The crafting scene in Utah is continually producing a number of really talented people, to the point where in about three years, we're going to have to have a festival every weekend to contain them all. --- But while the majority focus on a single form of art, we're finding more artists adapting to multiple mediums and selling them as part of a collection, rather than producing single-genre works and branding them as such.
Illustrator and printmaker Whitney Shaw has become one of those crafty individuals, taking her artwork beyond the 11x17 frame and turning it into a customizable service that can meet many of your needs -- all with a specialized style that has made her a standout over the past six years. Today, I chat with Shaw about her artwork and becoming a dominant name in the local art and crafting communities. (All pictures courtesy of Shaw.)
Gavin: Hey, Whitney. First thing, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Whitney: Hello, there. I'm a tiny, nerdy, currently self-employed designer who still doesn't know what she wants to be when she grows up. I dabble in letterpress, play around with all kinds of crafting and secretly love Martha Stewart. I like to think about the history of everything that's domesticated, from dogs to corn, and probably watch too much TV.
Gavin: What got you interested in art, and what were some early influences on you?
Whitney: My grandpa used to draw pictures of farm animals for me. It blew my mind that he could draw a chicken from memory, and I still find drawing without reference to be a pretty rare skill for people. I think you find it less in artists and more in people who really have practical knowledge of something. My grandpa had a farm, so he knew his way around a chicken better than I ever will. I always liked being crafty, but tended to want to mass produce things. I remember making hundreds of tiny custom dollar bills but not really ever playing with them. They were so tiny that I still find them strewn about in my storage boxes from time to time. It's a funny built-in thing that I notice with a lot of graphic designers; they tend to want to make copies and be a little obsessed with ephemera. If we weren't so dang tidy, we'd all be a bunch of hoarders. I had a couple of teachers in junior high and high school who really encouraged me to go into the arts. I don't really remember making the decision, which I think is pretty common for people of that age. You just sort of bumble into things. Art? Okay, I guess.
Gavin: You attended the University of Utah to study design. What made you choose the U and what was your time like there?
Whitney: Well, going to the U was an easy choice, as I had a full-ride scholarship; it's pretty hard to say no to that. Even though I liked the idea of going out of state, I didn't like the idea of being in ginormous debt because of it. I'm really happy I didn't go to an art school. No one creates out of a vacuum, and, obviously, we're all sucking up ideas and trends from the culture we live in. But, I think people who are getting influenced by the an atmosphere of all-around academia have a tendency to go in a different direction than those who are being funneled through a solely art-focused program. A university schooling is all about making connections between the different subjects you're studying. It definitely effected the way I work, and the type of work I want to do. I ended up with a minor in anthropology as a bonus. I've always really loved school; there's a lot of different ways to be smart, and I don't think college is for everyone, but it's something I miss a lot and would love to go back for multiple degrees that I wouldn't do anything practical with.
Gavin: How did you get into illustration and letterpress, and what was it about those mediums that drew your attention?
Whitney: I think commercial art appeals to me because I'm really interested in the ordinary. It's one of the universal aspects of being human to want to customize the objects you live with, and I definitely have a preference to art that people live with versus art that you put up on a pedestal in some gallery. I also really love storytelling, and at its core, I think that's what the best illustration is all about. One letterpress project is required in the graphic-design program at the U. I fell in love and did more. As a fan of academia, I think it's really important to understand the historical knowledge of a field. Knowing how things were originally produced just plain makes you understand typography better. You understand why things are the way they are, and what the advantages and disadvantages of modern technology are. Kind of the whole, you have to learn all the rules before you go around breaking them. I think it's beautiful, and it's totally zen-like to print, but I've leaned away from it for a few reasons in the past couple of years. One, it's super time consuming, and my press lives in Ogden. And two, I find myself focusing too much on production and not enough on the image. That said, it's had a huge effect on my process of creating images, and I am actually really grateful for that. How I layer colors and play with negative space is certainly much different than it would have been had I not taken printmaking classes.
Gavin: Of the many works you can do, you mainly identify yourself as an illustrator. What is it specifically about illustration that you love above other genres?
Whitney: I like to think of myself as a design-based illustrator. I can draw, but am certainly not one of those people who likes to do uber-detailed masterpieces or realistic paintings. I tend to focus on shape and color and concept; I like to make things simpler and stylized. I had a teacher once who called it "being good at bad drawings." I want them to look fresh and spontaneous, but not totally unintentional and lazy. Hopefully, I'm hitting that mark. The obvious influences for a designer who illustrates are Milton Glaser and Seymor Chwast. They really changed how I thought about drawing and art in general. Another huge influence were the magazine covers of John Hanna. I think he's a genius, and I, sadly, can find very little work from him aside from said covers. Lately, I've been drawn to splashy, colorful, textile designers like Vera Neuman and Tammis Keefe. I love surface design because it's kind of 100% personality. You're making it for someone to choose to live with. When you pick up a handkerchief, shower curtain, yoga mat, or whatever, you're saying, "This is me." It's appealing to me to make things that make people feel good in one way or another.
