The Late Bloomer: Frida Clements

Editor’s Note: The following article is the third in a four-part series by John Foster about design’s “Late Bloomers.” Read Part 1 and Part 2.

The design field, much like all creative industries, is obsessed with youth. Now, more than ever, we look to see who the next supernova talent will be, burning brightly right out of school and into our consciousness. Long gone are the days of toiling under a master of the form, slowly working your way up, changing agencies just to get a chance to helm your own projects. The internet means that we see everything in real time, and not only what we do, but what all of our peers are designing as well. It can become overwhelming for anyone that might still be finding their feet under them, or hasn’t yet discovered their niche in this industry. That is why my very favorite creatives are not those that are celebrated as their first printed piece rolls off the presses, but rather it is those who grind along for a decade or longer, a potent mix of raw talent and determination, that once refined, brilliant and breath-taking, with the accolades that follow all the more deserved for the hard work and sacrifices it took in earning them.

Here we celebrate those amazing designers. We celebrate the Late Bloomers.

Our third conversation is with the delightful Frida Clements, who has emerged as a refreshing and distinctive voice in both the poster and illustration scene while nestled up in Seattle.

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What education in design do you have?

An AAS in Design & Illustration through Seattle Central Creative Academy. I was in my early 20’s with a toddler in tow when I went to school. There was a daycare on campus, which was essential. When I wasn’t in class, I was busy being a parent and then up well into the night doing homework, and I worked on the weekends.

What were your early jobs right out of school?

Right out of school I was lucky to land a design job immediately, at a small Seattle design firm. I still have some great friends from that time. Then the dot-com bust happened in the early 2000’s and the inevitable downsizing began. Morale suffered, and I ended up leaving of my own volition. Of course, right after I quit my job I discovered I was pregnant with my second child. I was just 25, and attempted to go freelance with a former classmate for a while – but health benefits were a necessity, which meant I needed to return to the job that helped me get through college: checking groceries. That was a tough pill to swallow, but the hours were flexible and I was close to home. I was back to designing on some long-term contracts by the time my second child was about a year and a half old.

What things do you feel were holding you back early in your career, both of your making and other obstacles out of your control?

As a young woman trying to make the best out of a challenging situation and support a family, I felt pretty isolated in the early years. There weren’t a lot of professional 20-somethings in my situation. “Networking” was not much of a possibility. My kids have always inspired me to work harder, and I just wanted to give them the best life that I could, so the pressure to do well on the job was probably more intense for me than my co-workers felt. The work had to impress, because I couldn’t mingle after hours and play that game. I wouldn’t say this was something that was really “holding me back,” however, it was more like a driving force.

Which times did you feel like you finally got a break, only to have it not work out?

I feel pretty grateful for every step of the way, even the challenges. In my career I’ve always been pretty good about shrugging off things that don’t work out, figuring there’s a reason for it and that something better is supposed to come along.

As you found yourself with two small children how difficult was it to balance family and career? How often did you think about just moving your creative urges to a hobby and hunkering into a dependable nine to five?

Since design was the only real marketable skill I possessed, any other kind of 9-5 job was never really an option in my mind. With each milestone, I’ve always just told myself; “Well, there’s no turning back now!” Haha.

You eventually worked your way into designing for one of the biggest and best packaging and branding agencies in the country, yet you still seemed to be working in the shadows. Did you see yourself continuing there as a cog in the larger machine and did you feel like your efforts were recognized and appreciated?

A few of my friends from my first design job were contracting at Hornall Anderson Design Works and were kind enough to help me get my foot in the door there. After everything that had happened with the economy, and my personal life, I felt so grateful to be there, even if it wasn’t as a full-timer. I ended up on long-term contracts for a handful of years, and it was one of the most important learning experiences of my life. I was creating long format brochures, trade show exhibits, packaging, branding, the works. Of course, even though I was making real money for the first time ever, and I was a mother with many responsibilities – I was still young, an artist, and inspired by cool stuff. I loved music, especially local independent music. I had discovered the poster scene by attending one of the very first Flatstock exhibitions during Bumbershoot, a music and arts festival in Seattle. I was totally blown away by the work on display and inspired to get involved. So, as I was designing brochures by day, I began designing posters by night… after my kids were asleep.

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How did that end and what led to you moving on to Seattle Theatre Group?

