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George McCalman

Y’all are in for a real treat this week, because I got the chance to catch up with the extremely talented and accomplished George McCalman. He is well known for his work a studio owner and creative director, and he recently published his first book, Illustrated Black History: Honoring the Iconic and the Unseen.

George shared how the idea for the book came about, and he spoke about some of the surprising and interesting things that came up during his research on who to include. He also talked about getting his start in the magazine industry as an art director, shared what convinced him to eventually start his own business, and elaborated on how his style has evolved over the years. George is a master of his craft and a true inspiration to aspiring creatives everywhere!

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Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right, tell us who you are and what you do.

George McCalman:
Well, number one, thank you for having me on, Maurice. My name is George McCalman. I am an artist and creative director based in San Francisco. I live part-time in the Caribbean, the country of Grenada. And I run a design studio, which affords me the privilege of doing a lot of creative things at the same time. And I’m also a fine and commercial artist, and I’m often the artist of projects that I am designing and am the creative director on. I do a lot of other things, but that’s it for right now.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a lot.

George McCalman:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, first off, happy New Year to you.

George McCalman:
Happy New Year.

Maurice Cherry:
We’re recording this right near the start of 2023. How have things been going so far?

George McCalman:
It’s been great. I’m in a very different realm than I was even a few weeks ago. I just had a couple weeks of a break from a book tour that I have been on and a press tour in support of my book Illustrated Black History: Honoring the Iconic and the Unseen. And so I’ve had a little bit of a reprieve, and so for the first time in many months, I have had the opportunity to really synthesize and make sense of the whirlwind that has come from the second half of this year of this book being out and me going out on a book tour and a national book tour. So I’ve just been really reflective for the last couple of weeks, and so this conversation is really timed well because I’ve been just thinking a lot about my experience of being a published author and people interacting with this book and having their responses and what I have learned from their response to this book. It’s been really incredible.

Maurice Cherry:
And I know you’re currently recording in Grenada. I would imagine having a Caribbean paradise at the finish line of a book tour is a pretty good motivation.

George McCalman:
Well, it’s actually just a reprieve. I start back on the book tour in February. So this is actually not even the midpoint. I’m going to be on tour for this book most likely another year just because I feel really passionately that this subject matter should be revered every day of the year and not just localized to a month or a period of time. So I am taking the message of that to the streets.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. When you look back at last year, is there anything that you want to try to change for 2023?

George McCalman:
Yeah. Expansive. I don’t know that I would use the word change for myself. It’s expand. I learned a lot and I was involved in all aspects of the making of this book, which is a really unique place to be. Most authors are not involved with all of the backend, the making and the design and the marketing. And so it’s been a really comprehensive experience too. And if I would say any adjustment, it would just be more, basically.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I’ll make sure that we have a link to the book in the show notes. Yeah, let’s dive more into it. Tell me about the book. I think the name is self-explanatory, but tell me more about the book, what was your idea behind it, all of that.

George McCalman:
The book came from the word … The first sentence of the introduction of this book is I had a curiosity, and that is the very simple truth. I was just curious to know more about black pioneers. And I was just coming to a point where I started realizing that there was an artist inside of me, and so I decided to merge these twin curiosities of, I want to test out the parameters of me as an artist after basically not making art since I graduated from college 20 years before. So I’m a classically trained artist. I’m a painter and a drafts person and a sculptor and a photographer. But when I went out into the professional landscape of being a magazine art and creative director, I didn’t think there was any room for me to be a fine artist. And at the time, there just weren’t people who looked like me in this realm.

And so I knew that would be a hard road, and I decided to go with the convention of working in the corporate world just to establish myself financially and it was an adult decision. But I came to a point a few years ago where I started realizing that there was more that I was interested in. It felt like there was an ocean that I had not touched. And I decided in a flash of inspiration to make this project my first assignment as an artist. And so I researched and wrote and painted a different black history pioneer every day for a month of February, and it just started ballooning. I think that’s the right word. It started expanding from there.

Maurice Cherry:
How did you go about researching and selecting the people to feature in the book? Because as I’ve looked through the book, I have the book actually, you have a wide range of people that you feature.

George McCalman:
I really know that the person that I am personally and professionally has really been framed by my time working at magazines because it’s basically, I got both military and library training at the same time, if that makes sense. There’s a rigor to when you are working under deadline, you have to really be sharp, you have to have your focus, you have to know what the context is of what you’re doing. You have to be really communicative with the people around you. And you have to make sure that what you’re writing is all the time. And so it really trained me to know some of the shortcuts of researching and trusting my instincts around that. And for me, I was interested in people I didn’t know that much about. Even if I knew their name, even if I knew some of their story, there’s always more to learn.

