Being a “nerd” isn’t the insult that it used to be.
In Julie Sharrer’s mind, the word is a badge of honor. She considers a nerd anyone who accepts the fact that they are an individual, and embrace the rarities that create beauty in the world.
When the Whiteland resident decided to call her burgeoning art and fashion retail shop Nerd Zoo, she wanted to celebrate all of the things that make us unique.
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“They’re not ashamed of the passion, whatever it is,” she said. “You can be a mathematician, or maybe you really like art, or maybe you’re really into sports. I love meeting people who are passionate about certain things and express that.”
With Nerd Zoo, Sharrer is using her creativity and her talents to design completely original art for a good cause. The whimsical drawings of bulldogs, owls, giraffes and other animals — all with a signature pair of thick, blocky glasses — adorn t-shirts, baby clothes, mugs, jewelry and other accessories.
And by embracing her own inner nerd and convincing others to do the same, she is able to use a portion of her sales to support healthcare efforts in developing parts of the world.
“Helping others find their inner nerd is what makes our communities and our world a better place,” she said.
Sharrer’s work goes to support Timmy Global Health, an Indianapolis nonprofit organization that sends medical service teams to support the work of international aid organizations. The agency has teams working in Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Nigeria and Ecuador.
Ecuador was where Sharrer first started down the path towards Nerd Zoo. She was an undergraduate at Purdue University, and in the middle of a mission trip with Timmy Global Health in 2004.
As a pre-med student, there wasn’t much she could do as far as medical care. So when she wasn’t assisting the physicians on the trip, her supervisors asked her to play with the children in the villages they were working in.
“I was drawing for the kids, drawing portraits of them. They really liked it, because they didn’t have photographs of themselves, so I could draw caricatures to give to them,” she said. “That’s when I really started enjoying pen-and-ink drawings.”
The love for drawing for the first piece to fall into place for Sharrer. That interest morphed into the idea for Nerd Zoo later, during a long drive back from Florida. To pass the time on the road, Sharrer started drawing animals, and caught the eye of a friend.
Her friend asked her to do some of the animal portraits for a nursery. That job caught the attention of another friend, who wanted Sharrer to do some pet portraits.
Suddenly, her art was in demand.
“I enjoyed doing the custom art, but after a while, it seemed repetitive. I wanted to do something where I had a mission behind it,” she said.
The picture all came together when Sharrer was in graduate school at Duke University, earning her master’s degree to be a physician assistant. She was in the school’s university scholar program established through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Part of the requirement for the program was to write a mission for her work in medicine, and her thesis was to combine art and medicine.
She wanted to use art to bring awareness to social issues that she had encountered in her mission trips to Ecuador and Ghana.
“Those trips have influenced everything I do now,” she said. “When I got into the mission trips, I knew I enjoyed medicine and taking care of people, but I met a lot of people on those trips that made me realize I wanted to do that for the rest of my life.”
The idea struck her that she could use her comical drawings to make cool t-shirts. Then the profits from her sales could go back into the work of Timmy Global Health.
Growing up, it wasn’t considered cool to have that kind of intense interest in anything, Sharrer said. She felt like she was supposed to be a certain way when she was a kid, and if she didn’t fit into that exact category, she would be made fun of.
Sharrer wanted her animal drawings to represent different types of those passionate “nerds.”
“Each animal is different, but each one provides something to the world that no one else does, and the world is a better place because of it,” she said.
With her work comes a certain challenge. Sharrer wants her drawings to be lifelike, representing animals as they are in nature. But at the same time, her themes are also friendly and funny.
“They have to be in-between realistic and cartoonish, so that they have a little bit of personality to them,” she said.
Nerd Zoo is a side project for her, serving as an outlet for her creativity. Most of her time is dedicated toward her work as a physician assistant with Indiana University Health Physicians. She is also a member of the Army National Guard as a medical officer, and is scheduled to be deployed to Kosovo in September.
“I have a lot going on, so I have to draw late at night, on vacations, when I have off on my work schedule,” she said.
With a busy schedule, Sharrer has focused most of her sales online. She is also in discussions with some local boutiques and stores about selling the shirts. Already, the gift shop at IU Health hospitals feature baby onesies emblazoned with her art.
But she has been involved in some regional art fairs.
In June, she was part of the INDIEana Handicraft Exchange at the Harrison Art Center in Indianapolis. When the WAMM Fest opens in Greenwood on August 20, Sharrer will have a booth ready to sell her art there as well.
“Those events are really rewarding. You get to see people choose which one they like, and see people really enjoy the art,” she said. “Most people who take the time to understand it and take the time to learn why I’m doing it get even more attached to the brand.”
Occupation: Physician assistant for Indiana University Health; owner of Nerd Zoo Designs
Education: Bachelor’s degree in biology from Purdue University; master’s degree as a physician assistant from Duke University
Military service: Army National Guard as a medical officer