creator spotlight

CJ Infantino

CJ is a widower, writer, designer, mental health Struggler, and wanna-be cook.


How did you first get interested in creating?

I think without like going too far back, there has been this element of creativity that has existed throughout my whole life. But it’s never been anything that I’ve been able to acknowledge, right?

I’ve never seen myself as a creative until a certain point. But if I think back, like, when I was a little kid, you know...

Funnily enough, I loved Garfield. And I have this vivid memory - and there’s not a lot I remember from my childhood. But I have this vivid memory of sitting down at my desk. We had this really old shitty computer, you know, where you couldn’t even like bold font. It was like one of those old ass things with a huge floppy drives. And I just sat in the basement for hours just writing Garfield fan fiction stories.

And I forgot about all of this until I started like tapping back into it. Just writing. And I’ve been drawing.

There’s always been an element of me drawn to these creative things.

When I used to play Street Fighter competitively, my first reaction was like, 'oh, I’m going to build my own joystick.'

And I did all the graphic designs for it and everything. 

The creative side to me has always been present.

But really what changed for me was we lived in California - me myy wife and my three kids. She ended up getting diagnosed with incurable metastatic breast cancer, stage four.

And at that time we said like, okay, we need to move back home to Rochester. I was very resistant to it. Rochester just, you know, I love it, but it also isn’t necessarily a place for me. I don’t fit in here.

I’ve never felt like I fit in here. And so we moved back and I’m dealing with these heavy ass emotions. And my buddy was like, hey, I've got an extra camera. Why don’t we go out and just start shooting, you know, just see how that feels. And it was the first time that I connected my behaviour to its usefulness. This behavior of creative endeavors, because I would go out.

And now I’m processing my emotions when I’m behind the camera and taking these photos.

You know, I’ve had podcasts. I’ve had all these things, but I’ve never connected that my creative outlet is the way that I process my feelings and my emotions.

You don’t know where life is going to bring you. So that, that really was kind of the catalyst.

From that point on, I did a lot of digging into myself and trying to figure out what my life values are.

One of those values really stuck out and it’s one that I live by. This was 2015 - so we’re, what, five, six, seven, eight years out. And that was that in order for me to have a successful life and a fulfilling life outside of all the other stuff - I need to live a life creatively.

And that’s been a value and a true north for me.

I’ve tried starting creative communities. I put a lot of effort into that and I was going to market to build resources for them - you know, all these different endeavours that I’ve done have kind of put me down that path.

I’ve been doing these creative things my whole life, but I’ve never seen myself as a creative, right?

By trade, I’m an engineer. And I’ve always been like, 'oh, I enjoy creative things, but I’m not a creative'. And I think the switch for me was admitting to myself that I am a creative.

And when I’ve been able to do that and then say, not only am I creative, but being a creative is what helps me to process the things that we go through in life.

That gives you strength, because, I don’t always want to sit down and write. I don’t want to always sit down and design. But I know that if I engage in that activity, especially when I don’t feel like doing it - because it usually means that I’m going through something - I come out the other side better off.

And there’s definitely a reason for it and something that I’ve figured out and we can get more into that later.

Who has influenced you creativity?

I think there has been different people for different areas and for different stages of my life - and not to get too heady about it, but each one of them gives me something different.

And the interesting thing with people who influence you or that you look up to, is that I don’t necessarily say,' oh my gosh, they inspire me' because my first reaction is, 'oh my gosh, they’re so much better than me. I can never achieve anything that I want to do. I’m a piece of shit and I should just give up.' 

So it’s battling through that, but yes to answer your question, yes, there are people who inspire me.

And I think the one person that’s been in my life and maybe this is weird, but it’s Tupac.

He was with me in my childhood and in every stage of my adult life I come back to his music and I find something new in it.

And for me, like obviously I can’t relate to the experiences that he’s gone through. So it’s not that I’m finding these things that are relatable. I’m not like 'oh, you’re telling my life.' It’s more he was an artist with his words and his early stuff were so passionate about change. And that’s what resonates with me the most - changes. He's saying this shit back in the nineties when he was like, what, 20 years old. He started when he was like in his teens and he’s saying this shit. And it’s still relevant to today. So for me, he’s been that constant in my life. But it was like, you know, poetry. That it’s been insanely powerful for me.

