For rock & roll collectors, most of their bounty comes from the ephemeral and temporary. A torn ticket stub, tossed-off guitar pick or splintered drumstick can be held up as a totem to the power of music. But for certain fans of both music and the visual arts, the show poster has become a medium for intense creativity and free-form expression, one that takes a simple, utilitarian concept (the who-what-where-when of a rock concert) and turns it into a legitimate work of art.
In the past year, two local poster designers have been creating eye-catching, evocative prints that contain the fleeting magic of a rock show on an 18-by 24-inch piece of paper. 32-year-old Firecracker Press owner Eric Woods makes stationery, book covers and wedding invitations through a process known as letterpress. Using a combination of woodcutting and typesetting, Woods creates posters, cards and other pulp-based products emblazoned with images that are at once professional and handmade; his designs range from kitschy and loose to delicate and carefully crafted, but each design establishes a mood and tone for the piece.
Through his involvement with Saint Louis University's Billiken Club this past spring, Woods has designed and pressed more than a dozen show posters for the school-eatery-turned-venue. His designs have helped bring attention to the fledgling concert space, but according to Billiken Club moderator Chris Grabau, the posters are works of art that give a visual identity to the club while producing a keepsake for the bands, patrons and students who helped produce the show.
"[The posters] make the concert more of an event, and it helps produce an artifact to commemorate the concert," he says. Firecracker's work for the Billiken Club has been so well received that Grabau gives Woods free reign over the posters: "I consider him an artist he's absolutely an artist in the medium he's working with. I'd like that artist to make it under his own terms."
A visit to Firecracker Press in early August found Woods and his two assistants in a flurry of activity as they worked to finish a series of goodies for an upcoming wedding, as well as their own promotional items. While the shop is hardly inundated with rock & roll-related jobs, Firecracker had just finished printing the cardboard sleeve for Bad Folk's upcoming seven-inch and a striking tour poster for Finn's Motel. Woods used the just-completed poster as an example of his design method.
"With the Finn's Motel poster, Joe [Thebau, Finn's Motel singer] and I sat down and talked about what they were into," Woods says. "He gave me the newest CD, we listened to it, looked through it a little bit. He was into stuff from old physics books and weird science stuff. So we tried to come up with something for them." The result is a marriage of different themes found on Finn's Motel's Escape Velocity record: Metallic silver paint picks up Thebau's fascination with the St. Louis Arch, and a schematic-like figure taken from an old high school physics textbook hints at an obsession with the mechanical and minute. To hear Woods tell it, the poster was born out of a collaboration between two artists one a songwriter and storyteller, the other a designer and printmaker and the finished product stems from one being informed of the other's aesthetic and ethos.
It's this spirit of collaboration that has served as the motivation for 23-year-old John Vogl, whose brightly colored posters silk-screened with intricate, hand-drawn designs, have been catching eyes in venues across town.
After studying graphic design and printmaking at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, Vogl returned to St. Louis after graduation and began working at Firecracker, where he had interned during a summer break. Vogl left the company after working ten months at the letterpress shop. While Woods declines to discuss the particulars of the split on the record (he calls it "a touchy subject"), Vogl says that he left Firecracker due to creative differences.
Vogl says Woods didn't see a place for screen-printing at Firecracker something he wanted to incorporate into the business and the two parted on less-than-friendly terms. "Because it was his business and he was the one to make the call, he made the call," Vogl says. "I left there, and the end was certainly sour, but it was a very positive experience as a whole being there."
Vogl's split from Firecracker allowed him to focus on silk-screening, a process by which a poster is created through the application of ink through different layers, or screens. The actual printing of posters is a quicker and smaller operation than letterpress, which requires some hefty machinery.
"I knew I wanted to do printmaking when I left school, but so many forms of printmaking, you need to have a huge press or a huge studio or whatever," Vogl says. "Silk-screening, you can cram into the corner of your parents' basement."
Indeed, Vogl currently works out of his parents' Chesterfield basement and has kept busy printing posters for bands such as the Hibernauts, Jumbling Towers and the Bureau, as well as becoming the de facto artist-in-residence at new club the Bluebird and for shows promoted by Mike Tomko.
Tomko, who produces shows through his Tomko Bomb Co. and plays guitar and percussion in Gentleman Auction House, first met Vogl at an art market while the designer was working at Firecracker. After attending a few GAH concerts, Vogl began designing and silk-screening posters for the band. The septet was so impressed by the results that it gave Vogl complete control over future designs.
"Especially after the first couple, he really hit a stride where every poster seems to have a completely different identity, while they still feel like his posters," Tomko says. "Also, it's kind of insane to see people stealing them off the wall. I have yet to do a show with these posters that there were any left on the wall."
While the bulk of Vogl's work within the music community is visible through his silk-screened posters, he's not averse to straightforward graphic design. His CD booklet design for the Hibernauts' just-released Periodic Fable EP is stunning: The eight-panel booklet features line drawings of archaic computers and magnetic tape machines on a field of muted orange, blue and red.
But beyond its artistic merits, Vogl's work is a reminder that St. Louis bands can record, produce and design albums using local artists while creating a product that is sonically compelling and visually arresting. The fact that the Hibernauts' record bears the stamp "Made in St. Louis, MO" is proof.
"I think John Vogl's work on the Hibernauts' new record stands so far above and beyond what most local bands will do," Tomko says. "And it was affordable and it was kept local, and I feel that that has helped the Hibernauts so much. And John got work from doing all these concert posters."
For Vogl, his silk-screening is more a way to support the music community in town and lend his talents to local bands. And while neither he nor Woods are getting rich from making show posters (both claim to just about break even on most poster jobs), these printmakers see their involvement with local bands as a way to support the musical arts and they hope that, in time, more bands will return the favor and see the value of their visual contributions.
"I think the St. Louis music scene is coming up," Woods says. "We like being a part of that and I think fostering that culture helps St. Louis to grow bigger and better. I see the Firecracker Press as a way to facilitate that as much as we can. So we love working with bands and being a part of that."
Vogl echoes this sentiment. "There are plenty of people who will complain and moan about the music scene here in St. Louis, but you never see any of those people at the shows, you never see any of those people doing anything to support it.
"I'd like to think that at least I'm doing some small part," he concludes. "I don't know if it's making that big of a difference or not, but at least I'm not sitting home complaining about it."