The internet can suck sometimes. Scrolling through the abyss where flowery sentiments, flawlessly composed flat lays, and repetitious “inspirational” content abounds, the search for true art can be counterproductive, breeding cynicism and eye-rolls instead. Adam J. Kurtz (perhaps more commonly known as ADAMJK), is a designer, artist, and author from Brooklyn, NY with an all-baring voice. His haphazard handwritten anecdotes initially strike laughter, but reveal some of the deepest and realest truths of our humanness. He expounds on the belief that, as Kurtz puts it, “We are in this shit together.” I spoke with Adam about his tendency towards confessional indulgence, sardonic self-awareness, and his third book set to release in October, THINGS ARE WHAT YOU MAKE OF THEM.
For those of us who are new to your work, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you’re involved in?
AJK – I’m a designer and artist focusing on simple illustration that’s rooted in honesty, humor and a little darkness. Basically, I’m tackling life head on and making stuff – products, books, stationery, housewares – out of it all. My two journals, 1 Page at a Time and Pick Me Up are published by Penguin Random House in the US and many other publishers around the world.
The stuff you create has a sense of blunt and brutal honesty about it, mixed with self-deprecation and good humor. What personal beliefs and values inform your art?
AJK –It really is like, what you see is what you get. I’ve been making and sharing anecdotes and observations on life since I was a teenager and it’s grown over time in an accidental career. More than anything I try to stay true to myself, making and saying the things I believe in the ways I know how to. There’s a lot of intention to my actual process but none of that needs to be the point. I’m very happy to just make a nice thing that people are happy to see sometime. I truly believe that THINGS ARE WHAT YOU MAKE OF THEM, whether that’s using the resources at hand to make whatever your kind of art is, but also using art to help process difficult emotions or experiences. It’s all about finding ways to distill things to their core elements and then rebuild in a way that works best. That’s what I’m doing, whether it’s writing five words in pencil or channeling a life crisis into an interactive art therapy journal.
What themes do your books, 1 Page at a Time and Pick Me Up explore? What was the process of writing these books like?
AJK – Both journal books explore themes of self-care and mental health awareness to varying degrees. 1 Page at a Time came first, and has a sillier overall tone, with 365 pages to get you through a year, ultimately proving to yourself that you can make it through step by step. It’s not that subtle. Some pages ask you to reflect on specific elements of what makes us who we are, focusing on past experiences, current issues and future goals. Pick Me Up explores life in a broader sense, recognizing that the murky expanse of our brain doesn’t actually travel from point A to B in a linear sense. This journal builds on itself over time, so you might answer the same prompt on the same page 20 different times. It’s meant to dissect the layers that make up who we are over time, while also throwing in a lot of no-bullshit life advice. With both, striking the balance matters. If you want an expert to tell you what they think you should do, there are books for that. If you want a friend to listen, interject with advice or deeper questions and then just make you laugh and then take you for ice cream, that’s me. I don’t know anything more than you do. We are in this shit together.
You’ve mentioned that with everything you do, you’re just talking to yourself, but letting everyone else in on it. How have you found people receive your vulnerability? Is it ever uncomfortable divulging your insecurities so publicly?
AJK – For the most part I think people are receptive and understand where I’m coming from. There are things that are dark and scary about myself that I am also comfortable sharing (in my own way) and other people aren’t quite there yet. I think that’s where that connection happens, when people realize that other people are feeling what they’re feeling, and still managing to keep on moving forward. But there’s plenty I don’t share. We all have our layers and we’re all working through them.
You’re based in Brooklyn, NY — does living there influence your work at all? What’s your favorite part about the city?
AJK – I don’t think living in New York really influences my work although I do think there are a lot of amazing people living and working here, and just being able to hang out with people you admire can have a really powerful effect. There’s also always something to do, if you want to do it. There are at least 5 book launch parties every single night. Doesn’t mean I’m doing a whole lot of anything, but I like knowing it’s here. My work is really rooted in who I am and I think it can be helpful when people meet me and it clicks, like “oh wait no this is really him it’s not just some cutesy affectation.” I think that being here and being available to meet has helped some people wrap their heads around what I do and has been beneficial in making collaborations happen. So while you don’t need to live in a big city to make and share your work, I won’t pretend there haven’t been some great benefits.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like you often poke fun at the romanticized “inspiring art culture” on the internet. I appreciate that and think it’s hilarious. In a time where it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the number of “creatives” out there nowadays, how do you continue making true, quality work?
AJK – I mean everything is a little bit bullshit and it helps to remember that. There are lots of “inspirational memes” and you can grow a following just doing that over and over. It seems exhausting honestly and really how many times can you write the word “dream” on a pastel background? I like to be encouraged as much as anyone else but I also want to be treated like an adult human with a brain. It’s a balance to find. I try to be real and sometimes that means something purely optimistic, but more often than not it’s somewhere in between. I like to think of my style of encouragement as “backhanded optimism.” It’s hard to talk about this without sound like bullshit too, so I apologize. There are always a ton of people making and sharing work, but the speed with which trends spread can be overwhelming. So there are hundreds of people who are making and selling prints of the same phrases, the same problematic Native American arrow looking illustration with a “STAY WILD” brushstroke slogan… you just need to keep doing your thing and find your people and ignore the rest.
Describe your workspace – what music is playing? What environmental factors optimize your creative process?
AJK – My boyfriend and I have a long desk that we share – he’s a freelance journalist – and that’s where I’m sitting most days. I also have a shipping area where I organize and store my self-released products like pins and keychains that I sell online. I call it “Box Town” and it grows and shrinks throughout the year depending on what projects I have going on. I listen to a lot of bad remixes of pop songs, I’ll get really into a song for a week and listen to it 100 times. I don’t really listen to the words or my brain gets tripped up, so definitely no podcasts while I work. Natural light is important, we have two windows in the studio room and that really helps. It’s hard to get anything done on gray days.
What can we look forward to from you next and where can we find/purchase your work?
THINGS ARE WHAT YOU MAKE OF THEM is my third book and it’ll be out in October. It’s a pocket-size collection of handwritten (!!!) essays on living the life of a creative person (spoiler alert: it’s hard and most of our biggest problems start with ourselves). It’s my most personal because it’s direct advice and common sense based on everything I’ve learned so far as a sensitive person trying to make work and have that be enough. Like my first two books and my stationery collection, it’ll be for sale at Amazon and other major bookstores. You can also find my ADAMJK brand gifts in my online shop, and I’ll have the 2018 edition of my Unsolicited Advice Weekly Planner available at the end of the summer too. I do a lot of different collaborations, events and special one-off editions so I don’t want to tell you to follow me on Instagram, but you know, maybe.
Also, you can find Leah on Twitter or Instagram. Dialogue, fresh ideas, and hot takes are all wanted and welcomed here.