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On artist and screen printer Jay Ryan

SCREEN GEM: With a new book out and a seemingly endless reservoir of ideas, the artist and screen printer Jay Ryan draws worldwide acclaim from his Skokie studio

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A version of the cover art for Andrew Bird's The Swimming Hour
A version of the cover art for Andrew Bird’s The Swimming Hour


Today, Ryan, 37, is one of the most sought-after poster artists in the world. And his circle of collectors has started to widen as a new era of poster art begins. “This is the largest organized art movement in America right now,” says Merle Becker, a New York–based filmmaker who recently completed a documentary on the subject. Her film, American Artifact, traces the rock poster movement from its 1960s heyday to its recent resurgence. When asked if the poster is art or advertisement, Becker answers: “It’s both. It’s art meant for advertising. A tremendous amount of work goes into every poster as much as every painting.”

“The past five years have been really key to having posters as a medium go from this side effect of having a band play to something that has [its] own audience and can stand alone,” says Ryan, who, in December, publishes his second book. Animals and Objects In and Out of Water (Akashic; $22.95) catalogs 100 or so of Ryan’s posters, each a testament to the artist’s distinct style. You could open any page in the book and know the image is a Jay Ryan creation from just a few telltale signs: the sketchbook quality of the lettering; the bold colors; and the sheer whimsy of the worlds he designs. In Ryan’s universe, kangaroos live side by side with fishes, woolly mammoths play guitar, and bears adeptly ride bicycles. The animals he draws are cute and cuddly, but something dark often lurks just beyond the pencil markings.

In person, Ryan is anything but dark. Most of his images, he says, come from listening to the lyrics of bands such as the Melvins, Bon Iver, Shellac, The Hold Steady. He’s a music guy—he has played bass in a band called Dianogah for 15 years. And though his roster of clients has expanded to include companies such as Patagonia, many are still musicians. “In music, the message is inherent,” he says. “It provides a purpose for the work and an inspiration—and a budget. The only rules are that you have to print it in some way on paper and convey who, what, when, where, and why. If you can work within the rules, then go.”

Ryan sells much of his work online, but the process he uses—screen printing—is refreshingly analog. He doesn’t use a computer, and most of the printing is done on two presses that sit inside his modest print shop, which he calls The Bird Machine. (He was reading Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle when he named his business.) The back of the building, which he renovated himself, opens up like a garage, letting in copious amounts of sunlight and the smell of cinnamon from a nearby bakery. Inside, there’s a darkroom, a bathtub for washing the screens used for printing, and a refrigerator that houses a variety of beers.

His father wanders in. One of the advantages of owning your own business is that you can employ your dad: Jack Ryan handles all of the finances and mail orders. Other advantages: You can take your dog to the office. And cultivate a small garden in back. And draw pictures at your kitchen table. Jay Ryan’s latest sketch shows a shark swimming beside a bizarre coterie of animals: a pterodactyl, a platypus, some bugs. It’s part of a folio of prints to be sold to benefit a friend with an advanced form of cancer.

Once a drawing is finished, Ryan heads to Kinko’s, where the piece is transferred onto an overhead transparency. Back at the studio, the next steps involve cutting rubylith (a mask for making screen prints) and putting it atop a homemade light box (which exposes the image onto a synthetic polyfiber mesh screen). Before flipping the light box switch, Ryan gently places a swath of felt onto the screen and secures it with four phone books. He gets distracted when Seth, the greyhound, starts eating the dirt from a potted plant.


Photography: Jay Ryan


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