Interview: Andrew Bryant

The next Artist Interview Project installment features artist Andrew Bryant. The first part of this post includes a student’s reflective summary. It is followed by the full interview text.

Find more information about Andrew Bryant’s artwork on the Facebook group dedicated to the appreciation and trading of his artwork. 

Learn more about the Artist Interview Project course assignment in Dr. Jenkins’ introduction to the series. You can follow the Philosophy School of Phish on Facebook, Twitter (@phishedu), and the course’s public website.

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Image via ADNB Facebook page.

As a part of my final assignment for “Philosophy and the Arts,” I interviewed artist Andrew Bryant, who designs clothing and pins for bands like Phish. It was fantastic learning how he became a Phish phan and started making pins. Within our interview– which is included below– we addressed a number of a different topics, but I want to focus on his response to my question, “Can a pin be beautiful?.” Bryant says that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Each pin is unique and he doesn’t always find every pin visually pleasing. Yet, Bryant’s definition of beauty is more expansive. He states, “Each [pin] is beautiful because it is a part of the whole, part of the whole, part of the journey, part of the collection.”

His response strongly reminded me of philosopher John Drabinski’s essay, “The Everyday Miracle of the Occasional Community.” Drabinski compares the everyday American’s commuting lifestyle to the Deadhead parking lot scene. In these experiences, Drabinksi finds community among strangers. He explains, “We didn’t need to know anything about one another, except that we occupied this space, at this time, and that this was sufficient for connection” (30). Music, especially live music, can bring a sense of community or unity to others. No matter who you are or what you look like, fans are brought together just because of a shared love of music. Bryant’s pins and clothing offer Phish phans a portable, wearable means of memorializing their favorite shows and band.

The pins also communicate the strong emotional responses that Bryant and other phans have to Phish’s music. In his essay, “What is Art?,” Leo Tolstoy defines art as the transfer of a feeling from artist to audience. He writes:

To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having evoked it in oneself, then, by means of movements, lines, colors, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling — this is the activity of art (3).

Tolstoy seems to agree with Bryant that live music is a powerful form of art, because of its ability to transfer a wide range of human emotions.

In Bryant’s description of his Phish journey, what seems to be unique about the connections created at Phish concerts is that phans collectively celebrate the experience of what philosopher Immanuel Kant’s calls the “sublime.” According to Kant, the sublime is:

a pleasure that only arises indirectly, being brought about by the feeling of a momentary check to the vital forces followed at once by a discharge all the more powerful, and so it is an emotion that seems to be no sport, but dead earnest in the affairs of the imagination.

At Phish shows, phans share in the experience of awe, inspired by the band’s music, lights, and jamming. Through this collective experience of the sublime, phans acquire a feeling of belonging to a community.

Phish’s live music brings phans together and creates a sense of unity. As Bryant explains in our interview, connection to this larger community amplifies the beauty contained in art. As he says, “The real beauty of phish pins is not the individual trinkets; it is the people behind them, the community that has birthed and fostered such an awesome thing.” Live music and its community of fans, after all, are deeply intertwined.

Thank you to Andrew for sharing his time and talents with me. You should definitely check out Andrew Bryant’s pins on a trading and fan Facebook group at ADNB.

Interview Transcript

How did you get introduced to Phish?

My first introduction with Phish was from my Dad. He is a deadhead and did dead tour in the early 80s. By the mid-90s he had me and my siblings and moved away from seeing a lot of shows so he never made it a point to go see Phish during that time but he did buy Phish A Live One the album and used to play it for us in his truck. When we were little; like 5th and 6th grade my sister and I would always want to hear “the bouncing song” (“Bouncing Around The Room”) and he would play it on repeat a few times for us. Then he would put on “YEM” or “Slave” or whatever and we would complain about it. I can’t imagine complaining about such a thing now but at the time I was like 10 y/o so I guess I just wasn’t ready for a 21 minute YEM yet.  I actually used that “Bouncin” from A Live One as the background music to my YO-YO routine for the 6th grade talent show.

