I always like to start off by getting the backstory. Can you give a brief summary of where you come from, and how you found your way to writing/art/design?
Graphic design was an early interest from teenage fan websites to MySpace layout designs. I earned my degree in 2009 and entered the workforce doing a range of creative jobs, but kept my own bits and pieces of scribbled words and visual art as a personal outlet, sharing to Tumblr and other platforms. After years in advertising and media, the hobby overtook my day job, and now it's all I do – books and publishing projects, a gift and accessories brand, social media posts, and creative collaborations with other businesses. But it's all me. ADAMJK is the brand name, but it's also literally me, Adam J. Kurtz. I've never had a separate brand name or any real disconnect from me, the human person. For better or worse…
Your style has a lot of nuance— “honesty, humor, and a bit of darkness.” Was that combination something you discovered, or were you born with that??
I think it took me a while to figure out what I actually bring to the table. So often we see our thing as just, a thing that we do, a skill we have, no big deal because it comes so naturally. Over time I've allowed outside influence and perception to convince me that actually, being able to dig inside a bit, to find a funny silver lining in something scary and pull something real out of it, might be special. I am processing my own lived experience the way I understand how to, in the form of a workbook activity for others, an encouraging one-liner, or a tangible object to communicate through. Laughing at the darkness and being too self-aware feel like very Jewish personality traits, so maybe there's an element of nature and nurture there.
How has your vision evolved over time?
In my early 20s I really wanted to be cool, and I think the older I get the more I can let go of that. Maybe my idea of what's cool changed. I've worked to redefine success for myself, and though I kept the leather jacket, I'm much more comfortable executing extremely cute little bits and pieces. Some of it might be tongue-in-cheek, but some of it is just pure hope and the color pink. At the same time, I'm realizing that it's not just about the way I cope in life, but the way that others who are wired similarly might. Rather than win over 100% of people, I try to think about the 5-10% of people who are fucked up and scared in the same way that I am, who might be encouraged or soothed by the same blend that helps me.
Ha-ha! I love that. Beyond the honesty and the dark humor, there’s a dash of optimism, too. Where does that positive messaging come from?
Optimism is great, but "happy thoughts" are hard to hold onto when you're in the darker parts of your mind. I try to lean into realistic, objective truths, that are optimistic but functional because they're undeniable. "Good things happen," for example, is a fact. Good things do happen. They happen all the time. They've happened to us before. They're happening to someone right now. Knowing this objectively is a reminder that there's more to come, even if it feels impossible at the moment. I'm just trying to keep going, and I need a little help sometimes, and I think other people do too. Sometimes I get a little too saccharine (don't think I don't know!!!!!) and then I'll try to cut it with extra shitty handwriting or a bit of cursing to disarm. CHEER THE FUCK UP is a good example, where obviously someone else telling you to cheer up is useless, but laughing at this pin on your own jacket might just help.
How (if applicable) has your messaging changed? It all seems so current, are you constantly coming out with new work?
Sometimes I am making something and putting it on Instagram minutes later. Sometimes I feel something so strongly, in relation to current events (especially when it comes to LGBTQ issues) where I can't help myself and I just need to do a cute handwritten scream, essentially. But by now I've made so much stuff that I've got something for anything. People who use my art therapy journals, for example, are always relating to me in unexpected ways, because the words and work apply to so many experiences, so many moods and feelings and moments that we can all connect with. People will whisper things to me at book events and I'm just like… oh wow, ok, that's very honest and not at all what I intended, but I'm glad you're finding what you need in here.
Why is humor such an integral part of your brand? And what does humor offer in these trying times?
Uhhhhh I mean this is just what I'm like, and I don't know how else to be really. It's not specifically workshopped or tied to a brand guideline, I am just always trying to write the way I speak, which is dumb dad jokes and puns and an annoying personal game of can I make my husband laugh by being a dumbass. Laughter isn't the best medicine (have you tried actual medicine? highly recommended) but it's not bad at all. Sometimes you just need to step outside of the thing and look at it from over here and you find a thread and pull.
Tom of Finland Store now offers an assortment of your products from wry keychains, to taro, to uplifting pins and “unsolicited advice”! Can you talk about some of those items, and why they were chosen?
To be completely honest, I didn't know that you were stocking my items until they went live on the website. All my retail goes through a wholesale partner, and they don't usually update me with specifics. One day I got an influx of tweets and messages about some very NSFW product photos and I realized what had all happened. But I'm thrilled to be stocked along with so much other great art, gifts, and queer shit. I'm gay as fuck but my work often isn't invited to participate in the same context as "Queer Art" is. So thank you.
If you dig through my work, and the products you now carry, you can find a mix of sentiments from hopeful to blunt. I think a lot about items as gifts, either a treat for yourself, or something you give to someone else. Because what the fuck is a pin or a keychain anyway? Really just an inexpensive little thing, but when it has meaning to you, or was a gift from someone you love, or represents a time in your life, it becomes a priceless personal heirloom that you might just keep forever.
What are the must-have AdamJK goods? Any personal faves?
The "Bottled Up Feelings" design is definitely a classic from me, a hyper-literal metaphor that we can all relate to in one way or another. It was a quick doodle on a shitty day that's gone on to embody my whole thing in a really cute way, and I've been doing different versions of it over the years – pins, patches, keychains, a ceramic jar, even a large neon piece last year.
Of course, my books really capture a lot of the spirit of my work, the humor, the honesty, and the fun and easy tools for working through strong emotions. Pick Me Up is a bit more mature than 1 Page at a Time, despite an equally cute title. It's a mix of drawing and writing prompts, but with some more writing mixed in, so that every time you flip it open you get a bit of something, either from me or from the last time you were on that page. It's so much easier to handle a pep talk that you wrote for yourself than some "enlightened" author trying to tell you how to live your own life.
I often find the marriage of art and commerce distressing… As a creative entrepreneur, what’s one clear piece of advice you can give artists who want to focus on entrepreneurship?
Artists are entrepreneurs, in one way or another, whether they'd like to be or not. We're not selling the same things, and the currency might vary, but essentially you are creating a product or service and distributing it in some way, through some model, that allows you to continue to produce. In my case, like everything, it's pretty literal. I make a keychain and you can buy the keychain for money, which I then use to produce more keychains (and to pay rent). Fine artists might sell fewer pieces at a higher price point, but they're not exempt from capitalism either. Others create performances, paid for by ticket sales or grants and other funding and income streams. Other artists supplement their income with "day jobs" that may not bring the same satisfaction, but enable the creation of more work. Everyone is figuring their shit out and there isn't one right way to do it. My best advice is to let go of the notion of "selling out" as fast as you can. Should you do things that are in conflict with your personal morals or values? No. Should you make enough money to live and maybe have a little extra for a nice meal or a vacation or a party or retirement? Please. I would love that for you.
Any cool new projects we should look out for?
I'm working on my 2021 Unsolicited Advice planner, the tenth annual edition of this self-published project. I see you've already got it up for preorder! I'm currently in the midst of coordinating production, which has proven more complicated in light of the coronavirus pandemic right now. But time marches on, as publishing a calendar makes clear. I'm excited to bring this popular item to life in its best edition yet, and the promise of good days to come soon helps me cope with the uncertainty and fear today.
Good things happen! Love is real! We will be okay!