Interview: Ryan Duggan and Elizabeth Kovach
Make art. Find love.
When a lot of people think about screen printing, they go from zero to Andy Warhol almost instantaneously—namely, Warhol’s immortalization of the famed Marilyn Monroe in the Marilyn Diptych. What most people don’t think of? The booming screen-printing revival that’s taken hold in Chicago, Illinois; a movement allowing multitudes of creatives to pursue artistic careers and make money while doing it. And it’s entirely accessible from both ends—you can get a basic screen-printing setup going for less than $75, or you can buy an amazing piece of screen-printed art for around $20 (prices vary, of course). From politically charged prints for social movements to concert posters, screen prints can serve as intentional messages rich with information concerning events, socio-political commentary, or (on a smaller level) fine art.
Enter Ryan Duggan and Elizabeth Kovach—the dynamic design and screen-printing couple that lives, works and collaborates together with unrestrained enthusiasm in nearly every aspect of their lives, especially their professional passion. Screen printing brought them together, and screen printing continues to bring them closer. “We met at Renegade Craft Fair here in Chicago,” Elizabeth recounted. Ryan chimed in, “She was working for an artist I knew…slowly we started working together more and more because I had printed everything up to that point on my own.” It’s important to note that Ryan creates the designs and illustrations, whereas Elizabeth does most of the printing (“the labor and the sweating” she likes to joke). Read on to learn more about Ryan, Elizabeth and the burgeoning screen-printing scene in Chicago.
Q: Tell me about yourselves. Have you always lived in Chicago? How did you get involved with design and screen printing?
Ryan: I started screen printing in 2006 after graduating from college, spending time with friends in bands and playing in bands. I learned to screen print in high school, but never practiced until my early 20s. I lived with a friend of mine who was in a band called Maps and Atlases a long time ago. I created graphics for them, and someone else would screen print. I started screen printing again to cut out the middle man. Over time, other bands Maps and Atlases performed with saw my poster and reached out, spreading by word of mouth. Since then, I only grew busier, moving to full-time freelance in 2013 almost five years ago.
Elizabeth: I don’t do any design—mostly the labor and the sweating. I went to art school and toward the end of my art education, I asked myself what every art school graduate candidate asks themselves, “How am I going to make money creating art”? So, I got a job at a print shop. I worked in print shops for about five years before transitioning to self-employment. I print for artists who don’t know how to screen print or don’t have the facility to do it.
Q: How did you and Elizabeth meet?
Elizabeth: We met at Renegade Craft Fair here in Chicago. It was my second day working for my new boss. Ryan came by our booth and introduced himself.
Ryan: Chicago has a pretty big screen-printing scene. There’s a lot of us here. We sort of just crossed paths. She worked for an artist I knew. We started working together more and more because I had printed everything up to that point on my own.
Elizabeth: I stole it away from him, basically.
Q: Tell us about your progression as an artist. In what direction is it headed?
Emilio: For me, painting is a lifestyle, so I’m always thinking about paintings and imagining rhythms and colors for future pieces, but it’s hard to say where it’ll end up. Right now, I’ve been thinking about moving into a fuller figurative direction. Painting the nude is very classical—a traditional direction that I’ve never really explored. Recently, I had two nightmares that have sparked a direction for the work. I’ve started some sketches on paper, but we’ll see if they end up on canvas.
"Step 1) Create the art. Step 2) Separate the art into layers that you print one at a time. Step 3) Print the art."
Q: How do you guys involve each other in projects? Does Elizabeth give you work or do you refer clients to her?
Ryan: A fair amount of people contact me for printing work for other artists because they think I print all kinds of stuff. I only print my own work, so I send a lot of people looking for print jobs to Elizabeth. There isn’t a lot of collaboration the other way around. I help Elizabeth do some of the digital stuff—setting up films and things like that.
Q: Can you walk me through the process of creating a print from the design stage all the way through to laying it on the drying rack?
Ryan: I’ll make the films by hand, then make the screens from that. Otherwise, I draw everything by hand, so there isn’t a whole lot of computer work. I’ll start on paper, scan it, then output one film for each color that the poster will have. One screen must be made for each color by exposing a photo-sensitive emulsion to light.
Elizabeth: Essentially, it’s the most rudimentary from of dark room photography. When I get the files, people tell me what colors they want me to mix, [which she does by hand] and I match to the pantones they give me.
Ryan: It’s usually three steps: 1) Create the art. 2) Separate the art into layers that you print one at a time. 3) Print the art. If you see a poster with 10 colors on it, that poster went under the press 10 separate times, one color per time.
Q: Tell me about your studio space? Do you and Elizabeth share a studio or maintain separate studios?
Elizabeth: We don’t have a shared space right now. We’re looking to combine our studios since we regularly collaborate. Right now, I have a separate studio with a semi-automatic press, so I can do really large editions. I learned to use these types of presses when I worked in print shops after college, so when I became self-employed, I started shopping around for one. The press I have now already lived in my studio space; I knew the guy that owned it and reached out since he wasn’t printing anymore. I asked if I could buy it, and I ended up taking over the whole studio, press and all. Talk about serendipity. Ryan works out of the house and has a small hand-printing setup.
Q: What are the stories behind your studio names “Drug Factory Press” and “Salty Broad Press”, respectively?
Ryan: When I first started printing, it was a pretty rudimentary operation. I exposed stuff in my closet, washed it out in my shower and printed on my dining room table. I just had junk everywhere. Early on, I started calling it “Drug Factory Press” because my studio started looking like what I’d assume a certain type of illegal drug lab to look like—*cough cough* Walter White. “Breaking Bad” was very good, Elizabeth jokes.
