ON MINNESOTA: SEAN O'BRIEN
So much of what we create is inspired and influenced by our environment. The kinetic energy of the city fuels us but an escape into nature grounds us. Though they may seem diametrically opposed, we need both. WNW Member #2944 Sean O'Brien welcomes us to his adopted hometown of Minnesota. After fifteen years in San Francisco, Sean experienced a strong dose of culture shock to which he responded in the way only a true creative can: by observing, documenting, empathizing, and celebrating it through art.
Sean recently completed a personal project entitled Hibernation, a photo series about Minnesota motorcyclists as they wait out the winter.
Tell us a bit about yourself. Who is Sean O'Brien?
Husband, proud dog dad of a Boxer and a Bernese, motorcycle loyalist, and creative tradesman. I was born in Daytona Beach, Florida (insert redneck joke here.) Went to high school in a small rural town east of Flint, MI where I worked at a hunt club through the winters and a large ranch in the summers. From there I moved around a bit, started school in Detroit and Pittsburgh. Lots of love for ‘da Burg and all of the post-industrial rust belt. Spent some time in Miami, launching a swimwear brand called Island Company. Learned a lot since it was just two of us, I was responsible for making everything. Funny anecdote, a bikini I designed was worn in an issue of Sports Illustrated’s Swim Suit Edition by Petra Nemcova..
Right after the dot com crash I moved to SF. Freelanced around town, doing odd jobs before going full-time at some awesome shops like EVB doing a ton of web design back when flash was cool. Spent two years in Portland at W+K, which were the hardest two years of my life, but I learned a ton. I took a break to freelance at CP+B in Boulder where I met my now wife at “The Res” where they put all freelancers and new hires. Our dogs introduced us. We spent 3 more years back in SF before she decided to make a career change triggering the move to Minneapolis.
What are you currently working on?
It’s the middle of my second winter here in The North, and I’m continuing a personal project started last winter called Hibernation. Its a portrait series documenting Minnesota motorcyclists and how they survive the cold months with their bikes on blocks and tenders. Hanging out in random garages, meeting all kinds of characters, staring at bikes and listening to stories is a great way to get through the darkness.
Outside of the personal work, like all freelancers, the majority of my time is spent in the ad world, but I also work with small businesses and non-profits too. Small businesses is where it’s at, so much fire and heart in that zone. I just got back from Colorado visiting Mountain Toad Brewing, we’ve been working together since they started two years ago. They’re building a bigger brewery and starting to can next year, so this year we’ll be working on packaging and expanding the identity system. Super proud of them and Blackfern, a surfboard shaper in Portland; they’ve both built strong local communities around their brands.
Today I’m working on a brand refresh and packaging with a super cool shop based in San Diego. Favorite thing I did recently was a large book for 3M through a local agency called Space150. It was a nice change of pace to dig into something deep and tangible that’s designed to be picked up and used on a daily basis. It’s been years since my last press check. There’s nothing like the smell of fresh ink and paper.
Any upcoming projects?
I’ve got another personal project in the early stages of development. This one is a bit more complicated, so I’m finding people to help guide me through it. It’s focused on relieving some of the negative tension the media is creating around our Muslim community here in the twin cities. It’s a really vibrant and diverse community from lots of different countries. I’d like it to be centered around portraits, food, poetry, and music. Lots to learn beforehand though.
What are some of your current obsessions?
I just discovered Anish Kapoor’s work the other day, that really blew my mind. I never knew he was responsible for Cloud Gate in Chicago. His work is so visceral. It’s massive and evokes so many different feelings it can be dark, serene, violent, playful, and spiritual.
The Internet is my mainline into podcasts. I’m pretty addicted. WTF with Marc Maron, Death Sex and Money with Anna Sale, Invisibilia, Radio Lab, Snap Judgement, Love & Radio, Reply All, and of course This American Life and OnBeing. Krista Tippet introduced me to Mary Oliver’s work last week. So I’ve been reading her stuff in the morning.
We know you lived for a long time in San Francisco. Tell us about the transition to Minnesota: why did you move?
My wife left advertising to pursue a career in social work with a focus on trauma therapy. Helping vets with PTSD & TBI. The transition started in SF, but quickly became too expensive. She is from Minneapolis and some of the best programs in the country are here in the twin cities. Not to mention the VA here has a reputation for being one of the most progressive. So it was a no brainer.
After 12 years I was pretty nervous about leaving Northern California. My relationship with San Francisco had been over for sometime, but Marin County to the Oregon border is my favorite place on earth. Year ‘round motorcycle season, best roads in the country, farms, mountains, road side BBQ oyster shacks, The Pelican Inn, Muir Beach, middle of nowhere bakery’s, and Lake Tahoe. It was an emotional departure to say the least.
Favorite things about living there, biggest challenges...
Once you embrace winter, it's a beautiful thing. One big difference from the coasts, is that everyone here is from here. A big shift from the transient nature of SF. It was rare to meet someone born and raised in SF. Here in Minneapolis it’s the opposite, and when you do find someone the answer to “Why the hell did you move here?” is almost always “I got married, and my wife/husband is from here.” Minnesotans always return home.
It’s also weird to be the odd man out when it comes to kids. They procreate early and often here. Must be the winters.
