brett stenson


“Sometimes ideas boomerang back - listen to yourself and know that it’s there.”
— Brett Stenson

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

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. 

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