/ 20 November 2014

The States, Vol. 1: California, Vermont, Louisiana, South Dakota, Maryland

Two years ago, I took a crack at giving major league baseball teams their own soccer jerseys. I had a blast – so much so that last year, I started Clean Sheet Co. to work on ambitious apparel design ideaslike that one. Our first big project? Designing t-shirts for every World Cup team. It was a fantastic success.

It’s that time of year again. I’m ready. Clean Sheet Co. is ready.

And the project? Here’s what I’m thinking.

• While 32 Nations was a blast, this time I wanted design around something a little more timeless than a month-long event. (We’ll dive back into the world of big international competition soon enough – there are loads of interesting tournaments coming up, starting with the Women’s World Cup this summer, and Clean Sheet Co. will be there.) I also wanted to stretch out the time frame a little bit – instead of dropping a ton of designs over a short period, I wanted to have the freedom to introduce and produce designs every week or so for a good while.

• I wanted to keep the ambitious nature of these projects intact – 30 MLB identies, 32 World Cup teams… if anything, I’d like to keep trying for bigger and bigger payoffs.

• I wanted to bring the focus of my work back to the good old U.S. of A. after spending so much time thinking about international identities.

Everything led to one place.


Over the next several months, I’ll be creating and releasing t-shirt designs for each of the 50 U.S. States – and quite possibly a few bonus designs as well. Each one will be made available for purchase at the Clean Sheet Co. website. I’m starting with five shirts today – more on those in a second – and batches of future designs will be released every few weeks. If you need a primer on my design technique, check out “The Rules”, a piece that walks through the Clean Sheet Co. design process.

There’s obviously a ton of ground to cover. As you have probably surmised, the first five states are an eclectic bunch. Let’s dive in.


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As soon as I determined that I’d be creating a collection centered around the states, I immediately decided on California as my “first” design. I still haven’t figured out how I want to go about organizing the collection, or how, exactly, I want to go about ordering the states as we go. (I may actually ask you guys to play a role; stay tuned.) But California seemed like the perfect place to start.

Why? Well, it’s a huge canvas, for one thing. California is a state so big that it just actively considered splitting itself apart (into regions, I might add, that each would make for interesting design projects). Beyond the physical size, though, California is a kaleidoscope of sensory and evocative ideas. It invents modern industry in the north, and perfects modern storytelling in the south. It eagerly tries big new things – and introduces them to America – all the while holding fast to cherished traditions. It’s a magnet for the aimless and ambitious alike, a place where people arrive to connect with dreams. It’s fiercely independent – often calling itself a Republic – but it seems to cherish its role in our collective society. All together, it captures something quintessentially American.

Also, its got a kick-ass grizzly bear on its flag.

The flag’s story is pretty cool; it was created by the very revolutionaries that liberated California from Mexico – exactly as they took command of their first town, in the skirmish that would spark California’s secession and ultimately, its freedom. The flag’s bold visual statement – equal parts optimism and obstinance – has obviously served the state well. It’s the perfect inspiration for the California Shirt.

The California Shirt is a rich, earthy brown, with a golden-tan Grizzly lumbering across the face of the shirt. He moves, appropriately, both upwards and towards the west. The bear is a simplified version of the beast found on the state flag (which is actually quite detailed) and where he crosses the Clean Sheet crest, the green, white and red stripes of the flag bleed through. The flag’s lone red star doubles as the star atop the crest.

The shirt ends up simple, defiant, and beautiful. A fitting start, I hope, to this undertaking.


image Get it at Clean Sheet Co. »

I grew up only a couple minutes from the Vermont state line. In my experience, there are a few states that just “feel” different as soon as you cross the border, and Vermont is one of them. The roads look different. The landscape changes in subtle ways. Things really do seem a little more quaint, a little more pastoral, and a little more communal. Upstate New York does grey-and-dreary quite well; cross over into Vermont and that same weather immediately feels like “let’s get a campfire going!” weather. I’ve never been able to figure it out.

So, we have a bit of a theme going here; kind of like California, Vermont has the “state of mind” thing happening in spades. Also like California, bands of roving revolutionaries shaped the state’s history. Vermont’s, of course, go back a few generations before California’s do, all the way to the American struggle for independence. As far as Revolutionary celebrities go, you have your inner circle – the Founding Fathers, Betsy Ross, Benedict Arnold, etc. – that everybody learns about in school. But then there’s another tier: a mix of meteoric figures, local legends, and fondly-remembered b-listers that comprised the bulk of the heroic citizen response to the British threat. At the top of this list: Vermont’s Ethan Allen, a key American Revolutionary who is well-celebrated regionally but doesn’t always get top billing in history books.

