Behind the Screens With Artist Adam Smith

By Wen Vo
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Dec. 22, 2010

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Franklin, my dear: Adam Smith’s “First American” has Ben Franklin covered in tattoos of his various accomplishments.

Andy Warhol is widely credited with popularizing screenprinting with his 1962 prints of luridly colorful Marilyn Monroes; today, you’ll find screenprinted posters, signs, menus and cards all over Philly, and one name that keeps popping up is Part Time Studios’ Adam Smith. His art can be found in numerous galleries and cafes, including in Dead Romances, his early fall solo exhibit at B2 Cafe. We talked to him about his work, how the ancient Chinese practice of block printing with applied paints got to be every damn where, and if the decade or two of the craft’s popularity and momentum can be sustained.

“It’s an outdated technology,” says Smith when asked why he thinks screenprinting has gotten popular. “Designers and signmakers used to screenprint because there was very little, or none at all, digital printing available. So maybe screenprinting has become popular for the same reason people like old typewriters, or collect old radios.”

Smith grew up in Montgomery County, making dutiful teenage pilgrimages to ’90s-era South Street. While at Savannah College of Art and Design, Smith got into screenprinting by starting a T-shirt company with similarly self-taught friends; they’d “buy packs of Hanes and print terribly designed things on them with terrible technique.” After the company crumbled, Smith abandoned screenprinting until moving back to Philly and starting up Part Time Studios with some other SCAD grads; he says studiomate Steven Speir (of Panhandle Print) finally taught him some proper technique.

“The possibility for production-style, sellable art” is another thing that Smith mentions regarding screenprinting’s popularity. The ability to make your art affordable is an obvious plus, especially for younger artists. While a single painting that took 40 hours of work might be a great artistic achievement, it needs to sell for at least week’s worth of rent and food for it to be realistically worth an artist’s financial while, so unless your art is being bought exclusively by the very wealthy, the capacity for cheap, near-unlimited reproductions after initial time investment is appealing.

And there are quite a few hours of initial work. Smith’s pieces are very illustrative—read: thin lines and small details, which are often difficult to pull off in screenprinting, but that’s part of the challenge. “The romantic in me loves the joy that comes after I successfully pull a print with detail that I didn’t think possible with screenprinting,” Smith says.

The proccess starts with a pencil drawing, which is then painstakingly gone over in ink. After scanning the inked drawing, Smith spends hours fine-tuning the black outlines and creating layers of color fills in Photoshop that will eventually be printed. From that image, he creates a stencil and applies it to woven sheet stretched over a frame. Ink is heaved across the screen with a squeegee and pushed through the openings in the stencil onto a sheet of paper.

Smith recycles patterns and characteristics in most of his pieces, like weathered bags underneath the eyes of his subjects, and regards most of his pieces as stories. The bold colors and jagged black lines display a sense of playfulness; the use of detail and negative space speak for technique.

Screenprinting is also a door-opener for people who don’t typically consider themselves artists; T-shirt brands (like locals TrickGo and Babylon Cartel) can pick up the technique to start their own lines. “I think if you really keep at it, screenprinting can be very profitable,” Smith says. You can be an artist who designs and makes his or her own work, or a technician who prints other people’s designs. While there's opportunity to both, Smith says that if you want to be the former, you need to put out new work regularly, and it needs to be fresh every time.

“There’s a lot of competition now that it’s so popular, so to stand out you really need to be doing something special.”

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