Words: Anna Hoghton / Pictures: Teri Bocko
Sterling Bartlett is an artist and designer living in Highland Park, Los Angeles; a diverse neighbourhood home to a huge community of makers - including Knotworks, who we interviewed a few years back. From the garage below his house, nicknamed ‘the bunker’, with his beloved pup Clever at his side, Sterling creates everything from apparel, and paintings, to album designs and limited art books. Sterling’s work has been exhibited all over the globe. His ability to traverse a variety of art forms and refusal to get stuck in one particular mould, means Sterling has worked with a number of different clients such as Chris Stapleton, The MC5, Nike, Ty Dolla $ign, Converse, Pitchfork, and Sub Pop Records to name only a few.
Connection is an important theme of Sterling’s work, and he strives to create pieces that relate to people’s lives. He laughs easily and is a kind host, which he credits to his Texan upbringing, but there’s also a grounded nature to Sterling, a thoughtful intellectualism, which is, perhaps, due in part to his habit of listening to political podcasts while he works or perhaps his years of reading extensively, which he describes as his ‘perverse duty’. Sterling has a very real understanding that, to make it as an artist in a city full of them, you have to work extremely hard.
How would you describe yourself as a maker?
I work as a designer and an art director in a freelance capacity. I also have a personal practice making paintings, prints and apparel.
How would you describe your style? Is there any commonality in the things you create?
In order for the things I make to be successful, they either have to carry a seed of lived experience, or a shared notion of what it is to be in a place in time. For example, the apparel is all about subtle references to music, or culture that I find inspiring. The tye-dye is a very Southern California aesthetic that carries its own common signifiers. The paintings are literal depictions of places in Los Angeles for the most part, so it’s even more obvious there. I think it’s important to either have pieces be referential to something that a larger group of people can recognise (even glancingly), or to illustrate a place that you know others have been to, and had a shared experience with.
Years ago I started making work that was in a very poppy vein, and was all about finding a group of references that I could put together in hopes that the interplay between those images told a story. Over time, however, I became less interested in forcing those obvious connections between images. Instead, I now let those links come more naturally.
Do you have a philosophy to how you make?
I think that anytime an artist gives, whole cloth, their philosophy, it’s a smoke screen, or a self-misunderstood version of what they do. So I don’t think I want to say.
That’s fair enough. Did you always make and draw?
I drew little jesus fish as a kid, which turned into schools of fish, and those turned into aeroplanes and sharks and all sorts of other things. I’ve been making art for as long as I can remember.
On my ninth birthday, my dad said, ‘we’re going to buy you a bike’. It was just from Kmart, nothing special, but he said, ‘we are going to dismantle and paint it’. So we did that and chromed it, and made a better brake system for it, and just rebuilt it from the ground up. Looking back, I’m sure that a big seed of why I started creating came from that experience. It gave me an awareness that you can take a very standardised thing, whether that’s a white t-shirt or a blank canvas, then build upon that with whatever tools are at your disposal.
Is your dad creative too, then?
He’s extremely creative. It’s not his profession to be, but he’s very talented in the kitchen, and the way he decorates his home is very meticulous and well thought out. I don’t see a major difference between that and painting, or design. Likewise, my girlfriend Julia is an amazing cook and very talented at gathering large groups of people together for an event. I’m very thankful because I don’t have that trait.
I don’t think it’s a particularly special impulse to want to make things. I think it’s intrinsic to the human experience, and something we all share to varying degrees. But, for me, there is a degree to which it’s compulsory. If I’m just sitting around with nothing to do, (which is rare), my first impulse is to think of the next project.
Can you tell us a little more about your story? How did you become the artist you are today?
My dad was in the Air Force when I was a kid, so we lived all over the place; Mississippi, Texas, Washington State, Texas again, Arizona… a lot of places! Art was a hobby that I could do anywhere, regardless of surroundings.
When I was nineteen, I moved into a young artist incubator in Arizona for two years, where I was showing my work in a gallery setting. It was an old motel that had been renovated. What had been the front office was turned into a gallery. The motel rooms had been changed into apartments for young artists to live in. Everything was done by committee. It was a really great experience. I jokingly call it ‘grad school’ because I left college to take it on.
I certainly didn’t find my style there. I was making work you wouldn’t recognise as mine now. It took a very long time to find my artistic voice. I honestly don’t think it really gelled until my early 30s. It was funny growing up in the 90s. You thought you had a style beginning to bubble up, and then the internet hits. You become absolutely flooded with information and you realise: ‘oh, this is terrible, let me start over completely!’
I moved to the desert for a bit after that to follow a day job. Not long after, a good friend lured me to Los Angeles with the promise of film production work. California was always on my radar as I grew up loving art and skateboarding, so I’ve been here ever since.
Of all the places you’ve lived, which would you say made you who you are?
