Today, Steve Hodowosky joins me for a conversation about his work. Along with his wife, Sallie, Steve runs Signal Theory, a boutique advertising agency. He is also a successful painter, having shown in galleries and art shows throughout Southern California.
You know, one of the things that always fascinates me with people who work creatively is what influences them. Can you tell me a little about where your inspiration comes from?
I would characterize my creative influences by saying that I’m kind of like a sponge. I take bits and pieces from everywhere and everything – art, advertising, travels – then process and store them away for later use. Whether it’s graphic design or fine art, it’s all influenced by the world we live in. That being said, I’ll give credit to Ansel Adams, Edward Hopper, Ed Ruscha, Phillipe Starck, Steve Jobs, Catherine Opie, Julian Opie (that’s a bit odd), Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Frank, Natalie Dee, Pokemon, Tibor Kalman, Richard Branson, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Cindy Sherman, Kelly Wearstler, Kit Kemp, Derek Jeter, Karl Lagerfeld, Jonathan Adler, and my beautiful cats and wife Sallie, without whom I doubt I would never have started painting again; so that’s BIG, yeah.
That’s a diverse and fascinating collection of people. I see the Hopper and Sherman in your work for sure. Tell me a little more about the why behind Richard Branson, Derek Jeter, and Steve Jobs. I think it’s important to be tuned into people outside your field, so to speak, and I’m curious as to what they offer.
I have to say I could list a lot more but let’s just say that Richard; sorry, Sir Richard Branson, is a trailblazer who is always having a good time and genuinely seems to be happy, much like Jonathan Adler. Every time I go in one of his stores his employees are all happy too. There must be something to this. As for Steve Jobs, I can’t imagine a day without an Apple device, can you? For creatives, he changed the way we do business (and live!). And I threw Derek Jeter in there because I’m a huge Yankee fan and he is the captain of so many championship teams – again there must be something to this. He has no bravado, tattoos, and is kinda quiet, yet he still seems to lead…interesting.
Yeah, I’d have to agree and I definitely see the thread that links all of them. Okay, circling back to the beginning, what was life for a young Steve as an artist?
When I was young I would escape my bickering parents by going in my room, closing the door, putting on headphones (Kraftwerk on 8-track – yeah!) and DRAW, sometimes for hours. I would draw anything – animals, sports scenes, design fantasy stadiums – whatever; and it was good. I was blessed with this talent. I got praised in school for it and that was really all it took for me. It’s so important to get that little nugget of praise from the outside world to propel you forward and give you hope. My family did not offer me any artistic vision whatsoever. They lived in a brown house with brown furniture. They were blue-collar and simply didn’t believe you could make a living at “art”. You can’t blame them. Even a career was something out of their realm of thinking. A good job was all one could hope for unless you had a ticket out.
And what was that ticket for you?
I went to “career day” at my high school in New Jersey with my dear departed mother. My art teacher, Mr. Michnowiz, told her that he wanted me to go to New York and apply for a scholarship to the School of Visual Arts. I think she was really surprised by this revelation (and I think I was too!) and she agreed to help me take the necessary steps to get there. I worked some menial jobs to earn the money to go to New York. I bussed tables at IHOP. I put stickers on bottles of nail polish at Revlon. I just couldn’t imagine how anyone could work in such a low-energy environment for their whole lives. I had to get out.
So you made the break and went to New York?
I went to take the test for the few scholarships at SVA that were offered every year. At the time, SVA was not the school it is now. It was really just getting off the ground and was still affordable. So I took my little portfolio and showed it round, took the written test, and low and behold…I missed out on a scholarship. But between my jobs doing paste-up (damn you wax machines!), my mother and I made it work anyway; and off to New York I went.
That had to be a heady experience; to be a young artist, in that time, in that environment…
I’ve always like to watch old movies late at night and my visions of New York were ones stolen from those black and whites, specifically “The Thin Man”. I thought everyone had a fabulous life, in an equally fabulous apartment, wore tuxes at night and wielded martinis. I just had no life skills or experiences to deal with the intensity of New York. I only share this as a cautionary tale of drinking and partying that can lead one off the path of creativity to one of despair. If I made any mistakes in my career, they were due to the excesses of the 80’s which I’ve always joke that I barely survived.