And that’s the thing that I’ve learned in my 15 years as a magazine person before I opened my studio, that even when you think you know everything about a public figure, there is always more. And so it was a trust in the information I was learning, but it was also a trust in myself. And so I was always just looking at the periphery, looking at the fringes, asking myself questions. Who is Edna Lewis? What was Gordon Parks thinking as he was moving through the world? I found myself asking intimate questions to myself of the people I was researching. And so I found myself drawn to aspects of their story, and I was always looking for not just their accomplishments, but their personality. So many of our pioneers were always looking through a contemporary lens, but life was just so much harder then.

And so I can’t imagine what Gordon Parks’ everyday life was. He was always the representative, and there’s always a burden placed on black people in America that we have to represent our community. And I can’t imagine what that was like 50 years ago, what that was like 75 years ago, 150 years ago. How much harder it was to be seen as an individual when your community is always being judged against the majority white community. And so it’s always this push, it’s always this burden, it’s always this pressure. But then you look at these accomplishments and so many of these people, publicly anyway, were really graceful. And so you have to develop this superpower when you’re out in the world. And I found myself thinking, what did these people have to compromise? What did they have to give up? Who did they have to be to be the people that we know and sometimes take for granted?

I was always looking for the hidden messages of who these people actually were, and that just always sparked my interest. It just made me hungry and curious. And even as I was painting them, I found myself drawn to nuances of personality. Gordon Parks was really charming, and so the portrait that I did of him, there’s a twinkle in his eye. I was looking to bring out the anger and the jokingness and the sadness and the power and the force. I really wanted to capture human personality in these paintings and really individualize them.

Maurice Cherry:
Aside from just how poetic that is, that is extremely profound of you as an artist to want to approach it in that way. Even as you mentioned that, I’m thinking of my personal experience, but I’d say maybe a couple of years ago, this was right around the summer of 2020, I was doing a lot of research looking at old issues of Ebony Magazine and Jet Magazine from the ’50s and the ’60s. And one thing that stuck out to me that I thought was really interesting, I saw an ad for … It was some kind of alcohol, maybe gin or something like that. But it was Langston Hughes.

George McCalman:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Langston Hughes was selling alcohol. And I don’t know why that broke my brain for a second because in a way you think of, oh, Langston Hughes, Harlem Renaissance, profound poet. Why is he selling alcohol in Ebony Magazine?

George McCalman:
Yes. We don’t often think of our pioneers as whole people. People who have made mistakes and people who have had different lives and weren’t always doing the things that we focus and categorize them in terms of their professional accomplishments. And you start seeing people are just flawed. Every human being is flawed. We have complicated relationships with our icons in that we have to place them on a pedestal to basically show ourselves and to show the larger community how great we are. And so we always have to work harder to show these things. And then when you see Langston Hughes out of context, it’s confusing.

Maurice Cherry:
It caused me to pause for a minute. Not so much the why behind it, but it made me think … I don’t know. I wouldn’t think of him as a spokesperson for an alcohol company. I’m thinking of him as the poet. And not even thinking of like, oh, well, what are the circumstances that brought him to do this? Because I’m not looking at him being in Ebony in that way as a negative, but it just surprised me to go through the pages and I’m like, “Oh, Langston Hughes is selling gin.” It was gin or something. I don’t know.

George McCalman:
Because Langston Hughes had to pay his bills too.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

George McCalman:
Homie had to pay his bills, and so lots of people did lots of different things to survive.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What would you say is the most interesting or surprising thing you learned while doing this research? Aside from what you just mentioned, which I said is extremely profound.

George McCalman:
Oh gosh. I learned so many things it’s hard for me to pull out. If anything, it just broadened my fascination with basically how we think of our cultural figures. Back to your point of the kind of artist I was at the beginning of this process that I was looking to render a kind of wholeness of people. I was just always interested in the emotional language of portraiture and even how we as black people render each other is going through a current renaissance because we have not always … We haven’t been given the room and encouragement frankly, to render ourselves. And so I knew it was maverick of me to basically not flatten everyone and not render the same style. That would’ve been easy for me to do, but I knew that that was not the right thing for me to do for this project. I really wanted to make sure that I was showing the complexity of who these people were and I was also trying to show the humanity and make that as important as the historical details. That I was basically equating the emotional parts with the historical facts.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you hope people take away from the book? I mean, aside from buying a copy, what do you want people to take away from it?

George McCalman:
Well, I honestly think, Maurice, that we’re super casual about this subject. Not that we don’t know how important it is, but at the time that I started this project, I realized that there wasn’t a book like this and that I wanted people to have it because I thought that we all deserved to have something like this, that we deserve to have this resource. Even though we as black people, we carry our history in our bodies and we have a very particular way of an oral history of passing information down to each other that has survived the ravages of time and racism. This book in and of itself, I didn’t feel comfortable thinking about it until after the book came out and several people have told me that this book is in and of itself a pioneer. Because we just don’t have this information accessible in this way. That there wasn’t a book outside of historical, academic and children’s categorization, that there wasn’t an accessible book just to buy and share about American black history. And so that’s what I want people to know, that this is still a rarefied thing. This is not an everyday thing. This is a pretty amazing resource that we now have. And I made this book for myself as much as for anyone else. I wanted a book like this. And so that’s partially why I did it.

