Who is Don Ambriz? And why you should care.

Don Ambriz

In the early days- pre-1970s, graphic design in Bakersfield consisted of going to the printer, writing down your info, picking a horrible looking piece of clip art that best represented your company and getting cards printed. No real design process involved.

The first Earthworm studio

The original Earthworm Studio location (1971) at 21st & M St. (where the Downtown School now stands)

Then along came a guy with a weird neck beard and opened one of Bakersfield’s first graphic design studios. Called himself Earthworm Studios. (And you thought Rainbow Graphics was a stupid name.) He was a smooth talker, had a signature cartoon style and could do calligraphy. Don Ambriz was his name, he introduced Bakersfield to graphic design… and in 1980 I adopted him as my mentor.

At the time there weren’t any design firms in town, other than Jill Thayer and her studio called The Expression. Another dorky name. Her cool thing, at the time, was painting river rocks. I approached both looking for a job, neither were hiring. Painted river rocks really weren’t my “thing”, so I started hanging out at Earthworm. And let me just say this, if some long haired red head- riding a moped- tried hanging around my studio, I’d taser him when he wasn’t looking, drag him to the curb and call 911. Because obviously he’d be nuts… and probably dangerous.

I’d clump up the stairs to Don’s studio located above the Old House Restaurant on Chester. (Interesting aside- the owner of the restaurant invented a game called Pig Mania and went on to sell it to Milton Bradley for a small fortune) Don’s was filled with an eclectic mix of antiques, curios, art supplies, posters, knick knacks and oddities. Imagine Harry Potter’s dorm room, but cira 1981. Some people might have seen it as a future episode of Hoarders, I saw it as a creative hot zone. I’d pull up a seat across from him at his drawing table and chat while he worked on a flyer of some sort. Hand lettering and illustrating it in ink. No computers back then.

Earthworm on H Street

In the mid 70s, Don moved in upstairs at The Old House on 8th and Chester Ave.

He was kind of eccentric. He do or say stuff just for shock value. He called his gun a “heater”. “Hey Mike, check out this new ankle holster for my heater.” Lifting up his pant leg. Oh yeah- very cool. He called $100 bills “C-notes”. One day he pulled out a money clip with a “C-note” wrapped around some other bills. He says “I always carry a C-note with me because you just never know.” I still don’t really know what that morsel of wisdom meant. I suppose it could mean- “Armed with a Heater and a C-note, you’re prepared for anything.

As time went by Don taught me to hand letter signs, do calligraphy and silkscreen shirts. Along around 1985 I got my first Mac computer. By 1987 I was on my third Mac upgrade and could see this was the direction that graphic design was going to take.

Pig Mania

Playing pieces from Pig Mania

Desktop publishing was born. But not at the Earthworm. Don continued to use rub off type and hand lettering. Perhaps, he thought, computers would take away some of the creativity of design. To me it was just another tool to be mastered.

I gave Don his first Apple Mac in 1996. It was a 4 year old Quadra. I had upgraded to the Performa (this info is for Mac Nerds). He was 10 years behind the curve. Hot dog artists stated moving in and gaining traction. Designers like Brian Williams, Brian Collins, Mark Ramsey, Beth Ramone, Ann Cook and others. Calligraphy fell out of favor, now there were hundreds of cool fonts to choose from. Don had to scramble to catch up.

Rub off type

Don literally had hundreds of sheets of rub-off type. Most of them missing all of the vowels.

Over the years the shoe was now on the other foot and I got a chance to pay Don back and to help him learn how to incorporate the computer and use the Adbobe software. I was his IT guy, his personal Apple Genius bar. (Note to Apple- by the way, a bar isn’t a bar unless there’s beer.)

Don and I continue to be close friends- even though he and his wife have moved to Cambria. The worm has turned. And in its place is webcalligraphy.com. I think he has a Mac museum of my hand me downs.

What I learned from all of that is that I can’t become complacent. I have to keep up with the trends and not loose the edge. Despite having been in the forefront of the Bakersfield design-revolution, Don nearly got left behind. To this end,  this blog was born.

You can find Don on Facebook as well.

Don 2011

We staged this photo of Don on the beach in Cambria last year for a site we're working on for him targeting hand lettered wedding envelopes.

Don Mason - June 7, 2011 - 7:16 pm

So it’s not a good time to invest in X-acto Knife and Rubylith stock??

chingpea - June 8, 2011 - 9:20 pm

That’s such a cool and sweet story. Awesome how time can change things….

Lori Park - June 8, 2011 - 11:28 pm

WOW, flashback. Another dumb name from the early 80s; Present-A-Graphic. Business presentation graphics done with a dedicated graphics computer, bigger than the top of a desk. Sold the equipment and cancelled the phone number when desktop publishing software came out figuring that no company would hire out something they could so easily do in-house. Still have some ruboff lettering and a rapidograph set somewhere deep in storage. I remember a company called Rainbow Graphics, but they were no threat of competition because they just did logos, t-shirts and stuff :) If I had only looked you up and proposed joining forces… So glad I eventually made your acquaintance! Oh yeah, and I have the Pigs game. So cool to know that came from Bako.