I’ve always loved the image of the hardscrabble American revolutionary soldier, hiding in bushes and scurrying over rocks, fighting against lines of regimented, over-disciplined, over-dressed British infantry. Some of that is fairy tale, sure – the official Continental Army was pretty kitted out itself – but it was most true in remote outposts like Vermont. Ethan Allen and his band of Green Mountain Boys were the essence of this American image: they were a roughly-organized, roving, carousing posse of troublemakers. I can’t help but think of Allen in the Tyler Durden role and the Boys, his Project Mayhem. The Green Mountain Boys were actually formed well before the Revolution, to protect their land (not yet called Vermont) from interests in New York, New Hampshire and Canada. From Wiki:

With several hundred members, the Green Mountain Boys effectively controlled the area where New Hampshire grants had been issued. They were led by Ethan Allen, his brother Ira Allen, and their cousins Seth Warner and Remember Baker. They were based at the Catamount Tavern in Bennington. By the 1770s, the Green Mountain Boys had become an armed military force and de facto government that prevented New York from exercising its authority in the northeast.

Catamount Tavern? De facto government? Remember Baker? Somebody’s got to make this movie. As they were an established force by the time the war for independence arrived, the Green Mountain Boys were well-suited for action. They defended their land. They captured important forts from the British, and then plundered them for liquor instead of handing them to American forces. For the hell of it, they invaded Canada. (Why not?) And when all was said and done, they helped establish the Vermont Republic – an independent country that lasted 14 years before Vermont decided to join the Union. Quite a legacy.

The Green Mountain Boys congregated under their own colors: a beautiful green and blue design that looks like a determined Vermont interpretation of the Colonial flag. I’ve used the colors and shapes from the Green Mountain Boys’ flag as the basis for the Vermont Shirt’s design; the green field becomes the green base of the shirt, and the deep blue star field – complete with patchwork stars – is rendered as a sky stretching across the shirt’s body. The stars rise, of course, above a depiction of green mountains.

That’s my tribute to Ethan Allen, the Green Mountain Boys, and the fiercely different state of Vermont.


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…Good Pelican, wash me clean with your blood,
One drop of which can free the entire world of all its sins.
Adoro te Devote, by St. Thomas Aquinas

When I set out to make a Louisiana t-shirt, I did not expect to learn about the mythological aspects of the pelican. But then, this is kind of why I love these projects – it’s impossible not to learn weird stuff. The last wild grizzly in California, Monarch, died in 1911 and is taxidermied in a flag-inspired diarama. Ethan Allen once had a healthy tooth pulled just to show a nervous woman that the procedure wouldn’t hurt. And the pelican, come to find out, has deep symbolic significance to several cultures. The bird has been worshipped by native people in Australia and South America. It’s nature has been referenced by Shakespeare and Keats. When the Spanish contolled California, they named the island of Alcatraz after an arabic phrase for “water vessel” – a nod to the many pouch-beaked pelicans who nested there. 

And then there’s Christianity – a religion which never mingles more easily with mythology and native lore than in the manner by which it’s practiced in Louisiana. In Christian myth, the bird has special meaning; along the pelican-rich Gulf Coast, it is especially revered. Most Christian pelican myths center on a particular trait – the bird’s devotion to its young, and its willingness to sacrifice itself for their nourishment and care. There is even a specific trope, “the pelican in her piety”, which depicts a mother pelican wounding itself – piercing it’s own breast – so that its young can feed in times of famine. It’s this exceptional image that’s featured on the Louisiana state flag. The power granted to pelican makes it a powerful local symbol (witness the name of the NBA team) and references to it can be found prominently around the costal region.

I took this arresting pelican imagery and streamlined it. For The Louisiana Shirt, pelican is simplified into a series of waves and casual lines; a lone eye peers out from the hole in the Clean Sheet crest. The three drops of blood drawn from its breast form a small but discernible fleur-de-lis – another important Louisiana symbol. The shirt’s dominant tones, golden yellow, violet blue and white, are both the state’s official colors and are familiar to anyone who has spent a celebratory occasion in that part of the country.

For a a spiritual state, a beautiful, spiritual (if slightly surprising) symbol.

South Dakota

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I really wanted to make my initial selection of states diverse. Regionally, I think I’ve accomplished that – the initial five hail from every corner of the country. I also wanted to take on a mix of states that I had some knowledge of (like Vermont), some that seemed “fun” (like California) and some that I knew very little about. Enter: South Dakota.

I’ve never been to the Mt. Rushmore State. I’ve never even been close, unless flying past counts. My preconceptions were stock: rusty, brown dirt, lots of open space and sky, no people, little culture. A chill, and maybe a barely detectable lonliness, in the air.

As I learned more about South Dakota, I grew to want to visit it. No for tourist attractions, but to get a sense of the psyche of the place. The more I read, the more South Dakota seemed like home to a certain soulfulness – a mecca for natural, creative, resourceful, spiritual people.

