Big Brain Awards

Big Brain 2012 Finalist: Greg Kerr

You submitted nominations for awards given to the Valley's emerging creatives and the results are in. Introducing our Big Brain 2012 Finalists.

Leading up to the Big Brain Award awards announcement and celebration on April 7, Chow Bella and Jackalope Ranch will introduce the finalists.

Up today: Greg Kerr

When Pennsylvania native Greg Kerr was 18 he had a phrase tattooed on his leg. It's a portion of the final stanza from the Robert Frost poem, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening."

Now Kerr is 32. He has accumulated tattoos up and down his arms, launched a successful resin belt buckle company that's counted Fall Out Boy and Dominos Pizza as clients, and his t-shirt business, Miles to Go, shares its name with that thoughtful line he had inked almost 15 years ago.

It's no surprise that the unabashed bookworm would draw inspiration from writing to name his line of graphic tees. After all, each of his shirts features a graphic depiction of a piece of literature, and he's covered everything from Moby Dick and Edgar Allan Poe to Catcher in the Rye and Charles Bukowski.

Kerr started screening the shirts about five years ago after toying with the idea while working at Acme Prints in Tempe. At first he printed his own jazz album cover designs and classic movie posters, but Kerr soon moved on to books. "I read a lot anyway, and there's an endless amount of inspiration," he says.

With super-soft tri-blend crewnecks from American Apparel as his base, Kerr screens each shirt by hand at Acme, using discharge ink (a dye that essentially bleaches the fabric) to color the designs into the shirts' material, as opposed to building ink onto the textile.

Kerr takes pride in keeping his business small and being in control of every aspect of it. "It's a very personal kind of brand," he says of his one-man business.

He's turned down offers to have his pieces stocked at Top Shop, Nordstrom, and Urban Outfitters. Instead, he prefers selling directly to his customers, and working with small boutiques.

He compares his role in overseeing the line to that of an art director. Kerr seeks out artists from all over the world, chooses color schemes, and works through their designs to form two focused collections a year.

Kerr released his latest spring line in mid-March, and it includes shirts depicting Ted Hughes' The Iron Man and Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves among its 12 new designs.

He strives for designs that aren't too literal. "People get that the whale design is Moby Dick right away," Kerr says. But many of the other designs are less obvious, resulting in an instant connection for those who can recognize what books that are being referenced. "I'll throw in more esoteric things here and there."

Although, Kerr adds, he's had customers buy shirts solely because they like the designs, which have inspired them to read the books.

Either way, Kerr is already plotting his summer reading list, which will influence what books will become shirts for his fall release. He will go into a sort of hibernation for reading and brainstorming, synthesize his ideas, and then get artists involved.

But his fashion aspirations don't end at pleasing literati. He's currently at work on a line called Old Souls - a reference to a poem that Kerr wrote himself. He describes the collection of button-downs and ties targeted toward young, creative professionals as "new beatnik," classic and clean, like something Kerouac might've worn.

Clearly, this guy doesn't plan to sleep any time soon.

Meet the finalists on April 7 during our Big Brain celebration, Artopia. And check out the other Big Brain Awards finalists we've profiled so far: 

Visual Art: 

Lindz Lew
Andrew Hadle

Jon Ashcroft

Performing Art: 
Torch Theatre

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Becky Bartkowski is an award-winning journalist and the arts and music editor at New Times, where she writes about art, fashion, and pop culture.
Contact: Becky Bartkowski