A clearly relieved Rhys Wooton of the British Rock Artist Group celebrates a screenprinting success at Firehouse Kustom Rock Art Company in San Francisco. As part of a hands-on trip to the spiritual home of the rock ‘n’ roll poster, Wootton and friends experienced the pleasure and pain of creating beautiful screenprinted work for the 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love. Only 299 more prints to go Rhys…
During the summer, four members of the British Rock Artist Group (BRAG) were invited by Chuck Sperry and Ron Donovan, the globally renowned American poster artists, to undertake a two week workshop at their studio, the Firehouse Kustom Rock Art Company. Rhys Wootton (shown above with poster), Jamie McGregor, Matt Douthwaite and Adrian Day jumped on a plane to San Francisco and, as Wootton reports, were to learn much about the traditions and history of a classic US artform: the screenprinted music poster.
Sperry is really the catalyst behind BRAG writes BRAG’s Rhys Wootton. In May 2006 together with Mike King they taught two separate master classes in conjunction with the SubScreen Sonic exhibition that showcased a vast array of screen printed gig posters (organised by BFAP). The aim of the workshops was to enlighten the participants in the art of silkscreen printing and the poster industry. We all got fired up and so inspired that we decided to form a collective to would start making waves in the British scene. It seemed natural to act on the energy and buzz created from the workshop.
Most of us in BRAG are from Sperry’s class (hosted at BDI screen printing) and in just over a year our collective has flourished, producing a portfolio of posters for events throughout Brighton – where BRAG is based – and London. In January, the performance group Non Grata invited us to exhibit work in an international print festival in Estonia, and over the last year we’ve contributed to the Poster Roast in Kingston, Poster Smash in Bristol and organised our own show at the Peliroco Hotel in Brighton.
An important idea behind BRAG was to form a network with other poster artists around the world in order to further the development of poster art and its wider appreciation. It came as no surprise that forging a relationship with American artists, especially from the ‘poster mecca’ of San Francisco would be vital. So this trip was an invaluable opportunity for us to learn from two of the most established artists working in the field – Chuck Sperry and Ron Donovan. And when we arrived it became obvious they had organised more than just a workshop. A packed schedule of meetings, lectures and guided tours with some of the industries top professionals awaited.
Firehouse Posters was formed by Sperry and Donovan over twenty years ago (and was originally called the Psychic Sparkplug). Their first print-shop was in an old, dilapidated yet fully functioning Firehouse (hence the current name). Now their portfolio consists of well over 500 posters for some of the biggest names in the scene, such as Eric Clapton, Ozzy Osborne and Queens of The Stone Age. Sperry also has a keen interest in political art and has created huge banners for the Serbian History museum promoting peace and started his career as a political cartoonist. Both are incredibly passionate about the poster trade and this dynamism has given them youthful vigour and persona. One of their most distinguishing characters is their ability to collaborate with so many artists, which in turn has made their collection hold this incredible freshness that nurtures this community of artists surrounding their base of operations. Every year they travel throughout Europe for six months doing poster workshops, exhibitions and promotion, whilst stopping by their temporary print-shop in Milan.
We landed just time for the Council of Light-2b1 meeting that comprised of figureheads from the original Summer of Love, and they shared their thoughts and experiences about the era. Gigantic tie-dye throws (that would make any hippy drop to their knees) were hung as a back drop behind the panel discussion which set the stage and atmosphere for the festival.
The Rock Poster Society’s representative, Mark Rodriguez, introduced us to the organisation and explained their history whilst presenting BRAG with memberships. Since its founding in 1998, the society has become one of the largest non-profit poster organisations in the world and includes over four hundred members – artists, collectors and dealers who organise major poster conventions within the States. They kindly sponsored our show at the Aspect Gallery on Polk Street that opened the weekend of the festival. Late on the Sunday evening Alan Forbes, famous for designing the Black Crows’ logo and album covers, whilst being a long time artists for Tower Records dropped, into the studio to demonstrate an inking lesson on a pencil crest design sized at A5. He began brush painting with incredibly meticulous detail, using a 0.3 sized brush to add dynamic shading and definition. The session took over five hours and it was only half completed. He also showed us his index finger that harboured a massive callous from the painstaking work.
