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Stories

 

 

Filtering by Category: Design

The Unexpected Outcome of Googling Yourself (and Other Adventures in Modern Technology)

Bree McKenna

By Bree McKenna  |   Illustrations by Leah Roszkowski
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A few years ago, a concert alert arrived in my email. It said Tacocat was coming to the Empty Bottle in Chicago.

This is standard inbox activity, since I get alerts like this all the time. This one, though, was different. Tacocat is a Seattle pop-punk band with quirky lyrics and a bassist named Bree McKenna. That's my name, which makes her my name twin.

In my world, she is the other Bree McKenna. 

Oddly enough, a few months earlier, I actually had reached out to her. After Googling myself and finding out another one of us existed—someone who's way cooler than me, it appeared—I had emailed her, via her band’s website. I wanted to see if she had ever Googled herself and found me—or if this was simply one-way curiosity on my part.

I never heard back.

But now her band Tacocat was coming to Chicago. Here was my chance. It sounded stalker-y, I admit, but I decided to go to the show, introduce myself and see what happened. I was on a mission.

Middleouest_mag_BreeMcKenna_Tacocat_v2.jpg
 

When the day arrived, I dragged two friends to the show. It was energetic and great. Bree was up on stage, rocking the bass guitar like only a badass lady musician can. During the last song, I beelined it to the side door where I had a chance of meeting the band and introducing myself. 

I was more than prepared for a blasé reaction. An, "Uh, oh, hey." Or a "Cool, nice to meet you." I was sure our meeting would fall short of the dramatic buildup I had constructed in my mind.

I wasn't going to let that stop me.

Bree was there, to the left of the main stage. I walked up to her and said, "Are you Bree? Bree McKenna?" She nodded yes. I responded earnestly, with my hand on my chest, "I'm Bree McKenna.” And then I waited nervously for her to respond.

Middleouest_Mag_BreeMcKenna_doc_martens.jpg
 

I GREW UP WITH AN UNCOMMON NAME. Not long after my parents found out they were expecting a second child, they went to see the 1971 film Klute. In it, Jane Fonda portrays a prostitute named Bree Daniels who gets involved in a police investigation of a missing executive. If you’re connecting the dots right now, yes, I was named after a prostitute. My parents didn't share that detail with me until I was older. 

At the time, Bree wasn't in the realm of normal names. Nothing had my name on it. As a child, I longed to buy one of those cheesy personalized bike license plates when we vacationed in Florida. Or a key chain with my name on it even though I had no keys. Thank God for a custom nameplate necklace my Godmother gave me as a gift. I still cherish it to this day. 

As I grew up, I encountered a few other Brees but never another Bree McKenna. Mine was a truly original name . . . or so I thought.

Then one day, I Googled myself and discovered another Bree McKenna.

If you've ever Googled yourself, perhaps you understand how it feels to stumble upon your doppelganger and be hit with the feeling that, well, your doppelganger is way cooler than you. Maybe it's because I've always loved music and am quite the rock star in my own mind, even though I’ve always lacked any real musical talent. In the artists I've always appreciated most—the Breeders and Juliana Hatfield when I was younger, and more recent favorites such as Waxahatchee, Courtney Barnett and Bully—I could always see my alter ego: the badass chick who doesn't give a fuck.

In reality, though, I always have given way too many fucks. In high school, I toed the line between arty and mainstream, balancing my Doc Martens and Kool-Aid dyed hair with good grades and lots of sports. Even now, I'm pretty much the same. So when I looked at the Google images of the other Bree McKenna, I saw a rock star. So she had reddish hair and bangs, like me. But she had an edge.

Middleouest_mag_BreeMcKenna_empty_bottle_v2.jpg
 

STANDING AT THE SHOW, MY INTRODUCTION HUNG IN THE AIR. Then her eyes widened with excitement and she yelled out to her bandmates: "Hey, guys! It's the other, more successful, Bree McKenna!"

I was in shock.

"What? No! You're the cooler Bree McKenna!" I protested.

She admitted she had gotten my emails but didn't write back. She had “so many feelings” about it, she said. Then she told me to wait while she ran back on stage with the rest of the band for the encore. There, she grabbed the mic and shouted, "This goes out to the other Bree McKenna that's here tonight.” Beaming, I cheered and woo-hoo’d. I did not expect that reaction. At all.

After the show officially ended, we chatted some more. She told me that she, too, had been Googling me for years. She thought some of her former art school classmates might have mistaken the two of us. I introduced her to my friends and we snapped a picture together. Then the night was over.

Middleoust_Mag_BreeMcKenna_insta_post.jpg
 

SINCE THEN, I'VE PLAYED THE NIGHT OVER IN MY HEAD. I think that's because the whole idea of another “me” out there in the world is weird. We spend so much time—our whole lives really—being in the bubble of our own minds. We know our own hang-ups, worries, strengths and desires, and we measure ourselves in certain terms, eager to be a little more one way and little less another. We believe that if we were just a bit more “fill-in-the-blank,” we would be more interesting and appealing.

And then there she is, a twin in name, filling in those gaps. As I write this in a Starbucks, I even consider how the other Bree McKenna would probably have chosen an independent coffee shop to work. Here I am again: mainstream, pedestrian.

THEN RECENTLY, I RECEIVED AN IPHONE ALERT FROM VENMO, one of those payment apps where you can easily send money to people. Someone was sending me money. The note attached simply said, “Christmas Trip.”

The name attached to it wasn’t familiar, so I wrote the sender, telling her she'd sent money to the wrong person. She messaged me back, explaining that she was trying to send money to her daughter. Her daughter shared my name and even resembled me in her small profile picture.

