When ideating about our upcoming launch of Born + Raised (our brewers’ take on a cream ale), we wanted to think of ways in which we could truly make this a beer from Chicago, for Chicago. Since there are more breweries here than in any other city in the U.S., we knew we had to do something that would make the project stand out; thus the idea of collaborating with local artists was born. —INGRAIN, Summer 2019
STORY / Erika Wojno
Nate Otto struck me as someone whose work reflects city life: His paintings and drawings are colorful, abstract, idiosyncratic (oh hi, Guilty! I stole that page from Nate’s book.) As an artist using wood as a canvas, Nate seemed like a rad fit. Plus, he is humble and easy to work with on projects, and his Ukrainian Village studio is a quick two-mile jaunt from our Fulton Street Brewery. He was the perfect artist to design the first run of tap handles for Born + Raised.
That being said, we’re all excited for both this project with Nate to come to life around town, as well as the beer itself. Over the course of the month while Nate was working on the tap handles, I met up with him to talk about his art—naturally, over a beer.
So, first, can you speak about your journey to becoming an artist now that you’re doing it full-time?
It’s been a long path. I have always been an artist, but I’ve been a full-time artist for only about seven years. It was a conscious decision on my part; I decided I wanted to put my efforts toward something that I really wanted to do, toward my calling. The only real secret I’ve found is just to make a lot of work and try really hard. Yeah, I’ve had some advantages in life, but when it comes to getting people to pay attention to your art, making a lot of work helps and is really the key. When I see younger artists ask for advice, that’s really the main thing I want to impart. [You] just have to do it. That’s more important than anything else.
Just take the time and put the effort into it.
You’ve got to—like, you know, people want a shortcut. And it’s not like I’m this all-successful person, but I’ve managed to make a living out of it. And you know, it just happened because I made the effort and I made work that was marketable. I know some artists who are really great artists, but their work is maybe a little bit harder for a broad audience. So that has to come, you have to consider all those things. I’m fortunate that what I naturally want to make is something that seems to appeal to a large audience. It’s great.
Do you have any key artistic influences?
Some of my favorite artists go back to when I was a kid. Basquiat, Paul Klee, you know. Then more recently, Barry McGee and Tony Fitzpatrick, my friend across the hall. Yeah, I’ve always looked at a lot of art and been interested in art. I didn’t always know I was going to be able to make a career out of it, but it’s always been a central part of my life. I’m influenced by people all the time. And when I hear that people are influenced by me, I’m flattered by it.
What inspires you besides other artists? Are you ever influenced by the city itself? Obviously, you have all these buildings in your work.
Yeah. You know, urban living. I live in Chicago, and I’ve been in Chicago for my entire adult life, pretty much. That’s a conscious decision, and thus, everything. I think I’m a connoisseur of music and film and literature, and all that stuff plays a part.
I’m going to go out of order, because my other question was, “Do you listen to music while you paint?” But you’re listening to music right now. What’s on your playlist?
I really listen to everything. I know that’s a stupid answer, but right now we’re listening to Car Seat Headrest. It’s the dumbest name for a band, but they’re really good.
They’re so good.
Yeah, I’ve just always been a music head. I’ll be listening to hip-hop really loud one minute and then, like, pop music the next and country music the next. I really listen to everything.
What’s your dream project?
I think I’m living my dream project, really. All I’ve ever wanted was to be able to make art all the time, and that’s what I’m doing. And I really don’t see any difference between doing stuff for a client, if it’s what I’d naturally be doing anyway, or just doing stuff on my own. It’s just like what I’m doing for you guys [at Goose Island]. I’m doing it for you and with you in mind, but it’s also what I want to be doing. I’m doing my own style, my own thing. And this is my office, and that’s fucking great. Just the fact that I can come in here and work on art all day, that’s a dream come true.
So, two more questions. First, do you drink beer?
I do drink beer. The first time I met you guys—you can delete this out—I was a little embarrassed because I thought I maybe came across way too enthusiastic about beer, like Brett Kavanaugh weirdo about beer. But, yes, I do like beer. I don’t think I’m a beer snob, really. Mexican lagers are often my go-to.
Well, then, we should have brought some Natural Villain. We’ll get you next time. Do you have a favorite spot in Chicago, like a hangout spot, restaurant, venue, any of that kind of stuff?
I like to stay close to home.
Ukrainian Village is a great neighborhood, though.
Yeah, fortunately for me, what I like to do best is draw, so the winter doesn’t really bother me that much. I can just stay home and draw. But I do get out. My wife loves Big Star and we always go there. You know, I get around the city, but there isn’t one favorite spot of mine particularly.
Okay. I’m going to throw in an impromptu: You have tattoos of your art on your arm. Are you stick and poking those? Or who do you give your art to someone who then tattoos you?
These are all done by friends. I kind of feel like a jerk asking them to tattoo my own designs, but they’ve all been receptive to it. My friend Casey Sass has done a bunch of them. He’s down in Austin, Texas, but he used to live here. And my friends over at Brown Brothers have done a few of them.
Over on California Avenue?
Yes. And Max [Brown] was just in here the other day. So, yeah, I like to go to friends, but I do kind of feel like a jerk, because they’re all great artists in their own right. I kind of feel like a jerk asking them to do my designs, but that’s what I’m going with.
Well, you get commissioned to do things. You’re commissioning somebody else. All right, cool to chat.
The tap handle series is part of Goose Island's long-standing commitment to local artists.
Other artists in our Born+Raised tap handle series: