Originally published in Power Washer Vol. 3
Months ago, Josh asked me if I wanted contribute to the newest edition of Power Washer, and, for reasons still unclear to me, I said yes.
As a lifelong friend of Josh’s and an avid follower of the @directangle Instagram feed, I had a general idea of what the zine is all about. Even before I was recruited to write this piece, Vol. 1’s cover made a lasting, visceral impression on me – the striking simplicity of the yellow background and disjointed, pronunciation guide-style black type left me wanting more (nice work, guys).
Power Washer, the self-proclaimed “slightly thoughtful but kind of dumb” low-fi project, seemed up my alley in terms of tone and style, especially considering Josh and I had fun collaborating on a print project last year. (Shameless plug for “Ghost in the Machine,” (Directangle Editions, 2016), a dope linotype/risograph piece that masks a mediocre short story about fathers and sons and the invisibility of our youth.)
Somehow not discouraged by my lack of screen printing knowledge, my benevolent overlord gave me some sage advice in tackling this project: “You can play up your print ignorance and write some utter bullshit.”
A friend once told me, “Everything you’ve ever written before today is bad. Everything you write after today is also bad.” So if “utter bullshit” is the bar, I can definitely clear it.
At first, I thought I could fool you with some faux screen printing knowledge. I have a day job in the promotional products industry, writing copy for suppliers trying to sell their imprintable merchandise. Surely, I could find an angle to work with.
Without boring you with the details of my corporate life too badly, every product is categorized by an imprint method. There are laser-engraved keychains, embroidered sweatshirts, debossed leather-bound portfolios, silkscreened mugs, screen printed lawn signs, etc.
While describing this process to Josh (his lids heavy, staving off the REM cycle), he stopped my train of thought.
“Screen printing and silkscreening are the same thing.”
Now you, savvy reader, certainly know this, but it was a revelation to me. I had my entry point: why is my industry treating screen printing and silkscreening as separate entities?
A very brief investigation concluded with anticlimactic results. In essence, we are people pleasers instructed to stay consistent with a client’s verbiage. Some use silkscreen, others use screen print, with no real rhyme or reason to why, thus creating a subset of people (i.e. me) confused by the lack of a universal term.
Even the most qualified artists are left confounded by the form’s arbitrary inconsistencies.
“As the last ‘pre-digital’ print media to be added to the canon, [screen printing] often has a strange relationship to institutional curriculum,” Printeresting co-founder Amze Emmons said in his Power Washer Vol. 2 interview. “At some places it was housed in the Photography area, in others it was the only printmaking method taught. And no one can seem to agree what to call it: at some schools it’s called silkscreen, or serigraphy, or screen printing (with or without hyphen, or space).”
I felt better knowing my confusion was validated by a professional (I desperately want to write screenprinting every time. Just let me, Josh!), but still, I was stuck. Tying in my square white-collar experience would have been a snooze anyway, so I shifted focus onto
my inherent outsiderness. Being ignorant to visual art is no stretch for me; I once received incomplete credit on a 7th grade art class sketchbook for failing to expand beyond my “baseball diamond” and “television set” wheelhouse.
Even as a frequent collaborator of Josh’s, I still can’t comprehend his printmaking work. On several occasions he’s even shown me, “this is what I do and this is how I’m doing it.” I’d nod fervently as if I understood, like when a mechanic gives you the runaround and you bite your lip trying to hide the fact you’re a chump, ready to fork over fistfuls of cash for a non-problem.
I don’t understand visual arts. I can revel in the beauty and even interpret themes and emotions, but my brain can’t connect the dots on the “how” of it all. A literal blank slate is turned into something else entirely. It’s a level of genius so elevated it might as well be magic.
Except, of course, when it comes to screen printing. Here’s Josh bursting my “Art is Magic!” bubble: “Screen printing is very direct,” he broke it down for me in the simplest terms, like Neil deGrasse Tyson using a line-in-the-sand metaphor to explain astrophysics to a child. “Basically, it’s just a stencil. It’s a commercial process that’s more or less been co-opted by artists.”
Burned again. “No problem,” I said to myself, foolishly. If I can’t write about screen printing as magic, maybe I can explore how decidedly unmagical it is.
There’s something beautiful about evolving from humble blue-collar roots into a fine art that celebrates its elegant straightforwardness. As Emmons says, it’s quick and dirty and best left in the hands of DIY-leaning folks. But, as I mentioned at the outset, I know zilch about the craft (this has become abundantly more clear, surely) and, deadline looming, I had no time for further research and did not want to disrespect your process by talking out of my ass. (In the event that I’ve already done so, please direct all hatemail to email@example.com).
Okay, maybe hope isn’t lost. I’m not an expert, but I’m still a consumer. I appreciate the freshness of putting a new twist on an industrial craft, one that lives in a constant state of shifting identity. This murky, complex middle ground is something I’m all too familiar with. But what am I going to do? Hijack your space with an introspective essay about my life as a fringe creative type, haphazardly navigating a career as a professional middleman while dealing with a mountain of insecurities, including a crippling fear of not being good enough and feeling caught between where I am and where I want to be, all stemming from a sheltered, uncultured upbringing without artistic influence? Another time.
So where does that leave me? Back where I started, it seems. But nonetheless, I believe I came through on my promise. Feel free to file this under “utter bullshit.”