10 Questions for our alumni
Chris Shearer, BFA, Studio Art (Illustration), 2006
1 - Why did you choose to attend Grand Valley?
I won a scholarship to Olivet and was also interested in Kendall
College, but after visiting the Calder Art Center and meeting with a
couple of the professors, it felt like the right decision to enroll at
Grand Valley. I really liked walking the bridge to the art department,
nestled in the back corner of the campus. It almost felt like a small
campus of its own and I really appreciated the vibe and the natural
setting with the ravines behind the buildings. It was also affordable
and near home so it made it easy to stay connected with family and
friends during weekend visits.
2 - How or why did you choose your major or main emphasis area?
Some of my earliest memories involve sitting with my great
grandfather, a prolific painter, on a picnic table in the backyard,
learning to handle brushes and draw from perspective. In middle
school, I owned the black market on counterfeit notebook paper
drawings of Jessica Rabbit. At the same time, I won an art contest for
a new holiday stamp and was invited on to the local news to be
interviewed. In high school, I was always in the art room, usually
fueled by teenage angst and planning posters and cover art for my
friend’s and my first bands. Illustrating has always been a huge part
of my life and identity. I wasn’t myself unless I was creating
something. I was really fortunate to have parents who encouraged me to
be myself, even when it meant I got hair dye all over their
Victorian-style guest bathroom.
3 - What advice do you have for future students thinking about colleges?
I think it’s important to look at a few different aspects of the
experience and not get hung up on the supposed best program or most
modern studio spaces. You need to go where you feel comfortable,
whether it’s the physical environment, the location or the just
general feeling you get from a place. Affordability is also important
- student loan repayment may seem like a long ways away, but I promise
your early 20s go way faster than you think. You want somewhere that
can prepare you for your future without a ton of debt. It’s OK if you
don’t know exactly what you want to do if you can find a place that
will be flexible and give you the creative space and freedom you need
to learn and experience new things.
4 - What advice do you have for current students thinking about careers?
I find that people are happiest when they get involved in their
communities and give back. I grew up watching my parents and
grandparents help those around them and for me, that means sharing my
music and art. I think it’s important that the world has access to
counter-culture that is made independently and not mass produced or
necessarily for profit. When you are thinking about your career,
consider doing something that matters and will make the world better.
Explore ways in your life that gives you a sense of meaning or
drive. College is an awesome safe space to join clubs, projects,
volunteer and see what speaks to you - you can try on different causes
and see what is a good fit for your talents and passion.
5 - What did you do after graduating?
In my senior year, I started screen printing in my parent’s basement
(I mentioned my parents are super supportive, right?) in the same
space I was practicing with my band. Right after graduation, two
friends from high school, and I established a storefront in Grand
Rapids called Haywire Screening, LLC. We printed everything from
soccer jerseys to band shirts to uniforms for church camps, creating
custom designs for our clients and our own logo-wear. We got great
recurring gigs doing live screen printing at music events where guests
pick out a design and we print the design right in front of them. One
of the most memorable was a dance party where Mix Master Mike from the
Beastie Boys spinning a few feet away and the crowd wearing our
designs fresh off the screens — it was pretty surreal.
About a year later, my girlfriend Amber and I packed up our two door Neon and moved to San Francisco with only our clothes, two cats and my guitar. It was the beginning of the recession and we had about $5,000 between the two of us and no actual plan. My first jobs were in restaurants and retail, which gave me time to start drawing a lot again. I was really captivated by the city’s architectural and industrial landscape and focused on the details through intense line renderings, similar to styles I had practiced in my printmaking classes. I spent a lot of time on the roof of our month-to-month rental in the city’s notorious Tenderloin neighborhood drawing the skyline. We finally got a cute, quiet little spot near Golden Gate Park where I had space to further these landscapes by drawing larger in scale. One of these was submitted in ArtPrize in 2012, “From Twin Peaks, North” which stretched 6 feet long.
