Studio Tour #007 - Jay Ryan | The Bird Machine
Studio Tour #007 - Jay Ryan | The Bird Machine
Photography Michael Ruggirello
Leading up to Flatstock 21 at the Pitchfork Music Festival we stopped over at The Bird Machine and had a chance to look over the shoulder of one of the Chicago printing greats, Jay Ryan, as he and The Bird Machine team prepared for the event.
Being at The Bird Machine, and when speaking with Jay, it is clear that he has been doing this for some time; he explains his process and technique like he's talking about an old friend. It is also clear that we have a lot to thank him for (that goes for his colleagues/mentors as well--you can start with Steve Walters/Screwball Press and go from there), such as his hand in building Chicago into the show poster mecca it is now, and for being a person who is grounded in their imagination as much as others are grounded lacking it.
We caught back up with Jay and The Bird Machine a few weeks later at Union Park in Chicago during the Festival to see how the prints had turned out and to gauge the atmosphere at this year's festival.
After letting the summer burn away for a couple of months I asked Jay to look back on this year's festival and, on the case of this interviewers grammar errors, he moonlighted as an ornery high school English teacher, as we discussed his work, his standing Flatstock record, the little voice inside everyone's head, prehistoric creatures and moving to the suburbs.
Davey Sommers: You've been to just about every Flatstock, ever. How did this year's (Flatstock 21) at the Pitchfork Music Festival compare to the rest? How do the more recent ones compare to the first?
Jay Ryan: I hold the record for having participated in the most Flatstocks of anyone, as I only missed the second European event, in 2007. 23 so far. Generally, the more recent events are better attended, with an audience who know more about what to expect to see. FS21 in Chicago this year was great; the weather was perfect, no drunk people spilled substantial amounts of beer on anyone's posters, no half-naked hippies covered in glitter came tripping into my tent, I sold some prints, was interviewed by a puppet rat for a public access television show, and my parents came to hang out. Pretty good weekend.
DS: Can you talk about your concept for the 2009 Pitchfork Music Festival poster?
JR: There's no secret meaning to the image. It's a Diplodocus, in his bedroom, dancing by himself when no one is looking. For an event like this, with 30 bands, you can't specifically depict a feeling or theme from one or two of the bands. This Diplodocus is a fan of about three quarters of the bands playing the festival, so I thought he represented the whole thing best.
DS: I remember you saying something about a dog, a parking meter, and your friend threatening to never give you any kind of advice ever again. What was that story about your Flatstock 21 poster?
JR: The Flatstock poster came together one evening after eating dinner with my friend Jason Harvey. I said I needed some ideas for the Flatstock poster, and as we left the restaurant here in north suburban Evanston, we met a dog named Roxie, and discussed the recent parking meter price scandal. Jason suggested I include these elements in the poster, and then pointed out that he would not offer me any more ideas in the future if I left them out of the print.
DS: This is first time your band Dianogah has played pitchfork, how'd it go? Did you catch any other acts?
JR: Dianogah played really well, and had a great time, considering the set was a tribute to our bandmate (Stephanie Morris) who had died six weeks earlier. We flew Rebecca Gates in from Portland to sing Stephanie's parts on some songs, and our dear Mark Geenberg played Steph's guitar and keyboard parts. This was the first time that Jason Harvey's twin boys got to see their dad play music, and for now, it's the last time we've played together as a band, since kip McCabe, the drummer, has recently become a father, and we're on hiatus for a while.
I liked seeing the national.
DS: Which is cooler? : rock star or rock-poster star?
JR: I don't know. Ask Daniel Danger.
DS: How do you feel about having two first names?
JR: Well, Jay isn't really my legal name, but I've used it my whole life. Ryan is a historic last name (descended from the old Irish O'Mulriain) Which some people in the united states have started using as a given name really only this century, and mostly since the 1970s. So… fuck you. I feel fine. Davey Sommers, what's it like to have a name that sounds like an off-brand peanut butter?
DS: Your a "giant" in the show/rock poster world but not an actual giant, how do you account for the difference? Do you tell people you're really, really tall?
JR: First off, I didn't understand your 'question' due to your terrible grammar. Don't go editing it into readability before posting this interview.
I don't think I'm a giant in the poster community in the figurative sense, I just started doing this earlier than most, I don't smoke pot, and I am too stubborn to quit printing. Yes, I am also rather large, so it's easy to notice me when we're standing around taking group photos. Dan Macadam (for example) is more average sized, and he goes to a lot of poster show, but you don't see his big head sticking out when we all take pictures of each other. I don't need to
tell people I'm tall. Most people seem to figure it out on their own.
DS: Can you talk about your creative process a little bit, or is that a highly guarded secret that involves a team of gerbils creating nests from random images and whichever images they choose for their nests are the ones that get transferred to your work?
