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Grace Van’t Hof: Between the Banjo and Graphics

For most bluegrass band members, double duty means playing an instrument and driving the bus. Banjoist Grace Van’t Hof not only contributes to the sound of Chris Jones and the Night Drivers; she’s responsible for the band’s latest album cover. Indeed, she’s worked with numerous artists, festivals, and organizations to create compelling posters, album art, logos, and other visual elements. Her work has earned her the distinction of being the International Bluegrass Music Association Graphic Designer of the Year for the last two years.

“My mom's a very talented artist, and she said I showed a proficiency for it at a young age,” Van’t Hof recalled. “Art’s always been a thing for me.”

Growing up in Holland, Michigan, a science fair-styled event called Science Olympiad introduced Van’t Hof to the banjo. With her father’s help, she constructed a banjo to participate in a category called “Sounds of Music.”

“The banjo we ended up building was a little complicated and not super playable, but the sound just really got me. Once I heard that sound, I was really hooked.”

There wasn’t much bluegrass music near Holland. Van’t Hof would travel two and a half hours to jam. And since that group had a banjo player, she switched to Dobro.

Van’t Hof studied art and biology at Calvin University in Michigan when she got a public performance scholarship in Dobro at East Tennessee State University. A friend introduced her to fiddler Kimber Ludiker, who would become the founder of the groundbreaking all-female band Della Mae. Van’t Hof was one of the original members.

“Everybody who's been through that band is incredibly talented,” Van’t Hof said. “It was really inspiring, if not a little intimidating. I appreciate the time I got to spend with them.”

Van’t Hof had relocated to Boston when she joined Della Mae. After two years, she left the band and eventually returned to East Tennessee, where she was a founding member with Kris Truelson of Bill and The Belles.

“I've always been into early, pre-bluegrass country music, especially some of the 30s and 40s country, but especially, the music of Jimmie Rodgers and sort of adjacent characters like Clayton McMinchen and some of those blues and jazz guys that overlapped with Jimmie. And Bill and The Bells was really into that kind of music. And that was awesome.”

During this time, Van’t Hof apprenticed with an artist and began working as a graphic designer and illustrator. After leaving Bill and The Belles, Van't Hof returned to Michigan. That’s when Chris Jones called and asked her to join his band. She’s prominently featured in the Night Drivers on banjo, baritone ukulele, and as a vocalist. She did the cover art for the band’s Make Each Second Last album.

“It's not part of my duties as a band member to do the artwork,” she explained. “I just prefer to do it because whatever artwork comes out with that band, people are going to assume I did it.”

Van’t Hof studied national park posters from the 30s for the Make Each Second Last cover. The various shapes that formed landscapes intrigued her. “They're really color-blocky and beautiful and supersaturated,” she observed. She described the cover as a “get out of town with your family” kind of poster. The speeding car she drew is modeled after one the band had posed with in a promo photo.

Van’t Hof’s graphic design work includes covers and posters for artists and organizations such as Mile Twelve, Twisted Pine, Frank Solivan, and Bluegrass Pride. Her portraits of banjoists BB Bowness and Charlie Poole are included in a set of Banjo All-Star Trading Cards. She created illustrations for the recently published book Well of Souls: Uncovering the Banjo’s Hidden History. She’s also excited about recently completing her first vinyl cover. “That's like the berries for someone like me because it is so much more space, and you can include a ton more detail.”

In addition to her design work, Van’t Hof does live graphic capture during conferences, meetings, and other events, such as the recent String Band Summit at East Tennessee State University. The notes and illustrations she creates are shared with participants in real time. She sees parallels with playing in a band.

“It's very improvisational. You hear something, and you have to translate it into something else. So, a lot of it is like in a bluegrass band when you are listening to the song, playing along with it while you're sort of learning and then thinking about the solo you're gonna make. And when I'm successful playing and when I'm successfully doing this graphic capture live-scribing thing, it's a similar flow state. It feels the same.”

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