Poster Club: Caleb Williamson

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I love patterns. In art and life, I’m always looking for them. A beautiful pattern has emerged from my recent conversations with artists. It has nothing to do with artistic style or the shared music from which they draw inspiration for their work. It’s simple, really.

They’re good people, and they all attribute their success in large part to the help, encouragement, and guidance of their fellow artists and peers. In a world where most people are focused on #1, reaching the top no matter who you might have to climb over or leave behind, this community of artists is different. In fact, it was a phone call from another friend and artist– telling Caleb Williamson it was time to really put his work out there– that things took off.

An Interview With Caleb Williamson

Tour Stories: How did you get into doing artwork for music?

Caleb: Going to a lot of shows, loving live music, and certainly enjoying the parking lot, too. And seeing so many people walking around selling posters, it was inspiring. You see [that going on] and think, “I’ve got all these great drawings, if I put a date and a venue on this [I’ve got a print], let’s go to a show and sell these.” So I started doing that, and mostly digital prints, nothing silk screened yet. And I would print out 20 of them and go to a show. Phish in Worcester [Massachusetts] in 2012 [was the] first time I ever went with posters. … Even if I didn’t make a lot of sales, it was still really fun. Everyone was so excited about it! So that was [gratifying], but it was still unofficial work. [I had to] keep it copyright free, play by the generous rules of the band–

Tour Stories: Band name and official logos have to stay out, but otherwise have at it? How does that work for people who don’t know?

Caleb: Phish, especially, is really generous with their copyright policy and letting fans get creative.  And it’s actually a fun challenge to keep things copyright free.  But then, to have actually the joy and honor to put a band name on your pieces, that [is special]. [That] was when things really shifted for me.

Tour Stories: What is the first official band or gig print you did?

Caleb: The first official [request that came in] was a Spafford poster, [their] Jacksonville, in early 2018.  … That gig came in and then about a week later people from Pigeons Playing Ping Pong reached out, then Twiddle! So it kind of snowballed really quickly. I was working on all three of these posters at the same time and it kind of swept me up [in] a whirl wind.

Tour Stories: What do you think prompted the sudden influx of requests? Do you have insight as to how things took off like that?

Caleb: I took a year where I focused less on producing finished work and started working on filling up sketch books. And that’s kind of when I started having a presence on Instagram and really became more confident about posting my stuff online. I think a lot of these bands have art directors and the [musicians] in the bands themselves, they’re checking out what people are doing as far as fan art goes … So I was doing these time-lapse water-color pieces. And [was] told by Jon Rose, who works with Spafford … that [those time lapse videos are] what caught his eye. And he said, “I think you’re ready”.

Tour Stories: That’s quite an endorsement!

Caleb: Exactly! And that’s the other thing. A lot of the people who make posters, some who are legends, they’re all super supportive. And like I said, this all sort of caught me off guard. Luckily, there are people who have gone through a similar situation that are able to be amazing resources [to me].

Tour Stories: It seems social media also goes a long way for bands, artists and their respective fans. Do you keep up with the print groups online?

Caleb: Oh yea, almost too much. When I open up social media, all I see are posters and poster art. And there are people out there, collecting rabidly–

Tour Stories: (Guilty.)

Caleb: … They’re really keeping an eye out for young or emerging artists like myself. And it’s amazing to have people who are already collecting my stuff and little portfolios just for my work. That [feels] incredible.

Tour Stories: Does it ever make you feel pressured, the increase in eyeballs and exposure?

Caleb: Absolutely. But I actually attribute [that to helping] develop my style. If you look back to some of my early fan art, there are a lot of artists like David Welker and Spusta.  And it was often hearing feedback that says, this is really cool but it looks a lot like –this, or a lot like –that artist, that really pushed me to create my own style or my own look. I love the feedback. And bringing more eyes to it brings a lot more focus to my process. … Those time lapse videos, too. To watch yourself, to watch how you create, it’s almost an out of body experience. And that helped me develop, as well.

Tour Stories: I love watching those. You make the movements look so fast and fluid, almost easy! Is there any tracing involved or is it all on the fly?

Caleb: There are certainly ones where I’m tracing very, very light lines. But improvisation is a huge part of my work. Inspired of course by my love of improvisational music, also improvisational comedy, as well! I love the feeling of not knowing where something is going to take you, and that’s a really fun aspect of the work. So often as an artist, some of your best pieces of work are done on scrap pieces of paper or napkins when there isn’t that pressure of a blank white page. And it was that– I keep calling it a sketch book year, I think I filled about 3 full sketch books in a 12 month period– and improvising on those is so much easier because you have this idea of, if this doesn’t work on one page, you can re-visit it on the next; it didn’t work -there, but if I make this adjustment –here. [And] you can see this progression, it starts off as an improvised idea, and then it’s refined, [refined, and eventually ends up on a poster]. That’s a fun aspect [of the work] that really keeps me engaged.

Tour Stories: I’m thinking it’s time to start carrying around a sketch book myself.

Caleb: Start off with a pocket size! That’s the way to go. … When you’re waiting for something, do that instead of your phone. Pull out the sketch book for 5 minutes. When I’m on breaks at my day job, that’s usually what I’m doing.

Tour Stories: Are there bands you grew up listening to that you get to work with now?

Caleb: The one that really sticks out for me is [working with] the Disco Biscuits. [In] high school, growing up in the Northeast, I caught the Disco Biscuits quite often. [Getting to do an official print for them] was really fun for me. It’s an honor to get to do work for bands that I’ve seen dozens of times.

Tour Stories: What kind of direction do the bands give, if any?

