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Poster boy: Jay Ryan at work
It took about half a dozen tries to get it right. As Jay Ryan passed his number two mechanical pencil over the thick yellow paper, Andrew Bird’s face slowly appeared. In one iteration, the musician’s cheeks were too round. In another, one eye sat higher than the other.
Pause. Erase. Pet his greyhound, Seth. Attack it again. Ryan was working at the request of Bird’s record label, which had asked the artist to reinterpret the cover of Bird’s 2001 CD, The Swimming Hour, for a 2009 reissue on vinyl. The original cover showed a photograph of Bird standing in a winter garden, his signature scarf tied tightly around his neck. Bird was older, more popular now. The album needed a fresh look. So Bird’s management called Ryan, Chicago’s leading illustrator and poster artist, who took out his pencil and his sketchbook and got to work.
Ryan doesn’t often draw specific people, so when he does, it takes time. In the final version, Bird still wears his scarf. He still stands in the garden. But a closer look reveals that the shrubs have eyes and teeth. One of the bushes is actually a bear.
“The best thing I learned in college was the ability to turn off that little voice in my head that says, That’s a stupid idea,” says Ryan. “There are not a lot of rules for what I have to do. Yesterday it was bears and toasters. Next week, it may be bridges.”
These days, Ryan’s drawings mostly end up on posters, which he produces himself out of an old furnace-repair-shop-turned-studio in Skokie. When the Northfield native began making posters in 1995, his work had a life span of about two weeks, cycling from record store window to rock venue to the dumpster after the show. Now his work gets ripped prematurely from walls, sells out over the Internet, and ends up framed in galleries. (The Chicago gallery Rotofugi opens a show of Ryan’s paintings in February; for info, go to rotofugi.com.) He has subscribers: A select group of 50 each pay $700 a year to get one of everything he produces. He even sells his mistakes: Last year, his annual book of misprints—a thumbprint here, coloring outside the lines there—sold out in an hour.
Photograph: Lisa Predko; Photo Assistants: Sarah Crump, Sarah Bruchman