Field Trip Publishing, funded by a 2011 Rocket Grant, was a collaborative project founded and staffed by Eric Dobbins and Kelly John Clark. The two worked with artists to create limited-edition multiples. The three of us talked in March about the Field Trip Publishing experience.
Drea: I was reading in the initial article that was published on the Rocket Blog when you first got the grant and it speaks to this idea of artists as marketers and promoters in addition to their practice. On some level maybe that makes an artist’s work more accessible–because they’re not going through a third party–a gallery or some other kind of representation. But it also changes the job of the artist. What are your thoughts or philosophy on that?
Eric: Field Trip Publishing was a follow-up to a collaboration that Kelly and I were part of in Lawrence, KS: a commercial gallery called Wonder Fair that focused on selling work in a way that wasn’t as solely reliant on the white wall gallery space. It was selling prints, multiples, editions and objects. When we both made the transition to Kansas City we were interested in staying active on that side of things—because it was such a rich experience for us in Lawrence. We designed this project around approaching artists and helping them understand ways in which their work could expand through other media and into new modes of experience and appreciation. To reflect on how the market has changed since that time, it does feel like we were onto something and did help artists forward their work in new ways. Not to say that we were pioneers in any sense, but our process was new and received well by the artists we were working with. The most important thing was to just be collaborating and working on something exciting that both parties were interested in developing.
Kelly: For me it wasn’t something that I was used to doing, but Eric was good at it. We had a lot of conversations about it at Wonder Fair and it sounded kind of fascinating. In my own practice I tended to make drawings by myself all the time and I really liked the idea of getting out into the world and talking with other artists and seeing what they do. So it accessed this hidden interest that I already had. Second to that, it was a way of making a different kind of art. The art I was used to was art that I would make and if someone wants to buy it, then that’s fine. But we were making art that felt legitimate as merchandise. And that was new and cool to me. I started to look around and think, “You know, could this be the most contemporary art that there is? This hyper-capitalist art?” For me it became this interesting sort of ethical art thing. Eric was much better at saying, “Well, this is going in the market, so we have to make that consideration.” I think we came about it in different ways, but I think we ended up in making really nice projects together.
Drea: I noticed the amount of care that went into the way that the arc of the collaboration seemed to go, from the studio visit to the final product. I was thinking that that’s where the name Field Trip comes from, from taking “field trips” to another studio?
Kelly: It circled around to that. It was originally called Vacation. But there was a band that some friends of mine were forming called Vacation. I think Eric ended up calling it Field Trip.
Eric: I think the “field trip” was the artist taking a field trip with us. Taking a trip into our world.
Kelly: Yeah, it was two-way. We would come to them, but in the process, they would have to come to our way of thinking.
Eric: So, you know—like a field trip…and a trip afield.
Drea: I’m interested in what those collaborations look like in terms of like having to adjust people’s practices and them having to work with you and you having to work with them. Because I know that sometimes like client-maker relationships can be kind of weird. But these were collaborations between two parties that were both artists and makers and maybe that was a more equal relationship. Could you speak to the general arc of how those collaborations went and what the push and pull was between the two parties?
Kelly: It was different for everyone. Every project was weird in its own way. Some happened pretty naturally and felt like talking with a friend, and some were kind of fighting for every inch of success in the process, or finding some kind of in-road into the concept. Jamie Warren’s is an example of that—she was incredibly bullet headed about what her concept was, but she wouldn’t really talk about it. She wanted a bag with a question mark and that was it. So with that project and all of the projects, we would begin with Eric and I talking about the artist and then we would do a studio visit, or a series of them. Then Eric and I would just have to talk about, well, what are we going to do here? Then we would pitch something to the artist. My memory of it is that the artists were always kind of mystified and were like, okay, sure.
