You may not realize it, but Tacoma-based illustrator and letterer Chandler O’Leary is everywhere you turn.

Since founding Anagram Press in 2004, Chandler’s work has become synonymous with T-Town. She has created banners for the Old Town neighborhood and art installations for the district’s dock. The Tacoma playing cards floating around shops and online were designed and illustrated in part by Chandler, as were an assortment of temporary tattoos that celebrate that signature Gritty City pride. Her solo work, as well as her collaborations with local artists, renders Tacoma through a fond, almost nostalgic lens, evoking a charm and sense of hometown pride that’s difficult to resist.

That’s not all the work you might recognize from this maker, either. From quirky calendars and political posters to a curated collection that spans the US, and even a book in the works, Chandler O’Leary has a prolific body of work that just keeps on growing. “I always have many irons in the fire — usually too many,” Chandler says.

Chandler O'Leary
Chandler O’Leary, owner and operator of Anagram Press, explains that as a craftsperson who dabbled in letters, the name “Anagram” really resonated with her. Photo courtesy: Chandler O’Leary/Anagram Press.

“I have enough current projects and future ideas to keep me busy for a couple of lifetimes. Right now I am hard at work with Jessica Spring on our “Dead Feminists” book, which will be published by Sasquatch Books in October 2016,” Chandler explains. “That’s what’s taking up a good chunk of my bandwidth right now, although I am also working on a new series of illustrations on sustainable food and local agriculture called “Farm to Table,” which I am doing thanks to a Tacoma Artist Initiative Project grant. I’m also trying to finish up my “50 States” series, which is an illustrated map of each state, based on vintage souvenir postcards.”

Today, Chandler O’Leary is an award-winning and internationally recognized artist. Her body of work extends from letterpress and engraving to sketches and illustrations, and her work at Anagram Press earns her a living doing what she loves most. She had to pay her dues, though, to attain the celebrity status that her work has garnered. The privilege of doing what she loves is due in part to her greatest work in progress, an on-going project that’s been in the making for decades.

Down to a fine art

Before she landed in the Pacific Northwest, Chandler moved around with her family a lot. “I am currently living in my (I think) seventeenth place of residence, though my hope is that this one will be my longest and last.” She attended college at the Rhode Island School of Design and spent a year studying in Italy before moving to the Twin Cities to enter the workforce.

Letterpress allows O’Leary’s to incorporate typography, design, fine-art printmaking and pre-press production all into the process. Photo courtesy: Chandler O'Leary/Anagram Press.
Letterpress allows O’Leary’s to incorporate typography, design, fine-art printmaking and pre-press production all into the process. Photo courtesy: Chandler O’Leary/Anagram Press.

Her design and typography chops came in handy in Minneapolis, where she landed a job as a graphic designer at a design firm. While this work may not have been what she had in mind long-term, she says that she was blessed during those first years as a working artist with what she eloquently calls a “serendipitous embarrassment of riches.”

“My portfolio consisted of a mix of digital design work, hand-screen printed posters and hand-bound books. My new boss, Charlie, turned out to be the chairman of the board of the Minnesota Center for Book Arts (MCBA). On the day of my final interview, Charlie said, ‘Since you like to make books and print things, you might want to check out MCBA: they’re having an event tonight,'” Chandler recounts.

“I took his advice and went, and my jaw just dropped to the floor at their printmaking and bookbinding facilities, as well as the work the artists there were doing. I had no idea at the time that they were one of the biggest and best letterpress facilities in the country, so I didn’t yet fully know how unique an opportunity I had. Whatever free hours I had away from my design job, I took almost every class MCBA offered, joined their artist co-op for 24-hour access to equipment (I did a lot of midnight printing), produced a lot of work, and eventually became artist-in-residence and faculty member there,” Chandler explains.

At this time, Chandler had developed a broad portfolio that ran a wide gamut, but her personal sketchbooks were the one project she always made time for and most enjoyed. She made time for these sketches when she wasn’t teaching classes on bookbinding, graphic novel storytelling, urban sketching or digital design (among other things). Thanks to hours upon hours and weeks upon months of practice and time and immersion, Chandler was slowly developing a secondary career.

