April 15, 2022
Tech entrepreneur’s path winds from solar cars to bleeding-edge art
Chris O'Neill

Shawn Kemp applies the finishing touches to one of his latest laser-cut artworks at his home studio in Bellingham. (Chris O’Neill photo © 2022)

April 15, 2022
Tech entrepreneur’s path winds from solar cars to bleeding-edge art
Chris O'Neill

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Shawn Kemp’s art studio may appear at first glance to be the quintessential man cave, with one glaring exception: his features a high-power laser. Kemp — far beyond being an early adopter — is a person who dwells comfortably on the bleeding edge of technology.

In high school in the early ’90s, Kemp was in an extracurricular program designing and racing solar cars. From there, he’s moved through the worlds of gaming, Facebook and into computer-generated laser art.

“In Hawaii the state department of energy sponsored a competition for high schoolers, so all the high schools built solar cars,” Kemp said. “I was always interested in computers and stuff so I just kind of naturally fell into that.”

Kemp and his teammates helped design and build the first solar vehicle to drive from California to Delaware, no small feat for a group of high school kids from Kona.

“We had some really great advisors,” Kemp said. Among them was Budd Steinhilber, one of the founders of the Industrial Designers Society of America.

Hawaii to Bellingham

From Kona, Steinhilber pointed Kemp in the direction of pursuing a degree in industrial design at Western Washington University.

“He showed me his portfolio and I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is what I want to design,'” Kemp said. “That’s why I ended up in Bellingham.”

But Kemp didn’t settle in Bellingham right away. After finishing a degree in industrial design he bought a house in Seattle and supplemented the mortgage by splitting it with roommates. He also started his own business which focused on using Adobe Flash, a web graphics design tool mostly used for advertising at the time.

“A bunch of companies wanted banners,” Kemp said. “I started a little consulting company that was doing like a bunch of those banners for casinos.”

Codename Xbox

By chance, Kemp accompanied a friend to a temp agency and ran into a fellow Western alumnus who asked if he would be interested in working on a project called codename Xbox — a turning point that led to a six-year stint working for Microsoft. Kemp successfully created a robust and active community around the company’s gaming console but after a time began to question the ramifications of his work.

“I’ve always had that awareness of, is it moving in a positive direction or is it moving in a detrimental direction,” Kemp said. “It got me thinking a lot about, what are the effects of this product, what are the effects of this industry?”

Kemp said the company’s goal of encouraging more gaming in its target demographic without considering the negative effects made him worry about legacy. Kemp said he also experienced grueling hours and what he viewed as a toxic work environment which left him feeling burned-out and in need of a change.

“It was an extremely misogynistic male-dominated culture that just chewed through people.” Kemp said. “People were working 80 hours a week.”

After Kemp left Microsoft, he took some time off with his wife and moved back to Bellingham to reflect on his next career move.

Kemp volunteered for ONE/Northwest, a Seattle nonprofit organization focused on assisting nonprofits in integrating technology into their organizations. There, he built websites, databases and email systems designed to increase efficiency and online presence. Kemp said he enjoyed the work but felt a for-profit model might be more successful. 

Action Sprout on Facebook 

“I started a company called ActionSprout,” Kemp said. “We were a tool that primarily helped nonprofits, but also political candidates use Facebook more effectively as a communication engagement platform.”

Kemp worked at ActionSprout for nine years, building a successful company that boasted 150,000 clients in 72 countries. But Kemp hit a wall again, finding that the platform could cause more harm than good. Kemp said the Cambridge Analytica scandal was an example of some of the issues he was seeing when he stepped away from the company in May of last year, once again taking time to reflect.

“It definitely became an ethical thing for me. I was physically exhausted, mentally exhausted and ethically exhausted by the time I left,” Kemp said. “We are more divided as a country directly because of social media. The ability to weaponize that tool and the inability for those platforms to counter that weaponization, whether they want to or not, is really hard.” 

New inspiration in generative art

In the last 11 months, Kemp has found inspiration in the community of generative art. 

A high-power laser cutter works in the service of art in Shawn Kemp’s studio. (Chris O’Neill photo © 2022)

“Generative art [uses] computers to create unique outputs each time it’s run,” Kemp said. “Unlike static art where you paint the thing and it’s done, I come up with general instruction sets that are going to be used to paint the canvas.”

Kemp uses open-platform fxhash software to create non-fungible tokens, or NFTs — unique pieces of computer code stored within a blockchain database, which collects and confines data in sets called blocks, separate from other data. The tokens represent a code sequence that can be generated only once and only within the environment of a specific blockchain.

Kemp uploads a code script that can be broken down into two parts, the seed and the random element. The seed portion defines what elements can be generated, such as patterns, shapes or colors, and the random element sets parameters on how far those elements can be expressed visually — together, what the artwork will look like. 

“I set a limit on how many outputs, called generatives, can come out of that script,” Kemp said. “People use [a mobile payment app] to basically buy a ticket, a pull on the lever, if you will, that will generate a unique output from the script.”

Purchasers of Kemp’s art through the fxhash platform have two choices. Once they buy an NFT, they can decide whether they’re content with a two-dimensional digital representation of his art, or they can commission Kemp to create a real-world copy.

Kemp has also experimented with concepts that would reward his fans by granting real-world copies to those who randomly obtained the rarest outcomes.

“Probably the rarest five will have a free woodcut attached to them,” Kemp said. “I’m playing with different kind of utility mechanics around these things.”

Kemp said that he has sometimes rewarded fans who ended up with subjectively interesting outcomes, combinations of colors and shapes that perhaps weren’t the rarest but nonetheless stood out. 

“People really loved the all-green ones,” Kemp said. “So, I’ll give away a certain amount.”

Kemp uses a CO2 100W laser cutter to create the physical representations of his art. His chosen medium is one-eighth inch plywood that he stains using environmentally friendly tinted shellac. A finished piece can have a dozen or so laser-cut layered pieces of plywood held together with screws.

Kemp said that he wasn’t sure what his next moves will be as far as ramping up production on his artwork or perhaps creating yet another startup. For now, he is content with exploring the blockchain community surrounding generative art as well as working as a consultant. 

His advice to budding entrepreneurs and artists: “Listen, engage and talk to the people who support you. If you engage and connect with them, then it’s great.

— Reported by Chris O’Neill