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Among those benefiting from Nashville's lively music scene is Andy Vastagh of Boss Construction, one of the city's most prolific gig-poster printers. On the day after this year's Flatstock convention has ended, he's trying to pin down an appointment to get a tattoo with the president of the American Poster Institute. They want matching tattoos of an eagle carrying a hoagie sandwich in its talons.
Memphian Vastagh graduated college in 2002. By 2005, CMT asked him to move to Nashville to work for them full time. He continued to freelance his own jobs on the side, and by 2008 he was able to focus on his own work. It's been good business for Vastagh, who speaks with the straight-faced confidence of someone proud of hard work.
"I liked the immediacy of creating a piece of art and not having to wait around for a gallery's approval," Vastagh says. "It's a little more instantly gratifying than waiting for someone to tell me it's good enough to show people."
Vastagh's work reflects printmaking as a commercial endeavor. His designs are stylish, but more as a way to get his point across. He can reel off a laundry list of ideas that are trending: gemstones, praying skeletons, islands with something else beneath them, like a human head or a reflection of a pirate ship. He can also cite ideas that connect with certain audiences. For instance: Cactus or cow skulls sell well in Austin, bicycles do well in Chicago — and birds sell pretty much everywhere.
"The whole 'Put a bird on it' meme is definitely true in the print world," Vastagh says, "but you could also say 'Put an octopus on it,' or 'Put a bike on it.' " He grins like a magician who's just given away the tricks of his trade.
Another Nashville printmaker who tweaks the traditional gig-poster medium is Sam Smith. Though the native Nashvillian is a practicing musician — he's a drummer for both Ben Folds and My So-Called Band — his first love is film. He studied at New York University's prestigious film department, which boasts alumni such as Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee, and he's frequently seen taking in movies at The Belcourt.
"I try to bring local printing into the movie world," says the tall, baby-faced Smith, whose easygoing manner masks his creative ambition. "My philosophy is this: Seeing a movie with a certain group of people on a certain night can be a memorable experience that you will remember, just like a concert."
That has led Smith to design a series of posters to accompany Belcourt events such as the current Robert Bresson retrospective, the premiere of Harmony Korine's Trash Humpers and the Soviet silent Man With a Movie Camera. Smith says he got inspiration from Austin's Alamo Drafthouse, whose limited-edition poster runs have become instant sell-outs.
"They have a printing company called Mondo, and they've done projects for everything from Star Wars to Pixar," Smith says. "I did about eight or 10 examples really quickly, printed them out at Kinko's and brought them over to [Belcourt program director] Toby Leonard, and said, 'Look, this is what we can do.'
"We did posters for the Chaplin Film Festival, the Kurosawa Film Festival, the Film Noir Festival, and sometimes posters for midnight movies, like The Big Lebowski, which was very successful." He's now trying to interest The Belcourt in doing a monthly cult-movie series with a commemorative poster for each film.
Smith's most successful Belcourt print was the howling cat face he made for Japanese horror film Hausu (House). The piece not only became the cornerstone of arthouse titan Janus Films' successful national release for the film, it got Smith a second career designing movie posters for Janus and IFC Films as well as DVD covers for the prestigious Criterion Collection label. Ask him today about Hausu, however, and Smith brushes it off with a shrug and quickly changes the subject. In the printmaking world, permanence is rarely the goal — it is multiplicity and distribution, and you have to be able to move on.
If Andy Vastagh exemplifies the commercial side of printmaking, Mark Hosford holds up the fine-art end of the spectrum. The fact that their work overlaps so readily is a testament to printmaking's unpretentious origins in punchclock drudgery. With a sheepish grin, Hosford recalls a one-liner he heard in graduate school: "Calling yourself the best printmaker is like calling yourself the tallest midget."
"Printmakers always have a sense of being the underdog of the art world," he says. As a result, there is astoundingly little ego involved in the printmaking community, and appreciation for each other's work exists across the board.
It helps that they borrow a lot from the same inspirations. Hosford's office is a cacophony of Mark Ryden and Francisco Goya, and he doesn't apologize for the lowbrow-highbrow mash-up of his influences.
"I like tattoo images and horror and comic book imagery merged with history prints merged with contemporary drawing styles," Hosford says. "And I like to be able to draw things that sometimes seem inane merged with real intelligent things. But because the prints are done in such an immaculate, technical way, if I draw something that seems like black humor and somewhat cartoonish, the sheer intensity of the technical way it's done outweighs that and brings it to a new level."
If Hosford's influences include a storehouse of what's often demeaned as junk culture, Lesley Patterson-Marx uses her prints to incorporate and transform something closer to a thrifty Depression-era mom's bag of scraps. Though the former Watkins printmaking teacher is as much an exemplar of printing-as-fine-art as Hosford, her work amounts to a patchwork quilt of ephemera.
Old photographs, vintage wallpaper, stamps, plants and insects all find a place in the early stages of her prints. She then uses a solar process to turn her collages into several plates, each one assigned a different color. Then she uses a plastic knife to mix intaglio inks on her glass tabletop, pouring blues and reds and whites until she gets it just right.
"I treat printmaking as an extension of collage," says Patterson-Marx, who now helps run the Platetone Printshop in West Nashville. "I consider myself a mixed-media printmaker."
She has crisp blue eyes and baby-doll features punctuated by half-moon eyebrows, and she wears a pretty denim apron made by women in the Dominican Republic when she works. She listens to AM radio in her studio as she weds unconventional processes to traditional techniques, resulting in tiny books about her grandmother that are bound with black bobby-pins, small prints based on antique photographs, and shadowy curios fashioned by photo-emulsion legerdemain out of four-leaf clovers.
"I feel very connected to technology in this process, even though my work is so nostalgic," she says, noting that she uses nontoxic ink to increase the longevity of her printmaking career. If she treats printmaking like collage, she treats collage like alchemy.
"Layers imply time, and I like the idea of things with a process to them," Patterson-Marx says. "I like seeing things change and transform."