I asked: “Your daughter isn’t from Seattle and in a rock band, is she?”

The answer: “Yes, she’s in a band called Tacocat. How did you know?”

I told her to say "hi" to Bree for me.

I’ve come to accept that there are two Bree McKennas in the world. She’s the rock star, traveling the world playing music, going to bed late, living out of a tour van—and borrowing money from her parents to visit for the holidays. I’m the responsible one living here in the Midwest, working a day job as a designer, practicing yoga a couple times a week and generally going to bed by 10:30 p.m. My only connection to music is getting concert alert e-mails and being in the crowd.

For rock star Bree, maybe there will be a day when she settles down to a more quiet life.

For me, well, there’s always karaoke.

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23 Signs of the Midwest Resistance

Bree McKenna

Protest paraphernalia has long occupied its own special little corner in the realm of art—occasionally elevated, sometimes celebrated, most often ignored. But while we were walking among the 200,000-plus crowd in late January for the Women’s March on Chicago, we kept being struck by how resistance seemed to draw out cleverness and creativity in so many. Too bad, we thought, that signs and actions are mostly ephemeral: here today, in the trash can tomorrow.

So we decided to capture a few of our favorites and preserve them for you. A few counties in the Midwest might have tipped the election in Donald J. Trump’s favor, but, judging from the fact that Chicago’s march was one of the largest outside of D.C., our people promise to be powerful—and vocal—watchdogs moving forward.

Want to add to our image bank? Add #middleouest to your Instagram photos from the march.

 

Cartoon-inspired signs.

The Newberry Library is archiving some of the signs from the protest. Many were very personal pleas.

  Star Wars  inspired its own language and imagery of the resistance.

Star Wars inspired its own language and imagery of the resistance.

Sometimes the facts are pretty compelling sign fodder.

 
 
 
 

Mini "Cheetos" and Cheetolini: There was no shortage of cheese puff iconography.

Some of the more popular phrases we saw.

Pink hats and abundant usage of the word "nasty"

Kids and dudes showed up in support.

Lots of these powerful Shepard Fairey posters—that were printed in the NY Times and the Washington Post papers on Inauguration Day—were peppered throughout the crowd. 

Simple, yet powerful messages.

 

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Two Art Nomads Take Off in a Bus Named Towanda

Bree McKenna

As told to Middleouest

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Instead of sinking their meager monthly earnings into rent or a mortgage, the multimedia artists Troy Chebs and Austin LeMoine bought a 35-foot-long bus. Where other people might have seen the scrap of metal as junkyard bound, they imagined a home and art studio with warm, wood-worked interiors and state-of-the-art solar paneling. “The bus would eliminate our big monthly costs and be a huge challenge, and we’d actually own the space as opposed to an apartment—so it would be an investment,” says LeMoine, who studied business economics and public policy at Indiana University. “Once we started daydreaming and sketching interiors, we were hooked.”

Deciding to create a solar-powered art bus is one thing; cruising the open road without a breakdown is another. A few months ago, the pair—who’ve known each other since high school in the Chicago suburbs and now create multimedia and sculpture under the moniker Noblesavage—decided their experimental ride was ready to make a journey out West. They chronicled their first big adventure, and a few misadventures, for Middleouest.


From Illinois to Idaho with a few stops (and hiccups) in between.

DAY 1:

Departure.

Being on the road does not feel real after so much planning and construction. Two plus years of work have finally come to fruition, and we are headed towards Paonia, Colorado, where we will turn a 35-foot bus into a photovoltaic-powered workspace and home.

Spirits are at an all time high as we roll away from Chicago. And then . . . at an all time low when the bus unexpectedly dies and coasts to the shoulder near Towanda, Illinois. We have made it a whopping 128 miles from our starting point.

We will spend the next four hours on the shoulder trying to diagnose the problem and avoid a tow with state troopers lurking nearby. After considering, and disproving, many mechanical theories, we manage to limp the bus up the nearest exit ramp, park behind a gas station and buy beer just as the sun sets. The quote, "Adventure begins when everything goes wrong” floats in the back of our minds.

We sleep uneasily.

Left: Diesel Joe working by lantern light to change all six of the bus' injector lines. Right: Austin on his way back from the nearest gas station with six quarts of transmission fluid.

Day 2:

Bikes are essential for bus living in many ways, especially when you break down. The next morning, Austin takes his to find six quarts of transmission fluid.

We decide to make a go at a repair shop seven miles away. We can only get the bus to move at idle speeds; any load on the engine shuts it down immediately. We make it three miles down a country blacktop road before the vehicle croaks and will not start.

Our biggest fear of calling a tow truck become a reality, as we watch the tires slowly sink deeper into the thin, hot road between two cornfields.

Ed also lives on a bus that is outfitted with solar, and he has a soft spot for helping ‘young hippies do weird shit.’

Day 7:

Five days later, we are equipped with a new Electronic Control Module and back on the road. Repairs have been costly, and we’ve lost a significant chunk of time. But after stagnating, the forward progress feels great.

We pull out of Bloomington, Illinois, grinning, with the bus running like a champ. We make it another 120 miles before smelling diesel and pulling into a rest area near Galesburg, Illinois. Fuel is gushing out of the back like an open hydrant, and we both damn near cry.

Illinois does not want us to leave.

We have broken an injector line, and, upon closer inspection, on the cusp of breaking three more. We cannot afford a tow and have no way to get into town. We also do not have the specialty wrenches needed for swapping injector lines. But, luckily for us, we have incredible friends. "Diesel Joe” volunteers to drive the parts out Friday after work and help us make the line swap.

