Daniel Oduntan: The Benefits of Taking the Longer Route

Daniel Oduntan: The Benefits of Taking the Longer Route

In the pursuit of an artistic career, there are those who take the predictable path — obtaining the right degrees, qualifications, apprenticeships, and jobs, while others blaze their own way.  Neither route guarantees success, and you can only hope that your talent and hard work will be recognized.

If you’re in the latter group, perhaps it took a life transition, experience, or conscious decision to stop calling your artistic pursuits a hobby before you set out on your way. Add this to the trial and error of developing your craft and style, and it can make for a long and unpredictable path.

However, the bright side of taking an alternative course is that it allows you to keep twisting and turning and picking up overlooked jewels other people haven’t picked up. Multi-disciplinary artist, Daniel Oduntan, who focuses on photography, film, and music composition, knows this well. The self-taught artist navigates the daily challenges of living and creating with dyslexia. “Living with dyslexia forces you to find a way,” says Oduntan. “You must navigate different routes, and there are no shortcuts.”

In 2012, the London-based creative was nominated for Best Emerging British Artist by the Mica Gallery. And, in January 2017, he will create a commissioned piece for the Victoria and Albert Museum’s (V&A) “You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970” exhibition, which documents the Black Panthers Movement in the United Kingdom.

We recently spoke with 32-year-old Oduntan about teaching himself photography, the challenge of creating with dyslexia, and the benefits of having to take the longer route.

You attended the London College of Music, then worked for a time in  construction. What led you to ultimately teach yourself photography and become a visual artist?

I tried everything in my power not be an artist, so I went into construction. I wanted to become a surveyor, but it was the height of the recession, which made this difficult. As I began to see the world through a different lens, it manifested itself in pictures. While on construction sites, I would take shots on my camera phone, and upload the images to Flickr and Tumblr to document my activities. The response was really positive. People were surprised that I was capturing these shots from my camera phone. I was also inspired by self-trained artists, like Gordon Parks and Quentin Tarantino. I knew it was time to start shooting on a real camera, and, to my luck, my friend told me that her university was getting rid of materials and camera gear. I didn’t have money to buy a digital camera, so I was happy to claim the heavy, analog Zenit 35mm camera. It helped that I wasn’t a complete stranger to cameras as my mom gave me an analog Canon as a child.

YouTube became my teacher. I would watch tutorials, then go out and shoot friends. I also watched The Art of Photography by Ted Forbes, which discusses photography philosophies, and introduced me to new photographers. Many times, I would develop my film at the drugstore, and everything would be black. It was a process of trial and error. So, I’d re-watch the tutorials, and shoot again. After a few months, I got comfortable using my camera, and my appetite was whet to document the world around me.

“Living with dyslexia forces you to find a way,” says Oduntan. “You must navigate different routes, and there are no shortcuts.

When did you realize you were onto something?

I knew shooting analog photography would only take me so far. If I wanted to compete for commissions, I’d have to go digital. With limited funds, I asked myself, How can I stay in this, and still progress in my art form? Through online research, I discovered there was a way to use new technology with old technology, and I could get the best of both worlds. For example, a digital Canon lens only mounts to a digital Canon camera, but an analog Minolta lens can mount to a digital Sony camera. This was my solution. I turned to YouTube tutorials once again, and I learned how to edit pictures through trial and error using Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. On a whim, I entered Mica Gallery’s photography competition in 2012. Despite turning in materials late, I was nominated for Best Emerging British Artist.

You also taught yourself videography. What was your learning process there?

In many ways, television raised me. As a dyslexic person, I’m not going to sit down and read. If you can’t read well, your next form of education is what you hear and see. So, I watched YouTube tutorials on cutting demo software like Adobe Premiere Pro, and developed a good sense to cut a scene here and edit there. It was an experimental process until I got it right. With my documentary work, I’m always looking for subtle nuances, while at the same time exploring creative ways to bring the soul of a narrative to the forefront.

I’m always looking for subtle nuances, while at the same time exploring creative ways to bring the soul of a narrative to the forefront.

