The moment you enter the home of Salt Lake City-based artist, production designer and actor Ruel Brown, you will instantly be transported into a playful world of wonder. His deep love for Star Wars, toys and cartoons becomes immediately apparent as you peruse his carefully curated collectibles, props, memorabilia, books and, of course, art.
Ruel is the type of person you quickly feel a kinship with and it’s not hard to see why his ability to forge strong relationships with fellow artists and collaborators has been so integral to his career success. He’s a self-proclaimed “jack-of-all-trades” who paints large-scale murals, designs sets for directors like Steven Soderbergh and TV shows like The Bachelor and acts alongside world-famous actors like Jack Black and Jon Heder.
In our conversation, Ruel shares:
- Why being a visual problem solver can make you essential to other people
- How developing strong relationships with a core group can help you find new business and conquer dry spells
- Why imperfections can be perfect
Where did your passion for art begin?
I like to think that I was just born with it. I don’t have a time when I remember not liking or looking at things in an “artistic” way.
I’ve always loved to draw since I was a child. My mother encouraged me to draw as a kid. If you ever saw those how-to-draw-a-cartoon-character books I think she got me those, the old animation ones. But I wouldn’t do the steps, I would just go to the end.
So the cartoons I grew up watching — Walter Foster, he did Tom and Jerry, Bugs Bunny, that sort of stuff — I just love the characterization of them, they’re so animated, expressive and dynamic. Those kind of epitomized the idea of what came to be in my head as what I wanted to do. Because I loved cartoons so much and was always drawn to them and just wanted to create or to draw.
Maybe cartoons were the major factor in how I wanted to make art. That’s probably it. I still love cartoons.
Star Wars was this other thing. That was my first movie and it really impacted me as far as the mythology, the characters themselves. And I think the toys, because they’re sculptures, I always wanted to make things with my hands.
Looking at your career so far, you’ve done painting, murals, sculptures, film acting, production design — can you give us an overview, from getting into art as a child to where you are now?
I did my first mural in high school. Then I went to college to UVSC [Utah Valley State College] first, then Brigham Young University in Hawaii and finished at BYU in Provo.
I started as a film major but didn’t do film and switched over to sculpture, then graphic design, then illustration. I went to all the animation houses in California on a field trip with our school and saw little cubicles and everybody drawing and I’m like, Ugh, they look miserable, I don’t want to do that.
So I went back to sculpture and got a sculpting degree. I’ve done so little in fine art sculpture, but I’ve done a handful of jobs. There was a video game company that I made mini-figurines for though.
After college I started working at the Museum of Art at BYU in the preparator fabrication department. So we handled all the art work — hung the artwork, built the exhibits and that sort of thing.
I’ve always done something related to art.
Consanguineous Form #10. This is from a sculptural installation of over 100 pieces, each piece relating to one another, descending from one block of foam, then cast. Cast Stainless Steel. Height 28”. –Ruel Brown
Did you go to California next?
Yeah, yeah, California was a few years after that. I worked out in the San Diego area doing sales for a while and in the interim doing art here and there. Then I moved to Los Angeles, I was engaged to a girl there who worked as a toy designer for Disney. That didn’t work out but I stayed there and that was when I started working in film.
I worked on ABC’s TV show The Bachelor. But before that, the first thing in film was with the same guy who hired me on The Bachelor, Chris Pearson — he’s a production designer, art director guy — and we made a giant Dorito for a Doritos commercial. His brother, my friend Tim, referred me. So we made a giant Dorito for a commercial. That was my first foray really into film, which is kind of fun.
Was that a Super Bowl commercial?
Yeah. I never saw it, actually.
And is that how you got started in production design?
Yeah, the Doritos commercial, that was the first thing. But before then my film friends knew that I was a visual artist and a jack-of-all-trades. I’m very good with my hands — I fix things, make things happen, it’s very organic that way. I can solve visual problems a lot. So I went to Milwaukee to work with them on music videos for the bands Maritime and Headlights. I created the scenes, sets and costumes.
