Itzel Yard has always been comfortable in her shell.
Until she started to break into the world of NFTs, the 32-year-old generative artist, who goes by IX Shells online, said she was happy living in her own world. Having lost her father, Vincent Yard, at age 14, Yard kept to herself for most of her high school years, preferring to find her community online, even as the other kids teased her for being “quiet” or “slow,” she told Fortune.
Her art was, and still is, her greatest refuge.
“It’s a way for me to communicate without having to speak,” she said.
Fast forward to today and Yard is one of the most well-known artists—and one of the highest selling female creators—in the world of NFTs. In 2021, her piece, Dreaming at Dusk sold for about $2 million at the time to the decentralized autonomous organization, PleasrDAO, with all proceeds going to benefit the Tor Project, which develops open source software and advocates for online privacy and anonymity.
This month, Yard designed a cover for Fortune’s April/May issue, which will be sold as NFTs in a 24 hour sale starting at 1 p.m. on April 9 through NFT marketplace Foundation.
The digital version of the cover, which features a series of animated shapes rotating clockwise on a beige background, can be summed up into one word: growth. After a tough 2022 where NFT and crypto prices fell dramatically, the cover art is meant to focus on the progress ahead, Yard said.
Cover Illustration by Ix Shells
But if you told Yard just three years ago that her art would sell for millions or that she would design the cover of a magazine, she wouldn’t have believed you.
“I still don’t believe it. It’s one of those things that happens once in a lifetime,” she said.
In 2020, she was living with her mother and brother in a small house outside of Panama City, relying for a time on the $600 per month minimum wage income from her mom’s job as a secretary at a hospital.
Just before he died in a motorcycle accident, the family was set to move to Ecuador for her dad’s new job, where he would be practicing as an engineer. But life had other plans, and Yard found herself struggling with depression, she said. There were many days where she wouldn’t come out of her room.
Years later, things started to look up when she moved to Canada to pursue a degree in architectural technology and later switched to computer science.
Even still, she said most of the time she had to work three jobs, including at one point as a high-rise window cleaner, to make ends meet, as well as send some money back to her mom. During her time in Canada she was inspired by the work of artists such as Tyler Hobbs, Dmitri Cherniak, and Jorge Ledezma, and she start experimenting with generative art. Most days, she spent 16 hours straight online learning about NFTs and interacting with people in the Web3 community.
She returned to Panama in 2019 without finishing her degree after struggling with the effects of an abusive relationship and the toll of being far away from home.
She took time to heal, and threw herself into her art. On long walks to the beach and around Panama City, Yard found her inspiration. In the catharsis of dancing to her favorite experimental and electronic music, she found her rhythm.
Yard would draw inspiration for her generative art pieces from sounds she recorded or pictures she took on her walks. She would spend hours on her computer, “hyper-focused,” as she puts it, creating a new piece. It helped drown out her problems.
“It’s all spontaneous,” she said. “It’s me trying to translate my life into another medium.”
In that hyper-attention to detail she’ll sometimes put a poem, or an encrypted puzzle in her work with the hope that those who are really interested will find it and decipher it.
Photo by Val Schnack
As much as it pains her, Yard admits she has to come out of her shell, sometimes. Recently, she’s started posting more about herself on social media, doing more interviews, and promoting her work more than she has ever done before. In the white and male-dominated world of NFTs, Yard has also made a point to lend a hand to other Panamanian and Latino artists, promoting their work and connecting them to her network, like her mentors did for her.
“I feel like I’ve emerged from that shell and now I can go and do conferences or go to another country alone, and those are things that I didn’t know I could do until I tried,” she said.
Driving her newfound confidence is her family. When her NFT art started to do well, she became the financial caretaker of the family. Now, she’s pushing her mom to retire from her job at the hospital, even though Yard said she stubbornly insists on working a few more years before she retires.
In 2021, Yard took some of the money she had made from her art and bought an apartment for her family in the city so they could move out of the small house they were living in and closer to her mom’s job. Art and NFTs have given her the chance to give back to her family, she said, who have done so much to get her to where she is now.
“They’re the reason that I’m balancing the world I live in in my head with what’s real: traveling, meeting people, going to meetings, taking chances, and creating a career,” she said. “I do it for them. If it was up to me I would probably be lost in an abstract world.”