Neighborhood: South Williamsburg
Most Likely To: Be Unpredictable
Favorite Quote: “Things are what you make of them.”
Sometimes sparkly agendas emblazoned with “Live Your Truth” or “Too Legit To Quit” are a little bit forced, but Adam J. Kurtz has found the sweet spot of encouraging art that’s inspirational and honest. You might have seen his illustrations as pins, patches, or keychains, trinkets embellished with phrases like “You Tried” or “Feelings” or “At Least You’re Cool On The Internet.” Equal parts mischievous, whimsical, and sad, Kurtz’s drawings and his books (most recently Things are What You Make of Them) are earnest. His well-wishes and inspirational sayings ring true because he tucks in some melancholic awareness, reminding us that life’s lemonade doesn’t come without the lemons, and that it’s ultimately up to us to squeeze them.
What is your earliest memory associated with what you do now?
Writing, drawing, and making stuff has really always been my life. I’m so lucky to still own my first real set of crayons, a mix of colors and stubs still kept in one of my great-grandmother’s pill bottles dated 12/30/1992.
When did your occupation become real to you? When did you know this was what you were going to do?
Graphic design felt real when I was in school and even a bit before, because I was doing small freelance gigs as early as 16, designing MySpace profiles for several musicians at Warner Music Group. I knew there was a future there, because of how necessary design is for so many industries. But the personal/self-directed work that I do now didn’t feel like “a career” until more recently. Even after signing a deal with Penguin Random House it didn’t feel real, or sustainable enough. I did a book signing at MoMA and it didn’t feel real. This finally felt like “my thing” when I stopped having a 9-5 and realized I was just as busy as I’d been before. Having work to do and the time to do it was the proof I needed.
How does Brooklyn/your neighborhood particularly inform your work?
So much of what I do is about making intangible emotions real, which is the core concept behind my online gift shop. I spend a lot of time sending out packages at the Williamsburg post office, which is on the South Side. A block from my apartment. I’ve known several waves of employees, helped customers figure out how to mail their packages, and once broke up a fight in the lobby.
It’s a mix of young people shipping out Kickstarter and Etsy orders, Hasidic families getting passports, and short-term residents shipping large boxes of belongings to new cities. Recently I watched a woman ship cremated remains, which was a process I’d never seen or even thought about before. For me, this post office is kind of the center of my world, and it serves such a huge chunk of the area that it really has no choice but to reach everyone.
What do you feel is most challenging about being where you are now?
Williamsburg is kind of the punchline for gentrification and the South Side is really feeling it. I lived next door to the construction of that luxury rental building by the Marcy Avenue train station. After two years of noisy work, I finally left after coming home and finding my only window boarded up from the outside. My favorite coffee shop, Otha’s, recently closed for good. It’s hard to walk past places you’ve loved that felt like part of your home and then see them disappear. It happens everywhere but the coming and going just feels so much faster in this area.
What’s most rewarding about where you are now?
There’s just so much to do, see, and eat, everywhere. I mean that’s the thing, right? Not that I’m not usually just at home. But knowing that it’s out there is a reminder of the endless potential of just being alive. Also did I mention that I am very close to the post office?
5 spots in Brooklyn people should know about?
- Eat at KICHIN (at Baby’s All Right)
- Drink at Trophy Bar
- Shop at SWORDS-SMITH
- Dance at BUBBLE T (various locations)
- Check out the “Greenpoint” neighborhood! It’s pretty far from everything but I’ve heard good things.
What’s your most significant accomplishment to date?
My latest book Things Are What You Make of Them: Life Advice for Creatives feels like the most significant. It’s also the most sincere work I’ve ever done. A fully handwritten essay collection that touches on what it really means to be a creative person, and all the energy and fear and internal jumble that comes with that. I didn’t set out to make this book at all, but it took shape over two years and finally sort of popped into the world.
Though it’s different than my first two journal books, Penguin took it, and we figured out every detail right down to perforated pages so you can display your favorite pages, while keeping it at a super low price point. It’s still really new but it’s been reaching so many people and the response has been so positive. It really feels like the book I have been inching towards for the 10+ years that I’ve been making, doing, feeling, and growing as both a creative and a human person.
Who/what inspires you?
Internet meme culture and the way it has completely changed communication and language forever. Love and the fact that it is somehow actually real. Whatever you wanna call the current generation of “design world” creatives and influencers. My husband Mitchell Kuga. Alanis Morissette.
Thinking about the future, where do you see yourself in the next 30 years?
Priced out of the neighborhood.
What’s next for you?
I’m doing a mix of speaking and events the first half of this year, including the HOW conference, in Boston, which I’m really excited for. But no new books! After publishing three in four years, I’m ready to share them with new audiences rather than trying to figure out the next one, right now.