New York-based Art Director, Monica Nelson, talks to Freja about her multifaceted career, her passion for creating content with substance and value and her rotating cast of side projects.
I studied Graphic Design at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. At school, creating imagery was already really important to my work. My first job, was at Urban Outfitters in Philadelphia. Those few years were very formative and I had the chance to work with a wonderful team there. I found myself at 22, already on set with photographers. I made books with Martin Parr, Stephen Shore and Harmony Korine, and drove around in a van with Alec Soth for a few days taking photos of Christmas Trees. It really solidified my interest in telling stories.
In 2011, I helped start a magazine called Wilder Quarterly, and I moved to Portland OR to work at Wieden + Kennedy. At W+K, I had the opportunity to work on the Levi’s Go Forth campaign, I worked with some of the most inspiring creative directors who really challenged me to think about creating ideas in new ways. And, Wilder was an amazing dream project. Wilder is a magazine about contemporary horticulture, we were very interested in the world around plants—the people, mythology, ephemera, and the minutiae of the plants themselves. It was a great platform for photography and writing. Though it isn’t printed anymore, I believe it will be something that people will continue to appreciate over time.
For the past two years I have been back in NYC freelancing. I’ve really made the rounds, as people like to joke. I worked at a wonderful design studio, Base, for most of last year. And I’ve spent periods of time at numerous agencies, design studios, and fashion brands. I thrive to keep alive all the connections I have made over these years — in college, while traveling, from previous jobs and other past lives – as, I really believe, that to be a successful art director or a freelance in any creative field, it’s important to stay in touch with people. You have to stay connected.
My path as an Art Director has been quite varied and textured, which I am really grateful for. I’ve seen most sides of the field – from in-house at brands, to huge advertising campaigns and TV commercials, to commissioning photography to accompany pieces of long-form editorials. I’ve been on set with Magnum photographers, and I’ve directed videos in my apartment. As an Art Director, I am interested in telling stories, and I think that has preceded my interest in a specific medium. What drives me is creating a larger narrative or concept and then creating all of the assets within that structure.
It’s interesting to look at social media, the news, and the importance of imagery these days as basic communication. Everyone’s lives are inundated constantly with imagery and as an Art Director, this is something I take seriously. I’m interested in creating content with substance and value. I’ve always been attracted by this idea of longevity and guiding people through an idea at a pace that is engaging in a meaningful way. Which is rooted professionally in my first projects as a book designer, and emotionally in my interests in classic films as well as clothing and things that seem to withstand the test of time.
I’m interested in creating content with substance and value. I’ve always been attracted by this idea of longevity and guiding people through an idea at a pace that is engaging in a meaningful way.
Lately, I’ve been working a lot more in Branding. I feel much more satisfied on these types of projects in comparison to traditional ad campaigns – I enjoy the dialogue about business and the creation of a story that will last longer, in relation to advertising which disappears so quickly. It’s funny to think that my work is taking a much more “digital” approach as I have been creating series of films that live online, and have recently even started to move a bit farther away from only creating photography or printed books. However, it feels natural in the sense that I am interested in communicating ideas and to me the idea should always precede the medium. The internet is coming into a time where we are post-“digital,” as technology is now seamlessly integrated into our lives, the division that existed within all consumer-based media will keep melding into one stream of information. And I think there are still ways to affect that in a human, authentic way.
My creative process involves a lot of thinking—probably too much! I write a lot and try to see as much art as I can. However, I’m not terribly specific about what inspires me, it can be a video, a song, a book. Art Directors have the reputation of just making things pretty—they show up, do some styling and that’s it. But I really think that the aesthetic, no matter how strong it is, is irrelevant if it’s not rooted in an idea that will live longer than a visual trend. We are surrounded these days by pretty but empty and ephemeral images and for me it’s essential that behind the beautiful image there is a message.
Art Directors have the reputation of just making things pretty—they show up, do some styling and that’s it. But I really think that the aesthetic, no matter how strong it is, is irrelevant if it’s not rooted in an idea that will live longer than a visual trend.
As an example, while working on the visual identity of Marfa-based artist residency The Tropics with my friends Alec and Ryann, I thought about the extreme climate of Marfa and it’s removed localization. The main difference between The Tropics and other artist residencies is that you are displacing yourself and getting yourself out of your comfort zone. In a lot of ways you are going to be challenged to fit into the community, which for me is what was visually the most interesting aspect. When I started thinking about the logo and the identity of the project I really liked this idea of vanishing points. I had in mind the idea of that point of disappearance in the horizon which I though conceptually made sense for The Tropics. I took this idea as starting point for the entire visual identity.
These days I’m spending my time working on an upcoming project that will blend fashion and technology. It’s still in the making so I cannot say too much but I’m really looking forward to it as it represent and combines all things that I love.
-As told to Freja
Portrait courtesy of Monica by Sergiy Barchuk