Maurice Cherry:
I also love that the typography that’s in the book for the titles as well as on the cover is from a black typographer.

George McCalman:
There are two black typographers in this book. And because I’m the designer of the book, I was clear that that aspect had to be represented. That I didn’t just want to talk about it, I wanted to show it. It was more important that people knew that that sensibility … There’s this reductive conversation that came up during 2020 again that was like, where are all the black designers? And I was like, “Screw you all. There are plenty of us around. You just need to stop being lazy and do your research to find them because we’re all here.” And I know tons of black designers, and so that’s not a thing. There should be more of us, certainly. But this idea that somehow everyone just woke up and started looking for us, I was genuine. I was like, “Fuck you.” I wanted to know. The two black typographers, one has been in the game for over 30 years, Joshua Darden, and he has a very successful … Which he sold a number of years ago.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Darden Studio.

George McCalman:
Darden Studio. And the other one is a more recent designer and typographer by the name of Trey Shields. A vocal type. And Trey’s hook, and it was a hook that he has just expanded beautifully, was to honor the civil rights protest signs and digitize them and make them accessible to everyday people. And so the book is filled with typefaces. There’re three or four typefaces in this book that both Trey and Josh designed.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Yeah, Trey’s the homie. I’ve had him on the show before.

George McCalman:
He’s amazing.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

George McCalman:
He’s amazing. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s switch gears here a little bit and learn more about you. Learn more about your origin story. Are you originally from Grenada? Is that where you grew up?

George McCalman:
Yes. I was born and raised here. The first decade of my life I lived here, and then my mother and I moved to Brooklyn. I grew up in East Flatbush in a West Indian neighborhood. And all my formal education was in New York. I went to Marine Park in Brooklyn and then Midwood High School, which was a medical science high school. Webster attended Midwood High School. That’s my one celebrity, useless factoid. And then I went to St. John’s University and graduated and then started working in the publishing field.

Maurice Cherry:
Did you always have an interest in illustration and design growing up?

George McCalman:
Always. I was that kid who drew in the margins of every page of every notebook I’ve ever had in my entire life. And it was just raw. It just came out. I had no formal training until college, but I was just obsessively drawing. And I drew superheroes and I made up characters and it was all very detailed, and I would just create these worlds and I would be lost in them to the eternal frustration of my mother. And it just came from me. It came from me and it came for me. But I had no encouragement into this world, and I didn’t know enough of it to realize that I could make a career out of being an artist. I saw no road into it. And so it made sense to me to just walk away from it when I graduated from college.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, let’s talk about college. You mentioned going to St. John’s University. We had another guest on recently, Sharon Burton, who also told me about her time there. Yeah. What was it like for you?

George McCalman:
My college education was a dysmorphic experience. I didn’t know what I had until it was in the rear view mirror, as is perfect parable of youth. We have no context to know what it is that we’re learning until life crashes into you when you have something to compare it to. And for me, I had an education that I was constantly frustrated with because it felt that it was out of step with the cool art schools that were in Manhattan. Number one, I was in Queens, which felt so far removed from the center of the art world, which was Manhattan at the time. And so I’d go into all these galleries in Manhattan, and I had friends who were at Parsons and SBA and Pratt, and it just felt like I was at this Catholic university that had a tiny fine art and graphic design department, and I just felt like my education sucked.

And it wasn’t until I graduated school and started working, I realized how amazing my education actually was and how unique it was in the landscape of how people are taught fine art and graphic design. And one of the main things that differentiated my education is that I learned philosophy and theology alongside art history, fine art and graphic design. It was one of the most comprehensive educations I could have received. And it took me a few years to realize that I was actually ahead of the curve and I’m actually really happy that I did not go to a more prototypical fine arts school. I got a fantastic education at St. John’s.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. How’s that saying go? Hindsight is 2020?

George McCalman:
It sure is.

Maurice Cherry:
I’ve heard that personally because I didn’t even study design. I went to a liberal arts private college. I went to Morehouse. And I initially went there because I wanted to … And this was late ’90s, early 2000s. Because I wanted to be a web designer. I had started learning HTML in high school. I taught myself HTML in high school and learned Photoshop. I designed my high school’s yearbook and the paper, and I really wanted to go into it but the scholarships that I got weren’t for art school. I actually never even applied to an art school. And then I got to Morehouse, majored in computer science. And in my mind I’m thinking, oh, well, it’s all the same, right? It’s all computers and design. It’s all the same. And I quickly realized after the first semester, it was not. I switched my major to math, which is what I got my degree in. But I know what you mean about looking back at the education and seeing how it served you versus the time that you’re there and you have this comparison on what your peers are doing, on what others are doing or what you think they’re doing that you feel like you should be getting at that formative stage.