Eric: Some artists knew what type of thing they wanted to make. Others had no idea and were kind of relying on us to find that good-fit thing which, as Kelly said, made for every experience to be its own weird relationship and fantastic exercise in collaboration. I don’t recall Kelly and I having that many differences in opinion or approach. Through much of our work it has been easy for the one to satisfy the other. But when we welcome the new voice, challenges arise and more questions emerge—one of which is the question of authorship. It becomes a longer conversation. Now, who’s project is this? And who are you again?
But I think when you throw matching jumpsuits on, pop into the studio with a big shiny personalized seal, and it expands before your eyes to become an invitation—it’s a way to establish some trust, to communicate who you are and ground where you’re coming from. We wanted to avoid being misinterpreted by the artists. Throughout the collaborative process, we were earnest, honest, and open… and made sure to let the artists know: we’re just trying to have some fun.
Drea: It really did seem like fun. Especially looking at the like the studio visit pictures.
Kelly: I think a sense of fun and a sense of play was really important. We tried to establish this tension with the artists in which we initially sent out this very lovely invitation and asked them to be a part of this thing. Eric and I worked really hard on the front-end before we even communicated with any of the artists to build the visual brand of Field Trip Publishing, so that by the time that the artists got this invitation it was fully fleshed out and looked legitimate as an object. It asked the artists to come along with us and they had to circle yes or no. It was like a silver Willy Wonka ticket. We actually embossed it in the print department at KCAI and used the laser cutter to cut a block. Part of that was designed so that the artists would kind of have faith us as object makers, but also so that they would think, “Oh God, this could be a lot of fun.” Once they agreed we had them sign a contract that was equally insane looking. When the artists filled out their contract they got due dates from us. At the beginning of each project we sent them a copy of our Field Trip logo and they had to send it back, but they had to re-do it. When Jamie Warren sent hers back she had just drawn it again, but where there was originally “Field Trip” written, she just wrote a question mark because that was the project she wanted.
Eric: Some of the artists didn’t even really understand what we’re proposing, they just agreed to go all-in based on the aesthetic and the quality of our invitation materials, which was strategic… because, we didn’t really know what we were doing. We thought: well, let’s just get things off on the right foot.
Kelly: Initially it was just tons of studio visits. Our plan was to do a first season and a second season, like five artists and then another five artists.
Eric: We nearly made something with everyone that signed on for the first round.
Kelly: The first round was pretty good, but in the second round the wheels kind of fell off the wagon. We didn’t get to Anthony Baab, didn’t get to Seth Johnson. Erin Zona’s kind of died on the vine a bit.
Eric: I wouldn’t say that. We got the tube!
Kelly: The silver tube, yeah, that giant decal.
Eric: There were so many little ideas that took such great care and consideration to make right. I think of Lee Piechocki’s puzzle and, just… it was such a straaange thing, such an alien image. There was the handle on the lid of the puzzle, which was a die-cut cat, white enamel, with this tiny little brass dowel inserted into its nose–or belly button? The sourcing of the materials, and fabrication, required a disproportionate amount lot of time and energy to get just right. We made ten puzzles, and sold one…but hunted for brass belly buttons for two weeks.
Kelly: We made tons, I still have them in the planters around the porch.
Eric: Right, right. Lots of extra kitties.
Kelly: Yeah, the little white cats. Tons of them. Got some at work at my desk. (laughter) There were moments in these projects when I would be shaking my fist at how inefficient they were, but it often meant that we were on the right track. We would consistently find the more difficult, more idiotic way of doing things, but it resulted in us having to spend a lot of time trying to sort of figure out how to get out of this mess we’d gotten into. We would say, “Oh yeah, yeah, we can do that, sure.” For the Erin Zona project, she said, “You know, I would really love to make this anamorphic print and it needs to have this silver tube.” And Eric and I said, “Oh yes, sure.” And then we had to go and find this tube. All of the projects had this feeling of, yeah, okay, we’ll figure that out. And then we had to figure the damn thing out! That was the real excellent journey, figuring out how to do everything we said yes to.