In 2013, I earned a seller's permit from the SF Arts Commission, built a mobile stand and trailer from scratch, filled it with my art, hooked it all up to my bike, and rode downtown to see if any of the tourists and finance people would buy my drawings. I enjoyed putting my work in the public eye while having the opportunity to engage with people directly, even during our rainy winters and slow weeks like Burning Man and Fourth of July when everyone vacates the city for a collective break. The exposure led to some great opportunities. I was invited to be an artist in residence for a popular month-long food truck event called Off The Grid, which had a large city landscape on permanent display in an architecture firm and tons of custom orders including house portraits and commercial buildings. A version of “From Twin Peaks, North” became wallpaper in a high-end retail shop, and I was featured in Urbanist Magazine. It was so satisfying to work for myself, doing what I loved and bringing the art of my city into homes and businesses, even during Fleet Week when I had to compete with other vendors for the best spots on the wharf and convince local restaurant owners to let me use their restroom without a purchase. During this time, I was also playing bass and singing in my band Build Them To Break, with friends from Michigan who also moved to the Bay. BTTB put out a handful of records including our 2019 full-length “Lucky Strike”. I designed all the album artwork and promotional materials including T-shirts and posters. It’s always been my goal to combine my visual art and music into a creative career. I made my own flyers, album art and logo designs, since my first band in high school and got offers to make art for other bands along the way.
6 - What are you doing now?
In 2015, I was getting a little burnt out on the hustle of running my
own business and to be really honest, moving art around a city known
for its hills without a car. I was hired at Chandler Fine Art and
Framing, a framing studio next to the San Francisco Museum of Modern
Art. Chandler is a small gallery, owned by the same woman for a little
over 25 years who has amazing clients in an affluent area. I was
trained in fine art handling, cutting mats and framing of all kinds of
artwork from drawings by people's children, prolific comic book
artists to Andy Warhol, Frank Stella and even Alexander Calder
himself! We also work really closely with the MOMA and the city's
Jewish Museum and ended up framing many of their exhibits.
At the same time, I applied at Alternative Tentacles Records, a label owned by legendary punk rock singer Jello Biafra of The Dead Kennedys. I was hired as the fulfillment and shipping coordinator for records and other merchandise. About two years later, I was promoted to Mr. Biafra’s personal publicist. I now handle graphic design for promotional materials, communicating with radio and press for label artists, Biafra’s requests and performance schedules and overseeing interns who help with our inventory, podcasts and staff merchandise tables at festivals and shows. Alternative Tentacles collaborates with some legendary visual artists and has brought me a working relationship with punk rock collage artist Winston Smith and the chance to get advice from Shepard Fairy.
My work with Alternative Tentacles has also led to some great connections with other labels. In 2018, one of my favorite labels Fat Wreck Chords reached out and asked if I'd like to design an album cover for their founding band NoFX's "Live In A Dive” series of their album "Ribbed." To say I was stoked to work on this project is a huge understatement. Anyone who put up with me blasting NoFX in the Calder art living centers or was kind enough to watch me struggle through covers of Fat Wreck bands at Kliner's open mic nights would understand. The label and the band loved the cover, and this past year they asked me to design a similar one for another band, Face-to-Face's "Live In A Dive” album. It's been pretty amazing getting the chance to collaborate on projects with artists whose lyrics came out through my walkman headphones and whose posters and flyers decorated my dorm room walls.
7 - How have you used the skills you developed in your field of study in your life and/or career after GVSU?
There are so many ways, and they apply directly in commercial use as
well as an independent artist. At the record label, I handle graphic
design projects for various purposes such as music ads and tour
posters, T-shirt and sticker designs, album layouts and more. Here as
well as in my contract work, I play a bunch of roles - artist, finance
guy, PR person, and client service. My education prepared me to do the
actual work of illustrating these pieces but also prepared me to
manage clear communication with clients, write contracts, and
establish a work ethic dedicated to completing things in a proper
time. While I was working as an independent street artist, not only
was it necessary to generate artwork to sell to the public, I had to
manage the basic components of a self-sustaining business. You have to
motivate yourself, much like you have to motivate yourself to get up,
go to class, sit through a 3-hour drawing class and then stay up till
5 in the morning to crank out some prints and graphic design samples -
you can't fake it. Just like your professors, your clients know when
you aren't putting your best self and work forward.
