True artistic talent is often instantly recognizable: A hazy haystack means Monet, swirly stars are Van Gogh’s, and whimsical bunnies playing ice hockey belong to Chicago artist (and Dianogah bassist) Jay Ryan. Over the past decade, Ryan made his name as a concert-poster artist, designing and printing eye-catching work for Shellac, Fugazi, Andrew Bird, and lots more at his studio/bustling print shop, The Bird Machine. He’s also taken on increasingly high-profile illustration projects, including the cover for Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution and a building-sized Converse billboard. The buzz should grow even louder this week with the release of 100 Posters, 134 Squirrels, a collection of notable work from the past decade, published by Punk Planet Books. Before leaving for a book tour, Ryan spoke to The A.V. Club about posters, self-promotion, and the benefits of having low expectations.
The A.V. Club: It seems like the world discovered Jay Ryan over roughly the past year and a half. What started it all?
Jay Ryan: It was a culmination of an organic kind of development. I’ve been doing this basically the same way for 10 years, and I think there’s a point where people become aware of the thing they see in the background all the time. If you’re going to get a certain kind of dog, suddenly you start seeing that dog everywhere. I think there’s just some point where I’d done one too many Shellac posters or something… and just got way busier.
AVC: I’m sure you have Jay Ryan geeks, without being disparaging.
JR: Most of them are wonderful, charming, well-to-do people with round, full lives. This one problem with their personality is they like to spend a lot of money on my posters.
AVC: You had a few hundred posters to choose from for the book. Did you have any specific criteria for what made the cut?
JR: I knew right off the top of my head like 90 of the 100 prints—like it’s obvious it’s going to be the Interpol poster and The Flaming Lips poster and the Fugazi poster, because these are things that I’m really happy with. Then there are some things I think a lot of people wouldn’t select as my best or most popular, but it’s stuff that I like or think is important as far as my development: I made this terrible mistake, I learned a lot from it, but the poster turned out charming anyway.
AVC: You’ve done all kinds of projects, but aside from Dianogah posters, they’ve all been for other people. How weird does it feel to design your own book cover and promote yourself?
JR: A little bit weird, but I approach most jobs with the goal of pleasing myself. Like this week, where it’s just a string of posters for my poster shows for the next couple of months, basically I can approach those in the same way. I’m less worried about disappointing someone else. [Laughs.]
AVC: That’s funny, because you’ve said one of the most important things you learned in school was to lower your expectations.
JR: When I had that realization forced upon me, I was to the point where I would start drawing, picture where it was going, and realize it wasn’t worth doing, like “I don’t like it. That’s going to suck. I’m not going to bother wasting my time doing it.” And I ended up with no work as a result. One of the things I see as I travel and go to colleges and do talks and work with students, and that I would see when I was an undergrad, is students focusing on one piece: “This is going to be the greatest thing ever,” and they’re going to spend the whole semester doing this one thing, this one print, this one painting. It’s human nature to dwell on something that long and screw it up one way or another. I would rather make 100 prints and hope five or 10 of them were really good than make three prints and maybe be happy with one. It’s like the old Thomas Edison thing: “I learned 200 ways to not make a light bulb.” Even with failure, you learn something. You just have to accept that you can try to have every piece be your best, but you have to balance that against the fact that you need to actually get the work finished at some point.
AVC: It also helped you discover your voice, it seems.
JR: Yeah. I think part of the other side of this is being open to letting a poster, or whatever it is you’re working on, happen kind of naturally. For example, right now downstairs they’re starting to pull the first color on this Decemberists poster that is very different from a lot of the stuff I’ve done in the last couple of months. It’s a very large picture of a foot and a banner. I think it’s a very unusual poster, and I think it’s greatly appropriate for the band; it’s based on a song from The Decemberists’ second record called “Red Right Ankle.” When I sat down to draw that last night, I don’t feel like I was like, “Okay, now what’s the animal going to be doing? He’s in a tree. He’s got a bowling ball!”
AVC: Take an animal, take an everyday object, and combine them.
JR: Right, take one from column A and one from column B. A lot of the time, that’s appropriate: “Okay, I need an action. The action is going to be driving a little car or racing down a hill or making food, and it’s more fun to have an animal doing that than a person.” But in this case, I didn’t feel like, “Okay, I’m the guy that draws the animals” or “I’m the guy that draws the… the…” What else do I draw? I don’t do anything besides animals. [Laughs.]