Alex McKeithen: Designer as Author

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Alex designed the cover for his memoir
Alex designed the cover for his memoir

In 1988, the graphic designer Alex McKeithen was a junior at Davidson College in North Carolina, venturing abroad to Europe to study painting—every art student’s dream. He spent a productive, creative summer in Tuscany, painting and listening to U2’s The Joshua Tree on his Walkman. McKeithen planned to continue his studies in Paris. Instead he spent his semester abroad in an asylum, believing he was the seventh angel, whose sole mission it was to announce the Apocalypse.

“The songs were melodic and cryptic and pushed me higher and higher,” McKeithen says of The Joshua Tree. “I felt the lyrics were meant just for me—secret messages from God. I began to think I was somehow ‘special.’ With Bono and U2 in my earphones, I was elated. Song lyrics were riddled with hidden meaning. ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ signified the yet unfulfilled search for my special purpose. At the height of mania, I believed U2 would also play a part in the apocalypse—the four angels of the apocalypse at the four corners of the earth holding back the wind and sea to keep man safe until a time when they would let the forces go.”

McKeithen’s memoir, The Seventh Angel (Lorimer Press), deals with his manic escalation and his time spent in a Parisian mental institution. It is brave and at times even funny. It’s written in the present tense, so you experience his full-blown manic episode—McKeithen running naked through the streets of Paris, leaving pieces of his clothing at cathedrals throughout the city until he arrives fully nude at the Arc de Triomphe, where he is quickly arrested.

McKeithen’s parents make their way from North Carolina to his institution, Maison Blanche, to spend time with their son. With their help, he is able to return to the States and is admitted to Duke University Medical Center, where he spends several more months in recovery. After many late night visits with his psychiatrist, McKeithen relinquishes the belief that he is the seventh angel. With intensive family therapy, he is able to leave the hospital and reboot his life.

“Writing the book was definitely cathartic,” McKeithen recalls. “I had carried it all in my head for 22 years and it poured out—everything coming out with all of the details crystallized and stored in my mind, just waiting for me to hack and peck my way on the keyboard. Maybe too dramatic, but it felt great to let go of all the painful experiences and get it all on paper.”

drawing of birds

McKeithen continues, “I thought I’d never write anything else beyond the Humanities papers I wrote at Davidson. Now it makes sense to me that I would want to tell the story. As a graphic designer, I am in tune to details and storytelling using type and image, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch to use words in much the same way. And as with graphic design, the biggest challenge was to not censor myself or tense up. I worked quickly, knowing I could smooth out the kinks later. My design often follows the same approach.”

I was anxious to learn more about McKeithen’s post-Duke experiences, and was pleased to learn that he did, in fact, return to Paris after graduating from Davidson, and enjoyed his unofficial junior year abroad painting in Paris. He later studied painting at the Staatliche Hochschule für Bildende Künste.

Graduation day with McKeithen’s sister and parents
Graduation day with McKeithen’s sister and parents

“A year after graduation, I got a job teaching English at a Parisian university and followed my teacher, Jonathon Robinson, to Angers to continue learning from him,” McKeithen says. “He had a big influence on me, exposing me to the work of Elmer Bischoff, Georg Baselitz, Markus Lupertz, Hermann Nitsch, Martin Kippenberger, and others. Kippenberger is still a favorite of mine. I like that he is a fine artist whose work often comes very close to being graphic design. His work, which is loose and integrates image and type well, does inform and inspire my design.”

From 2000 through 2002, McKeithen studied with Karel Martens at the Werkplaats Typografie, a two-year master’s program in the Netherlands that emphasizes both practical and self-initiated projects. He says of the experience,The WT only had eight students when I was there, with three mentors (Karel Martens, Wigger Bierma, and Melle Hammer). The school was/is housed in a mid-sized brick building that was formerly a radio station. I was in the basement next to the ping-pong table and aquarium. We ate lunch together every day with all pitching in a little money and switching off the lunch purchase days. Karel would sometimes complain about how far the money had gone! It was an amazing place.”

Karel Martens, Wigger Bierma, and the Werkplaats Typografie

Karel Martens, Wigger Bierma, and the Werkplaats Typografie

McKeithen has since designed with Keith Godard, freelanced at publications including Rolling Stone and Forbes, and served as a design director at Madison Square Garden. When I ask him about his Paris manic episode, he simply says, “I know I’ll never experience happiness that extreme again, and I’m sure I‘ll never know pain that intense either.”

Illustration by Alex McKeithen

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