Chandler O'Leary
Rather than go for the “cool” zip code in Seattle and commute, when Chandler and her husband relocated to the PNW, they decided to give living in Tacoma a try. “We fell in love with it,” she says. “Best decision ever.” Photo courtesy: Chandler O’Leary/Anagram Press.

While this resourceful artist says that she really liked the Twin Cities, she was also itching to get back to the coast — any coast. “I spent my formative years,” she explains, “split between the ocean (New England), the mountains (Colorado) and the North (both Dakotas and Minnesota), and I discovered a combination of all of those things in the Northwest. It’s what first drew me here, and what made me decide to settle here for good.” What’s more, she realized she wasn’t quite doing what she really wanted to do in Minnesota. It was time for a change.

“The path I’d been on for all those years had taken me pretty far away from my roots as an illustrator,” Chandler says. “My degree was in the sort of illustration you find in magazines and children’s books, and I still hadn’t really done any of that, because I’d gone in this other direction. I started really hankering to do that sort of work, so I slowly started steering the ship the other way.”

A happy little rain cloud

A visit to a friend in Seattle revealed to Chandler just the kind of coast she had been searching for, and in 2008 — four years after founding Anagram Press — Chandler took the plunge. She quit her design job and moved to the Pacific Northwest with her husband, who had managed to find a job in Tacoma before they relocated.

“When I moved to Washington in 2008, I made the decision not to look for another job in design. I met Jessica Spring almost immediately after we moved and started collaborating with her on the “Dead Feminists.” She graciously let me use her equipment to print some big projects of my own.”

Chandler’s work at present is a marriage of contemporary detail and elements that harken to an era bygone. Crisp lines and ornate typefaces embellish her prints and illustrations; classic landscapes that evoke a distinct sense of place or creative portraits are collected and complemented by the artist’s distinctive and personal touches. This Tacoma emigrant has experience working in nearly every tactile medium under the sun and is an accomplished graphic designer, but her true passion — sketching and illustrations —continues to evolve and flourish in her new, slightly soggy base camp — Tacoma.

Chandler O'Leary
Chandler O’Leary has observed a shift away from the slick digital work and heavily manipulated photography that defined the art scene when she first began her career. Photo courtesy: Chandler O’Leary/Anagram Press

“Art,” Chandler explains, “is simply ingrained in who I am — it always has been. But drawing is at the heart of everything I do, and for me, drawing is an extension of learning. It’s how I process and document the world around me, and as I am interested in practically everything, there will always be more to learn, more to draw.”

The creative community in Tacoma has embraced Chandler and her artwork with open arms, but her partnership with local letterpress artist Jessica Spring has proved to be, in many ways, the most synergetic.

Jessica has been my best and longest-running partner in crime,” Chandler says. “It’s difficult to find the right collaborator. But when it works well, like it does with Jessica, it’s a wonderful thing — and a nice challenge. Jessica and I do things together that we never would have done on our own, and we each complement the other’s strengths and weaknesses. We have similar interests and backgrounds but very different styles and ways of thinking, so I think what we make together is somehow greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a great feeling.”

To thine own self be true

This painterly nomad has learned a thing or two about following her passion to a positive end over the years. When asked what advice she might offer to encourage the burgeoning artist in all of us — that secret game designer or writer or painter you have locked down under your nine-to-five — her counsel was:

Spend your energy doing and developing the thing(s) you love the most, rather than what you think you ‘should’ be doing. Of course there are common-sense things like paying the bills and balancing your work/home life — but if you can put your time into honing the work you really love to do, that’s what people are going to respond to.

The fruit of Chandler’s persistence and dedication can be seen all around town in Tacoma. Swing by King’s Books to pick up one of her T-Town temporary tattoos (or order online), visit the Old Town Dock to marvel at her droplet installations or circle the calendar to meet up with this incredible craftswoman at the next annual Wayzgoose Letterpress & Book Arts Extravaganza.

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