A Q&A with graphic designer Chris Nolen

Meet Chris Nolen (noleofantastico.com), a graphic designer who uses the sciences to fuel his imagination for his art. He’s the associate creative director at the ad agency Mightily with quite a following for his music poster art.

LEO: What type of artist are you?
Chris Nolen: I’m a graphic designer and illustrator, which by definition makes me a commercial artist. I struggle with this question from time to time because I’m not always sure what I do is art so much as using design to solve a specific problem. I do employ my heart and imagination in conceiting the imagery, so by that measure, you can reasonably call it art. I try to, more often than not, draw upon imagery that relates with my own life experiences — catching fireflies, looking up at a night sky in awe, or playing astronaut as a child. These are the kinds of imagery that have emotional resonance with me. They are specific, but very universal in that most of us has done these things or had these experiences. While it’s important to make an arresting image that will draw your attention from across the room, if I can ping some part of someone’s past experiences or tickle their imagination, then I think I’ve hit on something more meaningful.

How did you get started creating posters for bands?
I’ve worked in advertising most of my professional career, and as many designers and art directors will tell you, it can burn you out. It often takes a lot more than it gives in terms of your struggle to produce and sell an idea/execution versus the endorphin hit of producing something you are proud of that will ever be seen by another human being. So, I burnt out. Big time. So just to rekindle something in myself, I started dabbling in illustration and poster design for friends’ bands. They were decent, but very few people ever saw them. But I was hooked on the process. I eventually quit my advertising job and ended up in Houston, where I had my first real break with bigger, national-level bands.

How many have you done?
Over 100, many of which were limited-edition screen prints. The vast majority of those were produced for the Houston, Dallas and Austin markets.

An Arcade Fire poster by Chris Nolen

Who are some of the artists you admire?
I admire pretty much every poster artist because I know how much they work, and how little they are compensated for their efforts. Very few poster artists will be able to make a comfortable living only doing gig posters. It’s hard. Bands don’t typically have a lot of money, and screen printing is a big out-of-pocket expense with no guarantee of making your money back. It can be a tough sell. So I admire anyone crazy enough to do it. But that’s not really what you’re asking. Specifically, the designers that made me want to do poster art in the first place was the Ames Bros. crew out of Seattle, including Brad Klaussen. My mentor in Houston was the legendary Jermaine Rogers. I adore Olly Moss’ work. Here in Louisville, there are so many great designers that I’m friends with that I’m hesitant to name any specifically, but Ron Jasin, Brad Vetter, Matt Barnes and Justin Kamerer are illustrators and printmakers that do fantastic work, off the top of my head. It’s a great community, and most of us are friends and meet up for a drink every now and again.

What do you want to do that you haven’t done?
I’d love to do more work here in Louisville. But, because there are so many great artists here, and that Texas still keeps me very busy, I haven’t really done much work for my new home city.

I really, truly love Louisville and the design community here. AIGA does great work, and I’m happy to know most everyone on that team — great people doing a lot to bring great design events, networking and educational opportunities to Louisville. If you are a graphic designer or illustrator, particularly a young person in college or just starting out, I highly encourage you to come to an event and make some friends. It will only help you grow.

A Kurt Vile poster by Chris Nolen

What is something most people do not know about you?

Two things:

First, I grew up on a small, 40-acre homestead farm in Mississippi. I didn’t really appreciate it at the time. I wanted concrete so I could go skateboarding. Also, cable would have been nice so that I could watch MTV. But the lessons I learned about work and community coming together to solve problems was pretty foundational. Also, if the zombie apocalypse happens, don’t kick me off the boat, because I know my way around a farm.

Secondly, I geek out over the sciences more than I do art, typically speaking. I love doing deep dives into cosmology, or psychology, evolution, patterns in nature like the Fibonacci sequence — all these things may seem somewhat unrelated to what I do, but I’d argue that they [are] so important to my imagination. While I may draw on childhood experiences for imagery, for instance, those childhood experiences typically involve interacting with the world in a very exploratory and scientific way. It’s the connection between emotion and psychology, science and reason, and ultimately humanism that get my mind and heart pumping. Admittedly, that sounds pretentious, but that’s honestly the well that [I] draw from and the one that [I] refill by consuming other art and media.

About the Author

A Q&A with graphic designer Chris Nolen

Jo Anne Triplett is the contributing visual arts editor at LEO Weekly. She’s a past member of the Mayor’s Advisory Committee on Public Art, was the content advisor on the Glassworks Building video, and has written for Louisville Magazine, Kentucky Homes and Gardens and the national publication Glass Craftsman. Jo Anne came to Louisville from Washington, D.C. where she worked as a researcher and writer for the Smithsonian American Art Museum.



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