Artist, designer, and entrepreneur Montana Knox, like his work, is an eye-catching arrangement of graphic glory. This pen + ink artist (who is suitably well-inked himself) has an affinity for “cartoon imagery, outer space, and hot chicks with swords” that work themselves into a display of screen printed t-shirts, tanks, totes and the like. A southern Maine transplant, Knox grew up immersed in art and creative outlets. After dropping out of high school, the Maine College of Art, and the School of Visual Arts, Knox redefined society’s concept of success by opening a well-received storefront in the East Village.
With the help of mom Annette and sis Laura, the Montana Knox store sells his t-shirt designs, mom’s Montanimals (love the wordplay) and jewelry from the Brooklyn-based label Digby and Iona. Montana stepped up for an interview with two+seven, and we think it’s safe to say he Knox this one outta the park.
two + seven: We’re curious, how did an artist from Southern Maine end up in New York City?
Montana Knox: On a whim, actually. It’s a crazy story. I was 19 years old and a bit of an outlaw at the time. I had just spent the summer of 2002 working, living and running around the beach with good friends on a small island off the northeast coast. I came home at the end of island season to my mother and my sister who were living in southern Maine close to where I had grown up. My sister had been picked up by a modeling agency in New York and my mother was newly divorced – restless and disenchanted with small town life.
Landing back home and letting the sunburn cool for a couple days, sans any real designs on the future, I was a beach bum who loved to read and draw crazy pictures. The fam and I re-connected, caught up and over a beer or two and decided we were moving to New York City. Simple as that. Not much of a blueprint really. Three dreamers with lights in their eyes.
Literally, days later, we held a yard sale and sold everything we owned; we packed three beds, our clothes and two cats into a small U-Haul. My mother, my sister and I drove seven-and-a-half hours to Manhattan. We unloaded into a 500-square foot apartment and crashed from exhaustion. I woke up the next morning and stepped outside onto a New York city sidewalk for the first time in my life. I think my mother had somehow found the apartment on Craigslist, when the site was in its infancy. Yes, I’m serious.
MK: No, not at all. I also dropped out of high school, happily so. I was a really smart kid, just totally over the scene from the get go. With all due respect, the quarterback/cheerleader scene just wasn’t my thing. I spent my younger years immersed in theatre, painting lessons, after-school cartooning programs, film-making camps, you name it. I was an insatiable young dude and by the time I hit ninth grade high school seemed secondary. I had been immersed in all this art, surrounded by performers, artists, musicians, dancers and painters. Then I entered high school; in social studies class my assignment was to color-code a xeroxed map of the united states? I don’t think so. I left halfway through, got my GED and got a job.
I attended the Maine College of Art after a year-and-a-half in NYC. (Yes, I went back home to Maine.) I had a fantastic memorable experience. MECA is a fairly contemporary, traditional fine arts school in Portland, Maine. The first year is comprised of foundational material, i.e., life drawing, color theory, endless hours training your hands and your eyes, art theory and lectures every Friday. It was a revelatory experience; I learned quite a bit. The summer following that first year, I attended a study abroad program in Italy. I learned to screen print in Florence; I was drawing crazy graffiti stuff and screen printing four-color graphics onto T-shirts and weird vintage clothing I found for sale on the streets. The kids in class started borrowing my screens to make their own clothing and everyone at the bars in Florence asked me where I got my shirt. That was how it all started.
Sophomore year I fell in love with a girl, disengaged from the conceptual work I was surrounded by at school and left for New York, to make again, the kind of work that began to surface overseas. A few years later I attended SVA’s Computer Animation and VFX program in New York for 12 months, on another whim. But that’s a whole other story. You’ll have to buy me a coffee on the Lower East Side to hear that one.
Leaving school was the best choice for me, personally. Public education is not the right path for everybody; it’s not a cover-all solution. Academically, I was bored in public school. My intellectual interests, frankly, lied elsewhere. I would never encourage anyone to drop out of school or quit anything but I will always encourage a person to follow their dreams, stay hungry, keep learning, read, listen carefully, stay true to yourself and work your a** off.
2+7: Your art has a very defined and recognizable look and feel to it. Has this always been your signature aesthetic?
MK: My visual vocabulary has always involved a regurgitation of a cartoon imagery, skateboard graphics, sci-fi, graffiti, erotic art and fantasy illustration – things I grew up with and became attached to. I love Jim Henson and Tim Burton, outer space and video games, talking rodents and kings, heroes and villains, drama and (forgive this in-articulation) hot chicks with swords. I’m a big kid at heart. Anything exciting or out-of-this-world appeals to me. When I make work, I’m making my own world; I’m trying to draw out my own stream-of-consciousness, a version of The Dark Crystal or Star Wars. I am shooting for relatable fantasy. I am trying to tell you a bedtime story as economically as I possibly can.
The artwork itself has changed significantly over the years. I’ve currently been working on a series of imagined portraits called Featherweights. Aesthetically, they are super tight-knit pen and ink pieces of very high contrast and they’re a bit graphic. There’s definitely a thematic trend in terms of content with my work: swords, drama, women and warriors. But the look has changed. As an artist, it’s important to make work, to make more work, to make meaningful thought-provoking work and to push yourself when it comes to technique and ability. This is basic life shit. If you’re not making progress, you’re not making.
2+7: You work closely with your mom and your sister. Any sibling/family rivalry?
MK: No. Well, I am a nightmare to work with, I’m sure. I’m a bit of a control freak. Creatively, it’s my job to visually brand this Montana Knox thing out, and it’s me, so I can get a bit obsessed. I can be a bit of a workaholic. Let me just say that both momma dukes and little sis have been tirelessly supportive, helpful, encouraging and have given non-stop blood, sweat and tears throughout the process. They are the lifeblood and the glue. They are wildly sensible, smart and business-savvy. They’ve helped me start this thing and continue to be an amazingly important and integral part of the operation. We all work really hard but I have the best seat in the house – I get to play brand ambassador. I feel very blessed to have them on my team and more importantly as my family.
2+7: You have t-shirt line and a successful collaboration with Society 6. Any other collaborations in the works?
MK: Without a doubt! I just hung a small art show at the Blind Barber in New York City’s East Village. If you’re in or around the hood during the next month or so, stop in and feel free to take a look. The guys there are great and friendly; and seeing work in person is always a different experience. I’m not at liberty to divulge any other news at the moment but if you’ll allow me this (after all, I am a forever-young artist, forever hustling) … Shop the quickly expanding line at MontanaKnox.com and Society6.