INTERVIEW: Michael Gelen, designer/owner of Inkwell Studios

Originally posted on Buffalo Vibe

Michael Gelen is a Buffalo-based artist whose work you have probably seen in and around the city. Been to ICTC? He draws the covers. Enjoy the beer selection of New Buffalo Brewing? He’s the one designing the labels.

The mind behind Inkwell Studios, Gelen’s expertise runs the gamut from logos to posters to children’s books and medical illustration. He’s been at it since 1989, working with clients of all sizes locally and across the nation while also providing budding artists a role model to aspire towards—I remember him visiting my design class at UB almost a decade ago with insight, expertise, and a pile of matted prints.

I recently had the pleasure of talking to him about his style, versatility, and passions as he moves into his twenty-fifth year as a contemporary arts icon in the Queen City.

BuffaloVibe: This year is Inkwell Studios twenty-fifth anniversary—have you expanded the company to include a stable of illustrators or is it still a one-man shop?

Michael Gelen: [laughter] No stable. It’s still just me—a one-man operation.

What is it about Buffalo that allows you to continue mining it for inspiration two-plus decades later?

Buffalo is just a unique city in that so much of our architecture is preserved and in-use almost like this living museum. That’s inspiring to me. To just go downtown and walk around surrounded by these beautiful buildings. That’s inspired a lot of the prints I’ve done celebrating Buffalo.

Could you talk about your style? Its unique graphic, pen & ink quality stays generally consistent through many of your logos, playbill covers, and posters. There’s a simultaneous retro and modern feel, especially when you’re contemporizing vintage European advertising motifs and sensibilities.

It’s always funny to me when people say that they recognize my style because I feel that I’m just constantly bouncing all over the place. I do a range of things from cartoony things for kids and then the art deco, more tightly constructed things. But most of the posters you see do grow out of that 1920s, 30s, and 40s era, obviously very strongly influenced by European poster design.

And I’ve always loved type and enjoy creating my own typefaces—or at least letterforms for particular posters.

Have you ever expanded any of those into full font families?

I’ve designed a few. What normally happens is that I’ll design a few letterforms for whatever purpose—I’ll need them for a headline or header of a poster. In a few cases I’ll take those handful of letterforms and expand them into an entire font family. I’ve done a few of those.

I’d like to do more but I always feel like there are so many people out there who do that all the time and do such a great job. [laughter]

Even locally with P22.

Exactly. Rich Kegler and his people are just so good at that.

Have you done any collaboration with them or any other artists in the area?

Not really. I work with a lot of art directors for advertising work, but unfortunately working on my own [means] I don’t get to do much collaboration on the posters. It’s actually been one of my on-going resolutions to reach out because there are so many great talents here. I’d love to do more of that—to sit down and go back and forth to create something together.

Speaking of those art directors, you’ve been doing cover/poster work for ICTC [Irish Classical Theatre Company] for years now to the point where—in my eyes—you’re aesthetic has become synonymous with the theater. How did that relationship begin?

I was doing some work for a smaller theater and the director at that theater moved to the ICTC and sort of brought me along with him. I had been thinking for a while about trying to use this woodcut style directly influenced by a pair of artists from the early part of the last century who called themselves the Beggarstaff BrothersWilliam Nicholson in particular. I love their work.

It has a very simplified color scheme—often just black line—but very, very powerful and nice design. It’s one of those unique kind of styles in that at first glance it has a little bit of crudeness from the rough woodcut, but the more you look at it the more you see nuances and the delicacy that goes into it.

So that’s something I’m constantly going back to and looking over their work to try and push mine closer to that direction.

Looking at your blog and its teases of next season’s work—as well as that of this past one finishing up, there’s more of a distressed/grungy texture to the illustrations that lends them more to hand-printed imperfections. Have you tried to push that style more? It seems ICTC likes the smoother, more even colors.

Well, I’ve worked in that way for a long time. These were created digitally so those were done with a very flat color scheme as if they were silkscreen or woodcut. When I was much younger I did a lot of woodblock printing and I’m trying to bring that sensibility to these images. Over the past couple of years I’ve tried to bring in a little color gradation and a little bit of a distressed feel. I think it’s nice and gives it more warmth.