There are other musicians that I've been heavily influenced by. I have a very eclectic taste, but hip hop is just in my DNA. Only just by the nature of, that’s what I was exposed to early, that’s what I listened to.

And coming back to it with new context and new awareness - with a new realization of some of the things that are going on in our world. With an adult brain. It just lets me see it in a bigger way.

But then outside of music and hip hop, there’s, Jerry Lorenzo. He’s been a huge influence on me. Fear God. And then obviously, Virgil, right? Well, for him specifically - as I get deeper into it and learn more about him and, you know, the world lost him. The thing that resonates so much with me about him is that he did something I’m trying so hard to do. And that’s that he was able to exist in this industry and make commentary on the industry.

So at the Boston Art Institute, if you look at some of his bags when he took over as the creative director for Louis Vuitton - he put chains on those bags for the handles as a way of commentary - to infer that we’re chaining ourselves to these luxury items. But he was still able to produce and exist in this world and toe that line that I think your mind has to live with this duality of 'I’m creating these things for people to buy them', but also saying 'yo, this is fucked up.' 

So to me, I have such a hard time of like existing in a world where things aren’t black and white, where I can’t figure it out - where this is just the way it is or this is the way it is.

So for me, I love like a lot of what he’s done, but those have been like huge influences and then, you know, some writers and stuff.

Describe your process/steps for getting started.

It depends on what I’m creating, but I’ll try to speak broadly.

Whether it’s a new piece I’m writing, or a poster I’m designing, a new piece for Opal Smoke for the Fashion, or podcast, or any of these ideas. I've found that the process allows me to exist in a quiet space and I’ll expand on that…

When we are able to shut out the noise and when we can be very cautious about the filters that we put up to what we’re allowing inside of minds, then we can hear these ideas.

Don't get me wrong. I’m guilty of scrolling myself. I do all that shit.

But when you allow yourself space to think and marinate and let these things speak to you because they’re going to speak in a whisper. They’re not going to be loud.

What’s loud in my head is 'you’re a piece of shit. You should be scared. You’re going to die.' You know, all these anxieties that I have, those are what are loud. So what happens is an idea, an emotion, something that I’m battling, is present with me. And if I’m quiet enough, if I give it space and I accept it, suddenly a lot of these things that have given me life start to come up and these ideas start to form.

So if I’m thinking about writing something - before I even put word to paper, I have probably 70% of it written in my head. Not good, but it’s in my head and I’ve thought about it for some days. Sometimes I just sit down and bang something out. But most of the time, it’s an idea that is just marinating and I’m writing in my head, which is good and bad. 

It makes me a little bit distant if I’m with people. It’s hard to be present when these things are going on. But if it’s a design, like the last one I did stuck in the clouds - that was just something that I’ve realized and once I’ve accepted this, it’s been so much easier. I think there’s something to be said where you sit down and you do something creative on a consistent basis.

You need to allow space for the muse to come in. But for me, I can’t just sit down and decide 'I’m going to do a design now.'

It’s more 'I’m going to be creative'. So what happens is most of the time - with almost all of my designs - they’ve just popped into my head, and then I go sit down and sketch that out.

And then you work at it and you figure out what’s it going to be. 

How do you view creativity?

We all have these forms of expression of creativity.

I think everybody has it. And everybody participates in it and they just don’t realize it.

I’ve been a software engineer for example. And when I sit down and write code, I’m not just stringing things together to make some machine do something. For me, it’s a very creative spiritual act.

And I treat it the same way that I treat writing some piece, you know, whether it’s like a short story or non-fiction piece.

To me, that is this creative thing where I’m trying to birth and add life and love and expression to it.

So it could be the way that I name variables. It could be how I do the indenting.

All of it, to me it is a story. It’s a story of how we’re telling the machine to do this thing. So, visually, how it looks - it’s all this expression and creation.

My first paid gig was probably my art gallery exhibit. It was downtown and called Light and Shadows.

I still have a bunch of the prints too.

My next act where I had a traditional creative arts gig is probably photography.

