The Jacky Winter Group – Taking Fight

September 28, 2008 § Leave a comment

Published: The Age, A2, September 13, 2008.

A creative community of local illustrators is sending distinctly Australian visions out into the world, writes Dan Rule.

IT’S HARD NOT TO GET SWEPT up in Jeremy Wortsman’s enthusiasm. Good art, it seems, is something worth talking about – and talking about very loudly, very expressively and very rapidly at that.

The Melbourne-based New Yorker had been getting plenty of practice. Since founding boutique illustration agency The Jacky Winter Group a little less than a year ago, he has made communicating the values of his favourite art his living and for all intents and purposes, his life.

“I do feel like, in a way, it is my own stuff because I just love each of the artists so much,” he says, beaming. “I’m just crazy about them.

“I almost shed a tear the other day when I heard that all the Jacky Winter guys up in Sydney all met up and had dinner together,” he continues, looking genuinely chuffed. “They’re all from really different backgrounds and age groups and all had a really good time. It’s kind of like a community.”

We’re taking the tour of Lamington Drive, a compact gallery space that Wortsman – a graphic designer and art director in his late 20s (he is uncharacteristically coy when asked his age) who makes up one half of award-winning design practice Chase & Galley – has just opened off Gertrude Street in Fitzroy to exclusively show the work of Jacky Winter Group artists.

Set in an otherwise raw shell, it’s an unusual, nonetheless striking space, enclosed by corner-lit cardboard walls and recycled chipboard flooring material. The spooky pop-art prints of the gallery’s inaugural show Surrender, from WeBuyYourKids (the collective moniker of Sydney-based Jacky Winter artist Biddy Maroney and her partner Sonny Day) adorn the walls, while a central Perspex plinth encases an installation of notebooks and drawing materials.

“We really didn’t want to put a white cube in here and make it something that it wasn’t,” he says of the space, which he designed in collaboration with Chase & Galley partner Stuart Geddes and architect Martyn Hook. “The idea with the cardboard is that it’s a very tactile substance and it brings out the kind of tactile nature of illustration.”

It’s the latest chapter in what has been a remarkable induction for the agency. Since launching in October last year, The Jacky Winter Group has procured upwards of 120 domestic and international commissions, including work for The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Harvard and Columbia universities, and upcoming campaigns for American Express and the Sydney Theatre Company. Its stable of artists has grown from an initial group of 12 to a current roster of 32 – which includes the celebrated collage and watercolours of Kat Macleod, the hilariously awkward cartoons of Oslo Davis and the meticulous line work of Dylan Martorell.

“Jacky Winter was kind of a nice metaphor for giving home-grown artists ‘flight’ by engaging them with work overseas,” he says of the agency named after a native Australian robin.

It says a lot about Wortsman’s objectives. Since moving to Melbourne in 2001, he’s found himself in awe of the dynamism and quality coming out of the young art community (he is one of the founders of cult Melbourne poster-magazine Is Not) but dismayed by the lack of infrastructure or representation to support it.

“I was just shocked, you know,” he muses. “Basically, there’s no real commercial art training or education in Australia as such; there’s no real BA, BFA or masters programs. There’s fine art programs or graphic design, but there’s really nothing in between. So there’s this huge population of people who are doing this incredible work, but have fine art backgrounds, so they don’t understand the business aspects of things and how to really make their work fit into a market.

“And when it comes to representation,” Wortsman says, “there was virtually nothing. The agency was set up in response to that, you know, corralling all those people together who had this incredible talent – like, the best of them – and helping them try and make a living out of it. A lot of the artists, like Eamo and Oslo Davis and Lachlan Cohn, I just met while I was doing Is Not.”

Nigel Buchanan, a Sydney-based artist who is part of collective illustration website PicturePig.com and has more than 30 years experience as a freelance illustrator, says that Jacky Winter is something of a first in a domestic landscape almost void of adequate representation. “There really just aren’t agents who operate like that out here. Most agencies take a number and pass it on and are basically just brokers.

“My agent in America is incredibly proactive,” he says. “And that’s really what needs to happen here. Jeremy would be about the only one who seems really interested in helping foster people’s careers.”

Twenty-nine-year-old Fitzroy-based artist Rik Lee, who was one of the first illustrators to be approached by The Jacky Winter Group, shares similar views. While his finely rendered pencil illustrations and playful computer-based compositions have appeared in Nylon, Vibe, Oyster, Girlfriend and Vice magazines, on T-shirts designs for Graniph, Lee Jeans and Stussy, and album covers for cult Scottish band Arab Strap, he feels that living in an isolated country like Australia necessitates the kind of constant promotion and bridge-building that artists just can’t manage on their own.

“Australian cities still don’t have the kind of creative reputation as places like New York, London or Tokyo, and the relatively small population means there just aren’t as many opportunities here as there are in certain places overseas,” he says. “Therefore one of the most important facets of working as an illustrator is getting your work out there and seen by as many people, in as many varied audiences, as possible.

“There are just so many doors that, as an artist, you don’t even know how to approach. Being part of Jacky Winter has opened a lot of those doors.”

