What do a Tyrannosaurus Rex carrying a Hobbit in its mouth, a lederhosen-wearing man and his pregnant wife standing outside their trailer with a three-legged dog, and a bunch of big eyed ducklings sliding down a rainbow emitting from a unicorn’s backside have in common?
Well, they actually have three things in common. First, they are all characters from New England Brewing Company’s beer labels. Second, they are all on display at an art show at Kehler Liddell Gallery that premieres this Saturday, July 14. And third, they were all birthed in the mind of artist Craig Gilbert.
Gilbert is one of several artists chosen to participate in The Art of Craft Beer show curated by 16 Oz. Canvas, a podcast created and hosted by AJ Keirans that focuses on the art of the beer label and the people who create that art.
I spoke with Gilbert at his home surrounded by various pieces of his label art as well as his fine art, many of which will be on display at the show, a fundraiser for CT-ARSC (Autism Services and Resources Connecticut) that will run for two weeks at Kehler Liddell with an opening reception Saturday from 7 to 10 p.m. This gallery show will feature 10 artists from the podcast and all of them will be showing label work and other artwork.
Gilbert appeared on episode 5 of Keiran’s podcast last April. He said he has read the transcript. But “I can’t listen to it. I can’t listen to me,” he said with a laugh. As of this past week, Keiran has recorded 68 episodes of the podcast, initially starting with local label artists and then expanding outside of Connecticut. “It’s a really cool thing,” Gilbert said of the podcast. “It gives people the opportunity to get to know the person who designs the can that you’re drinking out of, and it gives you something else to talk about besides a double IPA.”
Gilbert knows beer talk as well as art talk, having been a bartender for many years both at the former Rudy’s (now Three Sheets) and at Cafe Nine. He is currently one of the most familiar faces behind the taps at the New England Brewing Company (known informally as NEBCo) tap room in Woodbridge. He got into the business of beer art through one of his oldest and best friends, NEBCo owner Rob Leonard, whom Gilbert has known since ninth grade. What began as helping a friend out with beer brewing and cleaning up and other odd jobs in the early days of the business turned into a job filling growlers as the business grew, which turned into Leonard asking Gilbert if he could draw a label for the company, which turned into the first of many labels and other artwork for the brewery — including bottle labels, tap handles, and T-shirt designs.
Gilbert is “forever grateful to everybody there because sometimes they just come to me and say, ‘this is the style of beer we’re doing, we need a name and we need an image,’” he said. “For example, coming up soon I have to go in and nail down the final name for a saison that we’re going to do. It’s an aggressively hopped saison which is just going to be kind of cool, so I gave them around 85 names and ran around and got everyone’s favorites, and the top 10 are on a white board up in an office in the brewery.”
Other times Gilbert has been given the name of the beer first.
“We’ve had a can release of a beer recently where they came up to me and said, ‘Yeah it’s a really light-bodied summer time ale, pretty hoppy, big and flavorful, but not really too heavy so you can just party with it, and we want to call it Yard Party.”
That label ended up being a bunch of guys playing leapfrog (pretty hoppy, right?) and generally partying — in a prison yard.
Fuzzy Baby Ducks, one of NEBCo’s most popular beers, had existed for quite some times before a label was needed for it. Gilbert came up with a colorful and whimsical piece featuring wide-eyed ducks and unicorns and rainbows. The same happened with the beer Coriolis. It ended up being represented by the previously mentioned T. Rex holding a hobbit in its mouth. Gilbert is occasionally inspired by pop culture but mostly is just looking for something that will make everyone smile and maybe even laugh.
Gilbert has been drawing and writing since he was a child, and he is all about finding laughter and joy anywhere he can and bringing ease to others in his work and in his life — something he has expressed in his fine art, which is known as FLOW.
That art work, which will also be on display at the gallery show, had its beginnings from Gilbert’s days as a writer and illustrator for the New Haven Advocate.
“We would have editorial meetings on Tuesday, and I would sit there with my outline and I would doodle connecting circles and fill up the margins with these connecting circle patterns. One day I emptied out my backpack, and there were all these outlines for meetings and they were filled with this doodle, and I thought, ‘what if I made this really big?’” Gilbert said. “So then I had these different sized circles and orbs, and I connected them all together and it became this pattern. Then that pattern kept popping up in my life, so I’d be walking down the street and go, ‘wow, that’s a huge puddle of spit someone left,’ and I would look at it and there would be all these little bubbles in it, and they were all connected, and I go, ‘oh, that’s kind of neat, and it’s kind of like what I do.’
