Normally, Jonathan Bartlett (MFA 2010 Illustration as Visual Essay) is a small-format kind of guy—his work usually appears in magazines, books and ads. So when he was tapped to illustrate the entire façade of a Greenwich Village building, it was time to think big.
Bartlett is the first SVA alumnus to participate in the Art Wall Project, a downtown public art showcase that has transformed 99 University Place, home of the Denim & Supply store, into an enormous “canvas” for emerging artists. Admirers of Bartlett’s outdoor installation can even stop inside for a limited-edition t-shirt inspired by his design. And 100% of the proceeds go toward a scholarship for MFA Illustration as Visual Essay students, thanks to a special collaboration between the SVA Alumni Society and Denim & Supply’s parent company, Ralph Lauren. We asked Bartlett to talk about what it’s like making art for (wait for it…) a large medium.
What was your reaction when you learned you were selected for the Art Wall Project? Did you have any reservations or concerns?
When the project was first described to me, my initial reaction was total shock that a company like Ralph Lauren wanted to give me almost complete freedom on a project of this huge of a scale. It was humbling and exciting all at the same time. I was well aware of the magnitude of the challenge I was given, but I have an underdog complex and thrive on challenges. The very next thought was, “Let’s get started because I have tons of ideas.”
What was it like to create your design? Were there many layers of revision between concept and final version?
The biggest piece in this puzzle was obviously the wall. So working with that, and with some collaboration with David Lauren (of all people!), I’ve been able to present my own personal vision. Aside from that, I can’t stress how much freedom RL has truly given me.
Much of your work was made to hand-held scale, not for the sides of buildings. How did you know your illustration would translate on this enormous “canvas?”
Just to be clear, I didn’t have to worry about literally painting the mural on the wall. Which is good, because that would have been a total disaster! But the process was the same. In terms of image-making, I still created my pictures the same way I always have.
However, I want to point out that I don’t feel boxed in as simply an “illustrator.” Ralph Lauren allowed me to get out of that single lane and bring my ideas to life through fashion design, installation art and even sculpture. It’s a role I’m incredibly grateful for. When people see the final results, I want them to realize that illustration can be so much more than just making printed pictures. It’s all just telling stories.
The Denim & Supply brand is supposed to evoke the independent, freewheeling style of a graffiti artist. Hellbent did the last Art Wall. But your art seems way more formal than so-called street art. It has a kind of Saturday Evening Post feel to it.
The visual aesthetic between my work and most street art you see is much, much different, but that’s only in presentation. Those artists have something to say and they say it. I’m doing the exact same thing. Once the wall is covered, it’s public art.
That being said, the Art Wall Project was never about making art that felt like Denim & Supply. It’s about Ralph Lauren putting their support behind an individual and their vision, and letting that play out on the “canvas” that is their store and brand. That action itself embodies the concept of “independence” and “freewheeling,” I think.
this year’s 30th anniversary celebrations for both the MFA Illustration as Visual Essay Department and its founder and longtime chair, Marshall Arisman. How would you describe your own SVA education?
You know when you go through life and find yourself having an experience, or meeting an individual, and knowing that it will completely change who you are as a person forever? That’s what the MFA Illustration program and Marshall did for me. I cannot begin to express the extent of Marshall’s effect on me not just as an artist, but as a person. I also must mention Carl Titolo here. Mentor doesn’t even being to describe it. Sometimes I joke that I’ve learned more about living my life from Marshall and Carl than I have about making art. But in effect, aren’t those just the same thing?