When Rick Kollath was in nursery school, he was very energetic.
“Today,” he says, “they call it A.D.D.” So the nursery school teacher gave him paper and crayons, in Rick’s words, “to shut him up.” He started drawing then and he’s never stopped, which is lucky for us at Duluth Trading Company. As illustrator of our catalog for almost 20 years, his artwork has helped make our company what it is.
Art is the one thing he was good at, Rick says. But he never expected to become an illustrator. His father was a railroad switchman. His mother was a secretary. His family did not think of art as a money-making career. So he got a degree from University of Minnesota in a field just as likely to produce unemployment.
“Philosophy,” he tells us. “Which is why I argue so much.”
Rick’s early experiences as an adult had nothing to do with art. He criss-crossed the United States hitchhiking. He backpacked in the Smoky Mountains, set up camp in the bottom of the Grand Canyon, learned to rock climb in Yosemite Valley and caught a freight train across Montana. Later, thanks to a Fulbright Grant, he taught English in Austria. But eventually he arrived back in his hometown of Duluth, “penniless and with no prospects,” he says. He took a job at a mail order motorcycle apparel business, and soon got involved in designing the catalog.
Then, because “everybody in Duluth knows everybody,” he met two tradesmen named Bob and Dave Fierek, inventors of the Bucket Boss® and founders of a catalog called Portable Products. Rick signed on, illustrated their first catalog and drove its design as it grew through the years and became Duluth Trading Company.
After being bought and sold twice, Duluth Trading has relocated to Belleville, Wisconsin. Yet Rick is still our main illustrator, and the only person in the company who has been involved since the very beginning. With his trademark boundless humility, he says, “They never had quite enough reason to fire me!”
Rick is no longer our only illustrator, but his mark is all over our catalog and company. He personally still illustrates many of our products, as well as our catalog covers. He mentors our illustrating staff. He brainstorms with us several times a year. And he offers – fervently – his advice and opinions on everything from how to design a catalog page to what coffee beans should be in the brewer.
Perhaps the only thing Rick wouldn’t do for Duluth Trading is leave his beloved city of Duluth. Cold as it is, he likes living there, biking to work year ‘round, kayaking on Lake Superior, and taking vacations whenever he can to go rock-climbing, ice climbing, trail running and backpacking.
“To me it’s very beautiful,” he says of Duluth. “I love it here. It’s home. It’s my place.”
Rick operates his own Graphic Design firm, co-owns a publishing company with a friend, and illustrates field guides to the natural world. He’s won numerous advertising awards in Duluth. And his artwork – his covers – are blown up and framed, hanging on the walls of Duluth Trading headquarters. But he’s the last one to trumpet his accomplishments.
“Oh, that damn thing,” he says when reminded we want to work on a biography of him for our web site. He’s reluctant to spend time tooting his horn.
“One point I want to make clear is that I am not an artist, I’m an illustrator,” he says. “An artist has something to say, a vision, a message. An illustrator likes to draw pretty pictures. Some illustrators like to think of what they do as art, but really it isn’t,” he insists.
We and our customers beg to differ.