Festival / Illustration

Adam J. Kurtz— Exactly Who You Imagine Him To Be

We speak to Adam J. Kurtz, the Brooklyn-based writer and graphic designer who will be speaking at the inaugural edition of Design Fabric Festival.

By Rohini Kejriwal on 16 February

  • Adam2 Photo By Rohini Kejriwal

Adam J Kurtz | Photo credit: Rohini Kejriwal

We’re thrilled to announce one of our first speakers for the upcoming Design Fabric Festival. He’s been on our wishlist for a long time, and he’s coming to Mumbai to share insight on his process, journey as an artist, and how he tackles everyday challenges; be it fighting copycats on the Internet or overcoming writer’s block.

Meet Adam J. Kurtz, the artist who has made a career out of his relatable, witty and often hilarious drawings and words. He has written and published two interactive, inspiring journals - 1 Page at a Time and Pick Me Up, keeps producing his own range of playful stationery, and leads a most interesting life.

How does it feel coming to India?

It’s my first visit to India and I'm really excited to learn about the local design culture, and the local culture in general. I'm coming in with fresh eyes and cannot wait to be inspired as I share a bit of my own personal journey as a creative person whose hobby gradually grew into a career through hard work, love, and a little bit of luck. I'm not sure of the dates but I plan to add a few days to my trip so there's time to explore and enjoy more outside of the conference.

By the way, Congratulations! You’re a married man now! Is Mitchell Kuga your muse? Also, has the studio space changed with the two of you living together?

Meeting Mitchell changed my worldview in a few ways, but most significantly it helped me recognize true love in the world. He's from a completely different culture, and his personality and nature are nearly my opposite. I've learned to be a more compassionate and understanding person through our years together, and it's very special to spend so much time with another creative mind, albeit in a different form (he's a journalist and writer).

Sharing a workspace with someone who you both love teaches you to expect the needs of another, offering space, or assistance in small or more deliberate ways. Since being married, not too much has changed, because our love has never been dependent on the government's permission or stamp of approval. But we have the peace of mind that all married couples have, knowing that we can now make legal decisions on behalf of each other, taking care of our shared and individual needs no matter what life might throw at us. It's odd to consider that some think of our relationship as radical or even offensive when to us, it's just two idiots in love, like anyone else who finds their person in the world and seeks to build a life together.

  • Adam And Mitchell Photo Credit To Ryan Pfluger

Adam J Kurtz And Mitchell Kuga | Photo Credit: Ryan Pfluger

When it comes to your work, do you see yourself as a writer or an artist?

Technically, the combination of text and art makes me a graphic designer, not a fine artist. But I started using the word ‘artist’ because it encapsulates the design that I do, which includes making products, weird projects, and the element of writing. If you boil all that shit down, it makes an artist. If I were to explain to my grandmother that I’m a graphic designer, she’d just ask ‘What’s that?’ So ‘artist’ is just easier to digest. That seems to work for most people.

How did you become the artist that you are today?

It was just a good mistake. When I was in college, I worked at a photocopy centre and as a graphic designer, I started making zines and printing postcards at home. In 2011, I self-published a little yellow calendar with words and doodles. I funded on Kickstarter because every time someone sees it there, it seems more legitimate. An editor from Penguin saw the project there and appreciated the fact that it had drawing pages and interactive elements and so she emailed me in January, 2013 and asked to meet for coffee. I was very scared but she believed in the concept and it turned into 1 Page At A Time. Having a book written by you out in the world is a very big confidence boost!

Were you not confident about your work before that?

I’m a deeply insecure person. But when the book came out, I was more conscious of career decisions like trying to value my work better. I’m still struggling with that - it’s so difficult because when someone wants to work with you, they offer you a certain amount of money and you know you’re worth more but it’s hard to say that. And you worry that if I ask for more money, they’ll say they don’t want to work with you anymore. So it’s a constant dance of how to stick up for myself and set limits. People always say ‘Ask for more than you think. You’ll be surprised’. It’s worked sometimes but I think it works better for different industries. Like in advertising, there’s more money to go around, so you can get away with it.

  • Cover 1 Page At A Time
  • Myownpages Pg127
  • Myownpages Pg54
  • Myownpages Pg161

1 Page At A Time by Adam J Kurtz

What do you look for in potential collaborations?

People sometimes reach out for freelance work and I’ll say yes if they want me to be myself, if they pay me well, if they care about the work and aren’t just a big brand wanting “a weird dude from Brooklyn’s cool factor”. If someone wants ‘the Adam thing’ and ‘in collaboration with’, I’m more likely to do that because it’s fun! I question the motive behind why people want to work together. Sometimes, I just make weird things that I like because they don’t even care what I make as long as it’s promoting them. But more often than not, the brand is receptive to my style.

