Advice on Making it as an Artist From Jeremy Fish

Jeremy Fish at SFAI

Earlier this month, Jeremy Fish was invited to give a lecture at his alma mater, the San Francisco Art Institute. The audience, comprised of graduating students and other miscellaneous knowledge seekers, came hoping for some info on how to reach a point of making it as an artist. The moral of the talk, or Jeremy’s “one good story,” was:

“It happened to me, and I’m totally retarded. So it could happen to you.”

You can watch the video in full below and/or read the brief notes I took during the talk.

Why some artists are successful and some aren’t often seems random. Other times, it’s a matter of timing and opportunity. Fish’s biggest advice for the students of SFAI was to not ignore the fact that they are in San Francisco, a city with amazing history, culture and counterculture. Fish credits connections within the local skate subculture during and after college as having helped him along his way.

Jeremy Fish skateboards

Young Fish was imprinted with the visuals of late 80s/early 90s skate graphics and what he gleaned from watching a “shitload of cartoons”. In the mid 90s, San Francisco was considered one of the skateboard capitals of the world, and SFAI astutely used Barry McGee in its promotional materials “as a beacon” to get guys like Fish to attend their school.

Bottle Installation by Barry McGee
Bottle Installation by Barry McGee

In a recent interview with Vice, Fish elaborated:

“I never actually said ‘skateboard art’ at SFAI for fear of being laughed at. I mostly was just making art, and skateboarding in the meantime. It was something I respected and admired so much. Sean Cliver, Mark Mckee, Pushead, Jim Phillips, Andy Howell, Phil Frost, Thomas Campbell… they all had a huge impact I couldn’t explain to my professors at that time.”

Although he didn’t claim to be a great student, he paid particular attention to screen printing, and six weeks out of SFAI, Fish was running a print shop that did work for Juxtapoz. In 1998, Fish graduated and got his first 2-page spread in Thrasher.

Jeremy Fish's first Thrasher spread

After doing freelance gigs for different directors of skate brands, Fish became art director for Think Skateboards. Around this time, he was also doing regular work for Slap magazine.

Ashtray Addicts by Jeremy Fish

By the early 2000s, he was getting invited to show his art in Japan and Germany. Fine art opportunities began coming his way, and he was “making friends with actual art dudes”. So he quit working for Think, and this would be the last occasion of him working for someone else fulltime. Quoth Fish:

“If I can draw pictures for people who like them, then fuck drawing them for someone else.”

He started his own skate company, Unbelievers, using a graphic style he describes as “bold impact and direct imagery”. Skulls + bunnies = evil and good. “I build these little recipes,” he said. You can read a bunch more about how the company ended (and was subsequently christened the Done Believers), in this 2007 CrownDozen interview.

Jeremy Fish's The Ghosts of the Barbary Coast

After showing in local art galleries, Upper Playground and Fecal Face, Fish opened one of his biggest and most San Francentric solo shows, Ghosts of the Barbary Coast, in 2008. [I was there!] The art was influenced by “the inherent craziness of the people who founded San Francisco” particularly the North Beach area, where he was now living.

Jeremy Fish's The Ghosts of the Barbary Coast

Ghosts of the Barbary Coast featured new sculptural works in collaboration with an Indonesian wood carver.

2008 also saw the release of Aesop Rock’s video for “Pigs”. Fish refers to Aesop Rock as his  “favorite musician,” and it’s clear that the fondness is mutual. The time-lapse video of Fish painting a mural did very well, and we watched it during the talk.

Weathering the Storm, work in progress
Weathering the Storm, work in progress

In 2009, Fish opened Weathering the Storm at the Laguna Museum. The work for this show focused on surviving hardships. Fish was dealing with a pervasive fear of technology: losing printed matter, the erosion of the film industry and disappearing mom and pop restaurants; not to mention “having to pay to be healthy in this country”.

Frog Trauma from Listen & Learn
Frog Trauma from Listen & Learn

2011 saw the opening of Listen & Learn at Joshua Liner Gallery in NY. This was an elaborate conceptual art and audio show built around stories told to Fish by friends. You can take a virtual tour and actually listen and learn here.

Go down in Fishtory

The SFAI talk concluded with some bits of advice:

Fish is a fan of bartering. He recommends trading art for free food or beer, and he has hooked up such arrangements by doing murals, signs and logos for San Francisco establishments like Tony’s Pizza and Naked Lunch.

Jeremy Fish Mural at Tony's Pizza

Clean linework comes from practice: “I draw thousands of times better than when I was a student.”

About doing art for album covers? “If you don’t like the music, you shouldn’t draw for it.”

About wearing exclusively brown for five years? “My grandfather is probably my biggest influence in life. He passed away at 103. He rocked all brown.”

About people stealing his work? He doesn’t lose sleep over it. However, Carhartt Europe recently put his face in an ad, and he might sue them. In general though, “Lawyers are creepy.”

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