Craft Beer Gets A Closer Look
The sky roils purple in this strange, new city. Buildings jut upward without taking note: white and gold, pink and brown, black and smudged with blue. A smear of red interrupts the frame out of nowhere. In the corner, something extends its spindly, black fingers, threatening to crack. We don't know if it's going to break or bend. But we can’t look away.
Heidi Geist’s Lost City is part of The Art of Craft Beer, a temporary exhibition and fundraiser on through July 29 at Kehler Liddell Gallery in Westville. Curated by podcaster AJ Keirans, the show is a celebration of the artists who design for breweries, displaying both their label work and the paintings, sketches, and multi-part installations that they do when honing their own craft.
Weekend entry has a suggested donation of $10; entry during the week is free. All proceeds will go to Autism Services and Resources Connecticut (ASRC) an organization that Keirans called very “near and dear to my heart” after watching it work with several of his family members.
The show features artists Daniel Endicott (Forest & Main Brewing Co.), Jess Graham (The Alchemist & Collective Arts Brewing), Steve McDonald (Burlington Beer Co.), Dean McKeever (Tree House Brewing Company & Vitamin Seas Brewing), Heidi Geist (gypsy brewer), Craig Gilbert (New England Brewing Co.), Lisa Sotero (Stony Creek Brewery), Kevin Cimo (Trillium Brewing Company) and Howell Golson (Wicked Weed Brewing and New Belgium Brewing among others).
The idea for the exhibition began several months ago as Keirans, founder and host of The 16 Oz Canvas, began looking over old episodes and thinking about how to grow the podcast. On the show, he interviews artists who design labels for both commercial and craft breweries, chatting with them about what led them to design for breweries, and how it fits into the rest of their work. After debuting the podcast on April 7—National Beer Day—of last year, he has rolled out almost seven seasons in “12 Packs,” each with one artist per episode.
In just over a year, it has lead him to talking about beer controversies, learning about international and gypsy brewing practices, and taking a deep dive into the aesthetics of beer, and what might catch a consumer’s eye in the beer aisle or liquor store. He said that he sees the exhibition as a logical extension of those conversations—with a physical space to display the full breadth of the artists’ work.
“When you go to a beer festival, it can be really aggressive, where folks are trying to drink as much beer as they can in a three or four hour window,” he said on a recent episode on WNHH Community Radio’s “Kitchen Sync” podcast. “I thought—what if we had that model and art was the focus, and if we were able to have beer, we would only have the breweries that were associated with our art. So that was the concept.”
Now, the gallery’s walls teem with art, label designs sidling up to bright, bombastic paintings, sharp-edged sketches and drawings that you’re able to get lost in. On one wall, Geist’s oil-on-canvas paintings Lost City, Thermonuclear Global Time Share and Cambridge at the World’s End declare themselves loudly, winking at her large Ghost Ship across the gallery. They depart from her label work—tighter (if not tamer) designs that can be shrunk down to several inches, instead of splashed across stretched feet of fabric.
“They all come from something beyond me,” she said of the paintings late last week, as she worked to install her pieces in the show. “I don’t think about them when creating them … I just free up everything without judgement.”
Geist, who is on a cross-country expedition to design labels for 48 labels in 48 states, added that “it forces me to gather the reins” when she works for breweries. Unlike artists who may come to the table with their own ideas, she often asks brewers to sketch out or describe what they have in mind, and then gets to work. In both that work and her own, she said, it’s one of the reasons that “nothing ever feels quite finished.”
And yet, it strikes the viewer as complete on the walls, sharing close quarters with Gilbert’s drawings for the now-renamed Ghandi-Bot and short-lived Zapata-Bot, or Kevin Cimo’s tidy, delicate renderings, not a speck out of place.
In one of Cimo's works, an oyster shell sits on a table, perfectly split in two. On one upturned shell, there is the the cross-hatching and rough texture of a life well spent at sea. In the other, the oyster’s meat sits ready and wet for the taking, so full of life you could mistake it for a human ear. A paring knife, chipped and worn at the blade, sits like an offering between the two.
So too a flock of colorful pieces by Sotero, who began designing the herons for Branford’s Stony Creek Brewery four years ago, after the space reached out to her with interest in her art. Now, she does all of the heron label work and background art for the brewery—but also makes time for her own.
As she pointed out preliminary sketches for the brewery’s Double Ruffled, Ruffled Feathers and Octoberfest special—a heron wearing lederhosen with a large, foamy beer in its wing—she noted that she’s also made original works for the show.
From the wall, they stand out, colors buzzing—a bright, geometric wren she found and photographed in her yard, owls that she sees in the area, and a rainbow-colored portrait of her dog Macy. After the show, she said she’s planning to turn her attention to her other pup, turning one portrait into a full, fitting tribute to her own animals.
Elsewhere in the gallery, pieces come to life as they blend work and play, label art and non label art. In Dean McKeever’s Home Sick I, a fiery redhead weeps, a big tear running down her face as she looks to something outside of the frame. Beneath her, the viewer's eye wanders into the woods with two of McKeever’s labels for Treehouse Brewing, lost in a thicket of trees after a moment. Across the room, a few bubble-flecked pieces of Gilbert’s larger, puzzle-like Flow stand out from the wall, framing an animal’s skull.
For Keirans, the show has become a chance to not just fête the artists, but to celebrate the organization for which they’re raising money. Several years ago, two of his nephews were diagnosed with autism, and he began to learn about the ASRC as it guided his family through treatment. Then six or so years ago, his son’s day care called about his behavior. He and his wife took him to Yale-New Haven Hospital, where he was diagnosed as on the autism spectrum.
“It was scary—it made it feel good to have an explanation for stuff,” he said. “To have somebody that’s there for you, can guide you in the right direction … it’s a nice safety net.”
But, he added, the show is also very much about the art—and what the artists do when they're on and off the clock.
“I’m like a proud parent when I go to the liquor store,” Keirans said, chuckling a little. “I like to look around and see them [the labels]. For inspiration, I’ll bring my camera and take a lot of photos.”
He mentioned that now, breweries are adding design credits to the backs of cans, a move that seemed unthinkable several years ago.
“That’s really helpful for me, but I think it’s just a nice nod … for the work that goes into them.”
To listen to an interview with Keirans, click on or download the audio above or check out "Kitchen Sync" on iTunes. The Art of Craft Beer runs July 14-29 at Kehler Liddell Gallery, 873 Whalley Ave. On July 21, the gallery will be serenaded by The Alchemist Brewing Co. designer and troubadour Dan Blakeslee and musician Eric Litscher. On Sundays, Keirans said the gallery will be more family-oriented and “cognizant of those for whom sensory might be more impactful.”