Editor’s Note: Sean Wilkinson, 33, is current president of the Maine chapter of the AIGA , the professional association for design, and co-founder of some well-known local ventures, including the PICNIC arts and music festival and the Bollard alternative newspaper. He’s a connector-type whose work history includes stints on a bait boat in Casco Bay and working with many of the top creative talent in Portland. He has a predilection for cocktails, taxidermy (that’s Boris the Boar on the wall) and 70s-era soft rock, known also as Yacht Rock.
IP: So I guess I’ll start out with the burning question: Why Yacht Rock?
SW: (Laughs)Why not Yacht Rock. I don’t know. I used to actually make fun of of lot of my friends for being really into Steely Dan. I felt that it was ‘dad music’ mostly because my dad listened to it. At some point in Seattle I started listening to a lot of Steely Dan and I got really into it. I felt really bad that I made fun of it.
IP: So now listening is like your atonement.
SW: Yeah, right. I feel like I have to evangelize to the rest of the world. I went to a Yacht Rock party. My friend Justin [Ellis] was already into it. He was actually judging the first one I went to. And then we got so into it, my friend Mich[the Fuge] and I dressed up —we had khaki old-man shorts, black socks and boat shoes. We all spray-painted our hair to be completely white—it was a Michael McDonald thing—we won the costume contest, so they asked us to be hosts the next year. Here’s a wierd thing. I don’t dance at bars. I don’t like dancing to music. But I love dancing to yacht rock. Something about having a white wine spritzer and gently swaying to Robbie Dupree. I don’t know why that’s easier.
IP: You were raised in Winthrop, Maine. What was that like?
SW: I went to grade school, middle school and high school there. It’s a small, kind of backwards, little town. Nasty small-town politics, and chatter….but the high school had a really good art program. The school was so totally focused on basketball and football but there was a really good art teacher there. By the time I left, I wanted to be a graphic designer or a high school art educator, just because she was great. I had every intention to go to Kansas City, but the loans fell through at the last minute and I ended up taking a year off. I went to London. We had a blacksmith program in Winthrop, because of that art teacher. We made some stuff and seven of us went to London to install them on Shakespeare’s Globe Theater gates over there. Then I went to the Cayman Islands and I spent all my money and then decided to go to MECA (Maine College of Art) here in Portland.
IP: When was that?
SW: In ’97. I was going to give it a try for a year, but all of my design professors were amazing, the school itself is really cool, and there’s a great community of like 400 kids. I still am in contact with every single one of my design professors. I was an adjunct professor last semester.
IP: You also said you worked in Seattle. How long were you there?
SW: After I graduated MECA I went to Seattle for a couple years. My dad was working for Amazon at the time, and my brother lived out there. It was September 8, 2011 when I moved out there. I wanted to take five days off, enjoy the city, spend a little money, and then take my portfolio around, because it was pretty easy to find a job at that point. We woke up on Tuesday morning after bowling Monday night until 2 am, and the whole World Trade Center thing was going on. In my small selfish way, the impact on me at the time was that every design firm in the area was laying people off after that day. I ended up taking retail jobs—video store, hardware store. I did a little freelance. I missed the East Coast enough that I decided to move back here. So I came back here and worked a strange assortment of jobs. I worked at a print shop, worked at the Phoenix for a while, and then started the Bollard.
IP: It seems like you’re involved in every part of Portland. Wherever I go people seem to know you or you’ve worked with them. Why is that?
SW: I don’t know. I have a hard time staying put. I worked at the print shop for 18 months and didn’t like it, so instead of dealing with it, I just quit. My backup plan was to work for the Phoenix because I had an in there. Before I was totally sure, I quit and went to go work for the Phoenix. I lasted at there for about six months and decided that was bunk and helped start the Bollard and was doing freelance. That lasted about 18 months, and I went to Lapchick [Creative] which was in this [Fitzgerald Photo] space. It went for about 18 months and then I worked on a boat. I just quit the agency and I had the opportunity to work on a smack boat.
IP: What’s a smack boat?