But how can a comparatively tiny flock like The Jacky Winter Group open doors in already established European and American markets? For Wortsman, an unabashed comic book art and tattoos enthusiast, it’s a matter of differentiation. Instead of offering a kind of generic artist-for-hire service, Wortsman trades on his artists’ idiosyncrasies. “One thing I’m really trying to encourage with the gallery is that even though everyone is a kind of print-based artist, they do explore the kind of fine-art side of their work and really develop that,” he says. “All of these guys have such a remarkable style. If a client were to pick, say, Kat Macleod for example, no one else would be able to do the job in the same way that she does. It has Kat’s signature on it. Other people might use similar techniques and there might be some crossover but it won’t be a piece of Kat’s.

“There is that kind of inimitable quality to everyone. If some company is like, ‘We need you to render this cell phone for a cell phone ad’, and they don’t like our prices, then they can get anyone to do it. That’s not what we’re really about.”

It’s a quality that has, so far, paid dividends. Don Besom, senior art director at BusinessWeek in New York, has commissioned several pieces from Wortsman’s agency ahead of several of his American counterparts. “We’re always looking for new and contemporary talent,” he says. “And that’s the first thing you notice about The Jacky Winter Group: it has some very talented artists.

“Beyond that, we’re a US-based magazine with an international outlook and audience, so we like to get a fresh perspective on our subject matter from outside America. There’s a definite advantage in that.”

However, Wortsman is realistic about the agency’s early success. “It really goes in cycles and illustration will be big for a year or two and then it will just die, and then new art directors will come in and it will happen all again,” he says.

“What we’re seeing now is an upswing in illustration, for which I happened to come in at the right time.”

That’s not to say that the signs aren’t positive. Even a native Australian robin seems pretty darn exotic to some.

“I’ve sort of done my best to make the agency as accessible as possible for everyone, because people still have this idea that Australia is so far away, and that frightens them,” he says. “We have phone numbers in the UK and the US that all just ring my office here, or ring my mobile, because if you put an international dialling code on something people won’t ring it.

“For the first six months I was taking phone calls at three or four in the morning, you know, waking up in the middle of my sleep and going, ‘Yawn, Jacky Winter Group!”‘ he laughs. “I think I seriously did a couple of commissions in my sleep.”

www.jackywinter.com

www.lamingtondrive.com

Making Doo by Niels “Nails” Oeltjen opens at Lamington Drive, 89 George Street, Fitzroy, next Thursday, September 18, 6-9pm.

A MATTER OF PERSPECTIVES

Eamo

Eamo (Eamon Donelly) draws on his childhood in suburban Geelong to create his vivid take on Australiana. The 26-year-old doesn’t believe in cultural cringe. “I’m not ashamed to put a raw prawn or gum leaf in my work,” he says. “It’s my experience, my upbringing.”

His work has recently appeared in US magazines Blender, ESPN, Complex, Radar and King.

“My art is definitely a celebration of Australia, its humour, its larrikinism and its history. Growing up, I was like a sponge shaped like a map of Australia with corks hanging off it.”

Cailan Burns

33-year-old Melbourne artist Cailan Burns paints monsters that are both playful and ominous. His psychedelic hues and curious characters have featured on the cover of Cyclic Defrost magazine and on album covers for local group Mountains in the Sky and his own band Pretty Boy Crossover.

“I’m really influenced by Robert Crumb and a lot of the poster art from the 60s,” he says. “And I think Maurice Sendak, who did Where the Wild Things Are, is incredible.”

“I’ve always really loved wobbly shapes and organic forms. I don’t really into the whole post-punk 80s thing that’s going on at the moment – I’m too fuzzy and curly for that.”

Marcela Restrepo

31-year-old Columbian-born Sydneysider Marcela Restrepo finds exoticism the everyday. “I draw just simple things,” she says. “I try and show complex things through simple objects, because just from objects you can tell things about people.”

“When I first came to Australia, I started drawing things like Vegemite jars. They are very familiar to your culture, but not to me, so I like to draw these things to remember for the day I go back home.”

Her pencil and ink drawings have found their way into Nylon Guys, Bon Appetit and the Sunday Telegraph magazine, and in campaigns for American Express and Energizer.

Niels ‘Nails’ Oeltjen

For Tasmanian-raised Niels ‘Nails’ Oeltjen, art is about lineage and progression. “Folk-art is a big influence in terms of an aesthetic sensibility and probably an approach as well,” he says. ”It’s very hands-on and it’s an evolution; it’s carried on and passed down through generations.”

The 31-year-old highly detailed and patterned drawings and painting utilise walls, objects, clothing and paper as their canvas. “I don’t like anything that’s really clean,” he says. “I’m suspicious of cleanliness in design. It kind of takes the human energy out – It’s more the realm of machines.”

His new show Making Doo opens this Thursday at Lamington Drive (see below).

Tin & Ed

Melbourne graphic designers and illustrators Tin & Ed (26-year-old Tin Nguyen and 28-year-old Ed Cutting) frame their abstract collaborative art works in terms process rather than aesthetics.

“Disruption is an important part of our process,” says Nguyen. “We like juxtaposing images and ideas – the raw and the refined, the literal and the abstract.”

Their work – which has ranged from traditional illustration, collage and photomontage to sculpture, installation and moving image – has featured in campaigns for American Express, Nike, Next Wave Festival and in several local and international magazines.

“Abstraction and ambiguity is vital in a commercial setting,” says Cutting. “Nothing is really that definite.”

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