CORVALLIS — In a city brimming with accomplished artists, Peruvian-born illustrator Santiago Uceda has managed to keep a low profile.
His hip portfolio consists of gig posters for high-profile Northwest bands including Built to Spill and Finn Riggins, and T-shirt designs that have been printed by online retailers DesignByHumans, TeeFury and Shirt.Woot!
He has even designed a shoe for Portland company RYZ and currently has a line of shirts for Billabong’s “Still Filthy” label.
“I’m kind of like a real quiet, shy guy,” Uceda said, noting that people outside his workplace and his circle of friends aren’t likely to recognize his artwork.
“I think more people actually know me online,” he said. Uceda has an impressive online portfolio at www.santiago
uceda.com and is active on social networking sites such as Flickr, Twitter and Facebook. He often uses the online handle “suceda” to claim various art projects as his own.
Uceda, who moved to the U.S. when he was 14 years old, attended high school in Orange County, Calif., and graduated with a degree in illustration from Cal State Fullerton in 1996. He spent about five years as a freelance illustrator before taking a job as a graphic designer for South Coast Repertory and later the Orange County Performing Arts Center in California.
He is now a senior graphic designer for Oregon State University, where he works on print, Web and motion graphics projects and where he has spent a large portion of his time during the last four years designing Terra magazine.
Uceda’s family includes his wife, Brooke, and children Gabe, 5, and Andres, 2.
Uceda partially credits Oregon’s infamous wet weather with his burst of creative energy since moving to the state. Upon finding himself stuck indoors in the winter, he was inspired to start work on some new pieces in his spare time. Whatever the reason, Uceda has gotten back to his illustration roots in a big way in recent years.
Right now he is working on a mural approximately 8 feet wide by 3 feet tall for Tender Loving Empire, a Portland storefront that is a media and arts collective, record label, comics imprint, consignment store, gallery, custom screen printer and concert production house. The creative shop, located at No. 109 1720 N.W. Lovejoy St., is owned by Portland musician Jared Mees.
Uceda met Mees a few years back while working on another creative project.
“He printed a poster for me — after he printed it I noticed he managed all these different bands.”
Uceda started creating gig posters for Jared Mees &The Grown Children, and other bands on the same label, such as Finn Riggins.
“Then it just sort of took off from there,” Uceda said.
“It’s something I always wanted to do, but something I never got to do,” said Uceda of designing gig posters. “It doesn’t really pay much, they are all small labels.”
But small pay means lots of creative freedom, according to Uceda.
Uceda has also created mural art for a launch party for RYZ, a Portland footwear company that sold a limited edition style of sneakers emblazoned with Uceda’s bold illustrations called “SEA 2 SEA.” The shoes are listed as sold out on the company’s Web site.
There are a few common themes that seem to run through Uceda’s illustration work: His clean renderings often hold echoes of Spanish and other empires — conquistadors show up in a recent band poster, bold colors sometimes recall Latin American folk art, and raptors that are often used in official seals and symbols, such as eagles and owls, can be found striking bold poses in his work.
He favors the use of animals as characters the way fables often do, where he notes that “instead of using real people” he can “use animals just to protect the innocent.”
Snakes, a metaphor for trust, are also a favorite of Uceda’s, appearing in many pieces.
“Part of it is, to be truthful, I am not too good at drawing the human figure,” Uceda said.
As an artist, Uceda has always been drawn to, as he says it, “the people that have the most demented view of the world.” He points to British cartoonist Ralph Steadman as one he has admired over the years. Steadman is perhaps best known for his work with American author Hunter S. Thompson.
Uceda’s work often has a wry sense of humor, with an edge to it that keeps it infinitely appealing for all kinds of projects from T-shirts to posters and indie band CD covers.
He occasionally runs into people wearing his art, and sharing it on the Web is a source of satisfaction for the artist.
“My philosophy is I think everyone should be able to own art,” he said.
Most of Uceda’s illustration work still begins with pen and ink, or brush, at the kitchen table. Some pieces are later scanned into a computer design program such as Photoshop to make tweaks.
He manages to fit his freelance illustration work in with his day job at OSU by sticking to a strict schedule.
“I don’t really watch TV,” he said. “The kids go to bed and I start painting and drawing.”
Uceda is also a member of the Black Rock Collective, a group of about 40 visual artists from across the nation that collaborate on creative projects ranging from zines to custom playing cards to T-shirts. The group has been successful in several contests, including a prize of $5,000 from DesignByHumans.
“It’s very supportive,” said Uceda, who organized a show for the collective at the Chicago Threadless store last year, which meant getting all the art printed (because much of it existed only in digital medium).
Uceda’s illustration work is always taking him in different directions.
“Just last week, I got a call from the (Portland) Mercury,” he said. They wanted a cartoon about how the 2010 Census uses more gay-friendly language than those of past decades.
Per the editor’s directions, Uceda created a pair of happy census sheets roller skating down a hill with a rainbows in the sky. “It was a fun little assignment,” Uceda said.
Another recent project is a 2010 collection of shirts for Billabong’s “Still Filthy” line. The design inspiration came from the Mexican flag and incorporates an eagle and snake. The company’s art director actually opted to use Uceda’s rough sketches instead of his usual polished and finished work for the series.
“Clients sometimes prefer the spontaneity and looseness of my roughs,” Uceda noted.
He still dabbles in theater posters from time to time. Last year he created the poster for Oregon State University Theatre’s “Arcadia.” He’s now working on a poster for Portland Center Stage’s production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
Those in Corvallis who aren’t familiar with Uceda’s work will be soon. He recently designed the 2010 da Vinci Days poster, which will be revealed on April 15, in advance of the annual Corvallis festival in mid-July that celebrates art and science.
Despite the rough economy, Uceda says it is a great time to be an illustrator or graphic designer.
“Especially now, it seems like there are a lot more opportunities. It seems like overall as a culture we are becoming more visually savvy about design and illustration.”