Artist, graphic designer, and creative Lance Kagey knows creativity is more than just inspiration—it’s a mindset. A working artist who also straddles the corporate world, Kagey describes himself as “street artist, a business leader, a community stirrer-upper.”
As the Creative Director/Partner of design studio Rotator, Kagey focuses on community, art and design. He’s also been street-papering prints on the streets of Tacoma for the last 18 years as the co-founder of the guerrilla art project Beautiful Angle.
We asked Kagey about the value of creativity in everyday business, and how he thinks the concept of ‘Art-and-Business-Don’t-Mix’ is changing.
You’ve been succeeding as a graphic designer in Tacoma for roughly 25 years. What habits, quirks, or attributes do you credit to that longevity?
One thing has become apparently clear these days —the personal economic equation of creative producers needs to be multifaceted in order to really work for the individual or family.
In the past there were benefactors that supported the individual artist. Today that support has been decentralized. Support comes from individuals, corporate clients, foundations, municipalities and so on. Even the most famous celebrity creatives have diversified their income streams. This is a pragmatic acknowledgement that we have to pay rent, feed our families, and have a measure of livability to thrive.
For me personally, finding this balance has been a journey. I’ve always been wildly creative and for years didn’t understand how I could make a living and be an artist. So, I fell into the misnomer that I just had to be a “commercial artist” or do sales in an industry serving creatives, not actually contributing to the vitality that comes through creative endeavors myself.
The critical thing I discovered was that I just needed to start doing something, anything. The rhythm of being a creative producer creates its own momentum which becomes very powerful.
Oftentimes when we have speaking engagements, I’ll mention this challenge: if a person started putting a stack of rocks on a corner in downtown every month, I guarantee that people would start posting it on Instagram: “Oh, the new stack of rocks is here!”
We are creatures of rhythm. One big key to success is to start doing something and keep doing it. In this particular example, I say, start being creatively productive and keep doing it, keep doing it and keep doing it. It’s said that Vincent Van Gogh never sold any paintings but just think about how many museums around the world are filled with his incredible work.
You used to work-as a creative among number crunchers in a corporate setting. How did this experience influence your views on the value of creativity in everyday business?
This might be self-aggrandizement, but I believe creatives are the true vitality that makes society thrive. Creative thinking, creative problem-solving, creative producers take the mundane and stale and bring it to life.
That can happen in a financial firm to help the “number crunchers” consider how they tell their critical story, or on the walls of a pristine white gallery. Too often as youth we think two-dimensionally about careers:I’m going to be a firefighter, or a doctor, or an artist. When in reality I am a business-owner, letterpress artist, graphic designer, muralist, and sculptor who worked in the financial industry for a time, and brought all those sensibilities and talents to bear on finding dynamic solutions to each of the projects I’ve been involved with.
Artists are uniquely positioned to address the transcendentals — Truth, Beauty, and Goodness — by amplifying these in whatever place we find ourselves. A creative mindset helps us in Science, Art and Faith—to think for ourselves, find our way in the world and tell the larger stories that resonate with all of us: What am I doing here? I mean I’m here, so what am I doing?
You are now a partner in your own shop, Rotator, a creative agency “with heart and a focus on strategy— but we’re not afraid to call ourselves artists.” How do you respond to the stereotype that artists and business don’t mix?
I think the ‘Art-and-Business-Don’t-Mix’ conception is changing. The lines are definitely blurring, between the maker movement and the way fine artists commodify their own work. A lot of this has evolved out of the work of people like Andy Warhol celebrating the mundane soup can, or Richard Florida making a case for the creative economy.
Corporations are striving to differentiate themselves. Art doesn’t have to be just self-expression; it can have purpose beyond itself. We see this also in the fine artist creating art as a political statement or a band creating serious music for the gaming industry. Even in its purest form, abstract expressionism had a point it was trying to make.
Everything is blurring, which I believe can be a good thing. Some of my art is definitely an expression of my faith, but some of it is focused on placemaking — the effort to create environments that are more inclusive and inviting. It’s not an either/or dichotomy. It’s richer than that.
More and more we define ourselves as community builders. We might build community by designing a powerful logo that a team can rally around, or by creating a piece of public art, like our latest at Fireman's Park in downtown Tacoma, which creates a gathering place that is inclusive and engaging.
Your prints have become an iconic statement across Tacoma. Tell us a little bit about Beautiful Angle, the letterpress street-art poster project. How did it begin? Is it still going? Why has it been important to take this visual conversation to the streets?
Tom Llewellyn and I have been exploring creative endeavors for over 30 years. We did a comic strip for a weekly rag, we were in a band together (the first band to ever play Shakabrah back in the day), and we have created andy-goldsworthy-esque assemblages on beaches around the Sound.
Tom is a writer and I, of course, am a visual artist/designer. When the drummer from our band moved to Brazil, we decided to take a hiatus. A band is hard. It is so dependent on others — band members showing up to practice, venue owners willing to let you play, family and friends showing up to your shows, promoters promoting and on and on. When your friends have seen you for the fifth time, how do you keep them coming back?
Out of that realization we decided to try something different. If we just created something and put it out there with no expectations of others, we could do whatever we wanted. Inspired by other guerilla artists we started Beautiful Angle and it quickly took on a life of its own.
Now more than 18 years later it’s still going strong. Our intention was to do something sustainable that we could do month-in-and-month-out. I think its importance is that it invites the larger community into dialog. It’s pedestrian, but that is part of its charm. It invites the whole community to go out, explore, engage, and maybe meet their neighbors. There is no agenda except to get out there and be part of the community. We might just as likely talk about good pizza as good politics (if there is such a thing).