Creative sparks of inspiration courtesy of a design conference named ‘OFFF’ and an art museum exhibition titled ‘ON!’


The theater lights switch on; the psychedelic music thumps to life and her trancelike, digital designs of flora and animal life flash rapidly across a cinema-sized screen as graphic artist Sara Blake walks on-stage the middle venue of Cincinnati’s sprawling Aronoff Center for the Arts.

Blake may appear tiny and delicate like one of the celebrity Mara sisters but her work roars with CGI complexity, dazzling combinations of colors and beautifully rendered lines that reflect her passion for nature.

For the next sixty minutes on this snowy March morning, Blake brings pop art and dreamlike imagery to an audience waist deep in the consumer brands business and the impact is transformative.

The sell-out crowd fills the auditorium for OFFF, a daylong conference about art, innovation and design featuring leading creative disruptors like Brendan Dawes and James Victore and organized by Barcelona-based artist and OFFF co-founder Héctor Ayuso.

The branding professionals in the audience lean in during Blake’s TED-like presentation because many of them share similar career dynamics with the 28-year-old artist.

Sending forth a steady stream of images from behind her laptop, Blake talks about the bridges she’s building across creative communities as an in-demand freelance illustrator for consumer clients like Nike and Ford, her day job as an art director for a Fortune 500 corporation as well as an exhibiting artist.

Blake is also part of the entrepreneur eco system via ZSO NYC, her Manhattan-based boutique introducing her illustrated work on a limited edition silk scarf with more fashion accessories planned.

Blake aka ZSO references Samuel Beckett and Silicon Valley start-ups to inspire the OFFF audience to “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” The words resonate with Blake who practices fearlessness daily, from being on-stage now to starting her fashion business.

“What I love about it is when you fold up the scarf it’s just form and color and texture,” Blake tells us the following day. “Then, when you do wear it, you unfold it and you see the reveal. I just love that it’s this illustration that exists outside of a wall and outside a computer screen and living someone’s life with them, which is really cool. It’s 3D that uses a lot of textures and I’m putting it on another texture, which is the silk. I never set out to do a fashion line or anything with fabric but it just sort of happened.”

OFFF pulls Blake away from rehab work on her new West Village Manhattan home and brings her on-stage alongside friends and fellow New York artists Jon Burgerman and Joshua Davis. Blake’s OFFF weekend also includes her first museum show, ON! Handcrafted Digital Playgrounds at Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) and curated by Ayuso as a sixth-month, interactive extension of the one-day OFFF symposium.

ON! Handcrafted Digital Playgrounds includes work by Blake as well as artists from both sides of the Atlantic including Spanish design siblings Juan and Alejandro Mingarro, co-founders of the Barcelona design studio Brosmind, who create a Pop Art-inspired, life-size pedal car for the show, and James Paterson, a Montreal-based designer, animator and artist who crafts a sprawling sculpture out of paper airplanes as well as a work station so visitors can make their own.

True to the show’s themes of play and interaction with museum visitors, Blake interprets three of her digital illustrations into puzzle pieces and the main illustration of a butterfly for the game tabletop for an installation titled “Primary Colors,” inviting people to work shoulder-to-shoulder and assemble one of the more difficult puzzle they’re likely to ever see.

In a nearby gallery, Blake also collaborates with Davis on another installation that allows visitors to use a prototype Leap Motion 3D gesture control device to manipulate and control video projections of Blake’s ten abstract designs (one for each finger). With visitors sweeping their hands back and forth like ninja yogis, the impressive results are unique, momentary acts of artistic creation and a mix of what museumgoers create via body movement with Blake’s original designs.

Slowly, steadily, with each new visitor, Blake’s drawings and final digital compositions experience a new life and inspire all the creative people in attendance to embrace the hybrid qualities in their own work.

“I think both pieces I have in the exhibition are like nothing that I have ever done before,” Blake adds over coffee at the adjacent 21c Museum Hotel. “Usually my output is just a flat image. Sometimes I never even print them out. I only see them on the screen. So it’s great to be able to have two pieces that are in a space and people can interact with and that are two layers of something. I have never done before. Plus the fact that it’s in Cincinnati and I did not have the work officially planned out before I left New York is very exciting for me. I love how Hector, Josh and I figured everything out as we were setting up for the exhibition today. I think you have to let the space dictate what the work is going to be and let the audiences dictate what they’re going to be. You have to relinquish control a little bit.”

Blake shares easily and openly about her techniques and inspirations both digitally with fans via her website’s blog and Twitter feed as well as in person. She talks about growing up in Richmond, Virginia and like many New York transplants how she couldn’t wait to get to Gotham, first as a New York University graphic design student and now as a working artist.

Her West Village home also functions as her studio and she shows photos of the intimate space to prove just how much good work can come from tight quarters.

At her home studio, Blake also maintains an easy juxtaposition between the corporate branding work and her personal artwork. For every client challenge, like trying to get the likeness of Lebron James just right for Nike House of Hoops store on 34th Street or a collaboration with her singer/songwriter sister for a leather goods designer, she’s able to immediately brush the work aside and reach for something more personal like the logo for the 2010 TEDx Brooklyn conference or her ongoing series of typography, which as we speak is up to the letter “C,” drawings that are natural and realistic with a hint of the avant-garde.

Blake talks passionately about her love for drawing animals and how with her private work she lets go and lets her drawings decide the journey. Hers is a natural work grounded in realistic details; something closer to the Neo-Expressionists, perhaps inspired by frequent afternoons at the Guggenheim looking at paintings by Anselm Kiefer. The point is her work balance means by the end of the day she’s no longer bound by corporate standards of marketing and she can tackle new projects like her participation in ON!

After coffee, Blake and I return to the CAC in time for an opening night lecture by Davis and to watch the crowds streaming into the museum galleries. The next day, she continues her whirlwind arts weekend with a quick trip to SXSW to participate in the Cut/Paste/Grow crowd-sourced, live design show before returning to New York to prepare for an upcoming show at Philadelphia’s Slingluff Gallery and reboot with her corporate clients.

Standing aside and watching visitors stop, pick up a handful of puzzle pieces and get to work on “Primary Colors,” Blake soaks in her first exposure to the museum world. At the other end of the floor, larger crowds take turns using the Leap Motion 3D controller to create swirling wall murals based on her designs.

Watching people interact with Blake’s installations for the first time, ON! Handcrafted Digital Playgrounds grows in its scale and ambition and yes, utter playfulness. It’s transformative and inspiring to watch artists like Blake make creative shifts and experience self-innovation. After all, the very essence of creativity is to try something new no matter the risk.