I had a photography business and got paid to do portraits and weddings and things like that.

I’m going to get back into it. I’ve been thinking about it. I have my backlog of photos to edit them and I do travel to photography when I go and stuff like that too.

What do you define as success?

It’s really hard to say because there are so many different facets, right?

I feel that success is a definition that is constantly changing - when you have a healthy relationship with success, I believe it’s an ever evolving thing when we allow it to be.

And it has to be within the context of your life.

So, you know, my wife and I, we were high school sweethearts...

We got married - I believe I was 21 or 22. We were engaged at 19. So we were a young married couple. And then she was pregnant six weeks into our marriage. Babies having babies. So my version of success was very different back then. My version of success was like, I need to feed my family.

So for me, success was 'I’m going to bust my ass. I’m going to educate myself. And I’m going to work towards this career in tech that I want to do'. And even within tech, I have constantly evolved.

So I originally was just working on different types of infrastructure. And then, we ended up having three kids and I started to find growth in my career. And I started to find my path and ended up moving to Facebook out in California.

And then she got diagnosed with cancer.

Now success looked very different.

Success to me was, can I live 30 years in 5 with my wife?

Success was, pay the bills, do the things that I want to do with her traveling.

Getting things off her bucket list and developing as many experiences as I possibly can. And having resources for her medical support. That’s what success was at that time.

Even though I was still pushing all these other businesses and doing photography.

I taught photography at the Brainery.

I was trying to start a creator community....

I went back to college for writing.

But success was always defined as how much quality time and memories I could build with my wife before she dies.

And then she died in 2020, September 30th, 11.08 AM.

And I died with her.

I'm a completely new person. 

And I’m still discovering who I am.

And I’m still discovering what success is.

You know, the following year, success became 'How do I just keep my job? And how do I keep dinner on the table for my kids and get their clothes clean? How do we just survive? And I’m still in survival mode.

Success for me currently is that I’ve realized how much I’ve been given in my life.

I’ve had tragedy. You know, I had a little bit of a challenging childhood, which I mean, who hasn’t, but... you know, I've definitely had some challenges there.

But when I reflect on my life and I look back... man, I’ve been given damn near everything. The only thing I haven’t been given is a full life with my wife. And that’s really all I wanted. But the love and the relationship that I had with her -I mean, we fought for it, but it was everything. It was fucking beautiful. It was a full fucking life, which makes it hurt that much more. I don’t want her to go. I fucking love that woman. I still do. I will always love her.

I mean, she’s right there. You know, all our photos. What I’ve realized is it’s now time to give back.

I’ve been given so much and I don’t think that was by chance.

And it’s time to give back as much as I can. So what I want to do, and this is my goal in life now, is to make a world safe for people to not be okay. Everything I have, any resource that I’ve come across that I have to put into that and to put into my kids and to make them know that it’s okay to grieve. It’s okay to be angry. And for them to discover who they are. And to find their beauty in this world. I don’t want them to strive. I just want them to say this is the life that I want. And I don’t care what that life looks like. But to know that they have a choice in the matter. And that I don’t expect them to go out and be a multi-millionaire or to go be a doctor or to go be a creative. All I want is for them to discover who they are. To work on themselves to find growth and love and joy.  

When you create - when and why do you share what you’ve done?

I have struggled with perfectionism damn near my whole life.

I’ve struggled with anxiety, depression - some stages worse than others. And now I battle really intense grief. And everything that I have done to a point I have always looked at it with disdain of 'Oh, you’re just not fucking good enough at your job. You’re not fucking good enough.'

And I beat myself up. And it has been very limiting to my progress.

And I would say the last maybe last seven years I have let go of the idea that anybody who comes across my creations, whether it be a poster, some form of graphic design, my writing, my clothing. A fucking video that I post on Instagram. That I have no control over how they’re going to perceive it.

And I used to get so bent out of shape about this - 'I wrote this piece and I know what I’m trying to communicate. If you don’t know what I’m trying to communicate, that’s a failure on my part.'

But what I’ve realized is, we all have our own shit going on right here.