Don Ambriz - June 9, 2011 - 6:55 pm

My friend, Iron Mike, the witty writer! Great Blog, Mike. Brought back a flood of memories…..have enjoyed many cool Facebook comments…truth is we should have joined forces back in the day, but alas, I guess we both too independent minded…Yes, I’m still practicing my trade here in Cambria – I have shed the “heater” and no longer sport the “C” notes, but IT’S ALL GOOD!

Gotta give you a big shout-out of appreciation for bringing me into the computer age, challenging your patience from time to time, it was definitely a wise move. And yes, I am a dumping ground for all of your old MAC cast-offs – some are now “vintage” museum display items and the G5s are my workhorses. My Studio is technically well outfitted thanks to you! And another big public shout-out to you and your crew, Alan & Jen for guiding me to the next stage of my career…

For the record, Earthworm was actually born when I was Jr. in high school (1966 BHS – Drillers!)…my Sr. art buddy, Larry Sutherland (of Underground Comic Book Movement fame) and I had begun doing freelance for the Bakersfield business community, so we decided to print business cards….we debated over the name…he wanted to call us FLYING MEATBALL EXPRESS and I came up with EARTHWORM ENTERPRISES – what can I say – it was the turbulent 60s…he joined the AIR FORCE right out of high school and went Nam and my path was Earthworm Studios, rented my first building at 21st & M streets – opened in 1971 while still in college…

Thanks for the memories…
The older we get, the better we were.

Janet Wall - June 9, 2011 - 7:40 pm

Don, you were a blessing then, and still are today! I am honored to have spent time with you and Jane while I was married to Tim. (You guys were/are my dream couple!!) But, I really need to thank you for all the work you did for me while running for Dottie back in the old days!! That was a bittersweet experience, but you helped me through it. ( = And it all worked out the way I wanted it to! I’m so happy that you are enjoying your wonderful life in Cambria, and that you’re still gifting us with your talent. I send you much Love and Light–forever!!

Don Ambriz - June 9, 2011 - 8:08 pm

Janet – Thanks for your continued kindness. We shared some great times, back in the day…I honed my early skills with friends like you, who confidence in my talents…I loved my high school years…formed lifetime bonds, that continue today. The Dottie Drillers of the 60s decade were the Best!

willisdesign - June 20, 2011 - 8:49 pm

Keep an eye out- I’m gonna’ bust out some old mechanical layouts. I’m like the Fred Flintstone of graphics!

David A. Milazzo - June 28, 2011 - 4:29 pm

A great history of Bakersfield graphic design! Love the shout-out to the Mac Performa series. Maybe Don and I should integrate our Apple museum collections….

Keep up the good work, Willie-boy!

willisdesign - June 29, 2011 - 1:23 pm

Thanks Dave, I hope to do some more graphic design history lessons.

Marianne Carney - May 23, 2012 - 6:15 pm

Don, BLAST from the past, I will always remember Earthworm studios with great fondness and great memories I will always remember the studio with all the great stuff… and still today I cherish cards and books that was given to me from you. What a friend you were back in the day(70′s). As time has a way of going on and friends parting, when I drive down Chester and see the building that once housed your studio I smile. What a great Icon for Bakersfield. U roc DON

Connie - December 27, 2012 - 10:58 pm

I’m looking for Larry Sutherland’s e-mail. I have a pen & ink he gave my mother in 1967 & I want to see if he would like it.

Jill Thayer, Ph.D. - May 15, 2014 - 2:38 pm

Wonderful memories! Don remains a mentor to many.

Additional notes: The painted rocks were actually ocean rocks created in high school then displayed at the Renaissance Fairs in Bakersfield’s Central Park from 1971-74. “The Expression” studio produced graphic design, mostly logo and print collateral from 1979-90. Yes, a funky name, but hence the time and culture. In 1991, the business evolved to Jill Thayer Associates, offering corporate design for regional and global companies including Disney. Nestlé Dairies, Carnation, NBC, GE Wind, Buck Owens Production Company, Tejon Ranch, Mission Bank, and others. From 1994-2009, Jill Thayer Galleries at the Fox gallery showcased local and international artists at the Fox Theater.

These experiences informed my consultation work today as a designer, educator, curatorial archivist, and marketing strategist. After receiving my doctorate in Cultural Studies/Museum Studies with studies in global strategy and trade from Claremont Graduate University in 2011, I look back at these formative years with fond regards.

Through it all, I have been inspired by the exceptional talents of Don Ambriz and Mike Willis, as both helped create the rich history of graphic design in the Bakersfield community and beyond. Their creative contributions are unsurpassed.

Many thanks,

Dan and Linda Percival - March 3, 2016 - 1:30 am

Mr Don Embriz. It was nice talking with you re:custom mirror.

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