 
 
 
 

Day 10:

We waste the next three days getting poison ivy and falling into rivers. Finally, Joe arrives, and we work by lantern light in a parking lot from 10:30 p.m. until 4:30 a.m., changing all six injector lines and polishing off a case of mechanic fuel in the process. We are slaphappy, buzzed and riding an endorphin high as the sun starts coming up Saturday morning. In a way, the experience feels like a weird, road life initiation ceremony. After four hours of sleep, we sign our souls over to Joe and continue heading West for Paonia.

Day 12:

Having paid our dues, the bus runs perfectly as we head west. We link up with friends a few days later in Denver who swiftly escort us via bike to a bus parking spot they’d scoped out on the southwest side of the city. Now more than a week behind schedule, we scrap all plans of seeing family and make a break for the mountains the following afternoon.

Waiting for nighttime temps to cool down the radiator in Evergreen, Colorado.

Day 13:

It’s 95 degrees, our radiator is on the back corner of the bus and we’re climbing up one of the most consistently steep portions of I-70. Watching our water temp closely, we pass a handful of hot trucks and even see a radiator cap explode before joining the overheated engine club three quarters of the way up the grade.

Having limited options, we decide to go to bed early and wait for the cool mountain air before making another go at it. At 3 a.m., the air temp sits around 53 degrees, and the bus—we’ve now named it Towanda—cruises beautifully towards Western Colorado.

A cool mountain morning on I-70 in Colorado.

Day 14:

We touch down in Paonia late in the afternoon. The repair-free driving has given us much needed peace of mind, and we are thrilled to finally be on the cusp of bus completion. We park up on a hill—not far from downtown but still somehow secluded—in a lot that slightly resembles a junkyard in Mexico. On one side of the bus is a workshop topped with solar panels and filled with batteries, and on the other is a railroad, used by the local mine to ship coal down the valley. An energy face-off. We will be enlisting in the renewable camp.

Uncle Ed’s solar emporium in Paonia, Colorado

Day 15:

The next morning we finally meet Uncle Ed: a sun drenched, upbeat social butterfly who has been on the front lines of photovoltaic advocacy and solar cooking more or less since its creation.

Ed also lives on a bus that is outfitted with solar, and he has a soft spot for helping “young hippies do weird shit.” We hit it off immediately, and start planning out our now crunched work week from the comfort of his swamp cooled bus.

We decide on the following setup:
    •    (5) 100 watt solar panels
    •    (6) 6V deep cycle batteries (we already had these)
    •    (1) charge controller
    •    (1) 1000 watt pure sine wave inverter

Left: Panel install day at the shop with Ed, Kristen and Troy. Inset: Ed/Sensei and his most recent bus from an excerpt from “The Sustainable Underground."

Our basic plan: build tiltable aluminum racks for our solar panels, and mount them to the roof of the bus. These solar panels will charge batteries stowed below the bus, which will then provide electricity in the form of 12V DC directly to appliances like our chest freezer, and 110V AC, via the inverter, to wall outlets installed inside.

Thanks to Ed, the next week and a half in Paonia is a blend of work and play. Days in the shop are sprinkled with stories, lessons, shit talking, beers, jokes, solar wisdom and the occasional "field trip." Despite being faced by a  large amount of work in the short period of time, stress is almost nonexistent. Viva la Ed.

On weekends, or when the sun makes it too hot to work, we spend time swimming in culverts, picking cherries, drinking at a church-turned-brewery, hiking the Black Canyon and even spinning a few soul 45’s late night at the local radio station.

Ed and Austin splitting wires, tug-of-war style.


Day 27:

With the help of some new solar-skilled friends, we finish installing and wiring the complete 12V DC and 120V AC photovoltaic system at 10:30PM, only four hours before we need to leave town and drive I-70 back to Snowmass.  As a celebration of our new power source, we sit back and soak in Del Ray Wilson’s LP “Feel Good All Over.” Ask any audiophile: Solar powered turntables just sound better.

We are a bit emotionally torn as we pull out of town around 3 a.m. Feeling incredible about our two-year project being complete, we feel, at the same time, a bit of separation anxiety as we part ways with a town and group of humans we’ve become deeply attached to. See you soon, Paonia.

Bus, meet Ranch. Finally, we're parked outside of Anderson Ranch Arts Center.

Day 28:

No time for showers. One long drive and three bus transfers later, we make it to the ranch. We’ve both been awarded sculpture scholarships and given the opportunity to work under two artists we really admire—Andy Buck and Tom Loeser—at the gorgeous Anderson Ranch Art Center, a mountain art mecca.

ARAC truly lives up to its reputation. It is run by a kind and passionate staff who inherently see through the dirt, grime and stench we’ve accumulated during the solar install sprint.

Nestled in the heart of the Roaring Fork Valley, the ranch is surrounded by a conifer covered range and bordered by a small stream that runs along the west side of the property. The shops and studios are constructed from sections of old homestead-style cabins, gathered from the surrounding range, and outfitted with electricity, plumbing, and bay doors.


Day 33:

Wildlife rumors ring true. A black bear smashes a window on campus our second night.


Day 34:

After saying our goodbyes and making future bus plans with new friends, we are ready to decompress. We spend our last night 12,000 ft up, camping with a small group of friends and family near the top of Independence Pass.

Now that we have a battery bank to take care of, our next road objective needs to be food. A freezer full of frozen food requires much less energy to stay cool than an empty one, so we reach out to Cody, a friend-turned-fishing guide and start heading northwest towards Idaho in search of trout.

Perfectly parked: We're five miles outside of Ketchum, Idaho.

Day 36:

Neither of us has ever set foot in Idaho, and after being in Colorado, we are fascinated by the smooth, dune-esque shape of the mountains in the southeastern part of the state. After a few reunion beers at Lefty's, Cody leads us out to a perfect cliffside spot overlooking Trail Creek. The sun is down when we parked, so we don’t notice the treehouse feel of our vantage point until the next morning. Choice.

