RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
Crazy Shirts creative director Eric Robison talks in his work area, which is lined with his sketches and paintings. Next to his foot is his appointment book, filled with doodles in addition to the usual dates and phone numbers. CLICK FOR LARGE
Crazy crew tries new approach to art
The local T-shirt company's creative director tries to rely less on computer graphics
THE DELIVERY of a kid-size Happy Fish T-shirt to Eric Robison's desk at Crazy Shirts sets the creative director cheering as if he were at a Little League game.
"Wow! Will you look at that! Come on baby! Go little guy!" he cheers, pumping both fists in the air, before bowing his head to study the image and hang tags more closely. After all, having started his job in November, he's still relatively new.
"Oh! And it's got UV protection. Wow, that's so great!" he says before asking a co-worker, "Do these come in adult sizes?"
Sadly, no. But if they did, he'd probably have pulled one over his head on the spot.
"For artists, these things are like your child, your baby, because they came from your imagination, your head, your creativity," he said. "When you send them off into the world it's so cool and you want them to do well."
It's especially important that Happy Fish -- a half-shark, half-dolphin who happens to have the upturned nose of Robison's 3-year-old son -- does well. If so, the design could lead to a more character-driven future for the homegrown shirt company, whose only recurring character is the gray Sharka. Yet, we all know how far characters took Robison's last employer, the Walt Disney Co.
As an Imagineer, Robison helped design Euro Disney and other Disney theme parks, in addition to creating posters for such Disney fare as "The Lion King" and "Pirates of the Caribbean."
Robison's best known among Disney cognoscenti for creating psychedelic, weird images of Mickey Mouse that he feared would get him fired. Messing up images of the company icon just wasn't done, especially not by anyone within the company. But he couldn't help himself, and luckily his boss, after getting over his initial shock, decided he liked the paintings and would give them a trial run in a Disney store. They became an instant hit and a suite of 100 paintings was ordered up to celebrate the company's 100th anniversary in 2001.
"I'm like a big kid. I get bored fast so I have to make my job fun," Robison said, and that's the attitude he's brought to Crazy Shirts, where he's introduced Wednesday morning art classes for his staff of nine full-time artists. Robison spends about 20 to 30 minutes demonstrating washes and a painterly approach to graphics before sending the artists off to put the principles into practice.
"I show them how to render glass, plastics, chrome, infraction, reflection, how to use dyes, watercolors, acrylics. We'll use coffee and tea as media."
Far from taking time away from work, Robison said, the sessions tend to boost creativity. "If you're doing the same thing every day it gets pretty tiring. People need to be stimulated."
As a painter, he said he would also like to see a return to the craft of drawing and painting.
Eric Robison's first sketch of Happy Fish, swimming into Crazy Shirts stores this summer.CLICK FOR LARGE
"I want to get out of Photoshop -- there's a lot of reliance on computer graphics these days across the industry -- and go back to the kind of traditional design and artwork that Crazy Shirts started out with years ago.
"I love color, so I want to introduce what I know about color and texture. I do a lot of things with a palette knife, finger painting. I also want our clients to experience the joy of art. I've seen that happen in the stores, where someone will say, 'Oh, I like that one because it looks like a painting.' "
The company's director of operations, Dion Yasui, said Robison has "rekindled the spirit that we're an art company that happens to print our work on shirts."
Yasui, a friend whose wife had also been an Imagineer, was the first person Robison called when, after 19 years at Disney, he felt it was time for a change. Robison was already very familiar with the brand.
"I bought my first Crazy Shirt at 17 when I came here on vacation, to Maui. They're also in Laguna Beach and San Diego, so it was not a stretch to understand the company."
At president Mark Hollander's invitation, Robison flew here in October as part of the interview process, which included attending a strategic planning retreat at Kapolei on the 15th, coinciding with the earthquake that shut down Oahu's power grid.
Hollander remembers coming up with a basic sketch for an earthquake T-shirt and by the time the battery-powered generators came up, Robison had finalized the drawing. In spite of the challenging situation, the T-shirt went into production within 24 hours.
"It was an exciting start," said Robison. "At that time I hadn't said yes yet, but after that, I said, 'Well, I guess I'm working here now.' "
In addition to leading the design team, his work also entails designing stores and displays, and the company's rapid expansion is keeping him busy. Right after the Waikiki Beach Walk store opened in February, he was creating models for a shop due to open soon at the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center.
But the walls of Robison's cubicle are covered with more of his colorful sketches of fish who may one day be swimming alongside Happy Fish, noted for his infectious big grin.
"It's my favorite part of my occupation, making the world a happier, 'funner' place."