Interview: Ryan Kerrigan

The next Artist Interview Project post highlights an Oregon-based artist. In this interview, you’ll read about the art of Ryan Kerrigan.  The first part of the entry includes a student’s reflective summary of the interview. It is followed by the full interview text.

You can check out Ryan Kerrigan’s artwork on Facebook and his professional website. You can also read his previous interviews with Philosophy of School of Phish students. A very special thank you to Ryan for participating THREE years in a row!

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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In my “Philosophy of Art” course, we have learned about the philosophical significance of music and why it’s a necessary component of life. Music brings us joy, creates community, and cultivates different aesthetic effects for everyone. While we studied these aspects of music in the context of the band Phish, they can be applied to all genres of music. As part of my final assignment, I had the opportunity to interview Ryan Kerrigan, an artist based in Portland, Oregon, who creates phan art for Phish. One of his central projects is a line of designs he calls Happy Fish. Kerrigan’s Happy Fish creations are uniquely designed for every Phish tour; every fish has a different design and color theme.

Community is an important concept when thinking about music because music—especially live music– brings people together, even if it’s just for a few hours. In “The Everyday Miracle of the Occasional Community,” philosopher John Drabinski talks about how in the musical world, small, temporary communities can be formed out of shared experience and common interest. In this essay, Drabinkski compares a Grateful Dead parking lot to the everyday experience of commuting to work. Both experiences create meaningful, even if temporary, connections in what he calls the “occasional community.” He writes:

Whatever the importance of this occasional community in my daily life, I would never say we held much in common other than the fact that, for a few minutes for a few days per week, we occupied the same space (29).

Kerrigan’s artwork commemorating Phish’s live performances demonstrates how the Phish scene is more than an occasional community. Phans connect in person and online through the sharing of his Happy Fish and other creations. Kerrigan creates art for the Phish community and, in turn, that makes him an integral part of that community as well.

The intense emotional reactions many people have in response to music was a common theme throughout this course; this concept also shows up in Kerrigan’s work. It’s clear that he gets a lot of joy out of transforming his love for Phish into art. Through the creation of his Happy Fish, Kerrigan also brings joy to other phans. In “Music or the Mistaken Life,” Kathleen Higgins describes the importance of music to life’s meaning. She explains:

“Nietzsche sees music as essential to our experiencing life in its fullness. The centrality of music to his philosophy indicates nothing less than his conviction that music is quite literally indispensable to meaning in human life” (117).

Based on his responses to my questions, I think Kerrigan would agree with Higgins and Nietzsche, because he creates his artwork out of the pure joy he gets from Phish’s music. I believe creating art in any fashion is important to living life to it’s fullest.

Kerrigan’s artistic methods—how his body movements connect to the music—relates to D. Robert DeChaine’s discussion of the embodied experience of art. Kerrigan uses the music he hears to guide him in his drawings, in a way similar to how a dancer uses music to create a specific series of steps. In his essay “Affect and Embodied Understanding in Musical Experience,” DeChaine describes the body’s relationship to music, stating that “The body is a site of musical experience” (80). When I first read DeChaine’s essay, I thought bodily movements only included the way we physically dance or sing to music. However, Kerrigan’s description of his artwork helped me understand that there is another important way to react to music: the creation of art! Kerrigan draws what he hears. In other words, his artwork translates feelings from music into sketches, Happy Fish, and other creations.

Ryan Kerrigan’s art and his artistic style mesh well with the philosophical concepts I learned in this philosophy class. His work goes beyond the surface of just creating illustrations for a band. Through his artwork, Kerrigan contributes to the Phish community. He translates what he hears in Phish’s music into colorful drawings, and lets the mood decide what kind of colors he depicts.  This interview was the first professional interview I have ever done, and I enjoyed getting to know Kerrigan and his artwork.  Thank you to Ryan Kerrigan for this opportunity!

Interview Transcript

Was there a specific Phish song that made you interested in creating posters for the band?

There’s not a specific song, but the music as a whole really. I fell in love with Phish right out of high school in 1990. I’d not known inspiration such as what I found in the music, and it was impossible to deny the muse. I already had in my mind that I was going to create rock posters, then here I was witnessing what my mind naturally interpreted through drawing.

Were there any specific sounds or lyrics in Phish’s music that drew you in?

It’s about the willingness to explore one’s art. As an artist I can identify with their desire to reach for new sounds (or pen strokes), allowing the music to create itself (such as a watercolor painting).

What is it like to have Phish’s music guide you in your illustration work? Could you describe how the music affects your artistic method?

I’ve equated my drawing to playing an instrument. I’ll immerse myself in their music while sitting down to create, and often the process just begins, without regard to what the final piece will be. I try not to think much about what I am doing, and start to draw, creating a visual representation of what I’m hearing.

How do you know what colors are going to work together when you create the Happy Fish? Do you experiment with random color combinations or do you just know what will work when you hear a Phish song?

Everything begins for me with a black micron pen, just black line on white paper (in most cases). During the creation of the drawing I usually can sort of feel what the colors might want to be. I’ll run with that thought and throw down a color, but at that point I may call an audible, essentially, and go with a color combo I hadn’t been thinking about yet. So like the drawing aspect of my work, the coloring is also improvisational.

Do you ever get concerned that you might repeat a color scheme or a fish might be too similar to another?

When I am creating a fish for a venue that I’ve already done fishies for, Dicks for example (Dicks Sporting Goods arena in Commerce City, Colorado, where phish will be holding their 7th annual 3 day labor day weekend event coming up here soon), I’ll go back and look at the previous fishies, and try to create a new one that works well within the “series”. I’ll try to use colors that I haven’t yet.

I am really interested in the fact that you graduated with a degree in printmaking. That is currently my focus as well. How have you connected your printmaking techniques with the work you do for Phish other than your silkscreen prints?

Well I started my collegiate career as a graphic designer, but quickly learned that I did not want to be around the folks in that program! I valued art as sacred, and the program seemed blinded by the Almighty Dollar, so to begin my junior year I transferred to printmaking, where I found a little slice of heaven. I attended Penn State University in beautiful central Pennsylvania. Far enough from home that it felt new, close enough that I could get home (8 hours in my VW bus) if I wanted to. We had something like 40,000 students but the printmaking program had 15 people, it was amazing. I learned lithography, etching, and of course silkscreening. Other than learning these techniques I was allowed the chance to create, and critique, and learn about what I could do as an artist. I always knew I would do something with art but those two years in the printmaking program helped me realize how I was going to build my life around art.

Are you ever put into a better mood while listening to Phish’s music? And if so, what about the music brings you joy? How do you express this feeling within your artwork?

Oh yes, it’s partly the familiarity, and the memories that come with each listen. As you know there is so much more to the Phish experience than just the music, there’s the adventure to get to the show, the time revisiting old friends pre show, the meal shared on the way in, so many different moments. Upon each relisten, all those memories flow back, the happiness things brings only naturally finds its way into the artwork.


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