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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