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Who is Geoff McFetridge? You’ve seen this Calgary artist’s work, even if you’ve never heard his name

Portrait of the artist Geoff McFetridge. He is a man with short hair and a goatee. He wears dark frame glasses, a white T-shirt, jeans and a paint-splattered apron. He is seated on a wooden bench with his arms crossed. Three of his paintings hang on the white walls behind him. They are minimalistic representations of female figures with their backs to the viewer.
Canadian artist Geoff McFetridge is the subject of a new feature documentary that’s appearing at Toronto’s Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema this month. (Photo: Andrew Paynter/Courtesy of Dress Code)

You know his work. It’s staring back at you from the face of an Apple Watch, or maybe you’ve seen one of his brand collabs with Nike or Uniqlo — or Hermes, if you’re fancy.

He’s the designer who created every OS interface for Spike Jonze’s prescient film Her (2013). In Ottawa, commuters pass by one of his murals every time they zip through Lyon Station, and he’s exhibited his paintings and sculptures in galleries all over the world — most recently at Contemporary Calgary this fall.

The man behind all those things? Geoff McFetridge. And a new documentary tells the story of the most famous Canadian artist you’ve probably never heard of.

Geoff McFetridge: Drawing a Life opens today at Toronto’s Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema. The film won the Documentary Feature Audience Award at South By Southwest this past March, and it traces McFetridge’s life story from his comfortable suburban upbringing in Calgary.

Since emerging in the mid ’90s, McFetridge has consistently found success, and yet, somehow, you won’t find him on Wikipedia. His reputation as a designer is one way to account for his relative anonymity; industry work is often unsigned. But McFetridge has hardly been forgotten by history — save for the editors at Hypebeast. If anything, he’s been positioned as a notable talent since the earliest days of his career. 

In 1995, fresh out of the MFA program at the California Institute of the Arts, McFetridge landed a job doing art direction for the Beastie Boys’ short-lived magazine, Grand Royal. By 2004, he was included in the landmark touring exhibition, Beautiful Losers, alongside Shepard Fairey, Mike Mills, Kaws and other rising stars of the era — Gen X-ers who were raised on pop and advertising but influenced by the DIY subcultures of punk, skateboarding and street art.

Drawing a Life is executive produced by Spike Jonze, a filmmaker who’s collaborated with McFetridge since their days working together on Grand Royal. And it’s the first feature-length project from Dan Covert, a Brooklyn-based filmmaker who shares a few key things in common with his subject. 

Like McFetridge, Covert is trained as a graphic designer, and he’s a practising artist too — one who shares an affection for minimalist forms. In fact, he’s been an admirer of McFetridge’s work since he was a student, and in the four years Covert spent following his hero for the film, the project became more than he imagined.

The documentary is a gentle portrait of a man who’s discovered the secret to success. As Covert discovered, there are two things that McFetridge loves most in life: family and art. And by making his greatest joys his biggest priorities, the artist has built a life and career that’s remarkable in its simplicity. A rich archive of home movies and photographs helped Covert tell the story — notably the work of photographer Andrew Paynter, who’s been documenting McFetridge for decades. 

But why was this the right time to give McFetridge his due? CBC Arts reached Covert earlier this week to discuss the making of the film.

Photo of an artist, Geoff McFetridge, painting in a sun-filled studio. He is photographed top down. He is bent over a canvas, painting. Another large painting of figures in the same minimalist style hangs on the wall behind him. Surrounding his work surface are two more long tables covered with art supplies.
Still from Geoff McFetridge: Drawing a Life. (Courtesy of Dress Code)

Do you remember the first time you would have seen Geoff’s artwork? How did you discover him?

I was studying graphic design in the late ’90s and early 2000s. There was this thing called Gasbook; it was a series of art books about influential graphic designers. And there was one on him.

There was a bold simplicity to his work. It grabs you. He’s kind of using the language of advertising to pull people in. The early design work was charming or clever. It had a joke in it, maybe — a little bit of a chuckle. And that wasn’t really expected with his use of clean design language.

The fact that you were studying graphic design when you discovered him: did his work have an impact on what you were making?

For sure. I would definitely try to rip Geoff off, in a way. But not successfully. (laughs)

It’s this thing when you’re studying: you want to emulate your heroes, you know? And you don’t realize that it’s not about trying to replicate what they’re doing — it’s more about trying to understand the thought process.

That’s kind of what I got to do with Geoff, spending four years with him [making the film]. 

Image of a mural painted on a wall next to an escalator. It features large-scale human figures painted in a minimalist style, similar to wayfinding figures. They hold orange squares, or collide into them.
A glimpse of Geoff McFetridge’s piece for Lyon Station in Ottawa (This Image Relies On Positive Thinking). Still from Geoff McFetridge: Drawing a Life. (Courtesy of Dress Code)

Why was this the right time to make a film about him?