Why did you decide to teach yourself rather than going to a design school? And how have you honed your craft?

Believe me, I would have loved to go to school for photography and videography. It would have saved me the headache of all my trial and error. But I’m from a working-class background, and I didn’t have the funds to go back to school or take out a loan. I had no choice but to be a self-trained artist. 

In addition to learning through doing and YouTube tutorials, I surround myself with mentors, like photographer Eddie Otchere and filmmaker Dan Fontanelli. Eddie has redefined hip-hop photography by capturing the personalities of artists from Nas and Jay Z to the Wu-Tang Clan and the Notorious B.I.G. In The Icons Of Wu-Tang Clan by Dan, Eddie explains how he came to shoot every Wu-Tang member as well as his process in using print to memorialize the subject. I believe representation in art matters, so I’m constantly picking up new tips from them.

Their criticism was my greatest learning tool. When people you trust critique your work, and it comes from a good place, you grow.

In publishing, there can be a stigma around self-published authors. How do people react when you tell them you’re a self-taught artist?

A lot of people from the fine art world and otherwise appreciate my hustle and natural ability. And, to be honest, I’m proud to be a self-taught artist.

When people you trust critique your work, and it comes from a good place, you grow.

When did you discover that you’re dyslexic, and how does this impact your art?

I always struggled more than my two sisters in school, but didn’t know why. I discovered I was dyslexic late in university. I’d hide my writing with my arm, and would scribble shapes over words. At times, I even misspelled my name, and had difficulty with the structure of language. My dyslexic friend at university encouraged me to get tested, and the university arranged for an all-expense, paid assessment. When my results came back, the doctor was impressed by my achievements, and shocked that I’d made it this far without support for my dyslexia. Receiving this information was a huge weight off my shoulders, and I felt like I was given a badge that says, “You are dyslexic, not stupid.”

Living with dyslexia forces you to find a way. You must navigate different routes, and there are no shortcuts. Instead of going from point A to point B, as a dyslexic person, you have to go from A to Z to P to T to R just to get to B. Everything takes longer to finish. My eyes hurt. My head hurts. I have to take frequent breaks at the computer, and it gets frustrating.

The same is true when I create art. It sounds strange, but when I hear sound, I see shapes, colors, and images. I started pursuing still and moving images when I discovered their creative similarities to music. Most people don’t experience these nuances because they’ve never had to. Dyslexia can be an obsession, but it helps me focus and get the most out of art. 

What advice do you have for people living and creating with dyslexia?

I believe it’s important to acknowledge what you can do well. Dyslexia has nothing to do with your intelligence. To use a driving analogy, it’s frustrating for anyone to be stuck in traffic or encounter roadblocks en route to your destination. You’re going to be angry, and you may even experience road rage if you’re running late for an appointment. This is what it feels like when you’re dyslexic. A negative trait of dyslexia can be paranoia, and, in this example, you’d start telling yourself, People will think I can’t drive, and that I’m stupid. I encourage you to acknowledge your frustration, but be brave. Don’t let living with dyslexia be the rest of your story. There are benefits of taking the longer route, and you should embrace this. Find your tribe of people who understand you and complement your skill set.

You started an art house collective called, Soul Labels. What is the inspiration behind this? 

Soul Labels curates and produces content across various media platforms, from film, fashion, and exhibitions to workshops and experimental A/V projects. It’s a mix between a record label and a museum, with underground artists at the helm. I believe that soul is about being true to yourself, and artists should be true to themselves. Anything in its full honesty is soulful, and I seek to create a space for artists to re-invent the way we engage with art.

We recently wrapped up Palm Wine Beats Live! Vol. 3 of 5, which takes my Nigerian mixtapes, which are unique in their cinematic feel and historical depth, and brings them to life for one day. Each volume is an attempt to explore a different period of Nigeria’s music from the viewpoint of its evolving diaspora.