Once I was intensely designing posters after hours, my conundrum was, how to find paying design work that aligned with my interests? I didn’t have the luxury of taking a lot of career risks at that time. Luckily, I had done a benefit poster for KEXP (Seattle’s beloved independent radio station), and the volunteer who commissioned that poster from me sent along an email letting me know that a design position had opened at Live Nation. During the interview, I learned that Sasquatch! Music Festival was run out of that office, and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to get closer to doing the kind of work I wanted to be doing – and still be able to support my family. Live Nation ended up being a completely different working experience from the cush world of an established design firm. It was an incredibly small group of people, making a ton of shows happen, in a few different markets. I was responsible for meeting weekly ad deadlines, and making posters and flyers and web banners, among other things. In a lot of ways it wasn’t about design at all, it was about dates and ticketing information. However, the booker there (and founder of Sasquatch!), turned out to be a real appreciator of good design and recognized that I had potential beyond production work. He gave me the go-ahead to design my first screen-printed poster for Wilco. So instead of 11×17 digital prints for local bands after hours, I began designing 18×24 screen-prints after hours. It was still a lot of work, but I was elated. After about a year he moved on to the non-profit Seattle Theatre Group and I followed shortly to begin my position as the in-house designer there. My work on Sasquatch! continued, along with branding, advertising, signage, annual reports etc… for STG. I couldn’t have done everything to that level without the experience I had gained at HADW. I also continued designing gig posters after hours.

You ran the Sasquatch Poster series for a number of years, one of the most important annual collections of gigposters in the world – what was fun and what was stressful about handling that?

Individual band posters for the festival had been commissioned from the very beginning, yet, as the festival grew to 3 days it became logistically more difficult to happen in conjunction with booking and organizing everything else. I was full of ambition and also in the process of a difficult divorce. I needed a project to pour my heart into. Pairing over 100 bands with the same number of designers is no easy task; particularly with everything else I had on my plate. But I was excited to continue the project, and in turn I became friends with many of the poster designers I had admired for a long time. Although I’m not running it any longer, the series remains an incredibly grass roots effort that is a very unique aspect of the festival. I’m so proud to have been a part of its history. I think it’s fantastic that so many visual artists continue to be involved, and it’s been really cool to see everyone’s work evolve from year to year.

It was your own gigposter work that really started to get your name noticed, and also where you started to reveal your personal style – do you feel like you would have made those jumps as soon if the gigposter world did not exist?

Probably not. Posters are really where I had free reign to develop my personal style, which has changed a lot from when I started. In every design position I had, the posters always happened late at night on my own time – the only real chance that I had to explore any kind of artistic identity. Those hours, between nine and midnight, were very precious to me.

What was it like as a woman in the decidedly testosterone-fueled gigposter world?

I suppose in the beginning I was afraid of my work being too feminine, and more aware of how few women there were. These days I no longer care what anyone thinks about my interpretations (one of the many perks of approaching 40.) I’ve also gotten to be friends with some amazingly talented women who are also poster designers, and of course the guys too. It’s a really great community of illustrators and designers who have decided to think outside of the box and create their own careers on their own terms. Poster design has also changed a lot in the last 10-15 years as well, which I think of as a reflection of the times we live in. It’s just about interpreting the music in cool, interesting and thoughtful ways.

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You then decided to strike out on your own, what pushed you towards this decision?

My time at STG was a major milestone in my life and career. A lot of personal and professional changes happened over that span of 4 years. While it was another opportunity for me to really understand what I was capable of, finding balance was a challenge and I just burned out. This led me to make either one of the gutsiest or stupidest decisions of my career, which was to jump ship without a plan. I figured that if I worked half as hard for myself as I had for other people, I’d probably be okay. Personally, I was also starting over. I got married again, and my husband is a composer/musician who definitely brought a sense of calm and emotional support into my life that I had never experienced before. Although it was still challenging to make it work as two artists, and as a blended family, life did begin to open up and I was able to tap into what had made me excited about creating art in a whole new way.

What was the first client job you got on your own where it really felt like things might go to another level, and why?

Client work has really taken a back seat to personal work, which was my only goal when I struck out on my own. I continue to create posters for bands when those opportunities present themselves, because that’s still incredibly fun and challenging for me. Now, instead of carving out a few hours for myself at the end of the day (and losing precious sleep), I’ve decided to invest more time into personal projects, which have turned out to be incredibly rewarding. I think there will still be client work in the future, but as I’m becoming more in tune with myself, and the act of creation is beginning to feel really sacred, I want to be aligned with the projects I take on in a deeper way.

When did you start to feel like you were garnering some respect locally, and what changed with that attention?