George McCalman:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
So after you graduated, you talk about going and becoming an art director. Did you go right into that right after you graduated?

George McCalman:
I did. It’s pretty common now, but it was a little more unconventional back then. This was the mid ’90s. St. John’s had a internship requirement that your final year of school was spent in the field the entire semester as if you worked. And so the entire semester, I ended up having three options. I remember being going to interview at these three distinctly different locations, and it was kind of a sliding doors. And even then I knew that I was basically deciding my path with these three. One was an ad agency, one was a magazine, and the other was a small boutique design firm. And I remember being confused about which direction I was going to go in. I really did not know. And I walked into the Office of Money magazine, which is where I ended up interning. There was just a vitality. The office was a newsroom and there were people walking around and talking and gossiping and stuff being put up, and I could see layouts, and it just felt alive. It felt like an organism. And in my early 20s, I was just kind of like, yes, I think this is the environment that I need to be in. And I didn’t know anything about magazine design at that point, but it just felt like I needed to be there. And so I said yes to it, and I think it was one of my first really adult decisions.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s really interesting that senior year you got to have that choice. That’s something that I know that a lot of students now don’t get. They don’t get to see the working world-

George McCalman:
They really don’t.

Maurice Cherry:
Before they graduate like that.

George McCalman:
They don’t. Yeah. Because I teach also. I’m a professor of graphic design. And one of the big issues I have … And it’s not an easy problem to solve. I am critical of it while knowing that I don’t have the answers myself. One of the fallacies of school is that it doesn’t really prepare you for the real world. It’s like one of the last bastions of this purity of education. And it often is counter to how the process of the professional world runs. I quickly learned when I started Money Magazine that there was no graphic design class I had that prepared me for how the magazine world worked and how the design process actually worked. I realized how luxurious school is. It’s a place where you can sit and think and talk and show your work, and there’s no real disruption. There are no real crises. There’s nothing for you to solve outside of the assignment that has been given to you that you have months to ponder and to ruminate on.

And so the idea of instinct is just absent in the school diaspora. And so when I teach now, I teach differently than I learned, and I try to infuse as much of a real life sensibility. The other issue with schools is that a lot of people who teach don’t practice. And so you have a completely different and often very dissonant where the education is rigorous and it is really valid, but it is outside of basically the professional norms of how you would actually solve problems. But then the people who are in the field don’t have time to teach because they’re working. And even for me, teaching was a really difficult thing for me to do with the entrenched deadlines of my studio process. And so I understand that it is a very difficult thing to do. I recently took part in a review of students at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard a few weeks ago at the end of the semester in December.

And this was an active conversation that I was one of six jurors, and we were all in different strata of the professional world, and we were really debating and having this conversation about how what best serves the students. If you’re only learning from people who are not practicing, I’m sorry, the education is only so valuable. But then if you’re only learning from people in the field, you don’t learn what being spacious in your thinking and being intellectual and being academic, you don’t learn the value of that in the design process also. And so the answer seems to be a balance between the two, but that is not always the case depending on where the school is and at what stage the professors are and where the students are. So it’s a very complicated metric to figure out.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s interesting you say that because I’ve certainly encountered that even with some … Honestly, some schools that have interacted with Provision Path in different ways. You name a top design school in this country, they’ve reached out to me in some capacity about the show. Which is great. They like what the show is about. It’s filling a gap in their curriculum in some way that they’re not. But then if it comes down to me lecturing or teaching or something, it always seems to boil down to the fact that I don’t have a design degree. That they’re like, “Yeah, but …” I’m like, “Well, stop wasting my time.”

George McCalman:
Stop wasting my time. And those kind of rules and terms don’t really serve anyone anymore. I mean, just the landscape has changed and design, because of technology, is just so accessible. And I know lots of brilliant designers who did not go to art school, and I don’t believe that you need to have a design degree to be brilliant at what you do. There are lots of people who have defied the convention of formal education and produced really entrancing, relevant, resonant work. And to me, that’s what it’s about. And so I don’t subscribe to this hierarchy of academia. I mean 30 years ago it was used to be exclusive and keep a lot of people out, and that was seen as a value, but I don’t think it serves anyone right now. Culture has changed and education has changed. And because of technology, everything is just more accessible. And so it’s really about what you are doing with the technology. It has nothing to do with did you go to school or not? That’s just such a reductive argument.

