Ghostsigns and wonderlands

Updated: Aug 1, 2021

Sam O'Leary is a one-man creative machine.

Based in Portland, USA, his creativity is spread from Oregon to home-town Wellington, thanks to his many clients, commissions and collabs.

He describes his work as "hand painted wonderland from space."





If you weren’t doing what you currently do, what would you be doing?

Such a hard question that leads to so many answers for me: marine archeologist, astrophysicist, filmmaker, costume designer, children’s book author, exobiologist, illusionist, creator of children’s television. I hope I’ll get round to all of them eventually. In the meantime, the world is full of so many interesting things and is an endless source of inspiration for creative exploration. When I was five, I wanted to be a firetruck. Maybe when we can upload our consciousness I can be uploaded into some kind of futuristic electric solar-powered fire engine and my dreams will come true.


Describe your creative process.

This varies, but pretty much everything starts with research. I love to dive into the theme from as many different angles as possible. I like to steep myself in the theme and soak up all the visual goodness before I form my own ideas. The next step is pencil and paper, to rough out the idea and catch it before it flies back to wherever ideas come from. Once I have a few ideas worth pursuing I start on initial concepts, starting to explore colour, contrast, scale, and typography, refining towards the final. Something that is important for me is the hand- made element. I really like to see the human hand in a piece of work, whether it’s an obvious signal or a subtle one. Something that shows the person’s process and connection with the expression in the work.


Describe your aesthetic in five words.

Hand painted wonderland from space.


How do you measure success?

It's in the satisfaction I see on someone’s face when they are delighted by something I’ve made, and when my eldest son tells me “It’s good”.


Where do you find beauty?

Beauty is everywhere. I love bookshops and libraries for finding old printed gems and the general breadth of inspiration they provide. We get out into nature as often as possible and that is sure-fire beauty-catching. In cities I like to wander and get lost and find strange little shops with beautiful old signage or spot ghost-signs on the sides of old buildings, juxtaposed with the shiny new ones. I spend too much time in op shops finding strange and beautiful ephemera from bygone eras. I find it beautiful watching our boys grow.



How does your childhood influence your work now?

My parents are really creative and definitely had a huge influence on me with their own work and interest in books, art, culture and music. I would bop around a lot with my mum when she was working on docos or meet her after school at collaborative art shows she was organising. I’d travel to see my Dad in New York and go to all the galleries and museums. I’d hang out in my uncle’s train station bookshop – shout out to Pukapuka books in Paekākāriki! I was just a dumb kid and thought most everything was boring if it didn’t involve skateboarding or Playstation, so would sit alone drawing in the corner mostly. However, I soaked up a lot and as I’ve grown older, and now have kids of my own, I’ve come to appreciate that exposure intensely and and have come to realize how formative it all was


Who are your biggest influences?

Bringing it with the hard questions! Another list that could stretch on for an age.


Michel Gondry, for utterly whimsical mixed-media visual worlds. Cas Holman for playful and deep interdisciplinary thinking. Wayne White for work on Peewees playhouse defining a new generation of kids’ television. Annie Atkins for incomparable and meticulous work in design for film and televison. Margaret Kilgallen for expert craft in sign-writing and painting.



In two sentences, teach us something we might not already know.

There are tardigrades on the moon, which arrived aboard an Israeli mission to the moon that crashed on the surface accidentally releasing them from an experiment. They will most likely survive there until the environment becomes more hospitable.



What’s the most interesting thing you’ve read or seen this week?

Formgiving from the Bjarke Ingels Group and it is amazing. The book is beautiful, the content is thought-provoking, and you just gotta read it. It’s a look at where we’ve been and how we could give form to a future we want to build, from an architectural perspective but with the whole human experience in mind.


Also a podcast from Marc Fennel called Stuff the British Stole featured on 99% Invisible. It’s a fantastically entertaining take on telling history.


What’s your biggest regret?

Not taking drama at Wellington High School with Annie.



What is "home" for you?

This is a word that has always been complicated for me and has only gotten more so. I grew up between Wellington, Sydney, and New York. I left Aotearoa pretty young, around age 22, and eventually made a home in the San Francisco Bay Area and started a whānau of my own. Now we’ve migrated north to Portland. Home is split between all these places for me and while it’s amazing and wonderful and I’m so grateful, it’s still something I struggle with.


It’s been amazing to work with folks like Matt Wilson (of Good Fortune Coffee Co) back home and having that connection to Welly. It’s fun to see friends and family enjoying the brand, Mum says it’s like having little pieces of me sprinkled around the city. It’s also awesome to add to the visual culture of a landscape that was formative for me. We try to get back once a year but because of Covid it’s been almost two years now and I’m definitely feeling the distance. There’s a possibility we’ll come home for a longer stint. Just got to find a rag-tag collective of passionate creative individuals who want to accept me into their fold (and pay me all the money, naturally).


Images courtesy of Sam O'Leary