Wallflowering is generally not our M.O., but in February 2013 during a Snowsports Industries trade show party in Denver, Colorado, we held down the wall of a bar for an entire evening and a great new friendship was forged when we met contemporary folk artist John Fellows. Over a handful of hours, we discussed our mutual love of art, outdoor adventures and travel (Gimmelwald, Switzerland, being a favorite).
John has been making a name for himself as both a fine artist and through his extensive work in the action and outdoor sports industries. His unique artistic style took a while to refine and often combines a mix of collaging, block printing and illustration, which has translated well into both sides of his business. His stacked roster of clients includes brands like Red Bull, Element, Smartwool, Patagonia, Armada Skis and KEEN.
In our conversation, John shares:
- How showing his process through live events and social media has created a stronger fan base
- Why walking away from bad clients is important
- Why playing the long game with his marketing and networking efforts has produced the strongest client partnerships
Can you give us a quick overview of who you are as an artist?
I’m a graphic designer, illustrator and printmaker living in Crested Butte, Colorado. I work for a lot of people in the outdoor industry.
What does your creative process look like and does it differ for commercial and fine art?
Yeah, it can be totally different for each.
On the commercial side of things depending on the client it can be very structured. They might come with an exact idea that they want you to make and then I’ll just have to do some sketches, send them back to the client, see what they think, get their edits back, redo it.
On the artistic side a lot of it is kind of a stream of consciousness, just lots of sketching, sketching and sketching until eventually some idea comes out that I want to explore further. Then I’ll take that and refine it. With some of the map pieces I’ll try to find a map that works with that sketch and then I’ll do the final process of carving it and printing it. Most of them are collages.
So it’s definitely much freer on the artistic side than the commercial side — that can be fun but a pain.
Title: Chamonix-Sixt (2018) – Personal Work.
Medium: Linoleum Carving Collage on vintage topo map c. 1934.
I skied Chamonix back in 2012 with my wife and some friends and had always wanted to make a piece that represented that experience and how big those mountains were. At the time this was probably one of the hardest pieces I had ever made due to the amount of layers in it. Chamonix-Sixt was created in my linoleum carving collage style which is when I take a single carved block and print it on a variety of old found paper, cut every piece out and reglue it all back together to get the finished artwork. All the color you see is actually the tone of the paper the block was printed on. —John Fellows
What are your tools for sketching?
Lots of tracing paper, Sharpies and white-out pens.
So it’s just scribbling, scribbling and scribbling, putting a piece of tracing paper on top of that scribble, scribbling again, getting it a little better, putting another piece on top of that until it’s actually just solid lines without scribbles. So unfortunately I do use a lot of paper.
And then what are your tools for your next steps?
And then from there I do the poor man’s carbon paper transfer. I’ll just take the image and draw it out in pencil on tracing paper again and then flip that over so the graphite side is down on the linoleum block and rub the entire backside of the paper so that pressure transfers the graphite onto the linoleum block. Once that’s on there I’ll go back with the Sharpie so I can have permanent lines on there. That will basically finish the line drawing on the linoleum block.
I’ll then rub a really thin layer of ink all over the block so as I’m carving I can see how the carving is coming out a lot more than if it was just a line drawing. It takes a while to carve. Then I’ll do test prints to see how it’s coming out, see what more I have to carve out.
If it’s a commercial piece, I’ll get it to a certain point where I’m happy with it and just print it onto newsprint paper because it takes the ink really well. Then I’ll scan that into the computer and do all the final touch-ups and add color, so I don’t need a perfect print.
But on the art side, I’ll carve until it’s perfect, cut all the existing sides off so it’s just the block, and then I’ll use different found paper and print the block however many times I have to on all the different paper until I get perfect prints for each part of it.
Then I’ll take an X-ACTO [knife] and cut every single piece out, take an ink pen to the edges of every single piece and then re-glue it all back together. I do the black pen so when I glue it back together you don’t see any separations of the paper when it’s all put together — otherwise you’d see the white edge of the paper or the very small sides of a brown piece of paper when it’s all stacked together.
