Too proud for formal training and having little patience in art-gallery culture, I gravitated towards commercial art because it’s on the ground level. You can get a handle on it, the work always begins with a goal in mind and a place to live after, and it’s judged by how well it suits its purpose. The craft does something.
What led you to work for Trader Joe’s as a staff artist? I was broke and unemployed after the recession, and a friend sent me a job posting for a lettering artist position at a grocery store I’d never heard of. I snatched a sketchbook, drove down and asked, “If I wanted a job here, who would I talk to?” I became the first new Trader Joe’s hire in Texas. Opening two stores as a sign artist was intense. At the Houston location, on a 24-hour shift before the grand opening, I made an eight-by-twelve-foot Texas welcome flag out of stitched-together foamcore panels and whatever house paints were available. It was only supposed to be up for two weeks, but it’s still up now, five years later.
You also worked as a staff artist at Urban Outfitters. What was that like? If an architectural millworks is like the special forces, being an Urban Outfitters display artist is survival master class. Display artists are crazy underappreciated! Almost every Urban location has a display artist who makes everything in the store, using every part of the buffalo. The artist has to be able to operate inside constraints and not let the final product be a compromise, but improve it using efficiency. The teamwork and camaraderie learned at both Urban and Trader Joe’s gave me a template for the kind of partnerships I’ll seek out for the rest of my career—though I’m thankful I don’t have to show up at 5:00 am anymore. More companies should be educated on the untapped value of on-site craftspeople.
We have to take the preciousness out of making and the idea of who a maker can be.”
Is it possible for someone to be a great hand letterer but not a great sign painter? Signpainting takes an annoying bunch of math! I often explain it to clients as being like speed drafting. I plot a layout on graph paper, but many contextual factors that are hard to foresee—be it scale, color balance, the lighting throughout the day or placement of the sign—require tweaks and redraws. You have to be agile. Also, there’s a reason that sign painting is traditionally an apprentice trade; something about it requires you to learn in person. I’m pretty autodidactic, but after spending just a day with a pinstriper, I picked up more about paletting, brush cleaning and posture than I would have in a decade on my own.
Traditional sign painting forces you to participate in the world and understand the purpose of your client like nothing else. Whether it requires planning or is done freehand, every piece of sign painting is irreplaceable. If you letter shop windows, that’s the only place the sign painting will ever be, and the only way for that to happen is for a person with a brush to stand and work at that window. Most media is fungible these days, but you can’t digitize sign painting and reduce the process beyond what has to physically happen. It’s very immediate that way. These limitations make sign painting maybe the most challenging form of commercial art.
What are your preferred subjects to draw? Rory Carroll, interim publisher of Autoweek, put it best, telling me recently, “You know cars well enough to express exactly what is worth loving about them in a drawing.” I allow the things I love to speak honestly for themselves, and I find success if the viewer is rewarded for investigating the character of something unfamiliar. In order to show respect for the things I love, my drawings must be specific, individual, textural and tactile. This comes out through old race cars, motorcycles, military aircraft and cute animals with a naïve, rebellious streak, and I adore joining the dance with them. Not enough art explores joy or reflects curiosity—creation should be good news.
I find joy in being curious, and with such diverse interests, I create a through point by employing a fusion cuisine of aesthetics: hydraulic struts, brackets, bare hinges, bulging tire sidewalls, how light catches inside different headlights, shoelaces wearing unevenly, how canvas hangs differently than a T-shirt, Space Shuttle heat tiles, warped panel gaps in the fiberglass of hand-built race cars. Objects with utilitarian origins are a wellspring for an unintended, yet rich aesthetic, like the elegant forms born from aerodynamics or the high-clarity numerals displayed on aviation instruments—same could be said for the tactile experience of interacting with such objects.
Man, I shoulda just said, “I look at NASA like it’s folk art.”
What do you think of the craft industry at the moment, and where do you see it headed? I was asked to letter place cards for a family dinner one Christmas, but didn’t have time, so my stepmom did them quickly in her natural cursive before I arrived. She refused to believe me, but they were much more characterful and elegant than anything I could have done after hours of work. I went around the table, scouring each one for insight. If you’re a letterer, get out of your head by looking at other people’s handwriting—there are oodles of letterform miracles everywhere.
This is emblematic of other practices these days. Open terms quickly accrue specific meanings. “Handmade” could mean literally anything made by hand, but a shopper on Etsy has a “handmade” look in mind, and creators have to conform to those notions. Most Pinterest “hand lettering” tries to fit a certain dragging-brush-pen style in order to signal “correct,” rather than allowing the gestures of the individual or project to fruit. Consumers naturally develop a shorthand to filter their choices—which is fine! But it’s up to creators to find what they can offer their mediums that no one else can. Maybe together, we can change consumers’ expectations from the known to being open to what’s possible.
But let’s not claim too much authority over beauty. To be a border guard these days is a bad look. Like any value, beauty should be sought, discovered and shared, but not dictated. We have to take the preciousness out of making and the idea of who a maker can be. If we can unclench some ownership over what design is, we can approach our craft much more freely and sincerely.
Reject the idea of writer’s block. Reject the idea that artists are slaves to their whims. If you think something should exist, and it doesn’t exist, what can you do, right now, to help it exist? Think of what that thing is, and play with it. Let it speak for itself.
What can designers and craftspeople learn from each other? Craftspeople should understand the value and purpose of a design. Designers should better learn how to be honest to materials and also understand that how a project is executed can improve the initial idea. In a digital age, it’s easy to forget that how a thing is made is much of a thing’s value. The end is enriched by the means.
You see this in woodworking—a lotta guys piling care and effort into aesthetically blind products. Maybe the process is the product for a lot of woodworkers, but I wish more would speak the language of design. And on the other end of the spectrum, if you talk to people who produce what architects design, you’ll find some pretty strong feelings about how things should look aesthetically. I once worked on a project where the architect specified redwood, which was marvelously expensive and a thrill to pick out. But for its heavy-contact use—for a boutique restaurant counter and benches—it was an awful choice. Sanding it supersmooth for a glossy finish included sanding out dents you could scratch into it with a fingernail. Thing is, a local eastern red cedar could have looked the same and wouldn’t have been as fragile—and at a fraction of the cost! Changing your ideals doesn’t always mean compromise.
What do you wish you had known at the beginning of your career? The most important learning tool I’ve found: If there’s an artist you really love, find out who influenced her or him and why. Then keep going back. Those roots give you substance.
The grown-ups lied: hard work can be super fun. Don’t complain like the grown-ups. Oh, and heads up, if you suck at self-promotion, just know that’s a whole other enchilada.