The two places that have made the strongest impression on me are Los Angeles, and San Angelo, Texas. I grew up in Texas on-and-off until I was seventeen. There is a pervasive politeness in everyday discourse there, which has always stuck with me. I often find myself nodding to strangers and saying hello as I pass by, which could be construed as strange in some places, but that’s the Texas in me.
And of course, Los Angeles. There is such a high concentration of artists, and creative people in Southern California because it’s very conducive to creating. There’s an ease to it that is very attractive, and that’s never really been available to me anywhere else. In Seattle it rains all the time, In Phoenix, it’s oppressively hot. Living in Texas was great, but it didn’t have the visual appeal, and it certainly didn’t have the grid of opportunity laid over it like Los Angeles has. This is home for now.
Do you think all makers find that there is a lot more opportunity here than other places in the U.S.?
I’d say yes, but it’s a Janus face: On the one hand, given the access to resources it’s quite easy to make art here, but on the other, it’s easy for everyone, so everyone is doing it and you have to rise above that. California taught me to work much harder. It taught me that there’s no such thing as being a big fish in a big pond. You have to work as hard as you can.
I work across so many fields because you can’t simply do one thing. I work with musicians and brands, I do art direction and design for apparel companies, and I have my painting practice. I love this variety, there’s a sense of pride in being able to have a body of work that, although disparate, still points back to my personal vision.
Would this be the advice you’d give to other makers, to try lots of different things?
Yes - assuming that I’m in any position to give advice. For me it’s been good existing in multiple lanes because there is no singular ‘art world’, there are hundreds of different “art worlds”. People who exist only in the gallery world might see working in design as passe or at cross purposes with fine art, but I pay that no heed.
I see people self-stratify a lot and make their own hierarchies within cultural silos. People seem very eager to place themselves in a singular artistic context. At the end of the day, it’s their choice to make, but I think that if you can step outside of those lanes, you may find an even bigger place at the table. I try to be a little more democratic than that.
Do you have any other favourite places?
I’m really in love with parts of Mexico, It’s so inspirational. Central Southern is wonderful because everything is so colourful. I really love that specific cacophony of visual styles.
I also like the San Juan Islands off of Washington State for the complete opposite reason. It’s a blanket of green trees and blue ocean, and very uniform in its colour scheme. I like those polarities. Colour is very important to me.
What do you think the role of the maker is?
It’s hard to answer that question from one specific place. As a designer, my job is to show you the near future. You already have ‘A’, my job is to show you what ‘B’ or ‘C’ might look like. As an artist, the role is more aspirational. It is to illustrate slippery ideas and communicate in a way that language cannot.
What sort of place would you like to make the world?
I’d like to make the world a slightly quieter place where we can hopefully take a breath to digest information, before immediately feeling the need to react to stimuli. Art is doing a very poor job of allowing for that currently.
The bunker is the name Sterling has given to the garage below his apartment. His girlfriend Julia lived in the apartment for many years and, when Sterling moved in last year, they moved her old car out and sold it. Then, the bunker became Sterling’s studio. He loves it because it forces him to keep ‘bankers hours’, as he relies on natural light coming in through the open doors, it keeps him from working into the middle of the night. He works with his dog Clever at his side and listens to podcasts, from a wide range of political perspectives in order to stop himself living in a bubble. Sterling says he prefers podcasts to music while he works because with songs he is far more aware of how quickly or slowly time is passing, and this way he keeps up to date on what’s going on with the outside world. Because his doors are open, he also interacts with the outside world directly and has a range of people passing daily. ‘Sometimes, if I’m working on a painting, it’s nice because they’ll say ‘wow, that’s great’ and that will be a nice boost! Other times, if I’m doing something complicated the distraction can be more annoying, but I generally like it!’
Our collection of books is very precious to us… that’s about three thousand objects though!
No, I do not love to read, haha! I love having read though. I’m just like everybody else - I keep my phone in my pocket and I will completely zombify on Instagram for hours.That’s one of the main lizard brain things that I want to do when I’m not busy. It’s a gross admission, but it’s real. I eventually snap out of it, put the phone in a drawer, and pick up a book.
While not objects per se’, if there were a fire, We’d take some books, the dog, and the cat - that’s it. Clever, the dog, was mine and the result of being bamboozled by a shelter. I was supposed to watch a different dog for a week, but they said he was too poorly for someone to foster. However, they brought me Clever, and I ended up adopting him on the spot. Walking him is how I get lots of the photos that I paint from. I love that way of working because it’s so honest and simple. Mack, the cat, belonged to my girlfriend before and is named after Dr John (Mac Rebennack). It took a while, but they tolerate each other now. Mack will still try to mess with Clever when he sleeps, but that’s about the extent of their beef.
Remco Merbis, founder (1999) and creative director of visual storytelling agency Pixillion.