“Then I remembered being a little science nerd as a kid and having my own microscope and looking at a leaf under the microscope and looking at all the cells of the leaf, and then I would spit on a slide and look at that. So there was this pattern that would keep reoccurring, and it just had this very soothing effect. I just started doing larger and larger drawings of it.”
The name FLOW also came up rather humbly.
“The idea of just having a flow to everything has just been an integral part of my life, always just kind of moving forward,” Gilbert said. “One of my very early art shows of this pattern that I just kept reproducing over and over again was at a coffee shop, and the woman in charge of it was pretty adamant about me naming every single piece that I had.” There were 30 pieces in the show. She suggested maybe naming the whole show.
“So I said, ‘well, every piece has the same flow to it, a relaxing soothing flow, plus it’s an abstract thing.’ It’s not like a bowl of fruit where you can say, ‘this one is called “Bowl of Fruit.”’ Different people come up and look at these things and go, ‘oh, it looks like fractals, oh, it looks like drool, oh, it looks like beer foam, oh, it looks like bubbles, it looks like spit, it looks topographic…’ Everyone sees a lot of different things.”
Gilbert said there is always a sense of spirituality for him in his FLOW work, but he was quick to point out that he prefers giving the observer the opportunity to take from his art whatever they want or need.
Gilbert also began incorporating the FLOW pattern into 3D sculptures and other objects, from animal skulls to fake plastic food and things “that struck me as funny,” he said. Many of those pieces have been on display at the Armory during City Wide Open Studios in October, an event Gilbert participates in annually. Over the years the FLOW pieces have evolved in size from ones that fit in the palm of your hand to ones that could be displayed over a couch.
Last year Gilbert also began curating monthly art shows in the NEBCo tap room, featuring a different local artist each month (one of whom, in the interest of full disclosure, was this reporter). Last month he also began cohosting along with fellow artist and tap room manager Amanda Ward a monthly series at the brewery called “An Evening of Abstract Expressionism: Painting with Zero F**s,” which takes the well-known paint-and-sip event and turns it on its head, allowing participants to use more than just paintbrushes to create their art and encouraging unabashed fun and freedom.
Gilbert has had FLOW work commissioned on objects people have given him — like a banjo head — and this past year he even incorporated the pattern into two of NEBCo’s beer labels, Supernaut and Spin Cycle, the latter being a rotating IPA represented by a washing machine filled with, you guessed it, those FLOW-ing bubbles.
Though he has not lived in New Haven proper in a few years, he still finds himself as fascinated with it as he has been since he was a child growing up in Bethany who drove down Winchester Avenue with his dad (who grew up there) to visit his “little Scottish nana.”
“It was a Country Mouse, City Mouse type of thing,” Gilbert said. “And then when I got older I could bike the 10 miles to the nearest bus stop and take the B bus down Whalley Avenue and end up downtown and go and find everything. I could go to Rhymes and go to Cutlers and go to Naples Pizza and go to the Owl when it was a cigarette shop and buy Rothman cigarettes from the UK and be pretentious,” he said, laughing at himself again. “You could buy seven-inch records and see flyers for bands and know even though you’re stuck out in the woods of Bethany, you’ll be all right, there’s shit around, and you can have fun.”
Gilbert’s artistic goals also include the city itself. “The biggest future goal I have — I don’t know how it is going to happen — but I want to do what I do on canvas on buildings in New Haven. Whether they’re abandoned or whether they’re inhabited, I mean just having a big splash of color and having the FLOW design curl around an entire building, and have it look like it goes behind windows, and up over AC units on roofs,” he said. “And then have a plaque on that building with the history of that building saying what it used to be. And then people would come to New Haven and tour the Bubble Buildings, or call it something like that, and then they can go and learn the history of that building and check it out.”
“Or maybe paint a church,” Gilbert added. “I’d love to paint a church. That would be awesome…. City of New Haven, I’ll work with you, man. I’m cheap.” He smiled, as though he’d be happy to talk about it with a city official. Maybe over a beer.
“The Art of Craft Beer” opens this Saturday at Kehler Liddell Gallery, 873 Whalley Ave., and runs for two weeks. Tickets and more information are available here. Craig Gilbert’s art is always on display at his website. More information about An Evening of Artistic Expressionism and other New England Brewing Company arts shows and events are available here.