Alum of the Month: Shawn O’Keefe

Portrait shot of Shawn O'Keefe

June 4, 2021 - 9:30am

Most Islanders are familiar with artist Shawn O’Keefe’s work on the labels of the popular Phillips Brewery products. O’Keefe, who received his Visual Arts diploma from VIU (then Malaspina College) in 1993, has been working as a graphic artist ever since, building a career he’s passionate about with the right clients and the right friends, the latter of which he started a unique, collaborative art studio with, called Woodpile Collective.

What made you choose VIU? 

Being born here on Vancouver Island, it was my first choice. The reality was that I was looking for somewhere close to home to learn the necessary skills that wouldn’t put me deep into debt. It was a beautiful and intimate campus full of excitement and good people. It didn’t feel like I was sacrificing anything by pursuing my post-secondary education this close to home and anyone who’s from here or spent any time here knows how beautiful it is.

Can you share a highlight from your time at VIU?

So much. I was young and had just finished high school. It was the first time that I was surrounded by like-minded individuals who were pursuing a career in what they loved. There were so many skilled people eager to learn with great educators who had experience in the field we were pursuing. It was exciting, it was challenging, and I made good friends there, some of whom I am still close with socially and professionally.

What have you been up to since graduating? 

I found work soon after graduation in Victoria as a graphic artist designing and building art for a silk-screening company. I worked there for 10 years while also moonlighting and building a career as a freelance graphic artist and illustrator. I have been doing that for the last two decades now. I have a wife and two children in Victoria and get to express myself creatively every day at work and in my leisure. Going pretty well so far.

How has your VIU education helped you in what you are doing now?

It gave me the skills I needed to begin my creative life. It started relationships and opened up opportunities to collaborate with others and taught me the importance of those creative friendships. Over the years I have participated in many art shows and on projects with people I went to school with. Those experiences encouraged me to seek out more collaborations with new people as well.

A painting by the Woodpile Collective

The Woodpile Collective Painting 2-2018

Tell us about Woodpile Collective.

The Woodpile Collective is made up of three people, all VIU alumni. Blythe Hailey (who I met at VIU in my program), Sean McLaughlin (who went through the same program three years later), and myself. We began painting and creating in 2003. Our methods have morphed over time but what has been consistent is our collaborative process of painting in tandem on the same canvas as one. Our work is a mix of graffiti, abstraction and surrealism that results from unplanned expression and another artist’s reaction to it. It can be both cathartic and sometimes tense painting over and through one another’s work to arrive somewhere new, somewhere that feels very free like visual, improvised music.

How did your collaboration with Phillips Brewery begin and how has it progressed?

I was approached by Matt Phillips in 2001 after he heard about me from a previous client. We began working on an identity for his new brewery and some early beer brands. In the beginning he would bring his idea to me, and I would do my best to replicate it. Now as we approach the 20-year mark, I have much more creative input from the outset, but we are still having a blast making beer and art together. I continue to build out all major branding and product design as well as oversee art direction for Phillips.

What advice would you give VIU students interested in following a similar career trajectory?

Put in the work learning the skills and your tools, then pursue fun projects that interest you using those skills as much as possible. Work with other creative people around you. Start small, collaborate and share with friends. Get over your fear of failure and understand that failing equals a future success. Don’t wait for the best equipment, program or tool to begin, build what you can with what you’ve got. But mostly – strive to be a good person with great skills and you will find others who want to work with you.

What’s next for you? 

I am currently trying to find as much time as I can to dedicate to a love of landscape painting. I am hoping to continue to show and sell my work. I want to travel more and paint the natural beauty of Vancouver Island and beyond but mostly this coast is what inspires me.

Want to check out more of Shawn’s work?

Keep an eye on the Madrona Gallery show calendar for upcoming exhibits. Also check out the Woodpile Collective’s work on Instagram @Trust36@shawnokeefeart and @thewoodpilecollective


Tags: Visual Art | Our Alumni