Brett Stenson is a dude.
And according to his good friend Adam Garcia, he's a sensitive dude who has a fucking incredible talent for synthesizing. To a packed house at WeMake's most recent sketchXchange, the pair took the floor with Adam moderating, to talk about Brett's inspiration, evolution and process as a designer and illustrator. With him he brought hundreds of wildly varied yet magically cohesive pieces of his work (which he packed onto the walls of Tillamook Station), along with the entire staff of Jolby & Friends, his wife Heidi, dog Ole, and a slew of captivating and rich stories, giving the evening a level of intimacy you might find in a dimly lit Midwestern bar or grease rag strewn mechanic's garage.
Brett comes from a family of farmers in Wisconsin where there's no day off from raising cattle. "I guess I kind of look at work that way. Working hard is super important - nothing is going to be given to you." Growing up he rode BMX, wrestled in high school and was going to join the army or be a welder. Adam asserted, "What else do dudes do!?" Thanks to his dad's wife at the time saying he should go into art school, Brett listened and enrolled at Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, even though "everything else about her sucked". That suggestion and decision changed the roadmap of nearly every avenue for Brett...except work ethic.
As the rain bore down on the venue throughout the evening, Brett took us though his beginnings as a designer for a marketing agency, where he often found himself grudgingly whiling away the hours on projects of little interest. With unabashed humility, he explained of his bar for making every piece of work he tackles, the very best. "There's an element of dealing with shit you don't like to find the things you really love about your job." He credits those early experiences for much of the growth, learning and sharpening of his skills that led him to break out on his own as an independent freelancer. His "8 and 8" philosophy which entailed working 8 hours for the agency during the day and then 8 more each night on freelance, allowed him to not only develop a robust catalog of work, but helped him to position each new opportunity as if bringing 2 boats together so closely, that he could easily step from one to another without stretching. That work ethic and strategy eventually led him to Portland and his current role as Art Director for Jolby & Friends.
Admitting his intimidation for Brett's "dudeness", Adam pried deeper into the theme of synthesis and mythology in much of Brett's work. At the core, synthesis is about merging what you do and what you love together. Take it multiple steps further, and it's about mashups at every turn. Greatly inspired by the outdoors, snowboarding and motorcycles, he showcased brilliantly merged illustrations of a motorcycle engine in the outline of a snowboard deck and a mythological scene inside the gas tank of a motorbike. He spoke of his love for vintage typeface and much of his work feels like a cross between a look through your grandfather's ammo closet and the pages of an 80's Thrasher skateboard magazine. Mashing two of the most unlikely fonts together to create something so ugly that you feel compelled to stare, is a technique he employs often and can be seen in a recent Widmer Brewery campaign he did with Jolby.
To get inside the mind of Brett Stenson you need to be prepared for an imaginatively untamed world of mythos and lore that might leave you feeling like you just woke from a peyote trip. He told the story of Varado, a series of work inspired by an idea that finds a contestant of the Baja 1000 (a Mexico motorcycle race), stranded in the desert on the brink of death, only to begin losing their mind and seeing portals with strange mystical people. Brett is an avid player of Dungeons & Dragons and Magic the Gathering, which has had a big impact on his work. "I would create all sorts of weird mythos in my head and didn't really care if it translated to anyone else because it got something huge out of my head. It was more about drawing, writing a story that fulfills me, and about pushing technique - you tried it and you did it. If I'm going to try it I'm going to do it." It took 9 months to do all the work for Varado.
By the end of the evening, the 70+ member audience felt more like a small gathering, in from out of the rain with Rainier in hand, and spellbound by the storytelling of a sage. The charming exchange between Adam and Brett left a feeling of inspiration to roll up your sleeves and burn the midnight oil. Brett's parting advice was to listen to yourself and embrace the way you think. Trust your process and give it time to unfold. "Sometimes ideas boomerang back - listen to yourself and know that it's there."
Photos by Alyse Gilbert and Daniel Cole