So it all starts off the same but then for the commercial side it goes digital and the art side stays fully hands-on and off the computer.
Does that make sense?
Yes, that’s interesting.
It’s funny because a lot of people see these pieces and either think they’re paintings or just think they’re drawings. And I do have to explain that it’s actually all collaged together.
A lot of these [points to a few pieces of his work in his office] from a distance look like one flat thing. But if you get up close you can see the layers between each piece. And I think that’s where that black marker on all the sides of the paper comes in.
And you’ve mentioned that your live carving helps people understand your art, too, right?
Yeah, exactly. I’ve done a couple of live carving demonstrations and that definitely helps. The people who think I paint realize I don’t. And then the people who know I carve, I think it’s still eye opening for them to actually see it in person, you know?
The tools I use are actually some of the cheapest around, so I always like to really promote that anybody can do it. You don’t need these insanely fancy steel Japanese carving knives. You can just go buy a $6 Speedball carving set from your local art store because that’s basically all I use, super cheap stuff.
Many artists we’ve spoken with have mentioned their art degrees didn’t prepare them for the business side of their careers and you have a B.S. in Graphic Design from Drexel University in Philadelphia. Do you feel your education has been helpful for your art career?
Oh, god, no. [Laughter]
No, my school had a co-op program so by the time you graduated you had between 9 and 18 months’ full-time paid work experience, whatever your major was. So the good side was you could be 19 years old but getting paid the starting salary for an actual job.
That was a different time when freelancing was looked down upon, nobody really did it. The school only wanted you to graduate and get a full-time job at some firm or somewhere, so they didn’t really prepare you for working on your own. You never had to take business classes because it was just understood that you’d graduate, get a full-time job with a 401k, health, dental, everything. You’d have one W-2 to do your taxes and that was it.
My problem was that by the time I graduated I knew I didn’t want a full-time job because I hated all the ones I had. Actually, there was one that was great, they really helped me out over some years. But it also showed me I didn’t want a full-time job because I was able to keep leaving and coming back, leaving and coming back and the company would keep hiring me again. So it was like, This is great, why would I want a full-time job?
Taxes are the killer. Because I used to go to H&R Block out of college and walk in there with eight 1099s and they would have no idea what to do. One year I made $13,000 out of college and they had me owing $6,000. I was like, This is not right.
That’s something I hope they teach now because with contract work and freelance, because it’s maybe 40% of the workforce now? So it’s something everybody needs to know.
What kinds of jobs were you doing?
Just freelance graphic design jobs, always word of mouth through the one company that would always hire me back, The Franklin Institute, the science museum there in Philly. It was a great group of people, great job. I was good at what I did and I was also no drama. So I would work, get all my stuff done, show up the next day, work, get all my stuff done.
So it was just putting together all these different jobs and then I’d take off for three months at a time.
Where did you go to get business advice since you weren’t given that information in college?
The business side I’m still learning. Back then nobody could give you any advice for that because everybody had full-time jobs.
I come from a military family background so the idea of working for yourself was just non-existent. The only business advice my parents would give me was, Go get a full-time job. I was given the advice of, Oh, you want to travel and see the world? Join the Air Force. I was like, That’s not exactly what I’m talking about. [Laughter]
So it’s just been a lot of learning mistakes. If you don’t pay your taxes for a couple of years, they’re going to come back and get you. I had some tax issues because I was living paycheck to paycheck for ages and I didn’t have money to pay taxes.
But now that there’s such a big community of freelancers and the internet is prevalent, you can find information everywhere and get the right advice from friends. Our accountant now was a recommendation from a friend who does freelance contract work too and he was like, This guy deals with self-employed people all the time so he knows exactly what to do.
What are some of the key things you learned over the years?
Paying taxes on time. And then just being better about keeping receipts and tracking hours of jobs.
But it’s still hard. This is the first office space I’ve ever had outside of my house. For ages it was the dining room table and then I got a room at my house once, but that quickly turned into a nursery when we had our first kid. And then we did an addition to our house and for about two years I actually had an office space in the garage.
