Surf Shacks 065

Perry Pfister
Portland, OR

Matt Titone

For this latest chapter in the Surf Shacks project, we invite you to take a gander into the quiet abode of Perry Pfister, AKA “The Tiny Spoon.” Perry is a true artist in every sense of the word who is living the quintessential Portland bohemian lifestyle. He is extremely passionate and devoted to his craft of neon sign making and plays stand up bass in a few different bands, while also finding time to sneak away to the coast to feed his surf addiction as much as possible.

Matt Titone
Matt Titone

Who are you? Tell us a little about yourself.

My name is Perry. I am from New Orleans originally and have lived in Portland for 12 years. I have a business called The Tiny Spoon, where I make neon signs. I also play upright bass in several bands, my main one being an instrumental band called Old Unconscious.

Where are you from? How long have you lived here in Portland and what drew you to the area in the first place?

New Orleans has a lot to do with who I am and how I see the world. My original plan after landscape architecture school was to stick around New Orleans and help contribute to the rebuilding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. I left New Orleans a year after the storm, upon realizing that the newly reelected mayor was not about to implement any of the major design contributions that the city had been gifted with. He went on to be convicted of 23 counts of corruption 10 years later, based on the misallocation of funding the city received to rebuild itself.

When I visited Portland in 2003 I saw a calm, inviting lifestyle of people who cared about their home gardens and community. I got a sense for some really amazing creative work cultivating here among musicians and artists. When I moved here, there was this mutual sense of contribution, the feeling that each person was here to bring something cool to the table. We honored and encouraged each other through this presentation of gifts.

Neon is such an interesting and unique medium. How did you first get into the art of neon sign making?

Being from an old city in the South, where people are OK with rust and ruin, I grew up with a lot of classic signs. The Italian gelato shop I worked for in high school, Angelo Brocatos, has the coolest old sign from (probably) the 50’s! Through my landscape architecture studies, I realized how important consistent landmarks are to a place and the people who associate with the place. When a sign is left for generations, it gives people a place marker in their own lives, so by nature I want to see things in the landscape that are intended to live long enough to become parts of people’s lives.

I had a studio in Old Town / Downtown Portland and I lived in North Portland. I would ride my bike down Interstate Avenue to get to my studio, and would pass all of the Portland landmark neon signs, The Alibi, The Palms… I’ve always been into lettering, so to me big neon letters were the ultimate goal for presenting lettering! When I looked into learning neon, art schools were too expensive, and I had more of an interest in learning from a trade perspective than an art school perspective.

I was fortunate enough to find a shop in Oakland who offered a workshop over two weekends. This is how I met Shawna Peterson, my teacher and mentor. She allowed me to work in her shop over the week between the two workshops, and in the end she told me that I was a natural and that I needed to stick with neon. No one had ever told me that, so I took it too heart and I immediately started collecting equipment when I got back to Portland. Shawna eventually invited me to be her apprentice, and I would return to her shop several times a year over the last 6 years.

Matt Titone
Matt Titone

You seem to have a pretty tight knit group of creative friends here in Portland. How did you get your studio space and who do you share it with? Tell us more about the art community in town.

I feel very fortunate for the friends and community here in Portland. I met a lot of friends through music, but also through the Together Gallery and Trade Studios. The Together artists were massively influential for me, supporting me to show my own work, as well as inspiring me though their work and the sense of collaboration they lived by. I had a screen printing business and we were always working on cool projects and artist edition prints together. Currently I share a studio with another group of really interesting folks. Lindsay of Maple XO runs our shop, which consists of J&S Signs, Seth Ciferri Tattoo Machines, Nathan Mckee, several woodworkers, and a lingerie maker as well. Everyone works really hard, so that’s always inspiring.

The creative community in Portland is in a funny time. This place has gotten expensive, and the land-grab has made studio space scarce and expensive. I’m surprised how many folks have survived the changes. It seems like the commercially viable applications of creativity had to become primary in order to stay above water. Signage, tattoo, design, and branding became businesses that could be built out of what we were doing, and the businesses became the ships with which we survive the rising tide of people. So it seems that the theme is less “art for art’s sake,” and more “art for commerce’s sake.” Which is all fine, but is distinctly different from a time when you could work without as much pressure to afford Portland.

What have been some of the biggest challenges so far in pursuing this passion and starting your business?

The biggest challenge has been the immense personal investment of energy and the slow build of financial stability. In an owner/operator personal business the suffering is all yours, and the rewards are as well. So as hard as it has been to work so many hours and devote so much energy, the process has also granted me the equivalent value in reward and reaffirmation. Neon is very difficult, so I’ve had to learn a lot of patience to ride out a long learning curve.

