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
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
From left: One of Ryan’s many rock posters, inspired by the architect Hugh Ferriss; Ryan’s new book, Animals and Objects In and Out of Water
As the light burns the image onto the screen, we talk. Ryan had originally set out to be an architect, but when he wasn’t accepted into the architecture program at the University of Illinois at Champaign, he decided to study painting instead. It worked out, he says. That’s how he met his future wife, Diana Sudyka. The five years he spent studying drafting didn’t go to waste, either: One of his most memorable posters—for the band My Morning Jacket—was inspired by the influential draftsman Hugh Ferriss.
By the time Ryan printed his first poster in 1995, he’d worked as an apprentice carpenter, an antique restorer, a housepainter, and a model maker for Payless shoes. He found an odd job cleaning screens for Steve Walters at Screwball Press, a tiny outfit on the Northwest Side where creative types flocked to make posters for the Metro, the Empty Bottle, and the seminal club Lounge Ax. There, Ryan started making posters for friends’ bands as well as for his own. “We didn’t know anybody else in the country was doing this type of work,” he says.
Little did he realize that rock poster art was making a comeback. In the 1960s, “there was this underground, nonconformist scene that really embraced music and embraced visual arts at the same time,” says Dennis King, a Berkeley-based poster collector and author of The Art of Modern Rock. Bands such as the Grateful Dead weren’t played on commercial radio, and the only way to advertise shows was to put up posters. “You’d go around and put up posters, and they’d all be taken down by fans. People had an appreciation for the art early on,” says Merle Becker, the filmmaker.
While the idea of posters as fine art is not a new one (think Toulouse-Lautrec or Jules Chéret), Andy Warhol did as much as anybody to elevate printmaking in the public’s mind. Silk screening was, after all, the medium he used to portray Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, and those infamous Campbell’s soup cans. Ryan explains that the reignition of interest in poster art started around 2001 when the website gigposters.com began showcasing new work. The next year, the artists themselves united and hosted a fan convention known as Flatstock. Now there are Flatstock exhibitions across the United States and Europe.
The light timer goes off, and Ryan gets up. His next steps involve hosing down the water-soluble emulsion that coats the screen, which will leave open mesh in the shape of the shark, the platypus, and the other animals in the image. The screen will then go into the press, ink will push through the open mesh, and one layer of the image will appear on paper. He’ll repeat the process six times for most posters—one run per color—all the while feeding each sheet of paper through the press by hand. “The printing is part of the design process,” says Ryan, who prints an average of 350 original posters from each sketch. “You decide what happens as you go.”
Which could also serve as Ryan’s career philosophy. He has no plans to alter his course, just add more bands, and someday soon, he hopes, replace the roof on his studio. For now, he’ll continue to fill a yellow sketchbook on which he has hand-lettered the words “Boring and Efficient.” Funny. In reality, his work is anything but. “My job is drawing bears and toasters,” he says. “What’s to get tired of?”
Photograph: Nathan Keay