Micah Whitson is a Southern transplant living in Boston, Mass. He designs prints and wall décor with Southern themes as a tribute to his home and childhood. You can find his goods online at theoldtry.com and in stores all over the South.
Tell us about the beginning.
We moved to Boston in 2007 from North Carolina. I wanted to get out of the South. Having grown up in Alabama, attended college in Mississippi, gone to graduate school in Atlanta and then lived in North Carolina, I had done kind of a wide swath of the South.
I was really happy to be somewhere new, experiencing and seeing new things. A lot of my identity is as a Southerner and kind of processing what that is and dealing with that. I had been going to the Boston library to the Southern Studies section and reading authors like Curtis Wilkie, Thomas Wolfe and Barry Hannah—a number of people who were Southerners who had moved north to get out of the South, and then found themselves gravitating towards folks with a similar upbringing but had those same desires to be away from home and that internal conflict.
When the tornadoes of 2011 hit, I was super far away from home, watching helicopter footage of places I knew well that were stripped bare. I felt like people here didn’t really understand what that feeling was. I felt pulled to do something more productive in terms of sharing the Southern story, or putting my stamp on what I thought it was to be a Southerner. The tornadoes had me thinking about how I could reconnect with home in some meaningful way. It became a catalyst for Old Try.
Is your background in design?
Yes. I had started designing in high school on a stolen copy of Photoshop. I went to business school, but was doing poster design the whole time. I ended up going to graduate school for design, because I wanted to do it, and I knew that if I started selling air conditioners in Dallas, I would hate that I never tried to be a designer. I then got into advertising as an Art Director.
What was the first print you ever made?
When we launched, there were 10 prints. Two for the four states I had lived in—Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and North Carolina—and then two general Southern prints. It was a thin offering, but I felt I understood those places better than other places, and we were trying to figure out if we had something. Fortunately, I sent some e-mails to some bloggers not really expecting anything. Grace Bonney of Design*Sponge, who is a Virginian who moved to New York, saw it in her inbox before an assistant did, so she wrote something about us the day we launched. It was great. And it kind of confirmed my hypothesis that there were other folks like me who want to put something on their wall showing where they’re from, but they don’t want to fall into cliché and there’s nothing that exists that represents that. Like, for me as an Alabamian, all I had was like Kountry Kitchen or a football painting, and there was nothing else I could put on my wall to represent Alabama. We got that press, and we were off to the races making things for other states.
From where do you draw inspiration?
At this point, it’s a lot of different things. It’s either experience, like remembering the billboard for Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, or finding something or seeing something similar. A lot of our prints are made by asking how much we can strip away and still keep the essence of place. That has kind of become our aesthetic, really simplified themes. We also get a fair amount of unsolicited ideas, many of which have become prints.
Do you have a best-selling or favorite product?
Our best seller is our “Manners” print. By a wide margin, it’s the best seller. When people ask what our favorites are, I can’t say, because they’re all my kids. I can tell you what’s hanging in our house—General Manners No.1; Summer, In Picture; Hotty Toddy; and the UNC Alma Mater print. Something for our kids, something to remind us of growing up and two things from college for my wife and me.
Southern culture is obviously a recurring theme in your work. What is it that draws you to that?
For me, it comes from growing up feeling that we had this baggage of race relations going back and the income disparity. It’s such a “churched” place, but has the highest number of issues. The duality of so many things and trying to process it, then moving somewhere else and finding that those are issues people deal with everywhere, I found that rather than running from the things that exist in the South, I chose to reframe my thinking and try to distill the truth out of it. I wanted to have discussions about it, and Old Try has allowed me to do that and become a person that goes to bat a lot for the South here.