Left: Troy in the Ketchum Kitchen, looking down on our fishing spot while prepping dinner. Right: Enjoying roof tacos in Stanley, Idaho.

Day 37:

The next morning, we scramble down the cliff and fish the creek. Apparently our spot is a wild one—deer, elk, coyote, wolf and moose tracks are everywhere. We catch two rainbow trout and only fall in the river once. It is a complete success, and it feels great to not to have any pressing time obligations.

We spend the night having an impromptu bus party and meeting friends of friends, many of whom work for a local startup called First Lite. Beer-fueled negotiations lead to coffee-for-game swaps the next morning, and before noon, we have a freezer full of duck, venison steaks, elk sausage, wahoo and ahi tuna.

Cooking duck in Wallowa Whitman National Forest, Oregon.

Day 39:

We head out on I-75 and spend a night along the Salmon River soaking in the Sawtooth range. The bus climbs the pass without incident and our newly-mounted solar roof racks feel solid despite the high winds. Thanks to the sun, our new food cache is thoroughly frozen by morning, and we break camp after an egg breakfast.

From Idaho, we continue to camp our way towards the northwest, heading towards a wedding in Olympic National Forest. Post ceremony and celebration we will have a completely open schedule for the first time since leaving Chicago, which means it’s finally time to put that mobile studio to use.

Although it’s been the topic of many brainstorm sessions, creating art and finding work on the road is still an untested theory. But that income adventure excites us. As they say, “variety is the spice of life,” and we feel the same way about work. More variety, more learning, more challenge, and more fun. It’s time to get busy.

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Austin LeMoine and Troy Chebs are multimedia artists who do projects for hire. Drop them a line at noblesavage.us@gmail.com

 
 
 

Inside the Brain of Brain Killer

Bree McKenna

By Bree McKenna
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I live in the West Loop of Chicago, where street art and murals are popping up faster than doughnut shops and taco stands. In cities all over, what used to be an underground phenomena has become commercialized, with landlords commissioning artists to graffiti walls of high-end restaurants, cocktail lounges and shops.

But unless your name is Banksy or Shepard Fairey, these artists still have to hustle. They have to complete these massive works of art under some pretty tough conditions. There are tight deadlines and low budgets. Then there is the sheer physicality of the work: It's dangerous to climb up on a water tower in the middle of the witches of November—just ask Brain Killer, who is one of the more prolific Chicago street artists right now.

Brain Killer is the alter ego of Brian Keller. I first heard about Brain Killer last fall at Creative Mornings Chicago, a monthly breakfast lecture series for the creative community. There, he talked about how his work became a gritty deluge of skate punk culture and other things he grew up loving as a Chicago kid, such as 1950s horror films and Japanese animation. One of his earliest influences was actually a Chicago video game company that employed his mother; while he'd wait for her to get off work after school, he'd play video games there. He ultimately went to Columbia College and, from there, started working as a TV producer/director at G4TV (a network that produces content related to technology, video games and pop culture). 

After the Creative Mornings lecture, I reached out to Keller with some very specific questions in mind. I was curious about the physical and mental struggle behind these personal, but very public, pieces of giant art. And I was curious about how the whole process happens.

So I asked. It's amazing what people will tell you if you just ask what you've been wondering all along. 

 

 
 
 

Color Me Crumbled, Center for the Lost Arts, founded by Charles Adler of Kickstarter, Chicago, Illinois.

"This was just an impromptu installation. When working on a mural on the other side of the building, I had a lot of scrap cans, (and) the pile of rocks was just sitting there. When I start a project, I'll sit at the location for hours doing nothing. Not thinking, not planning—just doing nothing. I can say it's part of the process and in a way it is, but mostly it's procrastination. I'll find random things to keep me busy, except what I'm there to do. So I just started painting those rocks. The funny thing is, that pile of pukey rocks got more attention and praise than the 75-foot-long mural on the other side." 

   

1.  What are you obsessed with right now? What's driving your new work?

Keller: Right now, I'm obsessed with getting better, pushing my boundaries and stepping out of my comfort zone. I'm moving toward more crisp, clean illustration and less abstract work or at least having the two work more closely together. I want my work to tell stories, I don't want to just keep doing random characters or creatures. Just a little background: There was a time a few years ago when there was a lot of illness and bad mojo, so I started making these creatures and blobs to represent all of those things. The goal was to release them into the world as a way to purge them out of my life. I'm obsessed with manifesting them more accurately, making them stronger and more powerful, and in the process doing the same for myself and those close to me.
 

Technicolor Worship at the Porcelain Alter, Spin Ping Pong Social Club bathroom stall, Chicago, Illinois; aerosol and acrylic

2. What pisses you off?

Overall, I'm really positive, happy and outgoing but as far as art goes, my internal struggle is what pisses me off. I put a lot of myself into my work, drawing from experiences and emotion. I think that's why there is darkness and violence in my work—but also cute, whimsical and silly aspects to it as well. I like to make people laugh, but I also like to repel at the same time. I try not to take myself too seriously, but there is some pretty serious stuff in there. I like that juxtaposition in themes.

I want each piece to be better than the last, and I'm really trying to find that balance where I can get what I want across faster so I don't spend so much time worrying about the quality. I want the technical side to just flow so I can focus on the voice and the concept of each piece and allow my audience to feel the intent and the emotion of what I create.
 