Drea: A lot of the projects, like the space station cookbook thing and like Jamie Warren’s Bag with a Question Mark, they feel very McSweeney’s, like those little packages that they make. Where does that aesthetic influence come from?
Eric: Aesthetic wise, a lot of the imagery was sourced from the artist. We would say we need X, Y and Z to play around with. I think the overall visual identity came from Kelly’s design sensibility, which we would integrate with the artist’s content. But when it came to projects like Mrs. Tasty’s cookbook—which slips into a little sleeve with a precious custom decal on it—that came from our experience working with the artists, publishers, makers, printers and presses orbiting the Wonder Fair shop. Field Trip was a continuation of our involvement in that community.
Kelly: For me, it’s never the object that is the thing I’m buying. It’s often the packaging, often the design, the way it’s featured that convinces me that what’s inside is going to be worth my time. I think that we both worked really hard to make a visual world around the artist’s object that felt like the artist’s, but also felt like a very considered, very designed approach to the artist’s world, visually. Like for Matt Jacobs’ piece we had a studio visit with him and talked about candy and what it means, that kind of a sense of desire there. We worked really hard to make this brand that was visually like pharmaceuticals. For every project we considered whether the project should feel wondrous or should it feel disciplined? And it often had to do with how we felt the artist was.
Drea: What was this project like in its heyday, like on a day to day basis? Looking through the website, it seems like it was very dense in terms of doing a lot of stuff in a short period of time.
Kelly: We spent a long time on the run up to actually getting started. Eric had to clue me in about the importance of having a street presence and Instagram–and I didn’t know anything about that–and how to get the thing started before you actually start the thing. But then once we got into production, it was six months maybe.
Eric: There was a lot happening. Once we started making the work things slowed a bit because every last detail was considered and sourced appropriately. But yeah, it was my primary studio practice upon moving to Kansas City: working at the Art Institute and Field Trip. The design was dense, vibes were high.
Kelly: Tons of conversations. Just constant. We were talking to each other all day, every day some days. Like, “What’s going on here? What’s going on with that project? Got to shoot the screens, got to get that drawn. Got to get paper.”
Drea: Yeah, it looked intense. What was the arc of these projects? Did you do all the studio visits first and then work on the projects simultaneously?
Eric: We scheduled the visits first, but there was some overlap.
Kelly: Some of the studio visits were multiple studio visits. It was like checking and re-checking in. For everyone there was an initial studio visit, which we did first.
Eric: And on those first studio visits we had the artist sign the agreements, double down on commitment to quality and specialness and then we would begin to work. But sometimes it took some real time for things to develop. I remember with Lee’s project— knew we wanted to do a puzzle almost immediately. The imagery for that took another seven months to come together.
Kelly: His especially was tough–and that’s I think why the puzzle ended up being the best thing–was because it’s several pieces.
Eric: A puzzle with two puzzle pieces.
Kelly: It was originally going to be a set of shelves with different objects you could take off and replace with other same-shaped things. Like a beach ball would be a circle and you’d take it off and then you can replace it with like a dinner plate or something. But we finally got to the puzzle. I think I had to strong arm Lee into deciding that no, we’re going to do this one this way.
Drea: It sounds like some people—like Jaime and Erin—knew what they wanted and we’re really set on it. But then other artists weren’t as decisive and you guys were making these early decisions with them.
Kelly: And kind of helping them along. In some ways I felt like the artist had more skin in the game than we did because it was their work. But I always wanted them to just have faith in us and let us do the thing. So they had to decide, “Is it this way or is it that way?” There were artists, like Erin, who were incredibly organized and were a dream to work with. And the other Aaron—Aaron Storck—was also completely prepared with his work pretty much day one.
Drea: Do you feel like you guys got better at it as you cycled through the projects? Like the later ones are better than the first ones?
Kelly: I feel like I got pretty tired at the end. For some of the later ones—and I can only speak for myself—I was pretty physically exhausted. I look at pictures of myself then and I feel like I was very thin. (laughter) But maybe it was just the shaved head.
