Aaron Varonoff Trotter came to Colorado with a (‘to-do’) list that included landmarks like Red Rocks amphitheater, Coors Field and
The catalogue wasn’t the output of an obsessive-compulsive tourist hell-bent on hitting all of the state’s important draws. These sites were potential subjects for Trotter, an artist based in Portland, Ore., who works in pen, calligraphy ink and watercolor pens. He put the lineup with a specific goal in mind: creating an artistic deck of playing cards featuring Colorado’s most iconic spots.
“I look at maps and guidebooks to find highlights,” Trotter said as he sat on a wooden bench in front of Union Station last week. He flipped through the sketchbook sitting on his lap, turning from the page featuring a vibrant and vivid portrait of the historic rail depot to detailed sketches of the big blue bear in front of the Colorado Convention Center, the arching architecture of the Denver Botanic Gardens and the Speer Bridge over the Platte River. “I’m drawing Denver in color.”
It’s not the first time Trotter has worked to capture the essence and spirit of an entire city in the space of 52 sketches. He’s created decks dedicated to the most memorable views of cities across the West Coast, including Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles. He’s crossed the ocean to capture Paris and Rome in ink and watercolor.
It all started four years ago, when he created a pack of playing cards featuring iconic spots from his home city. That initial deck, titled simply “Portland 1: Landmarks,” started as more than 100 black-and-white sketches that the artist initially wanted to feature in a book. It was Trotter’s bid to carve a viable living from his art, a push to find a way to focus on drawing instead of having to work in the back room of a restaurant.
“I was tired of working in a restaurant as a dishwasher,” said Trotter, who graduated from The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. “This is the only job I could stick with.”
The inspiration for an illustrated, site-specific pack of playing cards struck, and Trotter whittled down that initial crop of drawings to 52. The neon “Portland, Oregon” sign atop the White Stag Building decorated the Ace of Hearts, the Pioneer Square Steps was the image for the Four of Diamonds and Powell’s Books denoted the Ace of Clubs. He turned to the still-novel concept of crowd-sourcing for funding, raising $500 on Kickstarter. From there, he tapped into Portland’s network of independent businesses and renowned open-air markets to get the word out.
“The first cards were hand-cut, hand-painted and hand-constructed boxes,” said Julie Benois-Sage, owner of the gallery and gift shop Local Discoveries on Alberta Street in Portland. Trotter’s studio space is next door to the shop, and Local Discoveries sold the first pack of “Portland 1.” “The response was fairly immediate once he started having them printed.”
Decks dedicated to other parts of Portland followed, as did series dedicated to other nearby cities in the Pacific Northwest. He honed and expanded his craft — the stark, black-and-white sketches of that first deck gradually took on more detail and featured different elements. His latest decks feature color from a set of watercolor pens. By the time Trotter started traveling to Europe to draw scenes from the world’s most timeless cities, he’d created a business model that allowed him to quit his job at the restaurant. He took suggestions from customers to guide his future plans.
“People have been asking for Denver since I started,” Trotter said. His six-day stay in the city included excursions around downtown, as well as trips farther afield to the mountains via a rented car. He had yet to assign images to specific suits and numbers, but he insisted the full deck will come soon. “I’m planning on a July release date.”
That kind of quick turnaround has become standard for Trotter. He produces six to seven decks a year, and he funds the entire enterprise through sales.
“I pay for my travels, I go out to eat,” Trotter said with a note of wonder in his voice. “I can feed myself.”
That may seem like a simple achievement for some, but it’s a monumental accomplishment for a former dishwasher whose passion always resided in the pages of his sketchbook.
“It’s really cool to see an artist go from struggling to turning an idea into something marketable,” Benois-Sage said. “I sell New York decks to people from New York, Paris decks to people whose daughter dreams of going to Paris. He can’t even print them fast enough.”
For more information about Trotter’s art and to order specific decks, log on to illustratedplayingcards.com.
Reach reporter Adam Goldstein at 720-449-9707 or [email protected]