It was very organic. I was getting close to my 40th birthday, and I had always wanted to be a filmmaker. I was more of a commercial director, making doc-based stories.

I had made a short film about Geoff in 2015, and I realized that there was maybe a bigger story to tell than the story that I told in that film. 

What was that bigger story? What was the nugget of potential you saw there?

I pride myself on my ability to capture someone’s personality quickly. It’s what you have to do in commercials. 

We spent an entire day together, but in the last five minutes that day, he acted a little bit more silly and juvenile. He was so different than the person I spent the entire day with, so I was like, “F*ck. I think I missed it. There’s this whole other side to him.”

I was just drawn to his work, and based on the short films that I’ve done, I just trusted that if I spent enough time with him, something would emerge. In the beginning, I thought it was going to be [about] a darkness behind the light. Like, I just didn’t believe that he was this positive — that he was this good of a dude, you know?

Why did you have a hunch there was something dark there? Was it something that you saw in his artwork?

I just don’t think that there’s that many positive people. That’s just my own cynical view of the world. (laughs)

I think I expected there would be something that was driving him, like the cliché of the tortured artist.

Film still. Top-down view of a drawing table. A hand is seen sketching on paper. At left, a case of watercolour paints and a stack of scrap paper is visible.
Still from Geoff McFetridge: Drawing a Life. (Courtesy of Dress Code)

At what point did Spike Jonze become involved with the project?

I think we interviewed him at the end of year two, and then I asked him to be involved at the end of year three.

I thought we were basically done. We had a cut that I was pretty happy with, so I sent it to him … and he gave me super brutal notes for like an hour. (laughs)

So I was like, “Do you want to be involved?”

He kind of dodged the question, and I was like, “Oh well. Maybe that’s it.” I got amazing feedback from a filmmaker who’s at the pinnacle of his game. What a gift.

But I got a call the next day — him and his producing partner. They were like: “We really love the film. We forgot to say that.” (laughs) And they wanted to see if I was open to making it better.

And then that started another year of conversation and advice.

What new direction did that take the film in?

It was like a grad school in storytelling. I had made a lot of short films, like hundreds, but I had never made a feature film. 

I think the biggest thing was arc. The version Spike saw: it was kind of all over the place, but in a way that Geoff is. We were trying to create a fog that Geoff is navigating through. 

We definitely pulled back on that in favour of linearity — to show an arc in Geoff’s life. 

There’s obviously not a lot of conflict in the story, so how can you tell a story that’s captivating and compelling to people that doesn’t have huge conflict along the way?

Photo of a family, jumping in the air against a white wall: two young girls flank their parents at centre: a dark-haired man and a blonde woman.
The artist and his family. Still from Geoff McFetridge: Drawing a Life. (Courtesy of Dress Code)

Right at the beginning of the doc, there’s this idea that’s brought up: people know Geoff’s work, but they might not know his name. With this project, were you setting out to change that?

For sure. He is self-admittedly very bad at the promotion part of things. Like, his website is like from 2010. Even his Instagram — he posts, but it’s not a portfolio show. 

And what he does is so all over the place as far as medium goes: posters, animation, installation, drawing, a clothing line. It’s hard to quantify very quickly. I wanted to show the world all these amazing things in one place and make it a little bit more digestible. That’s where [the project] started. But I don’t think it’s where it finished for me.

Where did it finish? What is the film about to you?

We all can be a little bit more thoughtful about what we put our energies toward. 

Geoff has had tremendous success in a lot of different avenues, but he’s taken a step back to be like, “Where do I want to go with this?”

It’s a thought that a lot of people don’t really ponder. We have 24 hours in the day. How do you want to spend those hours?

This guy’s making pretty amazing and impactful work. Maybe I could live my life with a little more intention? How can we make decisions in our own lives to yield the decisions that we want?

Still from Geoff McFetridge: Drawing a Life. View of the artist's mural (Us as a Measure of Openness) for the Westchester/Veterans Station in Inglewood, Calif. The artwork is a large panel installed on the exterior of a building. Minimalist in style, it depicts a circle of human figures, viewed from above. They are all joined arm in arm.
Still from Geoff McFetridge: Drawing a Life. View of the artist’s mural (Us as a Measure of Openness) for the Westchester/Veterans Station in Inglewood, Calif. (Courtesy of Dress Code)

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Geoff McFetridge: Drawing a Life. Nov. 10, 12 15, 16, 17 and 18 at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, Toronto. McFetridge will be in attendance for a Q&A at the Nov. 18 screening, and he opens a solo exhibition (Nature Mart) Nov. 17 at Cooper Cole, Toronto.

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