A lot of your work involves sharing your process and giving advice on creativity/process. How did you arrive at that being your voice?

I didn’t know that that was going to happen. I’m 29. I didn’t mean to be an advice giver. It isn’t even advice on say, how to manage clients; it’s advice on how to manage yourself and your brain. I’m not an expert. I’m figuring it out, it’s ongoing - I haven’t reached enlightenment at all. Sometimes, I have to re-read my own advice because I forget or get stressed out. It’s similar to making a zine - when you write something down, it becomes real and then making a book out of it makes it even more real because it exists in a tangible form.

Tell me about your zine-making days.

During my days working at a photocopy centre, I’d make zines that cost $1 because I just wanted to get my work out there in a different format. Initially, making zines feels really scary until you remember that it’s just papers stapled together to make a book! It’s what you do with it that matters - for some people, zines are like magazines and it becomes a beautiful object; for others, it’s literally just a lo-fi, cheap, DIY zine.

What’s great is that anyone can make anything real and semi-permanent. It might be shit but it still gets to exist. My whole career is an example of that. Who is to say I’m not good enough? People like my worst shit and say ‘This means so much to me’ and I say ‘This is garbage’.

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Things Are What You Make Of Them: Life Advice For Creatives by Adam J Kurtz

Having a playful approach to your art and not letting your life depend on it seems like a good way to live. Isn’t it?

Yes, but you can’t always tell people what to do. I acknowledge that it’s a luxury and privilege to just goof around. But I also remember working very hard and doing boring freelance jobs because I needed money to pay rent. A lot of creative advice givers say “You should fail all the time” but I can’t afford that! That’s a luxury.

Still, I appreciate what they really mean, which is ‘Don’t be afraid to fail’, which is not the same thing. Maybe that’s something else about what I do - it’s often not that subtle because people like me who are very stupid need to just be told “Calm down” and not to dress it up with metaphors because that already exists. We need to be yelled at in a nice way. To have it broken down for us. A lot of the things I write is just me giving myself advice and then sharing it with others. I’m not making smart art.

Your thoughts on the Nature versus Nurture debate?

Certain people are predisposed to certain things. Obviously, there’s also physicality and genes which are hereditary. DNA is real. But it’s also very much about practice and craft. We all know how to type on a computer but it’s not like we all know how to write a brilliant novel. Two different people can have the same kernel of an idea but it invariably materialises differently. If one person has never written before and another has been reading and writing for ten years, that’s not nature, that’s nurture.

But there’s so many factors - Do you have the privilege to go to the school that fosters what you’re interested in? Were you born to a life that enables you to follow your heart rather than work? Some people are brilliant but they work three jobs or there’s a kid or family member to be looked after. If you think about it too hard, you’ll drive yourself crazy. Things can always change, so it’s hard to say.

  • Book With Rainbow Pages

Pages from Things Are What You Make Of Them: Life Advice For Creatives by Adam J Kurtz

In a time when social media is taking over our lives and oversharing is the norm, do you feel the need to put out every thought you’re having? Do you have a filter?

For me, writing things down and turning them into a visual image is me filtering - it forces me to slow down and decide exactly which part to share. I’m not hiding behind it but it’s a helpful practice as opposed to tweeting about it as it happens because a) You may say something you didn’t mean to say and b) Often, an idea can come out of that strong emotion but you give it away without polishing it. I’ve been on the Internet a long time. And I learnt long before Instagram came in to hold on to stuff and make something out of it rather than just putting it out because then you’ve lost your chance at presenting it in a more exciting way or to give it the room it deserves to breathe.

While the Internet is one canvas for you, what’s the physical space of your studio like?

I work from home. One bedroom is a nice size and the other’s a closet. I have my computer and scanner. Most of the work that I do is on pencil for now, so I scan it and clean it up. It’s a very simple process. I also have some art supplies that I never use. In fact, I have too much stuff that I don’t even use anymore. I have a film camera, digital camera, and other things that I’m interested in but don’t use as much anymore. When I was starting off, I was doing combinations of text and image, handwritten words, doodles. But it’s weird to me that I’ve settled into a style because it’s not the full extent of what I can do. Now, it’s like I’ve been pigeonholed into it.

  • Spread Photos 02

A spread from Pick Me Up by Adam J Kurtz

So why do it?

Because it’s still fun to me. I don’t always consider it my work. A lot of what I put on the Internet is just a sketch. Like when I write something funny on a coloured background but don’t find it necessary to publish it in a book. It’s just an idea; like a Tweet. Maybe it evolves into something else eventually. Also, I don’t always know what I’m doing and don’t think too hard about it.

Right. Talking about your style, your handwriting is a crucial aspect of your work. Do you personally like your own handwriting or is it an artistic tool you employ?

