Welcome to the lucky 13th edition of Open Call. Today is a very special edition, a long form conversation with Craww, in which we discuss art, fear, uncertainty, Final Fantasy, the Super Bowl, getting a late start at an arts career, and other pressing matters.
Patrick: When Shaun Friend (better known as Craww) and I first talked about doing this he warned me that he talks a lot of shit.
Shaun: Did I really say that?
P: Haha yeah, you did. It was the first thing you said. Actually, it was the second. You said ‘yes’ to doing this, and then warned me that you talk shit.
S: Well then I meant ‘talking shit’ in the British sense. Like, I talk a lot of nonsense. I talk a lot of crap.
P: I turned my recorder on and we lasted about 40 seconds before going off-topic to talk about cats and JRPG.
S: Is that a cat over there?
P: Yeah, that’s Tena.
S: Tena? I have a cat named Tifa. It’s a character from Final Fantasy…
P: When I was in high school, I borrowed a copy of FF VII from a classmate right after it came out and I didn’t go to school again for a week.
S: That’s pretty bad. Once I spent two weeks just trying to breed a gold chocobo.
S: I bought one playstation from a place in New York and it didn’t work, so I had to buy another one just to play Final Fantasy. Just saying that makes me sound insane.
P: We’ve both been there. What are you playing right now?
S: I’m playing Diablo. Funny enough I play Diablo with a guy who lives in Philadelphia! Just stuff like that. I like fantasy stuff, stuff you can get lost in. Next time we do this we should do it over Xbox!
P: We work with Shaun at our gallery and he had reached out to me about Open Call after we had published an edition called, “Am I Too Old To Succeed?”, where we talked about making a later move into a professional arts career, and some of the insecurities and challenges that can come from the myth that everybody’s supposed to have themselves and their career path all figured out sometime in their 20’s (lol).
S: It was just unusual to see you talking about that. My feeling so far is that I’m older than the average artist. In my head, I always imagine that everyone is a whole lot younger than me. I’m 51 now. And I quit work when I was 45. So it’s quite unusual when you have a family, quit your job, and risk it all on art. It’s such an ethereal, weighty thing to do. So it was really interesting to see people asking questions about it, like can you make a success of that? I mean, yeah. I think you can.
P: Do you feel like you always believed that? Generally, it’s an idea I hear about a lot. This notion that not just success but what you’re going to do with yourself or your life needs to happen by a certain age. I think that’s silly, myself – but I was trying to remember if I used to feel differently when I was younger, and I’m pretty sure I did. In fact, I know I did.
When you were younger did you have a different idea of how ‘success’ works?
S: I think, when I was younger you see, my career was in graphic design. That was my passion. It’s what I loved doing. I’m going to go through my life story now, so bear with me. And my success, or my objectives were based on that. I was an art director, creative director, ad concept designs. So my ideas of success were geared around that, and at the time I had a clear idea of where I wanted to go. I wanted to work through smaller agencies, I wanted to work through bigger agencies, and bigger clients, and I wanted to have my own business. So having my own business, and having control of my own creativity… But what I found out is that you just swap one set of problems for another set of problems, and I was never able to really explore that creativity. And it took me until my 40’s, my mid-40s to realize that, that was never going to get better.
I think at that point my idea of success changed. I had become very unhappy. My wife was saying ‘well, go back to your drawing. Go back to that.’ So I started drawing and painting again. And I had a few lucky breaks, really. A few leads that worked out for me, just sort of happened and it was great. And I thought to myself, this is the area that I’m going to get personal fulfillment in. This is what I perceive as success now. I’m going to leave my job and I’m going to be an artist.
Open Call Question
As soon as I saw your open call Instagram post, I knew I had to reply.
I love art. I always have. It’s exciting and freeing in way that nothing else is, and, in that respect, there are no challenges. It’s a journey of self discovery. I know this at my core.
…but sometimes I feel like it’s hard to ‘get started’ on a professional level. I work as a graphic designer for supermarket signage and get some occasional freelance work for illustrations, portraits etc. I’m trying to build up my personal portfolio in the process.
My questions for you is ‘what’s next?’ I’d love to do more personal work, while being able to pay the bills. Any advice you can give to a budding artist with big dreams would be so appreciated.