My vision is for Soul Labels to become an auction house of sorts to help subculture artists break into the fine art world on their own terms. This could be accomplished through funding, sponsorships, and by issuing pieces of work regularly like a book, painting, song, or other commission-based work.

from 99U99U http://bit.ly/2fwERO4

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Why Pride is Good

Why Pride is Good

It’s true that “hubristic pride” – when you feel pleased in your own abilities – can be harmful and indicative of an inflated ego. But “authentic pride,” which is the satisfaction and pleasure we take from the positive outcomes of our hard work and dedication, is an important, rewarding emotion that encourages persistence. And for creatives going through a tough patch, feeling a lack of pride can be a useful indicator that you’re taking the wrong approach. In extreme cases, it might mean it’s time for you to change strategies, or even to take a new direction entirely.

For a dramatic example, consider ultra-marathoner Dean Karnazes who once ran 350 miles in one go, and another time ran 50 marathons in 50 days. This man has some serious motivation. But where did it first come from?

The impetus arrived on his 30th birthday when Karnazes was reflecting on his life and his career in sales – a promising path, but not one that gave him any feelings of pride. As University of British Columbia psychologist Jessica Tracy explains in her new book Take Pride, Why The Deadliest Sin Holds The Secret To Human Success, it was specifically this absence of pride that motivated Karnazes to become one of the most successful and inspirational long distance runners in the world. “Karnazes didn’t start running because he knew it would change his life, but because he wanted to feel something,” writes Tracy.

If you recently suffered a disappointment – perhaps a design pitch was rejected, or your latest artwork commission fell through – and are feeling a distinct lack of pride, try not to bury this emotional discomfort. Instead, use it to motivate yourself to make the changes you need to turn things around.

Alternatively, if what you’re doing and achieving doesn’t give you a warm glow of authentic pride, perhaps it’s time to rethink your work priorities and strategies. Indeed, we could all benefit from tuning into these feelings more. “We often can be going along and things seem good, but we’re missing this sense of achievement,” notes Tracy. “This sense of pride in ourselves, and becoming aware of that, is often what prompts us to change our behavior.”

Tracy recently demonstrated some of these motivating effects in a series of studies published with colleagues at the University of British Columbia and the University of Rochester. For example, the researchers measured university students’ feelings of authentic pride after an exam, and they found that those who reported feeling low pride after a poor result (i.e., they reported feeling little sense of fulfillment or accomplishment) also tended to say they planned to change their study strategies, and they subsequently showed improvements to their performance in another exam several weeks later. The same improvements were not shown by poor-performing students who did not experience low pride.

It was a similar story when the researchers surveyed members of a running club after a race. Those who performed poorly, and who also reported feeling low pride afterwards, tended to say that they planned to change up their training regime, and they went on to achieve a better performance in their next race.

These results show how feelings of low pride act as a “barometer of achievement” that motivate us to change. But crucially, it is only if you take the time and effort to reflect on these feelings, or lack of them, that you will get to benefit from their motivational power.

One word of caution – if you’ve had a string of disappointments and you’re feeling low feelings of pride combined with low self-confidence, you risk your absence of pride slipping into shame. Shame, as Tracy explained, “… is feelings of ‘I can’t do anything. I’m not good at this. I’m not going to try to work hard because it’s just going to end up in failure’” – a state which is not at all motivating. Feeling low authentic pride, by contrast, “means you’re missing those feelings of competence and achievement and you’re trying to get those feelings back,” says Tracy.

If you’ve had a string of disappointments and you’re feeling low feelings of pride combined with low self-confidence, you risk your absence of pride slipping into shame

There’s a key distinction that’s important for determining whether you feel low pride or shame. It comes down to whether you interpret a disappointment as due to changeable issues, such as a lack of effort or the wrong strategy, versus it saying something about the kind of person you are. For instance, if your last design didn’t get much positive feedback and you interpret this as saying that you’re a poor designer with no talent, this is clearly demoralizing. On the other hand, what can be a powerful motivating force is when you feel a strong yearning to experience pride, rather than disappointment, and you recognize what you need to do to succeed next time.