SW: It sells bait to lobstermen. We’d bring out literally tons of dead fish. Load up at 10 o’clock in the morning and then get out to Chebeague Island to this raft by 11 or so. And then guys would come up to us at the end of their day and would sell us their lobsters, and we’d sell them bait. So I did that for seven months.
IP: Did you have any background in doing anything like that?
SW: No. It’s a wierd story about the whole smack boat.
IP: Are you glad you did it?
SW: Absolutely. It was one of the best things I ever did. I look back on that a lot, partially because I’m obsessed with the ocean, and it was a great way to really get in touch with it. It took a good 3-4 months before the lobstermen really accepted me and were cool with me. Unti lthen I was ‘college boy’ or ‘what the hell are you doing as a 30 year old working on a smack boat?’ Because it’s a job for 18-year-olds. It’s a job for kids in high school. You just get dirty all day.. I love the fact that it’s on the ocean, next to the working waterfront, which I love, but it also is an indicator of why I know so many circles. I leave jobs that I don’t like. And if I want to try something, i’ve been able to just jump in and try it.
IP: What would lead you to do that kind of work?
SW: At the time I was like I was working here, exactly where I’m sitting.
IP: Is that bad?
SW: No, it’s alright. It was really hard work that I wasn’t getting a lot of respect for. There wasn’t a lot of creative freedom; there wasn’t a lot of respect for the stuff I was doing, or representation with the client directly…so it was frustrating. It was like the epitome of an office job—too much bureacracy: show up at work at nine, get in trouble if you’re late, work for eight hours, get in trouble if you go home early. It wasn’t a creative job. It felt more like a cubicle job. And there was a romantic thing about working on the water, where it’s hard work, and you work hard every day. It took me two months to not be sore because you’re hauling 500-pound barrels of dead fish around—maybe two dozen of those a day—and dumping them over, dumping them into 160-pound crates, lifting those up onto boats. It’s work, but it’s finite; you have a set number of things to do in a day. When you accomplish those, you’re tired and done. You don’t feel like you’re bringing anything home.
IP: What happened to that job?
SW: After seven months, by the time we were into January, the deck of the boat was freezing and a couple of times I thought I was going to die. I was ready to go back to some kind of creative cubicle work.
IP: That brings me to a couple other questions. You’ve decided to live in Portland. Why?
SW: I chose here as a default originally, because I wanted to go to another school and I ended up going to MECA. As soon as I got here I thought Portland was really cool. I guess I just assumed that I wanted something bigger than Portland so that’s why I went to Seattle. And I realized that I liked the Yankee aesthetic of the East Coast. I liked the honesty and the brusqueness, the friendliness and the wilingness to help…all those things about being on the East Coast. And I think I saw that in Portland, plus I had some contacts and friends here. As time went by I realized more and more how Portland was a great mix: it’s got some culture, there’s a good music scene, a good arts scene, and there’s a pretty robust business scene here. And so at this point I’m completely in love with the city and I can’t imagine living anywhere else. There’s so much in the city that shares my aesthetic.
IP: Which is?
SW: Eclectic. I don’t know. It’s hard to describe because it is so eclectic. It’s weird.
IP: What’s going to define Portland’s future? Food? The creative scene?
SW: I feel that if this was a town of similar size in California that was getting known for food I think that would be where they’d be stuck for the next 20 years. But in Portland there’s already a significant movement with those like the Food Coma TV people who are like, “Alright, already . I get it. I’m sick of talking about foodie culture”. Maine is so much more than that. We appreciate a really great casual meal as much as we appreciate a really fancy, macro-engineered ‘whatever’ meal.
IP: So it’s not that kitschy Maine aestheic that people from Away might imagine?
SW: I love the fact that we’re getting attention because I think we have great restaurants here. But I think most restaurant owners wouldn’t get stuck in that, because we also have a great cultural scene, or a growing cultural scene. There’s a great art scene and we’re also enviably close to the ocean. Whether it’s walking down to Commercial Street and seeing a real working waterfront—which is becoming more and more rare—or driving five or ten minutes to Willard Beach and Cape Elizabeth. We’re in a really lucky location. So I see Portland as becoming more and more populous. We can potentially have so many more people living here.
IP: Ideally, what do you think should happen here?
