Story last updated at 6/3/2009 - 12:14 pm
JUNEAU - Bill Spear was once chairman of the board of one of the largest venture capital banks in the world, but he decided he'd rather be drawing. He made a career switch and for the past three decades, Spear has made his living designing pins for fans in Juneau and beyond. He has conceived of nearly 2,000 designs. including special commissions for businesses and organizations around the country.
So why did Spear leave his previous profession to pursue pins? According to the artist, he wanted to prove that his dream of making a living through his work was possible.
"People said it's impossible to do business in Alaska," Spear said. "I said, 'Of course you can.'"
Spear has always enjoyed drawing and painting. After seeing the demand that existed for pins such as those in the Iditarod series, he was inspired to make a business out of it. But even though Spear's work became a business venture, he considers his art "a byproduct of living."
"To keep your integrity as an artist is tough," Spear said. "It's basically a question of honesty and the pleasure that you get out of doing a painting. If you don't enjoy it for itself, you're going to be frustrated."
Spear's thousands of honest little ideas have made a big impact. Nestled above Heritage Coffee Co. on South Franklin St. lies the manifestation of his creativity: Wm Spear Design. The shop displays his pins, zipper pulls and original drawings and paintings.
In one corner of the shop hang the "doodles of the day," which Spear said he often creates while his wife, Susan, is drying her hair. The doodles act as "warm-ups" for Spear before he gets to doing real "important work."
In addition to the doodles, pins in display cases dominate the shop. There are animal pins, vegetable pins, car pins, marine life pins, space travel pins and medical science pins.
"When I first started I was, obviously, totally obsessed," Spear said. "I was doing 100 pins a year. I couldn't stop."
Spear has designed many pins that are difficult to lump into any sort of category, such as the "Running Mummy" and "Paint Tube, Red."
"I used to have people who wanted to collect everything I had, but I burnt out my collectors," Spear said. "I had so much stuff that they couldn't keep up."
In Spear's early days of pin designing, he partnered with several other artists to design pins based on their work. Seattle painter Fay Jones is one of Spears' collaborators and some of her pin designs from nearly 25 years ago are still for sale. Spear has created other pins from the work of local painter Dan Deroux. Ketchikan artist Ray Troll's fishy work has also made its way into pin form.
Spear sports his own pins, choosing different designs to fit his mood or to go along with situations he may be encountering. For example, on a day he was feeling "toxic," he donned a skull and crossbones.
The pins themselves are made almost entirely by hand. The enamels are made of glass and are colored by metal oxides. Some pins can have up to 13 different colors, which must each be mixed and fired separately. Recycled copper backing supports the enamels. After the backing and enamel are soldered together and sanded, the pins are electroplated in gold.
Spear said it is becoming harder and harder to find enamellers to work with and that the medium will likely evaporate in the next five to ten years. However, he uses the enameling process to ensure that his work will "last through the generations."
"My brother's house burned down and the only things that survived were the pins," Spear said.
Spear predicted that people will be digging up his pins as artifacts out of ruins years from now, deducing from the pins' clues what life must have been like for the people of the 20th and 21st centuries.
To view more of Spear's work, visit www.wmspear.com.