Thank you for reading
S: My idea of success now is being able to do this, and exist. Living. Doing this. Now. It’s not money. It’s not money and all that business, it’s about finding some fulfillment and being able to do that creatively. So when I was younger and thought about success and thought about the idea a career, and now I’m older and think I can be successful as an artist but I don’t think that’s related to my age. But I don’t think I would be the artist I am now without having done all that. I’m a firm believer of not regretting what you’ve done. That all just channels you down. Maybe knowing what I know now I would have pursued all of this earlier, and maybe had a head start. But then maybe I would have got myself tied into fashions and cliques a lot more than I am now, whereas I feel like I came at it from more of a cold start and just do my own thing, partially in ignorance of what everyone else is doing. And I think that’s helped me with my background to create my own style, and I don’t think that would have happened had I done it earlier. I think success can be achieved later in life, because you have a lot more ammunition to draw from, a lot more experience to draw from. I don’t know how you do that. But I think staying true – staying true to what you do is key.
P: Do you still follow advertising? Do you ever find yourself watch shitty ads and giving them private critiques? I used to work in music and entertainment marketing and it’s funny, I always loved music, but from working in it I still find myself falling into picking some of those things apart from time to time.
S: No, no. Yes. YES. haha. Okay, yes. And design! At the time I’d watch them and say, “I need to do better”. Now I see it and am more like, “I don’t know shit. But I know that’s bad”. There’s just so many cliches. Everyone’s a ‘branding agency’. You designed a logo, great. Good for you. I just get tired of it.
P: The logo stuff is just fascinating to me, just the amount of money that gets dumped into making a capital letter a lower case letter, and calling that ‘storytelling’ or whatever. It’s fascinating to me.
S: It’s quite esoteric, isn’t it? They do something that not everyone does, and that’s part of the problem, isn’t it? Everyone has an opinion. But does it matter?
P: You tell me, does it matter?
S: Haha. What do I know? I got out of that shit. It doesn’t matter. When I was in advertising design, when I’d get really precious, I’d get really precious about it. You’d spend weeks honing in and refining a logo and it’s the creative who does that so you have a personal investment in that. Then it gets deconstructed and turned around and turned into something completely different by a bunch of fucking old farts in suits. And I’d be like up in arms and fighting the good fight and all that, and then you drive down a motorway and you’d be overtaken by lorries with these god-awful logos on the side, and clearly that agency is making a shitload of money for making a shit logo, so why am I banging my head and going on like I need to do something else? Anyway, so no, maybe it doesn’t matter. But now I draw stuff and that definitely doesn’t matter, haha.
P: You know we had the Super Bowl this past weekend, and I think the ad that got torn apart the most – there were two ads that were predicated on the idea kids who were conceived as a result of their parents getting horny and having sex during the game. Super Bowl babies. I saw something on Twitter that was like, ‘who, after a dozen wings and two pounds of nachos is like, okay I’m ready to f*ck?’ – and that pretty much is how I felt about it too. I guess phone sex via a site like cheap phone sex would be possible at most, but absolutely no baby-making will be happening after that much food.
S: What were the brands, I’m interested?
P: I can’t even tell you. It was just a bunch of kids singing, choir style, and Seal.
S: Oh god, he’s still around is he?
P: I’m looking it up on the internet right now and even the articles about the commercial don’t say whose ad it was.
S: Well that was a waste of money then, wasn’t it?
P: It doesn’t matter.
S: It doesn’t matter.
P: How much of a role did dissatisfaction play in your decision to quit your job? Was there something going on in your life when all this happened that created a sudden need for this to happen, or was it a slow build-up over time?
S: Yeah, I had to do something or else I would have killed someone. Seriously. All those years in advertising I had always pursued this dream of creativity. But it’s always compromised by commercial fact. Commercial realism. You’ve got clients that are 60 year old men is suits and as a creative you can’t sell them an idea that you spent a lot of time working on to answer a problem they’ve got, because they don’t see that. I rarely worked with clients that were actually open to creative input. They all have their own preconceptions and I found it really limiting. And at the end of the day you have these same arguments day in and day out. I’d say “I think the color on this campaign should be pink”, and the client will say, “Well my wife likes blue, and I’m the client and I’m paying the bill so we’ll do it blue.” and it’s like, okay, well why the f*ck have I just wasted the last six months of my life doing that then? And you just get so tired of those arguments. I love being creative, whatever that is, I love creating ideas on my own terms. Doing that for years was driving me crazy. And as you go on you have more responsibilities, you have to make sure everyone gets paid and all that business, so you’re never really free to explore your own ideas.