So embrace pride. It is not vain or inappropriate to want to feel more proud of yourself for your dedication and commitment.

from 99U99U http://bit.ly/2e5VZZd

DKNG’s Dan Kuhlken and Nathan Goldman: Why Staying Small is the Goal

DKNG’s Dan Kuhlken and Nathan Goldman: Why Staying Small is the Goal

Maybe Dan Kuhlken and Nathan Goldman were never meant to be rock stars, anyway. Despite not headlining an arena near you, the childhood friends from Southern California sure had all the right plans.

Step one: Start a rock band in your garage. Step two: Design sweet gig posters and merch. Step three: Land that massive record deal.

Thing is, Kuhlken, 31, and Goldman, 32, never quite made it past step two. And judging by their lives at the moment, maybe that’s for the best. Their initial foray into graphic design happened while in college, when the duo obsessed over having just the right gig poster. Soon, a poster for themselves turned into making posters for the Troubadour concert venue in Los Angeles, for acts like the Dave Mathews Band, the Black Keys, and Phish. The steady work (done for free, at first) led to the creation of their studio: DKNG.

Today, DKNG is on the precipice of the design industry’s own version of the hit record. Whether it’s their nontraditional, transparent approach to marketing their business or the steady expansion of their client base and offerings, Kuhlken and Goldman are getting a second chance at stardom. They’re steadily accruing a fan base of fellow designers as they repeatedly peel back the process behind some of their most popular work — and it’s still just the two of them.

But just like those days in the garage, you wouldn’t know it. They are notoriously (and sometimes frustratingly) pragmatic and low-key. There will be no victory laps or launch parties. Just two childhood friends in two separate studios in L.A. and San Francisco doing their best to get better every day.

We spoke to Kuhlken and Goldman in an effort to learn what it takes to build a small design studio, one where you have all the control, but also all of the burdens of running a business.

 

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Nathan Goldman and Dan Kulkhen photographed in San Francisco by Russell Edwards

Dan, you studied fine arts in college. Nathan, you studied film. Does it feel like you backed into the design business?

DK:   Painting fine art takes an extraordinary amount of talent and skill and time to get good at it. I see that in graphic design. There’s not going to be a point where I’m a master and I’m perfect at it. Every single week I’m learning something new; it’s like an endless abyss. And Nathan is an excellent art director, which I think he gets from learning how to direct films.

NG:   That idea of leading people through narrative I learned from filmmaking. The other thing is collaboration. We rely on different people and teams, much like making a movie.

Why the early obsession with gig posters?

DK:  Our love for posters started with Scrojo, who basically did all the posters for [San Diego music venue] Belly Up. My mom sent me an article about him, and up until then, I had no idea that you could make a career out of making posters. He quickly became an idol. In a weird coincidence, Nathan knew someone at the Troubadour who said the artist there was leaving. We looked at each other and thought, “We could actually be poster artists! Like Scrojo!” Nathan was way more into graphic design than I was, and I was more into fine art illustration. But those are the two avenues that get posters done. It turned into a passion before we knew it was.

NG:   Part of that initial interest in posters grew out of necessity. Dan and I were playing in a band together and we wanted to promote our shows, to make gig posters for our own band.

 

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How have the two of you worked together for so many years, all day, every day and not wanted to kill each other?

DK:   Most creative people are very sensitive. Luckily, we grew up together, are good friends, and know we are coming from a good place when we say things. It’s for the benefit of the project. It takes a lot of tough skin to get there. It’s been a long 10-year career, and there was definitely some turbulence along the way. We’re in different locations, so we go back and forth with emails 20 times a day and call each other twice a day. The hardest thing is to be honest and not hurt the other person’s feelings.

NG:  It’s learning how to share opinions and critiques. At this point we now know what the other person’s criticism is going to be and we can almost preemptively make changes. It took years to get to that point.

Part of that initial interest in posters grew out of necessity. Dan and I were playing in a band together and we wanted to promote our shows, to make gig posters for our own band.

How do you fight that lizard brain defensive reaction we have when people criticize us?

DK:   Whenever a disagreement comes up, I have to listen and realize that maybe there’s something in this I’m not seeing, or I am wrong, or I might not be hearing all the information. We both know what we’re talking about. No one is right or wrong. It’s more about, How can we get there better?

