A Chat with Adam J. Kurtz aka ADAMJK March 18 2016
Adam J. Kurtz is possibly one of the more well-known “small artists” we carry at Strange Ways. You might have seen his book 1 Page At A Time, or bought some the products he released in collaboration with Urban Outfitters. His commentary on modern appropriation by referencing Joy Divison's “Unknown Pleasures” artwork is still being shared around the internet today. In fact, you may have seen much of Adam's work online, as he's amassed a large social media following. This is probably because he's able to add emotion back into everyday life. His simple, yet insightful drawings bring a human touch to online media which can feel forced, fake, and unfulfilling.
Adam is one of the few artists we've carried from the beginning of Strange Ways, and he still has a presence at our shop today—larger even. It's been great to watch his career grow, and appreciate him taking a chance on our little shop when we first began. Adam is a friend, and I'm happy to be able to talk with him more about his background and insight into the art he makes.
Let's just dive right into it and discuss how you began creating your artwork. What was some of your earliest pieces and inspirations?
I don’t know that I had early “pieces” necessarily. My “art practice” was born out of a hobby, I was never intentionally building anything until people started calling me an artist and then I was growing a “body of work” and then I had a book and then I turned real. But I’ve always really enjoyed bright colors and simple shapes. That’s a sort of visceral childhood thing, right?
Your work can seem both hopeful and sad at the same time. What inspires you, and what are you hoping people take away from your work?
My work is really personal. It’s usually actual emotions or feelings or events that I’ve experienced, translated into something a little more universal or digestible. I am hopeful and sad at the same time! I am sappy as fuck. I am afraid of myself. I am proud of some things that other people aren’t proud of. So I cover a range.
“Oh, I am definitely a graphic designer.
But ‘artist’ encapsulates so much more
of all the other things I do, too.”
A lot of what you create are tangible objects. In many ways they are “useful” items—or “small gifts” as you've stated you enjoy. What's the idea behind art in this type of medium?
Not everyone is, or can be, an art collector. Some people just like nice things that they like. So I try to make work for those people. You can’t necessarily buy a bunch of $500 prints, but you can treat yourself to a $10 pin, or gift a couple to friends. It’s all about making things affordable and easy to collect. I’m also not a huge fan of owning too much “stuff,” so I gravitate to little things.
On a related note, do you ever consider yourself a designer versus an artist? Do you consider there to be a difference? It seems nowadays that the lines between the two slowly blurring.
Oh, I mean I am definitely a graphic designer. But “artist” encapsulates so much more of all the other things I do, too. I’m sort of an “illustrator” and kind of a “product designer” and slightly a “brand” and it just all wraps up nicely in “artist.” I channel feeling into something else. I think that’s art probably.
An assortment of popular lapel pins designed by Adam J. Kurtz.
One of your more popular projects is the Unsolicited Advice planner that you crowdfund each year. Can you talk a bit about them, and why you think people are willing to invest in them every year?
Unsolicited Advice is another example of accessible, digestible art. I love zines, but you read them from time to time and then put them on your shelf. The planner has some zine-like elements, a fun and DIY spirit that feels personal and small-scale, but a practical purpose that serves you daily. It’s also just a fun, nice thing. If you’re going to use a calendar it might as well be one that makes you laugh!
Correct me if I'm wrong, but these planners influenced your first book backed by a major publisher. How did the planners and your other work inspire 1 Page at a Time?
The planners have a lot of weird little surprises, and tiny nagging reminders to help you get your shit together. When I first met with my publisher at Penguin, she told me she loved all of that good stuff, and knew it could be expanded into a standalone book. 1 Page at a Time embodies a lot of my ideas about life and how to live it, but is also weird and surprising. It’s simple enough to not be overwhelming, and like the calendars, it becomes whatever you make of it as the year goes on.
I assume creating items that allow the viewer to interact with them is something you enjoy. Your books ask the readers to draw in them, write down answers, and express themselves. What do you appreciate about this type of interaction?
When you make work about life and feelings and introspective thinking, it can’t be a monologue. I can’t tell someone how to process their world. Our experiences are not the same. “Self-help” is kind of a misnomer. Self-help books are more like “I tell you what to do” books. When you instead choose to interact with a book, write down your own feelings, and process them as a whole, then you are truly helping your self.
You've been invited to have an event at MoMA, you've worked at Buzzfeed, you created a shirt for Tumblr plus exclusive product for Urban Outfitters... Any insight into working those big name connections? How did most of these partnerships come about?
Every single situation is different, and I don’t know if there’s a “life hack” to making cool opportunities like these happen. BuzzFeed was a day job, and I applied for it the same way you apply for any job. I uploaded a resume to a website.
I think one thing that does seem to work sometimes is being genuine. Your honest enthusiasm for a brand or a project is palpable, and some of the coolest opportunities I’ve had simply came out of being excited in a casual conversation.
Other opportunities are flukes. My book editor found me through my personal projects. MoMA invited me because my book is a top seller… I didn’t even know they carried it there. Life is unpredictable and sometimes coincidences line up.
You now live in Brooklyn, NY but you're originally from Canada. Was the move to NYC a part of pursuing the Big City dream of being a “true artist”?
I was actually living in Baltimore after college, and was in a little bit of a rut. A friend got a job offer in New York and randomly asked if I wanted to move up with him. I kind of wasn’t doing too much else, and worked remotely for a marketing firm. I said yes and moved three months later. It was only a 3 hour drive, we just threw our shit in a truck and I’m still here.
You're a popular guy on Instagram and other social media outlets. Do you find online interaction a key part of your work?
To be honest, I am not sure my whole thing would work without the internet. So much of my simplest work relies on human connection, whether implicit in the words, implied in the style, or tied to me: a real, live, open, human person.
How did your moniker and online handle ADAMJK come about? I think it's pretty obvious, but it seems like many people know you by this nickname more than your full artist name.
I’ve gone by Adam J. Kurtz since grade school and I don’t know exactly why. People were calling me ADAMJK before I was, it just makes sense the way we find variations of our names for usernames. It started a little earlier on the internet, before our full names were attached to everything. It was definitely me, but afforded a tiny amount of anonynimity.
For the past month or so you've taken a break from selling your art (which we've happily worked with you to sell many of your items in our shop during this time). You've been working on finishing your second book to be published by Penguin. Can you say how this will different from your other books, and possible your other work in general?
At this point, it’s actually been three months! Three glorious, amazing months of not processing daily orders. I love having a shop and sending work directly from my hands to someone else’s, but it is time consuming, and I did really need that time for this new book.
PICK ME UP: A Pep Talk For Now & Later is similar to 1 Page at a Time in that it’s an interactive book that I made. Everything else is pretty much different. This time, it’s not linear at all, and pages don’t end after you write on them, but rather build over time so you can see how you grow, and take your own advice when you’re losing your shit.
Most notably, this new book contains a lot more writing! It’s still very much about whoever is using it, but there is also general advice and reflection on life. It’s still very casual, and I don’t present myself as any kind of expert. I’m not telling you what to do ever, because I have no fucking clue either.
A lot your work revolves around phrases, bits of advice, and thoughts to ponder. Would you be so kind as to end our interview by leaving readers with one of these anecdotes?
NEVER GIVING UP IS HOW YOU WIN.