The biggest challenge for outsiders is adjusting to the unique culture. The coasts have their own way of being very confrontational. Brutal honesty is the modus operandi. To the point where you become very comfortable with harsh criticism and open dialogue. Minnesota’s rules of engagement are very different. It's courteous, emotionally restrained, non confrontational, and politely passive aggressive. Commonly referred to as ‘Minnesota Nice’. There are some very funny blogs, YouTube videos, and translations you can find to help you navigate it.
When local fine art photographer Alec Soth was asked to describe Minnesotans, the two words he chose were: Friendly and Remote.
Aside from that, the city has really grown on me. The pinnacle discovery this summer was a region in Wisconsin called the Driftless or Paleozoic Plateau if you want to get technical. 16,000 square miles of un-glaciated terrain deeply carved river valleys prime for motorcycling. Also the home of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie School of design and architecture.
My favorite thing about being here is not being so insular and wrapped up in the Silicon/Techno/Advertising navel gazing ego trip. I rarely hang out with industry people here and when my wife comes home from the VA or the Domestic Abuse Project I get solid dose of real world perspective. I enjoy spending time with regular folks who could care less about the latest app, they don’t know what Y Combinator is, and no one is complaining about having to stay at the Viceroy because Shutters was sold out last week. It’s allowed me to look at what I do simply for what it is. A trade. No different than a carpenter, real estate agent, or mechanic.
How does the city inspire you?
It’s crafty, loud, tasty, and gritty.
In the winter they make art shanty’s and throw a big party on a frozen lake. They drill spikes into their tires and ride dirt bikes on ice. The Walker and The Guthrie keep the culture pumping. First Ave and the music scene is legendary, blows SF out of the water. Almost any night of the week you can find high quality live music like Charlie Parr or Ben Weaver. Damn good food from all over the world. Killer farm dinners. Beer, Beer, and more Beer: there’s a brewery for every neighborhood. As a designer, there’s no shortage of amazing typography around the cities - both old and new, hand painted, or dimensional, crazy cool signage.
What neighborhood stores, cafes, etc. do you love and why?
Tea Source - locally owned tea company with some amazing blends. i don’t drink coffee, so this was like discovering Stumptown for me.
Tiny Diner - cool project focused on sustainability, they have their own urban farm just down the street, and they experiment with diner food. started by a powerhouse of a woman Kim Bartmann, she owns several spots in the city.
Hola Arepa - favorite food truck turned small restaurant.
Spoon and Stable - the new hot shit in town. farm to table with next level service.
Fulton Beer- great taproom in the north loop our industrial area turned hip neighborhood. The Worthy Adversary will melt your mind.
Creative community - tell us about the creative scene in Minnesota, where do people hang out?
Northeast Minneapolis is where all the creative folks go. It’s our art district, and it’s starting to get recognized nationally which is cool. The big event every year is called Art-A-Whirl it’s kinda like our version of Art Basel. Very cool stuff to be seen and heard.
There's so much music here, it's crazy. I collaborate a bit with Ben Weaver, a songwriter, poet, and cyclist. He recently rode from Minneapolis to New Orleans on his bike, playing shows along the Mississippi. Ben is so hardcore that he takes his kids to school on his bike when it's like twenty below His son Frankie loves it when people in cars freak out. That's fucking inspiring.
Like I mentioned before. I’m not connected to the industry scene, but something I really respect was started by one of the city's finest, Mr. Mike Fetrow and a handful of crazy talented designers. It’s called The Shirt Show: a bunch of cool tees, Minnesota puns, beer, and people. Shout out to Smasal, Beckman, and Kirsebaum.
The motorcycle community here is super creative as well. Lots of restoration, custom builders, vintage, bobbers, choppers, cafe racers etc. We have our own little show called The Bearded Lady. It’s one of the many Block Parties during the summer. The cities love their block parties, there’s one almost every weekend.
There are a lot of really creative hard working folks on the farm in the dirt here too. I had the pleasure of branding and shooting photography for a new blog started by two women who left advertising to pursue their passion for permaculture. We got to meet and talk to bee keepers, urban farmers, aquaponic farmers, an incubator farm run by a few super smart twenty-somethings, and a thirty something couple who decided to take what they learned in the backyard and move the family out to the country and give it at scale.
When I think of creative in Minneapolis though, I think of my new friend and maker Mike Haeg - this guy is The Mayor of the smallest town in Minnesota called Mt. Holly. A population of four, the number of people in his family, the town is his yard. Thats not a joke, he went through the whole process of making his property on the corner of two streets in Shakopee, MN his own little town complete with his own zip code, film festival, newsletter and radio station. I love Mike. He’s constantly making something new and fun. He took me on a motorcycle ride to Franconia sculpture park this fall. It’s such a weird funky place.
Any WNW members whose work you admire?
Hands down, Doug Pedersen - the dude is a fucking machine. he’s crazy smart, and super fast conceptually. Beyond all that ad stuff - he’s the nicest most genuine human being i’ve met here. I didn’t get to spend much time with him, but I was really captivated by his personal work. It's typography/illustration experiments, inspired by his son who has Autism. They are really fantastic. Doug is a very talented illustrator.