Meet Brett Stenson

My life is a mix tape.
— Brett Stenson

All photos by Daniel Cole. 

What: sketchXchange with Brett Stenson moderated by Adam Garcia
When: Friday, March 3 from 6-9pm
Where: Tillamook Station
Cost: Suggested $5 donation - scroll down for tickets - You'll get an Special Edition notebook designed by Brett and donated by Scout Books.


Just a 90 minute drive west of Green Bay is Sunset Lake, the most beautiful thing Wisconsin native Brett Stenson has ever seen. He was married on the edge of the water in summer. He viscerally remembers drifting on the water, fishing to Frank Sinatra. He daydreams about the lake. He feels the connection with its natural beauty and the emotional pull of happy memories. 

This intersection of nature, history, gratitude, change and beauty is where Brett lives as a human and as an illustrator. For the last three years, he has been an art director with Jolby & Friends, a Portland design and branding studio created by artists Colby Nichols and Josh Kenyon. Brett freelanced with the duo while he was in Milwaukee after leaving his job as a designer for a “sports marketing agency.” The work eventually moved him from his roots to a new playground in Portland. 

“The city is a weird, cozy shelter you found in a rainstorm. Everyone is stoked to be in this little shed enjoying the best coffee and beer in the U.S.”

At Jolby, Brett is able to explore his love of collaboration - design without ego. He embraces the idea that no work belongs to an artist, but belongs everyone. He’ll often start on an illustration and turn it over to another artist to play.

“People should be inspired by each other. You see the beauty of what you’re making together and that’s motivation enough to follow the process.”

Carving Out Your Style

Even though Brett favors collaboration, he retains a recognizable style forged from crude shapes and clean lines, his textures inspired by lake fishing or in the garage working on a motorcycle. He likes sharp angles and curated color palates with whimsy thrown into the mix.

“The key to style is thinking how it comes out of your hand without thinking about what’s new or over-composing in your mind. That’s where style starts. Take an idea and push in through your lens - that’s when it becomes your style.” 

Brett, who has a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, pulls inspiration from memories, too. Sometimes a texture reminds him of a moment and a state of mind. He uses the emotion attached to an object to inform his design.  For example, think about a summer day on a lake. The sun plays off the slow, rhythmic waves against the dock. A texture created by the waves that feels peaceful, happy. This is the feeling he brings into his work.

"I would describe his illustration style as 2-D work that is sheared with texture, pattern, and depth making it both retro and modern. He tucks lore into his pieces without being overbearing and his eye for color is stupid-good!" Colby Nichols, Co-Founder of Jolby & Friends said.

Midwest Work Ethic

Like with many transplants, Brett misses pieces and people from back home. His grandfather was a farmer, his dad was in the Army and and his mom a single woman working her hardest to support her son from afar while instilling strong work ethic. His understanding of the importance of working hard and “earning shit” comes from a youth spent respectfully learning that “you’re owed nothing ever.”

The lessons he picked up while watching the adults in his life and are now woven into his internal fabric. After Brett quit his day job to start his own freelance thing, his former boss gifted him with profound career advice.

“He sat me down for an entire afternoon and shared his knowledge with me. He was frustrated that I was leaving, but understood.”

By the end of that day Brett had a few key insights:

  1. Build an nest egg in advance.
  2. You’re still working whenever you’re out with people. Even if you’re partying, you’re still a professional.
  3. You get to pick what you want to do. Don’t ever feel like you have to do something you really don’t want to do.
  4. Live within your means, so you don’t have to stress about money.
  5. Do shit no one else is doing.

His favorite tools:

  1. His Cintiq.
  2. The “shift” key on his keyboard – to make straight lines easily to connect points.

"Brett is an amazing maker, thinker, human and all-around creative goblin. Being in his sphere of weirdness keeps your brain moving into unfamiliar places and his 'have fun forever' motto keeps good work flowing all day," Colby said.

“I’m lucky to have a job making art for a living."  - Brett with Ole. 

Reserve your spot!