult because of her opposition to Apartheid. She was dead set against ever setting foot in South Africa again until it embraced racial equality — so much so, that when her mother died in 1974, her brothers had to talk her into flying down for the funeral.

I didn’t know this about her until my cousin told me last year. But it made sense. Mum’s opposition to racism played out in the choices she made and the life she lived and the behaviour she spoke up against. Her heart was big and her voice was stern. We all listened and aspired to live up to her standards and expectations for the human race.

In 1960, nine years into their marriage, Trevor set out for Africa and applied his knowledge of construction to some community building projects in Ghana. He was gone for a year — during which time mum became a chain smoker — but he came back with a renewed sense of the harmony and good work human beings were capable of.

Africa wasn’t our parents’ only focus. Dad had an intense connection to the voice and message of Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel. Every Christmas, he sat at the kitchen table and re-read Wiesel’s Night. Dad wasn’t a crier, and he knew what effect this book would have on him, but he waded in anyway. He seemed to make a point of re-reading Wiesel every December so as to renew his strength in opposing the forces that, when the time is right, sink many into a state of utter contempt for humanity. We’re in that time again.

An anecdote: Back in the late 1980s, my brother Richard and I took one of our many trips on the Go Train to Toronto. On a window-shopping stroll down Yonge St., I convinced Richard that we had to go into Stollery’s at the corner of Yonge and Bloor. “They’re having a sale on Lacoste socks!” (I wore alligators on my socks back then). While I was gleefully going through the rainbow assortment of socks, a sales associate had taken Richard aside and told him, “You don’t belong here. Go shop down the alley.” Here we were, two kids who had sat at the same breakfast table that morning and poured our cereal from the same box being treated as polar opposites. Apparently, I was good for business. Richard was not. “Let’s get out of here,” my brother said. We left the store in stunned silence. Or, at least I did. I would slowly learn that this was one of a thousand cuts and arrows Richard had taken (probably to heart). When Stollery’s was demolished in 2015, I privately cheered. But too many old walls are going up again.

I didn’t have the words for my brother outside the store back then, but I do now. Say no to racism: to all the throwaway comments in our daily interactions that some people think are true or funny or OK. Correct them and speak up as you move along. Canadian actor, Andrew Phung, did the right thing this week when he called out a Toronto police officer for mocking a citizen’s driving abilities and yelling at them to “go back to your country.” Phung didn’t out the officer on social media by posting his photo. He showed restraint. Instead, he made a point of describing the incorrect behaviour (and it’s ability to scale) and explaining why it was wrong. He then sent a photo of the officer to Toronto Police Services, and called for disciplinary action.

I grew up in a multi-racial family. But I would later learn that our experience with diversity went beyond my brother Richard. In the early Noughties, my mum’s brother paid us visit from South Africa. On that same kitchen table where I shovelled down cereal with my brothers Peter and Richard, and dad cried over Wiesel’s experiences at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, my uncle laid out documentation and a hard-cover biography from the Cape Town Archives that showed how my mother and he were descendants from a black woman living on Robben Island in the 1700s. The same Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated before the fall of Apartheid.

My first reaction was joy for Richard. My second reaction was joy for our family. We really are the world.



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Creative Entrepreneurs: a mutual support society

June 27, 2018

Pen Jar Productions is the print-to-order design studio of Alison Garwood-Jones. Imagine her one-of-a-kind drawings on your throw pillows or tech accessories.

The nice thing about being a creative entrepreneur, other than the creative freedom, the distance from office politics, and the casual wardrobe (I also like to randomly drop and do sit-ups, which I wouldn’t do in an office setting) is the sense of camaraderie with fellow freelancers.

We hire each other, and pay with cash or barter for food and beer, or services. When I started my new Shopify store, Pen Jar Productions, I brought my longtime friend and web designer, Kathryn Barlow on board to perform some CSS surgery on my template.

This morning, this dropped on Facebook.

Kathryn, you can invoice me! I like to pay fast for good work.

Thank you,


“I’ve had the pleasure of working with Alison for years on her blog, which showcases her writing and illustrative talents. I was so thrilled when she launched her Shopify store, Pen Jar Productions to let others bring home a piece of that talent! From pillows to tech accessories, her unique illustrative style injects colour and whimsy to any room!

Alison is hands down one of my favourite people to work with. She’s bright, friendly, funny, and always excited to learn something new.

Check out her shop here: and be sure to give her a follow on Facebook


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Milton Glaser

June 12, 2018

Illustration and quotes by Milton Glaser by Alison Garwood-Jones

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Celebrity Body Parts

May 24, 2018


Inspired by back issues of Rolling Stone Magazine.

#GoldenAgeOfMagazines #PopCulture #Illustration #SocialChange #WatercolorArt


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An LA Sense of Time

May 7, 2018

How humans deal with time in Los Angeles. My latest Instagram book.

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Student Success Stories

May 1, 2018

Do what you love - Illustration by Alison Garwood-Jones

Illustration by Alison Garwood-Jones

If you are on this page because you’re thinking of enrolling in my U of T  Digital Strategy course this spring I can see you! Seriously. I’m glad you stopped by.

Whenever I take a course — I took Creating Comics and Graphic Novels (2489) last fall — I always Google the instructor. I want to know who they are, what they are accomplishing outside of class, and if they have an original spark before I commit to spending several months with them.

I’ve been teaching Digital Strategy and Communications Management since the fall of 2014.

In that time, digital communications has evolved (and devolved) by leaps and bounds. My course has adapted with every twist and turn social media has taken, and it provides up-to-the-minute strategies on how to build and market your blog, vlog or podcast.