Drea: I’ve noticed in this conversation you guys are talking about the “specialness” of an object or that the objects required a level of engagement. Like you had to touch them and open them up because they were products. Can you talk about the difference between the sort of like on-the-wall, can’t-touch-it art objects versus these objects that you were making?
Eric: Well, it’s perhaps a bit more fun to be able to play with the art. It was something that was a bit less common at that time I think. In my experience in the Printmaking Department at KU once you start making multiples of an image you’re inviting more eyes, more hands, passing prints around, sharing work. So it was really-really just an extension of that practice. As a printmaker it’s more of a community and within the community you share and you engage and you get your hands dirty.
Kelly: I remember that when we were at Wonder Fair there was an Urban Outfitters a couple blocks away. They had wall art for sale for $20. I remember being really annoyed by that because I always thought that no one has loved that and no one that only pays $20 for it is going to love it. So, with the objects for Field Trip, I wanted these to feel truly special. I wanted someone to look at them and think there’s no way they made a lot of these. There was something about the community, like Eric mentioned, but for me there was also something about a larger notion, about how people are going to buy shit, they like to have stuff around them– it’s kind of what people do–and so it should be things that are truly loved. That is to me, one of the strengths of the projects and I feel like they all communicated that.
Drea: That’s partly what’s exciting to me about printmaking. Especially silk screen because it’s so immediate–you just pull a print and it’s there, and you can make a bunch of them. Maybe that kind of speaks to like a broader history of printmaking as community oriented. I wonder if what you guys were doing is kind of like just a continuation of that history.
Kelly: Field Trip was a great expression of how truly hard it is to make a print with someone else, and all the conversations you have to have. But then weirdly how close you become over the course of the process. Every time I see Aaron Storck, and I don’t see him that often, I do feel like I’m seeing a good friend, but I didn’t know him particularly well before Field Trip. But then when he was in town last year we saw each other and high-fived and hugged—it was great.
Drea: What were the logistics of it? The Rocket Grant must have helped. I noticed that you guys had an address on the website, but I wasn’t sure if that was a shop. Then I also saw that you were making photolithos at the KCAI print shop. Did you have your own space or were you kind of piecing it together?
Kelly: We had a mailing address so that we could receive the invitations back, which was Eric’s address at the time. We had the print shop at the Art Institute where we did a lot of the heavy lifting. We printed stuff at Eric’s Charlotte Street studio. And then we did a lot of production and construction, once everything was printed, at my apartment where I had a big table there. It was kind of all over town. We did have a mythical “future headquarters of Field Trip Publishing” building down on West 18th street.
Eric: We had identified a possible space. All the while though it felt like we were already working there. (laughter) Looking back on it, it seems like it all happened in some giant warehouse. It was part of perhaps what was continuing to drive us at the end of the work, the idea of continuing in a space beyond just some living rooms and shops that we had access to because of our day jobs.
Kelly: You know, that building insanely is still vacant. Maybe they’re saving it for us. (laughter)
Eric: Yeah, golly, it was a beauty. It was across from the old YJ’s on that side of the street. It’s across from the Lithocraft building, across from Front Space. Maybe it’s not too late!
Kelly: No, it’s too late.
Drea: The image you guys constructed is like that it all happened in one place. But as I started to pick it apart and I started to think, there’s no way this happened in one space.
Eric: I think that there was a desire for it to feel that way. We were always controlling public perception with the images we chose to share. We were working hard to present the biggest and best versions of ourselves. We were pretty thrilled to get the support of the Rocket Grant, it came at an important time and, to continue the metaphor, that fuel heightened our desire to achieve a certain level of excellence. We couldn’t quite resist that need to make it feel real. From the beginning Field Trip was more than us. It was the past and the future, and the present felt like the transitory period. It felt like we were already in that dream Field Trip building. I think part of being able to live in that imaginary future space was based on the quality of the work we were making. Like, gee this feels good to us. This is important and beautiful work. There must be more to come. This is forever. Little did we know, as Kelly mentioned, exhaustion sets in and money runs dry.