My brother and sister were also child actors. My sister was a lead in the TV show Goosebumps. And then my brother had a little kid part in JFK Reckless Youth, with Patrick Dempsey. And my mom was in a film when she was young and when I was a little kid called The Last Chase, with Lee Majors and Burgess Meredith.
So we’ve had some ties with film stuff and it just rolled from there.
Were you juggling all of those jobs together? Because you had your art, day job and also production design work.
Yeah, I juggled it all. I also did graphic design for the sales company that I was working for, graffiti stuff. And I did vinyl toys and art shows for The Monkey King film and the Dunnys.
And then acting recently.
Acting recently, yeah.
How did that come about?
The Unexpected Race is, I assume, what you’re asking about. During college I had a lot of friends in that film world, like Jared Hess and Jon Heder. Jared Hess was the director and Jon Heder was the actor in Napoleon Dynamite. Through friends I heard about the audition for The Unexpected Race and I came over and did a reading. I guess I did it differently than everybody else and they were like, Yeah, that’s the one, that’s the guy.
I actually did win another acting role before for a short film called That Old Familiar Spirit, which was really fun. So that was my foray into that world a little bit more, which led me to The Unexpected Race. And I had a scene with Jack Black and Jon Heder. It was pretty great just to have fun with those guys.
And now what are you focused on?
I’m so interested in all of it, so I don’t have a specific focus. My focus waxes and wanes on what I want to do, what I should do. I’m trying to let go of the “shoulds” in life, I’m just trying to be focusing on what comes to me or what I’m drawn to.
Right now it’s murals because they keep coming to me. I’ve been focusing a lot on doing paintings and drawings lately. Also the film stuff, continuing the production design. I want to do more acting. I haven’t had or tried to get an agent yet, it’s just people who called me for the little things that I’ve done. It’s just this more organic, fluid thing that comes, as far as business practices go.
Is there any part of your art that you like more than other parts or is it a mixture of all the different aspects?
I do find energy and joy out of all of them for sure.
Film has its challenges with the business side for me — the bureaucracy, red tape, distribution of wealth. I mean, the directors and actors get paid millions of dollars and the production design guys and the production assistant people get paid very little, comparatively speaking. So in that sense, I have a little bit of conflict with that.
But when it comes to making art, it’s really fun collaborating. If I could collaborate more I would enjoy that a lot. That’s how I would like to be, I think. I would like to have a career that would be, like, half collaboration and half individual art, that would be great.
That’s cool. And how did you get from California to here? Why did you choose to be in Salt Lake?
I was in Los Angeles and then I moved to San Francisco and I did art and worked for a gallery preparing their shows.
I also did some consulting/design work for Chinatown, they were doing a revitalization project. Betty Louie and her family own a lot of businesses and they wanted to clean it up a little bit. So I helped them with some design aspects of the Terracotta warriors and changing the Chinese lanterns to be a little more unified, that sort of thing.
While I was in San Francisco I met my ex-wife — we got married there and divorced there. So that’s essentially what caused my migration to Utah. But why Utah? Utah was because I have a bunch of film friends here who were like, Hey, come here, we can work on some films together. And one of my really good friends was moving from D.C. out here. So film is what brought me back. And making connections with old friends and artists.
Are you also meeting new people within the art community here?
Yeah, I’m still growing and learning and meeting new artists. And the cool thing about doing the Granary District [Salt Lake City neighborhood] mural was meeting all the artists. I had met Trent [Call] and Chuck [Landvatter] 15 years earlier, when we did a graffiti project here, the 337 Project. They’re cool guys.
So remaking those acquaintances during the Granary mural was really fun. And I got to meet Mike Murdoch. His art is so awesome. It connects humor and commentary, and his images are so great, I love it.
How do you split up your time between the different forms of art that you focus on?
