For 60 years, Santa Clarita resident Edward Fella has spent his career in the design and professional world.
His work has appeared in collections and exhibitions the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, the Walker Art Center, the Cranbook art Museum and, most recently, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).
“The museum is starting to collect graphic design which means posters and photography and things like that, which before they really didn’t,” Fella said. “It’s a really big deal to have a graphic designer at LACMA.”
Fella’s 10-month installation, titled “Free Work in Due Time,” includes his “After the Fact” fliers—designed announcements created after events had taken place—as well as his hand-drawn sketchbooks and polaroid photographs of signage throughout America.
“Ed Fella works at the intersection of art and design, using his personal projects to examine the conventions and idiosyncrasies of human communication,” LACMA said on its website. “His meticulously hand-drawn lettering and poetic wordplay stake a claim for self-expression in design.”
Fella, a resident of Santa Clarita for 30 years, is considered a master of hand-drawn typography and is revered for his work as a commercial artist and educator.
He taught graphic design at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) for more than 25 years before he retired in 2013.
However, his work continues to inspire others as he examines the “in between” of art practice and graphic design as well as the intersection between a functional, commercial artist and a pure, fine artist.
“In my first 30 years I did work as a commercial artist or as functional artist in the advertising business and in the illustration world,” Fella said. “In the last 30 years I became a teacher and then the work I did then wasn’t functional anymore. I made art about commercial art in a way; I turned my design work into an art practice.”
At 18-years-old Fella began his career as a commercial artist in Detroit, working with various studios and companies throughout the area.
“At 18 I got a job in the studios in Detroit where they would do design and illustration and it was mostly automotive stuff,” Fella said. “It was during the ‘Mad Men’ period… It was the same culture with suits and ties.”
After 30 years, Fella had a completed a lengthy career in commercial graphic design, bought a house, started a family and later sent his two children off to college.
“By my mid-40s I was basically done and ready for retirement in a sense,” Fella said.
But instead of retirement, Fella returned to school and turned to a new career: teaching.
Teaching and Artistry
“When my kids went to college I decided to go too. It was a way to avoid empty nest syndrome,” Fella joked.
After earning his bachelor’s degree from a local art school and his master’s degree from Cranbrook Academy of Art, Fella was recruited to join the CalArts faculty in 1987.
“When I started teaching, I stopped doing all professional work,” Fella said. “I claimed that I was an exit level designer and that meant that I would not compete with the next generation which would have been my own students.”
It was during this time, from 1987 to 2013, that Fella began printing his After the Fact fliers and his work became recognized around the world.
“That work became so well-known that I started doing lectures all over the world and at various schools and conferences,” Fella said.
The 20th-century artist began exploring the “vernacular and historic typography” and “artistic and literary traditions” through his typography, graphic design and photography, and began photographing signage throughout America and creating his fliers.
“I always considered myself as an artist that can work as a commercial artist or as a fine artist,” Fella said.
“Free Work in Due Time”
Fella’s exhibition features a particular body of work—his fliers, sketchbooks and Polaroid photos—and sits in room one room in LACMA’s Art of the Americas space.
“I’m not a contemporary designer anymore so the work in the show is graphic design but it comes from a particular period in graphic design, but it’s not 2017 avant-garde graphic design,” Fella said. “It was during a period called deconstructive design or post-modern design.”
This design was about idiosyncratic styles, vernacular styles, connotative typography and deconstructing the commercial art vernacular and the vernacular itself, according to Fella.
“At that time it seemed kind of radical but now it doesn’t anymore,” he said.
A major element of “Free Work in Due Time” is Fella’s fliers, which are announcements for his old lectures that he would distribute after his events had ended.
“When I gave the lecture that announcement or poster would be done, its function would be over and yet in art it’s the opposite,” he said. “When the event occurs, the showing of that art, that’s when it begins.”
With this idea, Fella said he turned the concept of graphic design on its head by making announcements that lived after the events were over and that were about himself, the designer. By doing so, Fella turned his commercial, graphic design into an art practice.
“It plays with the idea of graphic design but exists in the art world for being after the fact and being about the artist and designer,” he said. “It asks what is design, what is function, what is pure, what is commercial… it’s still in an in between and that’s the whole idea of it is the in between.”
Fella’s LACMA exhibition also includes 37 pocket sketchbooks laid out in a latrine in the center of the space that deal with lettering.
“I use a ballpoint pen and some colored pencils so it’s kind of poetic or wordplay, and at the same time the artwork is kind of a deconstruction of the commercial art vernacular,” Fella said.
A final element is a 6-foot-by-6-foot wall of Polaroid photographs that Fella took of signage from 1985 and 1996 and were featured his book “Letters on America.”
“They’re details and fragments of signs and how signs look in the world,” he said. “These kinds of photographs play into the same letter forms that I use. So that connects it to a kind of reality that I’m part of with people who use letter forms to make signs and say things and use letters to make words.”
As CalArts’ first professor emeritus, Fella still works out of his studio space located on the lower level of the school’s campus. He spends his days walking the paseos of Santa Clarita, creating original work, speaking to students, giving presentations and, occasionally, acting as a substitute teacher.
Fella’s exhibition, “Free Work in Due Time,” will be on display at LACMA until Oct. 29. Entry into the exhibition is included in LACMA’s price of admission.
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