We have this filter on everything that comes to us, no matter how crystal clear we think it is. It gets fumbled and it gets moved through our worldview and all the shit that we’ve gone through and all of our trauma and our joys and our sadnesses. And we see it as a mirror. And we empathize with it. So I had to say, I can no longer be in control of that interpretation.

I need to free myself to just put it out there and allow it to do something. And whoever’s receiving it in whatever way makes sense for them.

And to know that if they misinterpret. That’s not on me or them. That’s just the nature of art.

To really answer this question... when Ariana died my purpose in life became to make the world safe for people to know it’s not okay. Because my whole life, I have felt like the outsider. I felt isolated. I have felt like the lone wolf that was misunderstood and nobody knew or could connect with. And it’s because we aren’t equipped to just let people feel what they need to feel. And becoming a widow was so isolating. It is so isolating. Where, you know, we have these preconceived notions of what grief is and what it isn’t. But that’s not my experience.

So I want to build things that will let people who have experienced what I experienced, connect with it in whatever way that works for them.

I have found something that makes me feel validated and heard. And that’s it. And that’s what I want to evoke. So to really answer the question is, I do sit down and I have different creative outlets.

And I almost always will publish them. I will, even if they’re garbage - I know I am not good at drawing.

And if you go on my Instagram and see some of the shit that I’ve drawn, it’s not good. And I know that. But like, I’m trying. And I got something out of it. So I’m going to post it and maybe somebody else will get something out of it too. Or maybe somebody will be like, ‘Hey, it’s okay to show progress because the people who we see that do amazing things - that’s not the first time they’ve done that.' When you write a book or you write a piece, there’s this notion of the shitty first draft. When I sit down and write code, it’s the shitty first draft. It’s always the shitty first. So I’m showing the process and I’m being open and transparent about it of like, this is what I created. Maybe this is what I felt in it. Here you go. You can ignore it. You can get something from it or you can just hate on it.

I mean, it hurts me, but like I try not to care. We all want to be understood, right?

But I’ve had to learn that there’s some nuance to that.

And there are semantics, maybe a little bit, but I’m learning it’s okay to be misunderstood. And that’s different from wanting to be understood from your partner, in your deep connections in life.

Generally speaking, if I’m putting stuff out there, I will be misunderstood. My intentions will be misunderstood.

But the purpose that I have found myself falling into is transparency, because everybody that I’ve talked to when I’ve had one-on-one conversations when I’m sitting here struggling, when I can’t breathe, when I’m so overwhelmed with my emotions and with my anxieties - is actually feeling not that dissimilar. But you think everybody else has it together. And when you talk to them, they don’t. So I’m like, okay, how do we solve this? Us all being open and honest about it? But that’s not going to happen overnight. And the only thing I can do is show as much of myself as I’m capable in the moment. You know, so that’s where I’m like, fine. This is shitty.

But it’s from me and I love it. And I just want to share it because at the end of the day, I do get some nice, really kind things that people say to me and how it affected them. And I don’t know why. I don’t know how or what people connect to the things that I do.

I don’t know, and maybe I don’t want to know.

It still bewilders me that anybody even cares about anything that I do.

But at the end of the day, if I’m not going to be transparent, then how could I hope that someday we can all be a little bit more transparent? And that’s not giving up our secrets. I’m saying transparency of 'yeah, I should talk about that too.'

And I want to make it clear too. We all have different levels of comfort with what we want to expose.

And there’s different contexts in which you share stuff. I’m super open with some of my friends, like in different contexts.

You know, some people may be surprised that I actually don’t talk a lot. I’m very introverted, very shy. I don’t really open up a lot.

But yet on my public platforms, I share quite a bit that maybe is uncomfortable for some other people.

So you have to learn these boundaries of where is it safe for you to share? 

You know, for example some stuff that I won’t share publicly - once I process it ends up coming out.

There is a process to this. And I want to make sure we have boundaries.

And that’s also a part of being transparent - having and knowing your limits and your boundaries.

And then where it makes sense, trying to stretch that a little bit, maybe collapse it a little bit over here.

But it's just fucking important to know that people are not alone.

And it doesn’t take a lot of people to share, for people to know that they’re not alone.

And that’s what I’m trying to do.

Let's connect




The Day After

Hopeless Mope

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