MEET CHICAGO ARTIST JEREMIAH KETNER!
The beauty of having the Threadless headquarters in an enormous warehouse? Somehow we can almost always discover another patch of bare wall that could use an upgrade. When a spot in the atrium became noticeably boring and uninspired, we called in local artist Jeremiah Ketner, otherwise known as Smallaround, to treat the white wall to something special. Calling on his love for mythical sprites, mermaids, and Lake Michigan, he transformed the space into an aquatic escape under the sea. Read on to learn more about Ketner, what inspires his work, and his affection for Japanese toilets below!
Jeremiah’s finished piece in the Threadless atrium!
Where are you from originally and how did your childhood influence the art you do today?
I was born and raised in the Quad Cities, specifically Moline, IL. We lived in a small house on a bluff a few miles from the Mississippi River. There were plenty of forests, valleys, and creeks to play in, but from early on in my childhood all I wanted to do was draw. I spent hours creating comic books and sold copies to my friends at school. In fifth grade, I started getting serious about creating comics and ended up getting my work published weekly in the QC Times. Shortly after that time I was introduced to oil painting and started taking private lessons. I fell in love with painting and over time, my work has been influenced by my love for making comics and passion for painting. I would say that both mediums coincide on some level with the artwork I’m creating now.
What draws you towards painting mythical sprites or fairies?
I started making stickers of little tear-dropped sprites when I moved to Chicago in 2000. I was inspired by the paste ups and stickers plastered everywhere in the city. The characters started to evolve and became a focal point of my paintings, and eventually I created worlds that only they could exist in. I love creating my own worlds. I want to create a place for the viewer to get lost in; transporting them into an alternative state of mind free of criticism from the outside world.
What materials do you use to create your art?
Currently I paint with acrylics on wood panels. I was classically trained using oils, but after painting with them for several years, I find acrylics equally rewarding. When I’m at the art store, I’ll pick up colors I have never used before and try to incorporate them into my paintings. When I was in art school, I made it a point to explore every medium possible. I would say my favorite mediums are watercolor, acrylics, and pencil on paper. I keep a sketchbook on me wherever I go. You never know when that next big idea will strike.
I saw that you recently painted a wall at Nettelhorst School, the same school your sons attend. What was it like to leave your work on your sons’ school where they’ll see it every day?
The school is covered with murals throughout the halls, classrooms, and outside doors. They also have sailboats from Belmont Harbor in the halls and other really cool installation art created by parents and local artists. That was a big draw for me, and I wanted to carry on the tradition of making the school more inviting and influential for kids. This summer I asked a few of my favorite artist’s friends, Chema Skandal and J.C. Rivera, to create murals on the outside walls of Nettelhorst and they did a fantastic job - well beyond what I expected. The school is located on Broadway and Melrose if you would like to check them out.
Jeremiah’s mural outside of Nettelhorst School in Chicago (Image courtesy of smallandaround)
How has family played a role in your artistic ambitions?
My family has always been supportive of what I do, and in return, I try and to do something creative with my kids everyday. Plus, it’s really cool to play with Lego’s again. My dad is also an artist, who created several large scale memorials sculptures for police and fire departments. He runs a business making really cool sculpted motorcycle parts. So I guess you can say the artistic side runs deep in the family.
I read that you often travel to Japan, why is Japan so influential for you?
I instantly fell in love with Japanese culture the first time my girlfriend (now wife) brought me out to Tokyo. Aesthetics and presentation play an important role in the culture. Every aspect of design is carefully thought out. I remember getting into a taxi one day and the driver had his own branded sticker packs with cute characters for riders. Almost everything has a cute edge to it; even the toilets are kind of cute. We travel to Japan about once a year to visit family and I often find myself exploring new cities and discovering new aspects of the culture that later emerges in my art.
A recent work by Jeremiah, called “Panda Naps” (Image courtesy of smallandaround)
How did you hear about Threadless?
I have been a long time fan of Threadless and discovered it from a friend who was submitting designs. The retail store was a few blocks from my house. I would stop in every Friday and buy the latest designs before they went online.
What inspired the piece that you did on the Threadless wall?
Chicago has one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, and as a tribute, I created an aquatic theme. As a city dweller, it’s easy to overlook such a fantastic resource right at our doorstep. I’m also a big fan of mermaids, so I had to include one with the fishes. Overall I wanted to create something vibrant and colorful that would reflect the creative energy of the Threadless HQ atrium.
Jeremiah’s Threadless piece begins to take shape (Image courtesy of smallandaround)
Why do you think your art fits so well with the Threadless style?
There are so many talented artists that make up the Threadless style. I was absolutely thrilled to be invited to make a mural for Threadless. I think my use of color and characters make a good match.
What has a formal art education done for you?
It gave me a taste for all types of disciplines. That’s what I enjoyed most about going to art school. If I wanted to learn how to blow glass, cast bronze, or weld something, I had those options and I definitely took advantage of the facilities. When I was studying at Columbus College of Art & Design, I fell in love with printmaking. I went on to teach various printmaking classes in graduate school. I’m glad I had that opportunity to explore new methods of making art. Without school, I would have probably discovered it eventually, but not with as much intensity. Art school also helped me develop a consistent body of work with an underlying concept. I think the thing I learned most was how talk about my art and have an openness to constructive critique.
How would you say your art has evolved over the years?
It has changed drastically from where I started fresh out of art school to what I am doing now. You only notice these changes until you look back at 15 or so years. I’m happy with the direction it’s going now and I’m always pushing myself to go further with my work.
Your Facebook page says you began in 2001, shortly before the social media boom. How has social media changed the street art industry?
I really began working with galleries and showing my work professionally in 2000 after graduate school when I moved to Chicago. Things picked up in 2004 when I started getting invites for solo shows and group shows from galleries in Seattle, LA, NYC,Texas, and beyond. I would attribute my out of town shows to being more active online, pushing my work on social media sites like Flickr and Myspace. This was before the glory days of Twitter and Facebook, mind you. Now social media has allowed artists to bypass the gallery and instantly curate their work for a large audience. I love how it’s progressed. I follow a great deal of artists; I think it’s really great that you can keep up with your peers and get inspired just by glancing through any social media stream.
What’s next for Smallandround?
I keep a busy show schedule throughout the year and will be participating in a handful of group shows this fall. I’m also going to have new work at Disney’s Wonderground Gallery at downtown Disneyland in California this spring. I have been showing with them for a few years now and it’s truly a unique experience creating my own take on Disney’s classic characters. I’m also heading to New York Comic Con this October and will have new releases, custom toys, and prints at the con. There’s also this really cool convention this November in Pasadena, CA called Designer Con. It’s more fine-tuned for artists who make designer toys, apparel, urban pop art, and fine art. This year, I will have my own booth and plan on having lots of new merchandise along with original custom toys and some surprises.