Jun 21, 2012
The weekend of June 8th through the 10th marked the third annual Weapons of Mass Creation Fest in Cleveland Ohio. This event - the self-proclaimed SXSW of the Midwest - brings together 20 speakers, 20 designers, 20 bands, and hundreds of eager artists for one incredible weekend every June. This year I was lucky enough to attend for all three days. I came away excited, full of knowledge, new experiences, and hope for what the future holds - both for WMC Fest and the art and design community in the Midwest.
As you may or may not know, I’m a Midwesterner myself. Born and raised in Ohio, I’ve only lived elsewhere for two years of my life and I was eager to return. While I love traveling and am open to the idea of moving somewhere else, I’ve always had a soft spot for Ohio. At times my relationship with my home state has been one of love and hate. More hate as a child and more love as an adult.
Like most kids I grew up thinking that I would rather live anywhere but where I was forced to grow up. But as I grew older I began to see how good I really had it. For instance, I thought about moving to LA once only to realize after actually visiting a couple times - that I can’t stand LA! It’s too spread out for my taste. It's surrounded by desert, full of oversized cars and boxy, unimaginative buildings. It’s also home to an ultra competitive culture that doesn't suite me. Not to mention it would cost me at least five times more to live in LA than it does for me to live in Columbus, Ohio.
No offense to those of you who live in LA and love it, it’s just not for me.
But this post isn’t about LA or even about how much I love living in Ohio. It’s about WMC Fest and what IT stands for. I simply wanted to mention my growing up in the Midwest and my love-hate relationship with Ohio, because after my second year of attending WMC Fest I feel like the event has come to represent just about everything I’ve come to appreciate about the State and region I grew up in.
Allow me to explain...
WMC Fest is Affordable
As I mentioned above one of my favorite things about living in Ohio is how affordable it is. WMC Fest is no exception. A three day all-access pass to WMC Fest is only $60. And if you bought it early enough, it was only $50. $50! For three days of music, art, and great advice from some of the best designers in the world. How can you go wrong with that?! In my humble opinion, you can’t.
I was fortunate enough to catch several amazing talks this year including the story of Johnny Cupcakes and his advice on how to build a valuable Brand from scratch; Tad Carpenter’s talk on The Importance of Play; Austin Kleon’s talk on stealing like an artist; James White’s Design Renegade speech; And Kate Bingaman Burt’s energetic discourse on curation and what that word really means.
For those talks alone I got more than my money’s worth out of the event. But those were only a few of the high points among 20 great speakers, 20 bands, and 20 designers. I also got to see some amazing art, some great local/nationally known bands, and experience some truly delicious local cuisine (a.k.a. hot dogs and tater tots from Happy Dog).
So if you’re a bootstrapped designer trying to make your way as a freelancer, I can’t image a better investment. For a mere 50 bucks (plus hotel and food for the weekend) you get the benefit of years upon years of design world experience, stunning success stories, valuable failures/experiments, and tons of hard earned wisdom shared by the event speakers - not to mention non-stop live music and the chance to network with hundreds of fellow artists.
Which brings me to my second point...
WMC Fest Encourages Close-Knit Community
Even the “large” cities in the Midwest have fairly small art and design communities (relatively). That doesn’t mean they aren’t still incredibly varied, full of talent, and fun to be a part of. It’s just that everyone sort of knows everyone - or so it can seem. What's actually occurring is something even more special, it's a sort of understanding that everyone is accessible and willing to help each other. The polar opposite of the dog-eat-dog world fostered in say, New York as Tuesday Bassen described in her talk this year. The idea being that if you don’t know someone personally, that's ok! Because the understanding is that they’d be open to getting to know you and excited about how they can help. Which was true of almost every artist, speaker, and designer who attended this year. Not only did I see them making themselves available to attendees all weekend long for one-on-one advice, hang-out time, and encouragement - but the collective vibe this creative camaraderie gave off was palpable and I think as you read other accounts of the weekend you’ll see a lot of people left feeling really fired up and excited to create new work and return next year for more fuel.
