Ultimate Ears chose Pendleton as our first craftsperson for the Best in Craft series because his work is eclectic, diverse, and deeply connected to music, both on a professional and personal level. How many visual artists do you know that have won a GRAMMY Award?
Ultimate Ears talks with Don Pendleton about his “Best in Craft” Collaboration
Art is a universal language, and different mediums of artistic expression--whether visual, music, performance, or otherwise--are inextricably linked. For artist, illustrator, and designer, Don Pendleton, music provides a strong source of inspiration in his work and musicians have long sought him out as a collaborator. Ultimate Ears chose Pendleton as our first craftsperson for the Best in Craft series because his work is eclectic, diverse, and deeply connected to music, both on a professional and personal level. How many visual artists do you know that have won a GRAMMY Award?
Pendleton’s body of work has appeared in galleries and installations around the world and graced a wide variety of canvases, from large scale murals to skateboard decks to album covers. In 2015, Don earned a GRAMMY Award for Best Recording Packaging for Pearl Jam’s tenth studio album Lightning Bolt. Though we learned that receiving this honor was a complete shock to Pendleton, as we spoke to him about his relationship to music and how it inspires his process, the award made complete sense in his hands.
But that was just one element of our colorful discussion with this fascinating (albeit humble) artist from Kettering, Ohio. Our conversation with Pendleton explored what it means to be a craftsman in 2020, how he has evolved as an artist, where he finds inspiration, and his experience working with the Ultimate Ears on his Limited Edition Artist Series of CSX earphones.
Have the earphones opened your mind to music in a different way or helped you get into the zone? Have you noticed anything unique about them?
When I first started using the earphones, the first thing I noticed was the depth of the music that I hadn't heard before. I've always been a boombox type of guy. When I put these on, the first thing I noticed was the layers of the music and how more dramatic music is, and the certain parts with the drums and bass. That's not something that I'd really heard before. So, listening to something like Elliot Smith where it's just acoustic guitar, you can literally hear things like the fingers going up the frets and these little subtleties that you miss when you're listening through headphones of a lesser quality.
"I don't want to over dramatize it, but it's going from black and white to color, in some ways, because of how rich it is."
Having the external noise blocked out is something I had never experienced either. So, honestly, I like listening to music more through these. I really do. It makes the music better.
It’s really hard to use words to translate a stimulation experience that’s non-verbal. So what you’re describing is a visceral reaction to a perfect fit.
I've heard people describe this in the past, when they have a better sound system, or listen to something on vinyl that was recorded at a certain time with all the right equipment hooked up, and they say you can feel it - you don't just hear it.
"Let me just put on my iPod or whatever and just play it. But you really do hear these subtleties in the recording studio, and the things that make music human. You know that somebody's hands are behind it and somebody's effort's behind it. You feel and hear those things and I've heard people talk about it. I didn't really believe it."
ON BEST IN CRAFT
What does being “best in craft” mean to you?
Best in craft means just trying to create something the best that you can. I think it's ignoring competition, ignoring other influences, and trying to build something in your own way and make it as good as you can. I've learned over the years, you can take on projects and just get them done, or you can design something and just design it. Or, you can push it and make it as good as it can be. And that's the challenge as an artist.
Are you “best in craft”?
I try to be. I think that's the challenge. If I'm going to make something from scratch, I can sleepwalk through it or I can take it on and challenge myself to do the most creative project that I can do. So, as an artist, I think that's what everybody faces. Do you want to get it done? Do you want it to be better than this brand or that artist? Or do you want it to be the best, where you look at it and you're proud of it, stripping away all of the external opinions and the critiques.
What does it actually mean to control your environment? That’s an interesting concept. What does it mean for you specifically? Both physically and mentally.
I put myself in a mindset, which can be music, the lighting, or the temperature, even. All of the elements that make you feel comfortable, relaxed, and creative can induce a mentality of creating something that's different.
How did you come up with the name Darkroom? Is that a photography reference?
I worked at a skateboard company called Alien Workshop from about 1998 until 2005, where I would mostly sit in a dark room and work at a computer in order to keep the monitor colors accurate. I spent so much time in there, that I felt like a bat or some kind of nocturnal animal. Even though the name references photography, it's more just about illustration and creativity.
Being an artist isn't the romanticized version that people see. A lot of it is isolating. It's not really a group project and you can't even really bring in somebody else unless you're collaborating.
"You have to focus on controlling your environment. I'm most creative when it’s just me and the canvas, or me and a sketchpad, or me and a computer."
What does a typical day in your life look like?
There isn't really an average day for me. I usually stay up really late and paint into the early morning, I don’t just jump out of bed and try to be creative and make something. I warm up with emails and texts and then slide into some Darkroom creative stuff. Darkroom is a company that I'm working on right now that has skateboards, apparel, and accessories. So, kind of do the fun stuff first and then work towards the stuff that I've got to do, that I'm obligated to do, that's not as creative.
What is art to you?
Art is what you choose to surround yourself with. We have talked about the environment and what it can pull out of you, and what kind of mood it can put you in. So whether art is visual or whether it's music, it's whatever kind of stimulus that you choose to put into your system. Food, even, I think would fall into the art category. I think Andy Warhol probably had the best point of view: he worked on commercial artwork and also fine artwork and films. It wasn’t the stereotypical painting on the wall. It wasn't the Campbell's Soup can.
"At the end of the day, art is something that you learn to live with. It becomes a part of your life, and all of those things that you surround yourself with that affect you and make you who you are. I think that's art."
When I close my eyes and think about who I am at the end of the day, I’m a builder. I built my house with my own two hands, I built businesses. These are the same skills. What are you? You said you’re an artist - is that what your business card would say?
No. I'm a jack of all trades because I design, and the design interacts with the art and the illustration and the painting. They all play off of one another and feed one another. I never really wanted to be one thing. I want to focus on creativity and build things with my hands--starting with a blank page and ending up with something that is complete.