Artfully imperfect: Two local businesses press on with old school screen-printing in the digital age

Two Cincinnati-area businesses are helping drive a resurgence of interest in screen-printing as an art form.  While commercial printing becomes increasingly automated, the artist-entrepreneurs at DIY Printing in Walnut Hills and Powerhouse Factories in Newport collaborate with arts organizations to teach people how to use manual screen-printing presses to create posters, art prints, and T-shirts.

“There’s a human intelligence in the way the inks are mixed, and there’s a human touch to the press of the squeegee,” said Aaron Kent, founder of DIY Printing. 

Kent offers a studio for artists who want to experiment with screen printing but can’t afford to buy equipment such as presses, vacuum tables, drying equipment, and ink-washout booths. 

  • Open studio hours are Wednesdays from 6:30 to 9:00 pm and Saturdays from 10:00 am to 12:30 pm. 

He also offers screen-printing classes for small groups through the Community Education program at the Art Academy of Cincinnati.

Now that music is stored on digital devices and in the cloud, printed concert posters and T-shirts provide tangible representations of the music we like, the concerts we have attended, and the types of art that inspires us.

At the Midpoint Music Festival, Powerhouse operated a mobile PrintLab aboard a box truck, as part of the Box Truck Carnival sponsored by SpringBoard and ArtWorks. Dozens of festival-goers climbed aboard the truck, tied on an apron, and hand printed their own MidPoint Music Festival posters. About 1600 posters were produced during the festival.

WATCH: Powerhouse PrintLab at MidPoint (story continues below)

Creativity goes back to the future

In a report titled “Embracing Analog,” the market-research firm JWT Intelligence contends that in today’s digital world, consumers value physical products that feel authentic. Instead of mindlessly accumulating more mass-produced “stuff,” today’s consumers prefer owning fewer things – especially items with personal meaning or a story behind them.

Screen printing is a centuries old, stencil-based printing process that originated in China and was popularized by artist Andy Warhol in the 1960s. Screen printing can be done by anyone who can stretch a woven mesh over a frame and use a squeegee to force ink through the mesh openings that haven’t been blocked out by a stencil.

In the 1960s and 1970s, screen printing was a cheap way to add messages and designs to small quantities of posters, art prints, and T-shirts. Screen-printed posters advertised local concerts by Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane, and other groups.

In the 1980s and 1990s, screen printing was industrialized as businesses bought automated screen-printing presses to meet the surging demand for concert T-shirts, branded merchandise, advertising signs, and sports team apparel. Today, automatic screen-printing presses operate alongside technologically advanced inkjet printers that require very little human intervention.

Inkjet printers have eliminated the cost and expense of screens, while enabling full-color photographs to be printed on small batches of posters, T-shirts, art canvas, packaging, gift items, textiles, and just about anything you can imagine.

Powerhouse Factories and DIY Printing both use inkjet printers to make the process environmentally sound. Still, both firms are committed to keeping the human touch in applying the ink to the paper or fabric. They value screen printing more as an art form than an industrial process, and enjoy collaborating with other artists to make mixed-media prints or reproductions of original drawings or paintings.

From posters to branding

Multidisciplinary artists Pat Jones and Ben Nunery founded Powerhouse Factories 10 years ago as a way to pursue their passion for pop culture, music, design, and printmaking. Working with concert promoters and musicians, they have crafted one-of-a-kind, limited-edition posters for venues throughout the U.S. and acts such as Bruce Springsteen, The Black Keys, and The Shins.

After events, Powerhouse offers its posters them for sale. They promise not to reprint posters with the same design when the edition sells out.

In conjunction with the PrintLab at MidPoint Music Festival in September, Powerhouse teamed up with Joshua Mattie from Cincinnati’s Contemporary Art Center to co-curate a gig poster exhibit at Cincinnati’s 21c Museum Hotel. The collaboration with 21c continued outside the galleries with a series of “secret” shows featuring regional musicians in and around the hotel.

Next page: How to mix art and enterprise

After traveling to music festivals throughout the U.S., Jones and Nunery realized that they had acquired insights that could help clients of the agencies they formerly worked for as graphic designers. So, Powerhouse established a brand-building agency as a complementary business. Through design work and idea generation sessions at their creative studios in Mt. Adams, Powerhouse helps brand owners create culturally meaningful experiences for their customers.

“It’s hard to make an emotional connection to something that’s digitally printed,” Nunery said.

Whether they are teaching at the Art Academy, working with brand-agency clients, or giving public demonstrations, Jones and Nunery say people are drawn to the screen-printing process. At MidPoint, they had fun watching people’s eyes light up when they learned that with a few simple instructions they could craft their own prints.

The designers at Powerhouse Factories will be showing selected works at the Ink Bleeds 4 exhibition of poster art that the design association AIGA Cincinnati is hosting at the Art Academy of Cincinnati November 13 through December 13. Powerhouse will also be opening their creative studio and print shop to the public for their annual holiday party on December 13.

Art and enterprise

DIY Printing recently moved to the Essex Studios space in Walnut Hills. In addition to giving local artists a place to experiment with screen printing, printmakers Kent and Brandon Hickle collaborate with Southpaw Prints to print T-shirts, posters, packaging, and bags for small businesses and organizations.

Some days they might reproduce 25 copies of an artist’s original painting or drawing. Other days they may find themselves printing 750 packages for a local seller of specialty teas and coffees. Kent is pleased that commercial demand still exists for small, locally produced runs of screen-printed products. These commercial printing jobs help keep the studio afloat so they can continue their outreach to artists.

Earlier this year, DIY Printing hosted a group of 15 people from Starfire University. After each person printed their own T-shirt, they further personalized them with signatures and drawings.

While creative designs will always be the lifeblood of any graphic printing business, the industrialization and digitization of screen printing has weakened the strong ties that once existed between artists and printmakers.

Aaron Kent is happy to help to rebuild that bond by collaborating with artists who want direct oversight over how their work is expressed in prints. DIY Printing is launching an artist-in-residence program in January. Artist John Knight will work in the studio for three months.

Imperfect and human

As digital printing has became more perfect, polished, and repeatable, it also became more sterile.

“People don’t necessarily want every print to be perfect and identical. Sometimes the happy accidents look quite nice," Kent said.

Nunery doesn’t mind explaining the limitations of hand-pulled prints to Powerhouse clients: “Because inks are hand mixed, it’s not always possible match every brand color spot on. We’ll get pretty darn close, but it’s not going to be a perfect match.”

With manual screen printing, “You’re going to see that human touch and some variation from print to print,” said Jones. “That’s what people seem to like.”

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