One speaker at the event (an Abduzeedo friend and favorite) James White was kind enough to step aside with me for a few minutes after his talk and say hello to everyone here at Abduzeedo. Check it out :)
As you can see, the attitude was pretty laid back and fun. The venue in which the speakers talked was right behind where James is standing in this video and it’s fairly small and intimate. Nearly too small in fact, to the surprise of event founder Jeff Finley & co. who seemed shocked that nearly every speaker was drawing a large enough crowd to fill every single seat in the venue and even some space on the stage, stairs, and the standing room along the walls.
WMC Fest is Surprisingly Unique
I would wager that most people don’t think of the Midwest when listing locations synonymous with creativity and unique expression. However, a closer inspection may prove surprising. Perfect example: Who would have guessed that Cleveland Ohio had so many b-boys?
As odd as it may sound, one of my favorite parts of WMC Fest this year was seeing a huge group of dancers gather around for spontaneous break dance battles followed by an organized competition - the winners walking away with $500. It’s one of those things that while maybe not a big draw for the festival as a whole, brought a lot of uniqueness to the experience.
While breakdancing at a design festival is a little unexpected and really fun I think it’s actually an outlying example of the surprising uniqueness and creativity represented at WMC Fest this year. Here are two other examples directly from the design community. Artist/Designer Brandon Rike based out of Columbus, Ohio (whom I interviewed last year) and illustrator/MAKER Tad Carpenter from Kansas City, Missouri.
If asked to imagine who is doing the merchandise design for some of the biggest names in the music industry you would probably picture a huge design firm in New York, Brooklyn, San Francisco, or some other large coastal city. But you would be wrong. It’s actually this guy: Brandon Rike.
I would share his client list (if you click through scroll to the bottom) here but it’s too freaking huge to include in this post. So make sure you go by his site and ogle his work when you have the time. For our purposes I’ll just name a few of the big clients: Led Zeppelin, Ossy Osbourne, Coldplay, Lady Gaga, Morrissey, Motley Crue, Smashing Pumpkins, Lil Wayne, Katy Perry, Kid Rock, Nirvana, Weezer, Aerosmith, OWLSA (Skrillex), and many many more.
What I love about this, and what I found surprising and unique - and compelling - about Brandon when we met, is that this enormous body of awesome work came out of one guy, in his home office, in Columbus Ohio. No big firm, no celebrity, no outrageous online following. Just a disciplined dude with a lot of love for music and illustration who over the course of 10 years has been cranking out some of the raddest shit in the country.
And then we have Tad Carpenter. Tad hails from Kansas City, Missouri which is probably best known for it’s - I bet you didn’t guess it - barbecue. That’s right, apparently the best barbecue in the world, arguably, is served at Oklahoma Joe’s - a legendary local restaurant there. What Kansas City is not known for, unless you grew up in it (according to Tad’s talk this year), is it’s vibrant community of copy writers, artists, and illustrators. A pleasantly surprising side effect of Kansas City also being the corporate home of Hallmark, the card company. Who over the course of generations has employed and fostered an enormous creative community who in turn have passed on their love for creativity to their kids. Which is how Tad and I’m sure many other artists from Kansas City got started.
So what is he doing now? Well, I’m sure you’ve heard of Adobe. You know, that company who makes all those essential software programs you probably pirate. Well, if you happen to get an out of the box copy of Adobe CS6 then you may notice some of his recent work. A how-to guide for illustrator.
His work has also shown up in Communication Arts, Print, Grain Edit, Illustration Mundo and many other publications. Some select clients that he lists on his website include Macy's, Target, Atlantic Records, MTV, Simon & Schuster, Sterling, Hallmark Cards, Dave & Buster's, and Random House. A testament to the reality that location is no longer a hindrance if you dream of rising high in the commercial world of art and design.