After that it was a couple years until I really started getting into them. I watched the Phish documentary “Bittersweet Motel” with a friend of my older brother and thought I have to see this band!! Also it was right around the time that Napster and other online music downloading sites (bt.e-tree, nugs.netarchive.org) were becoming super accessible and tons of people were uploading shows onto the internet. My friend Christian would download every show he came across and burn us both a copy of it. We had these massive CD books with like 250 CDs and would bring them everywhere with us. We’d go hiking or fishing or just hanging out in the woods after school listening to shows.  This would have been around 00-01. Phish didn’t do any shows in 01-02 so for us being like 14 years old the idea of seeing them was this impossible task. They weren’t touring, even if they did come back, are our parents really going to take us? Then they finally come back NYE 02-03 at MSG and it sells out in like 1 second. Tickets are hundreds on the secondary market. It’s in New York City on NYE. I’m 15 y/o and while they’re playing a show it still seems impossible for my buddies and I.

Summer 03 again seemed somewhat impossible. I was living in Connecticut. The closest they’re playing was in New Jersey. I have no car, no driver’s license.  Fall 03 I saw my first show 11/29/03 at the Philly Spectrum. I had gotten my driver’s license only a few weeks before. My buddy posted on an internet message board looking for tickets and place to stay and found one. This girl in Philly (my wife) had 2 extras and her mom would let us sleep on the floor of the living room. Off we went, saw the show and were blown away.

We graduated high school that next June and I knew for sure I was going to find a way to do Phish tour. Of course only a few months later the announcement came that Phish was going to break up for good and that summer 04 would be their last tour.  I was able to hit the Saratoga Springs shows, 6/19&20/04,  and actually showed up late to my high school graduation driving back from there as well as the last 6 (Hampton>Coventry). They had given me a taste but once again it seemed impossible that Phish would ever come back. I’ve hit most tours since the reunion in 09 and have seen over 130 shows.

What inspired you to design Phish-themed art?

Mostly by the time I got into Phish art my main motivation was that I wanted to trade. I always had ideas or little doodles of Phish songs or about phish in one way or another. I wanted to be able to bring a pile of stickers or a baggie of pins to the shows so that I could trade and build a collection of cool phan made Phish merch. Also, during the time between 04-09 when Phish didn’t tour I did a ton of music festivals. I was going to fests almost every weekend from the beginning of May through late September and sometimes even over Halloween. In 07 I did something like 25 festivals. Over that time period I became pretty aware that it is essential to have an income and be able to “hustle” and turn some sort of profit on items while on the road, traveling and seeing shows.

How did you get into pin making?

Again, trading. In 2010 I moved to California with my now wife. We had no money for anything, especially not some pins and other trinkets and merch. At this same time Phish had come back and with Phish came innovative phans and a new type of merch had gained a stronghold in the Phish parking lot scene that was pins. Also, Facebook had ballooned so big. There were tons of FB groups for all types of Phish merch, shirts, stickers, prints and pins. Back then the pin group was super small. Maybe 250 people. It was a tightknit community (the pinners) within a tightknit community(phans). Everyone was friendly and there were giveaways and trading and cool art and trinkets. The creator of the original Phish Pins Facebook group always liked to refer to it as “his internet living room” and for a long time it really did feel that way. It was just a cool place to hang out on the internet. After a while of hanging out there and purchasing a couple pins from some of the earliest designers (MYFE, Pin ME down, Zenster, Wookles, Party Time Pins) I really wanted to get more involved so I ended up making my first pin and did a bunch of great trades to be able to boost up my collection. I loved the collectability of pins, I loved the community and making the trades, receiving a mystery package in the mail and then sending a mystery package off to someone else. I loved that I could display hundreds of them all representing a different song or event in the same amount of wall space that I could hang one poster. As pin making got bigger, more and more people were involved and more awesome stuff started to get released. At this time I really tried to step up my game and progress as an artist so that I was able to bring cool “trade bait” to the table.

What do you enjoy most about pin-making and clothes designing?

It really depends. Sometimes I am all about the design. I will love drawing some designs and others seem like a chore. It usually depends on what kind of timeline I am under. If I am under some type of tight timeline before a special event or something but I think I have a great idea and I have yet to draw it then the drawing can become a chore but usually with something like this I will really enjoy the manufacturing process. Relaying the information to my manufacturer, discussing with them, confirming the sample, receiving the shipment information and finally getting the final product in hand. I like doing collaborations a lot recently. To get involved with people who are so passionate about an item or an idea they’ve had and for them to bring me in on something like that and allow me to tweak or work it out for the both of us and then they work on whatever I tweaked. I love the back and forth.

