Heather Gabel | Well Versed in the Art of Making Art

A few words with the artist responsible for hundreds of recognizable band t-shirt designs.

Heather Gabel has been excited about creating things since she can remember. Born in Ontario and having lived all over the United States, she has made a comfy home for herself in the art world and is probably best known as the designer of t-shirts for bands – ever heard of Alkaline Trio, My Chemical Romance or Rancid? (yeah, nothing to throw a stick at.) Her style is recognizable and unique and her passion for what she does is apparent in the work she produces. The next step Heather has taken is co-curating "Wild Card: a group exhibition based on the Tarot Card Deck." It is an upcoming exhibit featuring the work of 21 artists’ interpretation of the Tarot card. I was able to catch Heather for a chat about the show and her life as a professional craftsperson.

How has having a family changed your artistic style?

Um, whoa. It definitely has. You know, I paint and I do collages and since having a baby, getting the time to work on things is like, a battle, you know? So, I’ve been doing more collages versus painting because it’s easier for me to walk away from and come back to and get right back in the zone. I think it’s made me better at that because – better at collaging – because leaving it and coming back to it, I always see something different. Whereas before, I would just kind of, like, work through it until it was finished. And now it’s really awesome — I feel like I stumbled on a different style. And I still am gonna paint but I’m really into doing collages right now [laughs].

Now you’re an established and well-respected artists within the fine arts and music communities. At the beginning, was it ever difficult being a woman in the male dominated music business?

No, not at all [laughs]. Um, I never had any kind of problems with that. The way that it all sort of happened, too, was such an organic thing that I wasn’t… I wasn’t trying to do that to make a living. Like with Alkaline Trio, I was just helping out my friends and then it turned into a job when they got more popular. And so, any job outside of them, it would be someone that they toured with who was like, ‘oh, I really like your shirts; who does them?’ and I would say, ‘me’ and they would ask me to do something. Even to this day, I haven’t had a client that I haven’t been friends with first, you know. Or been on a tour with, or something like that. It’s always been… I’ve never shopped my stuff around. It’s always been someone in the band or someone that works for the band asking me. There was never competition even, I feel like, to try and lure somebody in and to be competing against guys.

Well, that’s awesome!

Yeah, totally.

Do you ever work on more than one piece at a time or do you put all of your energy into one thing?

I definitely work on more than one thing at a time. I’m lucky if I just have one – well, not lucky but it’s cool if I just have one thing that I have to be working on and then I can, you know, really dive into it and get it done. But I usually have a bunch of things going on in my head and, like, a bunch of different sketches and it just depends when I can get around to it, you know? For a show that I have up in Minneapolis right now, I was working on, like, five pieces at once. I kind of like doing that, though, because, when it’s all for the same show, you get… you know, everything’s got the same look and if something isn’t working out on one thing like I was planning, I can do it on another piece. So, yeah, I definitely [laughs] — it’s a rare luxury to just have one.

Ok, tell us about the “Wild Card” exhibit.

That is a show in Chicago that opens October 1st at Johalla Projects Gallery that my friend Anna Cerniglia started a couple of years ago. She was curating at a different space in Chicago where I curated my first show with her, maybe, like, five years ago. And this show – the idea for this actually came from this girl, Myles, who lives in Philadelphia. She does art and did a shirt for my husband’s band and we just kinda started talking. We wanted to collaborate on something together and it was originally going to be, like, a series of prints or t-shirts or something like that. Then we started talking to Anna and she really liked the idea – we had narrowed the idea down to just doing or collaborating on the Tarot card, the 21 cards of the Major Arcana. Which was totally her idea because I’ve had my cards read once and I don’t know, it’s not something I’m super in to but she’s really in to it – she reads for her friends and everything all the time. So, Anna really liked the idea and it was October and it seemed like a good kind of occult, mystical thing that would be great for the fall and Halloween coming up and stuff. Anna was like, ‘let’s do a show around it’ and so the three of us split the 21 cards. So we each have seven artists that we chose and everyone’s doing one piece – just their interpretation of the Tarot card that was assigned to them or that they chose. I told my seven people which ones I wanted them to do [laughs] but I think some of the other people got to pick. And then I’m doing a piece. I’m doing The Devil – I was in Myles’ group of artists.

Is there an artists associated with the project who’s work you are particularly excited about?

Oh, man! Everyone I picked, I’m really excited about. I’ve worked with a few of the people that I chose already and then the rest of them are just friends of mine who’s work I really, really love and who I’ve [and then Heather’s phone caught some static interference]… But I’m really, um, [more poorly timed static] excited for Rob Doran. He used to play bass in Alkaline Trio when they very first started. He’s on their first 7”, I think that’s all. And he’s in a band now called Pit er Pat and he moved out to L.A. from Chicago. His stuff is so amazing and I’m really, really excited that he’s in it. And then Alexis Mackenzie from San Francisco does the most beautiful collages and I got her to do a piece which I’m really excited about. And David D’Andrea from Oakland – we’ve been in shows together when I lived out there and his stuff is so cool. He does a lot of posters for, like, metal bands and has a really cool aesthetic. I’ve always wanted him to be a part of something that I was curating, too. So there’s three people I’m really excited about. [laughs] I’m excited about the whole thing – I can’t wait.

Ok, and finally, if you could pick one person you could create something for, living or dead, who would it be?

If I got to do album art for Crass, I would be [laughs] so excited about that. That would be so cool. I mean, their aesthetic is amazing already and I would like to think that I could measure up. I think that would be awesome – I would be really proud of it. I feel like they’re a band who really appreciates the aesthetic, you know? | Nicole Madden

"Wild Card" opens in Chicago this Friday, October 1st, at Johalla Projects Gallery. For more information visit johallaprojects.com/johalla.html.

To see more of Heather’s work, visit heathergabel.com.


Photos courtesy of Mutiny PR

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