- Stephanie Hensen
Interview with Chris Shaw
What opportunities for professional development have been most helpful to you? What were more helpful earlier on in your career? (networking, publishing companies, etc.)
There was never any question that I was going to be an artist, but learning some important techniques and adapting along the way has been crucial Being versatile, creative, and combining different skill-sets - and doing stuff, lots of it - is probably the most important part of being successful at anything.
I had an internship in high-school at a graphic design studio that introduced me to typography, printing, copy cameras, layout, xerox, etc., I immediately put those skills at work making punk flyers and fanzines. That internship gave me a direction. Later I went to art school at California College of Arts and Crafts (now CCA), art school was really important for me. First, I realized I didn’t want to be a graphic designer and switched my major to printmaking - I wanted to make and print posters, not design product stuff. I ended up with a BFA and loving all forms of printmaking but naturally gravitated towards silkscreen & litho. My silkscreen professor was Malaquias Montoya, an amazing Chicano artist who does fantastic political work. He also taught me mural painting which became a key skill later on.
At art school I was involved with some other artists making all sorts of political posters - it was still the Reagan era. We worked separately and as a group and ended up making hundreds of posters about everything and anything, sometimes causing a lot of trouble. In a nutshell, we didn’t get a lot of support from the college. Malaquias supported us and taught the do-it-yourself (DIY) ideology and to DO stuff, don’t let anyone hold you back. We learned how to work fast and cheap, how to make successful poster designs, how to work together, how to get things done... we could print on the kitchen table if we had to. We also found out we could sell our posters to pay for the next ones and make t-shirts. While most of our work was political, almost immediately some of us started making rock posters too. Bands need posters, clubs need posters, and if we were lucky we could sell ‘em at the show too... at least for ink, paper & beer money.
After art-school and in the summers I didn’t have a print studio . Work. I printed zillions of t-shirts. I learned stat-cameras and color separation along the way, eventually I ran a t-shirt shop. I also learned industrial silkscreening, large-format sign printing, high-end art printing, and got familiar with professional equipment and techniques. I hated a lot of the work, but wouldn’t trade the knowledge and experience for anything. Art school taught me how to print 25 - work taught me how to print 2500 and not mess any up. Unfortunately, I also learned that a lot of the materials in silkscreen can be nasty toxic - I got really sick and had to quit silkscreen in 1991-ish. While I still like to print from time to time, I simply had to stop silkscreening as a regular activity.
I moved to painting. I had mural skills from art school and I started painting big. I scored a bunch of great gigs painting blacklight murals in nightclubs in San Francisco that got my art noticed. The paintings were a lot like my early poster art and fit right into the music scene in the early 90’s. This is where my career as an artist really began. I never tried to get my paintings in a gallery, but I started making a living with art in the club and music scene. Eventually I got “discovered” by Bill Graham Presents, the big music promoter in SF, they needed someone to paint backdrops and large-scale art for concerts and festivals. After a few small gigs, I ended up painting their stage and festival art for a decade - I worked with a lot of awesome people, crazy rock-n-roll projects, and learned the ropes with business and networking. My work with Bill Graham Presents got my foot in the door as an artist in the music industry, it brought with it some high profile projects, major bands, and big budgets. I learned how to handle a rock-n-roll schedule and crank out art... meaning, answer the phone at 2am because the art was needed yesterday.
Bill Graham Presents got me back into making posters too. Of course, their series of posters from the 60’s and the Fillmore are famous - I jumped at the chance to make one. It wasn’t easy - it was still pre-digital days, all my knowledge of printing, camera-work, layout was required. Back then, with offset posters everything was still 100% manually done, meaning, ink, hand-cut separations made with rubylith, film, and spot-color. A lot like silkscreen... but plates were burned and it printed on an offset press. As digital began to take over I started using computers in my workflow and learned digital graphics. I eventually made dozens of offset rock posters for the Fillmore and Bill Graham Presents, and many hundreds of others since. Today, everything offset printed is digital, but I still carry over a lot of analog-art techniques and craft when making building images, even when doing purely digital art.
Around 1999, Hand-made concert and stage art was killed by large format digital printing, it wasn’t a living anymore. I had done a lot of Fillmore posters with great bands, and continued to make more, mostly offset prints. I started painting smaller and moving more “fine art” too, with some early success and a series of private commissions. Since then I’ve been balancing making posters and making paintings full time. The vast majority of my posters are offset printed, but I always do a few silkscreens every year, my passion lies in the printing regardless of the medium.
Can you share your process of getting your work out into the world? How is it presented to a client or to the public? How do you find clients and commissions to make work?
When I was getting started there was no internet, it was a lot harder to get your work out-there and noticed. Besides the age-old networking and contacts thing, there was a lot of DIY involved in marketing my art. I never sent out portfolios to galleries, a hand-printed business card with cool art was a lot more effective for me. Long ago, we would use day-glo inks and strong imagery to make our posters stand out from the zillions of flyers and street posters in San Francisco, for instance on Haight Street where there was a lot of competition. Standing out and having one’s own recognizable style is important, but so is great art & craftsmanship.
Today, with the internet, all the same rules seem to apply - standing apart and being recognizable in a world of a billion images is a huge challenge - but the web and social media is one of the is also one of the best DIY platforms ever. Using it effectively is a big investment that needs to be balanced with the time it takes to manage, but poster artists can self-market, release posters, and build a following without splitting their profits with a gallery or middleman. Its extremely democratic. Today I get most work inquiries through my website, chrisshawstudio.com , plus I have a lot of long-standing clients who I do regular work with.