It waxes and wanes. If I’m slow with production, then I’ll do more painting, more drawing. That’s always the challenge, to keep busy, busy. But I like the free time too. For me, I think doing nothing at times is the best mode of re-energizing myself for creative things. Does that makes sense?
Like, I just got the Nintendo Switch a few months ago and I’ve probably played Zelda for 50 hours. [Laughter] And I love it! It’s great. I mean, I think about that video game like art. That world is so in-depth and the storytelling, the sandbox, you can choose wherever you want to go, you can follow the things, you can not follow things, you can just explore. It’s like this weird metaphor for how I want to live my life. I’ll go down the rabbit hole where I have to solve these puzzles. It’s so great, I really love it.
I think that free time really helps my brain to be creative, to create the next thing that I need to do. I like the freedoms of that.
A lot of your work is based on referrals. Are people finding you other ways, too, like through social media?
I think it’s mainly through friends, family, collaborators— from the relationships that I make. I’m not really marketing myself. The marketing that takes place is on Instagram, which is pushed to Facebook. I don’t actively go on Facebook, I just post the same thing I do on Instagram.
And then I have a website that’s very rudimentary with only the basics on it. I need to add so much to it. But that’s part of the business side that I’m like, Oh, man, I don’t know how to do this crap and I don’t want to.
So work just kind of comes, I haven’t really sought out very much. Even with film, I’ll send out a couple of texts every once in a while, like, Hey, I’m slow right now, you guys got anything?
How did you build up your community of friends and artists and what do you do to cultivate your relationships?
A lot of them are from my college days. I think it’s just by— it may sound cheesy, but my love for these people. The friendships I have with my friends from 15, 20 years ago are because I genuinely love and care about them and they me.
You know how it goes, you have either acquaintances or you have friendships. And my group of friends consists of musicians, designers, visual artists, we’re just really— I don’t know, really lucky that all of us genuinely like one another and will connect and promote one another.
Are you also seeing people at events or is it more, Hey, I haven’t talked to this person in a while, I’m going to shoot them a text or an email?
Yeah, it’s a combination of those things. I’ll go to shows, premieres, and there’s a dozen people there I’ve known from whatever and we just reminisce, talk. I think that’s important — being a part of the community, being visual, being accessible that way.
But it’s still natural. I mean, I want to go to these things, I want to see the art, I want to talk to friends and vice-versa. But I will also go, Oh, I haven’t talked to someone in two months, I’ve got to give them a call. And I’ll call and catch up. I’m a big proponent of following those thoughts that you have of wanting to stay in touch or stay close.
If you know someone looking for certain types of art or needing film work in some way, it sounds like you would send that to them. So it’s just keeping your network pretty healthy, right?
Yeah, it’s healthy networks.
And it’s just so fun hanging out with your friends. It’s hard work, but at the same time it’s, like, so rad just hanging, being goofy and connective. And then you meet people there too. I think openness is key. I genuinely want to meet people and see what they’re up to, what their thoughts are, whatever. So maybe that leads me to not really having to, thus far, promote myself in a way. It’s just a little more organic way to have a career.
Sounds like a good business skill to have.
Or life skill, right?
Definitely. So what have you learned along the way that helped you with the business side? Did college help?
College did not prepare us for business. We all joke about it.
What I would have liked to have learned in college about business practices is the reality of being an artist and that it is very difficult to try and find work. If you’re actually going to go look for work, that’s hard to do. How do you do it? I don’t know how to do it.
But learning a little more practicality in regards to business, like save your money, start a 401(k) [a retirement savings plan]. I mean, money is important to perpetuate your art career. If you have the necessities taken care of, then you can have freedom to be an artist. But at times there are dry spells, you know? And you’re like, What the crap, how am I going to pay rent this month? I have to hock some painting somehow, reach out to people, I’m not sure. And that’s where the business side comes into play. Do I promote and say, Hey, I got a sale on my line drawings this week only? I don’t know what the answer is to any of this stuff, I’m still trying to figure it out.