We See All Your Misteps, watertower, Chicago, Illinois; aerosol, acrylic and exterior paint

"This was a commission from the property owner of Brass Monkey. He liked my work on a building he owned down the street. I was under a crazy deadline, and I couldn't get too high on the watertower without repelling, which I wasn't comfortable with. I painted this in November during a huge wind storm aptly named The Witches of November; there was limited floor space for ladders and no room to put materials. It was a huge challenge and, in the end, I wasn't crazy about the result because the conditions were insane, the timeline was rushed and it was dangerous. When I look at it I see so many mistakes—hence the title. This was my white whale and the whale won."

3. What is the most challenging project you've tackled? Why?

Each piece comes with its own unique challenges, but right now I'd say the water tower (in the West Town neighborhood, near Morgan and Kinzie streets) was my white whale to date. It was the perfect storm of everything that could go wrong.

I was dealing with some pretty heavy, pretty serious family matters so my head was far from clear. I needed so bad to have a clear head since, physically, the project was extremely taxing. There was a rush from the client, it was around the holidays and I was trying to plan my trip to Art Basel. The budget was limited so I had very little help, doing most of the labor myself. I was pulling ladders and materials up there with a rope, strapped into a harness. It was hard not being able to paint high enough because of the limited platform space, only being able to go as high as a seven-foot A-frame ladder would allow me to. It was freezing, and I was up there during what's called the Witches of November. (The "Witches" are caused by intense low atmospheric pressure over the Great Lakes pulling cold Canadian/Arctic air from the north or northwest and warm Gulf air from the south. When these cold and warm air masses collide, they can result in hurricane force winds).

I drew parallels to extreme sports, like surfers battling massive waves that could kill them. It was like the surface of the moon up there, very isolating. I was listening to a weird combination of music from Jane's Addiction and Death Grips to Jaime XX and Polica. It was intense.

I'm not too happy with the outcome. It was an opportunity to really make a huge splash and, personally, I feel like it fell short. People love it so I don't worry about it too much.
 

Tokyo Basurūmu 2047, Spin Ping Pong Social Club bathroom stall, Chicago, Illinois; aerosol, acrylic and custom wheatpaste

"The idea behind the works for the Spin Ping Pong Social Club was to create a degenerate futuristic bathroom in Japan. The black and white images are a collage of Japanese vintage girlie magazines, public caution signs from Tokyo subway stations and Kanji type. The type translates into common profanity. I wanted it to feel like futuristic bathroom graffiti and took more of a set design approach. The mural portion was just an added element I came up with on the spot to give authenticity to bathroom vandalism." 

 

4. What are your most essential tools?

I have so many, it's hard to say. I work in so many different mediums: video, photography, murals, wheatpaste, canvas. If I had to pick, I absolutely need a camera, my brushes and lots and lots of black high-flow paint. I use new brushes on each piece, so my lines are as perfect as I can get them. When people comment on my work, it's usually about the brush work and that is something I want to get better at.
 

5. Where's your favorite place to recharge within a day's drive?

I'm not really one with nature. I grew up in Chicago in busy neighborhoods. I've lived in LA and have travelled a lot for work, usually to other big cities like Japan, New York, Vegas etc. I've had little opportunity to experience the great outdoors so, when I'm in that environment, it makes me anxious and a little scared. Even if I'm in a cabin or camping situation or a relaxing resort in Mexico, I'm dying to get out and find the town. So for me, it's driving in the city, being around lights and people. I pop into crowded bars or clubs by myself, not to drink or even meet people but to hear the music and the buzz of the crowd and feel that energy. That's my meditation. If I really need silence, I'll hibernate at home and be a recluse for a few days binge watching TV and movies. I try to make my home a combination of swanky hotels—to remind me of being on the road—and Pee Wee's playhouse.

 

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Want to see more? Follow @brainkiller on Instagram or check out iambrainkiller.com to see his video work.

Becoming a Full-Time Illustrator (Gulp)

Bree McKenna

By John Kenzie
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I am lying in bed, pretending to be asleep. It is about 4 a.m., and it is my daughter’s cat that I am trying to fool. The air in my apartment is very dry, and as the cat walks across my comforter, I can see arcs of static electricity flashing off her feet. I don’t really understand the science of it, but I know that if I touch the cat a much bigger shock will get both of us, and she will take it as betrayal.

I slink deeper under the covers, pulling all my exposed skin in with me. I fall asleep quickly, and the next thing I know, I am waking up in pain. The cat has returned: I feel her claws find me thru the comforter as I spring up in bed, and she rockets away. It is now 4:30 a.m. I just get up because I have drawing to do.

I call it my apartment, but it is my building. My wife lives upstairs. We are divorcing. It is her building, too. We have a daughter who moves back and forth between us. She has a bedroom in the same location on both floors, and the difference between those rooms is stark. Upstairs is tightly organized, and filled with reminders of what she likes and what she has done. Downstairs is kind of a poorly formed grouping of media she has consumed already and clothing looking for a proper storage solution.

My daughter is 11. She has a computer in both rooms, and if she is in that space on either floor, that is where she is. This living arrangement seems to have taken most of the sting out of the impending divorce. For many reasons, things will probably stay this way for awhile. It makes sense, and seems best for our kid. I try to imagine myself explaining things to a woman I don’t know yet, and I don’t really have the words. It seems like this situation can’t be entirely unusual, but I also can’t think of anyone I know who has lived anything similar.

I have recently made plans to leave the job that I had for 25 years. I am 48, which is not young, but is young to have been in one workplace for so long. I am very proud to be leaving by my own decision, because I spent about 20 of those years worried that this would not be the case.  I have done illustration on the side prior to—and during—my employment, and it seemed like it might be my last best chance to make a go of it. I say by my own decision, but it was part of a voluntary layoff program. Once it was offered, I became set on it. There have been other non-voluntary layoffs in the past few years, and the worry of being culled does not dissipate when you turn into one of the people left behind. I figured 48 is a better time to start again than 55.