My work space was always at home which was easier. Now I have a mortgage and rent on a separate space, so I’ve got to be on top of things and always make sure I have money every month to pay.
Title: Animal Band (2015)
Client: Element Skateboards
Medium: Linoleum carving
I had done board graphics for Element before but they were all a single self-contained design. When asked to work on a new series, we came up with the idea of the three pros being animals and playing in a bluegrass band (since Garcia actually plays the banjo). I had always wanted to create a single carving that would flow continuously across decks and this seemed like the perfect time to do that. I’m not a huge fan of using lots of color in my work, so I was stoked when I was able to convince them to only use black ink with pops of white on natural wood decks. I felt that would make these stand out in the sea of boards at the local skate shop. —John Fellows
Do you have a business plan at all?
No, I always sit down and try to write one, but then I get so busy. I think it’s the same story for why my website hasn’t been updated. It’s always, I’m going to sit down and do this, but then all of a sudden it’s like, Oh crap, I’ve got five jobs, I need to finish all these.
Even going back to school to take classes got kind of hard because there was always something else going on. When I have free time I want to go to the mountains, go skiing or hiking or travel. And then we had our first kid and it’s like, Well, there’s definitely no time now.
I also started trying to read books about how to run design businesses just to get more of an idea of what I need to be better at.
Does any book stand out as being a good resource?
Yeah, there’re a few good ones. Graphic Design: A User’s Manual, How to be a Graphic Designer without Losing Your Soul and How to be an illustrator [links at the bottom].
What are your different revenue streams and roughly what percentage would you say is coming in from each?
Basically it’s commercial, which is design and illustration, and then on the personal side of things art shows or my online store. Normally it’s been 70% design and illustration and a little bit of art. And then I think last year I reached almost 50/50.
Hopefully soon I’ll be able to cut out a lot of the crappy design work I do, because I do a lot of design work that nobody will ever see — it will never go in the portfolio, it just pays some bills. Hopefully I can spend some more time on the personal side. That’s stressful, but it’s fun — ask any designer, the hardest thing is designing for yourself. There’s a drawing that I’ve been working on for two years — I think I had the initial drawing hanging in my studio back in Denver. I was just like, No, I don’t like it yet! And I just finished it a month and a half ago to where I’m happy with it.
What’s your ideal revenue distribution? Do you want to be full time with your fine art?
No, I still enjoy working with clients, but I want to try to weed out all those newspaper ads, you know? I have a lot of work with this ad agency who designs everything for this company and they say, Here are the assets, can you make our weekly newspaper ad?
So I want to get rid of stuff that’s just mindless and boring. I think 70% personal and 30% commercial would be great. Because then I can still work with fun clients. And the personal art side is filtering into the design side anyway. Companies are wanting that, almost merging them a little bit, which is nice.
How about your pricing strategies and negotiation processes when it comes to the commercial and fine art?
There’s always a learning curve. It’s great when you work with clients who respect what you do and are more than willing to pay a decent price. Not having somebody who says, Oh, if you don’t want to do this project there’s 50 people behind you that’ll do it so take this money or nothing. Or, We have $200 — what do you mean you can’t design something that we can use on ten different products?
I was talking on the phone to one client about possibly working together and he said, Okay, so what would you charge for the design? And I said a number and he just started laughing at me on the phone. I was like, Oh crap. And then he said, No, you at least have to double that, if not more.
It’s great having a client who’s going to be totally straight with you and tell you, No, we’re not going to pay that — we’re going to pay you something that we know you should be worth. He told me not to accept less from people next time.
And then same with the art side of things, that’s always hard because sometimes I like to keep my prices reasonable because I want anybody to be able to buy stuff. I think that’s where having different levels of art — from silk screens to giclée prints to original artwork — helps. Anybody could afford a screen print, and then a giclée could be the next step up and a really nice piece for somebody. And then having the more expensive, original art for people who really want that original piece, you know?
Some people tell me I should double my prices. And I’m like, Yeah that would be great, maybe down the road at some point, but people aren’t going to really buy it at that price right now.
So do you kind of put certain prices out there that you think could be good and see how well it sells?