So I went back to drawing and I was really enjoying it. And I was juggling it a bit in my head because I was like, I kind of like this work financially. I’m married, I have a kid in university, but I had turned into this bitter, resentful person. I didn’t like myself. I was just angry all the time as a result of work. And apparently my wife, she had been kind of so supportive and long suffering said, ‘Well, if you’ve got to quit, you’ve got to quit”.
And I had an epiphany. I went to see this band called Mew, and I was not a big fan or anything, I just went with my mates, and I was standing there and a song was playing and there was a video on screen and I thought, “I’ve just got to do it. I have to quit”. So the next day I went into work and said, “Guys. I want out”. It’s been a struggle and it continues to be a struggle. I have a bit of a safety net with the ability to draw and freelance, if it was just the art it might be a disaster, haha. But the freelancing is great because it allows me to keep my art free of compromise. When I paint, I paint what I want. When I draw, I draw what I want. If I have a bill I’ll freelance. I just sort of compartmentalize it like that. Does all that make sense?
It makes total sense, you know when I was 28 I had a bit an early midlife crisis because I was feeling so unfulfilled. At the time I think I blamed it on a lot of things but looking back it wasn’t the work, or the people, it was way more about me. It just wasn’t working with me. So I quit my job and moved to the mountains to work on farms and things like that, so funny enough what you did seems way more practical. But I had this feeling, and I knew I had to do something about it. That much I was confident about, but I still dealt with a lot of insecurity about how exactly I was choosing to deal with it. Was your decision really as easy as you say it was? Did you have any insecurity or fear yourself?
At the time no, I was very sure of myself. All the fear and insecurity came like five years since, haha. It seemed like a great idea at the time! No, haha. At the time I knew I could make it work, but I did have that safety net of freelance design work which I could fall back on. I had been lucky at the time, I started painting and drawing, and I was doing some digital stuff, but I started taking some prints down to a local shop here, I don’t know why or how this happened actually, the shop isn’t there anymore but – do you know Phlegm?
P: Yeah of course. He’s awesome. I have a really good friend who is literally obsessed with him.
S: That’s right, he’s a Sheffield guy and knew the shop guys really well, so I took work down there. I was quite keen to get feedback so I was posting artwork on a lot of forums and seeing what was what. And I got a email from a guy in LA, and he said ‘I really like your work, I work with a company called Blik and would be interested in doing some wall vinyls.” And he’s a lawyer, so I was like, this sounds well-dodgy. A lawyer in LA? They’re all seedy, aren’t they? This sounds suspicious. But I thought, fuck it. And I sent some designs over. And that kind of lead to a gallery show with C.A.V.E. Some of this was happening before I left work, I was selling prints out of my shop, so at the time I was pretty sure I’d be okay.
But the other thing is – You never really think you’re going to be okay, do you? Or I don’t. I’ve got a son who’s 22. My wife got pregnant and you do the math and it’s like, “No way”. No way can you afford to have a kid, we just can’t do it. But we did it. And we’re still here. And it’s the same with that. Transition. I just made myself feel like it’ll all work out in the end. And I’m still here now.
P: You talked about getting ‘lucky breaks’, I agree and it’s obvious that you do, doing things like starting a career in art or really anything in life, it’s kind of this combination of being serious when you need to and being deliberate, but also teaching yourself really see opportunity and taking advantage of those opportunities. When you talk about lucky breaks, were there any that you felt really sped up the process of getting to where you are now?
S: I think the first show at C.A.V.E. was a bit of a milestone for me, the guy who originally hooked me up with Blik was like “Have you ever done a show in LA?” and I was like, well I have a few things up in a shop in Sheffield, haha. So that was like a whole different world to me. After that it moved pretty quickly. But I still don’t think I’ve had that eureka moment of “Yeah, that’s it, I’ve nailed it”. But it all adds up, that show lead to a little coverage on Hi-Fructose and I was like, “Wow, that’s pretty cool”, and after that I started talking to Handy Dan a lot on email, and that lead to Spoke and meeting Ken. The Spoke thing was really good for me, and Ken is a really cool guy and has been a big help. I think more than anything all this adds credibility to what you do. It’s a rubber stamp that lets people take you more seriously, but I’m still waiting for my eureka moment.
