It’s a Thursday morning in north-east Portland. Aaron Trotter, artist-proprietor of Illustrated Playing Cards, has crossed the meridian of his week: Wednesday he set out his stall at the Seaside Market, Friday he’ll be in the Pearl District, then Saturday Market in Waterfront Park.
Even at the low resolution of a Zoom call, Trotter’s space is well-lighted; perhaps an artist can no more endure a poorly lit room than a musician can tolerate smartphone playback. File boxes rear in the background, an abstract painting is propped on a shelf.
A few weeks ago my brother-in-law tossed me a pack of cards. The box was a soft purple. Instead of the familiar pattern, the card backs featured a tree, a table, a glass of wine. Riffling, I spotted familiar scenes on the faces – Ponzi, Raptor Ridge, Plum Hill, Elk Cove. Only these vistas were hand-rendered, perspective lines sketched in black; details suffused with slate, lime, mauve, daubs of gold and burgundy: ‘By Aaron Voronoff Trotter.’
Art and wine have as long and entwined a history as rice and beans, soap and water. Trotter’s path to wine country ran through the Yukon, Portland, half a lifetime of day jobs and a flash of inspiration.
Born in Delaware and raised in Portland from the age of five, Trotter always loved art. His father painted and sculpted, his grandmother was a potter, he started drawing comics as a kid. After studying art in college, he joined AmeriCorp and went to Alaska to do technical drawings for an archaeology project.
“I’ve always been trying to make a living as an artist,” he says. “But it’s a hard world to break into.” Trotter found a niche drawing Portland scenes, selling them as tee-shirts, postcards and the like. A few shops made monthly orders; it was tantalizingly close to a regular income.
“Late one night I was sitting there thinking, what can I do with 100 drawings? A book? That’s been done.” Then it clicked: playing cards. Fifty two illustrations in a deck; a gallery in the palm of a hand.
He ran a Kickstarter to raise a few hundred bucks for the first production. It sold out. Stores started pre-ordering cards.
That was 11 years ago. “It’s my full time job now,” he reports, with a hint of wonder.
How did you choose the wineries in the Oregon deck?
I visited 52 wineries and did tastings – the ones that were closest [to Portland], basically. I read some wine blogs, got some recommendations. That deck wasn’t [done] in one day. Those 52 tastings took about a month.
How did wineries react to your project?
I don’t think they really cared. The smaller wineries were like, that’s cool. Here’s a free tasting. Most of the corporate ones didn’t. I sell the cards to people who love wine and the Willamette Valley. They’re my best customers.
You have a Napa Valley deck too – how do the regions compare?
Wineries in Oregon are pretty casual. The ones in Napa are more like spas. A lot of them have amazing sculptures and art on display. One had a gondola you rode to the tasting room. Another one had a recreated 13th century castle. It’s a bit like Disney or Vegas. Surreal. (Buy: Napa Valley cards)
You also have a Portland Beer Trail deck – how do wine culture and beer culture vary, visually?
The breweries are all in the city, so I draw signs, or interior views. I have a beer while I work, so I like to include the glass in the sketch. With wineries, you have the landscape. The brewery [cards] are black and white but the wineries are exploding with colors. (Buy: Portland Beer Trail cards)
You have decks from all over the world, now. How do you approach an unfamiliar city?
I start with a guide book – Lonely Planet’s good – to get a sense of the history. I stay in a central hotel and pick up a tourist map. Usually I spend about a week walking around and do 10-12 drawings a day. It’s important to eat like a local too. Each deck comes with an index that lists the places pictured; some have maps. I love geography, the history of travel and exploration, so I’ve wrapped that up into my business.
What happens when you have a week to sketch and something goes awry?
Two trips I wasn’t able to get enough drawings on the first visit. I went to London in March one year. It rained, snowed, sleeted and hailed for five days. (Buy: London deck) Another time, I went New Orleans, got food poisoning the first night and was sick the whole week. (Buy: New Orleans deck)
Any plans for wine regions abroad?
I’d love to do French wine country. My cousin lives in Paris, where I did a deck a few years ago – all black and white and detailed. She’s invited me to come back so we can go to wine country.
You’ve been everywhere from Russia to Hong Kong to New Delhi – where next?
I’d love to go back to China, Australia, New Zealand, Antarctica. I want to set foot on all the continents. For now, though, I have to stay local. I’m working on a deck for Long Beach, Washington. There’s a lot of Lewis and Clark history in Long Beach. I’m going to drive [west] from the East Coast later this summer, and want to follow the Trail starting in St Lewis. I’ll make sketches for a Lewis & Clark deck.
Do ever work on commission?
I do. I’ve made decks for the Blazers and the OSU football team, for example. A winery would be an ideal commission. I could probably do the sketches in two or three days if the weather was right.
What do you do in your down time?
Draw and fold the boxes for my cards, mostly. And audio books. I love maritime history, exploration, how the world was mapped. I’ve been listening to stories about polar expeditions.
Right now, I spend about half the week at the coast. Sunday is the Astoria Market, and Wednesdays is Seaside, so I camp for three or four nights and breath in the fresh air of the ocean.
If someone wants to explore the Willamette Valley with your cards, where should they start?
Head to wine country and drive around until you see a sign and like the name. That worked for me. Stoller is one of the best, they have an awesome view and great wine.
What’s next for you?
I hope to go to California and do one or two shows in the Bay Area. Business slows down in September-October, then its the holidays and people want cards as gifts. I anticipate a busy season.
The pandemic has made many of us into armchair explorers. There is no shortage of online galleries, blogs and Instagram accounts but they aren’t substitute for Trotter’s illustrations. Art lies not just in the object, but in the observer. Shuffling through a deck of his cards is a chance to see the world through the eyes of an artist.