Caleb: The first few times you work with a band they’ve got a pretty clear idea of what they want. … A lot ofthings are city specific. [If] they’re doing shows in Providence or Maine, they want sort of aquatic themes, these are shipping towns or seaport towns—or [for] a festival they usually want kind of more of a circus vibe. But … once I developed a style more, people were able to recognize that and say, “work within that style you’re comfortable in, we know what you can do, go crazy with it”. [That’s] the best feeling in the world.

Tour Stories: So when you’re looking for inspiration, do you throw on the band’s record, a live recording, or head to the show?

Caleb: [I] listen to the tone of the music, and the lyrics. You piece together what you see in your head when you listen to it. And you try to emulate that as much as possible. You know some bands are really quirky, or some push darker material and you get to work with more sinister looking things. … And getting to kind of relish in not just the specific imagery from the band but more of the overall feel that their music brings.

Tour Stories: Earlier you mentioned an appreciation for not just improvisation in music or art but also comedy, and I feel like you bring that to your artwork. I see some humor, cartoonish aspects, silliness and characters in your work. 

Caleb: Absolutely. And I want to build on that, create a world. What I want people to experience in my artwork is getting delightfully lost in it. In the same way as when you were a kid and could get lost in a Where’s Waldo book. You see this huge world and when you zoom in on specific spots, these characters that were filling this world, there was usually something funny happening. … And I think with bands like, Phish for example, a lot of their stuff is a joke that they take very seriously. Playing pranks on the audience. There is a sense of humor to a lot of these bands. And I’m a huge comedy nerd, and improv comedy in particular, I love.  

Tour Stories: Do you do any acting yourself?

Caleb: I have been involved in an improv group in Savanah, Georgia called Front Porch Improv. It’s too bad I’ve been less active with them, mainly because of this wonderful job that’s sprung up with posters … there’s only so much free time in every day. And luckily I also have a wonderfully patient wife, who is also an artist. And you know, late nights with these posters takes up some of your free time. But yeah I do like to be on the stage, too.

Tour Stories: Do you share a studio space, or have space in your home for that? 

Caleb: We’ve turned our home into a working studio. And having art supplies always accessible is something that I think is really important and [conducive] to a creative home. You know, not having to prep your space can really just launch you into the creative space that you need to be in. Kind of the idea behind having the pocket sketch book – it’s always right there.

Tour Stories: Do you ever get stuck, finding inspiration or fresh ideas?

Caleb: It happens all the time. But that’s where the improvisation process [comes in]. I might pull out a piece of scrap paper and start drawing without worrying about what’s on the page. And then, suddenly, all of it might be garbage except for this wonderful top bit in the upper right corner of the page. So you turn a new page, and start with that part. And suddenly you have a new idea [to build on]. What happens a lot too, when I’m not working on specific designs or things that I’ve been commissioned to do, is start working on ideas that might make a good poster down the line, leave a post blank on the top. Because sometimes these gigs pop up and a band needs something on a really tight deadline … So banking ideas, saving them for a project down the line, I’m always trying to do that.  I’ve always got something in the works. Summer tours and summer festivals are right around the corner so I’ve got a full plate right now which I’m really happy about.

Tour Stories: We love the official prints you’ve done so far. Do you have a wish list for bands you hope to work with in the future, officially?

Caleb: Ween and They Might Be Giants. Two more bands that bring humor to music, but take the joke very seriously. … But the wish list, yeah I’d be open to just about anything.

Tour Stories: What other artists in or out of the music/art scene do you follow?

Caleb: Well obviously David Welker is a legend in the scene, and he’s what really got me super interested in gig prints. … [And] someone outside of the poster world … Jim Woodring. He’s a wonderful illustrator whose line weight really changed the way that I work.

… But I also just love the young artists in the scene. [And] I love seeing how people are challenging themselves. But also working with each other, too. There’s this wonderful sense of comradery. People that I’ve worked with, or people that have reached out and helped me over time—people like Owen Murphy, Brian Bojo, and John Warner. I love the work that they put out and how supportive they all are. … recently, a friend reached out to me with a draft of their project and said, “hey I’m worried that this looks a little bit too much like one of your drawings, what do you think? … So there’s even the sense of, I don’t want to step on your toes. And you can really bounce ideas off people without worrying about that. And even at shows, you can set up a table together on Shakedown Street and you’re not worried about [whose poster] anyone is going to buy. It’s just really fun and we get to do this for work.

Tour Stories: Can you tell me more about that first Phish show where you sold your prints on lot?

Caleb: I went to Staples and printed out twenty of them, they were 11” x 17” prints. And this was June (I think) in Worcester, so there’s not really a lot there. It’s a bunch of parking garages, and they set up a little of Shakedown but nothing like the larger summer venues. But I had a friend with me, and I bought one of those Itoya Portfolio clear sleeves and filled it up with posters and walked around with it—and that’s the same thing I did 2 summers ago, as well, so that hasn’t really evolved much over time. But yeah just walking around with this thing and just kind of yelling out, “one for fifteen or two for twenty!” And tons of people just got a good look at it. Even if it was people who were pretty intoxicated, I was still getting all sorts of wonderful feedback on my work.

Tour Stories: HAHA!

Caleb: So it was a two night run, and I sold all twenty on my first night, so I came back with twenty more the next night. [It] was such a fulfilling feeling to go to a show and have a different experience. You get a sense of—even just doing it for two nights—people who really go on tour and do this, [what that’s like]. At one point I remember standing in the garage at the end of the show and people rolling down their windows and getting a poster on their way out—just super fun.

We couldn’t agree more! The artist also told us he’s working on a special unofficial Phish Summer Tour 2019 print so we’ll be looking for him on the lot … or in the parking garage! You can follow Caleb’s work on Instagram, @calebsartwork.

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