If you’ve dined out in the Twin Cities sometime in the last several years, you’ve likely seen the work of Jephemera, aka Jeff Nelson. He’s one of the most sought-after chalk-art and hand-lettering artists in the state, hired by restaurants, pubs, bakeries, and taprooms to customize menus, most of which are displayed on chalkboards.
But the St. Paul-based artist, who describes his work as ephemeral, does more than just chalkboards. “I also love painting murals, signs, magazine covers, infographics,” he ticks off. “On the ‘fine art’ end of the spectrum, I draw maps and sea monsters.” He pauses, then adds. “I am, essentially, an eight-year-old.”
Jephemera has worked as a full-time illustrator for seven years and draws inspiration from a just about anything and everything. “I love intricate, busy, chaotic things,” he says. “I come from the ‘more is awesome school.’” Old stock certificates, foreign currency, Italian fruit wrappers, Richard Scarry’s “Busytown,” WPA-era posters, cigar boxes: all of it can trigger an idea for the multimedia artist and father of three. “I’m also shamelessly stealing an increasing number of ideas from my children,” he admits.
For this month’s bikes-themed cover, Jephemera says he wanted to try something along the lines of what Bob Staake has recently been doing for The New Yorker. “This was a fun cover for me, since it was so completely outside the realm of what I typically do,” he says. “I spent most of my time thinking about how I’d execute it and lay it out. The actual physical process [layering purple paint with a background-splatter effect, then adding in the details of bikers and a car] only took about six hours—not including the 15 minutes I spent scrubbing purple paint off my feet.”
Beyond the challenge of his work and constantly adapting to “whatever the job calls for,” in terms of the media he uses and approach he takes, Jephemera says one of his favorite things about his art is the collaboration he gets to have with clients. For the June 2016 issue of The Growler, that collaboration came into play in when we worked with Jephemera to design and execute our “Super Scientific Foolproof Chart for Finding Your Perfect Boat.” With little more than a rough sketch and some attempted art direction from our side of things, Jephemera took the idea and ran with it, creating a one-of-a-kind infographic that’s at once busy yet readable, fun yet informative.
This blending—of aesthetic and media, approach and inspiration—is what makes Jephemera’s work stand out from the rest. Not that the humble Minnesotan will admit as much. When asked what’s next for him, he skirts the question: “I better make my kids lunch or it’s going to be ‘Lord of the Flies’ around here.”