I try not to fluctuate things. It’s not like, Oh, I threw this huge number out there and it didn’t sell, I’m going to drop it. It’s talking to friends in the art world and seeing what they think are reasonable prices. If it’s an art show it’s more working with the gallery, talking about prices and then kind of sticking to them once they start selling at that price.
So I think it all comes back to — on both sides, the commercial and the fine art — having a good community around you who are willing to share experiences and advice. I’ve always found with Denver and Colorado in general that everybody is very willing to help each other out.
Going back to your commercial work, when it comes to the negotiation process, is a lot of that driven by them and what they’re willing to pay or something else?
A lot of pricing depends on the client — you know, the size of the client, what the project is going to be. And you’re not going to charge a non-profit the same thing you’re going to charge Vail Resorts.
If it’s a client you really want to work with but they might not have the budget you might bend what you would normally charge or work a deal out with them. For example, Armada [Skis] was great. We had an agreed upon price and then they’re like, Here’s a brand-new pair of skis, poles and everything, and a credit as well. So I was able to give my wife skis and poles. So it might not be the best price but it makes it worthwhile because it’s something that we’re going to use and something we love. That helps a lot. But when you have to argue with clients about the price that can be hard.
Do you ever walk away?
Yeah, I’ve walked away from a couple of projects — before even starting or in the middle of a project. Sometimes the client and I are just not working well together.
I was working on a book project and I made the mistake of assuming he had given it to his editor. I laid out an entire book with illustrations and everything and then he said, Oh, let me send it to the editor. And I was like, What do you mean, was that the first time the editor looked at it? And he said, Yeah. And the editor has all these changes that changed the entire flow of the book. At one point he came back to me with some more edits and then I said, I’ll get these back to you in a week and a half. And he started complaining that I obviously didn’t think he was important enough to turn it around in a couple of days. I said, Well no, I have all these other jobs I’m doing at the same time and I just spent pretty much three weeks on yours. He was like, Maybe we should just end this. So I said, Sorry you feel that way, but, agreed, and here is my invoice for the work.
Is there anyone you turn to if there’s ever any legal assistance you need?
Knock on wood I haven’t hit that yet.
What about for developing the contracts?
I try to work with companies who aren’t strangers. Either I know the company or somebody in that company or they have a good reputation.
But normally, yeah, I’ll see the contract first and then I may have to go back and be like, Well if I do this illustration for you I’m going to retain copyright ownership of the illustration even if you want a full buyout of it. You have full rights to use it but I still retain ownership of this image, just so there’s no argument down the road of them saying We own this style because it’s associated with our company and nobody else can use it. So it’s just trying to cover my back.
And do you figure out how to word that in the contracts yourself?
Yeah, I just write it out and make sure it’s very upfront in initial emails, when I’m giving them a quote, even before we sign a contract. Just so they know.
You initially established yourself as a full-time artist in the Denver art scene, but have since relocated to a small mountain town, Crested Butte, where we are right now. What prompted this move and how do you feel it has impacted your career, either positively or negatively?
Well my wife and her family are from Crested Butte, so we’d always talked about moving back here. And once we had kids it kind of sped it up.
I grew up in basically the suburbs of the East Coast where it’s just housing developments and strip malls. So we both had ideas of what we did and didn’t want to give our kids. We weren’t tired of Denver, it’s just we knew we wanted to be in the mountains. We were in Denver about 11 years. It was great and it was definitely a good place to be for getting a career started and meeting the community.
All my work is through email anyway, all my clients are in California or somewhere else. After a while I was never having any face-to-face meetings with people and I found myself going to art openings less and less. So it got to a point where I could pretty much live anywhere and do the same thing but not have to battle I-70 traffic to get up to the mountains.
That’s huge. Are there any downsides that you’ve seen yet, living in the mountains, kind of removed from the city?
I think just the over-dependence on Amazon Prime. Because you can’t just run out and buy art supplies.
I think I was able to track down a tube of printing ink in Gunnison at a closed art store that turned out to be the closet of a head shop. So that’s the only tough thing to get used to, just the accessibility to things. You just have to plan ahead. Whenever we go to Denver I stock up on things.
