“What I’m trying to do is provoke a reaction. What I see in the world, I’m trying to reflect that back.”
Michael Van Hall describes contemporary art as reflective. His work is found in all corners of the DMV, but not in galleries or on brick walls. Rather, it’s on shelves, in refrigerators and, after encounters with thirsty observers, in trash cans.
His canvas – no pun intended – is beer cans and he’s not the only artist dabbling in the craft brew world. As beverage options crop up around the city, one way for them to stand out is by having an aesthetically appealing product beyond taste.
“There’s a fandom around beer, kind of like music,” Van Hall continues. “It’s recognized as a venue for creativity. It allows and enables. In beer, the novelty doesn’t wear off because we’re always pushing.”
Van Hall has commissioned work for a number of breweries including DC Brau, Vanish Farmwoods Brewery and Aslin Beer Company, to name a few. He views each project as a chance to create art rather than branding, which allows him to take risks others may forgo.
“One of the primary things I tell them is you’re working with an artist, not a design company. You have to be ready to take risks and do things that are seemingly in contrast with good business. No board is going to approve what I do, but the customers will approve.”
Kendra Kuliga, 3 Stars Brewing Company’s designer, established her niche in the craft brew world by working on murals at Meridian Pint before moving onto posters, branding and labels. When 3 Stars founder Dave Coleman decided to begin bottling and canning their beer, he reached out to Kuliga to collaborate on the look.
“I wanted to see how the new craft beer scene was trying to identify itself as more independent and less corporate,” Kuliga says. “It was very clear that the canvas for a label was extremely art-friendly. You can make cartoons or intense battle scenes. It’s really up to you. It’s about finding a balance in detail and something that captures a customer’s eye.”
Unlike Van Hall, Kuliga works almost exclusively with 3 Stars as far as can design, so each creation carries an aesthetic she and Coleman developed and built from scratch.
“[Coleman] gives me ideas for what he wants. He’ll explain and then I’ll do the research and add details. There are label artists who are sought out for their art, but at the end of the day, I want to represent the people I’m working for. It takes a lot of people to come up with a beer and a label, and I want everyone to feel good.”
While Kuliga and Van Hall have made can design part of their careers, crating both one-off releases and year-round staples, there are other avenues for beer can art.
This month, DC Brau is set to distribute their third annual Pride Pils just in time for the District’s Capital Pride celebration. Like previous iterations of the limited brew, the famed beer company held a contest for what design would adorn the aluminum containers. This year’s winner was local artist Maggie Dougherty.
“I have been following the competition the last few years and I had a sketched design for the past two competitions, but I didn’t submit it,” Dougherty says. “With this year’s theme about Stonewall and its 50th anniversary, I thought it was a challenging mechanism to tell a story.”
Dougherty’s bright yellow design displays different colored flowers, each carrying its own significance, wrapped around an illustration of notable transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson. As with any artistic depiction of a weighty subject, Dougherty spent countless hours reading and learning.
“I’m really honored to be the third design in this line, and I did feel the pressure to represent a community that I’m an ally to,” she says. “I wanted to highlight the life of someone who gave their life to this in a way I couldn’t possibly understand.”
But getting creative with cans isn’t exclusive to the craft industry. Pabst Blue Ribbon has held their annual Art Can contest since 2014 in an effort to inspire creative cans for their iconic beer. One of this year’s winners was DC visual artist Tenbeete Solomon, perhaps best known as Trap Bob.
“I was hoping to get my name in front of them, not even considering actually winning,” Solomon says. “I’ve never designed a beer can before but I am a beer drinker, so I’ve always wanted to.”
Her design will adorn 5 million of the company’s 24-oz. cans distributed starting on October 1. Rather than the traditional ribbon look, these special editions feature a more science fiction appeal featuring a spaceship and a large hand reaching out.
“Hands and space [and] aliens have always been major inspirations for me,” she says. “I wanted to really get out of the box and weird with my design, because I knew that was something not only PBR would appreciate but also people just walking through the grocery store. The design on a beer can is the most distributed form of branding for a [beer] company so having something creative, eye-grabbing and on top of that, supportive of the creative community, is the best branding you can have.”
Both Daugherty and Solomon indicate that designing a beer can was an enjoyable experience and one they’d revisit. Just as there are countless brewers behind the scenes working on new ways to bring you explosive flavors on the inside, there are now just as many hungry artists looking to make a splash on the outside.
Van Hall has noticed the growth in the medium and is on board for more people joining him in pushing the boundaries. For him, it’s justification for the work he’s become known for.
“It’s a magnet for artistic creativity and in a way, that’s very harmful to my business but I love it,” he says. “When I come up with a good label, it’s because I’m being pushed by the industry. There are so many people that are doing very good work, and that brings everybody up.”
Maggie Dougherty: @dockerty_creative; www.dockertycreative.com
Kendra Kuliga: @cielo.productions; www.cieloproductions.com
Tenbeete Solomon: @trapxbob; www.trapbob.com
Michael Van Hall: @opprobriations; www.opprobriations.com