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IHAVEANIDEA.ORG > creatives >  Jim Riswold
Jim Riswold

kaiser me Jim RiswoldSemi-Retired Advertising Executive and Semi-Retarded Artist
Wieden+Kennedy, Portland


You can take the man out of Wieden+Kennedy.

Jim Riswold is, in the words of Esquire magazine, “The reason you know that Bo knows. He’s the reason you are Tiger Woods. He’s the guy who paired MJ with Mars. He’s the guy who paired MJ with a rabbit. He is one of the best copywriters ever”.

And while the illustrious summits he attained during his advertising career are nothing to be looked down upon, his battle through Leukemia is more remarkable in just about every way. After his deteriorating health had him resign from permanent duty at W+K (where he was Creative Director and Partner) in 2005, he made use of all the newly found free time and discovered something else he was good at – making bad art.

His art shows are almost as popular as his ads. He got the ball rolling with an endearing first exhibition called “Goring’s lunch” where he portrayed infamous 20th century dictators in a rather novel way. Pieces that followed were all the more amusing with names like Selling Jesus, Art, People and a Cow or Bad People Have To Eat Too.

Jim has the unique honour of being our first interviewee creative with his own jingle. He’s quick to point out he’s also the only artist to have one.

“I am the first artist who has a jingle – did Picasso have a jingle? Nope. I win”

It’s hard to argue against that.

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IHAVEANIDEA: You’re the first copywriter Dan Wieden’s ever hired, why don’t you start from the very beginning and tell us how the two of you originally met?

Jim: I spent seven years slumming around the University of Washington, picking up history, philosophy and communications degrees. First I wanted to be a lawyer but got scared away from law school by the movie The Paper Chase. “Fuck, I’m not fucking smart enough for that,” I told myself. Then I wanted to be a Nietzsche scholar but was neither smart nor insane enough. “Fuck, I’m not fucking smart enough for that,” I told myself again. Then I stumbled into the advertising program in the communications department. “Fuck, I might be fucking smart enough for this,” I told myself.

Wieden thought I might be either fucking smart or fucking dumb enough for it too.  He put me in charge of making sure the coffee pot was never empty and working on the ads he didn’t want to do.

mediocrity Jim Riswold

Oh, Mediocrity – A poem about advertising by Jim Riswold

IHAVEANIDEA: You got booted off the Nike account a whole 7 times. Would you care to share the most memorable reasons with us?

Jim:

1.  I have a big mouth.
2.  I have a big mouth.
3.  I have a big mouth.
4.  I have a big mouth.
5.  I have a big mouth.
6.  I have a big mouth.
7.  I have a big mouth.

Seriously, I thought you’re paid for your opinion in this business.  I have always enjoyed offering up my opinion, sometimes in the form of a tirade.

IHAVEANIDEA: The “oh no, him again?”s  must’ve been quite funny every time you’d 
show up for another go.

Jim: I was always asked back.

Just-do-it-gluttons for punishment, those Swooshtikas.

IHAVEANIDEA: And what have you been up to for the last few years?

Jim: I have gone from a career of selling things people don’t need to making things they don’t want.

I’ve also been busy with WK12, which is a year long experiment consisting of a group of people coming together from various disciplines and trying to from an advertising agency. It’s a combination of teaching and baptism by fire. Dan asked me to come back and run the school. I was kind considering a teaching offer elsewhere and he said why don’t you do it here? This is your home.

So I did.

IHAVEANIDEA: And how’s that going so far?

Jim: I am driving it straight into the ground!

The most important thing I need to teach these people is to not be afraid to fail.  I firmly believe that if you want to be a successful creative you cannot be afraid of failing many many times.

IHAVEANIDEA: What’s the bridge between your ad-making/ad-teaching career and your independent artist venture? What skills from one discipline did you find most useful doing the other?

Jim: Risks are worthwhile in anything anybody does in any field.

Thelonious Monk said, “I take risks. The only cats worthwhile are cats who take risks.”

My mother always told me, “Son, you can’t argue with Thelonious Monk.” So I didn’t.

IHAVEANIDEA: How would you describe your style to 
someone not at all familiar with your past life?