I am not sure why these are such clear distinctions. I know that if I were still living upstairs this would not be happening. I would not be able to cast our shared fates into uncertainty. Downstairs, it is just one of many changes we are all going to roll with. My daughter is thrilled because it will mean we can spend a lot more time together. This always makes me smile, but every time she says it, I worry that I don’t know what am doing.

I keep adding small things to my new life docket and, as a list, it all sounds really good. I am going to eat less meat and give up soft drinks again. I drink a lot of those and have stripped the enamel from my teeth. I listened to a podcast where a man who survived cancer talked about drinking a Diet Coke afterword and could not finish it. He said something akin to “Why did I just go thru all of that, if I am going to return to drinking a chemical slurry?” That was all paraphrased, but the words chemical slurry were there. That is what I call it now. I am going to miss it.

Through word of mouth, I have gotten a lot of illustration work lately. It is very gratifying and takes the edge off leaving the old job. The timing is not perfect, though. I am still burning the candle at both ends, and now I am worried that the illustration part is not as good as it would be if I had more time to spend on it. This was never a concern before—but it was also nothing I could have done anything about.

Now that it is going to be the center of my work life, I am feeling a lot of pressure to improve. My hope is that the people giving me work will return again, and I will be able to give them something profound. This is not something you can tell people, but I am thinking it at them very hard. My other concern is that this flood of work will taper off, and I will wake up on my first morning at home with nothing to work on. I am near obsessed with making a little bit of money on that first day. Just to set the tone right. I have some things lined up. It should not matter, but it still does.

In mid-December, just as I began my plans to escape the office, my father came back to life. I have no memory of him since he was gone before I remember anything. Then I heard from an aunt that I do not know through Facebook. She tracked me down thru LinkedIn somehow, which is more use than I have ever gotten out of LinkedIn. I knew of her existence because it was one of the few details I ever got from my mother. I was drawing at my computer, where nearly all drawing is done now. My daughter was watching Netflix on the couch just a few feet behind me, and a Facebook message pops up from a stranger. Simple as that.  

Within a few minutes I found my father’s Facebook page. Hidden in plain sight.  

I can look him directly in the eyes in his pictures, comfortable with them being unable to look back. He is bald, and I am very much not, but I recognize my features. He has all of the ones I have instinctually disliked, and now I am wondering why. His Facebook page creeps me out by proclaiming a love for me and my mother on his “about” page. There are pictures of my mother and me that I had never seen before on there. It all depresses me.

Nothing has come from it, but my original thought was that he wanted my kidney or something. He apparently does not know my aunt found me. She appears to be a very nice woman. I am just putting this all aside for a bit, fully aware that time could end many possibilities at any moment.

I am great with that.

 

I HAVE BEEN FREELANCING FOR A MONTH NOW FROM HOME. Pretty busy even. I have not looked for work yet, or even had time to get a portfolio together. One job just seems to lead to another. I gave up my Cokes without much effort. I thought I was going to taper them off and be miserly with the last few, but in practice I just guzzled them. I switched to lemonade and seltzer, and now I drink two liters of seltzer and a quart of lemonade everyday. My stomach is an acidotic crucible. I get up in the morning and write something for 15 minutes because that wakes me up. I look at the new sketchbook I bought, and I decide not to draw in it. I exercise for a half hour with a dancing video game that makes me feel ashamed, and then I sit down and draw. I take breaks and watch YouTube videos where people explain how to use the software I already own, or the software that I want to own. The day is broken up when my daughter is able to visit.

The things I want are becoming better as they become smaller.

Right now I want spring to come, so that I can open the window behind my desk and get a particular cool breeze on my neck. That sounds trite, but I think about it every day. I worry about my eyes. They are a bit blurry close up now. I make a point of going out on my porch and looking at stuff further away. I just need glasses, but I have not done anything about getting some.

I know a guy from England. He now lives in Japan. I have not seen him since the early 90s, and we have not talked actively ever. I typed his ancient email address into my messenger program and sent him a note thinking he would not get it. He responded and has now become someone to whom I send non sequiturs every few days. He says things like, “I'm almost double what I was when we met. But still a sickly pencil” and I say things like, “Dang! That sounds very glamorous.” My thing was not a direct response to his thing. It is just an example. I am using him to indirectly solve problems. I say things, and in advance of his reply, I determine that if he answers one way I will do this, and if he answers in another way, I will do that. My desire for things to happen randomly will never be satisfied. I always feel like I am putting my thumb on the scale.

This is everything I know about freelance illustration. I hope it helps you in your future career as a freelance illustrator!


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John Kenzie is a freelance illustrator living in Chicago.

The Renegade Farm

Cassie Burke

By Cassie Walker Burke  /  Photos by Bree McKenna
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A hunter is walking up the drive, and that spells trouble. So begins the slow dance of damage control: The farmer scoops the last pancake from the griddle onto his wife’s plate, slides in socked feet to the door and yanks on rubber boots. He charges into the yard, and the farmhouse door slams shut behind him. Breakfast is now an afterthought.

Hunters and farmers share the land here in stark northeastern Michigan, but their interests often collide. The point of conflict this morning is a dog—actually, two—owned by the farmers, 32-year-old Lindsay Steele and his wife, Katie Cooper. Sometime in the early morning hours, Apollo, a fluffy white Great Pyrenees, and his sidekick Maia, a Border Collie mix, stealthily escaped the welded-wire fence that encloses the couple’s five-acre farm and hightailed it to a duck-filled marshland nearby. The hunters, who pay for the privilege of hunting that land, don’t react kindly to such disruption—particularly when they’re trying to stock their freezers on one of the last decent weekends of fall.

