Big Beach Brewing Co. commissions local artists to design growler labels
By Fran Thompson
Coming up with labels to wrap around canned growlers at Big Beach Brewing Company was a welcome challenge for local artists Michael Swiger, JD Swiger, Nick Cantrell and Kelly West. All four frequent Pleasure Island’s first and only brewery, and West also plays music there.
They were thrilled when general manager Ryan Shamburger approached them with an offer to create specific growler labels for three of Big Beach’s most popular pours: Hundred Daze – Gulf Coast IPA (Kelly West); Area Two Fifty-one – Hazy IPA (Swiger Studios (JD and Michael); and Midnight Cruise – Porter (Nick Cantrell).
The idea was pushed by Julie Shamburger (Ryan’s mom), who owns Gulf Shores Brewery with her husband Jim, who also happens to be Cantrell’s and West’s dentist. Julie was also instrumental in matching the artists’ styles with the theme of the beer they were designing labels for.
“She loved the simplicity of local beer supporting local art, and vice versa,’’ Ryan Shamburger said.
Traditionally, can lines have similar imagery so that beer fans can recognize them on grocery store shelves, at bars, or in liquor stores. But since Big Beach’s growlers are sold only in its own taproom, there will be no confusion of which brewery makes them.
“That realization gave us some leeway to make labels with wildly different color schemes and imagery,’’ Ryan Shamburger said. “It is common to recruit one artist, but I’m not sure how common it is to recruit four.’’
Each of the artists had successful “artist takeovers” in the Big Beach courtyard when their growler labels were introduced.
The Swigers were asked to use a lifeguard stand and an alien to design Area Two Fifty One. And they worked with Big Beach on everything from form to fonts before coming up with a label that clicked.
“It was fun and we appreciated being able to do something like this for a local business,’’ JD Swiger said.
Kelly West has designed logos for clients ranging from paddleboard manufacturers to fitness companies, but designing the Hundred Daze label was among her favorite commissions, because it presented special challenges.
“Since it’s on a small scale, you have to take into consideration that every little thing will be seen,’’ she said. “Sometimes I do a piece several times until I’m completely happy with it. Sometimes it’s as quick as one day and sometimes it’s a whole month. This was one of those times it was trial and error.’’
While Kelly was working through ways to make her label as directed, a friend came to the art studio in her house. “As I was telling him about my frustrations with trying to make it ‘trippy and fun,’ he said to use your finger. So I got out a glove I use for tattoos and put a swirl in the sun with my finger tip. That was the last touch I needed to make the colors come together.’’
Cantrell and Ryan Shamburger are longtime friends and fellow sailors.
During a visit to talk about an epic sailing adventure, Nick told Ryan about a particular night when he was on the early morning watch in the middle of the ocean amidst 16 to 18 ft. seas. “All you could see was phosphorous when each wave hit the windshield,’’ Nick said. “It was glowing and really unbelievable.
“Ryan asked me to try to capture that phosphorus, and find some of that magic and glow that was occurring in the water.’’
“We brew what we like’’ is the mantra and philosophy that Jim and Julie Shamburger have stood by since they opened Big Beach Brewing Company.
In less than three years, it has become a Waterway Village hub where dogs and kids are as welcome as snowbirds and coeds.
Offering live music that ranges from new wave to bluegrass and dueling pianos to blues, and nights set aside specifically for trivia nerds and running clubs, Big Beach has quickly established itself as a locals’ hangout frequented by tourists.
So it is certainly no surprise that its owners believe that art, just like beer, is best made and served locally.
Nick Cantrell is the old man among this particular group of artists connected by their hometown. Part of the three musketeers who made art cool at Foley High School in the late 1980’s (along with Greg Hopkins, now an artist in Brooklyn, and the late Lance Eslava (who went on to own Down Under Dive Shop), Nick did not consider following his high school muse until he almost lost an arm from a blood clot while at Auburn. He took that as a sign and switched his major from building science to fine arts.
Married to his Foley High sweetheart (he took her to the senior prom), ceramics artist Maya Blume-Cantrell, Nick has been working full-time as an artist for the past seven years, after successful stints selling real estate in Asheville and Gulf Shores.
While doing post Hurricane Irene contract work in New York, he saw a painting that caught his attention. Unable to determine how the artist captured the texture on her paintings, he called her and learned that it was all in the paper. He followed up on that concept and soon had his medium – batik.
He credits re-connecting with Kelly West in the parking lot of the Flying Harpoon with giving him the inspiration to try to make a living creating art.
“I don’t remember Kelly in pigtails and braces, but her brother (Jeremy) and I were friends at Foley. So I knew her,’’ Nick said. “I was still a closet artist with a real job and Kelly was out there selling art from the back of her van. She was making music and creating art. She was unafraid. It inspired me. I still have a collection of Kelly’s stuff at the house.’’
Like the Swigers and Kelly, Nick is also a commercial artist, adding his own style to illustrations, corporate logos, album artwork and whatever else a client needs. He spends about half the year selling his nature themed Batik watercolors, each drawn and layered with contrasting washes, at art festivals throughout the southeast. He has also contributed numerous public art projects to schools and non-profits all around the island.