P: What about mistakes?
S: Haha. No. No mistakes, haha. But really, I’m lucky, so far every gallery I’ve ever worked with has been great. They’ve got my name out there, they’ve all been really good at getting exposure. They’ve all earned their commission as far as I’m concerned. I’ve always got paid on time. Blik was really cool, I also have worked with Kid Robot and that was cool, so I’ve been lucky. Because I’ve heard some horror stories.
P: Believe me, we all have.
S: I’m sure it’ll bite me in the ass sooner or later. We’ll have this conversation again in a year and I’ll be like, *sigh* “Well, what did I do that for?”.
P: You can blame it on this conversation. It was this conversation that notified the universe that you are overdue for some bad luck.
S: I think now, I know quite a lot of people so I have people to ask and that makes it easier. So I know ahead of time if it’s going to be bad, because I know people who are qualified.
How about you? The artists that you work with, are they all good? I suppose if they’re bad you don’t continue to work with them.
P: Yeah, well, I’ll say if you look at the artists we work with regularly and the ones whose names you see more and more frequently, that does say something. But I’d say we’ve also been pretty lucky so far. We all have our stories, though. There have been a few where it just didn’t work out for one reason or another. We get weird stuff too. Once an artist shipped us a painting in a used, grease-stained pizza box.
S: Oh no!
P: Yeah I’m not kidding. It’s usually never one thing though. I’d say is generally sort of a turnoff for us is when it’s super obvious that an artist forgot about a show and cut corners, or just totally phoned it in. It hasn’t happened many times, just a few. But we know when you do that and when you say you’re ‘trying a new thing where your work looks intentionally unfinished’ we don’t believe you. Haha. Anyway, there really has only been one really bad experience with an artist but I’m not going to tell that story today. It would be a little too obvious. Maybe when we do this again in a year. But that story, like the unfinished work, for me it’s never just about the results, you know? It was more an issue with the blatant dishonesty in those situations. But it’s all a learning process for us, like I’m sure it is on your side. We know what we want to do and the sort of relationship we want with our artists and to be good partners, but it doesn’t always work out perfectly. So you learn and you do better next time. Just keep pushing yourself to be better.
S: Can I ask you another question?
P: Of course.
S: Why Philadelphia?
P: Well, I love Philadelphia. I have two partners at Arch Enemy, Lawren and Noah, and we all love Philly. I lived here for a few years between 2001 and 2004, that’s when I met Lawren and we’ve been friends ever since. So after that I went off and I did other things, and I was on my path, but Noah and Lawren set up shop here the whole time. Philadelphia is my favorite city in the US. It already has all the creative energy, we have great institutions not just for art, but music, performance, everything that had already made it sort of a world-class city for the arts, but was missing something that we wanted to help try to fill. When we were all in our late teens and early 20s there were places to go and see the art that we were interested in. People whose names you hear a lot now, like Joshua Liner and Jonathan Levine, those were Philly guys. We all went to Lineage all the time, which was Joshua Liner’s gallery before he went to NYC. It was such an influence on what we do now. Anyway, I moved back here and we got to talking, and one of our first goals was to be that. We were like, “we want to be that”. Also, right now it’s such a kick ass time for Philly’s creative community. The artists, the other galleries. Our music scene is on fire right now. People outside of the city are starting to really take our sort of new-creative scene really seriously, and I don’t think it’s been that way. At least not for a while. It’s really exciting.
Anyway, to answer your question – honestly, the thought of doing Arch Enemy anywhere else never crossed our minds. Speaking of Arch Enemy, you have a couple shows coming up, including one with me. For ‘The Way We Rust’ everyone is doing a piece about lust, love, or heartbreak, and each piece is based on a song lyric. You’re doing a Deftones song, “Mascara”.
S: It played a huge part, apparently. Musically, I’m a huge Deftones fan. They are the best, it’s my one thing. But I’m pretty open minded. Music helps you get into a groove, when I’m drawing especially. When I’m painting it gets a little more combative. It’s more of a process. But I can go back and look at old paintings now, and you look at a stroke, and I remember exactly what I was listening to when I made that. It’s weird. What I was listening to, what I was thinking, what it was all about. So it plays a huge part.
P: Why’d you pick that song, though? To me the thing about that song is there’s so much uncertainty in it. Like deep-down he knows he loves this person, hopelessly, he f*cking loves her – but it doesn’t feel good, and he’s almost trying to talk himself out of it, even though it’s all just kind of a ruse or an exercise. What about you?