You’ve talked about your love of zines and you produce your own almost annual zine called Papercut that highlights your work and creative process. Why did you create this outlet for your work and do you use it as a marketing tool to find additional work?
Yeah, I’ve always loved the printed page. I moved to West Point, New York, in seventh grade and one of the first kids I met basically introduced me to heavy metal, punk rock and hardcore. There was no internet back then so we’d read Maximum Rocknroll and stuff like that. There would be ads in the back and I’d order a tape or EP of the latest band.
Then I started ordering more zines and I was getting all these cool printed little magazines from all over the country made by people who were into the same stuff that I was. It just opened my eyes, especially living on a military base.
Then I started contributing artwork to different zines in eighth and ninth grade and started making my own back then as well. I kind of stopped doing it towards the end of high school and through college, but I’d always buy them if I found them. Tower Records used to have an amazing magazine and zine section and I would always be buying tons of zines from there or whenever I’d travel, from different independent bookstores around the country or even Europe sometimes.
I always just love seeing people doing stuff on their own, you know? Because for the most part mainstream magazines suck anyway so it’s trying to find people who are really passionate about what they do, making zines about things like, I just drove across the country in my van, drew pictures and I’m writing stories about it. That’s just awesome.
I think back in 2004 I started making zines again as a way to put all my artwork together and to make something cool. That eventually morphed into what it is now, which is more of a yearbook for me. It’s a way for me to document what happened last year, for me to remember things. Because it’s just not the art creative side, it also covers the personal side.
Also in this time of internet everything, I feel that people are returning to valuing the hands-on aesthetic of things and printed pages. So I would just send them out to people I thought might appreciate them. Not even necessarily looking for work, just being like, I like what you do, you might enjoy this, put it on your company’s coffee table or throw it on the back of your toilet, you know?
It’s a good way to connect with people. I think people respect that and think, Wow, you actually took the time to make this book, put together a written letter, put it in an envelope and mail it to me. It’s not just an email saying, Hey, here’s a link to my work, check it out. I think people really dig it these days and I wish more people would actually make books. It’s not that expensive.
You know, I think that’s how I met Joseph Toney — I learned of him years ago through his work at TGR [Teton Gravity Research] and I think I tracked down his email and said, Hey, can I send you this?
How many of those do you send out a year?
I probably send or give away close to 100. When I go to OR [Outdoor Retailer trade show] or even SIA [Snowsports Industries of America trade show] I’ll have a bunch in my bag. And with friends I haven’t seen in a long time or just somebody at a company I’ll say, Here you go, you might like this.
I’m constantly just giving them out, so it is promotion as well. And they can look at it on the plane back to California or wherever they’re from. I have this list of people I send them to every time.
Do you already have these relationships or how do you track down mailing addresses? Because those aren’t always easy to come by.
If it’s a design studio or something, they might have it on their website. Or I will email them and say, I really enjoy what you do, I made this zine, I’d love to send it to you. It’s not like, Look at it and hire me for the next job.
I feel that most people are really receptive because I’m not asking them for anything. And I might send them a photo of last year’s so they can see what it looks like. I think it’s a rare occasion I don’t hear back from somebody. Most people say, Hey man, thanks, here’s my mailing address. And if they see the zines a couple of times they might think I’m good for a job.
How much business do you feel your zines have led to?
A decent amount, whether it’s been commercial jobs or commissions. I think that’s how I worked with Patagonia and Keen. And Armada, through meeting Joseph and sending him that zine, eventually he’s like, Let’s hire him.
Title: KUFO Ski Graphics (2016)
Client: Armada Skis
Medium: Linoleum Carving Collage on vintage topo map of Switzerland
Designing skis had always been a dream project, so when Armada came calling and asked me to create a graphic for the Kufo needless to say I was beyond stoked. I had been skiing on the Armada JJs for a few years already so it seemed like a perfect fit to work with them. The Kufo was made for backcountry touring so I thought I could create a piece of art that spanned both skis showing a lone skier skinning deep into the mountains. This was the largest piece I had created up to that time (almost 4 feet tall with the map). I’m still super proud of this one! —John Fellows
Now it’s having friends who will bring up my name to people and those people’ll be like, Oh, we were already thinking of him, maybe if you’re bringing his name up it means we should work with him. I’ve gotten quite a few jobs out of that.
I also donate work to fundraisers all the time. So between the book and donations, that’s where a lot of work comes from.
How long did it take from creating Papercut to getting your first clients from that?
I assume it’s a long game, though, right?
Exactly, I was making it for myself and would still be making it for myself even if I wasn’t getting jobs out of it. And then people buying them on my website enjoy my work and the process behind it as well.
I don’t think it’s an instant thing like, Oh this is amazing let’s hire you right now. I feel that people will get it and sit on it for a while. It could be a couple of months or it could be two years later until they’re like, Oh, now the right job or project has come up.
What else goes into your marketing? Maybe Instagram or networking?
Yeah, networking is never bad.
Is that a big part of what you do?
I feel like when I can do it, it is. But I’m pretty bad at going to Chamber of Commerce meetups and I never went to AIGA [The American Institute of Graphic Arts] events in Denver or Philadelphia when I lived there.
But I think a lot of the networking is on the social side. It’s not, Hey, here’s my business card, let’s talk about work. It’s running into somebody after a trade show and they’re like, We’re going out for a drink or we’re going to get coffee, let’s hang out more. And after hanging out for a bit, people realize we have stuff in common and then they’re like, You know, we think we can work with you. So I think networking in that way is really good.
And then I give a lot of things away for free. I’m constantly sending people little screen prints or the books or just random things. Sometimes if somebody orders a print I’ll say, You bought eight of my things in the last couple of years, here’s one for free.
Sounds like a lot of goodwill.
Yeah, I think it’s little things. People love it. I love it.
Yeah, that’s awesome.
There’s this design studio in Switzerland that I love called Büro Destruct and somebody I met while living there set it up for me to go to their studio. I was just some random American kid in my 20s showing up but they gave me a tour of the studio and went to their flat files and basically said, Open some drawers, take some stuff out. They had all of these old posters and stuff. I was like, Holy crap, I’m leaving with ten posters, that just made my day, this is amazing.
So to be able to do that for other people, why not if I have extra copies? Yeah, I can sell it for $35. Or I can make this person’s day.
Do you handle all your own fulfillment and shipping?
Yeah. That’s why my website says it can take up to two weeks. Because getting 50 orders out the door can be a lot of work on top of the commercial side of things. Eventually if I’m doing more prints it would be cool to hire a high school student who’s into art, you know? Teach them how to roll prints, pay them some money.
I think that would be pretty fun, especially here in a small town where they don’t really see a lot of contemporary art. It would be cool to introduce them to a wider view of the art world, show them they can make and sell their own screen prints.
What about social media and Instagram, do you have a plan for that? Because you have a solid following on Instagram.
I approach my Instagram in a natural way. I’m not posting every other day at 9 a.m. with a million hashtags. When I have something cool to post, I’ll post it. I’m not trying to force it. I hate the million hashtags thing. And you don’t need to write five paragraphs under your photo. Every single post can’t be that deep. [Laughs]
I try to do what I’d like to see — the finished piece, the progress, shots of mountains. If I tried to do scheduled posting it would just come across so forced. I don’t want to fake something just to post it on there. And certain jobs I can’t post about so there will be gaps.
You don’t want to oversaturate people, but I say I don’t like that and then there’s people who are really good at it and have 100,000 followers.
Do you find it drives a good amount of sales for you? Just people seeing your work there and then going into your shop or contacting you?
Yeah, I think it does.
Is it commercial jobs and fine art sales that you’re getting from Instagram?
I think I’ve gotten a couple of commercial jobs. I think it helps that clients can see the progress and not just the finished piece all the time. If they can see a carving they might think, Oh, this really fits the aesthetic of our company a lot more than somebody who does a computer illustration.
I do get hit up for commissions a lot and I just can’t handle them right now. And tattoos, but I’m like, Oh I can’t do that, that’s too stressful.
