GCC Q&A: Charlie Wagers, artist and graphic designer

Grove City College’s Pew Fine Arts Gallery is presenting “DIY ‘til the Day I Die,” an exhibition of “chillbilly” artist Charlie Wagers’ recent work.

The show opens Thursday, Jan. 28, and runs through Feb. 13.

Wagers is a graphic designer, art director and illustrator, the product of “gray Midwestern skies and a blue-collar, Rust Belt aesthetic.” His work has been embraced by the music world and he’s done posters and album covers for artists such as The Black Keys and mewithoutYou. Other clients include Proctor & Gamble, XL Records, Tooth & Nail Records, Six Flags Theme Parks, The Fray and Owl City.

Formally trained in fine arts, he draws inspiration from the antique and arcane: early printing techniques, vintage cameras and films, aged textures, forgotten books, and—oddly enough—old neon signs. Growing up on 800 acres of Kentucky farmland, Wagers forged a deep connection with nature, and today he still spends much of his time outdoors, hiking or riding his bike in search of new colors and contrasts. He recently had work selected for Print Magazine’s Regional Design Annual. Akron, Ohio, newspaper The Devil Strip said he was one of “Seven Artists to Look for in 2016” in their January issue.

Wagers’ Grove City College connection is Dr. Nate Mucha ’08, assistant professor of design.

“Nate and I first met a few years ago at a Christmas party,” Wagers said. “He is an integral resource for my screen-printing process, and so I’m frequently in-and-out of his Each + Every studio in Kent, Ohio. His passion for Grove City’s Visual Communication department is what connected me to display work in the gallery at Pew. It’s been a blast setting everything up with Nate and Kathy Rhoades, assistant professor of visual arts and director of the art gallery.”

“Charlie’s work is inspiring, his approach refreshing, and his personality magnetic. I’m so pleased to work with him and see him exhibit at Grove City College,” Mucha said. “Countless designers enter the field out of a deep love for album art and gig posters. Charlie is one of the talented few who makes a living designing those jackets and posters that will bring many more hopeful designers into the profession.”

To gain some insight into the work displayed on campus, we asked Wagers a few questions about his art and his work.

Q. Where are you from and what got you into art & design?
A. My hometown is in Eastern Kentucky and I still own a large amount of farm land there, where I visit a few times a year. I credit a lot of the rustic styles of my work to coming from a blue-collar environment. My story is like plenty of other designers, I was a punk kid who loved skateboard graphics, and had a lot of friends in bands. I graduated high school in Cincinnati, and from there I ended up going on tour with bands straight out of high school and whenever I was on break in college. Back then I had a bootleg copy of Photoshop, and I designed my first album packaging when I was a senior in high school. That pretty much catapulted me into doing work for all the bands I was friends with, and over time I got to work with bigger and bigger clients.

Q. How would you describe your style when it comes to your work?
A. My work has a strong Midwestern influence, having lived in Ohio, Kentucky and Pennsylvania for most of my life. I’m intrigued by past designers who generated ideas and solutions while using limited resources. I love screen-printing because it’s an exercise in limited color – figuring out how two colors can work better than four. David Sedaris once called me “chillbilly” — which is equal parts hilarious and embarrassing — but it does a good job of merging the textured, blue-collar elements with the bright colors and stylized illustrations I’m known for.

Q. Is there an element of art you enjoy working with most? Why?
It’s very clear in my body of work that I almost entirely work on band merchandise, although I jump at every opportunity to take a non-music related design job. Doing digital illustration & typography are my bread and butter, but the computer can be a Lite-Brite for bad ideas and I’m always looking for new ways to work with my hands rather than look at a screen. When I can, I try to incorporate printmaking, hand-drawn illustration, or medium-format photography into my work — back to that interest in old technology!

Q. What are a few of the most notable pieces of work that you have done?
A. I’m very lucky to have some of the work opportunities I’ve had, and thankful for some amazing clients who trust me to work on these projects. I try to keep a good variation in projects, between doing a ton of band merchandise, and also corporate work for some large and small businesses. When I was in high school, mewithoutYou was one of my favorite bands, and several years ago their merchandise manager brought me on to start doing their tour merchandise. Flash forward, and I’ve done more shirts for them than any other band, and I also got to design the packaging for their last two records. If you would’ve told the 18-year-old version of me that I’d eventually be doing all of the band’s T-shirt designs, I would’ve probably peed my pants.
Another project that stands out recently is the packaging design I made for Prawn’s “Kingfisher.” I really love the music on the record, and the band gave me full direction with the artwork. The resulting product is decked out in some Charlie Harper-esque illustrations that I’m very proud of. It’s pretty interesting how a record can feel so sentimental – listening to the songs throughout the recording and artwork process – and then seeing the end result as a whole.

Q. Where are some of the places you typically display and sell your work?
A. My design work is my primary focus, as it’s my profession and source of income, so I aim to only have a couple of gallery showings per year. As for selling my work; I am constantly making new gig-posters for bands, which I make available in an online store on my website. I also just launched a new personal project called Lost Lust Supply, which is basically an outlet to design and manufacture fun objects that aren’t tied to client work. So far I’ve designed a handful of enamel pins, and I’m also collaborating with other artist friends to get them designing pins as part of a monthly collaboration series. I’ll have some of the pins available at the show opening.

Gallery hours are: noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays; and from 6 to 10 p.m. Feb. 12.

GCC Q&A: Charlie Wagers, artist and graphic designer

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