My Cultural Capital
We are all the product of our landscapes, the places we've lived and the cultural experiences we've been exposed to. Every film we see, book we read or trip we take, all have an effect on the way we see the world around us. We all have cultural capital which we have banked throughout our lives, a wealth of knowledge, taste and perspective that cannot be taken away from us even when our lives undergo dramatic change. Here at Lagom we work with many different artists from diverse cultures and are fascinated by the cultural references that inform their work. This month, Michelle C Porter spoke to Ryan Chapman about his life and work, and how the material world inspires him. Being a designer and Illustrator, picture books and images are important to Ryan so he's selected some of his favourite images and objects that have inspired his creativity and commercial work over the years.
Ryan grew up in an old Victorian house in Ashington, a small coastal town in the Northumberland countryside. The green and peaceful landscapes close to Alnwick castle, where Harry Potter and his classmates were filmed learning to fly their broomsticks. Like most British children, Ryan did not attend a private school akin to Hogwarts but his childhood was full of creativity and the magic of stories. His home was a place of artistic experimentation where his mum encouraged her 3 sons to express themselves. She once painted the kitchen walls with black board paint for them to doodle on so that they could express themselves freely. For as long as he can remember, he was creating, drawing, model making and playing music. From an early age, he became entranced by the magic and power not only of story, but of the compelling power of the illustrations that went with them. George, from 'George's Marvellous Medicine' by Roald Dahl, for example, can only be imagined as a drawn by the illustrator Quentin Blake.
"We had a lot of Roald Dahl books growing up and other than the Beano the work of Quentin Blake was one of my earliest illustration memories. Even though I was only 7 at the time of Dahl's death I still remember being incredibly sad that he would no longer be able to make books."
Dick Bruna - Various Book Covers 1960-63
“Bruna is more known for his children's book work with Miffy but at the start of his career he designed over 500+ book covers for his families publishing company. Most of them are very abstract and stunning. They are a constant reminder to keep your ideas simple and direct.”
"I remember drawing the Keith Haring radiant baby over and over again as I had seen it on a notebook at school once. I didn’t know what or who Keith Haring was but I really liked this simple, faceless character. "
From children's fiction and comics, Ryan made the natural transition to cartoons.
"We were one of the first houses to get satellite tv (my uncle Wayne was a Taz Satellite fitter in the early 90’s) which suddenly gave me and my brothers access to the Simpsons and Nickelodeon in the ‘golden 90’s era’ of alternative cartoons. As I got a little older I would notice other illustrated material such as 2000AD, Tin-Tin and Marvel comics, as much as I enjoyed the stories I never could get past the artwork - to me it was always too complicated and atomically correct. I always preferred the simple characters of Mr Men or the Homepride flour mascot (Fred)."
There are reasons why we are drawn to some things and not others, why some books, films or places inspire us and others don't. For some, this is a result of their education, upbringing or the cultures they have lived in, but others see the world through different eyes, quite literally. For Ryan, what could be seen as a childhood disability, gave him a fresh outlook that inspires and informs his work even today. Ryan was born with only 20% vision in his left eye, he now sees everything through his right eye. Between the ages of 5-6, he was made to wear a patch over his good eye, to strengthen the weaker one - he became a reluctant pirate and navigated the world with very limited vision. Ryan's childhood world was blurred, punctuated with strong shapes and bolts of bold colour. The eye patch was not only conspicuous, it was ineffective
"It never worked and my Mum believes because I spent around 2 years looking at the blurred simple colours with a weak left eye, it's left me with an appreciation for simpler detail. I think this is something I’m still very drawn to today, not just in my work but in everything."
Coloured Atom Set
“We had one of these at school in our physics classroom and I would imagine adding more and more coloured molecules to it. The colours on this one are perfect and it's almost an art piece in itself.”
