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Interview with Jeremy Shellhorn

On February 20, 2018
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Most of the time when I am interviewing or having a written conversation with a person, I ask them for a couple of paragraphs to tell me who they are. I meet Jeremy at the 2017 Tenkara USA Summit and he and his wife are super nice, like all the people that I have meet in Tenkara USA. I knew he was an artist and a family man but beyond that, I did not know much about him. So I asked him if he would pen a brief “about me” so that I could develop a deeper understanding of his interests to develop our Interview.

What caught my attention in his response was not the things that I thought I needed, it was an actual fishing moment describing resting a pool. He brought me there with his words.

I’m excited to have a chance to share a conversation with Jeremy with you as he is an interesting and aesthetic loving individual.

Adam: I’m not sure I discussed the process of these Interviews with you Jeremy so I will do it here. I write the thing in one single whack and send it to you. You fill it out and send it back. When I create the document, I think about the subject and then bring out his or her interests and hopefully get them to build a picture, a interesting inner view of who they are.

Your answer to my request about fishing, spooking a pool and then sitting down and drawing, waiting for the pool to resume it’s peace struck a cord with me. I was taken to one of my own streams, I have been fishing it for 50 or so years. There are distinct pools that always have dinks flitting about chasing flys on the surface. If you approach too quickly, they scatter for the undercut or the log. But if you sit down, have a drink, check your fly, lay back and relax for about 10 minutes or so, the trout slowly come back to their feeding and playfulness.

“You have obviously been fishing for a while so let me thank you for taking this interview and sharing with us a little bit about you.”

Jeremy Shellhorn: Thanks for interviewing me. Yes, I guess I have been fishing for most of my life. I am glad my Dad took me when I was young. My family has always encouraged me to pursue the things I love to do…fishing and design. I am very very fortunate.


Adam: You write very well, it is obvious to me that you are educated and practiced in word composition. You are an artist as well. I’ve had many discussion with artist who prefer to be called “skilled craftsmen” and still, to this day, my opinion is that a craftsman that is skilled creates art. A bamboo fly rod for example can be a thing of beauty, a work of art. I’ve been strongly told that it’s a craft and nothing more (I don’t think it is only a craft) and that’s it.

“Do you see your work as a craft or is it art?”

Jeremy Shellhorn: Hmmm. To me that doesn’t really matter much. I am trained as a graphic designer, so I tend to look at most of what I do as design, but to me there is a craftsmanship to it for sure. The materiality, the way elements work together, the spaces, the moments, the details, the colors…I look at those relationships as crafted and I make sure each one is considered much like a bamboo fly rod maker would…the taper, the finish, the wraps etc. they all add up to a whole.

Hopefully that whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Kinda like tenkara….I just read this passage from The Tea Ceremony by Sen’o Tanaka. In the foreward Edwin Reischauer writes about the tea ceremony much like some might write about tenkara:

Neither of us studied how to make or serve the tea, but we did learn how to play our role as participants in what became increasingly a deeply felt aesthetic and spiritual experience. In a sense we moved into a different world in time and space. There was no schedule. Everything moved at a slow pace quite detached from the rest of our lives. Our attention focused down to just a few objects of beauty, again quite removed from the world of overflowing abundance outside. There was a sense of sinking deep within one’s self, of being at harmony with nature, of finding all in very little.

Wow, I guess I just want to make something that conjures that feeling…design or craft or art.

As far as whether my work is art or not, well that is a lot about context and what the audience thinks. (Up to you!) Some things I make to express something coming from myself and my experiences…I guess that could be art, but most of what I make there is a specific communication goal in mind, a desired effect or change in mind, a specific audience and a specific place that audience will experience the work….to me I think of that as more design. But it doesn’t really matter. To me each thing I make asks a question. “What if?”

Adam: In my line of work, I meet all kinds of people. I test everyone from the poor to high profile sports personalities, lawyers, police, firemen, housewives and because I was born and grew up in the area where I work, I test my friends. It’s a great job, a little stressful but I meet a wonderful and varied public in my line of work.