The following day, Sperry had arranged an appointment with Phil Cushway, one of the leading collectors in Rock Art who boasts an archive of work that is unimaginable in price. This was a very unique chance to see his private collection that dates back to the early 50s and 60s. Before proceeding to his private vault he orders me to tuck in my shirt, a precaution he asks everyone to do before entering. Cushway is revered for his diligent and rigorous investigative method; boxes stacked from floor to ceiling are filled with receipts and printing documents that act as evidence to the origins of the posters.
Shortly after the tour, Paul Grushkin met with us at the studio. He’s celebrated for being the author of The Art of Rock and The Art of Modern Rock, two mammoth books chronicling the rock poster tradition since the roots and 60s Psychedelic era. Many consider these publications to act as the rock poster Bible, comprising as the Old and New Testament. He conveys a pressing sense that the posters are important to documenting our music culture’s identity.
Arlene Owseichik is the art director for the famous Fillmore venue; the epicentre of the poster tradition that was started by Bill Graham during the 60s who promoted some of the greatest gigs with bands such as The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, Led Zeppelin and the Doors. This venue is unique in always producing a limited off-set poster series for the shows, designed by in-house artists, and handed out to the audience for free. To see the entire collection displayed from floor to ceiling, at a gallery space in the Fillmore, is astonishing – you’re able to view the posters in their true form and in chronological order, noticing how the styles transform from era to era.
Artist Dennis Loren arrived unannounced at the firehouse for quick visit which gave us a chance to interview him. His first poster was for Muddy Waters, second for Jimi Hendrix and since then he’s been extremely prolific, producing art for musicians such as the Velvet Underground, Paul McCartney and White Stripes. Whilst working on the posters he was a graphic designer for Cream magazine and later the art director for Goldmine Magazine and sometimes even jammed with BB King. Over the years he’s collected a library of hilarious anecdotes of musical legends he’s worked for. It was a humbling and humorous experience that I’ll never forget. Chris Shaw, a resident artist for the Fillmore then showed us his portfolio and educated us in the off-set printing technique.
In between all of this activity, we were preparing to print our poster edition sets of 300. The heatwave approached and topped the summer’s temperature record – bad news for printers as the ink dries faster in the screen making it an arduous process. Due to the complexity of my design, I was lucky enough to use the semi-automatic “beast”, equipped with micro registration adjustment and heavy pneumatic pumps to pull the squeegee with perfect pressure.
I still sweated more than my own body weight and it took over ten hours to complete the six layer print, equating to 1800 repetitions. This seemed a lot easier compared to the other three members’ task of manual hand-printing their posters. The only way they could make them though, to avoid the hot temperatures, was to print either early in the morning or late in the evening.
When we arrived at Speedway Meadow in the Golden Gate Park (one of the world’s largest manmade parks) The Summer of Love festival was already blasting away. Thousands of people gathered in front of the stage to hear the bands from the original era such as Blue Cheer, Jefferson Starship, Country Joe and the Fish and the Quicksilver Messaging Service. We spent most of the day behind the poster stand, frantically trying to keep up with the rush of costumers wanting to purchase our art (investigative journalist and author Dennis King also paid us a visit!).
At $25 each and $100 for a set of five, we were selling our posters at a reasonable price (considering they were hand-printed and limited). But this is also a distinguishing trait of the gig poster ethos and within a few hours we’d sold out and were rewarded for our labour. It was clear that the American audience was rife with collectors and enthusiasts who were determined to purchase. During the evening we watched an NBC news broadcast that had documented the workshop throughout the week, and this perfectly concluded the experience. Winston Smith, famous for the iconic logo of the Dead Kennedys and a close friend of Chuck, met us for a few drinks whilst we celebrated.
The trip was a truly awesome experience that I’m extremely grateful for. Our passion has been propelled into over-drive and expanded the frontiers of our knowledge beyond comprehension. Now the journey is over the pond has been crossed one way, we’ve already started preparing a trip for Firehouse to return the favour. So stay posted for the subsequent American invasion of Britain.
Rhys Wootton, 2007, for CRBlog