I travel through the Laguna Beach canyon towards the Sawdust Festival location just outside the downtown area, and right before I reach the artsy spot, I pull off onto a small two-lane road hidden in tropical vegetation of all kinds. I drive past a few homes—each with their own unique and mesmerizing personality—until I spot a old time green VW Bus parked at the perimeter of a quaint little cottage, and I know I’ve found my destination. Jesse Miller, a Laguna Beach local artist pops out from his back studio and into the small driveway, grinning ear to ear, and climbs into my truck. This easygoing jack-of-all-trades suggests heading to the Orange Inn on Pacific Coast Highway just a few minutes from his house to grab a bite. Once there, we sit down to have a late breakfast at one of his favorite local eateries, and talk about how he has continued to stay busy throughout the years creating his intricate and mind-blowing hand-made designs range across a multitude of difficult artistic mediums.
What have you been up to lately?
Jesse Miller: I’ve been doing a lot of graphics stuff and some shop work. Brett (Walker) and I are going to the shop this evening to build some racks for Sambazon Cafe, and then I’m working on a bunch of other little projects over there too.
The shop is your dad’s studio, right?
Yeah, his woodshop.
Is it here in Laguna Beach?
No, it’s actually in Santa Ana. I grew up in Costa Mesa, and then the shop was always in Santa Ana. Yeah, it’s nice. I hang out there after hours and on the weekends when there’s no one there and I have the shop to myself.
How long has your dad been doing woodwork for?
Pretty much forever, as long as I’ve been around. He started out doing signs. That’s how I learned to do the sandblasted signs.
You carve the signs?
Actually you glue up the blank and then put the special sandblast tape over it, and then you design over the tape. Then you cut out the tape with an X-acto knife, then you take it to a place that will sandblast it. Wherever the tape was, it repels the sand, and wherever there’s no tape it indents the wood. If you look around at the signs, especially in Laguna Beach and other cities follow suit, where they make it so you have to have a sandblasted sign for your business.
Like the sign you did at the Lumberyard downtown?
Yeah, that’s a sandblasted sign. There was a guy in town that used to do all of them, he did all these signs and was well known. He passed away a few years ago.
Tell me about your running attendance here in Laguna at the Sawdust Festival.
Next year will be my fifth summer. Sawdust is an arts and crafts festival that happens during the summer. There are over 200 artists that exhibit their work. It’s pretty cool because you have to build your booth. When you get your spot, it’s just a plot of dirt and you have to build your booth from the ground up—the walls the floors, the roof.
You have to be creative in marketing yourself, eh?
It’s nice, you just kinda create your own environment, which fulfills your outlook. It’s a bit taxing mentally, emotionally, and physically, but it’s awesome.
How long is the festival?
Just over two months, you sit there from 10am-10pm. You don’t have to be there every second of that time, but obviously the more you’re there, the more you can sell your work. If you go to the trouble, you might as well be there. I mean, I make it sound pretty rough, but it’s pretty fun too, you know? I’m just one block away from my house so I can just sit there and drink beer and stumble home later.
What is the crowd usually like?
All kinds of people actually. Different times of day bring different types of people I guess. There are buses, and the tour buses come in from out of town and you get a lot of the Seniors and out-of-towners in the mornings, and then in the afternoon and evenings it’s a younger crowd usually. There’s always good music playing there. It’s like summer camp. I go there and see all the people I haven’t seen since last summer. It’s like a little community where everyone kind of like watches out for each other.
And you can see how everyone’s art has progressed.
And what’s cool about it is most of the people pick a different spot every year, so then you really get to know everyone. You actually live with those people that are right around you all summer. I like to move to a new spot because then you meet new people. After five years, I’ve met almost everyone.
Sounds like the epitome of a community.
Yeah it’s cool. I’m not too stoked on all the rules and regulations they’re trying to cram down everyone’s throat these days, it’s kinda weird.
I’m sure trying to regulate an artist community might be a little tough. Most of you see outside the box.
Yeah, I deal with it and everyone does in their own way. I know the rules but the rules do not know me.
So tell me how your art career started?
I guess it started in High School. I was going to Costa Mesa and then my brother who was there too was asked to leave ‘cause he was kind of a problem. He was a real smart guy and he gave a lot of the teachers a hard time, so they asked him to leave. At the time it was nearly impossible to transfer schools, especially from Mesa to Harbor, but they were like, ‘We’ll make it happen if he agrees to leave, we will get him to go.’ My parents asked me if I wanted to go too, and I was like, ‘Yeah, that sounds fun.’ I always like adventure like that. When I was a sophomore, I transferred to Harbor, which was great. I met some really cool people, and then by my junior year, I had met a couple of people who were in the surf industry and I started doing the graphic art—like t-shirt designs for the surf companies.
