The Little Friends of Printmaking is just one of JW and Melissa Buchanan’s many creative ventures. Artists and designers, JW and Melissa met at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where they studied Fine Arts and Art History.
But that’s a rather dry introduction for two artists who are both fun – and funny. A few years ago I saw a hilarious poster in a photo of Ink + Smog Edition’s studio. It said “Print Faster, Mother Fucker,” and I knew I had to have it. Turns out the poster was designed and printed by JW and Melissa. I think that hilarious irreverence is such a hallmark of their work (and not all of it uses cuss words), and I am, as my Grammy would have said, tickled to introduce you to their work and them here.
JH: When kids say that they want to be artists, most grownups assume that they want to become painters or illustrators (or, occasionally, sculptors) – but never printmakers. How did you find your way into this medium?
TLFOP: Melissa is a bone-deep printmaker who made linocuts as a middle-schooler and exhibited her childhood prints at the Wisconsin State Fair. JW took a vocational silkscreen class in high school and loved it, but didn’t return to it until college. At the UW, the printmaking facilities are palatial monuments to process and detail, buzzing with energy and filled with strange characters. And so it didn’t take much convincing from Melissa to get him to switch over to printmaking from sculpture.
How would you describe your work?
Cartoon pictures for dumb babies? Couch Art for weirdos? We’re screenprinters, and the peculiarities of the silkscreen process completely inform our aesthetic. We love flat expanses of ink, overprinting and underprinting, off-register-ness, trapping that looks good, the color and texture shifts that happen when two layers of ink interact. We love thick ink that you can feel with your fingernail, and prints that consider the materiality of the paper and the ink, and prints that you can consider as a 3-D object instead of an image. And so we put all of that into our work. That all of that rigor gets applied to some dumb cartoon picture for babies is beside the point.
What’s the first thing you ever remember making?
The first thing we can remember making together was a collage that Melissa then adapted into a linocut.
In addition to your fine art work, you also design a lot of commercial, client work. Do these two distinct practices influence each other? If so, how?
It’s really impossible to keep the two practices separate, and that’s been a very helpful thing, actually. The self-initiated artwork we make has a huge influence on the direction of our commercial work, as art directors typically use our prints as suggestions for new commercial projects. So it creates a kind of self-sustaining cycle where we develop a new style (or a new set of imagery, or a new context for our work, etc.) and then we get hired to create more of it. Hopefully. Well, anyway, it’s been working thus far.
It’s hard to quantify the influence that doing commercial work has had on our prints. We know it’s forced us to become more fluent in the language of design, and to give more consideration to merchandising and the market for our own work. I hope that doesn’t sound super cynical, because we mean it in a positive way!
How do you balance your creative practice with the demands of also running a business?
First, we’ve been very, very lucky to have sort of cultivated an image as two fun and funny people who are brimming with ideas (not untrue, tbh). So, the work we get asked to do is usually pretty fun and art directors will give us a lot of room to express ourselves and indulge our silliness. We don’t find our commercial work to be a chore or something we do as a way to keep the studio lights on.
How we cultivated that image, and I guess how not be driven crazy by the rigors of running a business generally, is to do every little part of the business your own way and let each little thing be an expression of your own personality. Make it part of your practice, and the people who consume your work will get to know you better. This can only be a good thing. (Unless you have a terrible, monstrous personality, in which case go ahead and be opaque and don’t express yourself outside of your work.)
What are you currently working on, and why?
We’re working on a bunch of little things right now. A record cover, because we’re music fans and we like doing them. A Japanese scarf design, because we’re fascinated with hand-printed scarves. It’s an area of screenprinting where we feel we just know nothing. We just came back from Tokyo (for an unrelated project) and the idea that all these scarves were still being hand-printed in the traditional way just blew us away. The project just dropped into our lap, unrelated to our trip, but we’ll take it! Some commission work, which we almost never do (mostly because people blanche at the cost of producing a custom edition). This project is for some friends, including an art director we love working with.
Do you have a dream project (or two)?
We feel we ought to be doing children’s picture books, and as dreams go, it seems pretty achievable. We’re always on the treadmill of the next print, the next illustration, the next event. The idea of clearing the schedule and spending x-amount of time on a long-term project is scary to us, because it’s just not part of our process. So we need to recalibrate our brains a little.
Summer art fairs are coming up, and then the fall fairs and the winter fairs after that. In between, we’ll be printing new editions and making new pins & patches and trying out new product ideas and doing illustration work. Repeat ad infinitum.
What advice would you give to someone who is just starting out?
Take it easy and don’t put too much pressure on yourself. We spent that time of our lives feeling so impatient and anxious, which definitely fueled our productivity, but also took such a personal toll on us. This is a special time, and you’re lucky to have it, because no one expects anything of you yet. And so you have all of this time to explore new ideas and new processes and figure out what your practice is going to be like. Have fun.
What else do you want readers to know about you or your work?
It probably hasn’t come across in this interview, but we are two deeply unserious people. We like fun. FUN IS GOOD! We have a cat and a dog, and they will vouch for our character. Moving to California changed our lives, mostly for the better.
How can people find you?