While I was at HADW, and designing my first posters at night, I got my first “Poster Of The Week” from The Stranger. As the bands I was designing for became higher-profile, so did my local recognition. I think being recognized for the work that I loved to do was helpful during the times when I was working to make ends meet and totally exhausted. Nobody knew what it took for me to make some of those posters to happen, but looking back, it took an awful lot.

Did you start to get different clients, or different types of jobs? How did you advance and grow your business and your design skills?

When you care about the work you are doing, one thing eventually leads to another. That’s been my experience and it continues to be to this day. As far as my poster work goes, the bands I have had a chance to design for have been really incredible. I feel like each new poster is another opportunity to try new things and to challenge myself to keep growing.

What was the first piece where you really saw national recognition?

When I was featured in “Gig Posters Volume II” I felt pretty lucky to be included amongst so many of my talented friends in the poster world.

And “1,000 Indie Posters”, of course! One time Pitchfork put me in their holiday gift guide and I was like, “whaaa?” My site had a lot of hits that week.

How did it feel to reach that stage of acceptance and recognition?

I have never actively sought any kind of recognition because I’ve been so focused on everything it takes to make it as a working artist. When it does happen it is always a nice surprise, but not something I spend too much time thinking about. I’m really focused on the next thing, and becoming better at what I do.

What changed after that as far as opportunities, both in business and in promoting your business, and yourself as a creative?

Opportunities in my career have always been more a result of doing the work and less from any press. As far as visual artists are concerned I still consider myself to be pretty much under the radar.

Do you feel like you upped your game to reach the national spotlight, or it was more of a case of finally being discovered for what you were doing?

I feel like I’ve done the exact opposite of trying to reach any great heights on purpose over the past few years. What I have done is to slow down, invest in myself, and trust my gut more. I’ve started to have more fun! I’m interested in contributing to the world in a meaningful, personal way.

Did that spur you on to really push your work to even greater heights?

My focus now is on creating work that is beautiful, uplifting and yes, even humorous. I feel like there’s a lot of avenues that I have yet to explore. If I can create something that someone wants to hang on their wall and wake up to every day, that’s a really incredible feeling.

Do you think it was better to receive that kind of attention after you were more settled and mature, both professionally and personally?

I think things just shake out the way they are supposed to. I’m grateful for everything I’ve learned along the way, grateful to be doing work that I love every day.

All of this has led to your work becoming more and more personal, and it is hard for me to think of something that sums up everything that is wonderful about what you do, and your personality, than these “animal pun” prints. How did these come about?

Purely kismet! I had been invited to participate in a sketch night at a local pub. But when I showed up, no one was there. I had mixed up the date in my calendar. I decided to spend the night drawing when I returned home anyway. I drew a whale, then spontaneously hand-lettered “Oh Whale” underneath. I instantly felt better and thus began “puncrastinating” on other work and cracking myself up in the process. It was fun, silly, and totally liberating in the best way.

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When did that turn into the possibility of a book deal? What was it like putting “Have A Little Pun” together?

I began to share my punny little obsession with friends and family through Instagram and Facebook. And the response was so incredibly positive, it kind of blew me away. It was really nice to contribute a little bit of joy to people’s daily feed and to get responses like, “I really needed this” or “you made my day” – that kind of thing. Eventually, I had a pretty big collection of illustrations and a few of my friends suggested that I pitch them as a book. I sent them off, crossed my fingers, and to my astonishment Chronicle Books loved what they saw. It was such an incredible feeling, particularly after so many years of working so hard. The process of then turning the series into a full-color book began, and it flowed so easily that I couldn’t believe it. It was hands-down the most enjoyable working experience I have ever had.fridaclements_gullfriend_sm_copy

What other amazing stuff is on the horizon (besides what is sure to be a slew of TV appearances handing out “Hey Gull Friend” t-shirts to the adoring masses)?

Ha!  I’m continuing to stay open, draw daily, and keep myself inspired. I’m still making posters and art prints and have begun selling at craft fairs, as well as the Seattle Flatstock. My mind is a constant idea machine, it always has been. I’m looking forward to whatever surprises happen next.

You can view more of Frida’s amazing work at fridaclements.com and pre-order “Have A Little Pun” here.


 

John Foster is principal and superintendent of Bad People Good Things. He is the author of New Master of Poster Design, Volumes One and Two; Paper and Ink Workshop; 1000 Indie Posters; and several other books on design and creativity, and is a frequent speaker on design issues.

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