I remember testing a prominant NBA basketball player, established, very good at what he does and I often ask people, “what do you do besides what you do?” The answer came back from this young man, “I collect art.” NBA players make a lot of money and I know this guy is paid well so I was thinking to myself, I wonder what artists he likes. So I just went through the art that I enjoy. I’m almost 60, I was a young man in the 80’s so I like street art from New York, Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

So I told him that.

“You like Jean-Michel?”

Yes, I do.

“We must talk.”

We walked outside and had a beautiful discussion about his art collection for about 20 minutes. I am so oposite of this young milionaire popular sports personality. But for 20 minutes, we were together, talking, entertaining each other with our common love of this artist.

Jeremy, I love art and especially Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work.

“Can you tell us a story about sharing your love of art?”

Jeremy Shellhorn: I have taught design for about 15 years so I have had the privilege to share my love of art and design a lot to amazing students. It’s pretty amazing to introduce a student to an artist or designer’s work and have them get excited and inspired to do good work. But probably my favorite stories of sharing art are the times when folks have shared art with me or we have seen things together. I saw an Andrew Wyeth retrospective when I was in high school at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. My parents took me and to see someone like Wyeth pursue his art for so long, in such detail and for it to have such a clear distinct visual language that is so clearly theirs. You definitely know a Wyeth from the paint, the light and shadows to the subject to the color palette. An amazing drawer. Also something so bittersweet about the work…kinda like the midwest/plains in the fall or early spring.

Another important art sharing moment was when my wife took me to see the Charles and Ray Eames Retrospective in St. Louis for my birthday one year. I was inspired to be a design educator that day or at least go back to school and get my masters degree. They looked at design with a capital D, they designed everything (furniture, films, exhibits, graphics, houses) and that exhibit made me realize that design is a powerful process not just a thing. More importantly it is a verb.

Adam: I understand you are a graphic artist. I’ve worked with a few to develop logo’s for projects I worked on. From working with these guys, I understand that the graphic artist listens to the person he is working with to come up with the work that appeals to the request which appeals to the target audiance.

“Is that how it works? Will you help me in understanding this process from your perspective?”

Jeremy Shellhorn: Yes that is pretty much it. But I will go into the weeds for a bit. (just like my fishing and hey, I am a professor, so I like to talk about this stuff. Sorry in advance.)

Design at its most basic definition is about change. It is the process from turning an existing situation into a preferred one. So everyone is a designer. As a graphic designer I give meaningful visual form (what something looks like) to content in a variety of media: on screen and in print, from very small hand held experiences to interactive 3D environments, from logos to books, from posters to websites. But what identifies me most uniquely as a designer with expertise in visual communication or graphic design is my ability to communicate specific messages to specific audiences through the thoughtful and artistic manipulation of that visual form: words (typography) and pictures.

So the process is really about finding the goodness of fit between who wants to say what, to whom, in what context and with what effect.

So in your example of the logo…it needs to identify an organization, communicate something about that organization, be able to work across lots of different situations and also be visually memorable. Fun stuff.

Adam: I have an extensive library of old Japanese tenkara books. I’ve been fortunate to have the help of many tenkara anglers in Japan from many regions help me with my collection. I gathered them together to learn about tenkara. The contents of the books are amazing and I don’t even read very much at all in the way of Japanese written word.

But I do understand pictures, diagrams and art.

There is a particular writer, Soseki Yamamoto who illustrates many of his books prolifically with tenkara subject art. Beautiful pieces between chapters that serve to deepen the context of the subject.

I see the same thing when I see your work. Your eye for aestheticism is amazing. You have a knack for conceptualizing the term, the more you know, the less you need in your art. Some of quite minimal yet that minimalism does not detract from the subject and beauty of your scene.

“How do you do that? How do you take a few lines and put it together to give it such great meaning?”

Jeremy Shellhorn: Soseki Yamamoto sounds amazing. I would love to see these pictures! Please share.

