Jeff DeBoer is a Calgary based artist, designer, fabricator, businessman, and all-around expert maker. He builds things that inspire awe and invoke passion in even the most casual of viewers. From a small suit of crusader mouse armor, to overseeing the artistic development of an entire building from the ground up, Jeff has consistently challenged the norms both in the art world and outside of it, of what an artist is supposed to be. He has overcome the traditional stigmas attached to an artist by working with business professionals as mentors to build his successful art practice and business. One only needs to take a short look around Calgary to see his brilliant work on the sidewalks, in shopping malls, and the airport. Jeff’s work is immersed into the very fabric of the creative culture here in Calgary
Jeff believes strongly in collaboration and mentorship as part of his creative ethos. An artist or maker is only as strong as the network they have built. To be successful one cannot do it alone – and most importantly one must leave a legacy of inspiration behind.
C: In order to stick to your goals you need to network and find people with experience to mentor you outside of your area of expertise. The technical aspects of art and design are taught in art school – in terms of conducting yourself in a business world, I would find people to network with and to establish a mentor relationship. Would you say that most people are willing to help you out? Was it difficult for you to initialize the student/ mentor relationship with experts outside of your area of expertise while establishing yourself as an artist?
J: No, it wasn’t difficult because they were so amazed that an artist would even ask the questions. People will give you advice, but what they don’t want to see is the advice disappear down a dark hole. If they see you take that advice and operate on it, they are going to come back and give you the next piece of critical information, because they can’t just give you all the advice in one shot. You have to be patient. It takes time. When you get a piece of advice it takes a while before you can even act on it for instance. When you find yourself in a situation where you can use that advice, and it’s only after you’ve succeeded in the use of that advice, and you’ve demonstrated that it works, that somebody like your mentor can look at you and say “well, that worked. Now think about it this way, here’s the next step.”
C: Yes, it’s almost a trial and error approach. This would be a good point to bring up that failure along the way is inevitable and how you deal with failure will determine your success.
J: How I deal with failure is I look at failure as a demonstration of my success. I am a successful person because I have the luxury of failure. You’re not successful if you can’t afford to fail. You have to be prepared to fail, and you have to look at failure as a luxury item, believe it or not.
C: I agree. Is there a point that you can define in your career when you saw failure as that positive opportunity? As a lesson learned?
J: I just finished a project with Marty Cohos, he is a famous architect in his semi-retirement years. I got the job to do a huge art installation in a synagogue. The timeline was tight. They had to decide whether to go with the big industry, or me. Marty decided to go with me. There were moments in any big project where looming failure comes, and these failures, fortunately through experience, were not caused by me. They were factors that I had no control over. What you have when these things appear is glorious opportunity. As these problems emerge, as a creative person, being able to solve problems creatively, demonstrates to your clients why they’ve chosen the right person.
So even though it looks like the shit’s about to hit the fan…I always say that when the shit’s about to hit the fan there’s only one thing to do. Unplug the fan.
So I’ve learned over the years that it’s ok to fail, because your client will see that you haven’t failed personally, but you’ve worked hard to try to eliminate. You know we don’t just make sculptures, or artwork, but we manage risk. These are project management skills that when you start a project with someone you have to communicate to your clients the possibilities of risk. I think that if you communicate those things early enough, that when failure comes, everybody’s prepared.
C: So to compliment the business experience, or even to be included within it is the ability to manage projects, and to study the definitive ways that it is done in a business environment?
J: Yes, one of my longtime mentors is Art Froese, an extremely influential and powerful project manager. I met him while he was building the Alberta Children’s Hospital. To put this into perspective for you Art has built the Saddle Dome, Telus Convention Centre, the Koda project at the Canadian Olympic Park, and the Children’s Hospice. If you want a Children’s Hospital who do you call? Where do you start? What you do is you call Art Froese, and seven years later he hands you the keys.
Art Froese hired me to work on the Children’s Hospital as a design consultant, not so much as an artist. I was given a job to do at the hospital where I was managing, designing and installing artistic elements and integrated design along side of the architects, a very integrated way of approaching art.
Artwork has always been an afterthought with many buildings. You know, you build the buildings and then you hang paintings. The projects that were on the table had to be as much about design and architecture as they were about art. Art hired me and I had the opportunity to work alongside him for two and a half years. Over that time he became my mentor and he started to teach me the ins and outs and pitfalls of project management.
C: That’s amazing, and I’ll bet that it paid off for him just as much as you to have someone to provide this information to, and to mentor, as a way to pay forward his skills.
J: To this day if I am putting together proposals he will review my budget, look at my timelines, and consult with me. He’s offered to continue to educate me for the rest of our lives simply because he sees the enthusiasm and the passion, and also because I can speak the language. I am not just some artist. I am also interested in speaking the language of architecture, engineering, design, all things creative.
Check out Jeff’s most recent work on www.jeffdeboer.com
by Casey Hughes