You’ve been doing a lot of what you label “late night sketches” on the web—


Are those all just that? Sketches? Or do they sometimes pop up in publications?

The things I put on my blog are usually just things I do for fun or just to loosen up. Often they’re just [located] there.

One of the dilemmas I face a lot is that I just spend so much time working at an electronic tablet or on my computer that I get away from actually sketching by hand. I think it’s really important to keep doing that and do it every day. It’s muscles you need to keep exercising all the time.

So a lot of those are just fun or whimsical little ideas that pop into my head and out at a café or just walking down the street. I’ll see something or someone who inspires one of those little sketches.

Your more commercial work—does it still start hand-drawn on the page before going into the computer?

Almost always a design will start with a pencil. It’s tempting—a lot of people go through this—to just start building things on the computer because it feels like it’s faster. [laughter] But in reality, I think if you bypass that pencil sketch you can get really constrained very quickly. So I do think it’s important to start—for me it’s with tracing paper and a pencil to try and loosely lock things in. I still do that with almost all of my client work.

There’s a number of different poster series for sale on your website from the city-specific Eye Charts to the Buffalo-centric retro architectural showcases. Do those come out of commissions or your own desire to create new work that speaks to your creativity?

It’s mostly just me. A lot of those things start with an idea.

As you can see on my website, there are a lot of restaurant posters. Those were inspired by my looking to pour over these examples of great European poster art from the 30s. I just love those images so much—they’re so powerful and evocative of a time and place. And Buffalo is so steeped in history that it seemed like a natural fit to pretend it is a European city—to try and capture that era. It’s nice that people have responded to those and kind of get that.

Definitely. Your Brodo links to Federico Seneca’s Buitoni from Italy and The Wine Thief recalls [Henri de] Toulouse-Lautrec’s Aristide Bruant.

Exactly, yes.

Do you hear feedback from the restaurants themselves? Are they aware of them and happy for the exposure?

[laughter] Yeah, I wouldn’t really put something like that out without checking with the restaurant owners. It’s their restaurant and they understandably want to control [their] image. So what I normally do is create one of these posters and send them one. And that’s their permission to post images and sell on my website. They’ve been very open to that, which has been nice. I think they enjoy the whimsical take on their business.

The Eye Charts seem to be your newest enterprise. What cities make the cut? Those that speak to you or those you’ve visited?

We started with Buffalo, obviously. I did one for Maine after a trip there. It’s such a great place with such a distinct character—there are so many unique things about Maine. So after that trip I came back and create the Maine Eye Chart and was lucky to find a gallery in Portland, Maine that has been carrying it and selling that.

They suggested another gallery in Cape Cod so I created a Cape Cod version. And we’ve done a Vermont version. When I have the time I’ll keep adding cities. We just did New York and Boston and then on to Chicago.

There seems to be a lot more pop cultural work popping up on your site from cartoon pin-ups to your movie posters for The Hunger Games and Miller’s Crossing. Do you approach that sort of work in much the same way?

Yeah, I think I approach those in much the same way. I’m kind of jumping on a bandwagon. You can see a lot of—I’ve heard them called self-initiated posters. Graphic artists, designers, and illustrators like me who just for the most part [look for] a fun project to create a poster or image for something that you really enjoyed or is part of your cultural background. I know a lot of people offer these for sale on different websites. It’s not something I’ve pursued too much, but there’s really a lot of great stuff out there. I’m just joining in on the fun.

Any current artists on that path that you enjoy to kind of push you creatively?

Yeah, there’s a guy who goes by the name StrongStuff [Tom Whalen, a regular contributor with Mondo] that does some very funny, kind of tongue-in-cheek pop culture posters. In fact I think he actually does some work for Disney and a lot of great properties. It’s really fun stuff.

Is there anything new and exciting on the horizon you’d like to tease as far as new clients or projects in Buffalo or elsewhere?

One thing that’s occupying me right now is continuing this Eye Chart series. I’m hoping to get a bunch of those done this summer and I’m talking to someone in hopes of distributing them nationally.

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