Phillips label designer inspired by everything from Group of Seven to graffiti

What: Islands and Inlands
Where: Madrona Gallery, 606 View St.
When: Oct. 17-31

The art of painter, illustrator and graphic designer Shawn O’Keefe has many iterations, from his graffiti-accented designs with Victoria’s adventurous Woodpile Collective to the bright and colourful creations that adorn the bottles and cans of Phillips Brewing and Malting Co.

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His latest exhibit dips into the world of landscape painting. “It all looks so different,” O’Keefe, 48, admitted. “I’ve had a complex about that over time. ‘Man, you can never just do one thing!’ But I’ve never been content doing one thing.”

With nods to The Group of Seven — a huge influence, O’Keefe said — the Duncan native has prepped 30 new paintings for display in Madrona Gallery. The exhibit, Islands & Inlands, opens today and runs through the end of the month, offering a variety of landscapes from both B.C., where he lives, and Ontario, where he travels often to paint.

Most of his work starts out as a sketch. O’Keefe likes to play with composition, however, blending street art and natural scenery. What emerges is an amalgam of aerosols and acrylics.

“I’ve been having some fun using some of the skills from screenprinting and graffiti, the layering effect you get when you’re combining those. If you look at them individually, they are very different. But when you experiment, you’ll end up creating some new process.”

He comes from an artistically inclined family, stretching back generations. After spending his teen years sketching and doodling, O’Keefe enrolled in the former Malaspina College — now Vancouver Island University — where he studied graphic design.

“My dad convinced me not to be a fine artist so I could support a family,” he said with a laugh. “So I went the applied arts route, which enables me to barely support a family. I guess I was always afraid to go down that fine-art path, because I didn’t think it was very cool. I was really into cultural stuff like skateboarding and hip-hop, that was close at heart, so I started filling up my basement with those canvases.”

Post-graduation, he took a job at Mega Screen Productions, a commercial screen-printing business in Victoria. It was during his decade with the company that O’Keefe began integrating pop art, comic books and graffiti with the skills he acquired at Malaspina. “As you draw more and more, you kind of develop your style. When I got to Victoria, all of the graffiti heads that I crossed paths with were asking if I would come out and paint.”

The early 2000s were a fruitful time for O’Keefe. He participated in underground art shows at the Sunset Room (using the tag trust36) and went on to form Woodpile Collective with Sean McLaughlin, his co-worker at Mega Screen Productions, and Blythe Hailey, his former classmate at Malaspina. They share a studio on Fort Street, above Ditch Records, where they collaborative at least once a week on large-scale, cross-genre pieces.

One of Mega Screen’s customers during O’Keefe’s tenure was Matt Phillips, the founder of Phillips Brewing and Malting Co. O’Keefe became the burgeoning brewmaster’s designer of choice in 2001, and the two friends have remained constant collaborators ever since.

“I helped him do his logo and his first four beers,” O’Keefe, who is the brewery’s lead designer, said of Phillips. “Then he started doing some seasonals, and I started designing those. At first, it was more traditional beer-label stuff, but after we worked together for a bit, and got to know each other, we got a little bit more out there. I knew, with Matt’s passion for craft beer, it was going to be lots of fun.”

From soda and water to beer and gin — and yes, the iconic Blue Buck brand — O’Keefe has designed every Phillips label during the last 20 years, numbering “in the hundreds,” O’Keefe said.

Each piece of art is a collaboration between Phillips, O’Keefe and the rest of the brewery’s design team, who toss puns and goofy names around before they agree on an idea. In most cases, a full range of colours is employed. The psychedelic artwork for Amnesiac Double IPA and comic-book characteristics of Pandamonium Super IPA, with its rampaging panda bear, were especially fun to create, O’Keefe said.

“I let the name create the concept of the art a little bit. I take a bit from the style of beer, and I’ll run with it.”

Phillips said he gives O’Keefe free rein when it comes to the brewery’s design. “If you look at our graphics for the brewery, there are certainly some themes in our established brands. But if you look at our fun, one-off brands, you would never know we’ve only ever had one graphic artist. He can turn on a dime. He’s got an amazing eye for it, and really finds ways to make things interesting and compelling.”

O’Keefe sees 2020 as the middle ground between his experimental past and uncertain future. His early work has made its way into his landscapes — aerosol paint has been applied directly onto acrylic in some pieces on display at Islands & Inlands — and his creations for Phillips Brewing and Malting Co. are pushing commercial art to new extremes.

What he creates will likely remain a jumble of influences for some time, but nothing from O’Keefe is done without purpose.

“I can see where I’m going to take it next. It’s cool that way. If you’re never completely happy with what you’ve done, and you’re always trying to move your style forward, you find some comfort in the process.”

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