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Don’t Quit Your Day Job: DM Stith

Growing up in the shadow of a very musical family, DM Stith‘s work reflects a sense of isolated darkness and hopeful melancholy that recalls the spirit of the late Nick Drake. Perhaps his first full-length album, Heavy Ghost, is aptly-titled then. When he’s not writing complex electronic folk tunes in his apartment, Stith can be found in a university classroom or at his computer, which once belonged to a member of My Brightest Diamond. The world is a small and funny place. Flavorpill: What is your day job exactly?

DM Stith: I’ve been doing some kind of design for pay pretty steadily for the last eight years. I don’t really think of it as a day job. It’s wrapped into my life as an artist in a lot of ways. I do a lot of design for my record label, Asthmatic Kitty, as well as freelance stuff unrelated to music. When I’m not doing that stuff, I’m a grad student at Indiana University, studying towards an MFA in Graphic Design. I also teach undergraduate art courses for the university. I imagine that some day I’ll be a college professor, but I think that’s a long way off. I have a lot of learning to do before then.

FP: How did you get involved in doing design work?

DS: I have been interested in visual art since I was a little kid. In my family, until recently, I was known as a visual artist with weird music taste. I was the only non-musical Stith; my two sisters have degrees in music performance, my mom plays piano for church, my dad is a band director and former church choir director and a percussionist, and my grandpa is a retired wind ensemble conductor. Lots of music. Since my family knows nothing about visual art (all they knew about it was that it probably meant that I had some sort of mania, or depression, or schizophrenia) and were afraid that I’d never be able to support myself, they’ve always pushed me to find a practical interest. Working on my degree is a in some regards an attempt at practicality, but I really do like the academic community.

FP: Why do you think artists and musicians to turn to academia for a “practical” career alternative?

DS: For lots of artists, teaching is the only practical way to stay close to their art if they’re unable to make a living just making and selling work. For classical musicians, unless you’re able to manage a heavy performance circuit or sing lead parts in operas in major cities, the only way to make a living in music is to teach lessons or classes. Similar thing happens in the visual arts. It’s just not easy to make a living at art. Either become a designer, or a teacher, or relegate the art to something you do “for fun.” But artists hate art as hobby. For me, I like the rhythm of the academic cycle — summers off, intense fall and spring semesters, comfortable facilities and often pristine campuses, old buildings, big trees, cultural concentration…

FP: How does your musical history inform your visual art?

DS: I think my music and my art come from the same place. I’m sure they inform one another in some ways, but I don’t know that I’m able to discern how. Practically though, I’ve always paid special attention to the ways music is represented visually. I loved Fantasia growing up. Night on Bald Mountain? Geez. Album covers, music videos, band Web sites. As much as I hate some of these things, I’ve always paid close attention to them. When they’re done right, I love them.

FP: What have you designed for Asthmatic Kitty?

DS:
I’ve worked with My Brightest Diamond on all their releases — the cover art (that which isn’t photography), and all the type treatments — Grampall Jookabox’s stuff, The Habitat Comp, some layout on the Welcome Wagon release, and lots of magazine ads and fliers. And all of my own stuff of course. Oh, and the Bring Me the Workhorse t-shirt. I like that one.

FP: I heard you designed something for M. Night Shyamalan. How’d you get hooked up with him?

DS: Oh, yeah. I worked with Night on a logo for his foundation. They do work with communities in India and Africa and lots of stuff for the urban public schools in Philadelphia. Great people. A friend of mine let me know that he was looking for a designer to work on the foundation’s identity, so I submitted a portfolio and heard back a week later that I was hired. It was a fun project!

Photo credit: Steven Johnson

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