I think it would have helped if I had somebody to collaborate with, like a business partner who could kind of handle that side a little more. Because if they’re more business-minded toward what they think is good for art or how to sell it, that’s obviously positive, right? They can focus on promoting something that they think is beneficial or marketable. Then it enables me to be like, Okay, you want to use my line drawings for blankets, something that people can own, to have art that also keeps them warm.
I have all these ideas and things I would like to do, but that’s not what motivates me. The motivation is the collaboration or the self-expression of doing it. I don’t think I’m a good business person. I was a salesperson because I’m a personable person, people like me and they bought stuff because they liked me, right? But you can’t fake liking people. My girlfriend and I used to have this joke because we’d run into people and they’re just doing stupid things that just annoyed us and we’d be like, Oh, people are the best. [Laughter] But it’s a little tongue-in-cheek, right? Because people are the worst but people are the best. We are both of these things. We are terrible and we are beautiful, in all sorts of ways.
I would like to think that we all just try to be our best selves and accept the fact that we’re going to fail at it at times, to not hold it against those people, you know? Everybody makes mistakes.
8th Dimension. Commissioned by the City of Salt Lake. I want the viewers of my art to find themselves lost in the undulating lines and dimensions of my surreal “linescapes” by transforming this building into an unearthly scene that will play with rolling perspectives and three-dimensionality. 22’ x 66’ – Exterior Concrete Paint. –Ruel Brown
For sure. And what keeps the lights on for you? Is it the production design work, the murals, commissions?
Well, they all contribute. At certain times the mural stuff has been keeping the lights on more than the production design, and then at other times it’s production design.
I think the commission and artwork stuff is always the lower side of it because I’m not promoting it. I mean, it’s usually just people saying, Hey, do you have a print of this? I’m like, No, but I can do an original piece for you, what do you want? And so it kind of works out that way. I could do prints. A lot of people have talked to me about prints and I just don’t do it. I need to.
But production design has been the bread and butter, it’s what keeps me going.
What about valuing and pricing your work — how do you do that?
With productions there’s usually some sort of negotiation that takes place. Unless it’s, like, a production where they just totally get it and know your day rate is somewhere between $500 and $700 a day for doing production design. But then you have super low-budget, independent teams where they’re like, Well, this is a passion project, it would be good exposure for you, we could pay you $150 a day. I’m like, No, thank you. I’ve turned down a bunch like that.
When I was first starting, I took almost everything, but now I’m like, I know what it takes to make this happen for so little. And what is it worth? It depends. If it’s going to be detrimental to my health or my well-being, then it’s harder for me to do it. Feature films are crazy because the hours are so long. Like that Damsel shoot. I was working 12 to 14 hours a day. It was a lot of work. When I did a little bit of work for a Steven Soderbergh project, Mosaic, his mentality and their production, they usually don’t go over 10 hours. It’s, like, 8 to 10. So that’s way more doable.
As far as pricing for murals, if they’re part of some sort of program, they set the price and you just apply. And if you’re okay with that price you do it, right? If I’m negotiating a price for a commissioned mural for a company, an advertising firm or something like that, we go back and forth and figure out something that’s hopefully agreeable.
But I had a few experiences that weren’t so good. I used to just do it by my word, I never had anything written down, but then I got screwed over a couple of times and I didn’t want that to happen again. I have a friend, Holly Rae Vaughn, who’s a muralist in Las Vegas and she’s very business minded. I reached out to her to ask her about contracts and she sent me her list of contracts, the dos and don’ts and that was very helpful. You’ve got to do contracts and stuff.
And then there was an experience where the second portion of a mural thing didn’t happen because one of the business partners was having an ego trip and he put the kibosh on it and it was just sad. But that’s the reality of the business portion of it. If I’m going to get angry or pissed and hold it against people, then that’s going to be just detrimental to myself. So learning those lessons, I think, are good.