You’ve really established yourself as an outdoor/action sports/mountain culture type of artist. Was that always the goal or something that just came out of your work and your interests?
I’ve always loved the outdoors. Now I feel like there’s so much outdoor-themed art but back in 2003 there was a huge lack of it. For a long time it was just very hippie outdoor artwork that didn’t appeal to me or my friends so I started making stuff that I liked, that my friends liked and eventually found a style.
I’ve gone through a lot of crappy phases, but I just kept doing it and just like anything if you work long enough, you work hard enough, eventually you’ll find a style and other people slowly like it as well. It took a while. It wasn’t like, Look how awesome this is! And a year later everybody thinks, This is great!
I remember taking stuff back to a gallery in Philly that showed a lot of artists I really liked and the woman said, I like it, but I would never show it in my gallery.
Did she say why?
I mean, looking back, it was bad. [Laughs] She could see maybe there was something there, down the road. But I thought, She said she liked it, that’s all that really matters. It took a long time but I just kept doing it and then eventually found my style.
In 2009 I was creating a piece I think for a fundraiser and that’s one of the first times I did the collage style. I wanted to add some color but didn’t really want to print different colored blocks. So all of a sudden I was like, Well I’ll just collage some paper together. And as soon as I did it I thought, Oh my god, I think that’s it! It was just one of those full-on wow moments where I felt, I’ve got to do this more. And so I did it for another piece, then another piece and that’s how I finally found a good look for my work.
You’ve brought your unique style to a lot of companies, is it ever a concern that it can become oversaturated across many different brands?
Oh, yeah, it’s hard not to. None of the brands are going to do 20 designs with you and let you start your own line. It’s still one t-shirt here, maybe two over here, so it’s not that bad yet. But it’s always a concern. Sometimes you think, Oh my god, is there too much of me out there right now? [Laughs]
Would you ever like to go deeper with a client where, let’s say, a lot of your style becomes their branding?
I think that would be hard because if my style is actually the entire brand of this company, why would somebody else want to work with me on their brand?
Most of the clients I want to work with already have their overall branding done and use different creatives for different things while keeping the same overall parent company look.
Going back to the oversaturation, do you have any ideas on what your plan will be to address that?
I think it would be nice to do more work in the water side of things, the surf world, more nautical-themed stuff with certain companies.
I grew up sailing with my dad. We’d always go to Cape Cod, Nantucket, Rockport, Massachusetts, and just the look and feel of those towns is pretty amazing. I’ve always loved the ocean and I’ve tried to make work that represented that too.
To get to this point in your career, have there been any cost-saving tactics you’ve used to help you sustain what you do? Because it can be difficult especially in those early years.
One thing I remember from my first co-op job ever at Drexel was I got a job at an art store. It was back in the day when you had to go somewhere to get something printed out and this one designer kept coming in who knew I was a graphic designer too and he said, What are you doing here? You’re just killing yourself, you can make more money as a waiter and still do design stuff on your own. And I was like, Fuck, you’re right.
I hated the job and the owners didn’t like me I think because at the interview I said something about needing every Saturday off because I was the captain/coach of my rugby team and we had games. The owner said, Well, would you rather eat or would you rather play rugby? I was like, Well I’ve lived off popcorn for two weeks before, I think I can do it again. I got hired, but after two months I said, Screw this, I’m out.
You’re going to have to work jobs you don’t like, but there’s plenty of crappy jobs out there that aren’t going to be that crappy, you know? And you always have to keep creating stuff, even if you don’t have a job that is creative. Just eat lots of ramen like every college kid. Happy hours are great. If you enjoy sushi, you gotta reel that in. [Laughter]
It was just trying to live cheaply until I started making money and saving money, which I was never good at. Because for the longest time once I got money I’d just buy plane tickets and go to Europe. Then I’d have $500 left in my bank account and think, I need to go home and work now.
I’ve had crappy jobs earning six dollars an hour. I was bumping chairs at Keystone Resort for eight dollars and fifty cents an hour or something, but I was still outside having fun then going home and doing art and design work.