Most of the morning will be lost while Steele and Cooper search for their dogs, anxious to find them before one or both meets a bullet. “We patch one hole and then they make another and get out again,” Cooper says. “All we do is make constant mistakes,” she adds, laughing, “and try to live with them.”

Five years ago, Lindsay Steele was a graphic designer at a Chicago branding agency, and Katie played in a rock band. Their only brush with agriculture was a produce-stuffed CSA box they got every week or so from a Wisconsin farm through a city drop-off program. How they ended up taking the plunge and exchanging their urban lives for five acres in eastern Michigan is a story powered by equal parts stubbornness and serendipity. That—and a lot of farming videos on YouTube.

Then, just as the couple started making the final rounds of markets last fall, Katie discovered she was pregnant, and a whole new set of priorities slid into view. Babies have a way of forcing their parents to shuttle serendipity, especially in light of a particularly tough-to-swallow fact: It's still tough to earn a living off the land, even in the era of farm-to-table everything.

THE FARMHOUSE ISN'T JUST ANY FARMHOUSE. It’s a century-old, worn in many parts and currently missing most of the wall between the linoleum-covered kitchen and the modest living room with a warm wood-burning stove Steele installed himself.  
 
The work on the house—well, that has to happen in the cold months. Since the couple moved here in 2012, the farm has been a whirlwind of sunup to sundown workdays from first thaw until winter. “Farming is a challenging choice. It just is,” Cooper says. “There is a really daunting place, where you start with whatever you have, which is usually next to nothing and really small—

Steele jumps in. “—you have to be crazy. If you look at it on paper, it is so complex. There are so many variables—how am I going to find land? how am I going to find equipment?—that are so expensive. There is an insane amount of questions, and you can’t always answer all of them. You have to just do it, and be OK that you don’t have all the answers.”

They are sitting on a hillside on a beautiful fall day, describing what may be the world’s hardest job in a practically perfect Midwestern setting. Crop beds line up in perfect geometric formations every direction we look. Chickens cluck an acre or so over, and a light breeze delicately blows their warbling your way. The air is crisp enough to sting our nostrils.

The setting wasn’t always so bucolic. When the couple moved here in 2012, the land hadn’t been used for farming in more than a generation. All possibility was buried under quackgrass, an invasive weed with a persistent root structure. There wasn’t even a garden.  

Besides quackgrass, other things that needed clearing—namely, some dark corners of Katie’s childhood. The property actually had been in her family for a generation. Originally, the plan had been to crash and save some money before taking the plunge and buying land elsewhere. But a pit stop became a long-term residency once the cost of buying a plot of land elsewhere began to make their dream seem impossible. Not long after, Katie’s father signaled he might want to sell to the couple.

“I’ve always loved this property, and I do remember, when I was really little, actually thinking about owning this place one day,” she says. “I started thinking this could be a really empowering experience for me, to take something that has a lot of good memories—and a lot of not-so-good memories—to face those and turn them around a bit and build on that.”
 
Standing inside an old garage that he intended to convert into a greenhouse for winter seed starting, Lindsay handed Katie and her sister a sledgehammer. Clear out the ghosts of her parents’ fighting, her father’s depression, the ensuing divorce. Make it theirs.

Today that greenhouse is full of light and, in late fall, full of empty seed trays that will come into service around the first signals of spring.

STEELE IS HOLDING A PLUG OF SOIL THE SIZE OF A GENEROUS ICE CUBE. The cube is his own adaptation of a recipe by Eliot Coleman, better known as the "godfather" of the organic movement. It contains peat moss, compost, a healthy dose of the native soil, perlite, kelp meal, and, for PH balance, lime. Like the cube of dirt that he is slowly turning around in his hand, each deliberate action is a building block for a tightly choreographed system that the couple describe as “moreganic.”

There are other words for it that are clinical-sounding words—but they don’t really capture the warm, fuzzy feeling of rolling hillsides, homemade chicken coops and a simple and stubborn conviction that peppers any discussion about what happens here. Call it regenerative farming. Call it agro-ecological. Just don’t call it organic.

The conversation at the farmers’ market in South Lyon typically goes like this. A shopper comes up to the couple and asks if their farm is organic. No, they reply, "We’re 'moreganic.'"

"What’s that?" the shopper asks.
"Better than organic."
"What’s better than organic?"

Steele has his answer down: Organic farming is a great idea philosophically but at some point it was hijacked by laws and big ag. Today, for example, organic farms in the United States can still use certain pesticides, which he refuses to use.

In a 2012 survey, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s census of organic farms tallied slightly more than 14,000. States such as California and Wisconsin and Minnesota led the pack with the low thousands. Michigan, with nearly 332 in 2012, fell in the middle.

Of those 14,000 farms, 3 in 5 reported annual sales of less than $100,000.

Steele’s farm doesn’t even get counted in those numbers since it isn’t organic by government standards. This is what you call renegade in a region known more for auto parts than heirloom squash. “There are lots of different interpretations for what we’re doing,” Steele says, going on to explain how their farm operates as close as it can to closed-loop agricultural system. Their chief mode of fertilizer is a moveable chicken coop—a homegrown shit delivery service on wheels that prevents them from having to purchase manure or chemicals from the outside. They use intensive planting techniques such as cover cropping, crop rotation, aggressive composting and all that chicken manure to maximize soil health and deter pests. Data—reams and reams of data that Steele has laboriously catalogued—determine how much of which crops to plant and when and what seedlings should be rotated in. Nitrogen to nitrogen, dust to dust. That, and a heavy reliance on Wi-Fi.