Kelly West went to Gulf Shores for three years and, for a different experience, Foley for her senior year.
A standout in volleyball and soccer as a teen and now an avid surfer, she credits both her parents, Coach B at GSHS and the late Lisa Wood at FHS for nurturing her creative side.
She began designing tattoos at Counter Culture soon after high school and still does design work and tattoos for Carolyn Hall at David’s Gallery.
Kelly uses a pallete knife or a brush to create art that is impressionistic with bold strikes of color. It is a style she honed while living and loving nature in Montana for 10 years.
She has traded mountainscapes for beach scenes and wildlife for sea life since returning to the Gulf Coast. But she still loves working on both wild animal and pet portraits.
“After high school, I did a lot of design work and logos. But I’ve gotten away from that and do mostly pet portraits, murals and a lot of oil paintings,’’ she said.
“But I’ll do whatever people need and want, if it fits in where I want my art to be.’’
By design, her use of large colorful brush strokes on portraits does not create picture perfect paintings. That is the idea. Kelly’s work can best be appreciated by looking for the fine lines that lead to what is happening within the art. “It’s less about perfection and more about feeling and movement,’’ she said.
For pet portraits,she’ll use thick brushes, broad strokes and lots of paint. On other projects, she will stick to the palette knives.
That willingness to experiment, to evolve, to blur the lines between abstract and realism is how she avoids her art becoming stagnant. She finds freedom in contrasts that create their own subtleties.
Back home and settled in, Kelly is proud to be part of her hometown’s growing art scene. She and her fiance (glass blower and O.B. Coastal Art Center instructor Greg Hoff) bought a house next to her father Gary’s place in Foley.
“We want to make this a town where people are coming down here all year for art,’’ she said.
Brothers Michael and JD Swiger talked about going into business together even before they entered Gulf Shores High School. Those conversations still include a third brother, Joseph, who is now a respected music producer in Baton Rouge.
As adolescent beach kids, they thought they might follow in local hero Blonde John’s footsteps and open a surf shop. They did expec that all three brothers would have the same desire to impact others through careers in the creative arts.
“That we are all artists now and contributing under the same umbrella is incredible,’’ JD said. “I never imagined this.’’
Both Michael and JD were formally educated in the arts, Michael at Flagler and JD at Huntington, where he was a captain on the football team.
They also both took time to hone their art elsewhere following college. JD went to Australia and Michael moved to Hilton Head, where he worked at ITS Classics doing work for corporations up and down the Atlantic Seaboard. It was sometimes tedious and not particularly glamorous. But he said that background was a key component in creating Swiger Studios when the timing was right.
Although he eventually earned a degree in graphic design, JD changed majors from business management to sports management to economics to communications before landing in the field he has worked in ever since returning from Australia.
At Swiger Studio, the brothers work in complete collaboration, whether its graphic design, photography, videography or other mixed media. That is the work that pays the bills.
“There is not much that comes to us that we don’t feel we can handle,’’ JD said.
But they go their own direction when they create art for themselves.
“Michael has a style that is almost the opposite of mine,’’ JD said. “The meaning behind our work is similar. But we are both individuals when it comes to our art.’’
JD’s most recent series is based on raising environmental consciousness by taking trash that he finds along his hometown’s shoreline and turning it into art. It’s a visual depiction of what the Leave Only Footprints and Save The Beach programs exemplify. One of the pieces in the collection was made from 2,000 cigarette butts.
Michael’s mixed media artwork can include everything from organic canvas to wood to airbrush. It is a mix of realism and surrealism.
Like all artists, he creates connectivity by adding his own unique intangibles. “Mixing geometric patterns that come from the inter-connectivity between things you don’t think connect’’ is how he describes it. “Some of it is a trial. But it’s the mixture. The sense of inter-connectivity in behavior between all things. That has been the magic.”
A gifted three-sport athlete in high school, Michael was always artistic. He drew the posters for his school musicals. He designed Homecoming t-shirts, flyers for art shows and whatever else he was asked to do, including a mural at the GSHS entrance. “I was always drawing something,’’ he said.
GSHS Art Teacher Coach Boyd gave him added support. “He pushed me to do what I wanted. To make a career of it,’’ Michael said. “He begged me to please pursue something creative.’’
JD said their parents put their heads down and worked hard so that their children could feel unburdened and seek a career path in the creative class.
“They worked hard so we would have the option to branch out and try other things and not have to worry as much about financial stability,’’ he said. “That is not to say we don’t work hard, but that support has always been there. They gave us the opportunity to be creative. They trusted us to work hard until we saw the light.’’
“They definitely always let us know that they wanted us to be happy,’’ Michael added. “They would say if we do something we are passionate about, the rest will follow. It’s been that way so far, no doubt.’’
Pictured: (l to r) Nick Cantrell, Kelly West, Michael Swiger, JD Swiger.