S: Desperation. Haha. The way I paint I describe it as a stream of consciousness. I go with the flow. I sit down with a sketch pad and line will take on a life of its own and become a story, and become a face, or a flower or whatever. I’m not the type of artist who sits down and says, alright, this is the concept and this is the X, Y, and Z, and this is what I want to say. It’s just a natural expansion of me, and whatever I’m feeling at the time. So it’s always hard for me when there’s a theme. So I was on the internet looking up songs and being like ‘ugh, I can’t do that. I can’t paint that’ and I was talking to someone and they said to me, ‘you’re going to be doing a Deftones song aren’t you?’, and I said there’s no way, it would just be too obvious because I’m just going on and on about them all the time. But then I’m sitting there and listening that song and the lyric, “there’s still blood in your hair” and there’s another part and I can’t remember it exactly but it’s like, “but you’re still married to me’, like it’s a bad thing. And I like the ambiguity, there’s a lot of that in my work, ambiguity. So that’s how I came to that, but I had a lot of days where I didn’t know what the hell I was going to do.
P: Then you have a show that beautiful.bizarre is curating at Vanilla Gallery in Japan. You have two pieces in that show.
S: Well, I think Danijela (Editor-in-Chief of beautiful.bizarre) is a big fan of my drawings, haha. When I did the article a while back she kept pushing the drawings over the paintings haha, so that’s the route I’ve gone for this. So what I’m doing for this show is kind of playing off an element of disruption. Overall I’ve developed a style that’s as much based on what I can’t do as what I can do. It’s like, I never draw full bodies because I just don’t like full bodies. And I f*cking hate feet, so I never draw feet. So you’ll see sometimes bodies are disconnected. The hands, the hands used to be huge, but they’ve become smaller over time. It’s kind of like, that’s just how I draw hands, and anyone who goes to life drawing classes would say that’s not how you do it, but that’s how I do it. That’s how I draw hands. So there are a lot of organic shapes and flows, you have these hard lines breaking things up and it’s interesting to me to have flowing lines and organic shapes, and these harder construction. I can’t say that this piece is necessarily about that and that, but these are an extension of what I’ve been doing all along, and also very much what I’ve been doing recently. Less so with painting, painting requires a lot more planning for me. But these drawings take on a life of their own. I’ve been doing a lot with these… fractures, have I showed you those?
P: Yeah, and you’ve been posting them a lot on your Instagram.
S: Yeah it’s all about beauty and decay, structure and chaos. That’s the dynamic that I like.
P: And as if you weren’t busy enough, you have a kickstarter that just launched the book for your book, how’s that going?
S: It’s going great, the book has been a thing that has been kicking around for a long time and is just finally coming around to happening. It was first something I had talked about with 1x run, but that just didn’t work out. I think their focus shifted elsewhere, so that’s fine, and now this is the way I’m going to do it. It’s going great but I’m still busy emailing people trying to keep up the momentum.
P: We’ll make sure to link that for you.
S: One last thing I wanted to say about aging and success and all that, is that I don’t regret anything I’ve done. But I do think about if I would have started this when I was 22. You get so many more responsibilities, and if I went off and did it at 22, like, what’s the worst that can happen? You’re going to be a few beers down, is that it? You’re not going to lose your house. You probably don’t have anyone else whose life is dependent on you. But I did it when I wanted to, and all I’d say is I’d always encourage people to just do it. Don’t wait around for something.
P: Exactly, just do it. Just f*cking do it.
S: Just do it. Hey, that sounds pretty good, that could be a marketing campaign for something.
P: You’re totally right. Maybe we should quit our jobs and go into advertising.
To participate in future editions of Open Call, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions you have, concerns, success stories, challenges, or any other topic you’d like to discuss with a Gallery Director. Every other Monday we’ll publish a few of our favorites along with my replies. If you don’t see your email published, it does not necessarily mean it won’t be saved for a future installment. There have already been way too many good questions to make it into just one edition. Visit my online author profile and stay updated on past editions. **Some emails have been edited for length.
Patrick Shillenn is the co-founder and director of Arch Enemy Arts in Philadelphia. He doesn’t think he has all the answers. He just wants to have the conversation.
Follow him on IG @pshillenn & Twitter @mathclub