Q&A: Cabin-Time Founder and Graphic Designer Geoff Holstad
Discussing the roaming creative residency and how going off-grid with strangers leads to beautiful collaborations
Carson Davis Brown
Much is made of the ruggedness and pioneering spirit of the West. And the history out East. But it’s good old upper Midwest, right smack in the middle, that inspired the idea that has us writing this article here today.
As the story goes Geoff Holstad and Ryan Greaves, two graphic designers and long time friends, found themselves snowed in at a small rustic cabin in the Porcupine Mountains of Michigan’s unforgiving Upper Peninsula. To pass the time the two worked together endlessly on an intricate entry in the cabin’s guest log. The experience was surprisingly transcendental, and begged the question, why not do it again, except on purpose, and with more artists? So they did, and the following year in 2012, Cabin-Time, a roaming creative residency to remote places, was officially born.
Cabin-Time brings together a dozen or more creatives of many disciplines with backgrounds as varied as their mediums of choice—designers, painters, musicians, writers and scientists, bird-watchers, community organizers, conversationalists, to name a few. Each residency takes place in nature, off-grid. Crew members participate as artists themselves, and though there certainly seems to be an “adult summer camp” vibe, everyone shares responsibilities, from cooking and cleaning to collaborating on ideas. Which, really, all gets at the central goal of Cabin-Time, to connect good people with great ideas and encourage experimentation in the natural landscape.
Now eight residencies, films, and field guides, five art exhibitions, and nearly 100 artist from around the world later, the idea is as bright as ever. But the path from grassroots arts experiment to certified 501c3 nonprofit with a global following is anything but linear. Which makes perfect sense. After all, nothing about Cabin-Time is conventional. Especially not the man behind it.
Geoff Holstad grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan surrounded by the outdoors, falling asleep to dreams of skateboarding professionally. Later his passion for skating shifted to art, graffiti culture, and surfing the Great Lakes. (That’s right, lake surfing.) The tiny, tight-knit community made the raw experience even more influential. “It was a really funky, weird, folky, super bizarre surf community,” says Holstad. “You’re basically chasing wind swell—storms and blizzards. There’s only surf when there’s the craziest weather. So you’re jumping off icebergs to surf the sloppiest, by most definitions terrible, but amazing waves.”
Through surfing Holstad grew increasingly interested in the outdoors at large, and integrating nature into his creative efforts. He began working in the outdoor industry doing graphics for emerging brands like Poler, and established powerhouses like The North Face, and curating content for outdoors blog Cold Splinters. All the while continuing to develop the Cabin-Time concept. Eventually the weight of constant compromise in the commercial world became too much and Holstad began to look for an out—a way to secure an honest paycheck every two weeks that still allowed time to focus on Cabin-Time. He found it at Patagonia.
Fast forward four years and Holstad now holds the title of senior apparel graphic designer and sits on the board of the brand’s celebrated environmental media grants council. And Cabin-Time now has a full-time crew of six.
To learn more about Cabin-Time and this past season's residency in Lone Pine, California—for which they partnered with Chaco for the first time—we recently caught up with Cabin-Time Founder Geoff Holstad over the phone. The fast talking, quick thinking designer had a lot to say. And we were happy to listen. The following is a condensed version of the conversation.
Cabin-Time has been to six states with eight residencies across the U.S. How do you decide on the location?
That’s a really exciting and inspiring part of it. Starting off we really just went to places we could literally get to in a van on a shoestring budget, but as the project grew—I don’t remember which one it started with—but we now do an exit interview and the last question on the survey is where should Cabin-Time go next? Then we as a crew have a rule that we have to choose one of those places. As with everything, it’s an open conversation and a reset each time. But that’s kind of been what’s steered the ship so far.
There is nothing political currently about why we’re going where we’re going. There’s no real call to action. We’re not going to a place because it is extra threatened in a classical sense. I do a lot of hyper political work in support of NGOs every day at Patagonia, but Cabin-Time is very much about being present in a place and really just the power of bearing witness in a place.
Have any locations been more difficult than others?
Maine was really hard. We were on an island—really shallow soil, no potable water, pack out human waste. You have the highest tide swings in the world, so you’re constantly moving the boat. And I had an ear infection. I had to kayak to get antibiotics. It was just a hard one to produce, but so, so beautiful and so inspiring.
Then in the Eastern Sierra we had like 60 mph winds that broke five people’s tents—totally flattened their tents, broke all the tent poles—and so we ended up in a cheap, cheap, tiny motel for the last two days in Lone Pine, which was then amazing.