On the flip side, what have been the greatest successes so far?

I feel like my greatest success is that I really enjoy my work. I wish that for everyone. Also, some standout moments include working with some of my favorite artists, including an artist who has inspired me since the 90’s, Barry McGee. Another pinnacle for me was the show I just had in Tokyo of my new work. That show felt like a culmination of concepts that have been developing since I was a teenager. It was an extremely reaffirming process to present this work to such a receptive Japanese audience, who brought so much interest and positivity.

Matt Titone
Matt Titone
Matt Titone

What have been some of your favorite projects you’ve worked on so far?

My favorite work has been the pieces that I made for the TUNES show in Japan. They are my own 3D neon sculpture, so they forced me to think in more dimensions than any other project. Also, the Barry McGee collaboration to honor TIE (SEO) was really meaningful for multiple reasons. Barry is such a humble person, and puts a lot of responsibility on his collaborators. He gives you his full trust, and shows no ego, even though he’s the dude!

Why the name “Tiny Spoon”? Where did your fascination with tiny spoons come from?

The Tiny Spoon is a symbol that occurred to me in a difficult time. I realized via a demitasse spoon at a cafe that the excitement I felt to use a small, delicate tool was totally parallel to the empowering feeling of using other fine instruments, like a paint brush, pencil, pen, scalpel… The restraint of the latent power within your hands, which is immense, was a type of empowerment that relates directly to holding a paint brush or pencil, and how we use that power in minute ways to express ourselves. The symbol also has to do with taking a little and giving a little. The business is based on the idea of “take what you need.” I don’t necessarily want to make it into some large production. I want to keep the shop small and flexible so I can surf and take out of town gigs.

You are also a musician?

Yes, I play bass, mainly upright, in a few bands. My current project is an instrumental group with Cory Grey and some other amazing musicians, called Old Unconscious. Also, I play electric bass with a gentleman named, Nick Delffs, who lives in Boise. I’ve toured around the U.S. a good bit with my friends, Dustin and Dan, in a band called Run On Sentence, which is out of New Mexico.

Matt Titone

What are your favorite parts about Portland and the area in which you live?

I just love Oregon! It’s within a beautiful region. I’m very intrigued by the Pacific Northwest. No matter how fleeting my love for Portland may be, my love for the coast, and the Gorge, and all of the unexplored parts of this area is an unending source. I like the liberal enclave of Portland, it helps to feel a little balance in such politically devastating times.

What’s it like being a surfer in Portland?

Being a surfer in Portland is a lot of driving. It’s cold at the coast when the swell is really happening in the winter, and the water is always cold, so it takes some true desire to surf here. It’s a little strange to see surfing become so popular here, but hopefully it can grow in a respectful way. The feeling of connecting with a surf partner here is rad because you can see a friend’s equivalent thirst to bust out to the coast (3 hours total at the least), and get in cold water to see what the ocean’s giving us that day. David Wien and my friend Jenna have been major surf buds.

What got you into surfing in the first place?

Initially I tried surfing with this assumption that skateboarding my whole life would directly transfer over to surfing. When I went out to the coast to surf for the first time with my friend, Kelly, I immediately realized how long of a learning process surfing would be. Initially I was bummed that it wasn’t automatic given my skateboarding history. Some years went by, and at one point Barry invited me surfing. I had just had my car towed in SF, and I really wanted to get out of town after being fleeced by the city, so I didn’t end up taking him up on the offer. When I got back to Portland, I decided I’d try it out again to see if I could even hang if the opportunity came up again. I surfed in Newport, Oregon with a weekend class at Ossie’s Surf Shop, and on the second day, I stood on my head! So I was stoked, and have been devoted since.

Matt Titone

What are your goals for The Tiny Spoon in the future?

I like how the Tiny Spoon is going currently. I’d like to make more of my work in the TUNES theme, and do more shows with that work. It’s always fun to work with other artists as well. I just did a project with Jeff Canham for his Mollusk show. So I hope to collaborate more with Jeff and Barry and other artists who push me with their concepts.

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(Special thanks to Leeward Northwest Surf & Sea)

Matt Titone

A goofy-footed designer who hails from the first state, Delaware. After attending Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida then graduating from SCAD in Savannah, GA with a BFA in Graphic Design and Illustration, Matt moved to NYC and found work as a freelance designer and art director before moving west to Venice Beach, California in 2006 where he ended up co-founding ITAL/C Studio and tries very hard to avoid crowds & traffic. While not in the studio, he enjoys surfing as much as possible, snowboarding, paddle tennis, hiking, camping, and watching the Eagles play at Sports Harbor.

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