Beer cans as an art form? The Norman Rockwell Museum toasts to craft beer


In a 1960 television commercial, artist Norman Rockwell extolled the pleasures of a cold glass of beer as the perfect summer beverage for a country picnic or relaxing on the front porch.

Monday at his namesake museum, fans of craft beer and original art can sip cold beer on the terrace as part of "The Art of Brewing: An Artful Beer Tasting."

The event features the beer — and custom art — of Ontario, Canada-based Collective Arts Brewing, a company known for displaying limited-run, original artwork by emerging artists on all its cans.

Co-founder Bob Russell will talk about the company's origins at 6:30 p.m., then lead tastings of three beers: a citrusy blond ale, Saint of Circumstance; Mash Up the Jam, sour; and Life in the Clouds, New England-style IPA. Local Chef Brian Alberg will provide snacks of pulled pork sliders, meatballs and pretzels.

"There's a bar if you want more than a taste," said Bailey Girvan, museum event organizer.

Can artwork will be displayed, along with music and video from the company's "Black Box" recording sessions, which support independent musicians through on-can links, radio play and live performances.

Both Collective Arts and the Norman Rockwell Museum elevate modern illustrators by featuring them prominently on products and walls, Girvan said. Rockwell notably illustrated several beer advertising campaigns, including Schmidt and Budweiser.

A Canadian native and Vermont resident, Russell based his company near Toronto, where he ran a successful design and brand development firm. Tired of working with large corporations, he was drawn to "interesting entrepreneurs and artisans that needed somebody that understood how the market worked, and could capture and communicate their vision," he said.

He met his business partner, Matt Johnston, while working for Canada's oldest family-owned brewery. When they developed that company's craft beer division, "it became wildly popular," Russell said, "and we thought, 'why do this for somebody else?'"

Driven by a desire to "create something meaningful," the two men explored putting together their passions of art, music and beer.

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With the Canadian craft beer market still developing, Ontario, with a population of 16 million people, was "a great place to start our brand," Russell said.

Putting their corporate marketing experience to work, Collective Arts Brewing was born in 2013. Five years later, its beer is sold across Canada and northeastern U.S. and in Europe, Scandinavia and Melbourne, Australia.

"Craft beer is a world-wide phenomena," said Russell. Even South America and China are starting to develop, as people want to deal with artisans instead of great big companies, he said.

The company changes the can art every three months, using original, vivid and often edgy images that represent what artists are producing around the world. "We're trying to get as much art in front of people as possible, looking for that beautiful visual effect," Russell said.

Back in 2013, the inaugural public Call for Art garnered 500 replies. To date, more than 19,000 illustrators and musicians from 43 countries have responded. Every artist selected is paid and receives exposure on labels and online.

Brewmaster Ryan Morrow produces 25 beers annually, with seasonal variations greeted enthusiastically by fans. With 50 beers and two cider releases so far — the latest beer replicates a gourmet doughnut — "the possibilities are endless," Russell said.

Successful beer companies sell a lifestyle with their product, he said, and Collective Arts Brewing extends it to include artists and musicians. This past June, its Liquid Art Festival integrated beer, art and music, drawing fans and brewers to Ontario from as far away as Japan.

Past beer-based programs at the Rockwell have proven popular with patrons, Girvan said. Her home-brewing friends are "really excited about this event," she said, and exhibiting artist Elwood Smith already has his tickets in hand.

"This [program] is a natural fit for the museum," she said. "What [Russell] is doing is also an art form, so we're just bringing art forms together in one space."

Norman Rockwell, Russell said, captured American life and values and reached people because of his media "distribution channels," which in turn led to the war-time fundraising success of "The Four Freedoms."

"Holding a beer can, you're spending 15 minutes with a wonderful piece of art," Russell said. With over 9 million cans produced this year, "we're creating a distribution channel for many would-be Rockwells."


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