SW: The fantasy I’ve been having lately—and I don’t know what the timeframe is on this, whether it’s five years or ten years or 20—but I saw this graph the other day tracking the growth of Portland, Maine and Portland, Oregon. We have less people living here now than we did in 1950. And Oregon is a great example of a city that was a similar size that just skyrocketed to half a milion or something. I feel like we could be there. I know we’re approaching 100,000 or something like that now, but we could be another great, big city with great infrastructure, with smart decisions being made. Portland needs to increase the density of work and population. Great new businesses are coming to Portland all the time and Portland is pretty good about encouraging local businesses to stay here. I feel like the trend is going towards more density and more business. I wouldn’t want to move anywhere else or work anywhere else at this point.
IP: To find your dream job, you sort of had to create one. It seems like a lot of Portland people find themselves in that boat.
SW: I have to admit in that way I’m a little spoiled. I’ve had good jobs. I’ve had the luxury of quitting good jobs to go work at wierd waterfront jobs and then I’ve had the luck of starting a new business that went really well and is actually in the first year is paying us, and has been a success. I’m not saying it’s easy for everybody, or that it’s even easy for us but we’re in a very good place.
IP: So what’s the secret of your success?
SW: I think not settling is a big one. If something’s not going your way, if you can’t change it effectively, then you’ve got to walk out and find something that will go your way. I feel like somebody could read that the wrong way and say that ‘you’re just fickle and escapist’, but every walking-out situation I’ve had in my life has led to something better.
IP: What do you have in your pockets?
SW: My iPhone, my wallet and change, which I started keeping in the back pocket since I switched to a front-pocket wallet.
IP: Because of all the pick-pockets, right?
SW: Yeah. As Portland gets bigger, there are more urchins out there. No..there was a massage therapist who used to come to this office and she used to get on me about having a giant wallet in my back pocket because it affects the way you sit. I had a big Euro wallet for a little while, one of those folio cases that was a little too much, so I went to the simple money clip card thing.
IP: What’s your favorite whiskey currently?
SW: Woodfords Reserve.
IP: Favorite cocktail?
SW: Right now, it’s the Martinez. The way I’ve been making it—there’s a book called Speakeasy, from a bar called Employees Only, and they make a more contemporary version of it—it’s gin, Maraschino liquor, Bianco vermouth, and what is the other one…I just made three of them last night.
IP: Maybe that’s why you can’t remember.
SW: I think so. Oh….Absynthe Bitters. And a twist of lemon.
IP: How would you describe what you do for a living, to a five-year-old?
SW: I make things look prettty so that people will want to engage with them. I guess ‘engage’ isn’t a good five-year old word. I make things pretty so people will want to hang out with them.
IP: What would you be doing right now if you weren’t doing this interview?
SW: I would be going through emails. I like to go through my inbox and open every message that I need to answer in a separate window. Then I can get everything and all I have to do is go through the stack of open messages one by one. It’s a good Monday thing for me. Sounds really exciting. Start your own business! Answer emails!
IP: What’s been your biggest surprise about starting your own business?
SW: That it works. (laughs). The biggest surprise is that when the three of us [Arielle Walrath and Kevin Brooks] came together, we had this kind of fantasy of where we’d be in five years. I feel like we’ve kind of gotten there in two years. We’ve had better response than we hoped for, we’ve had better business, and continued success. Not surprising in a ‘I doubted myself’ kind of way but surprising in a ‘nice to see’ way.
IP: What time do you wake up and go to bed?
SW: It depends on the night. Last night was 12, but I try to go to bed around 11. And I try to get up between 6 and 7.
IP: Besides Might & Main, and AIGA, what else do you do?
SW: PICNIC music and arts festival; I just did a Pecha Kucha, which was fun, and I’d like to have more of a hand in, but I don’t know if I should. I have a hard time saying no to things. What else do I do? I go to a lot of Space [Gallery] things. I’m considering, after I leave the AIGA board, joining some other boards. I don’t know. it seems like I’m always busy but I don’t know exactly what I’m doing.
IP: Things like working and making money?
SW: I’ve been in the new business role, which comes naturally to me—but it means a lot of networking events and a lot of meeting out for cocktails and mixers.