You may’ve seen Brooklyn-based designer and artist Mike Perry ’s work around. He has exhibited throughout the world and has worked for a variety of clients, including Urban Outfitters, The New York Times, Apple, Nike, Zoo York, and Target, to name a few. He has also published four different books on screen-printing, hand-drawn type and patterns, and—most recently—Wandering Around Wondering, a collection of his work so far. With an emphasis on hand-drawn and the “transformative power of making things,” Perry’s work is incredibly distinct and full of character. His work often deals with patterns, shapes, and anthropomorphic objects that join together to create a greater whole—and a glimpse into the mind of the man himself. Recently, I had the opportunity to check out Mike Perry’s studio and sit down to chat with him about everything from personal process to figuring out the universe (sort of). If you happen to be in Ohio, you can also check out the exhibit “Night and Day” at the Yes Gallery, featuring new work by Perry and artist Naomi Reis. It runs through July 20th, 2012.
Interview by Jessica Butler
Before getting into graphic design, you used to paint significantly in your teens. Does this background in painting have a role in your work now?
I would assume it does. The more I think about my work from the past, so much of it has been about getting these ideas out—an obsessive desire to create something all the time. So many of my hours are spent thinking of ideas or pulling a pencil across a sheet of paper. This always works well for me in a graphic design sense because deadlines are short and I would need to generate a lot of process before committing to a final outcome. The work I make now vs. the work then is so different. I was painting a lot of figures, a lot of portraits; things were very moody and my painting work now is getting more and more abstract. I was obsessed with John Singer Sargent then and now I find more comfort in someone like Alexander Calder.
It has been a great journey so far. This is my favorite part about being alive. Seeing what I used to make and how it turned into what I make now. Seeing the progress and the process. To me, some of the most exciting pushes in my work came from those stumbling accidents and my desire to look back at them and learn from them.
How did your time at Minneapolis College of Art and Design shape your trajectory?
My opinion about higher education has diminished over the years. That said, I got everything I needed to get and it was so brilliant. I was so lucky. Surrounded by so many amazing and inspiring people. Most of my education didn’t happen in the 9-5 of class time but in the hidden after hours in the studios talking shit, listening to music, and being surrounded by people in a place of ultimate creative freedom. As you get older it’s harder to be able to sit around and just make. I miss the sounds of someone running through the doors laughing. The screams of someone’s computer crashing and him or her not saving. The late night walks to the coffee shop before it closes to sneak in a little more caffeine. Within all of that was passionate, obsessive, powerful, abstract, fun, beautiful, creation.
Developing one’s own style can be a long, and sometimes difficult process for many artists. When do you think you reached the point where you felt you had “your own style?” What process goes into getting to this point?
Style is or can be a funny thing. I hope that everyone comes to their own style on their own. There is a way that your mind works in relation to your hand. Which works in relation to the world you were born into. And in relation to when you where born and the things you have seen, experienced, the tragedies, the comedies . . . This is your style. When I put my pencil on a sheet of paper it has everything I have been through, making its way out. It is who I am. This is my style. This is how you develop a style. You live life. If I hurt my finger or wrist then my drawings are different, if I am in the country with nature, this affects my work. Take it all in and be yourself.
Do you ever feel a sense of “comfort” or security in what you’re creating because of this seemingly established and unique style?
I guess maybe style is like finding your self. Which if you look at it like that, finding a style as a journey makes sense. I would say I do feel comfort. I am at a place where I feel both comfortable with making things that are unpredicted and just flow out, but also the ability to make things exactly like I vision them. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to make the work I wanted to make. Seeing the disconnect between brain and hand. It has been a growth experience and an adaptation to my hand’s ability.
You’ve worked for a variety of different clients throughout your career and have acknowledged the importance of business. Does your artistic integrity ever feel at risk?
I hope not. It would be a bummer for people to decide my work is not artistically valid because I needed to make a living.
I guess what I mean is, since you have a lot of different clients asking for a variety of things specific to their brand/business, do you ever feel like you need to change your style slightly in order to satisfy the client? If so, how do you deal with this and manage to stay true to your personal style and work?
It kind of depends on what kind of hat I am wearing for that project. A lot of the time people hire me to make something that looks like my work. In that case I just do my thing and hope they like it. But when it’s a problem-solving environment I like to explore and make according to the brief. I love the exploration part of making. I often give myself briefs to follow because I love visual problem solving.
A lot of your work contains similar patterns, images, and symbols. When we spoke you called it something like a visual “vocabulary.” How do you think these occurred? Is this idea of repetition something you encounter elsewhere in your life?
I think this vocabulary has been there the whole time. It was just the process of putting the book together that really opened my eyes to how much it is a part of the work. My guess is that most creative people have a lot of repetition in their work. These are shapes, ideas, colors that make us feel good. There are shapes and colors that when I use them I just feel good. Feeling positive about something you’re making can cause you to want to make more.
In our studio visit you also mentioned you’re a bit of a science guy and showed me an incredible sketchbook full of pages attempting to solve a cosmic problem you had in your head. Would you say the universe is a theme you gravitate towards? What sort of significance does the universe and science have for you?
I love the science fiction of the universe—that anything is possible if you can imagine it. It feels freeing and comfortable. I often feel like I am building little universes and placing planets and stars in their cosmic formation. I love that it is a great unknown but we understand the elements that have formed this greatness. Like the color red is an atom in a drawing I am making.
Are there any other themes, ideas, or sources of inspiration that you are especially drawn to?
Heritage, the future’s relationship to the past, the difference between silence and chaos (I try to work with this a lot. How to make something filled with chaos feel silent.) Organic vs. Geometric.
What role do words play in your work?
Words are very important to me. A lot of my ideas start as words. A quick one liner jotted in my notebook that comes out as two men playing tug of war. But then the opposite happens where I will draw a little face that turns into a poem. I love writing poems. I am trying to feel better about sharing those poems but it’s hard. I often hid poems in the work.
What’s something that makes you laugh or smile?
I just watched the new 21 jump street movie. I laughed a lot.
Finally, what can we expect from you next?
Isn’t that the question? I have a lot of ideas. Not sure what will happen in what order. Some books, exhibitions, maybe a few years of silence. Who knows!