JR: I'm not familiar with the gerbils you're talking about. The best thing I learned in college was how to turn off the little voice in the back of my head (which we all have) which says "now THAT's a dumb idea!" when I think of something silly.
DS: You didn't always hand-letter your posters, was there a turning point for you? Was it Just a matter of ridding yourself of that aforementioned little voice?
JR: When I started, I did about half my prints with hand-drawn type, and half were laid out in quark, printed on paper, then spliced into the drawn image. In 1998, I had a poster show with Art Chantry, in Seattle, and his comment was, to paraphrase, "your images are pretty good, but your digital type is really bad. stick with the hand-drawn lettering." I took his advice.
DS: How much of yourself gets transferred into your work? Are you really just an Apatosaurus trapped in a small room with only headphones, a lamp and a single window?
JR: I never claimed to be an Apatosaurus. I think you need to do some fact checking (*editors note: he's right, it turns out it was actually a Diplodocus in the print I was referencing not an Apatosaurus like I first thought). I transfer as much of myself into the work as will allow me to keep enough of myself on hand to maintain the "giant" posture you mentioned above.
DS: Like anything else, any work process can get repetitive, what keeps you interested and moving forward to the next print? Is it important for you to keep experimenting with your subjects, style and techniques?
JR: Did your mom write these questions? What about my job is repetitive? Last week I was drawing a shark, a pterodactyl, some bats and a platypus flying overhead, then the other day I drew a bunch of little squares with all sorts of crap going on in them (man reading book on toilet, animal floating between some reeds in water, cat in a bucket, etc), and then today some pretty women came and took pictures of me while I drew an overweight reindeer with saddlebags on. No part of my job is boring. I am very fortunate.
DS: How would you say your style and printings techniques have developed over the years? What do you think enacted those changes?
JR: I guess my style has developed in the direction of having the printing process become part of the design process. We start printing before I have finished making the films, and each new screen is basically a spur of the moment color decision. I have become better at knowing the limitations of the medium, and working pretty well within those parameters.
DS: How often do you lose things in your space?
JR: I lose things in The Bird Machine shop pretty often, but fortunately there's only really one shelf where lost things can go, so I look there first, and usually find them.
DS: What are you eating, drinking, listening to, reading, watching, and dreaming about these days?
JR: I've taken to reading The New Yorker more or less cover to cover, sometimes in the bathtub. Fall is settling upon us now (it's 40 degrees outside), and we've (Diana Sudyka, Jay's spouse and illustrator) basically had the wood stove going since we got back from Germany two weeks ago. Seth the greyhound spends all his at-home time laying in front of the fire. My favorite housework is splitting and stacking wood during the summer, so the garage is well stocked now. Diana's been making chai tea at home, we've been eating a lot of Swiss chard from the garden, and I just finished building up my touring bike on a new (bigger) frame, with all my old components, which I've been riding to work like four days a week.
DS: Where you live now is a bit of a departure from above the Empty Bottle, where you once told me that someone tried to break into your apartment using the fire escape, what finally made up your mind about moving to the suburbs?
JR: I'm not the first person to move from the city to the suburbs when they reach their thirties. I lived above the bottle for one year, twelve years ago. I got tired of living four feet away from other buildings with 15 people living in two-bedroom apartments where someone would sleep with their feet sticking out of the dining room window for me to see while I'm eating cereal. Now we have a good 30 feet between our house and the neighbors on each side, and I'm much happier. As far as the break in, that guy never actually went ahead with it, since he noticed me standing next to him while I was holding my crow bar.
DS: Have you perfected driving while talking on your phone in one hand and solving sudoku puzzles in the other, I hear that's the ultimate test for a suburbanite?
JR: What the fuck are you talking about? I have never done sudoku in my life.
DS: Many of the screen printers in Chicago, including The Bird Machine, have come together to form the Chicago Printers Guild; can you talk a little bit about your hand in it all, and tell us what this group is all about?
JR: It's not just screen printers; there are letterpress folks, too. The Chicago Printers Guild was basically started by Nadine Nakanishi from Sonnenzimmer, half as a professional organization, and half a social network situation. After being on the board of the American Poster Institute for almost 5 years, I don't feel like I can get involved in helping drive the CPG, but I think that the handful of folks who have stepped up to drive this thing are doing a great job so far. The point of the organization, as I see it, is first to form a community, and then to raise the profile of our community in Chicago's cultural awareness.
DS: Got anything planned for the future?
JR: I'm going to finish this interview, draw here at the kitchen table until I fall asleep, then go to bed. In the morning I'm going to work. Tomorrow is Friday, and we're going to a bunch of gallery openings downtown. Saturday, we're hanging with Aaron Horkey's family at the Field Museum of Natural History, and Sunday afternoon (if the weather holds), Diana and I are riding bikes about 30 miles up to Illinois Beach State Park to camp overnight, riding home on Monday morning.
Photography by Michael Ruggirello