If you’re anything like me, when you go to Trader Joe’s, you’re very focused on your list. And if you’re especially like me, now that the Christmas stuff is out, you’re very, very focused on the Peppermint Joe Joe’s.
But there’s a lot more to Trader Joe’s than your checklist.
Like the art. Have you ever looked around while you’ve been trying to decide if you should get the dark chocolate-covered almonds with sea salt? (That shouldn’t be a tough decision, by the way.)
Trader Joe’s is overflowing with creative, friendly, handmade art.
And a lot of that art is handmade by two guys from Resurrection: Stephen Monkmeier and Ray Wu.
He's a Eucharist minister, and he sings in the choir, so you may recognize his face. His face is not actually for dinner tonight.
And here’s Ray.
Among the many things he’s created for Resurrection, Ray did the well drawings that figured so prominently in Lent and Easter earlier this year.
I met with Ray and Stephen one Saturday afternoon, and honest-to-goodness, my first question was: “Can you just point at what you’ve done in the store?”
Don’t get me wrong; I love the atmosphere at TJ’s. I just didn’t know that maintaining that atmosphere would take two artists.
Actually, it takes three. Ray, Stephen, and a third artist are responsible for everything you see in the store that you can’t eat. Slight exaggeration—they aren’t responsible for the freezer cases, for example—but consider this:
You know those fun signs that tell you where each cheese came from? Thank a TJ’s artist the next time you pick up a Camembert.
You know all the little price signs in general? They look hand-lettered because they are hand-lettered. Look, here’s Ray making a new one.
You know that mural behind the flowers? Ray did that. He said, “I was told that the mural was supposed to be Zen, but it was up to me to flesh out that idea and execute it. I like that the flowers are at the edge of the water; it makes them pop.”
So that’s why I’m tempted to buy flowers every time I’m at Trader Joe’s: I’m calmed by the water scene and develop this strong desire to have some pretty nature of my own. And so I buy a bouquet. Thanks a lot, Ray.
You know that dangling-from-the-ceiling baguette? Stephen did that. He started in July, and the bread was one of his first big projects. Right now, he’s working on a Christmas display, as you can see here. I don’t know about you, but by the picture below, this screams: Big Rock Candy Mountain! Candy Land! Sugar overload!
Ray and Stephen are also artists in real life (not that Trader Joe’s isn’t real), and so I had to ask: Does doing this kind of art—chalkboards about seasonal items and signs about Brussels sprouts on stalks—make it harder to do the kind of art you want to do outside of work?
It’s a legitimate question, one that I think anyone who has a creative job processes through bit-by-bit.
On the one hand, you’re amazed that someone’s paying you to be creative. On the other hand, you can be drained of creative energy by the time you get home, and the mere idea of writing or drawing or painting makes you want to put on your pajamas and watch TV.
On an improbable third hand, creativity of any flavor (be it commercial or personal) feeds more creativity, so being creative 'at the office' can make your personal creativity deeper and more rewarding.
Ray and Stephen seem to take that improbable third hand approach. Both have flourishing creative outlets away from Trader Joe’s.
Stephen is studying art at Wheaton College, focusing on charcoal drawing and oil painting right now. “The only thing that’s ‘ugh’ about working at Trader Joe’s—sometimes—is that you’re not doing the kind of art you want to do. But that makes you really want to do your own art outside of work,” he explains.
And Ray does portraits, plus graphic design and set design for The Bird & Baby Theatre Company (a local theatre group that quite a few Resurrection people are involved in—just a little FYI, they’re doing The Gift of the Magi in December. You should go.). “When I’m doing a portrait, I’m in a different zone. It’s so different from what I do at Trader Joe’s,” Ray told me, so apparently doing a chalkboard for alphabet-shaped pasta doesn’t count as “portraiture,” even though he put faces on them.
Ray and Stephen clearly enjoy what they do, and—I didn’t think this was possible—talking to them made me like Trader Joe’s more.
To wrap up, here’s a challenge for you: the next time you’re at TJ’s, try to find: