Illustrator Scott Laumann is a master of reinvention and a bit of a nomad. Over the past decade he has lived and worked in Spain, Germany, Philadelphia, Minnesota, Orange County and San Diego. His career path changes along with his peripatetic life as he redefines for himself what it means to be an artist. So far this year, he has completed a private portrait commission of Lou Reed and the cover for a 60-year retrospective book detailing the history of the Cancer Research Institute. And at press time, he was working on a gallery installation for a music performance involving broken tree branches and 200 painted tumbleweeds.
Eight months ago, in search of a smaller town and proximity to open space, Laumann, his wife, Alicia, who is a dancer and choreographer, and their eight-year-old daughter, Paloma, relocated from San Francisco, California, to Fort Collins, Colorado. Situated at the base of the Rocky Mountain foothills of the northern Front Range, 65 miles from Denver, Fort Collins is home to Colorado State University and many boutique beer breweries. It has provided Laumann with a sense of community and new collaborators. “I think I’m always trying to find my identity in a place. I like new experiences, I like the challenge of new experiences, but I think there’s still a deep-seated desire to be rooted somewhere at the same time,” he says.
Laumann spent his first eighteen years in Escondido, California, but he’s been moving and exploring ever since. He attended Northern Arizona University, and upon graduation in 1994, he moved to San Francisco. Shortly thereafter, he was taken on by artist agency Gerald & Cullen Rapp, which connected him to editorial work for a range of clients, including Rolling Stone, GQ, Time, Texas Monthly, the New York Times, the Grammy Awards, Warner Bros. and Princeton University.
“I started out doing pastel, then collage-based conceptual work and then ink printing,” Laumann says. He recently discovered a block print he’d made as a seven-year-old. It hangs on the wall next to his current work and clearly shows that he has always been drawn to strong shapes, bold color and a discernable message.
His early career was defined by portraits of musicians, writers, and film and political figures. The insightful illustrations reveal his subjects’ personalities through vivid brushwork and dynamic action. Steve Charny, former art director at Rolling Stone and current creative director at Topix Media Lab, says, “The first Rolling Stone illustration assignment I gave to Scott was a portrait of Bob Dylan for the lead record review. The multilayered technique Scott employed for Dylan’s face, the intense gaze, the swirling red background echoing the shapes in Dylan’s hair and skin—it was a riveting piece of art, and everyone who saw it was completely knocked out by it. To this day, it still remains one of my all-time favorite Rolling Stone commissions. It was so successful, it was picked up by French Rolling Stone for their cover, and it is even better at that size.”
John Knepper, director of sales at theispot.com and formerly with Gerald & Cullen Rapp, says, “I have known Scott as an illustrator for about fifteen years now, and I think what draws clients is his ability to consistently deliver work that is both technically and conceptually strong, regardless of the approach. Scott’s style can range from painterly collage to a graphic block print, depending on the project and the client’s direction.”
Concerning Laumann’s stylistic changes, Knepper adds, “Whereas some artists move to a new style out of necessity, Scott seems to grow in new directions out of curiosity, and whether painterly or graphic, the work remains fresh. Looking at his personal work and collaborations with other artists, dancers and musicians, it will be interesting to see what seeps into his commercial illustration work next.”
Because of his many travels, Laumann has had most of his work in storage and has been without a dedicated studio space. Now, in Fort Collins, he is invigorated to have every-thing in one space, which allows him to jump from one medium to another, each informing the other. His well-appointed, comfortable studio is a converted barn on a three-acre property just outside town. The couple who owns the land publishes Ruminate, a quarterly literary arts magazine. They also have a community garden on the site. Near the building lie stacks of broken tree branches that Laumann is preparing for the musical performance piece. A few chickens scratch in the dirt around them. Laumann is fascinated with the patterns, shapes, compo-sitions and marks that are left by the process of time and how they speak to a specific space. Being so close to nature has inspired Laumann to branch out—literally.
He took a two-year hiatus from commercial illustration to pursue fine art and personal projects. He began exploring painting directly in nature, drawing colorful shapes onto tree bark and filming his forest creations. He is continuing that work with elements drawn from his present location (think tumbleweeds). The ephemeral nature of the materials—natural pigments mixed on-site, twigs used to create drawings, site-specific “patterns” marked with temporary color—has changed how he works. His Patterns series of outdoor works are reminiscent of Andy Goldsworthy and Christo. In addition, he has begun to collaborate with his wife Alicia and has filmed her dancing in a series of quirky, yet beautiful videos, most notably in Five Frontier Poems.
He intentionally chose work that put him in a position to make creative leaps. He cut shapes out of refrigerator-magnet sheeting and made ink prints, finding that he enjoyed being surprised by the textures and marks left by the ink transfers. He began a personal project using digital manipulation to deconstruct photographs and translate them to prints and oil paintings. “About twelve years ago, I felt like I was doing the same piece over and over even though the concept would change,” Laumann explains, as he pulls out a sketch-book from his sojourn in Spain. “Looking back to these sketchbooks you can see these forms, these blocks and colors—which was a total departure from the mixed-media conceptual stuff I was doing.” Part of his inspiration was the Spanish landscape with its bold colors and strong architectural shapes.
His current commissioned and gallery work echoes those striking plein air paintings, but defies easy definition. Neither illustration nor fine art, it has a transcendent quality. The pigments, made from natural sources, are fugitive and might fade. “I like the idea of these drawings changing over time,” he says.
When focusing on fine art, Laumann says, “it wasn’t in my consciousness to think about developing new modes of work or markets; I was pretty content. But as time passed, I began to share some of the work I was doing behind the scenes, stuff I was experimenting with that was keeping things fresh. To my surprise, I started to receive commissions for that work. So while I wasn’t necessarily looking for commissions with the personal experiments, they followed me. This seems to be the cycle that has developed over my career—following ideas first without being locked into a particular ‘style’ and trying to embrace the multidisciplinary nature of my practice.”
He is beginning to better understand his identity as an artist and art maker. “I’m always thinking about extending my work into new applications—even for commercial clients—so that the stuff I’m doing now, based around nature and patterns and using natural pigments, doesn’t end with the drawing or the particular piece,” Laumann says. “It’s been an effort to coalesce these different disciplines into a cohesive practice where one application is informing the other. All the while, I’m working to find new markets for this work and new ways to collaborate—in print, on textiles, publishing,” he says. “There’s still an illustrator in there. I don’t think I’d be happy as a solitary, isolated artist. I enjoy collaboration and working on concepts with others. I like to communicate.”
An example of this conceptual collaboration is his work with San Diego–based techno musician and deejay Victor John (Tekfunk) on a project called Coldfuture. From the beginning of a song track to its end, Laumann transposed each sound into a shape, creating a visual interpretation of the music. Laumann then made a single ten-foot-long ink block print of all the sounds. Next he will take the individual shapes, each representing a note, separate them out and animate them. The end product will be projected during a performance. “That’s how I think,” he says with a chuckle, pointing to the music print that spans one wall.
“Taking a little bit of a hiatus, doing art that didn’t have a deadline, has led me to produce this body of work that definitely is based on my own personal experience and what I’m interested in. I think that process was important and now I feel comfortable looking for potential commercial markets for it.”
No doubt the tumbleweeds and broken branches—which are making their way into a large drawing and corresponding limited-edition book—will pave the way for other new and exciting possibilities. It’s also possible that Fort Collins, with its college-town vibe, wide-open spaces and sense of community, might just become home. For now, at least. ca