A graphic design ode to imagination
Shuler’s Barn Jam posters reflect clean, strong lines and an ability to create multiple riffs on one theme.
In music, a finite number of chords yields endless variations. Chopin and the Grateful Dead were using the same toolbox. Ditto, Handel and Hendrix. The same is true, it seems, for concert posters. At least in the “World According to Gil”—the world of Gil Shuler’s graphic design genius and visual delight. A world—as his new book, Barn Jam Posters, proves—of seemingly infinite riffs on one theme.
For the uninitiated, Barn Jam is a weekly outdoor concert held at Awendaw Green, a bare-bones, woodsy venue adjacent to the Sewee Outpost up on Highway 17 North. It’s the brainchild of dentist and music-lover Eddie White, who envisioned a come-one-come-all evening of good music, good times, and low-key everything. “I’ve always said Awendaw Green is somewhat smoke and mirrors—where the smoke smells good and the mirrors are shiny,” says White, who has been presenting Wednesday night concerts featuring mostly local and regional touring acts since 2007. And since 2008, his pal Gil Shuler, who has been an accomplished graphic designer responsible for innumerable iconic logos and brand identities around town and beyond since 1985, has been creating a promotional poster announcing the week’s lineup.
Shuler’s Barn Jam posters are not just any poster. Each is the equivalent of a Prince guitar solo or Woody Guthrie tune, or say, a Dolly lyric—entirely original, piercingly brilliant. The designs play on repeated motifs—jam jars, guitars and guitar picks, wildlife, old-fashioned microphones, farm tropes—but their whimsical twists make you smile, sometimes laugh, and always look twice.
“Gil consistently captures the spirit of Barn Jam. He has an uncanny way of distilling the moment in a design. Every one is iconic.” —Eddie White, Barn Jam founder
“Every Tuesday afternoon Eddie would send me the names of the bands. I’d bring my dinner to the studio and stay here after work until I got it done,” Shuler says. “Every Tuesday, it was an exercise in facing that blank canvas, in creating something out of thin air.”
“Gil consistently captures the spirit of Barn Jam,” says White. “He has an uncanny way of distilling the moment in a design. Every one is iconic.”
After 12 years of producing a weekly work of art, all pro bono and for trade, an ode to friendship and to the community-building spirit that’s the essence of Awendaw Green, Shuler has a barn full—some 600 posters, most of which he’s shared on Instagram. (“Social media is not my favorite thing; this gave me something to post each week, to stay relevant,” he says.) And after repeated requests from fans, he’s curated 180 of them into a book. Not a slick coffee-table tome with a glossy jacket, but one that fits the relaxed Barn Jam vibe—a soft-cover with a respectable heft to it, high-quality paper stock, and most significantly, high-quality art.
(Left) Barn Jam Posters is available at gilshulergraphicdesign.com. (Right) Graphic designer Gil Shuler is the creative force behind the weekly Barn Jam concert posters.
“Gil’s posters are complex visual puzzles meant to be savored as they are solved,” writes Mark Sloan, director of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, in an opening essay. Sloan suggests the collection should be “essential” reading for any graphic design student or practitioner who needs a primer on “what can be done graphically within a narrow(ish) universe.” That cosmos includes guitar necks morphing into rockets, utility poles, a shovel, the tongue of an eel (looking seductively like a woman’s leg); it’s populated by cardinals and swallowtails in earphones, by a watermelon evoked by the simplest square of red with three black guitar picks as seeds, a bar of green at the bottom. Elemental, clean, strong.
Shuler grooves to a different beat—he sees and imagines what few of us can, and his talent is backed by a strong bass rhythm of discipline. This book is a rousing concert of unfettered, unpretentious creativity. Good thing he’s got another 450-some Barn Jam posters still tucked away, as this show merits an encore.