New book showcases work of Chicago printmaker

  • By BARRETT NEWKIRK
  • Medill News Service
  • February 17, 2006 @ 5:55 AM
Astronauts use a plunger to fend off an encroaching swarm of squirrels. Two men duke it out in a pillow fight. Wait, that's no pillow -- it's a platypus.

Enigmatic images are Jay Ryan's calling card. After ten years of creating silkscreen prints for Chicago's rock bands and clubs, he has amassed a devoted following.

His new book, "100 Posters, 134 Squirrels," will showcase his work across the country. Considering the strong support he has received from his local supporters, Ryan's motto may be a line from a favorite song that appears on one of his posters: "Don't go alone / go with a friend."That help has come from as close as his office neighbor. Punk Planet, the Chicago-based independent music magazine that has published a number of Ryan's posters, is financing the publication of the book.

Ryan's studio, The Bird Machine, shares space with Punk Planet's offices in a rented factory space underneath the El tracks in Ravenswood. The two businesses could easily be mistaken for one. A shared front door leads into the magazine's work space. Ryan's studio is one room over. A wide archway leaves little boundary between the two spaces.

For Ryan, 33, the book is an ideal way for people to get a better sense of his eclectic work. "A lot of people have seen a couple of posters or looked at the Web site, but those people have only seen those small images on the Internet," he said recently at his print studio. "Having them in a solid form is pretty nice."

Fans of the local rock scene have seen Ryan's posters for his own band Dianogah and groups like the Decemberists and the Indescribable at rock venues for years, but he has also designed for national names like the Flaming Lips and Interpol, and Seattle music label Sub Pop Records has used him for several of its album covers.

The book is one of the first from Punk Planet. Published last November, it has nearly sold out an initial printing of 5,000 copies, and a second run is planned.

Staff on both sides of the Ryan project work as friends who bounce ideas off each other and generally know what everyone is working on. "We knew what we were getting into," said Anne Elizabeth Moore, co-editor and associate producer at Punk Planet.

The collaborative effort of the two businesses led Columbia College to ask both sides to participate in a panel discussion on Feb. 1. The theme: "Plays Well with Others." Art and design students filled the second-floor lecture hall at 623 S. Wabash Ave., forcing dozens to sit in the aisles or stand in the back of the room.

Debra Parr, Columbia's associate chair of fine art and art history, wrote one of three essays on poster art included in "100 Posters, 134 Squirrels." Introducing the panel, she called Ryan the "most important poster designer of the 21st century." In an interview later that evening, Parr admitted to being an advocate of his work. Soon after seeing his art for the first time, she started seeing it all over the city. Every time she knew it was a Ryan, she said.

Brian Kenney, a junior graphic design student in the audience, said he'd known about Ryan and his posters for years because they're frequently up at clubs like the Empty Bottle. The work is distinct, Kenney said, because of Ryan's radical ideas and the fine art quality they possess, things students at Columbia could appreciate.

From the start of his career, Ryan has found work mostly through friends, since completing his painting degree in 1994 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. At the Columbia event, he joked with the crowd of art students, saying "None of the major painting corporations were hiring," so he took to printmaking.

The day before the panel, sitting on a couch (technically on Punk Planet's turf) with his greyhound Seth, Ryan said at the start of his print career he designed posters mostly for his own band. That eventually led to work for other groups, and a job at a screen printing press in Chicago. Even though Ryan had never taken a class on printmaking in college, it became his preferred medium because the results are so unpredictable, making each print unique.

Ryan went out on his own with The Bird Machine in 1998. Today Ryan's print shop has three full-time employees and part-time help with its Web site and mail-order business. Jason Harvey, a college roommate of Ryan's and member of Dianogah, designed the Web Site and the layout and cover for "100 Posters, 134 Squirrels."

Ryan still produces all his designs by hand. After ten years working a manual screen press, however, he says his wrists started to give out. The shop now uses a semi-automatic printer that mechanically runs a squeegee over the synthetic screen. Ryan does about 50 posters a year as well as other side projects.

Despite the big name clients, half of Ryan's jobs are still for friends and local artists. He's regularly finding new groups to design for. "Even if I don't like the music, the fact that they are making their own music is something I can stand behind," he told the Columbia audience.

Music art has led to other opportunities, including gallery shows around the U.S. and in England and ads for Converse sneakers. Recently he designed a t-shirt for the Irish band the Frames and did several posters for a traveling outdoor music festival, the Rolling Road Show. That gig included a poster for a showing of "The Blues Brothers" in Daley Plaza planned for this summer.

Ryan credits the buzz about his work in part to his national clients. In 2004 he got an e-mail from book publisher HarperCollins, asking him to do a cover and inside illustrations for the newest book by Michael Chabon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay."

Ryan's book landed him another cover deal, this time for Harper Perennial. John Williams, an editor at the imprint, saw "100 Posters, 134 Squirrels" at a New York book fair last year.

In an email, Williams said he initially was interested in the posters because some were for bands he liked and he hoped to get prints for his office.

Then he realized the tone would work well for a book he'd recently signed about a teenage rock musician growing up in Michigan during the early 1990s. That title, "Grab On to Me Tightly as if I Knew the Way" by Bryan Charles, will be released in June. Ryan's cover shows a girl holding a kite string, a boy flying upside-down from the other end.

Williams felt Ryan was a perfect choice for this particular project.

"It was important to me that Jay not work on just an image for us, but also any words that would appear on the cover. I had a sense that he would work magic with the long title of this novel," Williams wrote. "The appeal of Jay's work to me is that he manages to have a singular vision while at the same time evoking some broader sense of the given artist with whom he's working."

"Eight years ago," Ryan mused in an interview, "I'd get hired to do a friend's poster and then later I'd get asked to do a seven-inch album cover for them and it'd be something more permanent. As time passes I've gotten more under my belt and I might do a project for that same band."

"They're different types of projects, but I feel like I've built up to them slowly," Ryan said. "I've generally followed the same business plan of working with friends and not doing too much self-promotion, but just taking things as they come."

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