Making posters is a tough gig, selling them can be harder. Rock posters haven’t always been loved by art galleries or in high demand, doing DIY shows with other artists can be important to create your own opportunities. Almost all of my early poster shows were DIY group efforts, we used to hang posters on string with clothespins wherever we could - eventually we all learned how to work together to put on a better show, promote it, and handle sales effectively. In 1999, I teamed up with my dear friends Chuck Sperry and Ron Donovan (Firehouse Custom Rock Posters) to bring our posters to Europe with a tour of DIY poster shows, we built a nice network and had adventures & great shows all over the place for a few years.
I also like to do larger group poster shows, where you set up a booth or a tent. For sure, traditional galleries can be great - its a big split of your sales, so it needs to be an effective relationship. Gallery shows are more important for my paintings than posters, paintings need exposure or nobody sees them - posters get automatic exposure out of distribution. In 2011 and 2013 I did a couple of exhibits of my paintings at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art which were pretty helpful for my non-poster artwork, a lot of people saw it.
When presenting artwork of any kind to anyone, whether its a sketch, a proposal, final art, or an exhibit - go the extra mile to make it look good. Present it nicely. If you are required to take direction on a project, take it - but don’t let the art & ideas to get watered down. Avoid “designed by committee” situations. Theres a fine line between keeping one’s creative control and being tough to work with, don’t be tough to work with. Rock posters aren’t always heavily art-directed, but they can be, and there’s typically a sign-off required somewhere if they’re legit. If you want to do rock posters, be prepared for some tough art situations - they’re not always glorious gigs and I’ve had plenty of great designs turned down. Along the way, there will be the occasional home-run too, theres nothing better than making great art for a favorite band.
How do you balance your art practice with other jobs, art or non-art related?
I do feel that there is a separation and a difference between my paintings and fine art (which have their own career) and my art for rock posters - but they are very closely linked at this point in my life. It wasn’t always that way, when I was starting out I’d do anything and everything for work with lots of lame projects ( logos, signs, menus, admats, etc). Tons of art-direction. I didn’t always love it, but it helped get my rent paid and built good experience.
Art and posters in general can be seasonal and work typically comes in waves. I take the work if I can get it. It can get crazy with posters during high-season in summer, I typically sell my soul making posters and try to build a war-chest for winter. I paint and do most non-poster art in the offseason. The balance between the two is always uneasy and often off-kilter. It can be frustrating when you’re inspired to paint something but have a month of posters on the calendar.
For the last decade, besides making my own art and posters, I also art-direct & manage poster production for the band Moonalice, this involves working with other artists, proofing files, managing printing, getting posters to the bands.. etc. Moonalice has produced over 1000 posters in the 10 years with 30 artists. The series has been a ton of work and often all-encompassing, but its been a great honor to work with some of my heroes and a lot of fun to direct the poster series. I absolutely love working with other artists and going the extra mile to make the posters print great.
Describe your typical week- in the studio, at home, other activities?
I live in a live-work warehouse studio, no commuting - I can get totally immersed in whatever I’m working on. I’ve been in the same space in Oakland, Ca for almost 30 years and am completely entrenched. The space is about 2500sq. ft, the layout has changed and evolved over the decades depending on what I was working on. I share the space with my wife Alexandra Fischer (a poster artist) and our dog Noodles, Alex also helps to art direct and manage the Moonalice poster series. Upstairs is our live-space and where the computer workstations are, downstairs is the art-studio space.
When I did stage art and set work the studio was a big empty room to work on huge canvas panels. As I concentrated on posters and paintings the space filled in with work tables, easels, typical studio stuff... and many shelves of posters. Eventually, the posters grew to fill most of the space and I ran out of room for painting. I got a 2nd space in the building a while ago, moved all the posters over there, and got my art space back. With the 5000sq. feet I have a decent art & painting space, room for posters, and am currently adding a very modest water-base silkscreen set-up.
A typical day, after walking the dog & coffee, is a session with e-mail & whatever business/ art direction stuff needs attention. When its done, I turn it off. Then I work on whatever the project of the day is. If I have a poster or art to make I try to concentrate on it 100% and not get mixed up with other things whether working digitally or drawing/painting. Most posters take a couple days to churn out, depending on the art. I’ve worked on posters for weeks too - doesn’t always make a better poster. If I’m doing computer work I keep the TV on and the news rolling - If I’m inking poster art or painting in the studio I listen to music. Theres always something to do, I don’t really take vacations.
Describe your influences- what sources, artists, etc. do you look to for inspiration?
I love art history, I get a ton of inspiration from the past. From the geometry of the Egyptians & Madonna Icons to classic Nautical Portraiture, I love it all. I have a decent library of art books for visual inspiration, thematically they’re all over the place, from Oceanic art to DaVinci to North Korean propaganda. A fun afternoon is getting lost on the internet looking up some obscure art genre I didn’t know existed. I tend to like representational art, but appreciate abstract and conceptual art too, especially if they’re well done technically. Other influences are graffiti, comics, television & advertising, mass-media, and politics. I get a lot of inspiration from the artists I’ve worked with, I love seeing how other people work.
Artist Website: www.chrisshawstudio.com Process: https://www.youtube.com/user/chrisshawstudio/videos