Which brands did you design for?
World Jungle was actually the first company that I ever did a t-shirt design for. The guy, Jungle Jack—he was actually from Laguna. That was a cool company back in the day, but he passed away and the company kind of faded away. So I worked with World Jungle, then Billabong, then Quiksilver, and then eventually I worked for almost all of them just freelance style.
Your art is a bit different from most modern artists because you don’t rely on the computer. For someone looking at a piece of your art, what are the different layers and how do you create them?
I love to do everything the old-school way, and everything by hand. That’s why I like doing the sand-blasted signs and the screen-printing. I like to hand-cut the film, and I like to go the extra mile to do it the way it was originally done. Everyone with Photoshop these days considers themself a graphic artist—just throw a couple of clipart pieces together and voila! I don’t like that, and it keeps it different. It’s not going to be something that you’ve seen before that’s just manipulated or changed. It comes from my head only. And plus, when the job is done, you actually have a physical piece of artwork as opposed to just some file on a disk. It’s kinda cool that way—I give the client the option to buy the actual physical piece once they have paid for the design or whatever they want. For a job, if I’m doing like a t-shirt design, it will be ink and colored pencil on paper. A lot of times I’ll do the design or logo and then scan it and send it to them or to their printer, and then that actual piece of artwork they can buy, or I keep it.
What tools are you using during your hand drawing?
I use rulers and a compass sometimes.
What influences are you drawing from? Are there any artist that inspired you as you were growing up?
Both of my parents are artistic, so they were an influence and they heavily inspired me to do art. I remember when I was younger, in junior high or something, my parents got me the Art of Rock book for Christmas, which is this big thick book that covers posters from Presley to punk. The two ends of that spectrum I didn’t really care for, but the middle with the psychedelic ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s stuff I did. Rock art was highly influential to me, definitely. That’s pretty much where I get all my style.
I love the beautiful, intricate, psychedelic art that you do. I enjoy finding a new little detail every time I look at it. And you have multiple types of media that you work with, not just hand drawings?
I have several, yes.
You’re quite a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to producing art.
I like to joke around and say I’m a jack-of-all, master of some (laughs). Maybe none, I don’t know, but I like to just do a little bit of everything. From graphic art, to screen-printing, and chalk on foam—which is the art I do on surfboards—to wood-working, sign-making, and to leaded glass, windows, and cabinetry, and all kinds of stuff. It’s fun and it’s really the only way I’m able to sustain and do what I do as a freelance working artist. I don’t know how some people do it who are just painters. It seems like it would be so tough, you know? It’s good, ‘cause if I’m not building a window, then I’m doing a logo, and if I’m not doing that, then it’s something else. I’m lucky because I’m able to be diverse in the way that I’m able to make money and not have to have a 9am to 5pm job. I’ve never had a real job, which I feel fortunate of. It has it’s up and downs, and you know, it’s feast or famine. It’s always tough around the holidays. In between Thanksgiving and the New Year, people just drop off and put things off until next year, but there’s still two months where I gotta come up with money for rent. I don’t have a salary, so it’s tough to save money. Some months it’s just enough, and some months it’s way more and I try to put away. It always just kind of balances out.
For the work that goes into each piece, I’m surprised how quickly you create new pieces. How often are you producing?
I probably should take my time more ‘cause sometimes I sort of rush through it, but it always ends up pretty good. I’m sort of the guy who needs a deadline on his head so he can get things done. And then of course I wait until the last minute and pull 16-hour days to finish. I work well under pressure I guess.
Most of the time I’m incubating my ideas, and that’s what keeps me from producing things right away. Visualizing mixed media probably takes a lot of pre-planning?
There are certain parts of it—like the concept and design of the piece—that usually take the most amount of time. Once I have that, I lay all of those multi-media pieces out full-size so I have an idea and a master-pattern for where each medium goes. Once I do that, then it’s the actual physical labor of doing it, which doesn’t really take that long, depending on the piece I guess.
I assume that if you make a mistake, there’s no ‘delete’ button to push and start over when you’re working hands-on?
I’ve been doing that method for a long time now, and I’ve got a good way to insure that I don’t make any major mistakes. Actually, I take that back because I’m constantly making mistakes and that’s the best part about it. That’s where you learn and that’s when some of the most magical things happen—when you make a mistake. I try to keep open to that so that that magic can happen.