Maurice Cherry:
I agree. I agree. This actually is making me think of a question that I do want to explore more on the show this year. And since you’re one of the first guests on this year, I’ll ask you. I’m curious what you think about the future of the art and design industry and how it’s going to be impacted by technology. I think we’ve seen in at least the past year, maybe two years, talk about web three and NFTs and most recently AI generated art and things like that. How do you think these industries are going to be impacted by tech?

George McCalman:
I think it already has been. What we call entrepreneurship is actually just hustlers. That’s what technology has given us. It’s given smart hustlers who are pulling and stretching and tweaking and bending the rigidity of so many of our institutions and our disciplines. The word I use a lot is it has expanded the notion of what design is, who it’s for, who it’s not for. And technology has brought so many things to people who would not otherwise have them. It just brings an aspect of the world to your doorstep. Technology for me, because I grew up outside of it and I was an adult … People who were born into technology, that’s what they know. That’s the real world. To me, it’s not the real world. It’s an aspect of the real world. And so I think of social media as tools.

I don’t think of it as real life. I think it’s a facsimile of real life. And so the language of how I talk about it has given me clarity in that I’m not confused about its place in my life. I started learning graphic design before we got our computer labs. And so I had two years of playing with typography, playing with a lot of the conventions of what is now basically archivable materials because nobody does it that way anymore. But because I learned design with my hands, that is how I continue to interface with it. I still draw out everything I do first. And that dexterity, frankly, has made me a better designer. I don’t rely on technology as a starting point for anything that I design. I bring it in to help move the process forward.

Maurice Cherry:
Good answer. I like that. You started talking about tech and that question just popped into my mind to ask you about that. But to go back to your career as an art director, you have a very storied history as an art director for several magazines. You mentioned Money Magazine, but you’ve also been an art director at Entertainment Weekly, at Mother Jones, at ReadyMade, just to name a few. When you look back at that time being a director for all these magazines, what stands out to you the most?

George McCalman:
I can’t give just a simple answer. I can give a collective answer. Because I learned a lot. I learned a lot of things. And I don’t think in terms of best or worse because I think life is too complex for that. But what I did learn was agency. The word agency. Meaning that I am not stuck when I don’t know how to solve a problem. That there are ways and there are many paths to telling a story, and there’s no one way to do anything. And depending on the context of what you’re doing, I learned how to be a better communicator. Because when you’re working with a lot of people who are reliant on you, you learn that you are a cog in a wheel, but that your role, nobody else working with you has that. So everyone is really important to the process at different times.

And so you learn the economy of collaboration. That collaboration can be a really beautiful thing. And that there’s an excitement when you are working with people who are really good at what they do and that want to tell stories as well as possible. And that telling stories is one of the most unique aspects of being a human being. And that that is basically how we thrive and survive as people. We share information and we share stories with each other. And that’s where I learned that. I’m not sure I would answer this question in this way if I hadn’t worked at magazines. And I utilize magazines also to learn. And I did. I used them for two things within myself. To learn the process of what I was doing. And I moved around a lot.

I never worked at a magazine more than two years because I always wanted to learn what I was doing through a different landscape. There are lots of people that get a job and stay there for decades. I am someone who I learn what I need to learn and then I move on. I have always been that way. And so for me, it was what can I learn about the subject matter? I learned about the financial world, honestly, working in Money Magazine. I learned about the inner workings of celebrity culture, working at Entertainment Weekly. I learned about the wellness world at Health Magazine. I learned about technology working at Wired, working at ReadyMade, working at Afar. I really immerse myself in the subject matter to learn more about how these stories focused on this particular field. What was the combination, what was the metrics, what was the engineering of the subject matter? And so I was always kind of process nerd, if that makes sense. And that’s what I was always looking for. And with magazines, the process can become repetitive because you’re doing the same combination of things. And so the first year I was learning about the magazine and the second year I was learning about the subject matter. And then like clockwork, I’d come to the end of the two years and I’d move on.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, was this sense of agency the inspiration behind you starting your studio?

George McCalman:
Yes. I reached a point where I realized I wasn’t learning anything more. I wasn’t learning anything new. And I had all these skills that I wanted to apply in a different way. And it was working at ReadyMade that gave me the inspiration to open up my own studio, which was the second to last corporate magazine job that I had. And ReadyMade was a magazine about do-it-yourself design. It’s basically recycling. What we now call upcycling. It’s taking something that is at the end of its road as it’s being used and refashioning it for something else where it has an entirely new shelf life and you can use those things. And it was really just clever. It was just really clever design solutions. It’s taking cloths and making a kite out of it, or taking old jeans and turning it into place mats. Just stuff like that that is seen as quaint now, but was really at the vanguard of this recycling movement that is just more every day and more common.

It was recycling before recycling, even in California, was as ubiquitous as it is now. And I got to work with a lot of makers. People who just made things and who were just passionately, quietly … And not starting businesses, but just people who were making things for their own edification, for their homes. And I was honestly just really inspired. And I was just kind of like, oh, I know a lot of people who are working for themselves. And when I started thinking about it, I would talk to friends and contemporaries and professional acquaintances and everyone said, “Do it, do it. Do it. When you work for yourself, you will never go back to the corporate world.” And they were right.