Take Dick Termes, resident of Spearfish. He’s a beloved local artist – but his art isn’t simply distinctive. He’s a vanguard; a practioner of a form of art that virtually no one else can make, or even attempt. Dick Termes paints Termespheres. His canvases are literally spherical, and his output is painted, perspective-imbued artwork. A typical flat painting uses only one or two vanishing points; Termespheres use six-point perspective. They are both real and surreal representations of the beauty Termes finds around him. They are perfect illustrations of one man’s search for truth and beauty.

How did I start learning about Dick Termes? As is often the case, it all comes back to flags. A few years back, Termes proposed and designed a new South Dakota flag to replace the current model, which has history on its side, but doesn’t read so well as a vexilogical document. It turns out Termes is a pretty good two-dimensional artist and designer when he’s not contemplating spheres, because his flag design is beautiful. It depicted a traditional Native American medicine wheel – a potent symbol in the upper midwest – combined with a stylized verion of the blue and yellow sunburst found on the current flag. (Fun fact: South Dakota used to lay claim to being the Sunshine State before Florida boxed them out; Mt. Rushmore has filled sunshine’s place in the state’s official motto.)

The Termes flag got farther than most private flag proposals; it even had some support in state government. In the end, it wasn’t to be. As I looked to design the South Dakota Shirt, I knew I wanted to incorporate elements of both the existing flag and the Termes design. It also became appartent just how important Native American culture is in South Dakota, and also just how singular and defining Mt. Rushmore is to the state’s identity. I tried to honor each of these ideas.

The South Dakota Shirt features an iconic medicine wheel in leathery, natural brown against a slate rock grey base. Stylized feathers hang from the wheel to honor native culture that continues to shape the state. The brown hues speak to the earthiness of the state, and the grey, the granite rock of Mt. Rushmore, as well as the in-progress Crazy Horse memorial and other beautiful, natural formations in the Black Hills. The Clean Sheet crest is sky blue, and features a sunburst that references the state’s official flag.


image Get it at Clean Sheet Co. »

When a state has pre-existing visual language as strong and beautiful as Maryland already does, it’s almost a problem for a project like this one. Where can one go from something this striking? You’d think starting with a attractive flag would make things easier; in fact, it means that the bar is already set quite high for visual expression. 

The distinctive pattern is where I had to begin, though; it’s everywhere in Maryland. The state is the only one in the country to base its design on European-style heraldry, and Maryland residents don’t miss a chance to show it off. You’ll find the pattern flying on the unmissable state flag, of course, but it’s also heavily integrated into cultural institutions. It’s featured on the uniforms of major local sports teams, the state university system, and on highly visible branches of government like the state police.

The flag’s present incarnation, in fact, is a bit of a metaphor for our nation’s history of complicated conflict. Maryland originally flew just the yellow and black segment of the flag – based on colonizer Lord Baltimore’s family crest – as the full design. On the threshold between north and south, Maryland’s citizenry was drastically split during the Civil War. Though Maryland officially remained part of the Union during the Civil War, many of its residents sided with the South – and the secessionists indicated their preferece by flying a different flag: the one based on the Crosslands crest featuring crimson and white panels and a trefoil cross design.

After the war ended, Maryland realized that re-incorporating the factions that tore it apart would be aided by visual compromise. So the state flag became half Union and half Confederate, alternating the symbols over four panels. Legend has it that the victorious Union colors got the all-important upper-left quadrant. 

I played with several visual ideas for Maryland, but nothing clicked until I separated the color families and had them play in different spaces on the shirt. The crimson and white space takes over the Clean Sheet crest; the yellow and black checkerboard banner is wrapped around the crest like a scarf. Where the corners of the banner crease, the familiar counter-charged shapes show up to honor the “reversed” look that makes the Maryland state flag and state seal so unique.

Happily, another connection revealed itself as I kept moving pieces around – the very rough, heavily stylized outline of the state’s geography. The yellow and black banner cascades from left to right across the shirt, approximating Maryland’s skinny northern inland border, and then zig-zags south across the crest to represent the seaboard, and east again to capture Maryland’s piece of the Delmarva peninsula.

I love the idea that a visual compromise helped knit a diverse group of opinionated people back together afer a terrible split. Anecdotes like that underscore the importance and power of visual language, and they’re the reason I’m doing this project.

And that’s our first five. I don’t mind saying: I think this was a good start. I’m at @m_willis if you want to leave a comment or give me a piece of your mind. Our mailing list (see the very bottom of this page) is a good way to make sure you get notified about future installments.  Check back soon for volume 2, and until then check out these shirts and more over at the Clean Sheet Co. website.

The States is a joint project by M.Willis and Clean Sheet Co. about designing expressive shirts for every U.S. state. Questions, comments, etc.? I’m on Twitter at @m_willis. You can check out Clean Sheet Co. at cleansheet.co. If you want to know a little more about me, check out the features at the top of the page, or check out my brief bio. Thanks for reading!