Beauty in Simplicty
An Interview with a Beloved L.A. Artist, Geoff McFetridge
From Issue Three of the Gear Patrol Magazine.
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In a white building on a busy road in northeast Los Angeles, Geoff McFetridge paged through books of sketches for upcoming projects. “Before, I would skate the curb in front of my studio. Now it’s a full-on thoroughfare,” McFetridge noted. He has worked for two decades in his open, bright, two-story studio in Atwater Village. Upstairs, Japanese boro fabric hangs over a chair and a photobooth strip of McFetridge and his daughter sits on a file cabinet. Downstairs near the painting studio, a few skateboards are propped against the wall.
Born in Calgary, Alberta, in 1971, McFetridge developed an early interest in drawing that eventually merged with his love of L.A. culture. “I was into punk rock and skateboarding and making zines,” he said. “I picked up a foreign template and imported it.” After creating a line of shirts for a local skate shop, McFetridge began designing graphics for snowboards and skateboards. He moved from Alberta, Canada, to Southern California to attend CalArts for graduate school, and subsequently worked for Girl Skateboards and as the art director for the Beastie Boys’ magazine, Grand Royal.
McFetridge’s work is both simple and bold. His graphics represent fleeting moments and long-term memories. Instead of layering, his 2D work emphasizes unique perspectives and places extra emphasis on color. In addition to his studio shows and public installations, McFetridge has worked for clients ranging from Nike and Pepsi to Patagonia and The New York Times. On a cool morning in August, he took a moment to discuss his process, inspirations and a new mural project in L.A.
Q: What did you learn from studying at CalArts?
A: Going to CalArts, no one was concerned with making anything cool. It was just about content and thinking. The work I was seeing was not amazing, but the thinking was. When someone would talk about their work, you’d think, “Holy shit, this is amazing.” People were making design that was rooted in French theory and personal history.
Once I graduated, I was like, “Well, what if all of those kind of ideas were obvious in a work? Since I can’t stand next to it and talk about it, what if I made it super obvious?” So, I took everything I learned and put it into this super simple work that was about being ultra clear. I was doing shows and I was changing the commercial work I was doing to be that same type of work.
Q: How do you approach working on so many different projects?
A: I’m a non-problem-solver. That was kind of my trick years ago. People would say, “This is our problem.” But I would ignore it. I would just listen to them and think, “No, your real problem is . . .”
My friend wrote a movie and his process was a mystery; I’m like, “How do you tie it all together?” And he said, “Well, I just invented the problem, then I answered it.” So I used that in design. I was like, “I’ll invent the problem.”
So if a client says, “We’re a corporation, and we’re not connecting with our consumer.” Then I’ll say, “Well here’s this thing that I made, and it’s about this.” And I’ll tell them, “When you’re explaining things, you don’t have to explain things. You need to entertain and this is all about you as an entertainer.”
I think now I’m in the place where that’s obvious in the work. I’m never answering anything except the things I’m asking. The complexity of that is that I always have to invent these projects and decide what they’ll be, and the rigor of them.
Q: Where do you draw your inspiration?
A: My interest in non-art life is really important to me, and what I make grows out of my influences. Someone could say, “Oh, you’re a phenomenologist.” I do believe that what I make is a phenomenon of experience in my life.
When I sit on the beach and draw a picture of my wife in her bathing suit and it becomes a whole body of work, that reinforces this idea of sitting and drawing on the beach. So then when I go to the beach, I’m like, “Maybe I should draw.”
If you agree that the unexpected is to be the thing that is needed, then the whole picture of your life becomes as important as the time spent in the studio painting or drawing.
Q: How does L.A. influence your work?
A: All my interests have always been West. The start of everything I was ever into basically came from within 100 square miles of L.A. It’s cool that that stuff is still here and I’m a product of it. I’m also adding to it, participating in that history in some ways.
Q: What are the challenges in your current mural project?
A: The difficulty with things like that is it has been years. If I just walked in and did it, then it would be better than the years and years and years of engineers and proposals and city approvals. I’m trying to keep it alive, as opposed to my drawings, which are full of life.
It’s hard to draw a line that’s not wiggly. So when you say that wiggles are life, and only humans wiggle, then it’s built into drawing. I’m looking into things that look like someone made them, so the wiggle helps me. When you try to fake the wiggle or take the wiggles out, it’s super hard.
Q: So how do you keep the designs fresh?
A: I’m redrawing the whole thing, and this is five years in. So, I realized I have to do the designs really small. I was working on large scale, but then I thought, “No, I just have to treat these like postage stamps to try to bring it back down.” I have to take some steam out of it after making so many versions of it.
The willingness to throw things away relates back to drawing. With drawing, you do it in a second, so you throw it away, and you go through ten drawings and there’s no consequence to it. Each one happens very quickly, but each one has the potential to be all you need.