Maurice Cherry:
What are the best types of clients for you to work with?

George McCalman:
It has both changed and remained the same. My interest is in culture. The identity of culture. And so I have coined a phrase just internally in my professional world that I am interested in culture clients. And in the early days it was … I live in San Francisco, so there are lots of artisans. There are people who are making small batches of things. There are restaurant owners. I was always working with clients who were working for themselves and needed help with the language and the messaging around branding. And so I worked with restaurants and I designed products and chocolates and tea, but I was really kind of more comprehensive. It was less me coming in to just design a package and it was basically working on the whole branding from the logo to the identity to the strategy to the messaging to the website, just the whole thing. And I realized that I was drawing on my editorial background to tell the whole story.

And so it expanded to … I started working with the tech world and then quickly stopped. Because I realized that they … I remember having a meeting with Uber. This was like 10 years ago. I was working with TripAdvisor and Uber. And these are big names, big clients at the time. I can tell you, TripAdvisor, I consulted with them for almost two years. They didn’t know how to assign photography. And so I worked with them comprehensively working with a photo editor to basically get them a library of photographers, come up with a system of rate assignments. Just basically the basics that one of the largest companies in the travel world had no awareness of. With Uber, it was they had been focused on the service for so long and they were starting to atrophy some of their customers because there was no story. There was nothing.

And the people who started Uber did not think that that was important until suddenly it was. And I remember having a meeting with them where I was like, “Oh, they’re just taking my ideas. I’m just here speaking to them.” And I was like, I don’t trust this field. I don’t want to have my intellectual property just ripped off and I’m not on the inside, so they’re not going to value what I’m doing. They’re going to treat me like a vendor, and I’m not anyone’s vendor. And I was really clear about my value to myself. And so I stopped working with the tech world for a few years and really just focused more on the one-on-one. And I worked with larger companies, but it was still where I had direct access to the founders and the CEOs so that I could thread continuity between what I was doing. I didn’t want to work with any intermediary people, so I had to be conscious of the scale that I was working in just to make sure that the projects didn’t get away from me. And I was also clear with myself that I wanted to keep my studio small, because I wanted to keep it manageable and basically control and frame the quality of the work that I was doing. I didn’t want to be embarrassed by anything that I was doing if it got too corporate.

Maurice Cherry:
I like that idea of culture clients because yeah, working with tech companies, they will just relegate you to vendor status and-

George McCalman:
And they will just steal your shit.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, they’ll steal it.

George McCalman:
No compunction about it. And it’s the people who don’t know what they’re doing that want to steal your shit.

Maurice Cherry:
And I know in my instance, when I have worked with tech clients, it felt like … Or at least I entered into it thinking it would be more of a partnership. We would maybe bounce ideas off of each other or things like this. And in some instances, they just wanted to just cut the check, which I mean, look, I’ll take your money. I don’t have a problem with that. But I was really thinking that it would be more based on how the initial conversations went, why you sought me out, et cetera. And then it just ends up not being that. They just want to have it to be a bullet point on a DEI presentation.

George McCalman:
It is rarely that. And this is even before DEI so there was no representative of that. And that was the other reason. That I was often the only black person. And I was like, “No, I don’t want to do this.” I left publishing because I was tired of being the only black person. And for me, the tech industry has just become the new media publishing industry. I can see the corollaries and a lot of the people, a lot of my contemporaries have gone over and taken our playbook into the tech world. I mean, Apple very much has snapped up a lot of the most prominent magazine editorial art directors in the field in the United States. And so many of their campaigns, I’m looking and I can see the editorial strata of how these stories are shot and presented. It’s all going in that direction. And it should, because it’s the best form of storytelling. Advertising as a medium, as a typical form, I think is not very good at storytelling.

Maurice Cherry:
No, they are not. In addition to the work that you do through your studio, and you alluded to this earlier in the interview, you’re a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. How did that come about?

George McCalman:
Well, it came about the year that I started the original 29 day project of Illustrated Black History. I tell you, Maurice, it was just a year where I just lost my mind and just began drawing and painting obsessively, just everything. I was just manic for it. And it was like it had been bottled up and it all just came out. And so that year I took a sabbatical, which means that I stopped taking on work. And when I tell you that I had no money, I mean I had no money. I was just living off of my savings. It was a really reckless thing to do, and I’m a pretty cautious person. And I knew that it was the right thing because it just came so easily to me. I fired all my clients and just started everything from scratch. And so I gave myself the time to do that, and I was also trying to figure out how to make a living with it.