Pin-making is very different from the traditional forms of art that the philosophers my class is studying discuss when defining the concept of the beautiful. Can a pin be beautiful? If so, what makes a pin beautiful?

A pin can absolutely be beautiful. I kind of always liked the mantra “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” There are thousands and thousands of Phish pins, millions of all types of lapel pins out there; a lot of them are not beautiful…. to me. A lot of the pins I have had produced are not beautiful… to anyone besides me. People talk with me a lot about pin manufacturing and how to make pins look more aesthetically pleasing, there are a few very simple things that can be done during the manufacturing process that can make pins look “better” but I don’t think that makes them beautiful. For me a pin design has to have had some thought put into it. It can be utter crap execution but if it is well thought out than IMHO it is far more beautiful than the most well produced thoughtless design.

There are pins I have done that are not aesthetically pleasing, pins that have horrible production quality and pins that are extremely simple thoughtless designs but at the same time are some of the most sought after and rare pins. For me even the most horrible pin I have done is beautiful. Each one is beautiful because it is a part of the whole, part of the journey, part of the collection. With one maybe I learned an important lesson, with another I made some awesome trades, another I was able to make enough money to hit the next 2 or 3 shows.

Sure a pin can be beautiful, or aesthetically pleasing or even horribly executed and thoughtless but it doesn’t matter. The real beauty of phish pins is not the individual trinkets; it is the people behind them, the community that has birthed and fostered such an awesome thing. There are roughly 10 thousand fan produced lapel pins acknowledging phish. Nothing like that has been done before in rock and roll or really anywhere for that matter. Whether someone is just a casual collector or has added hundreds of their own designs to the collective, it wouldn’t be possible on that scale without every single one of them. Taking part in something like that is what I wanted to do and that is what I find beautiful.

How do you design your pins so that each piece is unique?

No one believes me when I say it but almost every single lapel pin I have ever created has been drawn in MS paint. Most of them are not that unique from one another. A single mold is made and they are cast so by design they are not supposed to be different from piece to piece. A lot of them have  serialized numbers on the back. If I do 100 items I will laser etch 001/100, 002/100, 003/100, etc. or something similar. Also, I have made it a point to do large collections with many designs. In this regard many of the items look very similar to each other in an effort for the collection to be uniform. One example of this would be the Thrilling Chilling Sounds of the Haunted House Collection I did. It is 14 pins, one for each song that phish played during 10/31/14 set 2, all done in the same vein and style.

As a member of the Facebook group dedicated to your artwork, I’ve had the chance to explore a number of examples of your pin designs. When I first thought of pins, I pictured the round buttons that are found on middle schoolers’ backpacks. Your pins, of course, are much more intricate and unique. Do you aim to recreate a sense of childlike play with your designs?

I don’t know if I would call it childlike play… possibly adult like play lol. There are things that reoccur in many of my items that could be taken from my childhood. I have done a rip on the Reading Rainbow logo and recreated it for Phish fans. Rainbows and glitter are a reoccurring theme for sure. I just like things that are shiny and colorful. Turns out a lot of Phish fans do.

What other art forms do you enjoy?

Of course I love pins. I own approximately 4000 phish inspired lapel pins from other artists. As with most Phish fans I am also a collector of rock and roll art, concert posters and playbills. Since getting into pins more and more I have thinned out my rock posters though.  I enjoy block and lino cut prints. The process of making these prints is amazing to me. It is something I would love to learn. I own a few of the wood blocks used to create the art prints made by one of my favorite artists, Isadora Bullock. I also like to collect original pieces of wall art. I own many oil paintings by Phil Kutno. I love his stuff. He puts the paint on so thick it gives a great depth to his pieces. I also have a few original water color pieces by Catherine Oswald. Water color is not typically my favorite but the water color medium matches perfectly with her fanciful style. I love her work.

Image via ADNB Facebook page.

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