Jim: I would describe my art as Absurd Realism.

murakmai gives spinoza flowers Jim Riswold

MURAKMAI GIVES SPINOZA FLOWERS (click to enlarge)

IHAVEANIDEA: What’s so funny about Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, World War II and All 
Its Unpleasantness, Napoleon, Mao, the Cultural Revolution, the 
Crusades, the Reign of Terror, the Guillotine, Hubris, and Some Really 
Adorable Dollhouse Furniture?

Jim: (Forgive me if you’ve heard me blah, blah, blah the following 737 words before or if you’re Johnny Trasnosky, Phil Keller or Bob Newell.)

I grew up a 98-lb. weakling.

In elementary school, Johnny Trasnosky beat me up religiously.

In junior high school, Phil Keller took over for Johnny Trasnosky.

In high school, Bob Newell replaced Phil Keller. Bob Newell’s beating-up-Jim-Riswold efforts would have made Johnny Trasnosky and Phil Keller proud.

Somewhere between Bob Newell pummelings, I came to the conclusion, despite Charles Atlas’s best efforts and a modest weight gain, that I would always remain low on the He-Man food chain.

Trouble was, I really wanted to fight back. I’d pray every night, “Dear Jesus, please help me kick Bob Newell’s ass. Amen.” 

It didn’t work.

Maybe Bob Newell prayed harder.

“Dear Jesus, please help me kick Jim Riswold’s ass even more than I did today. Amen.”

Somewhere, during Bob Newell’s answered prayers, a couple things happened. First, I took Mrs. Harding’s humanities class and met some of her dearest friends with names like Ionesco, Swift and Voltaire, and I learned some really new words like satire, sarcasm, sardonic wit and hubris. Second, I discovered the absurdist wit of Monty Python.

I did some funny math—I have always been funny with math—and learned something from this strange tonic of rhinoceroses, modest proposals, best of all possible worlds and very funny jokes about the very unfunny Spanish Inquisition.
I learned to laugh at the bad guy.

Bad guys don’t like to be laughed at—that’s part of what makes them bad guys.  Bad guys take themselves so seriously.
Mussolini, a bad guy, said, “This is the epitaph I want on my tomb: ‘Here lies one of the most intelligent animals who ever appeared on the face of the earth.’” Mussolini did not get his wish. His bullet-ridden corpse was hung upside down in a public square and spat upon.

Napoleon, another bad guy regardless of what the French say, returned to Paris, abandoning his soon-to-be-defeated army in the Middle East on October 16, 1799, and told France, “Follow me, I am the god of the day.”

France followed Napoleon, and 5,398 days later, it was bankrupt, 1,000,000 Frenchmen were dead and Napoleon lived on a crummy rock in the middle of the Atlantic. On the crummy rock, he spent his days dictating his memoirs noting, “I have worn the imperial crown of France, the iron crown of Italy, and now England has given me one even grander and more glorious—that worn by the Savior of the world—a crown of thorns.”
There’s a word for braggadocio epitaphs and self-proclaimed gods: hubris.

However, we are told not to laugh at these people. Mocking them, laughing at them, satirizing them, we are told, trivializes their crimes. I would argue that only speaking about the Hitlers of the world in deadly serious tones actually pays the fools the reverence they so crave.

They don’t mind being called monsters, but they sure don’t like being called fools.
So, by all means, show Hitler with his pants around his ankles; put a clown nose on Mussolini; slap a “kick moi” sign on Napoleon’s back; give Mao some onion gum; put a whoopee cushion under Stalin. Descended pants, clown snouts, kick me signs, joke gum and whoopee cushions don’t mix well with the overbearing pride that is hubris.

If bad guys don’t like being called fools, it stands to reason they would not care too much to be portrayed as pastries and lollipops. Now, I’m not saying all we have to do to deal effectively with the lunatic evil that is, say, Kim Jong Il is sneak Lewis Black into North Korea with a Kim Jong Il bit and a megaphone, but it wouldn’t hurt—unless, of course, you are Lewis Black and you get captured and thrown into a dank prison and are tortured.

