16 Jan 2012
Victory Garden Of Tomorrow: The Art of Homesteading
by Robyn Jasko
We caught up with Joe Wirtheim, a Portland, OR-based printmaker, designer and artist, who started Victory Garden of Tomorrow to grow better gardens, better food, and better cities through handcrafted affordable art.
First off, we are huge fans of your work. How did you get started?
It’s a story that has a bunch of angles but the basic gist is that I’m a history nerd, love vintage graphics and poster art, and I also have opinions on how our cities should be healthier places. About five years ago I put the hardworking, do-the-right-thing messages of WWII Victory Garden posters with the excitement, awe and imagination of New York’s World’s Fairs.
I like things that get my imagination going, like science fiction and space exploration. But I also appreciate practical things like U.S. cultural history, urban planning, and food industry reform. Nothing turns on the imagination like thinking about future potential. I suppose that’s what design-thinking essentially is.
Anyways, I wanted a self-commissioned art and design project to get my graphic design career going. I wanted something that would set me apart and would speak to real issues affecting people in my city. I was living in Columbus, Ohio at the time and it was a city where bicycling was frowned on, recycling was difficult and the rust-belt economy was sagging. I drew inspiration for my activism simply by confronting the challenges of living there at the time.
How has the public reacted?
People seem to love the collection! I started showing my designs timidly, without much confidence, then one thing lead to another, and wow, they just took off! I always get a great response when I take the show on the road. I’ve had some great attention in the media like appearing in Martha Stewart’s Living last March. I feel very lucky to have gotten that.
Who else is a part of VGOT?
Right now, it’s just myself and my girlfriend Taylor. She runs the store, ships everything and handles customer service—she’s much better at it than I am! We’re a tag team business and design operation. Funny you should ask this, because I’m in the process of looking for a graphic design assistant to help tackle the heap of work coming my way. We’re growing!
Any notable clients or purchasers of your work?
Well, I’m not exactly sure about any national celebrities. I know Portland’s Mayor Sam Adams has a print in his home because I sold it to him. He’s done a lot to keep Portland progressive in terms of smart growth, alternative transportation and urban farming. He’s a celebrity in my book.
I love the futuristic angle of your work, what are your influences for this?
First, the New York World’s Fair of 1939 (motto: “The World of Tomorrow”) is just this strange and interesting event that I enjoy thinking about. It really affected Americans at the time. This would be before Disneyland, before the atomic age, before freeways, before World War II. America was a bit more innocent then, and I like to draw inspiration from that time. I also enjoyed Megan Prelinger’s recent book, “Another Science Fiction: Advertising the Space Race.” There was so much excitement and imagination that went into the space race in the 1960’s. I wonder if that kind of imagination and effort can go into our cities in the near future?
What is your process for creating a print and/or poster? Do you use local resources?
I use a variety of methods and tools from pencil and pastels to Photoshop. Then I take my designs, which always finish as digital images to my local printer. There’s a bunch of small, environmental printers in Portland, and I’ve developed a relationship with a couple of them. For screen-printed projects, which accounts for a growing number of my collection, I work with a talented couple who have a home studio called “Idiot or Genius? Screenprinting.” They’re a lot of fun to work with and they let me get in there and get my hands dirty—something I don’t think many other printers would go for.
How do you find inspiration to make new prints?
Besides the historical things mentioned earlier like old posters, I’m turned on by folks like Michael Pollan and his books about America’s strange foodways. I follow the activist movement that’s confronting childhood obesity, and I enjoy reading what’s going on in the new urbanist movement. I keep a sketchbook/journal that always stays close to me; its where I write and sketch ideas as they come.
Your prints are affordable works of art that are accessible to all---how is this possible, and why is it important?
I think that this work should be easily attainable. I wouldn’t want someone to be put off because it’s priced out of his or her means or seems like a burden to purchase. It means so much to me that people can take home a piece that they like, and not feel like it was too much. My goal is to get this work into as many homes as possible, not make a million bucks right now. This is supposed to be public art and it shouldn’t be exclusive or expensive. For my part, I keep my overhead low: I rent a small room for a studio/mail room and I have no car or family yet. As my audience grows, so will my studio.
What is your big picture mission for VGOT?
I would love it if this work spoke to a sensible middle ground of America, encouraging and empowering them to improve life and health in our cities and towns. I believe using our hands and our imaginations are the only tools we really need. If VGoT can represent that type of everyday activism then it would be a great success.
Vegetable hot wok at New Season’s Market in Portland! Best tasting lunch deal in town :)
Favorite beer or wine?
Love the Portland local breweries! Alameda Brewery, Terminal Gravity and Deschutes Brewery are my favorites.
Favorite vegetables to grow?
Broccoli, peas, pole beans, tomatoes and of course salad greens! Those are my favorite staples. My house mate took charge of this year’s crop and we have a big variety of stuff like potatoes and strawberries.
Any upcoming projects/new works you'd like to share with us?
I’ve got a new poster in the works celebrating Farmer’s Markets, which are so important to our new foodways. A poster for bicycling and urban farming are also in the works. I’m also working with a couple of community organizations creating some illustrations for them that work with the VGoT style and mission. Lots coming—stay in touch!
To check out more of Joe Wirtheim's work, visit victorygardenoftomorrow.com, or Etsy.