Some other great examples of surprising uniqueness and creativity out of the Midwest who were present at WMC Fest this year include but are not limited to:
- Nate Utesch - the creator and curator of Ferocious Quarterly who lives and works in Fort Wayne Indiana.
- Chuck Anderson - the founder of No Pattern and all star designer living and working in Grand Rapids Michigan.
- Jeff Finley - Founder of WMC Fest and partner at Go Media in Cleveland Ohio.
- Margot Harrington - designer, developer, blogger, and maker living and working out of Chicago Illinois.
- And the list goes on: Rachel Novak, Jen Myers, Mike Kubinski, Julia Kuo, Brian Andrew Jasinski, Glen Infante, Jackie Bebenroth, and more.
And now I’d like to get a little sentimental...sort of...but not really.
WMC Fest Re-Invigorates the American Dream
Yes, that’s right, I went there. At the risk of sounding so incredibly cheesy that this post becomes unpublishable, I'd like to say that I think it’s true - WMC Fest CAN (if we let it) come to represent a re-interpreting of what chasing down that good ol’ fashioned American Dream means to those of us living and working as artists in the Midwest.
Just go with me here for a second.
The American Dream is so often mocked that a lot of people probably don’t even know what it means anymore. After all, Americans have been offering up bitter satire on the whole concept since the 1920’s when F. Scott Fitzgerald released The Great Gatsby. Probably before. No, definitely.
Anyways, let me quickly lay it out for you. It’s as simple as this: The American Dream is a belief in the idea that upward social mobility is possible through hard work. Or in other words - and maybe seen through a more modern lens - if you dedicate yourself to something, not only is it possible to do what you love for a living, but you may just be able to elevate yourself, your family, and (if you start a company) your co-workers and employees into greater social heights. It's the story of countless individuals, companies and yes - even websites. In fact, it's the story of Fabio and Abduzeedo. A graphic designer who started a blog to back up his data and share what he's learning, who over the course of four years and a lot of hard work comes to lead one of the world's largest web company's design teams. Google, in case you didn't know.
This dream, it's a beautiful idea and the fact that it's possible - and that we know people who've achieved it - makes it irresistible to most of us. And I don't think that's cheesy at all. I don't harbor bitter feelings towards this concept. I find it incredibly inspiring. Which I why I've dedicated a whole section of this post - a post about an art and design festival in Cleveland Ohio - to a subject that's as relevant today as the day the term "American Dream" was coined.
Furthermore, when I say that WMC Fest re-invigorates the midwestern version of the American Dream I'm not talking about a house in the suburbs with a white picket fence. That image is no more than a leftover of 1950's Americana. What I'm talking about is a new version of the American Dream that means autonomy, social distinction, and financial stability for a whole section of the United States who for decades now have been making an uneasy transition from manufacturing, agriculture, and other forms of blue collar labor into technology, the arts, and data/information based lines of work more suitable to our economy in 2012.
Now, I'm not trying to make the case that WMC Fest is the only positive thing the Midwest has going for it in this regard, but rather that it's one of many things encouraging and inspiring a new generation of artists, designers, and creatives toward a promising future. One that we need to embrace. And I don't think that anyone better illuminated the WMC Fest audience this year with the ways in which this new dream is possible than speaker Johnny Cupcakes.
The Johnny Cupcakes Story is one you have to hear (or read) to believe. Something I highly recommend doing, as I don't have time to lay out all the drama and details for you. But in very rapid summary it's the story of a guy who took a nickname, turned it into a logo and t-shirt design, and then when asked repeatedly where people could buy one like it decided to start a t-shirt business out of the trunk of his car. Eventually that business took over his parents' house, then years later got it's own location, and now has four stores in four cities: Boston, Los Angeles, Hull, and London. Yes, London England. And more on the way.
Johnny was able to take his fierce passion for an alternative career path and his love for design and combine the two into a company, sub-culture, and story that neatly sum up what WMC Fest is all about. The potential to do amazing things through creativity.