What have been some of the biggest successes you’ve had over your career?
I think getting emails from people saying, I really love your work. When someone bought a $120 gicleé back then I was like, Oh my god, this is a lot of money! And when they say things like, This is the first piece of art I ever bought, I love it! That’s awesome.
I get hit up by university students all the time for interviews and this girl from the UK contacted me and said, I have to give a presentation on an artist that I like to my printmaking class so I wanted to ask you some questions. And I’m like, Me? Stuff like that is really personally rewarding.
On the business side it’s working for Patagonia, a company that I’ve always loved. And when they hired me and said, We’re going to pay you what you’re worth, we’re not trying to undercut you just because we’re Patagonia and everybody wants to work for us.
One of the biggest things was finally getting to travel with my art, which was always a dream. Going up to Banff Mountain Film Fest last year and getting to stay in the Banff Center, having an art show along with the film festival and actually having my plane ticket paid for. I’m like, I’m getting to do this?
How did that come about?
So I’d known this guy for a while from Rab North America and I met him when he was the manager of an outdoor shop down in Golden. Then at certain events and trade shows I’d run into him and say, Hey, what’s up? And then eventually he said, I have a project.
This turned into a great project and good friendship. And that job actually led to working with BUFF Canada on Festival BUFF, which led to doing a live carving/printing demonstration while I was up there to unveil the new BUFFs.
It’s just this awesome trickle-down effect. And when I meet all these cool people, it’s the same thing — Here’s a screen print, a book. One kid was just getting off his cooking shift at a restaurant and he came running over for the little demonstration and tried to catch it. That’s pretty awesome, you know?
I think it’s the old story of networking and just being nice. Constantly showing that you’re a hard worker who delivers a good finished product, and then eventually the right job will come up.
That’s huge. And what are your hopes and dreams for the future?
I think more travel with art would be awesome. I’ve always thought my work would be really well-received in Japan, with all the character-based stuff, the mountains, the hands-on aesthetic. It would be amazing to do a show over there. And on the personal side to be able to ski.
Just to be able to travel with art to a foreign culture. You know, showing in a little town like where I used to stay in Gimmelwald or Murren in Switzerland or having a show in the Lauterbrunnen Valley or the Berner Oberland. Or even Chamonix, France, where there’s a lot of outdoors people. A lot of times I feel like this type of art doesn’t really get to those towns. Kind of the same thing as a lot of US mountain towns where it’s a lot of artwork for second and third homeowners. So it would be nice to bring more contemporary, fun art to those environments where I really think people would enjoy it.
Is there anything else you’d like to add for our audience?
Just be nice to people. You never know who you’re going to meet and you can’t have that big of an ego because the word will spread pretty quick and people might not want to work with you.
Work hard, keep the nose to the grindstone and don’t be a dick.
Interview edited for length, content and clarity. Artist’s work (images, audio and/or video) courtesy of the artist unless otherwise noted. All other photographs by Kim Olson.
- AIGA – The American Institute of Graphic Arts
- Armada Skis
- Banff Mountain Film Fest
- Broken Compass Brewing
- Büro Destruct – agency
- Joseph Toney – artist
- KEEN Footwear
- Max Kauffman – artist
- MAXIMUM ROCKNROLL
- Nick Garcia – skateboarder
- Outdoor Retailer – trade show
- Red Bull
- SIA (Snowsports Industries of America) – trade show
- Teton Gravity Research
- The Franklin Institute
- Weston Backcountry
- Graphic Design: A User’s Manual by Adrian Shaughnessy & Michael Bierut*
- How to Be a Graphic Designer without Losing Your Soul by Adrian Shaughnessy*
- How to Be an Illustrator by Darrel Rees*
*ArtisticAllies.com is free resource we love creating, but one way to help us keep the site going is to use links on this Resources page if you need to buy something. Links with an asterisk denote referral programs we belong to, which means if you use the link to buy something you need, your price is either the same (or cheaper) and it’s a no-cost way for you to support the site as we may earn a referral for purchases. We really appreciate it + thank you! : )