NG:   Any criticism is just an exploration of making the best possible art that we can. One thing that helps: If you just spent days slaving away on a piece of art and you just put your pencil down and someone immediately tears it apart, that can be hard. So if you have the luxury, walk away from it for a day. Give it some space and look at it with fresh eyes. That’s when criticism is much more palatable.

How do you deal with heated disagreements, when one of you is an “11” in how much you care about it? Does someone cave?

DK:   We sometimes get so determined in our individual vision that it’s a matter of convincing the other person. No one ever says “I still think you’re crazy, but fine.” It just becomes a longer conversation.

NG:  I can’t really think of a time when someone was an “11” and someone was a “0.” It’s more often that someone is 50/50, and we trust the confidence of the other person.

Reading praise for your work, many cite that you don’t have a defined style, that it’s hard to pick out a DKNG work. So if there’s not an aesthetic thread, what are the design principles of DKNG?

DK:  Our main goal is to create an aesthetic unique to a client.

Sure, but lot of people that do client work say that. How do you “get” a client in such a limited timeline?

DK:  A lot of times, the client will present how they think they appear, which is good and bad sometimes. We pride ourselves on concept development, so when someone asks us to create something exactly, it takes the process out of it. It’s important to know how they’d like to look. We listen to all of their music, go through all their interviews, and see what’s already been made.

NG:   We have a shared Dropbox where we put all of the collected material into a client folder and throw together lots of that material onto a mood board. Then we put together a text document with initial concepts, lyrics, and other things. That document gets turned into three separate concepts of what we think the piece could be. Sometimes we present that research to the client while mentioning what else is in the marketplace. It can get pretty in-depth.

DK:   A lot of companies that are similar to us would spend a lot of time on this part. But we don’t have the luxury. Most of the emails ask us to turn stuff around in three weeks.

How do you remove your ego as a creative person and make something that a client wants?

DK:   There is one client I have in mind that had the concept and wanted us to make the artwork. That takes a lot of pride to swallow, because we’re basically being asked to be production artists. Sometimes, though, that’s worth doing. Not to be crude, but if the paycheck is worth it, we can make that. It just might not be something we put in the portfolio.

NG:   If people are paying us to work with them, we feel we owe it to give them our opinion and not just bend over and say “We’ll do what you want!” It’s part of the reason people are hiring us. Sometimes we stand up for ourselves and people go with our concepts. But there are some situations when someone is paying us, and they don’t want to budge, and we both say, “Let’s make them happy.”

No one is right or wrong. It’s more about, How can we get there better?
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Dan Kuhlken (left) and Nathan Goldman in San Francisco

You do posters. And packaging. And tutorials. And Skillshare classes. How do you do all these things and still remain focused enough that people know what to come to you for?

DK:   It’s about what we present to the public. Our portfolio was gig posters for a long time, even though we were doing other stuff. We only put up our most exciting stuff, because that’s the stuff we want to do again. It’s worked. But gig poster work is starting to decline. If we had all of our eggs in that, we’d be out of business, so we’re exploring new avenues all the time. The world of graphic design and illustration is huge. As an example, we just got into packaging, and we may add that into our portfolio in the next several years.

NG:   Whether it’s classes or events, we try to keep the quality at a certain level, to maintain focus within each area. And always refining what we are willing to take on in a curated way.

DK:    We’re developing our brand as we go. We can’t predict what we will look like in five years’ time. I don’t want us to be easily defined. But when you see you it, you understand.

What do you prioritize as a business more: growth or control?

NG:   It’s a little bit of both. I think measured is a good word. There are things we aspire to when it comes to growing. We won’t hire 12 designers and try to blow this thing out as much as possible. It’s more looking at each business area and seeing what tweaks to make.

C’mon, you guys can’t be that pragmatic and middle of the road on everything.

NG:   [laughs] Sorry we can’t have a crazier answer like “We want to own a private jet and go on tour!”

