GARY HIRSCH: For The Love of Bots!
by Jonny Boys
Sometimes good things just happen and there doesn't seem to be an explanation for them. In this case there is one. Gary Hirsch sought us out and we are so glad he did. Every time I need a boost I go two places, to Hirsch's website and to his Facebook Fan Page. The most amazing thing is that his bots originated out of a very scary scenario. When he was six years old he suffered from massive vivid nightmares with scary monsters and hands coming out of his closet. So he would go to his father for comfort and in return he got therapy. His father, a cardiologist, a doodler, and poet, would sit Hirsch down and he would have him draw out the monsters. He noted that he still has a box of those drawings. But through his father's wisdom he would tell him "...now that you drawn them, you've made them you can erase them", and so he would erase them and he began to notice the nightmares less and less.
He also noticed as a child that he could listen better when he doodled. But he always got busted for it in his classes, even though he tried to explain it. Now there is strong scientific evidence that doodling does allow for the mind to remember more details when listening.
While Hirsch read tons of comic books as a kid, he never had any interest in being a comic book artist. He just loved to draw his monsters. His style has always stayed very primitive which is unique as he has a Masters in Arts Education. "I can draw, but I don't want to, so I don't", Hirsch told me.
He made his living through most of college and grad school as a t-shirt artist on the street. He picked up airbrushing in college during a screen printing class. His professor said instead of screen printing you can airbrush on shirts and then when it was time to move on to the next method, he decided he wanted to stay with the airbrush because it was like drawing with a big felt tip marker.
"So I would treat the t-shirt as public art. It was the whole premise that I wanted to get art to many people...this was pre-internet time. I was like, 'why do I need a gallery, when people can just see it anywhere?"
While Hirsch was developing the monster t-shirts, he started taking an improv acting class, all of this was happening while he attended college. He was already acting in plays like The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams. To this day he hates having to memorize lines. But tumbling into an improv group where they came up with lines on the fly and had audience interaction he was instantly hooked. "I was like you don't have to rehearse?! As I learned more and more about it I realized that you don't rehearse content, you rehearse chemistry. You don't rehearse what you're gonna say, it's how you work with that other person.And I got very, very hooked on improv, to this very day and I run On Your Feet, a consultancy that's massively successful using improv in a world of off the stage organizations."
And so as Hirsch made his t-shirts he was telling a two panel story on the front and the back, sort of a one-two punch. He really began to like the idea that there is a chronology of time and that an image isn't just a static moment, it exists in the middle of something. And so he began to create his art in the same manner. He was creating incomplete stories that invite the audience to do something else with it. When he was working on his thesis show for college, he spent his summer painting on canvases in his garage in Cleveland, Ohio. Kids from the neighborhood would come in and look at the paintings and tell him what happened at the beginning and the end of the story in the image. "They would say things like, 'Oh you see that guy with the cupcake? He's pissed off because the dragon ate his sister.' And I'd be like, where in the hell do you see that?! It was just a picture of a dragon with a cupcake, but something about how it was executed invited the input of that story. And I was like, this is what I want to keep making, I want to do this on stage, and I want to do this in the studio. And honestly I don't see a difference, they are just two different mediums...It's the idea of co-creation."
He really caught his first break when his Mom moved to Portland, Oregon. He was walking down the 1st Avenue passed Augen Gallery and someone stepped out and said, “Hey where did you get that shirt?” and he said he made it. Then he was asked if he had samples of anything else, which he did, he had brought an unstretched painting with him from Cleveland. So Hirsch rolled it out on the floor of the gallery and the curator said, “You want a show?” He had been in Portland for three days, what a break!
Later that week he heard about the Oregon Percent for Art Program, where 1% of construction funds of new or remodeled state buildings with construction budgets of $100,000 or more be set aside for the purchase of art. So he applied for a piece of public art at the parking garage at SW 3rd & Adler Street to install new elevators. "It was a giant budget, a huge amazing budget, of $12,000, more money than I'd ever seen in my life", Hirsch said. So he pitched the idea of these giant fish all tied together with a fishing line and hook. He told them that it was analogous to how everyone comes downtown to get this one big worm. He got the grant and soon found that the money only bought one of the eighteen pieces of material he needed for the project. So he ended up spending four years fund raising for the project and then he had the chance to complete it. The project is made up of eighteen four foot by twelve foot fish cut outs and they are painted in detail on both sides, so if you park in the garage you can walk up and look at the detail. And that is really what got him on the arts map in Portland because the art critics hated it. "I knew I had done something right because the next day there was a full page blast of the piece in the newspaper", he said. And then the public jammed up downtown trying to get a look at what exactly it was that the writer hated so much. It ended up being something that Portlander's rallied around and have loved since. It has been there since 1996 and it's called Upstream Downtown.
The culmination of those two events plus meeting his wife during that same time really made him excited for Portland. He still really loves it here, "I travel all over the world and I always can't wait to get back home."
