Go Make Something
The past 10 years have been a better adventure than I could have ever imagined or made up, mostly in ways that go beyond amazing poster artwork.
Specifically, the privilege of meeting and getting to know the people who create those posters, and the people who come out to our pop-up shows to see and buy those posters. I’ve gotten the chance to repeat and revel in experience in cities across the U.S. and beyond, with thousands of people whose paths I would otherwise never have crossed. And I wouldn’t trade that for anything.
But the thing is, when you open up your mind and your life to the world, a lot comes in with it. And it’s not always happiness, sweetness, and light. And for me at least, the worst of it seems to happen in November.
Aaron and Nora
In 2014, my friend Nora lost her husband Aaron — a friend, fellow ad guy, and a longtime contributor to ARTCRANK in Minneapolis — to cancer on November 25.
I’d worked with Nora’s sister and aunt earlier in my career, but didn’t really get to know her until she started dating Aaron. Aaron and Nora met and started dating in 2010. After suffering a seizure, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2011. They got engaged that night, lying together in a hospital bed. Just a month after Aaron’s first brain surgery, they were married.
In January of 2013, they welcomed their son Ralph into the world, with Aaron still recovering from his second surgery. In early October, her father Stephen passed away after his own battle with cancer. And less than two months later, at the end of November, Aaron was gone. More than 1,000 people came to his memorial service, which held in the same venue where we’d staged the last show that Aaron made a poster for, just a few months before.
During Aaron’s treatment for cancer, Nora started a blog called My Husband’s Tumor. As she put it, “It’s not a cancer story. It’s a love story. With some cancer.” What started as a way for her to share the details of Aaron’s treatment with friends and family soon garnered an international audience. After Aaron’s death, she started writing a book, "It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying is Cool, Too)." And this month, she’ll launch a podcast called “Terrible, Thanks For Asking.”
She also launched a nonprofit organization in Aaron’s memory called Still Kickin, after his favorite t-shirt. As she writes on the Still Kickin site:
Now, this shirt creates a safety net for other awesome people who find themselves going through something awful.
Every month, we choose a Still Kickin Hero. We share their story of struggle and strength, and give them the profits from our retail sales and from donation-based workouts with small gyms around the country. I know from experience that many small acts of generosity add up to something so much bigger, and that we are all so much stronger than we think we are.
This isn't just a t-shirt. It's a symbol to the world that whatever comes your way, you're ready to kick it right in the nuts. Because we all go through something, and we are all Still Kickin. Even if some days it seems harder.
Eric and Laurent
On the evening of November 13, 2015 the Bataclan theater in Paris was packed with 1,500 people, most there to see the American rock band Eagles of Death Metal. Among them was Laurent DuVoux, one of the artists we met through our ARTCRANK Paris collaboration with the Paris bike-share Vélib’, along with his business partner, Éric Thomé.
Just before 10:00pm, a car pulled up in front of the venue and three men in dark clothing, all carrying assault rifles, entered the building. They opened fire on the audience from the mezzanine, reloading multiple times. Audience members initially mistook the gunfire for pyrotechnics. Some were able to escape through emergency exits or onto the roof of the building. Others lay still on the floor, pretending to be dead.
The attackers took the remaining members of the crowd hostage as police arrived, threatening to behead a hostage every five minutes. After a tactical assault team stormed the theater, two of the attackers detonated suicide vests, and a third was killed by police. All told, 90 people lost their lives. Laurent was able to escape the theater, but Éric was not. He and his wife Laurence had a four-old daughter, and were expecting their second daughter.
In mourning for his friend, Laurent decided to carry on We Are Ted, the design studio he’d founded with Éric. As he told the New York Times, “We were a small agency and we liked it that way. It was always just supposed to be Éric and me.’’ Today, Laurent continues to create simple, colorful designs with whimsical characters for an impressive roster of clients, carrying on the work he’d started with Eric in 2007.
A few weeks before the show at the Bataclan, Eric and Laurent were debating whether to buy tickets for another show. “Let’s do it now,’’ Eric said, “because soon I won’t have the time.”
Go Make Something
So far, November 2016 isn’t shaping up to be an all-time fave. None of my friends have died. But we did elect a president who offends, disturbs, and/or outright terrifies more than half the voting public, statistically speaking. Millions of Americans line up behind a candidate and a platform that built on the idea that America had somehow been stolen from us. By two-faced politicians, by a culture of “political correctness,” by the media, by immigrants, etc. ad nauseum. People voted for a tough-talking, charismatic leader who promised to restore our country to its former glory. That message was crystallized in a simplistic, four-word slogan: Make America Great Again.
But here’s the thing: “Make America Great Again” isn’t just a false premise. It’s a failure of imagination. A failure to recognize, celebrate, and champion the creative entrepreneurship that’s always been the best part of American exceptionalism. And the only greater failure of imagination would be to accept it, and the consequences that come with it, as fact, as fate.
A few years ago, the fine folks at Levi’s offered to make custom ARTCRANK denim trucker jackets for our staff — ARTCRANK logo on the back, the whole shebang. As we were finalizing our order, they told me that we could print a short message in reflective ink on the underside of the collar, one that’d be clearly visible with collar turned up — even at night. So I asked myself, if I had to express the most important thing about ARTCRANK in as few words as possible, what would it be? Here’s what I came up with:
As I was writing this, I reached out to a couple people I know in different parts of the country for a few words on how they were using creativity to counter adversity and make their neighborhoods, their cities a little better. I thought I’d a get a sound bite or two. What I got was an influx of inspiring stories that were too big and too good to pare down for this post. So instead, this will be the first in an ongoing series of posts highlighting people and organizations making the best of the worst, the toughest, the most trying and tragic situations you can imagine.
No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, YOU are still the leader of the sovereign nation of your mind. And while I understand that there may be a few doubting, questioning voices in that nation, there’s not an obstructionist congress standing in the way of getting things done, of taking action, of creating something amazing.
You can’t change the world all at once because the world doesn’t change all it once. It changes slowly, with ideas and actions that start small, but amplify and grow as they resonate with more people. Legendary Boston politician Tip O’Neill famously said “All politics is local,” and I think the same is true with change. If you’re using the power of creativity for good, to make a positive change in the world, we want to share your story.
I’ve heard a lot of people talk about the loss of manufacturing jobs in the U.S. by saying something to the effect of, “We used to make stuff here.” Guess what? We still can, and still do. New stuff for a different world to be sure. But as you may have noticed, the world doesn’t stand still.
Want to make America great? Go make something.