Jon Yianilos always knew he wanted to be an artist when he grew up. In fact, during his senior year at The Hun School he was a true “starving artist,” skipping lunch so he could maximize the number of art classes he could take. He attended Washington University, where he majored in sculpture and minored in architecture, and was looking forward to a career as a sculptor. And, then he graduated—in 2008, during the worst economic crisis in recent history. “It was a disaster and there were no creative jobs, so I started waiting tables like a real artist,” he jokes. He didn’t let the dire straits get him down, though. “I had a little show at the DNR Greenway in Princeton and then did an overnight carving performance at Art All Night which gave me the confidence to get out of the area.”
He moved to Queens, New York and landed a job at a sculpture studio. As a studio assistant, he was fabricating someone else’s work, but it offered a chance to peek behind the curtain of the art world. “I quickly realized that art is a terrible way to make money but the best way to spend it,” he laughs. He also realized that most artists had patrons, just like the days of the Medicis and Michelangelo. “I realized that I needed to be my own patron and make things for me, at least at first.” He also realized that with his extensive carpentry skills, he could earn a much higher rate as a scenic carpenter, crafting items for the production and events industry. Now, as a creative director at Wizard Studios, he illustrates the stories of major brands in creative and compelling ways. Take the time he made a company’s logo out of sequins. Or the sculpture fashioned entirely of feathers. From film shoots and fashion shows to live events, launch parties, and pop-up shops, Mr. Yianilos’ work transforms spaces, and mind-sets.
“Brands are the new patrons. Michelangelo’s David was commissioned by the Medici family to exemplify what Florence meant. That is experiential marketing and branding, and that is what we are doing. If Michelangelo were here today, he’d be producing live events for the biggest brands.”
Some of his favorite projects include fabricating a life-size New York City subway train car for an education nonprofit’s annual event. Blending the vintage shape of a 1930s train with the yellow-and-orange seats of the R, and substituting TV’s for windows (to watch the nonprofit’s video, of course), it was a showstopper. For a Lunar New Year-themed event for a luxury beverage company, Mr. Yianilos and his team created a bamboo forest with an ancient wishing tree (a support column wrapped in lumber with a custom-molded hand painted bark pattern and arranged with live florals, branches, and limbs).
While most of his creations are, as he terms it, “like Cinderella’s pumpkin—beautiful for one day,” others have a longer shelf life. He collaborated with the real estate management company of the new World Trade Center to create an interactive exhibit about the reconstruction. “One of the directors there is very creative and he had an idea for a photo-op where visitors could sit on an I-beam (like the famous photo of construction workers taking a lunch break high atop Midtown). It took plywood, rust-colored scenic paint, and painstaking work to make this particular magic, but visitors can now snap a photo of themselves hanging on the Top of the World.
“About a year ago, I took a step away from the (traditional) art world to do this and all of a sudden I am doing things that being an artist would feel like. When I was working with the sculptor, a friend asked me how it felt to ‘have made it,’ but it didn’t feel like being an artist. This feels like being an artist.”
While coronavirus has halted production of shows and events, it has not put an end to his creativity, as he now spends his time producing personal pieces again. “It was a roundabout way to get me to work (on my own pieces).” His ultimate goal is a solo show in Manhattan.
Curious to see more? Follow him on Instagram @yianilos.