Creators, Makers, and Doers: Kelly Knopp

Posted on 11/30/16 by Arts & History


Kelly Knopp is an illustrator, designer and a founding member of Swell Artist Collective. Locally renowned for his branding and design work for businesses like Crooked Fence Brewing, Kelly also finds time to create art for art’s sake and run a business. In fact, according to Kelly, in order to be successful as an artist you must first have business savvy. He takes those words to heart as he expands Swell’s mission to include more resources and opportunities for local artists while maintaining a sustainable business model.


Can you start by describing your creative output?

Primarily I would say I’m an illustrator, making more of a living doing commercial and design work.

What drives your work? What kind of imagery or style do you work in?

I definitely grew up watching cartoons and drawing the Flintstones, the Jetsons, He-Man, and Ninja Turtles. I’d watch and then see how the different artists draw different eyes and expressions. That’s where it started out, from a cartoon aspect. Those were all the people I was looking up towards. Where I could find and carve out a piece of time to do artwork was in front of the television watching cartoons. So, from that point on, I was mainly drawing on homework and during classes I probably shouldn’t have been drawing in. I just drew enough where, eventually I started getting a couple of gigs doing band posters and t-shirts. Not too much of my style or what I’m doing now I can attribute to an art class or, art school. I had a couple of really good teachers and that’s about it. Everything else has been self-taught and self-driven.


When you design work, do you work with national clients or mostly local?

I have a really good base of local clients. I try as much as I can, in my design, to bring in the illustrative elements that people know me for, to give it its own feel. I think a lot of people, when they’re doing graphic design or logo work, look to something that’s already been done, something extremely simple, which is great and that can be very professional. But sometimes I think it’s boring and it doesn’t stand out in the big crowd of all this stuff. So, if you look at the Beard Smith or Crooked Fence logos, I’m still doing branding—it’s still logo work, it’s still design, but it definitely has those edgier illustration elements in it. I’ve done some work nationally and internationally, whether it was a snowboard company or, recently I’ve been working with agents in town, doing work that’s maybe international.


Can you elaborate on the differences between your design work and your illustration work, if any?

I think the best way to describe the difference would be, when I do illustration, that’s my form of fine art, because I’m not doing it for anything other than myself. I’m expressing something that I’ve been thinking about or maybe something that’s happening around me. At that point, I’m trying to stretch my boundaries and almost impress myself, where in commercial art I’m trying to impress the client and meet their needs and make sure what I’m doing is effective for them. So, I think if you were to put the two together, you would notice that there probably are a lot of differences there, where my illustration is way more free-thinking and there’s not a purpose of selling something and it’s not going on packaging, where that’s obviously there with the commercial stuff that I’m doing.


Does the design work primarily pay the bills?

Yes. I probably spend eighty percent of my time working on commissioned pieces, and most of that commission work is design. I mean, sometimes when I think of design, I think about, dragging circles or shapes with the mouse and then typing over the top. A lot of it’s still illustrative, but it’s definitely for a brand or for a company.

Would you say that you are more passionate about the illustration work?

Yeah, definitely. Nowadays I have to find time to carve aside to make sure I’m doing art just to do art and not with the point of selling it or promoting someone’s company. It’s hard to do that when the commercial stuff—there’s a goal at the end of it, it’s meeting the customer’s expectation, but then also there’s payment at the end of it. So, to stop doing that and then do art just for the sake of art, it’s kind of hard to find that head space if it isn’t going anywhere. If it’s for nobody’s eyes, I don’t care if I ever sell it. So, when I find that time, there is a lot of meaning to that artwork.


What drives you to put in the extra effort to create those personal works?

You know, not to sound stupid, but, I kind of need it to function. I get really depressed if I haven’t done anything that’s really genuine. My wife can attest to my moods if I’ve only done logos for the past month or layout for the past month. A part of my soul dies a little bit. It really balances me to be able to do something that’s an expression of myself and it’s for nothing other than I need to get it out.


Can you describe what it means to be an artist but also run a business?

You need to be a business person if you want to be successful in art. For some reason, I think that some artists feel like—because they have this skill or this talent—that business etiquette, showing up to meetings on time, bidding out appropriately or keeping track of hours and invoicing doesn’t apply to them. But, that’s how it works. Someone comes to you and they want to give you their money to do something, you need to behave like a business. That can be tough sometimes and I’m still learning how to be a better business person, but I think if you don’t do that, you’re not going to be successful, especially in an age now where people can get stuff for so cheap from some machine on the Internet that generates a logo for five dollars. You need to be that personal touch with the business sense behind you or it’s like, “No, that logo is worth six hundred dollars from someone that will take care of you and walk you through the process and show you what’s important.” So, absolutely, I think the only reason I’ve had any success at this at all is because I’ve tried really hard to be a good business person.


Can you tell me about this studio space and your working environment?

I started Crooked Fence Brewing a long time ago with some friends, and it was great, and I was getting a lot of chops through packaging and learning how to do different things. It got to the point where the company was really big and we had a lot of employees and I was not doing very creative things anymore. So, I got to the point where I was, like, “Listen, I need to be more creative. I need to get back into art.” So, I left that and approached Noble in November of last year and just sat down with him over some beers and I was like, “You know, I think there’s a lot of people that could use studio space. There’s certainly people that enjoy contemporary art. And I think the only way to do it is if we get a group so we can share the expenditures.” So, Swell started. We signed a lease in November, opened in December, and now we’re here.