In the afterword for the book In Praise of Shadows by Junichiro Tanizaki,“ Thomas J. Harper writes, One of the oldest and most deeply ingrained of Japanese attitudes to literary style holds that too obvious a structure is contrivance, that too orderly an exposition falsifies the rumination of the heart, that the truest representation of the searching mind is just to “follow the brush.”

So I like to think I just sort follow the pencil. I draw a lot in my sketchbook. Most of the ideas kinda form as I go. Searching. Moving. Connecting to things I see on the water. Just playing. I like to draw on the stream bank, underneath a shady tree, in the mountains catching my breath on a hike…thinking about the places our minds wander to when we are fishing. Then I like to go back to things I have drawn in the field, revisit those ideas I had and try to distill them down as simply as I can.

Adam: I love to travel for tenkara. I’m starting to think of other places than Colorado to explore with my tenkara rod. In the next six months, I will go to Kauai and head up into the mountains and find a couple of streams that were planted with rainbow trout a 100 years ago. The streams are self sustaining and I’be been told that more people that have climbed Everest than have caught the rainbow trout in this stream.

“Have you travelled with your art?”

Jeremy Shellhorn: Yes I have been fortunate to travel a lot. I have gotten to travel a bunch with Daniel Galhardo and Tenkara USA, TJ and John. Whether it is a fly fishing show, or during the book tour as the designer-in-residence of sorts for Tenkara USA I love getting to meet folks that have seen my work and enjoy it. Sometimes I will bring along some prints and display those too.

As a design professor I have gotten to travel to Germany, Italy, England, Taipei, New Zealand, Switzerland and all throughout the states…a few of those places I brought a tenkara rod with me too. I felt like Izaak Walton when I caught some brown trout outside of Sheffield England after a Design and Healthcare Conference at the university there. Had a good afternoon on the river then walked to a pub to celebrate.

I will be traveling to Japan this summer for the first time on a research trip for a tenkara book project, so definitely looking forward to that. Would love to meet some tenkara anglers over there, especially any other art and design sympathetic ones for some fishing and drawing.

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Adam: I live just a few miles away from where I was born. I travel quite a bit but I always end up in Phoenix, my home. My favorite stream is about a two hour drive away, another is 4 hours. That’s 2 and 4 hours of driving on a freeway and an Interstate highway. Both are in two different directions of the compass and in very different types of geology.

“Can you tell us about your favorite streams?”

Jeremy Shellhorn: As a flat lander in Kansas I don’t have any local streams I fish. I do have some wonderful farm ponds I get to fish, but I need to drive a bit to get to some cold water streams. My in-laws have a house in the Ozarks, so I have gotten to explore Missouri trout streams quite a bit and love the smaller spring creeks there. Perfect Rhodo and Sato water.

My students and I work get to work with Rocky Mountain National Park through my Designing Outside studio I teach and between that and working with Tenkara USA & the Tenkara Summit I have been fortunate to fish in and around Boulder, Estes Park and some other places in Colorado’s front range quite a bit. I love to fish the high gradient streams in the park on the way up to those pristine alpine lakes. Tenkara really shines in that water and if you are willing to walk you get rewarded with quiet places full of hungry wild trout. Fish on the hike up, take a break and have lunch by the lake, then fish your hike down. That’s a good day.

I was able to fish the Driftless area of Wisconsin last spring with Daniel, Ed Engle and Jason Randall and I really love those streams. It was like I was on a farm in Kansas, cows and all…but all the sudden there is this meandering crystal clear creek with big brown trout in it.

Adam: We got a chance to talk just a little bit at the Summit last year. I remember around the table in the house, we began to talk about Takenobu. I like it how Daniel has Takenobu as his background music in his videos, narrating about what he does and then we arrived at the Summit venue and the same music is playing. Instantly my memories where taken back to those videos, the music stiched together the memories.

Now it’s all memories whenever I hear Takenobu.

Daniel is very aesthetic and he does a fantastic job.