Voltaire, a good guy, said, “I have never made but one prayer to God, a very short one: ‘O Lord, make my enemies ridiculous.’ And God granted it.”

Research says some good may come of doing so. Once I started mocking Bob Newell and his pugilist ways, he soon lost interest in beating me to a pulp.

Go figure. But I think he stopped his bullying because I no longer paid him the reverence of fear.
After all, Mrs. Harding, a bunch of dead writers and some extremely unbuff British comedians had my back, and they could kick Bob Newell’s ass.

Maybe they prayed even harder than Bob Newell.

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IHAVEANIDEA: What’s the piece you’re the most proud of? Be it an ad you did or an art exhibition, and why do you think it stands out over the rest?

Jim: Spike and Mike may be the single luckiest thing that ever happened to me in my career.

100% serendipity.

Bill Davenport and I were in Los Angeles editing our first Jordan spot.  It was pretty much standard fare for a Nike spot circa 1987: show the athlete being the athlete and have Pytka shoot it.  Anyway, during some down time we went and saw a fairly dreadful movie called About Last Night.  The movie was a complete waste of celluloid, save for a trailer for some movie we never heard of called She’s Gotta Have It from some filmmaker we never heard of named Spike Lee.

Long story short as possible: Davenport and I go see the movie in Portland.  There’s a character in the movie named Mars Blackmon who so loves the man Air Jordan and the shoes Air Jordans, when he has the chance to sleep with the girl of his dreams he won’t remove his Jordans.

Now that’s a fan.

Now that’s a commercial.

We called Spike the next day.  Back then, he answered his phone.  His only question was, “I get to direct the spots, right?”  A few months of blah, blah, blahing and we were shooting the first round of Spike and Mike commercials.

I guess the spots worked for a number of reasons.  It was the first time humor ever made its way into a Nike spot.  But more importantly, I think it gave America a glimpse of what Michael Jordan was like as a person.  They were a counterpart to the Jordan we saw on sports reports every night, Jordan the total predator, the assassin who went out a couple nights a week and laid waste to enemy teams.  Opposing teams got the killer, and the fans watching these spots got the charmer, the smile, a man of humor and intelligence, someone everyone seemed to like.

Executing the spots was easy; we took a page out of our Lou Reed spot. We wanted to make believe that Mars Blackmon, Air Jordan and Air Jordan’s number-one fan, was actually making these commercials and, yes, he knew they were commercials.  We wanted to make the film look like Mars, not Spike, shot it.  We wanted the music to sound like Mars wrote, produced and recorded it on some rinky-dink Casio in his Brooklyn apartment.  We wanted the words to sound like Mars, not some aging white guy copywriter from Portland, wrote them.

Dave Kindred of The Sporting News once wrote, in something that made my parents awfully proud, “Mars Blackmon saved the NBA from extinction.  His rescue of a drug-infested, money-poor, moribund league is a story so obvious it has been missed by analysts who credit Jordan Himself.  Filmmaker and actor Spike Lee, working as Mars Blackmon and directing seven (sic) Nike commercials featuring Jordan, gave the NBA an identity at once positive, playful and powerful.”

Kind words, but all we wanted to do was something funny that demonstrated something Bill Russell, a man stingy with kind words, once said to Jordan’s parents, “Your son is a better person than he is a basketball player.”

fridas owies Jim Riswold

FRIDA’S OWIES (click to enlarge)

IHAVEANIDEA: I hear you’re hardly involved with promoting your own art work, don’t you get the itch to come up with a huge effort for it? Surely you’ve got a couple of agency friends who wouldn’t mind lending a hand…

Jim: I have a hard enough time subjecting my worst enemies to my art, why on earth would I subject my friends?

ihaveanidea:  Glenn Cole famously destroyed your front lawn at one of your annual “I Love Jim Riswold” summer parties, would you like to get back at him by telling us an embarrassing story about him?

Jim: I saw Glenn Cole have sex with a chicken and the chicken was unsatisfied.

You can find more bad art and musings by Jim at JIM RISWOLD DOT COM

Interview by:

rafikcreditpic Jim Riswold

Rafik Belmesk
Operations, AKOS
IHAVEANIDEA

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