There are a lot of things that make shows magical besides live music, and no one knows that better than the artistic director of Empty Bottle Bill Connors. The Illinois native didn’t expect to lead the aesthetic of one of Chicago’s most beloved indie venues, but the job came naturally: Since high school, Connors has been experimenting with music and video projects , playing with how moments of sound and image can be combined to create new meaning. At heart, he’s always been a visual thinker, capturing the attitude or essence of an artist or event with a collage-style approach for concert posters, album covers, logos and graphics. t shirts. Connors is formally trained as an artist, but he prioritizes cultural ephemera – which he sees as accessible art objects – over collector-oriented fine art. His signature style – something like art nouveau skateboarding in a trash can – has appealed to acts as divergent as Post Malone and Metallica. His career has not been easy or straightforward, but his work is already proving influential.
As said to Micco Caporale
I grew up in Orland Park and started hanging out with SAIC in 2007 and graduated in 2012. In 2010 I started couch surfing until I could live in town at full-time. I’ve really found a home in the printmaking department and taken many studio classes so I can stay in buildings at night and crash on a couch when I’m tired.
I’m a big fan of the Chicago Imagists, like the Hairy Who. A lot of that was painting, but their books got me into the world of offset lithography, which led me to screen printing. It got me thinking about translating these high art paintings into something ephemeral, like a zine or a pamphlet. Something not very valuable. And from there, I got interested in show posters. I remember being at Handlebar for the first time – in, what, 2008? – and to have seen the work of Ryan Duggan. He has a very particular hand-illustrated style with this very sharp sense of humor. Always a source of inspiration.
SAIC is a very conceptual school, but I never felt like I belonged in the conceptual art world. I like to do to do. I always felt out of the loop with this “precious art” thing. I don’t come from a place where someone I know owns or wants to own a bunch of expensive paintings. What I want are things that I’ve collected in my life that mark time, you know? And making it accessible to more than just, like, the people I met in school.
My art is so eclectic. I know everyone says that, but the kind of art I like and the kind of music I like—I don’t know if they necessarily overlap. Like, not in a way where I’m like, “Oh, yeah, I definitely see the connection between this music and this piece of art!” It’s not always my favorite moment. I really, really like when things go wrong.
When I was in high school, I shared stuff online. Back in the days of LiveJournal/Blogspot, people would recount every moment of their lives in detail rather than, like, a quick snapshot, so it was like a great place to share work and get feedback from random people from a natural and useful way for me. It was a great environment to start a discussion about a design I was working on with my friends who were just trying to skateboard.
I wasn’t trying to advertise, but that’s where it becomes kind of a thing. Because at the age of 21, I was dealing with groups and companies that were, like, in Australia. I did something for Converse right out of college because I was sharing so much work online. I am very grateful for everything that happens to me, but at the same time, it scares me.
The algorithm tied me to a degree. It feeds me the same kind of images and artists who work in a specific way. Sometimes it ends up distracting me from what I’m working on, like having too many reference points for your own work. But it scares me too, because I’ve had offers from companies or anyone who are very enthusiastic but want to charge a very low rate. And then you counter and immediately feel that flurry flowing the other way, like, “Oh well, if this guy won’t do it for 40 bucks, I’ve got 100 people on this app who will!”
I often see this with companies that I know have money, but they rely on you to want their approval or to feel like you’re part of their “team” or whatever. But it’s like I have to pay my rent. I have to pay for the food. I need time to do human things. It’s a constant toning and burning. I don’t know how people rely solely on freelancing. Nothing but respect from me.
In 2014, I started working at the Empty Bottle Gate. Most people didn’t know I had this artistic career outside of work. But once I started working more for bands that were touring and going through The Bottle, people started connecting me to the place, and I started getting more offers. Eventually I started doing some graphic design here and there for the bottle and then got my current art director degree. It’s a new role, and it happened during the pandemic so we could focus more on merchandising and branding.
Every time we have a show – all that Instagram stuff – it’s hand collage, which is a bit more than I should have undertaken, but I like the way it looks, so. . . .
I’ve always loved collage, like browsing through magazines and collecting pictures to use in different ways. I experimented with digital collage stuff in high school, poking around in Photoshop and Illustrator for years. Those were rough. I learned a lot of different collage techniques in school, but it was mostly physical collage. In school I was really into physical materials and scanners and I physically printed things and then I scanned the things that I physically printed. And it went into this whole process of physical, digital, physical, digital, just back and forth, you know? Which also lends itself to Xerox stuff, doesn’t it? For example, the more you photocopy something, the more blown it becomes, and you can create these little worlds, especially by adding hand drawing.
People always ask me, like, “Oh, do you really like, like, punk art?” I love that kind of stuff, but it’s always been kind of an afterthought for me. I just like this photocopy look in general. It feels timeless. It will always seem like the perfect age, because it can be anytime.
I don’t really have a procedure. There are steps, of course, especially with the scanner, but I’m like the garbage collector. I use anything and everything. I work in digital and analog. I will scan things, use other people’s scans, take photos, find photos, add hand drawn or computer drawn elements. What interests me most is a collage that looks like a collage but doesn’t necessarily look like it, you know?
Right now, I’m trying to do some work for posterity. I’m not interested in “influence”. I’ve worked with great people, but I don’t always post it if I’m not into it. I wish I had more time to regroup and do something for myself instead of clients. I don’t want to be depressing, but I don’t want to lie to people either. Sometimes I think I look like I’m killing him, but I’m not. I really am not. I’m so broke and tired.
This is the thing that kills me on the internet. People think, like, “Oh, this picture will get me a bunch of followers, and then with a bunch of followers, we’ll get a lot of money.” But exposure and followers don’t translate into money.