Elizabeth: You could say that I have a little bit of a salty demeanor, and I wanted people to know that my studio is woman-owned.
Q: Where do you think the screen-printing industry is headed in Chicago and in the industry as a whole?
Elizabeth: More millennials seem more interested in learning skills, which is part of the reason it’s growing here in Chicago and across the industry as a whole. You can buy a screen print for $20 rather than a really expensive painting. It’s helped a lot of artists make a career out of art since they’re actually able to make money.
Ryan: I don’t how much it’s ebbed and flowed since the ‘90s, but the screen-printing scene wavered in the mid-2000s. Now, we have such a big scene in Chicago that it’s hard to think about it not being popular. We know so many people here that live and work in screen printing. There’s an event called Flatstock where we all come together that always coincides with music festivals—one in Austin during SXSW, in Chicago during Pitchfork, and others in Seattle, Barcelona and Hamburg. SXSW is coming up and approximately 200 vendors come through. It’s set up like a car show, so you can browse around, check out people’s work and purchase it too. We always do the Flatstock in Austin and Chicago, but we want to branch out to others, like Barcelona—but it takes a tremendous amount of planning.
Elizabeth: Screen printing has a lot of variety. There isn’t really a lot of direction because it’s so accessible. You can get a screen-printing setup for about $50. Obviously, I have a press, which is a different investment, but we definitely would love to see more diversity and inspire others to get started.
Ryan: Screen printing will always be tied to music because poster creation for shows and albums is so strong, but artists still produce fine-art prints as well.
"More millennials seem more interested in learning skills, which is part of the reason it’s growing here in Chicago and across the industry as a whole. You can buy a screen print for $20 rather than a really expensive painting. It’s helped a lot of artists make a career out of art since they’re actually able to make money."
Q: Chicago has multiple full-time designers and printers. Why do you think there is such a big screen-printing scene in Chicago in this digital age? Does LA or NYC come close to what is going on in Chicago?
Elizabeth: In the ‘90s, the screen-printing resurgence started in Chicago.
Ryan: And it all coincided with the music scene. In Chicago, the music industry is really big (and still is) and a lot of people who work in screen printing have origins in music. In general, poster art and screen printing occurred because you were either a graphic designer or in a band—a 50/50 shot. Bands need posters, and it provided a starting point for a lot of people, including myself.
Elizabeth: I also believe Chicago prides itself on physical labor—more than LA at least. We know people in LA who are involved in screen printing, but we don’t know anyone involved with it in New York.
Q: What projects are you currently working on?
Ryan: One year, I did a series called “The Treasury of Shitting Dogs”, and it was all these picturesque, outdoor scenes, but somewhere in the background a dog was taking a dump. This year, I decided to bring that back. [“Everybody loves it” Elizabeth quickly interjects.] So, that’s what I’m working on today since I need to get the February print done.
Elizabeth: I’m working on a series called, “The Bumper Crop”. The goal is to get more women involved in screen printing, so I’m reaching out to a lot of female artists that I admire and producing limited-edition prints for them.
Q: What do you find influences your work the most? Where do you draw inspiration?
Ryan: The climate of the world you live in always seeps into your work, but I love looking at old packaging and illustrations. I like browsing around on eBay looking for ideas and inspiration from old, simple packaging from the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. I love including a payoff in my work. If you look at the image long enough, there’s something else to it—whether it’s a shitting dog or something less subversive. I like to build an image rather than draw something nice looking.
Elizabeth: Ryan aims to include humor in his work, and he’s pretty successful at it.
"Developing a style comes with time—whether it’s drawing or however you make work. Dedicating a lot of time to it is crucial. It can be hard to develop, so keep doing it and you’ll have one."
Q: How do you guys use social media as a tool?
Elizabeth: Ryan does a really great job using social media as a business tool. I always seem to slip into posting what I had for brunch or things like that.
Ryan:I think it’s a really great tool for artist visibility, especially selling things to people. Social media can be kind of creepy in a lot of ways, like how it’s pervading every aspect of our lives. On the flip side, we’ve met artists that way, as well as people that we’ve worked with that found us through some form of social media.
Elizabeth: It’s been a really great networking device for us.
Q: Screen printing seems to be very accessible and easy to get involved with. What advice do you have for aspiring screen printers out there?
Ryan: It’s easy enough to go to an art store and spend $75 on a screen, emulsion and squeegee and just start figuring it out. At first, a lot of artists assume they will immediately be self-employed. I did this stuff on nights and weekends on top of a full-time graphic design job, up until I had enough work to sustain myself. It came slow, and my style built up over time. My early stuff is all over the place, not necessarily resembling any of my current work, but you have to just do it. You start off finding inspiration in others’ work before you really develop your own voice and identity.
Elizabeth: Developing a style comes with time—whether it’s drawing or however you make work. Dedicating a lot of time to it is crucial. It can be hard to develop, so keep doing it and you’ll have one. I would suggest that any budding poster artists sign up for Flatstock or at least attend to check out the scene.
Q: What kind of Incase product do you have? How do you use it in your day-to-day?
Elizabeth : Ryan just got a suitcase, which was extremely useful on the vacation we just took. Those spinning wheels are a dream. I use my iPad with your case to look at artwork and match color pantones with what I’m mixing. It may be covered with ink, but it’s protected.
Ryan: We have your phone cases, a carry-on and an iPad case. We use a lot of tech in the studio, and in a place covered in hard surfaces, it’s really nice to have those cases.
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