A true multidisciplinary artist, Jimmy Mezei is skilled in graphic design, illustration and painting, among many other talents. His works exude personality and a thrill for life, particularly in the everyday (or arguably mundane) aspects that may otherwise get overlooked or passed by. His work embodies a definite interest in signage of all sorts, with a vintage focus, and plenty of common objects given life through Jim’s fresh, almost tender, perspective. We love his use of color, playfulness and understated wit.
We were thrilled to pay him a visit, at home in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and explore his studio space while our senior graphic designer, Chris, asked him a few questions.
How did you get into illustration?
My mom was crafty. Growing up, I was often making, drawing, or painting with her. I never lost interest in drawing and painting and that led me to OCAD University in Toronto. I liked my experience at school but, looking back, I wish I had taken advantage of my time there. I did end up meeting people that I wanted to make stuff with in my third year, though, which I don’t think always happens. The shared interest got me more seriously into both illustration and design.
You’re based in Brooklyn now, were you previously working in Toronto, post graduation?
I’m from Stratford, Ontario, originally. After school, I worked at a café in Toronto while trying to do my own thing on the side. I ended up getting a design internship with a great local firm, Arcade, around then as well. I saw graphic design as a foot in the door of an industry where I wasn’t sure where I’d fit.
What kinds of personal projects were you working on at the time?
In my last years of school I got together with a group of people doing the kind of work I was excited about and we began to sort of sit down and draw together or have a few drinks and collaborate on pieces. Once we had finished our thesis work we had a group show on Bathurst Street, in Toronto, called Transport. We chose a really broad theme that was loosely based on modes or ideas of transportation.
Do you still collaborate with the same people?
Yes, definitely. My first project in 2016 was a privately commissioned mural in San Francisco that I painted with my good friend Kellen [Hatanaka]. The mural was 24 ft x 4 ft using house paint, enamel, and gesso on plywood panels. The massive space was a new challenge but really exciting. I wasn’t sure what I would do in that space but I knew what I could do with Kellen. I knew our sensibilities would work together. It was a really fun project.
How would you describe or define your style? We've noticed a lot of sign painting references and inanimate or everyday objects.
I always have trouble defining my style. I do have and know my references but I’m not really able to say, this one thing is my style. With my work—whether it’s graphic design, commercial work or more along the lines of fine art—my drawing and sense of traditional materials tie it all together. I jump between mediums a lot. Recently, I’ve really enjoyed working with watercolors, oils, and just painting more. I’m definitely influenced by sign painting and bring that study and an obsession with graphic design into my paintings.
Who are some of the people that you admire in the industry?
I've inherited a lot of influences and references from my father-in-law, Tom Slaughter, who was a painter. After I left school, he introduced me to a ton of artists that I may have known but wasn’t anywhere near as familiar with or interested in as I am now. He opened me up to many different painters and designers; people like Ellsworth Kelly, Geoff McFetridge, Paul Rand, Jonas Wood, and Richard Diebenkorn.
Would you say your father-in-law was a mentor?
He was absolutely a mentor. I got to work with him only briefly, actually. He was super excited when I moved to New York and asked me help at his studio—partly, I’m sure, he just wanted to take advantage of my skill set and give me work to do—which I was actually really happy about. His studio space on Broadway was beautiful and of an era in New York City that one might only read about today. I was just so happy to get to be in that space as much as I could—let alone work in it. When I got there in the morning he'd put me to the task like, “Okay, what’s up? What are we doing today? Let’s work on these patterns.” Getting to work with him and see him work were incredibly formative experiences for me. I got to see him in his space and I got to be there for one of the last shows he put on.
Did you decide to set up your studio in Red Hook because of its longstanding community of artists?
It’s definitely something I was aware of and am hoping to become part of just by way of being a neighborhood guy. I’m definitely not immersed in it yet but there’s an amazing artist-in-residency space, on the corner by my place, called Pioneer Works. They put on a great event called Second Sundays every second Sunday of the month where you can check out the artists in residency works and workspaces. I just love the area in general, though. The Court Street Grocers Hero Shop is just down the street, Pioneer Books is really great, the pier is nice and Hometown BBQ is delicious. I don’t go into the city a ton -- unless it's to see a show or something like that -- there’s enough here.
What’s your morning routine?
It definitely varies. Sometimes I try to make my own schedule so it’s similar to [my wife] Hannah’s. She works really late at the New Yorker, so I’m often up working late as well. I just started drinking coffee this year. It used to be an apple in the shower.
Can you talk a little bit about the projects or jobs you work on daily to “pay the rent”, so to speak, in comparison with the projects that may be a little bit closer to your heart?
Yeah, for sure. I think the reason I decided to study design in the first place was for graphic design to be an option, job-wise, but then I ended up really loving it and getting excited about jobs that might have otherwise be considered mundane. I’m currently working on branding for a handful of smaller companies and even some musicians. I’ve worked on packaging, signage, and custom print series' for companies like Kings County Distillery.
Painting is the work I'd consider "closer to my heart,” simply because it’s always my own project, but each informs the other. I’ve gotten to a place where I may be designing three days out of the week and painting the rest, but it's all coming out of one studio.
Do you have a signature tool, like a go-to pencil?
I have these brush pens that I probably use the most—Refillable Pentel brush pens. I really like the micron. They’re perfect for doing really fine work but I also love this other one that’s fat and stubby. Oh, and I love old mechanical pencils
What do you have planned for 2016?
It’s been busy so far! To start the year off with a huge mural was amazing. I’d love to meet some new people, collaborate with new perspectives and have more of a community in Brooklyn—most of the guys I frequently collaborate with are based in Toronto. That being said, I want to keep up our ongoing projects, too, like Weekly Crop.
What’s Weekly Crop?
Weekly Crop is something that I started three years ago, as a blog, with the group of guys I’ve been collaborating with since college. We come up with 52 ideas for the year; a huge list of random topics. We assign them for every week in the year and everyone has their day to create an image that goes with that theme. I don’t know if anything will come of it, we’ve made print runs, but it’s more a way to keep collaborating with these guys regardless of where we’re based or how busy it gets as we take on new projects.
Check out Jimmy's work here.