Just before puberty, most children crave their own space, holing up in their bedrooms with the company of electronic devices and screens. What Ryan opted for was a very different room of his own, a space to get creative outside of the family home
"Around Christmas time when I was around 10-11 I asked my parents for a garden shed so I could have my own workshop/studio outside. I would paint and customise my friend's bicycles in bright colours and stencil expensive bike logos onto them ( I think I might have even slept in it a few times during the summer). I remember feeling really comfortable having my own little creative space regardless of just painting most likely stolen bikes."
Inspired by his brother Lloyd to continue his creative passion, he applied to study graphic design at Newcastle College and was accepted. From the ages of 16-18, he spent time creating colour artwork from simple drawings and progressed so well he was granted a place at Northumbria University. It was in the library that he discovered his design/illustration heroes, work that was even more minimal, that could be applied to more than just story books.
"Paul Rand, Tom Eckersley, Max Bill, Alexander Girard and Dick Bruna who were able to create beautiful, simple work that could lend itself to books, greetings cards, packaging and advertising really inspired me and still does now. Then a little later, artists like Ellsworth Kelly and Daniel Buren that have worked to a strict set of rules and colours to create a consistent body of work over the last 50+ years."
Alexander Girard - A Designer’s Universe
"I've always been aware of Girard's work through the Eame's but only in the last few years have I started to discover how versatile his illustration work is, his ability to transfer his work to almost any platform is very inspiring."
After graduation, Ryan worked briefly in advertising and editorial but was keen to develop his style. Like many artists, he found his inspiration travelling the world, from Europe to Australia he spent four years immersing himself in living, breathing design.
"In that time living and visiting various countries gave me a real understanding of simple design (not just in the UK) but from food packaging to postage stamps, especially a lot of the mid century Scandinavian / Baltic illustration I was lucky to discover visiting Estonia regularly. They had such limited printing techniques and budgets then the results were always perfectly direct and beautiful."
Once Ryan was happy with the work he was beginning to produce, he began publishing it online, reaching out to art directors for new work. In 2011, he caught the eye of YCN and within a week of joining was invited to work on a book project with Google. Back in the UK, he settled in London, he began to build his commercial portfolio and once again life resumed its hectic place. However much he loved the culture and creative connections he needed a change, to live somewhere that could offer him a gentler, healthier pace. This time he was leaving for somewhere to settle, to the hometown of his girlfriend, Tallinn in Estonia.
Estonia is a Nordic haven where the air is pure, 2/3 of the country is made up of natural forest and coastline - only ever a stone's throw from the sea and the trees. Life is good for Ryan here and has had a positive impact on his work.
"Living here at a slower pace, I’m now more selective and try to accept projects that work well for me and not just my income - I don’t think I could have done that in London. We have a little summer house (an old wooden house in the forest) 1 hour out of Tallinn were we grow fruit and vegetables, sauna and relax during the summer months (it's very common here as the winters are very cold, you need to make the most of summer days). All of this combined I feel has seeped into my work" "
Mid Century Estonian Matchbox Labels
"A lot of thees items are un-published or credited due to the era and circumstances they were created. Postage stamps, calendars, matchboxes and children's books serve as a great source of inspiration for colour and composition. Looking at other current creatives work can be dangerous but researching older work is a good way to discover timeless ideas and a clever indication of were styles in design will go."
Mid Century Estonian Matchbox Labels
Olympics Poster 1972 (signed)
“This is a great example of how effective colour can be on its own with very little detail. This hangs in my studio and is responsible for most of the colour choices I use in my own work everyday.”
Ryan continues to work as a commercial illustrator, researching, simplifying and developing his work. Although he finds contemporary illustration is still slightly misunderstood in Estonia, it is changing fast, and he is learning a lot from the Scandinavian and Soviet influences all around him. This summer he got the opportunity to re-design the Estonian Labour party rose, an example of how in a smaller country like Estonia, you can become involved in projects you would never imagine in the UK.
Ryan has travelled a long way in air miles, but in a funny way, nothing much has changed. From painting push bikes in his first 'studio', a shed in the North of England, to designing for Google in his studio that once housed the KGB; he is still doing what he loved doing as a ten-year-old boy.
"It feels nice knowing that I figured out when I was 10-11 what I wanted to do and in some ways continue to still do it now".