By Jeff Kollath
Episode five of the Poster Tube takes us to the fine city of Milwaukee to visit with JW and Melissa of the Little Friends of Printmaking. A married couple with nearly a decade of printmaking, poster art, and fine art behind them, JW and Melissa are known for their vibrancy, creativity, and oddball characters that make each of their posters unique. I recently rediscovered their work after years of searching for a Vandermark 5 poster they did for the High Noon Saloon. Instead of reinventing the wheel, please check out an interview they did with Grain Edit where they discuss their printmaking process and so much more – it is a nice piece that fills in the gaps that I have (purposely) left open.
1. How did you both get into art, printmaking, and the show poster business?
JW: Well, we’ve both always been interested in art, and we met in art school. Melissa was basically the single coolest person I had ever met, so I sunk my claws in – and I’ve been riding her coattails ever since. Wait… What are you asking me, again?
M: We were studying printmaking together; and in printmaking, you kind of need a printing buddy to help out (because the process can be so involved). A lot of times you need two sets of hands. Even though we’d worked together on artwork before, printing each other’s stuff kicked our collaboration into a higher gear. It definitely established the blueprint for how we work together today.
JW: We made our first posters for a vegan punk co-op in the basement of a church. The promoter there had seen some prints of ours and asked us if we were interested in doing posters for them. It wasn’t an easy sell, getting people to see shows in a church basement. I have to admit, when I first moved to town, I’d assumed that all the shows there were christian rock. I’d be like, “Why is Les Savy Fav playing that church place? Are they christian rock? Maybe I need to re-read that lyric sheet.” But I think the posters helped. It’s such a small thing, but I think it helped show people that there was something cool happening in this dank basement; maybe they could just pop their head in for a minute; It’s probably not a churchy cult indoctrination; or at least you could be about 85% certain, anyway.
2. How would describe your design aesthetic? Are you both on the same page, and if not, where do you differ and how do you complement each other?
JW: I think we’re more or less on the same page.
M: Well, since I’m a girl, I only like to draw ponies and ballerinas. James is a boy, so he draws all the dinosaurs and army tanks.
JW: Yes, that about sums it up.
M: Our aesthetic is very influenced by 20th century illustration, by package design, by weird mascots for old products that don’t exist anymore. There’s that, and then there’s serious-minded graphic design, and infographics, and icons, and diagrams and stuff like that. And we just kind of mix those elements up. Our aesthetic is maybe most influenced by the silkscreen process itself. There’s so much idiosyncrasy in the silkscreen medium, and we want to bring that to the front. Other people use silkscreen to reproduce a drawing, but we’re designing a print from the very beginning.
JW: A print should look like a print, and so we try to make the most of silkscreen-y stuff: layered colors, hidden details, shiny ink. We approach it almost like making a 3-D object.
3. Recently, it appears that the majority of your output has been more fine art prints rather than show posters. Is there a reason for that, or is it just your personal artistic progression?
JW: Making art prints has been a priority for us since the very beginnings of Little Friends. When we did our first art print series years ago, it was partly because we had something to prove – We were in art school, and our classmates weren’t shy about telling us that the only reason anyone liked our concert posters was because of the band names on them. And nobody wants to hear that. The other reason for us to make art prints was that we had a repository of ideas that didn’t quite fit on a concert poster, and we needed a place for those to go. As it turned out, the reaction to that first group of art prints was extremely positive, unexpectedly so.
M: We’d keep hearing from people who loved an image on a concert poster we did but hated the band, or we’d hear from people who got excited if the band information was at the bottom of the poster so that they could cut that part off! Stories like that were the reason we kept making art prints. And we’re grateful that people like our stuff enough on its own. Because with the art prints, we can do whatever we want. There’s no client, there’s no deadline—it’s making posters with all the headache removed.
4. Leisure activities – TV watching, record shopping, pets, etc – are a recurring theme in your artwork. Talk a little bit about why this is so and what it says about you as artists.
JW: Well, we like that stuff, that’s one reason. And then of course, people like to look at art about stuff like that, too. That helps. If we did prints about advanced algebra or really serious stuff like preventing communicable diseases, I think it would just bum people out.
M: Because those are the sort of things we like, we have more to say about them. You have to go with what you know, I guess. People respond to stuff that feels real, and they like to feel like they know who you are, even though they’re just looking at your work. I don’t know what it says about us as artists, but as people we love food and pets and ice cream and listening to records. The prints are just a reflection of that.
5. How much of a role does them music of the performer play in designing a poster for a show? Feel free to cite a specific example.
JW: It’s both the most and the least important factor when designing a concert poster. Obviously, you have to know the artist; you have to know the music. But you can’t lean too heavily on just that information, or it’ll be too on-the-nose. Visual puns based on band names or album titles often make for the very WORST concert posters. That kind of stuff drove me crazy as a teenaged music fan. (A Pavement poster with a steamroller on it, really?) So you try to create something that feels relevant to the event without referencing things too directly.
M: You need to have enough of a musical vocabulary to be able to put things in the correct context. There’s no rules when it comes to this stuff but you know immediately when something feels “wrong.”
6. You all have been doing show posters for a long time. What changes have you seen in the marketplace, and have they all been for the better?
JW: The biggest change has been how musicians have embraced posters. Today, you go to a show and they’ll have posters at the merch table right along with the records and shirts. Concert posters are mostly commissioned by the bands now, rather than by the promoters. As a designer, it feels nice to have that stamp of approval; It all feels very official, and nobody is getting screwed. Still, they’re not concert posters in the strictest sense, because concert posters go up outside. They advertise the show. They contribute to the feeling of an authentic local scene. They don’t just sit on a merch table, seen only by the people who are already inside the venue. It might seem like a weird distinction to make, but when I was a kid, seeing posters around town helped me decide what I music I was going to check out and what stuff I could avoid. And when you came to a town and they had cool posters hanging up on the street, you knew you were in a town that gave a shit. It really meant something then, and it still could today. So if somebody has a solution that’s friendly to artists & musicians but also fosters a local music scene in some way, I’m ready to hear your ideas!
M: I like the way things are now. Nobody is finding out about a show by walking past a kiosk in 2010, just like nobody is calling a concert line and listening to an answering machine read off dates for ten minutes. We all relate to music differently now, and defining posters as merch is probably the best way to keep the culture of concert posters going. It’s not the same, but it’s good.
Super Special Jackpot Bonus Giveaway: JW and Melissa have kindly agreed to offer (1) copy of the Andrew Bird poster you see above. Just post what your all-time favorite thing about Milwaukee is in the comments section and we will pick a winner. Drop a comment by 5pm on Friday the 25th. Good luck!