Philadelphia’s Dewey Saunders makes high art rightfully accessible. His collage style, his focus on layering, and his work with notable artists Anderson .Paak and Future, make his art instantly recognizable and inspiring. A Saunders piece will challenge your conception of perspective; Mars spelling impending doom on an unassuming shoreline; worlds unfurling into worlds, with a melting solar system to encase the visual ruckus.
What we have with Saunders is a succinct universe from work to work. With multiple subjects and split focuses, each piece Dewey puts out captures controlled and beautiful chaos.
“I am a perfectionist in a sense, but when I’m working in the collage medium, the chance-factor is important,” Dewey tells me over the phone. “I need every piece to be playing its part, but at the same time, it’s not an exact thing. I’m almost pushing pieces around; I want them to melt into each other, and I have to experiment. Collage is experimental for me and based on chance and happy accidents happening.”
Dewey’s success is neither immediate nor easily achieved. The graphic artist spent time waiting tables and pursuing freelance design without a clue when his next job would come. In terms of his creative process, he’s made “a mountain of shit artwork that no one will ever see,” but still credits his failed pieces as an integral part of the process. In that way, Dewey Saunders is a master artist, understanding that the craft comes before the accolades.
“Honestly, I don’t mind making work that I don’t like,” he says. “It’s part of the process. If I do something that isn’t as successful as a finished piece, but I learned a new technique, I think that’s valuable.”
Of course, things have wholly worked out for Dewey, with his latest project being an incredible art installation at the House of Vans in Chicago: “I had a VR experience in the gallery. I had four murals and a neon sign built in this photo booth with a drum set covered with plants.”
He credits his confidence in the field to his work with Anderson .Paak, and his success to his eternal passion and penchant for busting down the right doors. Dewey’s controlled chaos astounds us, and his words are just as thoughtful.
Our conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: Talk to me about the first time you ever made something with your hands.
Dewey Saunders: I think I was six years old, and maybe it was in first grade. We did a print on blue paper, with sponges. I still have one. I made a print called “Fun City.” It looks like a Stonehenge kind of situation. I made these blocks out of sponges and created this architecture, and I numbered it one out of five, so there’s four others floating around there somewhere.
Did that unlock something in you to pursue a creative career?
I was always surrounded by art. My dad was always painting, and my grandmother went to art school. I was always drawing as a kid. That was what I did all the time. There wasn’t a moment where it happened; it was very organic, and I grew up in an environment that was very art-centric.
What artists inspired you to start creating?
I always looked at the older, master artists. When I was a little kid, I had the opportunity to visit my grandmother in Italy, and we went to see a René Magritte exhibit in Venice. That opened my eyes. He has this one painting of an apple covering a man’s head. He had a very simple but quietly magical style that intrigued me as a kid. That probably planted the seed for my surreal approach. [The painting] is very surreal but in a different way. Different than Dali, where everything is kind of trippy and melting. His was magical realism, in a way.
How did you go about defining your artist’s voice?
I went through a journey in high school where I was doing photography. I didn’t plan on being a graphic artist; I thought I was going to be a photographer. Then, things evolved in college, where I started doing more graphic design and illustration. I graduated from university with an illustration portfolio.
How did releasing music early on in your creative career shape your visual art?
Being someone that’s made music and has been an artist themselves, I understand the journey of the artist and what they’re trying to achieve. That puts me at an advantage as a designer, because some designers don’t understand the process of releases and rollouts, and keeping some things under wraps. I know that inside and out.
Layering is a massive motif in your work. Why so?
I think that certain pieces of mine have a complex layering. It depends on the project and what we’re trying to go for. I like to balance out complex stuff with a clean inside or back cover. It always depends on what the project is. I never fit my style [to] what the project is. I let the project speak to me, and I figure out the style from there. Sometimes, I have a simple, quiet approach. Sometimes, it’s very complex, which is fun for me, because… It’s just cool for the viewer to be continually finding new things in the composition.