8 - What is the best advice you got from an instructor at Grand Valley?
Ed Wong-Ligda once told me that if you become in illustrator you may
want to marry someone who’ll consistently make money. He may have only
been half-joking...plus I ended up marrying a bleeding heart who does
nonprofit work, so it's not like I heeded this advice anyway.
But seriously, Ed constantly reminded us to not only do the work but get it out there. You can do all the artwork in the world in your basement but no one will ever know about it unless you find ways to present yourself to the world. Things have definitely changed in the way artists like me have ways to do so but the fact is still the same. We have all these amazing platforms now with social media and the different ways you can access entertainment and information. The need for art (and art that matters) is bigger than ever. You just have to be brave and take chances, try different ways to showcase it and attract an audience, or hopefully multiple audiences. I think Ed was a champion of putting in your "ten thousand hours," he just needed Malcolm Gladwell to come and put a name on it for us.
9 - What is your favorite memory of being a student at Grand Valley?
The summer before my senior year, I was lucky enough to study abroad
in Kingston, England. My girlfriend Amber was not an art student but
was also studying abroad in London that summer. This was 2003, so we
didn't have cell phones or even reliable access to computers. We made
plans via our Hotmail accounts and internet cafes to meet up under the
clock in Waterloo Station and set a time and date. Then we didn't
really have a way to contact each other for a few weeks.
When the date finally came (a few weeks is a terribly long time when you're 20), I was super nervous - what if she couldn't make it? What if she was lost and we'd have no way to contact each other? I left our field trip to the Victoria and Albert Museum and went to the train station to meet her. And just like a movie - there she was. Amber would be the first person to tell you how much she cries, and she cried a lot when we first saw each other under that huge clock that so many others use as a meeting point. She joined our class at the museum and pretty much never left for the rest of the program. When we did have to part, we would always use Waterloo Station as our meeting point.
A lot of people from the art department probably remember Amber and I being pretty much attached at the hip throughout my undergrad years. We started dating my freshman year and got married in 2010. As my work with the record labels, it's one of those surreal things that remind me how incredibly fortunate I am. I mean how many people get to marry their first love? Someone they meet in front of Kistler when they're 18? We've always had something special and I can't imagine having the last two decades without her or our adventures together.
In 2018, we were fortunate enough to go back to England and stopped at Waterloo to take a picture under that same clock fifteen years later. We got to have this very special moment at this amazing place twice in our lives. We realized how much we have changed but how much we have also stayed true to ourselves and each other. And of course, she totally cried. She's definitely going to cry when she reads this.
Anything else you would like to share with our Visual and Media Arts Community?
Punk rock has always inspired me and given my life meaning, and I’d
like to end by sharing some wisdom from one of the most punk artists
that I can’t think: “Don’t be afraid to use all the colors in the
crayon box” ~ Ru Paul. When you’re in college, you are fortunate
enough to have the time and freedom to try things. It might not feel
like it when you’re drawing for five hours straight and then have to
head off to campus or to your job and then go play a show at the
Intersection, but you really do. Don’t be afraid to do things that
make you uncomfortable. Surround yourself with new experiences, people
who are different than you or projects that seem daunting. By really
exploring that crayon box (or paint palette or Photoshop color
swatches or whatever media you’re using), you’ll find the tools you
need to write your own lyrics and color your own story.
Image credits: Chris Shearer. You can see Chris' work on www.chrisshearerdoesart.com. You can follow Chris' art on Instagram at @ChrisShearerArt and on Facebook. For Chris' band — Build Them To Break — visit the website at www.buildthemtobreak.com, follow on Instagram at @buildthemtobreak and on Facebook.
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