Editor's note: This is the first installment in a series of essays and portraits of North Dakotans and Minnesotans now living abroad by photographer Murray Lemley. Look for more occasional profiles in the coming months on Inforum.com and in the Sunday Life section of The Forum.

AMSTERDAM — This is what Geoffrey Lillemon thought should be the lead for his story: Living a life of random exploration, self-education and just plain being interesting (read: weird or bent) is how thoughts form, how his mind works.

Geoffrey exists at the crossroads of an intense interest and affinity for art and a technical savvy that allows him to explore that art in cutting-edge fashion.

At 35 years of age, Geoffrey has been around already. His father was an engineer for OSHA living in Minot, N.D., when he got transferred to Texas, where Geoffrey was born. The family’s roots are in Minot, where his grandmother had a well-known used book store on Main Street and his grandfather sold music instruments to most of the marching bands across North Dakota (Northwest Music). His uncle was a trombonist.

Geoffrey Lillemon loves cats, old stuff, learning new stuff and… Amsterdam. Murray Lemley / Special to The Forum
Geoffrey Lillemon loves cats, old stuff, learning new stuff and… Amsterdam. Murray Lemley / Special to The Forum

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When he was 2, the family moved to Dickinson, then to Bismarck where he went through junior high. After that, he went to Denver. He attended high school at Dakota Ridge High School in Littleton, Colo., just down the road from Columbine. He hated Denver, but he learned some things there, growing.

Geoffrey is tall, maybe 6 feet, 7 inches or so, a natural size to play basketball, but he says all he wanted to do was “smoke weed and draw” in high school. So there is that, an early directional indication.

He started taking night classes at Denver University, studying art. While he was at DU, he started designing websites. This led to an internship with US West, the telecommunications giant based in Denver. It was interesting, but god, the cubicles! His USWest boss moved him to Charlotte, N.C., placating him somewhat, so he would keep working on the tech stuff. It even paid for college at Central Piedmont College.

He kept learning and experimenting, experiencing. But boredom set in. He really wanted to live in New York City, you know, more exciting than Charlotte. So he traveled there on Sept. 11, 2001, saw the planes crash into the Twin Towers. That was weird.

So it was back to Charlotte. Soon, the dot-com he was working for went bust in the financial crisis.

Geoffrey Lillemon's house is on the oldest canal in Amsterdam. Murray Lemley / Special to The Forum
Geoffrey Lillemon's house is on the oldest canal in Amsterdam. Murray Lemley / Special to The Forum

With a year’s severance pay in his pocket, he packed off to Minneapolis and moved in with his uncle, the trombone player. That was when the uncle was managing apartments where other musicians lived, while also playing session work for the likes of Prince. Geoffrey helped with the management and in his spare time studied animation at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. But his animations weren’t the tech-laden video game-styled animations we’re accustomed to seeing; they were “moody and gothic, and, like, baroque.”

Here, there is a small interlude where he moved to Las Vegas to live with a woman he met online. Most of this I can’t write about. Things like this happen in Las Vegas…

The Vegas diversion was short, followed by six years at the Banff Art Center in Banff, Canada. Geoffrey applied for a scholarship, won and learned loads of great things there. It’s a terrific hothouse for art, the center in Banff, allowing students to absorb not only the tremendous art opportunities but the landscape, the hot springs, healthy living and wellness. Skiing. The 101 pianos they say they have. And, of course, the musicians and creative people 101 pianos attracts. And ballerinas.

These are some of the things he did there: worked with 3D printers; did locative media projects, like designing GPS-activated backpacks to make location-activated videos; and something called a “velocity compass.” You know, normal stuff, if you’re Geoffrey.

Geoffrey Lillemon works at his home in Amsterdam. Murray Lemley / Special to The Forum
Geoffrey Lillemon works at his home in Amsterdam. Murray Lemley / Special to The Forum

After six years of art bliss in Banff, he moved to Boston and worked in tech. Again. Didn’t much like Boston, so he got an apartment in New York City (always New York), but still worked in Boston.

Management found out and the lot of them came to New York to fire him. But a funny thing happened in New York. They all got drunk, changed their mind and decided to pay to move him to Amsterdam and work for a start-up company called Modernista. Geoffrey thought this was brilliant.

Shortly after moving to Amsterdam, his boss died suddenly and the whole thing collapsed. So, with his tech and creative friend Anita, they started Champagne Valentine, their own little tech and art company. That was 11 years ago.

In Amsterdam, being the center of creativity and creative people that it is, Geoffrey met lots of them. One of them was Diane Martel, another American and a video editor, producer and pop show maker. She also happened to be the niece of Joseph Papp, the very well-connected Broadway producer behind things like Shakespeare in the Park.

Geoffrey worked with her on projects for Snoop Dogg, Pharrell and Justin Timberlake, and she got him onto Miley Cyrus’s Banger Stage Project. He did nine or 10 of those shows and met tons more people, which led to projects for Beyonce, Nicki Minaj and more. This is what pays the bills.

But it was getting further and further away from art, real art.

Geoffrey Lillemon takes a break in his Amsterdam house. Murray Lemley / Special to The Forum
Geoffrey Lillemon takes a break in his Amsterdam house. Murray Lemley / Special to The Forum

So he hired a classical painter in the Renaissance-style, here in Amsterdam, to teach him. Get him back to real art. He had studied painting, but not like this.

What he has discovered over the past six years study is that there is an interesting similarity between classical painting and virtual reality, his tech work: “If you’re painting classically, you’re building up layers. You prime the surface, you establish a background, you build each layer over time (this is oil painting, after all) until it all comes together in that top layer. It’s 3D, it’s modeling. Very much like animation.”

Recent years have seen him working for Weiden+Kennedy, the international ad agency, here in Amsterdam. W+K started in Oregon when Nike began their rise. He’s a “hothouse flower” for them as well, the difference this time being that he owns part of his corner of the business.

He recently won a Golden Lion award in Cannes, France, where he was also named as one of the Top 100 creative people in the ad industry worldwide. See some of his work on his website, http://www.geoffreylillemon.com.

He bought a house on the oldest canal in Amsterdam a year or so ago, gutted it and rebuilt it into something his next-door neighbor, Daniel Hart, calls Geoffrey’s House of Earthly Delights. (More about Daniel in the next story in this series; he’s also from North Dakota.)

Geoffrey would like to introduce some interactive features into this house of wonders, filled floor to ceiling with kitsch, antiques of questionable value and just plain weird stuff. “Interactive, like, if you look at the old cuckoo clock on the wall in a certain way, it starts spinning backwards.”

It’s a good metaphor…

Geoffrey loves cats, old stuff, learning new stuff and… Amsterdam.

Geoffrey Lillemon's house is filled with trinkets and artifacts that show off his unique style and artistic sensibility. Murray Lemley / Special to The Forum
Geoffrey Lillemon's house is filled with trinkets and artifacts that show off his unique style and artistic sensibility. Murray Lemley / Special to The Forum

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Tales From Afar is an occasional series of profiles and portraits by photographer Murray Lemley of folks with ties to North Dakota and Minnesota now living abroad. Look for more installments in The Forum’s Life section in the coming months, and contact Lemley at murray.lemley@gmail.com.