Can you specifically describe what Swell is?

Swell is an artist collective and we are event-driven. We’re trying to do as many events as we can that involve artists in the community. We want to make sure that artists are working hard to be professional, their work is very presentable, they’re helping us promote, so we don’t have that burden completely on our shoulders. But, really, we’re just stepping back into Boise and being, like, “Hey, this kind of art needs a place; it needs representation.” In 2008 or ’09, I mean, there (were) a few galleries downtown–Basement Gallery was one of them—that featured this kind of work that isn’t necessarily an Idaho landscape or an elk or a fish. That stuff all has its place and it’s great, but there (are) so many artists that don’t go there with their art. And up until Swell, there wasn’t a permanent, consistent space for those artists. So, that’s what we’re providing.

We’ve come up with some really innovative events, trying to create a reason to get off your couch to go see art. We’re still figuring that out. But, so far, it’s been great. We’re working together. Everyone’s essentially working in different mediums, which makes it very easy to walk across the room and be, like, “Hey, what kind of brushes do you use?” or, like, “Last time you used fixative on there. Someone can tell you that it ruined their painting.” It’s just like this nice think tank of, like, “I have a question for you,” or “I have a suggestion,” or “What do you think about this?”, which has helped me immensely grow. And speaking for them, I’m sure it has for them as well.


Can you further articulate the importance of Swell in our community?

Since we started Swell, we knew there was a group of artists that we’ve always shown with, but there (are) no opportunities. Since we’ve started offering opportunities, now we’re finding people that we’re like, “Oh, my God, did you know this person lived here? Their art’s amazing, and nobody’s even heard of them,” because there’s no opportunity; you won’t see them unless they get a show at a coffee house, which is fine, or the VAC, which is a great place to show. So, I think it’s extremely important. These people in this community need to know the artists and the quality of art is here; they don’t need to go to a big city; they don’t need to go surf the Internet out of state to find art for their home or even just to experience great art. These artists are already here. In return, these artists now have a place where they can showcase that stuff. I think the easiest way to answer that, like, if Swell or things like Swell aren’t there, you just won’t see this artwork here. There’s several of these people and these artists in this group and outside of our group that sell a lot of artwork— but not in Boise. It’s shipped outside of Boise. So, we’re trying to rein it back in.


In general, can you comment on the current state of the arts community?

I think the people are here that want to see it. I think that’s good, we have that going for us. The artists are here that are producing amazing work. So, I have no issue with the art community. We can always do better educating about the worth of art and that people shouldn’t gawk about our price of something that someone spent weeks on and has spent their lifetime honing their skills to create. There’s a disconnect there of what art is worth. And I think everyone in town is very underpriced. But we also can’t jump that gun and put everything where it should be and then that initial shock for the community of, like, “I can’t own art; it’s too expensive.” I wish they’d be like, “I can afford that because it’s worth it.”


Do you have any idea why that mentality exists around here?

You know, I don’t know. I think about it often. I know we discuss it a lot of the time. And I’m guilty of it as well, you know. Sometimes I finish a piece and I’m, like, “I need to put this at a price where I think someone will buy it,” rather than, “I need to put this at what it’s worth.” So, I play a part in the broken system, and hopefully Swell can help start that movement of educating of artists that, “This is how many hours you spent on that thing, like, this is the level you’re at. Your price should be higher.” And to the consumer, “You need to understand the time and effort and what it takes to produce a piece like this, so it is worth it.” I don’t know how it started here. I don’t know if it’s just the lack of shows or people taking a stand in the past, but I just don’t know.


On the other hand, are there any resources that are missing here to help make you or the community more successful?

Well, up until now, everything that we’ve done has essentially come out of Noble’s and my pocket(s) and from the other studio artists, who chip in every month and help us keep our studio space and the overhead. We’re moving towards a base where, if you want to be involved and you want to be professionally represented and supported by our team here, then we’re asking for all the artists to chip in. So, essentially, we’re building sort of this resource of not only artists and their art but also they’re chipping in. We spent six months racking our brain with a business consultant who’s been in the art industry for a while. They have really helped us put a value on everything we do, even from the hook in the wall to the time it took to hang it to the promotions, Facebook, the Boise Weekly ad. The stuff all adds up, and then you roll into a show with all these expenditures, all the risk is on you, the artists hang their work, and let’s say two pieces sell, which is great, and we take a pretty low percentage. But, we forked the bill for all of that and we didn’t recoup it. We haven’t been recouping it all the way. So, we came up with a number for each tier of artists that isn’t astronomical. It’s super-affordable. But it will help us break even on the costs. We just hope to be sustainable.


Finally, do you have any motivational words or words of advice for other artists?

Just work your ass off. There’s a lot of artists out there I talk to that are waiting for someone to call them up and give them this opportunity. If you don’t have an opportunity, make one. And if you think you’re working hard, you’re not probably working hard enough. I still don’t think I’m working hard enough, but I don’t have enough hours, but I think it should always be that way. I don’t ever see myself get to a place in art where I feel like I’ve made it or like I can slow down.

Creators, Makers, & Doers highlights the lives and work of Boise artists and creative individuals. Selected profiles focus on individuals whose work has been supported by the Boise City Dept. of Arts & History.