You look back on those sorts of times and shake your head, “What was I thinking?”. I guess those times are a necessary rite of passage for a lot of people. Alright, having survived that, what did the next chapter look like?
After the four years of fun at SVA, I was hired straight away to the Graphic Design department at Citicorp. I had a great office overlooking Central Park, more money than I ever knew, and a slew of new friends. I learned under the tutelage of Jack Odette who was very “Mad Men”. This was my first real job where I had to show up on a consistent basis, 5-days-a-week. I did that for a few years but eventually the nightlife of New York that I previously referred to got in the way, and I was fired.
Ouch. That’s a tough lesson to learn.
I eventually cleaned myself up and re-established my career at some pretty cool agencies like M & Co, Kirshenbaum & Bond, and eventually wound up as Design Director for Margeotes, Fertitta, and Weiss. Then, because I wanted a real change, we moved to LA, and things got even better!
Sallie (my wife) and I started Signal Theory, a small advertising and branding agency in Beverly Hills. We now have a diverse roster of clients including Pokemon, Nintendo, Shopzilla and others. We do a lot of animation as well as print, web, and corporate identity design. We plan on doing this for as long as we possibly can. We’d like to grow to be at least a dozen people full-time, if not more. I really enjoy working with our Pokemon client and they’ve been so loyal to us I have no reason to believe that relationship won’t just continue to grow as we move forward together. We’d also like to expand our client roster to other fields that we enjoy – fashion, travel, pets, etc… so that will be our main focus in the new year.
And when you’re not working, what occupies your time?
We travel a lot. Usually once a month we’re off somewhere to refresh and get a different perspective on things. We love New York, Paris, and London, as well as Hawaii, which is the ultimate recharging station. I also find peace by exercising at the beach. We’re so lucky here in SoCal to have amazing weather and we live just 15 minutes from the Pacific, so we try to take advantage of that beauty on a regular basis.
Indeed. Recharging is so important and it seems like a lot of artists just keep going constantly. You have to re-fuel now and again. Okay, now when you guys started Signal Theory what was that like? Stepping out on your own can be a very daunting thing given the considerable amount of risk.
I was kind of lucky because one of my previous clients handed me an account as I was leaving a previous agency. I had gone freelance with the Nintendo Power magazine Direct Mail account and after doing that for two years the client asked us to stop working on that and launch the Pokemon Trading Card Game. So here we are twelve years later and it’s still a phenomenon, if you’re a 6-12 (or 53!) year old nerdy boy, that is. I don’t know now that I could go back to working for another agency as, say, a Creative Director. It would be hard now after running Signal Theory.
I’m sure it would. I think that’s the case for a number of people who get to a certain stage of their careers. I see people struggle with the idea of “stepping back” quite a bit. Alright, so now, in addition to all of that, you’re also an accomplished painter…
I paint regularly. Every weekday morning I try to do a little bit on a piece. My art is all original oil paintings of urban landscapes and architecture. Lately, I’m also dabbling in some larger scale abstract pieces. It’s just another challenge to think differently. I’m always hopeful of making a connection that will further my exposure to the art loving public. I do show occasionally and have sold over 40 paintings now; but there’s always room for improvement in both technique and sales!
That’s quite a few sales – congratulations. That has to feel good, when your work resonates enough with someone that they take out their wallet and buy it. They are compelled strongly enough to incorporate your artwork into their lives – that’s a powerful thing. So, looking back on those earlier days compared to how things have worked out…
It’s way more creatively fulfilling than I ever imagined. All I wanted was to get out of New Jersey and be an “artist” of some kind. I mean, after all, that’s all I know how to do!
It’s difficult to get that message across sometimes to younger artists, who in some ways are our younger selves – so here’s your chance: Advice for the future?
I would tell younger creative to trust your gut. Don’t go for money right off the bat. Do your own work and good things will follow – I guarantee it. I’d also encourage them to develop a thick skin because they’re going to need it as they meet with rejection of something they’ve created on an almost daily basis. In the end, you have to be true to your inner voice and just forge ahead; no matter if it’s the cool thing to do or not.
Not worrying about what’s cool – I think that’s excellent advice.
Thanks so much to Steve for sharing some insight into his work. To see more of Steve’s paintings, you can visit SteveArts. Click here for more information about Signal Theory.