I think, too, collage gets a bad rep for seeming thrown together, but you have a lot of thoughtful choices in your pieces. Do you agonize over creative decisions?
I am a perfectionist in a sense, but when I’m working in the collage medium, the chance-factor is important. I need every piece to be playing its part, but at the same time, it’s not an exact thing. I’m almost pushing pieces around; I want them to melt into each other, and I have to experiment. Collage is experimental for me and based on chance and happy accidents happening.
Any bad accidents?
Oh, yeah! All the time. Honestly, I don’t mind making work that I don’t like. It’s part of the process. If I do something that isn’t as successful as a finished piece, but I learned a new technique, I think that’s valuable. Not all of my work is stuff that I’m gonna post. It’s really about the process. I like to learn new techniques and figure out new ways of image-making. Experimentation is a huge part of that. I’ve made a mountain of shit artwork that no one will ever see, but that was important to get to where I am now.
That’s a critical point because people think success is instant by the nature of social media. But you didn’t start working with Future overnight.
I think it’s important to constantly reinvent yourself as an artist, too. Especially for that Future cover. That cover doesn’t lend itself to a sunny, Malibu beach vibe, so it was great to exercise a new aesthetic, which was very punk rock and heavy metal for me with all the photocopying and heavy textures. I am a collage artist, but at the end of the day, I’m a graphic designer who can implement any style for any project.
How did you link up with Anderson .Paak? It’s always magic when you two work together.
It’s just from Twitter. In 2013 or 2014, I was doing a bunch of rapper drawings. I was drawing rappers and tagging them in the hopes that they would repost the illustration on their page. I was doing that for a lot of LA artists, and Anderson reached out on Twitter like, “Yo, where’s my cartoon at!?” ‘Cause I had drawn all of his friends, like Dumbfoundead and Open Mike Eagle. He ended up getting an illustration from me that we used for a poster for a weekly he did in July of 2014. It was a lead up to the “Drugs” single release. Then he hired me to do the “Drugs” single and then the Venice cover, and it was a wrap from there.
Career-wise, when did you realize you could be an artist full-time? How did it feel?
In Philadelphia, a couple of years ago, I was waiting tables on the side and doing half-freelance. Then when the Malibu project came about, it just took up all my time, so I had to quit my job then. In 2016, I moved to full-freelance. It was terrifying at first because you’re not getting a consistent paycheck. I had to hustle, but I think that I made the right decision. You have to trust yourself, and I wasn’t sure if I jumped the gun because, after Malibu, I wasn’t sure what I was gonna do for work.
I love that you just quit. Where does your confidence come from?
I have a lot of gratitude for Anderson and the whole team because that provided me an opportunity to have a career in the album cover field. When you walk into a room with Anderson, there’s a lot of opportunities and confidence that comes with that. That was just a really good look for me, and it gave me the confidence to think that I could operate on this very high level. It’s not an ego trip, but you get a reminder that you’re on the right path when people are digging your stuff.
What’s the biggest business lesson you’ve learned so far?
Being very organized and planning everything out is the biggest thing that’s helped me, especially with this House of Vans installation in Chicago. I had three days to put the whole thing together, but I planned it out for two weeks. I knew exactly how I was gonna execute it. I had a VR experience in the gallery. I had four murals and a neon sign built in this photo booth with a drum set covered with plants. I knew that it was gonna be a lot of work. I hired an assistant, and I delegated duties, so everything got done. It’s all about planning and visualizing how you want things to go down in your head.
What advice would you give someone looking to pursue visual art full-time, still stuck at their day job, and might feel like quitting?
Phew. I think that the reason things worked out for me is I’m very passionate and excited about what I do, and I’m very excited about doing it. The major, major key in anything you do in life is you have to follow that passion. It’s an extreme passion that burns real hot. I have to do this, and there’s no other option for me. You have to put yourself in the context where you wanna be working.