My good friend Damion Silver put me in touch with the talented Kelly D. Williams. Kelly is an accomplished artist, a talented graphic designer, and he also heads up the Distrikt collective which is responsible for tons of great creative output too. This interview started out as a normal, short T-Files profile on Kelly’s work. In the process, Kelly realized he could use an interview for his upcoming book, and so we expanded on it and developed it until it encompassed much of Kelly’s career, ranging from his personal art through to his corporate clients. On a related note, I’m very happy to announce that Kelly is going to be supplying some guest designs for the Selector spring tee drop too. Here’s what Kelly had to say about life, the universe, and everything.
Where are you today? I’m in Southern California, wishing that it wasn’t so hot outside. It’s January. I want to go to Iceland. Or maybe Ireland.
And what are you working on? I’ve got a few things I’m trying to fit in; Some graphics for Analog clothing is the main project I’m working on. And when I need a break from that, I am trying to get ready for my next art exhibit in March. Oh crap. March is going to come really soon.
Yeah! What do you get into when you’re not working? Beyond art, where do you find other sources of inspiration?? I try to spend most of my time with my family, and I’m really into music and collecting music, so that is something that I do a lot of. I usually try to skateboard a little each day, too. Hopefully I’ll be able to skate for the rest of my itinerant life. As far as sources of inspiration, I have to deflect a lot of the noise out there and try to just do what is in my head. I like to be open, but I seem to get most inspired when I’m secluded from trends.
Would you mind giving us a brief rundown of your art education and career? Sure. I’ve been into art most of my life. As a kid, I was always drawing and making collages and stuff. So I decided to take a bunch of art classes and eventually went to school for it. Ironically, after taking Art & Design for a few years at Brigham Young University, I got disheartened with art “homework” and changed my declared college major to Business. So I have a BFA in Business Management & Marketing, yet I am back to the art world and making a living painting and designing.
Was there a point when you realized that things were going well, and that you’d be able to follow a creative path and succeed? There probably hasn’t been a solitary “big break” yet, like one specific crowning project or exhibit that has set the tone for my entire career. I just dove into things, started doing some graphics for skateboard companies, and doing some art shows here and there and then eventually decided I wanted to do this for a while. I suppose most people have some paramount event for their career, like a big solo exhibit or the cover of a magazine. I either missed all that stuff, or it just hasn’t happened yet.
As someone involved in a ton of creative endeavors, how do you manage to keep your personal art career and a slew of design clients separate while remaining sane and still finding enough time to live? Remaining sane and having enough time to live is the biggest challenge. I have a wife, a daughter, and another baby on the way – so spending time with them is my first priority. I obviously have to work and maintain some sort of earnings in order to provide for them, and that is where the commercial aspect of being a designer comes in. I enjoy that parallel of art and business when it comes to doing design work, I view it as a functional part of life’s aesthetics. My artwork, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily need to satisfy those same requirements. As an artist, I get to disregard any form of client or boss and I can just create whatever I want to. Not having that client/artist relationship is really important for my artwork, especially since much of my work is conceptual and slightly abstract. At the same time, having that client/designer relationship is important to the other half of my vocation; Design ought to serve a purpose and communicate the intended message. So… what was the original question? How do I live with myself or something like that, right? I just try to get enough sleep and drink plenty of water.
In terms of your personal artwork, have there been any recent highlights for you? My personal artwork only? Well, looking at that stuff separate from Distrikt, there have been a few good things that have happened. Right now I am preparing for a solo exhibition at the new DDR Projects Gallery. I’m very excited for that. And the new body of work that will come from that show will put the finishing touches on my first book-bound retrospect that will be published in the summer of 2009. I feel fortunate to have any of these opportunities. As far as stuff within the design world, there are a lot of available awards and design honors that we could chase- but they are really only relevant in the design community. Of course, they are good for gaining the confidence and credibility of peers, but anyone who is a designer just for the sake of their peers is pretty messed up. Some accolades are just accolades. One of the coolest honors I just had was to be in Thrasher as a part of their art feature or whatever. That was pretty awesome because it’s Thrasher, you know? I’ve always dreamed of being in the pages of Thrasher. I probably hoped I would be in the mag as a skateboarder, but since that wasn’t going to happen, getting my artwork in the magazine was just as good. Another enjoyable project was the Walls & Foundations exhibit, which was a collaboration between me and Foundation Skateboards. That is an awesome group of people, and it was fun to work with those guys. And doing stuff for 2K by Gingham has been significant for me, too. There aren’t really many organizations that allow the artist to have pure creative sovereignty like 2K does.
Do you have any mentors or anyone you look up to in the creative world? Our mutual friend Damion (Silver) has been an important mentor for me. He comes from such a different background than me, yet we have such similar interests- I always like to learn from him. By the same token, I like to learn from people who are very disconnected to the creative world. Strangers with noble souls and honest personalities make the best mentors.