I notice that when writing music. Sometimes the mind wanders and takes you somewhere you didn’t mean, but towards something that’s even better. Sometimes the accidental moments are the moments of enlightenment.
Yeah, it can give you ideas for something else. In music, and in art, there are no mistakes—there are only lessons and opportunities and new doorways—that’s what’s so fun about it.
I loved when eVocal had the space at The Camp in Costa Mesa, and you were teaching the stained-glass classes. You showed me the first one you made, and it had like 25 pieces, intricately shaped and cut and attached, but it wasn’t as fluid as your later work. You told me, ‘I always go big the first time around.’
I always learn so much and I’ve always done that—consciously and unconsciously. I don’t know, I always take the hard road in whatever I’m doing—then the lesson occurs.
So you’ve lived in Laguna Beach now for about nine years, and you surf and spend time at the beach. How does that influence your art as well?
Definitely, very heavily. The ocean is my sanctuary and my church. I have to go and visit—clean the dust off now and then.
Are you normally surfing here in Laguna?
I usually go down to San Onofre or up to Newport or Huntington. But I surf in Laguna a little bit sometimes.
Tell me about the surf brand you started way back when.
Right out of high school, a friend of mine and I started a t-shirt art company called Green Sun. He took all of his college money and spent it on equipment and a place to have a little shop space. We did our own screen-printing and we did freelance stuff for other companies. I was producing art for all the surf companies, and he was like, ‘Why don’t we just do our own thing? Why pay them, or why hook them up when they make thousands of dollars off of your designs?’ I grew tired of the injustices of the surf-company freelance art world. They should treat the artists like surfers, you know what I mean? The artists actually create the imagery and the image of the company just as much as sponsoring a surfer does. Their designs are art-driven in the surf shops. People don’t buy a t-shirt if they don’t like the design.
That’s why the surf industry is in a bit of an upheaval right now. A lot of brands seem to be sucking people dry.
Yeah they do. Whatever the flavor of the month is, they’ll go and get that and just burn through it, and then just on to the next thing.
It’s the complete opposite of what the surf mentality has always been about—respecting nature and the bounties that we’re fortunate to have.
Surf companies start off with the right intentions and the good people in charge, and it starts out righteous. But like any company that gets too big, people are brought in and then there’s a board of directors, stock-holders, and then it’s all about the margin of profit instead of what they have to offer the community. It loses its soul.
Hopefully they’ll wake up.
That’s why we were feeling like we had to do our own thing. We did for a while and we were pretty successful on an underground level. Then I just kind of grew tired of the screen-printing and we weren’t really making that big of a push with the brand, and we just went our separate ways. He kept doing screen-printing and that’s right when I got into fine art and doing the mixed-media stuff. That experience was great and I would never take it back because those six years of having a screen-printing business—that knowledge can’t be bought or taught. It was great and I took a lot away from it. That’s why I do the wooden postcards, and I gained a lot of insight on the industry. Instead of going to college, we did the ‘real-world’ schooling.
At one point, I was interested in doing surf journalism, but the industry wasn’t what I expected it to be from reading Surfing Magazine and Surfer.
The surfing world is really strange. It’s these weird internal vibes of people who think that they’re all that. It’s probably gnarlier than you would otherwise think. Surfing as a sport in generally is really strange. It’s like a mental chess game out in the water with all the etiquette out there—what to do and when to do it. It takes a lifetime to learn all that kind of etiquette just to catch some waves, let alone try to practice. Surfers are a strange crowd.
When did you first meet Brett Walker and begin working with eVocal?
I think I met Brett in like 2000, and then I did my first art show at the studio there in Costa Mesa in 2001. We’ve just kind of worked together ever since. We work totally well together ‘cause he’s good at psyching people up and getting work and having cool ideas. When it comes down to how those ideas are actually going to be made, produced and built, I come in handy there.
How do you stay inspired everyday in your work?
That’s where a lot of people fall short, and what they don’t realize is that if there is something that you like and you’re passionate about it, you’ve gotta do it no matter what. You’re not always going to get what you want or deserve all the time, but as long as you keep doing it, then people will know that’s what you do, then it snowballs, and then eventually you will. Everything else will fall into place.
A lot of people seem scared to do that.
It’s scary to put your self out there and to take a chance. When you’re doing your own thing, it’s tough to stay motivated. I’m fortunate that I was able to realize early on that I was really into art.
Part of it seems to come from your parents too.
Yeah, they are both really artistic, so I am pretty stoked to grow up in the household that I did with my dad being a surfer and both of them being artists and hippies. They’re the coolest. I couldn’t have picked a better family.
To see more of Jesse Miller's art, visit his website: jmillerart.com/