So if something on the business side comes up and you don’t know the answer to it, do you just go into your network of friends or do you go online?
Yeah, I’ll just call my friends, we’ll talk about it and I’ll get their opinions and information on how to navigate the problems of the business side of art. Or they’ll refer me to somebody else and say, Check out this guy.
I was once doing a commercial where we were staging a bank robbery and we had to have bags full of cash, and I’m like, Man, where do we get this cash? So I called my one friend who referred me to another.
So it’s about relationships, really. Solutions to problems come from doing and working with people, making relationships, backing your word up or just being consistent. Then people trust you and find ways to make things happen.
This is not a business model. But maybe it is. I’ve been reading Brené Brown’s books on vulnerability. It’s fun to listen to her books. She’s doing all this research on fear and these sorts of things, trying to find the solution to them, and the solution is vulnerability. So she gets these corporations who want to hire her to talk, saying, We’re having a lot of problems but we don’t want to talk about fear or guilt, can you come talk to us? And she’s like, No, no, no, you don’t get it, the way you do it is by talking about those things, it is by being vulnerable.
So I’m finding out even in the business setting, being open, honest and vulnerable leads to good relationships and better business.
Makes sense. Have you had any times you experienced any setbacks in your career? Or times when you’re like, What am I doing?
I don’t know about setbacks, but What am I doing? Is a question I ask myself almost on a daily basis. [Laughter]
I think that’s part and parcel of being an artist, in a way. We do something that we really love and the challenge is to monetize what we really love. This idea of, Do we have to monetize what we love? Do I have to get paid by being an artist? Why am I an artist?
So you ask yourself those questions and there is no answer to that. There are artists who do something totally unrelated to art to make a living and also those who make a living doing art. I don’t know.
What are some business aspects you struggle with, like dealing with taxes, finding new work, marketing?
Yeah, marketing is hard. All I do to market myself is share a painting or time lapse or something on my Instagram. But I probably only share about 10% of what I actually make. And one reason is insecurities, like, Hmm, I’m still working on this, I’m not too happy with this yet.
So promotion, soliciting or trying to find work or sell myself. I can promote my friends all day long and say, They’re awesome, you should pay them thousands of dollars for this! But if I say, Yeah, you should pay me thousands of dollars, it’s a little different. I know that that’s what I’m worth and I want to value myself, but to just say it, it’s hard.
What’s the Salt Lake arts community like? And do you spend much time meeting new people in person or online?
Well, since I have such an interesting artistic group of friends and people I associate with who are very fulfilling for me, I don’t search outside of that. But I know I need to because whenever organically it happens, it’s great. I make new friends, love their art and think they’re awesome, that sort of thing. So if I did that more, I think it would be beneficial for my business. For instance, I’m not even registered on the Utah Film Commission. I should be, but I’m not.
With the artist community it’s more about meeting people and keeping it going that way. For me, because I’m so personally connected and make connections that way, the online thing is hard for me to do. I feel there’s this gap, there’s a separation, it’s so impersonal that I don’t seek it out that way.
What are your hopes and dreams for the future? Where do you see yourself going as an artist?
I don’t think I have crazy ambitious dreams in the sense of, Oh, it would be so great to be recognized for a giant mural on a wall in New York City or something like that. I don’t think about things that way.
My dreams are to keep on making art and collaborating with the people and relationships that I value. That’s my hope and dream — I want to continue to do this my whole life, always.
I do have one very specific dream, though, where I would like to have a large studio gallery space that is dedicated to revolving, collaborative shows with my artist friends or new artist friends that I make because of our mutual respect. So have a gallery/studio/hang out place to get together and collaborate with one another. I know there’s a lot involved with that, but it’s an ideal for me which, if it could actually happen, would be pretty awesome.
I would also love to make a giant sculptural playground for kids that incorporates this idea of these monsters, with play things to climb on, to slide in, to go through tunnels or whatever. Just to create this world and have them get lost in it or feel a magic behind it.