Kelly: There was this real idealism in the quality of the projects. So much was done really carefully to get the most ideal shot, the most ideal moment because we were trying to make the most idealized version of everything.
Drea: How did everything come to a close? Was it planned or did it just piddle out as energy and resources dried up?
Kelly: I don’t remember if there was ever a formal, “Hey, I’m getting tired of this thing” conversation. I do remember that at a certain point we decided we were going to have to start showing what we were making and we held a showcase. We were going to showcase the work from the first half of the program; it was called the Snowy Mountain Showcase. After that I think that the ghost had just left us. We were just tired. We did some more projects after that: Brock Potucek‘s project, which felt like classic Field Trip in terms of its level of detail and discussion. But I don’t think that piece was ever even documented. And then we did the cookbook.
Eric: I think we probably sold more of Brock’s pieces than any other Field Trip project.
Kelly: I think we might’ve sold three.
Eric: No-no, we sold more cookbooks. We started selling things towards the end which is interesting. We just did it for awhile, made a lot of great stuff and then just…gone, I suppose.
Kelly: It’s hard to work together. I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn here when I say it can be difficult on a friendship to work together. Sometimes, and maybe I’m different than Eric in this way, but sometimes I would find myself putting friendship aside in order to just get the thing done and that doesn’t seem like a real good way to live. I was happier to just be friends with my friend. That was enough.
Drea: It seemed like a really intense thing, it seemed very dense and that’s maybe not sustainable.
Kelly: I mean, it was fun. I do think of it as a real high point, it was so fun. But yeah, there was some times—what Eric called them—some tight spots.
Eric: Under the gun, there were some tough conversations between the two of us—all of which I think we managed very well. I don’t really think any part of our friendship was sacrificed by the project. Looking back, I think it got stronger as a result of this work together.
Kelly: I’m not quite so tight with the other Wonder Fair boys anymore. They’ve kind of moved on. But I think that Field Trip had a real bonding effect on Eric and me.
Drea: It seems like this project was this conceptual learning experience, but also a logistical learning experience. What have you guys directly taken from it to future endeavors?
Kelly: Well for me, I kept doing and still occasionally do strange design jobs with artists or arts organizations and it takes me out of my own studio and it reminds me how great it is to be around people and to have creative conversations. And those are sometimes the most difficult conversations because in the studio it’s often unclear to the artist what they’re doing and for them to then have to communicate it to someone else is additionally difficult. In my current job as a curatorial assistant, those are a lot of the conversations I have. In these conversations I’m able to be really friendly and really calm and really curious because I saw that go so well with Field Trip. I learned to not be impatient, to allow things to take their time. And that was certainly a skill I did not have before Field Trip.
Eric: A high bar remained in place as we were going through this work together, and remains to this day. I certainly learned a lot from Kelly, and by engaging with each artist’s studio practice as well. I deeply value exposure to new ways of working, taking time to share artistic goals and reaching consensus on what makes for a finished piece. Everything I encountered through Field Trip continues to influence how I approach my art and my silly-billy life. Something that happened around the time that Field Trip Publishing began was a recognition that my illustration and imagery was becoming a bit too focused on a specific style. Through making work with Field Trip I began to co-author things that didn’t feel that way. Currently, I’ve got a lot of little ideas that don’t rely on that old hat illustrative aesthetic. They’re functional in the way that the the Field Trip work was designed to be. For example, I’m constructing candlestick holders, and researching napkin caddies. I also started a cap company. Oh, and my wife and I have a baby on the way! I was gifted a sewing machine over the holidays and have begun sketching some little outfits. So broadly, I’m trying some different things, have pulled back on drawing the old way I draw best, and continue to explore new sets of style and creative application. It’s fresh to be expanding my practice in this way, but quite familiar as well. Hey man, have I taken this trip before?
Drea DiCarlo, April 2019