And now you are doing art for Tenkara USA and I am begining to see that same stitching together with your graphics, the book, Tenkara USA.

Without going on about it, I really am glad to see your work like this.

“Any thoughts on what I just wrote? The stitching together, the consistency?”

Jeremy Shellhorn: Great. I love Takenobu and sometimes listen to him while I am sketching stuff. I am so glad you see the consistency and the common visual language stitched across the Tenkara USA brand. Daniel and I have worked hard to create something unique, that expresses that paradox of tenkara…a complex simplicity of sorts. Hopefully when someone sees the white space, the line drawings, the graphics, packaging, marketing materials, the book etc. they know it is coming from Tenkara USA.

Adam: Music imprints memories for me. I remember listening to a Frank Ocean album that came out on my neighborhood walks. I walk a few times a week to stay in some sort of shape. I listen to music and my mind drifts. It helps me escape to another place and I end up pushing myself a little on my walk or hike in the hills in Phoenix. I ended up listening to this same album as I walked through the streets of Tokyo on my last trip.

I had listened to another album from Frank Ocean (one of my favorite artists) on my first trip to Japan and I wanted to imprint those memories. This imprinting, I remember where it started, down in Mexico on a beach fishing trip watching the sunset…

“I’m wondering from your perspective if you have this sort of imprinting from creating your works? Do you imprint a time and place where you come up with a idea for a drawing?”

Jeremy Shellhorn: Oh yes, that imprinting as you call it happens a lot. That is one of the joys of a sketchbook or a diary is being able to go back to it and re-remember that hike or fishing trip…it takes you back for sure. I listened to Yo La Tengo’s album Summer Sun on repeat while I was finishing my thesis at North Carolina State University. My wife took me to see them play a few years after I graduated and honestly it was kinda weird to listen to that music years later in a different place. It immediately transported my back to my time in grad school.

I’d love to do more commissions where I go fishing with folks, sketch during our trip and refine those sketches for them to have as keepsakes/prints for their homes. I think it would be a good way to relive days on the stream. It’s just a different way to document a trip…in some ways it seems more tenkara-like.

Adam: I have made a few things out of wood that I really enjoy. Radio control sailplanes, bamboo fly rods, I love working with wood. It is rare but once I made a rod that came out much better than I had invisioned. It was a complex rod that did not have a cork handle but instead a swelled butt of bamboo and wood. 18 pieces of wood had to come together in a single point and I remember the music I was listening to at the time.

“Have you created any work that came out even better than you thought it would?”

Jeremy Shellhorn: Yes. Although a lot more work doesn’t come out as good as what I am envisioning in my head!

Recently I wanted to give my self some parameters and experiment with not using any line in my drawings, so I just used torn paper. I am working on some collages and I am liking how they are turning out. I had no idea or expectation and just wanted to make a path by walking. It’s kinda like the one-fly method…it forces you to be creative and try new things.

Adam: I think my best teacher that I have ever had was failure. I’m not alone in this. Failure is inevetible in some of the things I have done. But it is this failure that gives me insight to what I want to accomplish. It helps me to have respect for what I do and it provides me with the humility that makes me who I am.

I still feel that I am a failure at writing. The thoughts in my head and what comes out on paper and the overall effect of what I do, I’m about 50%. A lot of people enjoy these interviews and there are some that say that I suck, to put it bluntly. Early on I’ve learned that it’s not possible for me to make everyone happy.

“Have you ever had someone reject your work? If you have, how do you look at failure?”

Jeremy Shellhorn: Ah failure. As an educator I appreciate failure. The design process is really about failing early and often and learning your way to the best solution. IDEO a U.S. design firm has a saying that goes something like this: Enlightened trial and error succeeds over the planning of the lone genius. I love that saying. I fail a lot, but I fail on purpose iteratively to learn what design works, looks good, reads correctly and then I refine.

I am sure people reject my work all the time, but I am too busy making new work to notice :)No seriously if they reject it and let me know about it in a constructive way, then I try to just consider it feedback and then ask how can I learn from it. It is also important to have trusted friends that love you and will give you an honest opinion for back up too.

