It’s a muddy, off-season night in Stowe, the kind of evening when locals band together and everyone gravitates toward the same party. Tonight, it’s in the Lower Village, out back of the old Tubbs Mill building. There’s no sign and it’s dark out. Parking is in a dirt alley. I find what looks like a delivery entrance and crack the door, unsure if the building is even occupied.
Inside, the hallway and spare rooms are packed with a few hundred people and music is blaring. There’s artwork on all the walls and the beers are getting handed out (for free) faster than you can down one. It’s a sort of underground-arts-scene meets ski/bike bum vibe that might occur if you dropped Soho in Moab. It’s the U.S. launch party for Canada’s Collective Arts Brewing, hosted by Independent Allied, its design and branding agency.
Independent Allied can be summed up in three words: boards, bikes and beer. Ok, and maybe two more words: killer design.
Independent Allied is nothing so formal as an “agency.” It’s really a workspace that gathers like-minded, equally-gifted creative professionals—Bob Russell, Ryan Thibault and Tim Clayton—who happen to be turning out some very cool branding. Their clients range from Atomic to J Skis, Canada’s Moosehead beer to Sri Lanka’s Lion lager, Highland Mountain Bike Park to MTBVT. And there’s also a fourth, digital-guru-turned-politician, Sam Young—one of the groovier legislators in Montpelier.
As I move through the party, Bob Russell, a likeable guy in his 50s, hands me a can of Collective Arts Brewing’s State of Mind, a session IPA in a can I’ve never seen before. In fact, no two people seem to have the same can of beer. “Check this out,” he shouts above the music. He takes out an iPhone and aims it at the can which features sheep wearing crowns and medals. The phone focuses, then his Blippar app zooms into another world: a Collective Arts web page that tells the story of the artist, Mahshid Raghemi, an award-winning Iranian illustrator and author of children’s books. The title of her artwork is “Winner Sheeps.” He then zooms in on a Stranger Than Fiction porter with line-block graphics of a tattooed owl. It’s by Max Whetter, a 26-year-old from Cornwall, England, a “self-taught artist influenced by skateboarding and monsters.” Another can, this one with an illustration of a buffalo, takes you to a page on Collective Art’s website with a music video by Texas indie band Wild Child.
To find artists, Collective Arts crowd-sources over the internet. Russell and his crew have poured over more than 13,000 entries from 40 countries to select the images that now grace the cans.
Russell had been designing packaging and labels for major brands in the beer and spirits categories when he teamed up with a former client, Moosehead veteran Matt Johnson, to create Collective Arts Brewing. The company self-describes as “a grassroots beer company fusing the craft of brewing with the inspired talents of emerging and seasoned artists, musicians and filmmakers.”
“We figured beer is a conversation starter and a way people bond,” says Russell. His idea: make those conversations start around the artwork. The beer itself is brewed in Hamilton, Ontario where the brewery is on track to produce 50,000 barrels this year—cans of everything from a rich porter to a papaya saison. Though distribution has been primarily in Canada, the brand is now being introduced around New England.
Russell, a Canadian who had been living in Boston, moved to Stowe because he loved to ski. Early on, he met graphic artist and illustrator, Ryan Thibault, and the two of them set up shop. Thibault works with Russell on Collective Arts and other design projects. In his spare time, he runs the website MTBVT.com. Born and raised in the Northeast Kingdom, the die-hard mountain biker started Winterbike, the region’s first fatbike winter fest at Kingdom Trails. Now in its fourth year, it has been an enormous success.
As Thibault says, “I had no idea hundreds of people would ever come to the Northeast Kingdom to fat bike in the dead of winter.” They did. Thibault describes the 2017 event on his MTBVT website: “Like Emperor penguins in Antarctica, 300 dedicated bikers and 50-plus die-hard local support crew huddled around hobo fires, cycling inside to warm up, and back to the outside to re-up on beer slush.”
Thibault is also responsible for Überwintern, a fat bike festival that celebrated its fifth anniversary in Stowe last January, as well as the branding for New Hampshire’s Highland Mountain Bike Park. His latest project: a new downhill festival at Killington, Vermont Bike & Brew. Thibault does everything for these events, from creating the posters (which are becoming collectors’ items) to dreaming up things like a Kegs ‘N Eggs breakfast.
The third in Independent Allied is Tim Clayton. The original designer for Line Skis, the Vermont brand that started the twin-tip revolution, he’s been the lead art director for Atomic, overseeing everything from the topsheets of skis to the graphics on the Full Tilt line of boots. He’s now focused just on Atomic’s freeride and powder brands, J Skis and Ski the East’s clothing line.
“The trend right now is toward no design—color blocks—which is kind of sad,” Clayton says. The last guy in the group is a designer of another sorts. Web designer Sam Young, 41, works on the mobile and digital developments for Independent Allied. That is, when Young isn’t at the statehouse in Montpelier, where he moonlights as the Democratic Representative from the county where he grew up in the Northeast Kingdom, Orleans County.
What draws these four together? “We’re all perfectionists,” says Clayton, “but we’re not afraid to ask each other’s opinion or tell each other something’s a piece of crap.”
“We work like crazy,” Thibault acknowledges, “but we play hard too. One of the best things about working right here,” he says as he nods toward the door, “is the Cady Hill bike trails are right out there.”
“Yeah, pretty much every Friday afternoon we all take off and go for a ride together,” Clayton says. Every artist needs inspiration, right?