I think it’s important for the sort of thing that I’m saying to give that extra layer of emotional honesty in this recognisable handwriting. That’s essentially my voice online. There’s a little affectation and it’s more stylised online than it is in real life, but I intentionally keep it raw. If I say ‘Cheer the fuck up’ in pristine type, it’s rude. It’s a totally different thing when it’s said in a relatable handwriting.

But a lot of people online seem to be attempting a similar style. Are there rip-off artists you have to deal with?

None of us are doing anything that’s groundbreaking or a brand new concept. It’s not shocking that two or even ten people in the entire world would have a similar outlook or handwriting. So I try not to get too hung up on it. In the last two years, I’ve definitely seen more copycats where I say “I recognise your name. You’ve been following me for five years and now you’re doing something way too similar to me”. But it’s petty to do anything about it. The whole line is blurry.

That sucks. How does that feel?

It feels shitty. But there’s really nothing you can do about it. Even when it comes to legitimate intellectual property theft, you can’t do much. A bunch of friends and I started a lawsuit against Zara by making Shop Zara’s Art Theft Collection but nothing has happened and it’s been a while since they copied my work “allegedly”. I’m just one stupid guy. It would cost them nothing to collaborate or do a branded collection with me. It would be cheaper and great PR for them. But even in those big cases where there’s a legal case, resolution is impossible.

  • Sorry Balloon Inflated
  • Adam Jkurtz X Michelle Branch
  • Feelings Combo
  • Books Postcardbook

Products by Adam J Kurtz

I’m sorry that that’s how the world works.

It’s okay. I just have to keep making new stuff, you know what I mean? I try to focus on the good, which is the audience that actually enjoy my work. I started off with 1000 followers on Tumblr and now, the numbers are crazy across social media. It’s very flattering and validating, and those are the people who care! I used to want to convince people that I was cool or understood art but I’ve let that go.

What role does ego play in your work and process?

It takes a certain amount of ego to make work about your life and experiences and share it. But I really try to balance that by being self-deprecating and honest. I hate how on Instagram, people write five paragraphs about ‘I was looking at the sun today and was struck by the beauty of humanity’. Go fuck yourself. But sometimes I’m sharing something I’m excited about and it’s okay to be proud of your work and speak about it in a manner that represents that feeling. I try not to be an asshole.

Do you need therapy since your work is so real and personal?

I have a lot of demons. It’s like the joke about how therapists have therapists. Anyone who spends so much time thinking about their feelings is going to find things that they need to process. I’ve always been very open to talk about myself with friends and family. My husband is Japanese and culturally, they don’t talk about their feelings the same way as my family does. My family is Jewish and they will tell you exactly what they’re thinking. Some cultures are just very private; some are very open and loud.

  • Unsolicited Advice 2017 Pink
  • Spreads Mountain

Unsolicited Advice 2018 by Adam J Kurt

I think you and your work in general is quite loud.

Yes, it’s all about “Hey, this is how I feel today!” I realize that that’s a value because sometimes, I say what other people are thinking but don’t know how to say. My two journals - Pick Me Up and 1 Page At A Time are communication tools. Last year, I made a postcard book with stickers of feelings to tell people how you’re feeling, which is literally called What I’m Trying To Say To You. It has some obscure feelings that are hard to put to words and that’s the most literal understanding of what my work is. I was very surprised that the publisher let me do that. A card is meant to do that. So for example, there’s one for a birthday on the lines of ‘I can’t believe we’re both still alive’. It’s things at its simplest because after all, a birthday is a celebration that you’re not dead!

What’s the alternative life that young Adam Kurtz had envisioned?

What I actually do now is very similar to what I did as a kid, which is shitty drawings. I thought I’d be a more traditional graphic designer. Maybe in a few years, I’ll decide to go back to advertising. If you know me and have followed me for a few years, you’d see that I’ve evolved. But I live in New York. No one gives a fuck. I’m pretty much nobody. Even people who are objectively more famous than me are still nobodies. People are famous or micro-famous for nothing now, and that’s valid. If everything matters, then nothing matters. I think it’s better that way. It would be a lot of pressure to be legitimately famous.

Last one. Whose work are you a fan of?

Nathaniel Russell does very simple prints and illustrated works. I have four of his prints, that’s embarrassing. We met for coffee when he was in New York. I emailed him and took him for breakfast at 8.30 am. He was very sweet and generous with his time. He was just cool - living life, no big deal, just a person. That’s very inspirational for me - just be a person. But I also understand why people sometimes chase a certain type of celebrity personality. I’m trying to let go of that and just being the weird, gay dude who has his own life. That’s a personality too but it’s closer to who I am in real life. This is who I am!

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