Adam: Although I am not classically educated, I was sought after by a medical university for the work I do. My director was a pioneer in his field and I had worked with him in the past. Together we created a high fidelity teaming platform that is cutting edge in the field of heart surgery.

Eventually I had to quit, working for professors was difficult, they are constantly improving the process and at one point I was talking to a German software engineer, an American software engineer and a biomedical scientist and a demanding professor trying to get a heart lung machine to mesh with data logging software. I was able to get the job done but my compensation was not commisurate with the amount of stress that I was going through to do my job. 5 years was about all that I could do.

“Has your education helped you as a graphic artist? Your fishing? Is art a process of practice at an experinced level?”

Jeremy Shellhorn: Yes! I have had great teachers that have taught me well. I am really grateful.

Design has taught me a lot about fishing…they can be looked at similarly. In both Design and Fishing you read the stream (situation), see what is happening, make some goals, problem solve possible solutions, test them out, get feedback (any bites?) and start the process all over again. What I love about tenkara is that the equipment stays pretty much the same, it is the constant and the creativity is in how I am using what I have: rod, line and fly.

The simplicity is freeing. Much like in design…its just as important what isn’t in the design and what it is the design.

Art is a process, just like learning. I am a curious person, I enjoy the search, so I love the process and usually have a bunch of projects going on at once, without getting stressed too easily. If you don’t enjoy the process then you probably don’t like fishing…its all about the process. That’s why it isn’t called catching right?

Adam: I think it is important to ask some tough questions. It’s where the good stuff lives.

Jeremy, tenkara is becoming a way of life for me. Not like religion, efficiency. I have learned efficiency through my introduction to tenkara and the study that I have done from it.

I now filter much of what I do on a daily basis from learning about tenkara.

“Do I need this or do I just want it?”

“How can I accomplish this task in the most efficient way possible?”

“Has tenkara or this efficiency affected you in any way? In your art?”

Jeremy Shellhorn: For sure. I think I have probably shown that in my previous answers! and I am working on a book project that speaks to this.

10 Colors : Tenkara By Design will explore how tenkara is a wonderful model for designers; a process for creating a goodness of fit between a design solution and the context in which it is situated in. The book will also illustrate how tenkara fisherman from their earliest invention of the method to its current practice have designed smart fishing tools that are effective as well as having crafted beautiful visually-rich artful objects worthy of examination and documentation. Early tenkara anglers fished for sustenance, and made their living by selling their catch; contemporary tenkara anglers fish for entertainment and release their fish back into the rivers and streams they recreate in. But for both anglers I believe tenkara is greater than the sum of its parts (rod, line, fly and fish). There is an experiential aspect to tenkara, a mystery below the surface. A connection to nature through moving water. The feeling of casting and hooking a fish—the pull, the fight, the beauty of pulling the fish out of the water, the anticipation, and the waiting. The hike into the mountains, the stream side camp, the sounds. An old Japanese tenkara saying states that if you ask 10 tenkara anglers to show them the fly they use and they will show you ten different tenkara flies. Thus, in a play of words, it is often joked that “tenkara has ten colors”. Tenkara originated and existed in Japan for hundreds of years before being introduced to the U.S. in 2009, since then it has more “colors” than ever before. This book looks at the “colors” of tenkara: the art, design, crafts, ideas, and objects from its past and its current practice; trying to paint a beautiful picture for the reader. I think it is a visual arresting way to fly fish and hope the book expresses that.

Adam: Thank you so much for your time. I love your art and your work with Tenkara USA. I appreciate who you are from meeting you and I hope we get to spend some more time together in the future.

“Please use this opportunity to write anything you would like to say.”

Jeremy Shellhorn: Thanks Adam for the opportunity! I appreciate the kind words and look forward to fishing and hanging with you again soon.

To see examples of Jeremy’s art and design work please visit and or shoot him a line @

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