And so I ended up doing a series. A series of series. And that is also a playbook from my magazine days. You tell a story in multiple images, threading a narrative and a continuity from beginning, middle to end. And so I did several series on my family, on Illustrated Black History, and then I started documenting the visual identity of San Francisco. And I was really fascinated by the human ecosystem of the Bay Area. And I’d been working on another series about how the tech industry started in the Bay Area and how it could not really have started anywhere else and just all of these threads were coming together. And I had this epiphany one day where I knew that I wanted to do a culture column on the makeup, on the genetic makeup of San Francisco and the Bay Area.

And I had been inspired by a morbid thing. It was when Bill Cunningham, who used to be a columnist for the New York Times, and he was a style photographer and he documented black style in Brooklyn and Harlem, and he equated black style with high fashion, which is something the fashion industry did not do and still does not do, even though they think they do. I was just like, “Oh, I think this is what I should do.” And I remember writing a pitch and deciding whether I was going to send it to the New York Times or the San Francisco Chronicle. And because of my magazine background, I outlined everything to myself and I wrote a pro and con list about the San Francisco Chronicle versus the New York Times and how much creative freedom I was going to have. And the whole idea for the column was that I would be writing, illustrating and designing this column, documenting various events that gave you a larger sense of what the Bay Area was all about and what made it unique and special and also frustrating and just all of the things that just brought all the complexities in.

And I sent that to the woman who became my editor, and she wrote back immediately and she said, “This is brilliant. We’re going to do this.” And I remember thinking at the time, “Holy shit. I didn’t think she’d respond this quickly, and now I have to do this on a monthly basis.” And it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. I would go out to cultural events several nights a week, and I just became this man about town for years. And I would show up as a reporter with my notebook and my pens, and sometimes I would live draw and sometimes I would draw later on and I just drew this column every month and designed it for the style section of the Chronicle, and I did that for years.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. When it comes to work between what you do in your studio and what you do for the newspaper, is your approach different for each one?

George McCalman:
I work in parallel lines, as I’m sure my answers are starting to illustrate. I’m always on the inside and outside of what I do, and I’m looking at both sides of it at the same time. And I think I developed that skill as a magazine person because there’s not just the story that you’re working on, it’s the process of how the story is being made that is as important as the story that you’re making. And as a designer, you are at the intersection of words and images, and so you’re never just looking at one aspect of anything. And it has just expanded my brain, I think, where now I can’t help but think of everything through this parallel thread of thinking. And so in terms of making this column for years, I knew that I was training myself to do basically all aspects of what I was doing.

I was always an art director, so I would have been the designer of the column, but I would’ve been working with a writer and working with an illustrator. But in combining all of those skills, I was sharpening my capabilities, but I was also training myself for this kind of repetitive monthly grind where it just became less of a grind. I remember the first year I was just stressed out all the time, and then suddenly it settled and it was not a stress anymore. And the column used to take me several days to do. And towards the end of that initial run, it would take me 24 hours to do the whole thing. And it just became a little more fine tuned. I really was able to pace myself. I knew what I needed to do. I knew what I needed to accomplish. And so you just anticipate what you need and then you do it.

Maurice Cherry:
How would you say your artistic style has evolved over the years?

George McCalman:
To answer your previous question, I do … And I’m answering both at the same time. I think I have developed a way of backing into the style. I often don’t know what style I’m going to do when I start something, and this book is evidence of that. I really just feel my way into what I was doing. The original column had a lot of different styles, but I basically invented a newspaper style because I wanted it to be stylized. I had to do things quickly, it had to be out of a economy of time. So I developed a shortcut of illustrating that for the longest time my contemporaries thought was my style. And then when I started working on the book, even close friends were like, “Oh, this is totally different from what you have been doing with the Chronicle.”

And I was like, “Yeah, this book is actually what my work is actually.” But I’ve been doing this shorter version of it for a while and it has just become what I’ve been known for. But the truth is I tend to start from scratch every single time, and I do it in my design world and whether I’m designing something, whether I am illustrating it, fine art, it is a brand new thing every time I’m sitting to do it, even if I’ve done it before. And so I’m considering all of the layers. I was like, what is best going to serve this story? Is it something that’s in pencil? Is it something that is in paint? Is it typography? I just think freshly about everything that I’m doing, and I throw out what has come before. I honor what has come before, but I don’t get stuck in the nostalgia of what I’m doing. I will throw everything out and start it up again if I think that that is the right thing to do.

Maurice Cherry:
Who are some of the people that have really helped motivate and inspire you over the years?

George McCalman:
There are so many hidden figures in my life. The truth is, it’s not a lot of artists. The artists who inspire my work are not contemporary artists. They’re people that I grew up admiring. And where I find my inspiration is not really in other people, it’s in nature. The natural world really provides a lot of my motivation. But in terms of the people who have inspired they’re close family friends, they’re people I consider mentors in my life that have just always been many times the last few years where I’ve just admitted to my internal community, I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m just literally making this up. And there have been many times, there were many times that first year of launching out as an artist where there wasn’t a month that went by that I was like, “I don’t think this is going to work. I think I need to stop doing this. I don’t think I’m going to figure out how to make a living. I don’t think this is working.”

