We caught up with Southern California native Robin McCormack, owner and artist for Thunderbird Design Studio in Los Angeles. Inspired by natural wonders, Robin creates phenomenal digital artwork and pledges his time and profits to support conservation initiatives. Read more about Rob, his artistic philosophy and his conservation-minded business below.
Flylords: What were your first outdoor experiences?
Robin: I was born and raised in the San Fernando Valley of Southern California and my parents took our family on many camping trips over the years. My first truly memorable camping trip was in Sequoia National Park. For a kid from the suburbs, the Sierra Nevada mountains became a magical place where you could wrestle rattlesnakes, catch wild trout and see black bears. These were the kind of exciting experiences you could only get by spending time in the woods and I was hooked.
Flylords: When did you first learn to fish and what does fishing mean to you?
Robin: I can relate to those of you who also suffer from last spill syndrome and the compulsive disorder that forces you to look down at the water every time you cross a bridge. I enjoy all types of fishing, but the most exciting fishing for me is sight fishing on the fly.
My first fishing experience was on those family camping trips. I remember using marshmallow pieces on a large bait hook and waiting impatiently for a fish to strike. We never caught anything, but it turned out that Dad took me to the nearest fishing store, where I asked questions and flipped through the pages of Fly Fisherman magazine. This started my fly fishing journey because everything those guys in the magazine were doing seemed to be working.
There is a popular Thoreau quote that goes, “Many go fishing all their lives without knowing it is not fish they seek.”
Fishing is all about the moments of clarity that come with peaceful solitude. It’s also about laughing your head off with friends after a few too many drinks. For me, the most memorable parts of a trip often happen out of the water. I realized that catching a fish was just an excuse to have all the other parts of the trip. I treasure those moments when life feels like water and just flows easily, free and untested.
Flylords: Where does your interest in art come from?
Robin: I have been lucky to have many creative people in my family. My older brother Kevin was a big influence early on and I copied everything he drew. My grandfather was a photographer, my father was an art specialist and my mother made pastels.
In college, “street art” was the big scene, and artists like Shepard Fairey, Banksy, Dalek, and Jeremy Fish were among my favorites. When I started my job as a graphic designer, my first Creative Director, Marco, taught me a lot about design, but also introduced me to Filipino martial arts, philosophy, and how your life experiences and interests translate into your work. Over the years I have been fortunate to work with so many talented people and most of my learning has been through them.
Flylords: When did you first consider art as a career path?
Robin: Before I knew what career path I was going to take, I knew I didn’t want to work in business and sit behind a desk all day. A friend of mine was taking design classes and I found it interesting. In those art classes, I rediscovered the fun I had creating as a child. I graduated and got a job in a small design shop in town. Just so you know, I ended up working long hours behind a desk in an office and would also like to take some business classes.
I’ve been creating digital art for over a decade now and it’s second nature now. With that said, I am interested in the idea of revisiting the painting and experimenting with some new materials. There will be some exciting projects planned for 2023.
Fylords: What sparked your passion for conservation work?
Robin: It’s a place called Stoney Point. It is a 400-meter-high stack of giant sandstone rocks that is popular with hikers and rock climbers. As a child, I remember climbing to the top, looking for lizards and hawks. A few years ago I revisited Stoney Point and was disappointed to see its sad state. Stones were covered with graffiti and debris littered the path. At the top, there were broken bottles and bullet casings scattered around. It’s so bad to see people flock to places we all agree are great and then not see that their neglect is destroying the very thing that drew them there in the first place. This was the first time I saw the state of a country in drastic decline first hand.
Flylords: What prompted you to start Thunderbird Design Studio?
Robin: The seed for Thunderbird Design Studio was planted in 2016 when I struck up a conversation with a gray-bearded Park Ranger at the base of a 900-year-old rock settlement near Sedona, Arizona. Realizing that my journey was a spiritual one, the guard asked me about the job. I told him I was a graphic designer working in advertising, but fishing and being outdoors were what I liked to do. He challenged me to find a way to combine the two, and the idea kept bouncing around in my head.
Then in 2020, the pandemic shut everything down and, suddenly, I had all this extra time. I started making artwork for myself and posted my illustrations on social media. The more illustrations I did, the more people seemed interested, and that’s what gave me the strength to start the business. It took six years and a long series of events starting with a broken engagement, changing jobs, and a failed side business to get to the point where Thunderbird Design Studio came to life in April 2020.
I knew I wanted TDS to be a vehicle for good, and it just made sense to focus on giving back to the wild places and animals that inspired me in the first place. This is how the art motto “Conservation by design” became.
Flylords: Where does your artistic inspiration come from?
Robin: The inspiration comes from an obsession with fishing and mountain hunting. When I think about why fishing is so attractive, it is easy to believe that it appeals to a deep-rooted relationship that is important to the history of human survival. The thrill of landing a fish must be an ancient reward system that is encoded in our DNA. I don’t remember making a conscious choice to make fish art, but it just happened.
I think the one-line illustration is a great style match because it resembles a fly line so well. The free and loose feel of the line work also represents the flow of the river – ever changing in expression and form. I aim to keep the artwork minimal and tell the story in as few words as possible.
Bruce Lee said, “It’s not a daily increase, but a daily decrease, remove the unnecessary.” I subscribe to this philosophy and try to apply this teaching in art and in life. The idea of finding the core of truth in any subject is such a fun way to approach art and I feel like it leaves you with a unique interpretation of the subject. I love the challenge of portraying something we’ve all seen in a new and unique way.
Flylords: Tell us about the 2% TDS certification for conservation.
Robin: 2% for storage means 1% of your time + 1% of money goes to storage. Getting involved in 2% has been great in connecting with other like-minded businesses and people who share the same values when it comes to conservation and nature. I think certification is important because it builds community, shows what we think is important and spreads the word so more people get involved and more resources go towards conservation. Shout out to Jared Frasier for starting the 2% movement.
Flylords: Which organizations does TDS donate to?
Robin: TDS has made contributions to Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, BackCountry Hunters and Anglers, Trout Unlimited and The Ocean Cleanup. These organizations stood out because they are run by passionate people who are actively and effectively making a difference in today’s world. From legislation to boots on the ground, these organizations are fighting the good fight and doing much-needed work to preserve and improve what we have for future generations.
Flylords: What challenges and successes have you experienced in starting your business?
Robin: Running your own business means you wear many hats. For an artist, some hats just don’t fit very well. Another challenge is finding quality manufacturers in the US. This is a big challenge. I want TDS to pass on all goods made in USA. While some of our products are already made in the USA, the full transition is taking a lot more than I want.
Successes have come in many forms. My first was a snowboard design for Gilson. It was a great project because designing a board was always a bucket list item for me. The cherry on top was that the proceeds from every board sold went to Trout Unlimited. A more recent project I really enjoyed was designing the poster art for “Pheonix”, a Fly Fishing short by the Braker Brothers – shout out to the force of nature that is Eric and Andrew. I am constantly amazed by the support that comes from the fishing and hunting communities.
People have come to understand how art makes them think of personal memories of lost loved ones and some have gotten tattoos because it reminds them of their time on the water. Having people share with me personal experiences they have had because of the artwork is something I never imagined. It’s definitely fuel in the tank for me. It’s such a bonus to be able to connect with people over art and it makes me happy to think that I’m bringing people some happiness in some way.
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