Gavin: How was it for you learning the skills behind these various types of art and the work that goes into them, especially on letterpress pieces?
Whitney: It all seems so natural it's hard to remember. Again, at the time, you're just kind of bumbling around doing what interests you, and when you look back, it all looks like a straight line leading right to where you are right now. All I can say is it was great to try to be able to try a little of everything. I love working with my hands and I'm really fortunate that the resources existed at the university for me to explore things like bookbinding and letterpress.
Gavin: You worked at The Mandate Press for roughly a year. How was it being a part of that crew?
Whitney: It was great. I worked for them during my last year of college after doing my internship there, and still miss having a job that you aren't sitting at a computer all day. It was the perfect amount of physical/hand work and design. Mandate is a much, much bigger operation now than when I worked there, so the crew was only a few people at the time. What can I say? It was a fabulous, funky job with fun people.
Gavin: During that time, what made you decide to branch out on your own and become a freelance artist?
Whitney: It really happens pretty naturally as a designer. I got my first freelance jobs when working as a student in the university's marketing and communications department. You end up making designer friends who recommend you when they have extra work they don't want to take. I love doing the theater seasons for the theater department at the U. They're really great to work with, and I get to do pretty off-the-wall stuff. Once you have a strong communicating relationship with a client, it makes the work really enjoyable.
Gavin: What's the process like for you when creating a new piece, from concept to final product?
Whitney: I think a lot before starting. And then, I draw a bazillion teeny tiny thumbnails that I wouldn't even be able to understand a month later. Then, I splash some paint around, scan it, piece it together and spend the rest of the time changing colors and pushing pixels.
Gavin: Do you tend to play with the design a lot as you create it, or do you tend to stick to the original idea?
Whitney: I tend to spend a lot more time thinking about an illustration than I do creating it. I'm concept driven and like a lot of the sloppy mishaps that happen during production, so I tend to keep the majority of them. That said, I generally work in black ink and then colorize it digitally, so I often add additional layers to clean up or cover the areas that I think look too unintentional. With design, I tend to play more with it; typography in particular is hard to plan without a lot of experimentation.
Gavin: Up until April of this year, you had been working with Contact Design, along with doing your own projects. How was it being a self-sustained artist and working with a business at the same time?
Whitney: It was pretty fantastic. Leaving Contact was one of the hardest choices I've ever made; it really was the perfect job, with the most lovely people I've ever met. We still have lunches pretty often, and I work some contract jobs with them. I was there for five years, and I just needed a change. I thought I'd try doing freelance full-time and see if that was a good fit. It's been a little tough to be self-motivated and not be a total shut-in, and I'm certainly still adjusting to it.
Gavin: During that time, you had also started Easy Keeper. What was it like for you creating those types of works on the side, and what made you go with an Etsy shop rather than sell to other businesses?
Whitney: I came up with Easy Keeper when I bought my letterpress. I wanted to have a name to sell under when I sold my wares at the Downtown Farmers Market. I've never taken it too seriously; it's more of a hobby that lets me print once in a while and gives me an excuse to do personal illustration projects. I've always been fond of donkeys, and they're referred to as easy keepers, because compared to other livestock, they don't require a lot of food to live. That pretty much sums up how I treat my press. Etsy is great for casual selling, but in the past few years, I really do the majority of my sales at the yearly Art Barn Holiday Show at the Finch Lane/Art Barn Gallery. It's a really great show with a huge variety of local artists.
Gavin: You do posters, playbills, paintings, business cards, greeting cards and a number of other items. What made you branch out so much in products, and howis it for you being able to cater to people in that way?
Whitney: I usually get jobs through referrals or the Web, so the client is usually the one who thinks I'll be a good fit for their project and then contacts me about their idea.
Gavin: If someone wants to contract you for work, what do they need to do?
Gavin: What can we expect from you over the rest of the year and going into next?
Whitney: Hopefully, more work! The past two years have been pretty slow for me, art-wise. I bought a house that needed fixing up. It sounds silly, but it doesn't matter if your creative juices are being spent on art or picking paint colors and faucets, there's a limited amount of them. I've done a fair amount of freelance, but not a lot of personal work. I'm excited to get rolling again. I'm hoping to do some textile design, including some patterns, handkerchief and scarf designs. I also have a couple of beginning ideas for some small gallery shows, which is unusual for me, so we'll see if those pan out.
Gavin: Is there anything you'd like to promote or plug?
Whitney: The Holiday Craft Exhibit Sale at the Art Barn/Finch Lane Gallery. I believe it starts Dec. 6 and goes through Dec. 21, at 54 Finch Lane (1325 E. 100 S.).
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