For all of the ancient techniques the couple employs here, they readily recognize the virtues of technology. Their WiFi-enabled soil whispering is informed by a Facebook group of like-minded farmers who happily dispense advice to one another; by YouTube videos from clean farming advocates whose advice is hallowed in certain agricultural circles; by podcasts with quirky titles like Permaculture Voices; and by detailed crop rotation charts that Steele designs on the graphic design software Adobe Illustrator. This is a talent from his former life in Chicago that has proved particularly handy.

Try unpacking all that in a quick conversation at a farmers’ market when someone stops to quickly buy fresh-farmed eggs. Bending customers’ minds at small town markets, Lindsay says, is “exciting—but challenging. There are people out there who know we are growing this produce the way we are, and they understand the quality that it is, and we have them hooked.

“But it’s a challenge—because the other side of that is that people are used to the other vendors at the farmers’ market," he continues. "There is this one big farm: They grow 40 acres of produce, they spray it all the time, they sell their produce really cheap. Sometimes they’re just straight up undercutting us, like, ‘Oh he’s selling his peppers for $1.50 a piece, we’ll sell ours three for $1.’”

He adds: “I don’t want to sink a farmer, but I want them to farm better.”

As he explains, you hear more examples of Steele’s former ad agency life proving useful in other ways. Rather than a past life, his agency work is essential DNA upon which he is building something new, from the clever name of the farm—Garden Fort—to the logo that is stamped on each box of fresh-laid farm eggs. He and Katie even have a tagline for Garden Fort: the really real.

When the couple describes their farm of the future, they don’t talk in terms of acquiring more acreage. Rather, they dream of fostering an experimental station that can be a stop along the way for others who, like them, are the wayward agricurious—be it renegade beekeepers or goat farmers with dreams of being artisanal cheese mongers. Land is hard to come by, and expensive. But they can help others crack the code and share what they've learned. Perhaps this sort of residency program can even become part of the business plan and yield modest rental fees or more goods for market. 

Already, an artist friend of theirs has been driving in on occasion from Chicago and painting her signature flower motif on the sides of their barns and fences, in essence bartering her talent for a quiet place to recharge. Like the seed trays in spring, she's an early sign of what could be a budding agri-art commune on property that was, a decade ago, just an old dilapidated house surrounded by lots of grass.

STILL, AS MUCH AS STEELE HATES TO ADMIT IT, FARMING IS TOUGH ECONOMICS. After three years, the couple was first able to pay themselves a wage this past summer. Consider the math: a good week of farmers’ markets and some wholesale to grocers and restaurants can yield $1,200 to $2,000. Multiply that by 25 or so weeks of produce-rich summer and fall for a combined annual income that is in the five figures—one that has to cover mortgage, equipment repair, seedlings, before anything goes to the people tending the land.

To make the numbers work, Steele picked up freelance graphic design projects. His wife worked in the off-season a natural food market in nearby Brighton.

The numbers were barely adding up when Cooper found out she was pregnant. It was around the time the root vegetables were going to market. Talking about the plans for the baby, she was glowing, Lindsay was glowing, the dogs—which had come bounding back safely after their adventure with the hunters—were practically glowing. But the coming baby forced a reckoning with reality for two people who had previously let creativity and serendipity be their guides.

Lindsay considered some hard choices: try to muscle through another season short a laborer—that is, his wife, who'd be occupied tending to the baby. Or he could take out a loan so he could invest in some critical tools, irrigation materials and manpower that would help the farm be more productive—but require an undesirable lien on the farmhouse. There was a third option: step back, dive back into his old life as a freelance graphic designer and steadily try to build back his bank account. The trade-off would be putting the farm on hiatus for the coming year.

"Flying by the seat of our pants, being creative, using what we have, and muscling through has been a good approach while we figure out exactly what it is we're doing and continue to learn," he said. "But we aren't going to survive without establishing better systems and putting in place the infrastructure needed to be more efficient and productive," from better irrigation and hoop houses to some equipment essentials such as a walk-in cooler and a proper pack shed.

When a little girl arrived two weeks early, on Easter Day, the right direction seemed immediately clear. Here was a new life around the time of the first spring plantings. Only Steele wouldn't be planting much this year: He decided to plunge his energies into graphic design and being a new father. He'd still farm but mainly for his growing family; any spare cash and spare time he'd pour into infrastructure improvements on the property with the hopes that Garden Fort would be fully operational again in 2017. 

Before Steele decided to slow down operations, he had been thinking of taking on an employee. A cousin of his wife's—a young German woman—had paid the farm an extended visit and become an indispensable resource while the expectant mama had been sidelined by first trimester nausea.

At night, Steele says he and their visitor had plenty of conversations about whether she could start something similar in Germany. It’s tough to say what’s more daunting to an aspiring farmer: The cost of land, and the lack of farmland in general, or the knowledge gap that has widened as the number of farmers dwindled over generations. If those things don’t scare people away, the idea of toiling away 80 hours a week for a barely livable wage can.

Still, Steele says he coached his wife's cousin to take the plunge and let instinct lead her. “Once you start doing it, people start to believe you.” He points out that, once he did, plenty of small miracles happened. Other farmers willingly offered critical advice. He used real estate records online to find the owner of the land adjacent to his farm, and she let him use it for free. Ultimately, Katie’s father decided to sell the house to the couple.

“This isn’t what we envisioned,” says Cooper. Steele picks up her thought. “Trying to come to terms with your life—trying to come to terms with what you actually have to do to do it—is hard.”

“Which is interesting,” he says, “because I am waiting for that person, for those people to show up and say, should I do this?”

What would he say?, you ask.

Yes, he says. “I would say yes.”

 

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