So I have a whole mythology with my MONSTERULE world and I’ll give you the brief of it. My MONSTERULE world is a world that exists with our own, but we can’t see it unless our eyes are open to it and we become mindful of what’s going on. And once the kids connect with these monsters, they become this different entity that gives them these other abilities to create, or to protect, or to understand their anger, fears or frustrations.
In my art you see there’s a lot of screaming and yelling with the monsters and that’s sort of that expression of them figuring out who they are and how to be. And the MONSTERULE world would be this place where these kids are confronted with these fears and problems and learn how to not hide them, not to dismiss them, but to embrace them and learn how to use them in a healthy way.
Because fear is the ultimate oppressor, right? If we’re afraid of things we don’t do anything, it limits us. So the embracing of fear or anger, understanding it, helps us to be more personal, be more effective or skillful in how we live our lives.
Kids are always told, Don’t do this, don’t do that, don’t be angry, don’t be sad. All these don’ts instead of letting them be their perfect self, right? Their imperfections make them perfect, which goes back to the idea that I have as an artist.
I love kids, I love the idea of helping kids to be creative or become whatever they want to be, whether it’s a creative accountant or a filmmaker.
MONSTERULE – Rue’s Monster. This piece is part of the MONSTERULE Universe where monsters and humans unite to battle the forces of emotion, helping one another overcome the self. 6” x 9” – Watercolor, Ink, Marker. –Ruel Brown
That’s awesome, hopefully that comes to fruition.
So why do you do what you do? What drives you?
I feel art is just an extension of myself. It’s part of me.
There’ll be times when I don’t really make anything for a while and I’ll feel off. I need to connect with that creative part of myself and it will help fulfill that purpose or that need that I have to exist. The reason I do exist is to create and to make things.
I’ve been drawing wavy lines, in one shape or another, since I was a kid. And it was always an immediate response to what I see now as not being mindful. If I’m distraught or in a funk or not feeling good for whatever reason and it comes to my awareness, it’s like, Oh, I need to just take a minute and create something.
For me, drawing my lines is an exercise in the now. Being present. I’m nowhere else except present when I’m drawing or painting, especially with my lines. Over the years it’s evolved a little bit, but more recently my practice of drawing the lines is a practice in imperfection. Because I will start with one line and I don’t know what it’s going to be, and I accept that, and I love it and I embrace it. And that line will affect the next line. And that line, if I want it to be more flowing or more wavy or the imperfections of my hand that lead this ink or this brush, leads to the next one.
So when I say the practice of imperfection is perfection, it’s perfect the way it is because it’s imperfect. Does that make sense? That’s what drives me to create, the presence of mind to understand that my imperfections are perfect.
I haven’t always thought this way. I think it’s always been in there somehow but being able to articulate it right now to you guys, it’s actually fairly new in these last few years. But I think it’s very important for me. That is what drives me. It’s an exercise, it’s a visual representation of me. Of my imperfections and how they’re perfect.
Interview edited for length, content and clarity. Artist’s images of work courtesy of the artist. All other photographs by Kim Olson.
- 337 Project – Salt Lake City graffiti project
- ABC’s The Bachelor
- Betty Louie – San Francisco’s Chinatown community advocate
- Brené Brown – author
- Chris Pearson – art director
- Damsel – film
- Dunny – vinyl toy
- Goosebumps – TV show
- Headbands – indie band
- Holly Rae Vaughn – artist, muralist
- Jack Black – actor, musician
- Jared Hess – director
- Jon Heder – actor
- JFK Reckless Youth – TV mini-series with Patrick Dempsey
- Maritime – indie band
- Mike Murdock – artist
- Mosaic – TV series
- Napoleon Dynamite – cult classic film
- Steven Soderbergh – producer, director, cinematographer
- That Old Familiar Spirit – short film
- The Last Chase – film with Lee Majors
- The Monkey King – film
- The Unexpected Race – film
- Walter Foster – artist