And no one person would let me do that. Everyone was just like, “Nope, nope, nope. Keep going, keep going, keep going, keep going, keep going.” And I’m grateful for that because that the first year I was absolutely flabbergasted how I was going to make this thing work. And I could see the talent and I could see that there was something there, but how all the pieces fit together in terms of continuity and financial stability, I didn’t see it. And then I got the column and the column I didn’t give the context for. I started six months after I started being an artist. And that was the first light bulb where I was like, oh, I think I know how to package this work.

And then I started getting more assignments and then it just picked up from there. And there were many stages of the process where something else would happen and I’d think, “Oh, okay, yes, that’s how this fits in.” And, “Oh, right. And then I can do that.” And then when I got my book deal, I realized that my column had been training me to do this book and that I had certainly designed lots of books, but this was the first time that I was all things and that I’d been doing a version of that for the last few years. And so I had been prepping myself for this larger project that I think it would’ve been much harder to do if I had not been doing it. So I just started seeing how all the pieces were fitting together.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you appreciate the most about your life right now?

George McCalman:
That I get to do what I love. I am happy. I am as happy as a pig in shit. I feel really fortunate that I am passionately in love with the creative world that I’ve given myself. I get to work with all of the things and the skills that I’ve been given. And there’s so much I’ve learned over the years that I get to relearn and apply in a different way. And I’ve learned that I get bored really easily and I’m not bored by anything that I do right now, which tells me that I’m doing the right thing. Learning is an absolute essential part of what I do, and I place myself on the ground floor of everything that I do because I see myself as a student also. And so I remain energized by what I do. I have a genuine love of what I get to do on a daily basis.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work do you want to be doing? What kind of projects do you want to work on? Where do you see yourself in the near future?

George McCalman:
I have to say I’m already doing what I see myself doing in another five years. I’m going to be making a lot of books. I’m designing a lot of books. I am making a lot of books. My next book is actually on the publishing industry. And I’m also starting to expand into three-dimensional spaces. I’m finishing up my first stint as an exhibition designer. I’m designing a museum show that is premiering in another few weeks in California and it’s a major show for a major artist by the name of Mike Henderson, as a black artist who is having a renaissance right now and he requested a black designer specifically. And the cultural aspects of design is something I’m really keyed to and always representing the black perspective so the people know that design is not neutral. I went to school and grew up hearing this fallacy that design is objective and neutral, and I know that it is not.

And so I teach in that way, I design in that way, I educate in that way, I work in that way. And so I just see more three-dimensional spaces. I see designing interiors, I see designing fully comprehensive experiences where you can see the two dimensionality of the design process in terms of type and art on the walls, but also the three dimensional aspect. The mood and the tone and the feeling of what you should be feeling, of what the average person can walk into a space and experience. That is what I’m going to be doing a lot of in coming days and weeks and years.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more information about you, your work, the book? Of course, we’ll put the book in the show notes, but where can people find out more information about you if they want to follow you?

George McCalman:
Well, the book itself, the book was published in late September of 2022, so it is everywhere. And the book, I’m really happy to share, has gone into its second printing.

Maurice Cherry:
Congratulations.

George McCalman:
Thank you. Thank you so much. The response has just been … It has been a very emotional few months as people … Because you make a thing as you know as a designer, but then you don’t really know how people are going to respond to it. And so I have just been amazed and rendered mute many times by the messages that I’ve received and the responses of the people that I’ve met out on the tour. And so this book is everywhere. You can get it at any bookstore, anywhere, all over the country. Of course, I always tell people to support their independent bookstores, so if you are buying it, you don’t have to buy it from the devil, Amazon. There are lots of local bookstores that would love to have your support. And as far as just my social media feed, all of it is the same, whether on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook. It is McCalman.co. M-C-C-A-L-M-A-N-C-O, McCalman.co.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, George McCalman, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show for-

George McCalman:
Thank you so much. Thank you, Maurice.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. One, for just sharing your story of how you come into art and really studied it and then going on as an art director, but then also the process of the book. And I think to me, what is probably most important about this conversation is how you’ve taken that flame of creativity and found a way to really expand it out as far as you can into as many different places as possible. Like you’re teaching, you’re doing client work, you’ve got the book, you’re a columnist, and now I feel like this expansion into 3D space, even as you mentioned, definitely seems like the inevitable next step for where you’re going. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

George McCalman:
Your questions were incredibly thoughtful. I’m really grateful for your interest in talking to me, and thank you. That’s all I’m going to say. Thank you so much.

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