Working Artist, Chad Kouri, tells us about discovering his dyslexia and consequently his obsession with letterforms; his lack of social life outside of art openings and design events, plus his inclusion in The Freedom Principle exhibition at The Museum of Contemporary Art – or, in his words, his ’30th birthday present from the world’.
What are some of your earliest creative memories and what lead you into design?
I believe my earliest creative memory is with my dad. He would write “boy” and then make a cartoon style doodle of a boy from the letterforms. It totally blew my mind. I had to be only a couple years old. My earliest memory of my own creativity was probably drawing Disney characters, mostly from Aladdin and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I also used to knit on the school bus on the way to middle school.
The first memory of me consciously making an effort to make something more aesthetically pleasing was in 6th grade or so, when I started reteaching myself how to write because my handwriting was horrible. I distinctly remember working on the lowercase “a” for a long time and ended up writing the double-story version for years and years which no one ever does, at least to my knowledge. This attention to detail came from some tutoring I had early on to help my dyslexia, which was realized at about age 6 or 7. I used to write words in sand as part of that tutoring, which made me hyper aware of letterforms and their anatomy. This led to a nearly 15-year obsession with letterforms, typography, and custom lettering. I’ve since moved on from my custom lettering practice to focus more time on my fine art studio practice. I made this decision because I felt that the custom lettering market was flooded with so many talented people and figured that if I wasn’t interested in putting the time in to be the best, my time could be better spent elsewhere. But I do still make some text based work.
What was your plan for graduating and what happened? I knew when moving to Chicago after high school that I only had enough money to get through about two years of university. I had already done a few freelance design projects while in high school so my plan was to move to Chicago, buckle the hell down and get some clients while going to school full time. I managed to bring in a few small projects while working various retail and food service jobs until I found a paid design internship at right about the two-year mark. I didn’t have much of a social life for a while, outside of going to art openings and design events. In fact, I remember regularly having groups of people at my shared apartment, and I would play some music and work on the computer or collages while people socialized across the room. For some reason, I love the white noise of a room full of people while working.
So, long story short, I was able to fulfill my plans for graduation in that I didn’t graduate, but instead started nurturing an ecosystem and network, in hopes that it would someday be self-sustainable.
Give us the elevator pitch on what you do. I’m a working artist. I have a fine art studio practice but also do some design work for cultural institutions and nonprofits. My projects vary in medium, but mostly have to do with visual literacy and how we think about, see, read, and record the world around us.
Any passion projects you would like to share? Honestly, my whole practice is a passion project. It’s damn hard being an independent creative, let alone a human trying to make a living off of what makes them most happy in the world. It’s taken me nearly 15 years of working professionally to get where I am today, and tomorrow will be different. But at this exact moment, I’m very fortunate to be doing what I love most days. Making new work for upcoming exhibitions and commissions for commercial and residential spaces, some consulting and concept development for a limited number of design clients, and just trying to keep a gentle workflow pace in order to “smell the roses” a bit more often.
How did you develop your style and what tips would you have for others? It’s an interesting balance of my personal aesthetic preference and material necessity. For example, in the mid to late 2000’s, I was making a lot of work using appropriated imagery from vintage magazines. I wanted to work larger while keeping the same minimal approach, but my source material only came at the size of a magazine, so the only way to get bigger was to make denser compositions. So I started exploring with textures and flat color because I thought it would be more flexible in scale—and it could also translate to sculpture a bit easier, which I found interesting. Now I’ve started painting because I wanted to make even larger works but the adhesive for my works on paper wasn’t holding up on a larger scale. So, I started making paintings in the same way I started exploring collage—doing tons of material tests, different canvases, different paints, different brushes—and the materials lead me to a solution, based on my intent aesthetically. One thing that was a big epiphany for me was that I needed to look at my practice as one large thing, rather than a bunch of single pieces or projects. Once I was able to surrender to that, it gave me permission to take more risks and not be as hung up on the success of each and every little piece or project I put together.
What has been your highlights since you started out? My first ever paid design job came from my dance studio when I was 16 years old. I did some work at a photo studio before then, but that was more learning than creating. Most of the time I was cutting the grass, pulling weeds and keeping the property tidy. If I got done in a reasonable amount of time, I would learn some photoshop tricks.
My first editorial illustration (2006-ish) was a big win for me. It was the first time I was paid to make a piece of art, rather than a “design” piece. Also, my time art directing Proximity magazine (a now defunct quarterly contemporary art periodical published in the Bridgeport neighborhood of Chicago) in the mid to late 2000’s was phenomenal. My first solo show in 2009 was a significant milestone. Working with Studio Gang Architects in collaboration with my lovely partner Margot Harrington on their exhibition book for a show at the Art Institute of Chicago was a very rewarding project (2012). Last year, my 30th birthday present from the world was my inclusion in The Freedom Principle exhibition at The Museum of Contemporary Art. That was a very emotional experience for me as the show bridged a gap between jazz and art, which has always been important to me. And the work in the show was incredibly moving. You can see some writing and artworks created during my residency during the run on the exhibition here. Lastly, just a few months ago I got my first licensing check for usage of some of my work in a large scale hospitality project here in Chicago.