We made one of the motel rooms into like a restaurant, took out the windows with the blessing of the motel. Then basically we restarted the residency and did all this amazing work in this tiny little California mountain town. It was just so cool and so awesome, but each [residency] is so wildly different.
Do you feel the art being created is more a reflection of the location or the micro-community that the artists themselves create?
Yeah, I think it’s both. Everybody comes in with an idea, a light proposal, of what they’re gonna make, and [in the end] it’s always different.
My dream from my computer desk sitting at home is when we go on this trip, all the people are going to collaborate. I can’t wait until that fly fisherman collaborates with that photo editor from Brooklyn, who collaborates with this person doing gender role work, or whatever. And then they always happen. It’s the coolest thing ever. So we give everybody the invitation and nudge to do something that they’re not otherwise going to do.
"Cooperative intentional isolation—it’s the special sauce of Cabin-Time."
But usually it is about place...the place is where we can all connect. We use the phrase cooperative intentional isolation—it’s kind of the recipe for the special sauce of Cabin-Time. It’s when you’re all together, none of you know each other, and every single person, myself included, is completely out of their comfort zone. I think that’s where real magic happens. Because there are no distractions, no preconceived notions, nothing to fall back on. So the art is born of the circumstances.
I’m definitely not patting us on the back, but somehow it happened where this is a pretty great recipe for really being present. And yeah, so I think everybody comes in with a plan about what their work is going to be, but then it does become about that shared experience in a place.
Is an interest in nature a prerequisite for artists applying?
Oh, absolutely not.
It’s self defining a little bit because Cabin-Time attracts those types of people, but I’m always inspired when it attracts people that I wouldn’t think would be into it.
We’ve hosted people that have never camped in their life, that have never slept outside in their whole life. And they sleep with nine strangers in the middle of nowhere, somewhere they don’t know where it is, with a borrowed sleeping bag, borrowed sleeping pad, and on the ground without showering for nine days. That’s just inspiring to me too—the transformation that happens with them about how little they can get by with. The more you know, the less you need.
What do you get out of Cabin-Time and what do the artists get out of it?
I continue to get what all the artists get, which is a chance to focus on my personal work, a chance for me to continue to grow the work I make and what fuels my soul with no compromises. And to keep that cadence of looking at my own work and what matters for me and my priorities.
And then also, you meet the most amazing people ever that I would never meet otherwise. We call it the best-friend-stranger-family, so we keep adding to that list.
I have a list of a hundred artists from around the world that are each in their own regard the most exciting people ever, that have totally disparate, different creative practices from me and what I do, and that I got to spend nine days with, totally undistracted, learning what they care about, their passions, things, ideas, issues they address in their own studios in their own communities, knowing that we have a shared experience in some far flung place. It continues to this day to be a lot of people that I’m really inspired by and engaged with.
With CT8, Cabin-Time partnered with Chaco for the first time. Tell us about deciding to work with an outside brand.
We’ve been approached by probably 15 different companies. We’ve been offered two reality TV shows from TLC. We’ve had offers from Urban Outfitters to buy the project as part of Without Walls—which came and went—but we had to say, thank you for your support, and I know it’s coming from a semi-pure place, but that will effectively ruin the project. Keeping this experience true is also why it’s attracting so many people, I think. So we didn’t want to jeopardize that.
By definition it isn’t like an expensive idea or an expensive project, but [before] we were paying for it and putting it on credit cards and it wasn’t sustainable. And now, thanks to Chaco, we’re able to offer travel stipends to each of the artists, and pay for all the crew’s plane tickets. They really just gave us what we asked for—just nuts and bolts to do the project. The crew doesn’t make a penny. None of us keep a single cent of anything still.
It takes some dexterity and creativeness on both of our parts, but it’s great.
Each CT8 artist also designed a custom Chaco sandal as part of the partnership. How did the artists respond to the ask?
They were so stoked, so stoked. Like, wait, I get a free pair of $130 sandals that I get to design?
I think we just come in so guarded—you or I or whoever works in the industry—and I think I’m just so guarded about about staying pure, and I just want Cabin-Time to be real and inspiring. So it was really humbling for me because then I’m like, Chill out, Geoff! These artists are just stoked to get sandals and it’s not a compromise.
What’s next for Cabin-Time?
We kind of never look any further ahead than right now—we’re not even planning CT9 yet—but I hope that we can continue working with [Chaco] or we can find situations like that going forward because you know, there’s money in marketing and I would love to be able to use that for good and be able to use that where neither party feels compromised and both get something great out of it.
One last Question. What are your thoughts on socks and sandals?
Socks and Sandals? I love socks and sandals! I’ve been wearing socks and sandals for a long time. Haha. Yeah, love it. Sockos.