25 Faces 25 Years: Joe Hodnicki
By Amy Weaver
Photo by Jared Castaldi
February 23, 2017
Joe Hodnicki isn’t biased to any one medium; painting, illustration, block printing, merchandise design — he does it all. The biology alum’s deep love of the natural world, particularly the ocean, resonates in his art and design work for big-name brands like Vimeo and Urban Outfitters, nonprofits like the Special Olympics, and independent shops like Grain Surfboards and Mother Earth Brewing Company. He’s built tree houses in the Virgin Islands, produced merchandise for events like the New York and San Diego Surf Film Festivals, and even designed the medals for the 2012 Winter X Games. But the career path that now so perfectly weaves his love of art and science was once unclear to a young Hodnicki.
You originally came to Drexel for engineering and then changed your major to biological sciences. How did art come into the picture?
As long as I can remember, I’ve been drawing, and my passion for making things with my hands has never left me. Through school, with my attention focused on classes and studying, I found every chance I could to keep art a part of my life, even setting up a small studio in a spare bedroom in the house I rented with four buddies.
As graduation came and went, unsure of my next steps, I decided to pack a bag and move to the Virgin Islands to fix tree houses for a short time, to help “find myself.” I only had to work four hours a day, which gave me copious amounts of time to draw, make art, explore other islands and dive into everything I was passionate about. My life has never been the same since, and I am thankful every day for hopping on that plane.
How does your biology background relate to your art? How does it affect it?
Marine biology has been a huge part of my life right next to art and design. I grew up spending summers at the beach, surfing, eventually lifeguarding on the beach through my early 20s.
I bought my first surfboard when I was 12 or 13 with money I saved up from cutting grass. I went to a used sporting goods store, fell in love, and without a clue on what to do, I took that bad boy into the water. As the only one who surfs in my family, my mechanic father in work boots would walk me to the beach and watch me flounder around for hours. Eventually, I stood up on the board, and it changed my life. Snowboarding, skating and every other adrenaline sport soon came after. (Sorry, Mom.)
Through college, in any course I was taking, I found some connection one way or another to my passion for the ocean. It was my way to understand it […] and now, to continue to be inspired.
What has been the proudest moment in your career so far?
This is something I have never publicly shared. I was asked by a very respected Hawaiian local in the surf industry — now a great friend of mine — to make a memorial service and paddle-out announcement for the unexpected passing of his son. I was honored and proud and humbled to be able to touch the lives of many in the most sincere and intimate way through my art. It was something I will never forget.
What about the coolest moment?
Definitely one of the coolest moments for me was when I designed the medals for the Winter X Games. I was simultaneously art directing Vimeo’s presence at the X Games, where I painted a 60-foot mural in my studio in New Jersey and assembled it in the snow at the base of the mountain in Aspen for the huge, internationally televised event. That weekend was amazing. I was not only an integral part of [creating] Vimeo’s identity, but every athlete who won a medal — gold, silver or bronze — had my design around their neck. I was even given the opportunity to award the athletes their medals right on stage. It was a truly surreal experience.
You dabble in a lot of different art forms — prints, products, paintings and more. What’s your favorite, and why?
Now this is a tough one. If I’m not learning, I’m not satisfied. With art and design, I am constantly trying to learn new techniques, experiment with new materials and push my boundaries. If I were to pick a current favorite, I’d say reduction block printing. This is a process where you carve a drawing into one block, printing between carvings. The lightest color — white — is what is first carved, inked and printed, and then followed by the next lightest color, which is carved where it will live in the print, and so on. Eventually, the only thing left will be the darkest color and the block will be fully carved and destroyed without another print to ever be made. For me, it’s about creating and locking that piece in time.
How do you continue to evolve in your work?
I constantly try to push myself out of my comfort zone. There is always learning to be done. A stubborn, younger me said, “I’ll never use the computer for art. I’ll never become a graphic artist.” Years later, I realized that if I didn’t take a leap, learn the newest programs, open my mind to new possibilities in art and design, I would be swallowed up by the fast-growing industry and lose out on a career I could create for myself. Soon after diving into graphic design, I was hired by Urban Outfitters and eventually oversaw art and graphics for their home decor division, where I used a computer every single day. I feel like my options are now endless.
What’s your favorite response someone has had to your art?
When people take the time to write me emails with pictures of my art in their home, or people come to me in person at events around the country to tell me I inspire them in some way. It brings everything I have worked for full circle.
What’s a typical day like for you?
I send my beautiful fiancé off to work with a half-awake kiss and coerce our dog Fin to take her spot in bed for a bit until he’s ready to go out and chase squirrels. I make a huge pot of coffee (addicted) and sit in front of the computer to wake up and explore everything I missed while I slept. I am obsessed with Kickstarter campaigns, Buzzfeed and TheInertia.com. I start work with emails, then down to business. The days change depending on workload, but include designing, throwing the Frisbee with Fin 100 times, cooking and usually end with a hike or trail run with my fiancé and Fin, followed by dinner, and then usually back to work until bed (with occasional surfing, home repairs, traveling and wedding planning mixed in).
In five years, where do you hope to be, and what do you hope to be doing?
In my personal life, I’ll be married for four years with hopefully at least one child, maybe two. Living a happy fulfilling life, making my wife proud and teaching my children how to appreciate this world.
In my career? I couldn’t even begin to imagine where I’ll be. If you told me five years ago I would have accomplished the things I have, I would have never believed you. I hope to still be working hard, pushing my boundaries, getting better at business and building bridges for my work well outside the nautical world. I couldn’t be more grateful for the amazing companies I have designed for, the walls of collectors who showcase my art, the people who constantly support all my wild and crazy dreams. I hope to continually decorate lives and homes around the world with my passion, while making my amazing family proud.
This article originally appeared in the College of Arts and Sciences' Ask magazine feature story, "25 Faces, 25 Years." For more Ask stories, visit askmagazine.org.