He took a hiatus from selling the t-shirts even though he was making good money at it, which was a big deal to him. So he began focusing on his idea of improv for the corporate world. His first client was Leo Burnett Company and his second was Starbucks. So this idea of creativity and improvising and finding better ways to do it beginning to resonate with these firms. "It went from two people messing around to fifteen people in offices in Portland, London, Dublin, and Madrid that are doing this work.We've become a very successful network with doing work with Disney, Intel, Nike, those are all our clients," Hirsch said.
Hirsch could never quite put away the art though, he was always working on something. It ended up being the branding for his company On Your Feet. And with that he took about eight years off from creating serious art so that he could continue creating images for his business.
His first show back in the art world was at a large coffee shop in SE Portland. His two young kids were always giving him funny and practical advice like, "You know Dad, next time you're on a trip make sure you don't go out on the wing because you're pretty fat and if you step off the wing you're gonna fall right through those clouds." Those comments inspired a show called Pearls of Wisdom. He created images that went with random phrases from kids. The show was a hit, he sold a ton of art at the opening which boosted his confidence.
His second show was called You Name It. He painted a bunch of images, posted them online and asked people to post their ideas of what the stories were for the pieces. He got several hundred submissions for each piece. The idea was that whoever bought the work, would select from the pool of entries the name for the piece. Then the person who submitted the story and name would receive a printed t-shirt with the painting and the name on it. It was such a hit that they did that three times.
Every year On Your Feet creates an end of year gift that goes out to all of their clients. The idea is to give their clients and friends something of value and meaning. So for the past ten years he has been in charge of creating these gifts. The first year they printed their logo on socks, which is a funny play on their business name. He really got passionate about making something hand painted for their clients, but it's a list of 500 so it's a tall order. So the idea for the bots came from another end of year gift, the On Your Feet Co-Creation Journal, an embossed, spiral bound sketch book. Most of the pages are blank, but every now and then there are some pre-printed stimulus to help spur their clients on. One of the doodles he kept getting emails about from his clients, they were saying "this is what my robot told me to do today". The page read, "Go through your entire day visualizing that you have a personal giant robot that protects you,defends you and gives you outrageous compliments."
So in talking with his partners at On Your Feet, they decided that they would give their clients robots. The next order of business was to figure out how to do it. Gary was in New York with a client and one of his friends spent the day with him running all over Manhattan trying to find items that they could put the robots on. At then end of the day they just weren't happy with what they had purchased. One of her two sons brought out some dominoes and they both exclaimed,"That's it!" Dominoes feel cool, they are smooth, small and portable. He and his family took two weeks of vacation to Mexico but they didn't get a chance to see him because he spent the entire two weeks out on the veranda painting 500 bots.
"I put books on tape and I was having the time of my life." The first ones gave outrageous compliments, they were Compliment Bots. The instructions on the bots were to put the bots in a place where they could observe you and then wait for them to give you an outrageous compliment. He said the response was overwhelming. Hirsch was so tickled that he was trying to figure out how to get his bots into the hands of the public, with a few stipulations, one being that he would never mass produce them. He had the chance to do so with the offer from a client to put their logo on them and go nuts with them and he graciously declined their offer. So knowing that he was going to hand paint all of them, he wondered what other bots he could make. He created a Love Bot, a Joy Bot, but it was when he got to the Brave Bot he decided to take them to the Legacy Emanuel Hospital in Portland for the kiddos that need help being brave. He talked to their art therapist, Katie Dunn, and asked her if they would have any use for them. They started giving them to kids that were coming in for long term care.
From there his Bots found their way to Transitions Global, a non profit that was based in Portland that works with transitioning girls out of the sex trafficking business around the world. He makes Dream Bots for girls in their transition houses.
He took his son to Las Vegas to go bike riding. While they were there they stopped at Trifecta Gallery, in an emerging part of town, and he showed his bots to the owner. As soon as she saw them she told him, "Those are amazing, I'm ordering 100!" He has them in galleries in Park City, Utah, Portland, Maine, Portland, Oregon, Austin, Texas and the Museum of Contemporary Folk Art in San Francisco. They are also sold on the Uncommon Goods website.
Legacy Hospital approached him to create a large piece for their new Randal Children's Hospital building. So he created a large 990 bot piece. It is 9' x 2', which was a massive undertaking.
What Brings People Joy?
Hirsch went on a trip to Asia and he had the idea to leave bots around with instructions on them for the person that picked them up. Basically they were to take a photo of themselves doing
something with the Bot that they enjoy doing. Unfortunately no one participated in his experiment. But that inspired him to bring it home to Portland to try it out. So he created 200 bots with special instructions on them and he placed them all around Portland. The instructions read: "This is one of 200 Bots left in locations throughout the city. Please participate by visiting www.botjoy.com/joy-pdx."
I was excited for this project from the get go. Being a fan of the interactive art experience, I was glad to find a Joy Bot myself, #39. 39 sits on my desk with me as I write articles, network for hours on end and he patiently sits with me through Skype interviews that sometimes last three hours. But when I look at 39 I smile because, that fascinating bit of creativity not only brings me joy, but the knowledge that his creator is out there making more, and is having fun doing it! You can read more about Gary Hirsch's Bots and On Your Feet by visiting his website and his Facebook fan page.
See more of Gary's work: