Illustrator by day, musician by night, Jason Snell brings 'screaming loud' color to LumenoCity

Snell's piece honors Cincy artist Charley Harper

CINCINNATI -- Six nights ago, Jason Snell stepped onto the familiar stage at MOTR Pub in Over-the-Rhine, wrapped his fist around a microphone and barked out throaty vocals with his latest crushing band, Temple.

Snell stayed at the club past midnight, then was up by 7 a.m., trading his microphone for a stylus and trackpad at his small storefront studio on Vine Street. Two large iMacs in front of him, Snell continued the fine detail work on one of the most painstaking projects he’s taken on as an animator—illustrating about 12 minutes of music for this weekend’s LumenoCity.

“I’m tightening the screws and working on the final minute-thirty, which doesn’t sound like much, but man, it’s a lot,” he said. “I’m working on something really awesome and I just want to make sure it’s right.”

The work of Snell and four others on the visual team assembled by the Cincinnati creative duo Brave Berlin will bathe Music Hall in a kaleidoscope of color and character, set to the live music of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

Snell’s segment, set to the Polovetsian Dances by Russian composer Alexander Borodin, is an homage to the late Cincinnati artist Charley Harper, who was best known for his modernist, geometric takes on wildlife. Harper died in 2007.

Snell worked closely with his estate to select, re-create and animate Harper’s static images. Snell also needed to convert Harper’s original palette of browns and reds into “vibrant, screaming-loud colors”—Harper’s original color choices wouldn’t work against the brick backdrop of Music Hall.

“He was doing all this before computers,” Snell said of Harper. “He painted all these thin lines and he thought of it as art, but there was that commercial side, too, and he made a living with it.”

Just as impressive is the living Snell has carved for himself. He grew up in Cincinnati and studied illustration at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning. All the while, he played in local rock bands.

Today, at age 36 and built like a defensive lineman, Snell is the sole proprietor of We Have Become Vikings, the design firm he developed after stints with Lightborne, Possible and other creative agencies in Cincinnati. He spent much of the past two years in transit to Seattle developing icons and the motion system behind Amazon.com’s new phone. Most locals know Snell better for his music, with Temple and, more notably, the power-grunge outfit Ohio Knife.

For LumenoCity, Snell and the rest of the visual team met this past spring with CSO Music Director Louis Langree, dissecting the musical scores to pinpoint emotional touchstones and to coordinate the imagery. Snell works from a software program with the music embedded on a timeline, serving as a roadmap for his animations. Langree gave feedback on early drafts.

During the LumenoCity performances, an associate music conductor will sit alongside the visual director, telling him to speed or slow the animations in real time to keep the visuals synchronized with the music.

“The symphony brought a lot of ideas to the table,” Snell said. “We wound up doing a lot of what we came up with when we were just throwing out a bunch of ideas.”

Snell almost didn’t stick around Cincinnati long enough to see, let alone invest in, Over-the-Rhine’s resurgence. He was eyeing other cities in the mid-2000s, when he met Sara Bedinghaus, a senior project manager with 3CDC. Snell was impressed with the work she was doing—and with Bedinghaus. The two eventually married.

“It got me really excited to get back into Cincinnati, lean into the history and recommit,” Snell said of 3CDC’s work. “When you’re young, that stuff doesn’t so much matter, but I saw the infrastructure in place and started appreciating what was happening. It gave creatives something to grab onto.”

Throughout his time working with Amazon.com, Snell also dealt with another challenge, working with the IRS to square six years of back taxes.

“It was just TurboTax,” he said of the reason for his tax burden. “They’ll let you write anything in there.”

Before turning his attention back to his desktop, Snell handed over a white vinyl 45-rpm single of a new Ohio Knife song, “No Clear God,” sharing platter space on the flipside with a song by the band Skeleton Hands. Copies will be available when the bands perform Fri., Aug. 8, at Fountain Square.

“I hope I’ve done right by the estate,” Snell said of Harper’s family and his LumenoCity work. “I’m really excited to see the looks on the family’s faces—everyone’s faces. I think kids are going to go bonkers.”

Watch the video player above for a sneak peek behind the scenes with Brave Berlin and the designs that make up Lumenocity.

Jason Snell also appears on WCPO's live-streaming Reds show The Fifth Mascot as Mr. Satin. The show airs Thursdays at 2 p.m. at wcpo.com/live.

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