Who are some artists you’d like to collaborate with? I’ve always wanted to collaborate with Mark Gonzales or Ed Templeton. They have always been two dudes that I look up to. Conversely, maybe participating in a divergence collaboration with 2 people like Bjork and Chris Burden would be pretty awesome. Can someone reading this please line that up for me? I get lucky sometimes. But probably not that lucky.
Let’s talk about the Distrikt Collective you head up. Where did the idea to launch a collective/agency come from, and what are your goals for the company? Well, I’ve always tried to support the idea of having an entity where I can do commercial design & consulting, while keeping it separate from “me” as an artist, you know? So Distrikt was created in order to serve as a creative firm, a place where I could create private label products, do design work for various clients, and take part in brand collaborations, etc. Having Distrikt become a collective was an obvious solution so that I could surround myself with people from various disciplines and geographical regions. This way it’s not so centralized, and I can work with people who are more able than me and that can add a well-rounded quality to the group. I think the key to maintaining a good design group is to utilize people who are more talented than me. Our goals are big, but we are doing things with a slow-and-steady-wins-the-race philosophy. Eventually we will open up a few different studios, as well as increase the range of products we offer with the Distrikt label. My main goal is to keep the Distrikt brand active, and hopefully be able to get more people involved.
Who is involved in Distrikt right now, and what does everyone do? There are a handful of people involved, and we occasionally work with guest designers and photographers. I’m the Senior Creative Director and Principal of the firm, Alison Grippo (NYC) is the Senior Photographer and Larry Mayorga (NYC) is the Design Manager. The book we are putting out features friends from our co-op like Ryan Stephens who is our Chief Illustrator, Damion Silver, and MVA the visual agency. I’m fortunate to work with this group. Basically, we all do our thing, and then we correspond to discuss a certain project or idea.
Do you divvy up the work according to relevant skill sets, or do you guys come together as a team and work on things together? Yeah, that’s basically how we do it. But it’s not so separated like that. Everyone can have their hands in a few different things. I like to get individuals from other skillsets involved. So in other words, instead of just hearing what the designers may think of a certain design, I want to ask someone like Alison (Distrikt’s Senior Photographer) about a piece of art. She can offer a completely new perspective. Same thing with the rest of the team- it’s valuable to have so many people from so many different places offer direction. It’s like the ultimate litmus test.
Distrikt does a lot of creative work for some very well known clients, can you discuss some projects that have been particularly rewarding, or perhaps some that were challenging. A lot of them have been rewarding, and of course some of them have been challenging. Probably doing the identity for the Carmichael Gallery of Contemporary Art has been the most rewarding. When I designed that, I had always wanted to design the logo for an art gallery, because a lot of art galleries have whack logos. Doing that was great. Since then, we have designed the logo for two more galleries. It has sort of become our niche. Because of my involvement with Compatriot Snowboards, that has probably the most rewarding since it was the incubator brand for my design career. That’s where I worked with Damion Silver; he did the graphics that made Compatriot what it is. That’s where I realized that I enjoyed designing and merging the worlds of product and design. Since then, I have been able to work with some of my favorite companies. A lot of the work we do is off the record, so there’s the fun of being involved with behind-the-scenes type of stuff. As far as clients that have been maddening or challenging… I just try to stay positive and give the people what they want. But when it comes to the integrity of the work, we put our foot down on a few things. After all, we need to be proud of everything we touch. I want to be able to show my work to my kids and say, “this is what daddy does.”
And were there any Distrikt projects that were really enjoyable? You know those Los Logos books? Doing that was really enjoyable. Some of our work was featured in the newest one, Los Logos 4. The PLA (Permanent Light Archive) series we have been doing for Analog. It is a photography-based product range that highlights the importance and permanence of photography in our culture. Through this, I have been able to work with some of my favorite photographers like Tobin Yelland, Andy Wright, Shawn Mortensen, J.Grant Brittain etc.
How does the range of Distrikt branded goods fit into the big picture? These products have two purposes, really. They offer a little bit of marketing and merchandise that is relevant to the people we try to reach, and these products give us a platform to create things that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to do for a client. Sometimes it’s just an idea or product that we want to see created, and then we create it with the best quality possible.
Anything coming from the Distrikt collective in ’09 that we should be keeping our eyes peeled for? Well, the book we are finishing up is something that people should pick up. It is going to be a thick book, and will probably be unlike anything that the design world has seen because of how diverse and unsystematic the material is. It’s sort of like the ultimate creative source book.
Similarly, what’s on the horizon for ’09 in terms of your personal artwork? I have a new line of tee’s coming out with 2K by Gingham, which will be awesome. The main thing on the horizon for 2009 is my solo show at the new DDR Projects Gallery called “That Was Now, This Is Then”. That opens up in March, and then a few months after that, Rolf Contemporary Publishing will be releasing a book of the same name, featuring a huge portion of my artwork from that last 10 or 15 years. It’s going to be a busy year.