Chicago poster artist Jay Ryan explains how he translates bands’ music into art and why cute critters are crucial to the process.
interview by Michael Rowe
People esteem art for a variety of reasons: beauty, craft, projected cash value. But if what you seek from art is giggle-inspiring panache—just-one-step-back-from-adorable drawings of, say, a bear in socks running with scissors—then Jay Ryan’s posters demand your attention.
Ryan’s work has been taped, stapled, and otherwise adhered to various surfaces throughout Chicago for the past decade. As the era’s most revered indie rock acts have come through town, they’ve tapped Ryan (himself a musician) for posters to promote their shows. Outside the Midwest’s borders, you may have seen his work adorning the jacket of Michael Chabon’s novel The Final Solution or the cover and incidental art for Andrew Bird’s album The Mysterious Production of Eggs. More recently, he’s been working with Patagonia, the eco-hip outdoor gear manufacturer and clothier, on a series of T-shirts having to do with animals and the environment (contractual promises bar further elaboration, he says). In other words, Jay Ryan’s work is out there, or coming soon, to some kind of canvas near you.
As for the art itself (check it out on The Bird Machine online gallery), animals and deadpan absurdity abound, along with the stray marks and smudges received during their creation. They’re funny but not goofball, cute but not precious, cool but not pretentious. Utne.com talked to Ryan about how he comes up with the ideas for his posters, what the cartoon animals are all about, and how he’s handling the call of fame.
Do you think of your concert posters as entertainment?
They’re entertaining for me as a way to be involved in the band playing live. I’m also often just amused sitting there making them. It’s not uncommon for me to be laughing at my drawing table, just giggling at what I’m drawing.
You did the artwork for Andrew Bird’s The Mysterious Production of Eggs, and some of that art alluded to the songs’ lyrics, but do you ever feel that you’re creating something unrelated to the music?
Well, the Eggs album in particular was sort of unusual, in that Andrew didn’t tell me specifically what he wanted, but we met several times to talk about what the songs meant to him. So there were concepts that he was coming to me with, and I was trying to find some way to express those concepts. That was a little more oversight than I’m used to getting for most of my work. Sometimes, I’ve got an image that seems like a good idea to me, but I’m not sure that I can really explain why I feel that it’s appropriate for the band’s music. As far as [the posters] being complementary or independent of the music, that, to some degree, is in the eye of the beholder.
Do you have any opinions about the future of album cover art in an industry where CD sales are going down?
I think there are a couple of things happening. You’ve got mass-America—you know, McDonalds-eating people—who don’t really care about quality, who are delighted to just have MP3s and aren’t concerned with the artwork, don’t really care about the artists, and move on to the next thing. That’s going to be most people, as it historically always has been.
Then, you’ve got the people who are really into the music, people who actually have an ear for good sound, people who care about the full experience of listening to the band and having an object in front of them. Honestly, I see CD sales continuing to drop and LP sales sort of continuing steadily. We’ll continue to see more and more bands make their albums available as downloads on their websites and as fancier LP packages.
Like a lot of indie comic book art, your posters feature cute animals acting out human scenarios. Do you see a movement in this kind of substitution and why use cuddly animals in the first place?
I find more use for cuddly than mean in my life. I’m in a field where a lot of what you see is skulls and hot rods and tits and corpses. A lot of clichés. And, I don’t know, maybe we [artists] are involved in making new clichés.
When you have a character in an image, it’s fun and slightly interesting to be able to substitute a bear or a walrus for a person. As soon as you put a person there, you’ve got to make that person male or female. You have to have this or that haircut, wearing this or that kind of clothes. People look at that and project: “Oh, it’s a guy and he’s wearing baggy jeans.” Instead of a blonde, pony-tailed woman driving a convertible, let’s make an antelope driving a convertible. That way, I think more people can see what they want, whether it’s putting themselves in that place or being able to decide it’s this or that type of character.
Have you made comic book art?
I had someone twist my arm into making me do one three or four years ago, and I don’t think it turned out very well. I don’t often feel like I have a prolonged story to tell. The posters are almost like stories, but just sort of one-panel stories, a little more like Far Side comics.
Is there something “Chicago” about your work?
I feel like there’s something kind of Chicago about my whole approach to playing in the band and doing the posters. Chicago, more so than L.A. or New York, is a “put your head down and work” kind of city, as far as these fields. I’m making a broad generalization, of course.
I can’t speak so much to the music scene right now, but, say, ten years ago, it felt like you had a lot of bands who were really working hard, touring, and not necessarily grabbing for the spotlight as much as trying to make good music. And you get the same thing in the poster world. There’s a really active, vibrant poster scene here in Chicago. I guess I’m one of the bigger names, probably only due to the fact that I’ve been doing this for longer than most other people.
Are you interested in celebrity?
I’m interested in getting my next couple of posters done, so that the people who’ve hired me get their stuff on time. I’m concerned about paying the mortgage. I just want to be able to maintain what I’m doing—keep being able to buy food.
A number one goal for you.
Yeah, food is good.