As a digital journalist, illustrator and the web series host of Willful, I know a thing or two about combining creativity with an entrepreneurial spirit, and how key digital tools are to showing your work.

U of T Learn More Illustration by Alison Garwood-Jones

Illustration by Alison Garwood-Jones

Let me share a couple of success stories so you can see how some of my former students have leveraged the course learnings to start new projects, or to land some really cool gigs in digital, marketing and PR:

Andy: Andreanne was already an established beauty blogger at  A Certain Romance  when she signed up for my class last summer. Her goal was clear: she wanted to increase her visibility and get her first paid gig as a blogger/influencer. By week 2 of the course, she had crafted a focused SMART goal (take the course and I’ll explain what that means). By week 12, she had organically increased her subscribers by 54% and her pageviews by 140%.  Shortly after the course was over, Andy was offered an unpaid community management internship with a natural beauty company (which she declined). She also interviewed for a paid position as a community manager/content creator for a beauty distributor. She decided it wasn’t a right fit, so she kept looking. In the meantime, an offer to do her first sponsored post came in. This past spring, she hit the jackpot when she was picked to be the new Web and Social Media Editor at Canadian House and Home‘s French Edition, Maison & Demeure. This week, she got her business cards! Fun fact: for Andy’s first assignment, she was tasked with translating into French one of my feature articles from Canadian House & Home, then promoting it on social. The way I see it, we’re all in this together.

Photo of Andreanne Dion, beauty blogger

Photo: Andreanne by Nick Reynolds

Kamini: Kamini signed up for my class hoping to gain some new digital skills during her job search. She created a WordPress blog about her cat Hewitt. Do we really need another cat or cupcake blog. Yes, if it’s funny and well-produced. Last spring, when Kamini was preparing for a  job interview with Portable Intelligence, she was  used her blog as her portfolio, and reviewed all 12 class decks so she felt prepared. Things went well and she ended up showed her blog and some of her cat videos during her interview.  Last June Kamini said yes to Portable Intelligence and became their Digital Marketing Specialist. It was her very first job in Canada since moving to Toronto from India. Go Kamini! PS: She has since retired her blog URL. Hewitt has moved on.

hewitt the cat

Hewitt by Kamini

Julian: Julian was the first student I had who chose to use the course to set up a podcast. The idea of creating a series of  fun and plain-speaking interviews for young gays who were new to big city living had been percolating in his mind for some time. In the fall of 2016, Julian debuted The Sassy Gay. Since then, he has kept a regular posting schedule and the show has become a recognized source of support in the LGBT community. Posts include: The Epidemic of Gay Loneliness and Coming out to your mom. He has also branched out and created a web series called Process where he interviews artists. Julian told me he was inspired by the class to challenge himself in the audio and video storytelling spaces. I’m proud of this guy.

• Shiva: Shiva Kumar Shunmugam took my online class in the Winter of 2016. He was one of the most active and engaged students in this class of 35. So much of what Shiva did and said was rooted in kindness and his strong desire to help other students who were adjusting to the demands of digital communications in their workplaces. When Hurricane Harvey hit metropolitan Houston last August, Shiva, who manages the social media accounts for Beaumont, a town in northern Alberta. This Digital Strategy grad donned his superhero cape to help a family reaching out for help on their social media feeds. Here is a teaser from CTV:

BEAUMONT, Alta. — Shiva Kumar Shunmugam was wrapping up a lazy summer afternoon tending to social media feeds for the Alberta town of Beaumont when a strange request came into the fire hall’s Facebook page.

“Terrell houses are flooding need help,” it said.

Beaumont, Alta., a town of about 18,000 just south of Edmonton, doesn’t have a Terrell neighbourhood and the area hadn’t seen a drop of rain in almost a week.

Shunmugam quickly realized he was dealing with someone in Beaumont, Texas, a community not far from Houston, that has a Terrell Avenue and was hit by Hurricane Harvey.

A woman near Dallas was seeking a rescue for her daughter’s family of four who had floodwater rushing into their Beaumont home.

In her frantic search for help, the mother mistakenly happened upon the page for the fire department in Beaumont, Alta., 3,800 kilometres away.

Shunmugam swung into action. Here he is:

Shiva Kumar Shunmugam

You can read the full story of Shiva’s life saving community management tactics here. Suffice it to say, I’m proud to know this guy.

Since I started teaching, I have witnessed many success stories. One more pops to mind. A lot of people who come to my class are fleeing dying industries.  David was a copy editor at The Hamilton Spectator who felt confident enough with the new digital smarts he acquired in class to seek a job as a Communications Associate at the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing. “It was only a matter of time before the paper let me go,” he said. Like so many, David abandoned print media in favour of a communications job with more growth potential and stability.

Join me this winter is you want to learn how to adapt to the new digital economy, or apply a strategic mindset to an idea you have for a written blog, web series or podcast. I’m teaching the in-class section (075) this term.

I hope to see you soon,






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June Callwood

May 1, 2018

June Callwood illustration by Alison Garwood-JonesPeople I admire who happen to be female: June Callwood. She lived and breathed social justice and civil liberty. June was also one of the first journalists in Canada to write about the physical and emotional toll AIDS was taking on a generation of gay men in Toronto in the early 1980s. Her book, Jim: A Life With AIDS (1988, Lester & Orpen Dennys), still pops up occasionally in used bookstores around the city as a reminder of how we need to listen to and take care of each other. I think of June every time I pass down Isabella St. and Casey House, the hospice she founded that embraces and cares for patients dying of AIDS.



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