DK:  We like to say we’re lean. We don’t want to hire an employee and give them the jobs we used to do. We don’t want to be full-time managers. We want to be illustrators and designers. We’re not out to be this enormous company. It’s about making our lives as fulfilling as possible as individuals.

You often share video tutorials explaining the design process behind an illustration. Why?

DK:   Process videos started as an experiment. We knew other people did them and we enjoyed watching them. It turned into something that became a marketing piece. They weren’t making any big splashes until we released the band Explosions in the Sky’s mammoth poster. We got a bunch of hits to our site from that and the poster sold out. So a flag popped up that said this was a way to market ourselves and show our products and portfolio. Now it’s a strategic way of getting our name out there.

NG:  Not to be cheesy, but the way that we learned was by talking to our peers and other designers. It’s amazing how generous people are with us, so we enjoy sharing our process. People ask if we’re creating an army of imitators to put us out of business. But we’re happy to pull back the curtain. We’re confident in our abilities.

I don’t buy the reasoning of those who believe creatives should be secretive.

NG:  Right. Me neither. There still some secret sauce to what we do. It’s amazing to see people take what they learned and put their own style on it and have great careers.

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What does the design world talk too much about?

DK:   Rules. When there are certainties about how things are supposed to get done. People see the rules and think My life doesn’t allow me to do that, so I can’t be a professional artist. A lot of people ask us how we got here and I say, “Whatever I say is different than what you need. We have different lives.” When I see a list of rules on how to become a pro, everyone has a different story. Unless those rules are super general, it’s not helpful and it’s deceiving.

I feel it’s because blogs like writing about the “one thing” we need.

NG:   The scary thing about any creative field is that it’s not like being a doctor, where you go to school and get licensed. There’s no path to being a designer. Maybe you’ll hit. Maybe you won’t. Having a notion of the ‘one thing’ you need can be helpful, but it can be limiting.

What do we not talk enough about?

NG:   The business side. It’s almost taboo to talk about finances. There’s a lot about following your passion and dreams, and the business stuff gets swept aside in favor of focusing on creativity. You can be a smart businessman and artist simultaneously.

At what point in the education process is this aversion to money distilled in the creative community?

DK:   If anyone wants your work, it’s a compliment. A lot of artists take this to an extreme and then will do it for free. They’re like, “Wow, someone wants to give me exposure. I’ll finally have my foot in the door!” You wouldn’t do that if you were a plumber or an architect.

We’re happy to pull back the curtain. We’re confident in our abilities.

Didn’t you guys do posters for Troubadour for free in the beginning of your career, though?

DK:   Exactly! We’re guilty of it. I’m glad we did because it gave us a portfolio that led to clients. We did it longer than we needed to, though. It’s a matter of letting your sensitivity not be part of your business decisions. Look at it cut and dry: You gave them your work. What did they give you? A lot of artists are blind from their sensitivity. They value being “accomplished” more than making money.

To push back, you can only have that opinion because you’ve reached some degree of success. It’s easy for someone with clients knocking on their door to say “always charge money.” When you’re 22, you don’t have that option.

DK:  Absolutely. It’s hard for us to tell students to never do spec work. They could say, “That’s fine, but I’m starving.” There’s a balance. Ideally you build work up as quickly as you can so you can charge as fast as possible.

It sounds like your guiding philosophy is to just decide what you personally want to do and that’s it. There are no rules.

NG:   There’s a second layer where we look at three questions: Is this something we’re passionate about, that we want in our portfolio? Is this a client we want to build a relationship with? And then the financial component: I’d love to only take on work we’re excited about, but we have to pay the bills. Those three criteria lead us to an answer. It sounds straightforward, but it doesn’t always go that smoothly. At the end of every year we do internal awards. What are the best projects? How do we do more of those? The worst ones that dragged us through the mud —how do we avoid those? Every year we fine-tune that spider sense of what is good and bad.

DK:   It’s interesting to look at the hard numbers. What did client work bring in? What about retail sales? Just having those talks is a great way to decide how we’re going to run our business. Every year we run into a new set of problems, and that’s great. It’s the reason we grow.

from 99U99U http://bit.ly/2fg1J4b