Matt Adrian owes his career success to a bunch of crows and abandoned fast food. In 2008, he was an artist trying to find a muse, doing figurative art and working with a company designing art for high-end parties in Los Angeles. He found his inspiration walking through a parking lot, watching crows seemingly in conversation as they went after some french fries on the blacktop.
“It seemed like they were much more intelligent than your common, everyday animal,” says Adrian. “They seemed to be very gregarious and trying to communicate about who got those fries. I found it fascinating. Then I just started noticing birds everywhere.”
Now Adrian has his own small franchise, anchored by his new book, The Mincing Mockingbird Guide to Troubled Birds, out June 12 from Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penguin, though the first time his work was printed in book form, it was self-published. The book contains his paintings of birds accompanied by humorous profiles—killer owls, ducks in search of revenge for foie gras and finches declaring, “I’m three ounces of whoop-ass.”
Adrian took a long, circuitous route to publishing a humor book. He had always wanted to try his hand at writing but thought he wasn’t very good at it. He was much more comfortable as an artist. After he saw those crows in the parking lot, he started painting and drawing birds, to the exclusion of other subjects. That was the beginning of a quick rise from sideline pursuit to full-time career.
At first, Adrian’s paintings had pedestrian names such as Bird with Blue Wall, reflecting the focus on the simplicity of the representation of the subject and the surrounding negative space. But when Adrian went to sell his creations on the Internet, he found his titles wouldn’t work. As he began to list the titles, he says he thought to himself, “This is just boring. This is boring me to tears.” Indulging his desire to write, Adrian started to give the painting titles like Only My Reptilian Insanity Allows Me to View the Gravitational Field of the Earth Without Dying, and he started to create back stories for the birds.
The next big change for Adrian arrived when he started listing his work on etsy.com, selling it as fine art and magnets with his strange titles. The online boutique marketplace was beginning to burgeon, and Adrian found the direct contact with an audience gave him confidence to explore the oddity of his newfound inspiration. “I got immediate response from people,” he says, “which I’d never had before as an artist. Before, I was just out in the wilderness, just failing miserably. I was able to have an audience for the first time, someone who was giving me instant feedback. People would support it by immediately buying it.”
Adrian believes he got into etsy.com at just the right time, when there were fewer sellers and less competition. That allowed him to stand out and establish his art as its own business, which happened to come at a time when he was reaching a creative peak. “Suddenly, I couldn’t wait to race home from my day job and write and put stuff online,” he says. In 2009, Adrian was able to quit his day job and support himself with his bird-related art. “It really happened quickly,” he says. “And I was surprised I was able to transition over to doing it full-time. It was scary at the same time, but I much prefer working for myself now than working for other people.”
The Troubled Birds book started to take shape by accident, when Adrian began to write stories for the descriptions on his Etsy.com listings. “It wasn’t originally intended as a book; it just kind of started out as me having fun listing them,” he says. “They started out as magnets, and we still do very well selling them as magnets.”
Many of the images have a memelike quality, with a highly-focused image and a short, strange tagline, which is why they have sold well for Adrian as magnets and greeting cards, though their success is hard to predict and sometimes-puzzling. His best-selling greeting card is an image of a parrot with the caption, “You’re a whore and that makes me sad.” That makes Adrian laugh. “People requested it,” he says. “They liked this as a greeting card.”
Adrian finally decided he would combine his art and words as a book when fans started telling him they would love to have a collection of the stories he wrote for Etsy.com. But he figured no one would be interested in publishing such a collection. He decided that even if he had to print it himself and sell it out of the back of his car, “I want to get this out there,” he recalls.
The first versions of Troubled Birds came from Adrian’s own printer and were stapled together and sold to fans. Adrian found the lack of oversight by a publisher inspiring. “It didn’t seem real,” he says. “So I was able to just kind of do whatever I wanted and not really worry about trying to impress anyone.” He could be as strange as he wanted to be. The last story in the collection, for example is “my attempt to write a story about chickens in the vein of Cormac McCarthy,” he says. “It’s about chickens finding out that their eggs are being eaten.”
The book was refined in different editions and the print quality improved. The book became something of an indie cult hit, getting distributed through bookstores and selling on Adrian’s website. “The sales had really been ratcheting up,” says Adrian. “I don’t necessarily know why, but right then Blue Rider took it on. It was good timing.”
Adrian is happy to see Troubled Birds in the company of other Blue Rider humor books like The Diary of Edward the Hamster. The added attention should help his sales on his MincingMockingbird.com site, for both his work and for his wife’s “Frantic Meerkat” line of art. Perhaps most of all, Adrian is happy to think of someone stumbling upon his unusual book at mainstream bookstores, not knowing what to make of it.
“I’ve had the opportunity to see this at these hipster craft shows where we’ve sold our work,” he says, “just kind of watching people’s faces going from confusion to humor to where they’re laughing out loud. I like that idea of it being out in more places.”Nick A. Zaino III is a freelance writer based in Boston covering the arts for Kirkus Reviews, The Boston Globe, BDCWire.com, TheSpitTake.com and other publications.