Probably one of the most impressive affects the Alternative Press Festival had earlier this year was the instant turnaround and rise of many independent print artists and zine publishers. While anyone visiting could probably vouch for this with the amount of business cards and free prints they left with, the volume of material making its way around the valley since has been pretty amazing, fueling a new sense of DIY material direct from underground artists and writers looking to put their own mark on the city.
--- One of the names getting a lot of talk recently has been the duo behind Birdbrain Press. Debuting at the festival itself with their own array of contact cards that look like they should be traded around, and their first zine entitled Birdbrain Collective. The short collection of stories, clippings, comics and various other bits made it a standout among many, which brought about two more editions since. We got a chance to chat with Laura and Max about Birdbrain, their thoughts on local art and zines, plus a few other topics while you check out some of what you can find throughout.
Max Kelly & Laura Decker
Gavin: Hey Max and Laura, first off, tell us a bit about yourselves.
Max: I'm a born flatlander. I grew up in the Midwest, Wisconsin mostly, but I've lived all over for the last six years. In February, I moved to Utah from Illinois, where I was living in a haunted house, making this my first adventure west of the Mississippi. I'm a cartoonist at heart, I love the study of comics, but I have an equal and abiding love of sculptural work and animation. I look forward to a sea change in contemporary hip-hop, though the auto tuner gets a bad rap (no pun intended). I'm making the transition from whiskey to vodka, but I still feel like I'm cheating.
Laura: I spent most of my growing-up-years in Salt Lake City. I have an uncanny ability to kill plants and have a much adored cat, Charles. Although most of my work is 2D, I am also a lover of animation and have been known to make ridiculous animated family videos. Most of my work is centered around celebrities and animals; I think deep-down I know that I was the equivalent to Lindsay Lohan in another life. Unlike Max, I have always been a firm believer in vodka, but my heart truly rests with a nice cold beer.
Gavin: What first got you interested in art and what were some of your early inspirations?
Laura: I can't really remember when I first started making art. My mom likes to tell embarrassing stories about how upset I got when I colored outside the lines in my coloring books, or how I would make friends out of Juicy-Juice boxes. At the time, my inspiration was "Pappyland," the kid's version of Bob Ross. I was also really into these pop-up books that my grandfather had. They were of all kinds of animals with really elaborate scenes.
Max: I've been subjecting friends, family, and strangers to my storytelling obsession my whole life. I'd ruin their pencils drawing dinosaur comics, or leave them cassette tapes of stories I'd recorded on my Talkboy. I authored floppy discs full of ham-handed short stories. It wasn't until much later that I thought about what I was doing as "art", when people started talking about what they wanted to be. I thought "yeah, I'll just keep doing this." I'm still finding out about artists or a series that completely blindsides me, inspires me, and changes my work from that point on, but I think the first really big influences were the comics, cartoons, and stories that I was absolutely glued to. The ones it's hopeless to resist because they are so unique-- "Ren & Stimpy", Rob Schrab's Scud: The Disposable Assassin, "The X-Files", Stephen Gammell's illustrations for Alvin Schwartz's Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark. There remains a special place in my heart for "SuperTed", a Welsh series about a superhero teddy bear and his best friend, a polka-dotted alien named Spotty. Their enemies were a greedy American cowboy and an effeminate skeleton. I dare you not to watch that.
Gavin: You both went to the Rhode Island School Of Design. What made you decide on that college and what was their program like for you both?
Laura: Honestly, I wasn't psyched when I first found out I got into RISD because I had dreamed of going to school on the west coast. Very cliche. I had applied because my high school art teacher told me that if I wanted to do art professionally, I needed to at least apply. When I found out I had been accepted, my dad and I went to check it out. I fell in love with the school immediately, and am so thankful that I chose to go. Both Max and I majored in Illustration. I think it is one of the best programs at RISD because it is so versatile. I was exposed to all mediums, and I think that it helped me really narrow down my interests.
Max: For me, RISD had what I was missing. I had already started school in Philadelphia, but it just wasn't the right fit. In a way it was a good thing, because it gave me a chance to recognize exactly what was most important to me at art school. When I was accepted to RISD, I jumped at the opportunity because I had seen the right constellation of things I really wanted-- mainly a relentlessly challenging program, and a community of students that are committed to not only exceeding those challenges, but are actively and independently challenging themselves and each other. At RISD, the Illustration Department is this funny old building on the river where the most divergent group of skill sets and interests end up-- Laura's right about the programs versatility. I'm not sure any other major affords it's students such a breadth of possibility. I met some of the most influential people I've ever known going through that school, and while I know about other exciting programs around the country, I've never doubted that RISD was right for me.
Gavin: When did the two of you meet up and eventually become friends?
Laura: We had a class together sophomore year, and I thought he was cute.
Max: Until I accidentally knocked over one of her projects, a weasel in a lab coat. It could have happened to anyone, but she was definitely sore about it. Senior year, our studio spaces were together. It's amazing the effect that situation has on people. Twenty hour days spent hunched over your desk, with ink and paint and coffee all over the place, in your own little world, but you're constantly surrounded by egos equal to or much much bigger than your own. It can be really maddening, but then sometimes it's the opportunity for people to become really close. Laura and I would spend all night in a common room with our friends, working. We hung out with the same people, but it wasn't until we were working next to each other every day that we really clicked. We started leaving studio together at 5AM to get breakfast at Loui's Diner in College Hill. Of course, I was 40 minutes late for the first breakfast we actually considered a "date". Even the waitress told her to leave! I'm lucky the forgiveness well runs deep.
Gavin: After RISD, what brought you out to Utah? And how has that change been for you?
Laura: Since I had grown up here, I was eager to get back. I like the budding art scene here and everyone is very nice, unlike the east coast. When I was offered a job at the Book Arts Program at the University of Utah, I decided that fate had spoken. It has been great being back in Salt Lake. Living here, as an adult, has been so inspiring. My co-workers, Claire Taylor, Mary Toscano, David Wolske, Becky Thomas, and Marnie Powers-Torrey, all working artists in Salt Lake, have really helped me progress as an artist.
Max: After graduation, I ended up in Illinois. I was tending bar part-time, while working on comics and my portfolio, living in a run down house with no ceilings, limited running water, and at least a couple ghosts. I was doing a lot of traveling that summer, and drove out here to visit Laura. I'm from the flattest place on earth, so I was blown away by the mountains. It obviously made a huge impression, because it was barely six months before one night in February, I just packed up my car and headed west. Since moving here, I feel reinvigorated. There's a sincerity to the artists I've met here that I've tried to fold into into my usual cynicism, and I think I'm better for it.
Gavin: What brought about the interest in printmaking and what was it like learning the craft?
Max: In truth, printmaking is something I'm almost completely new at. I've screenprinted before, but I've never lived anywhere that had such a dedicated and vocal printmaking community. I attribute that to the Book Arts Program, and their tremendous efforts to educate and involve the community. It's very exciting, and it's hard not to get swept up in it. As for learning craft, even the most talented printmakers I've met here, like Claire Taylor, are constantly adapting their approach, improving their technique. It's a really delicate and involved process, which can easily translate to "infuriating" for me. But patience, and the pay-off of a well registered print, make it worth it. I volunteer at the Book Arts Program as a studio monitor, and every day I'm there, I learn a bit more.
Laura: I took my very first printmaking class from Stefanie Dykes, of Saltgrass Printmakers, the summer after I graduated high school. Stefanie is the reason I stuck with printmaking. She, along with the Amity Art Foundation, got me a grant to fund my printmaking work for a summer. The next summer, I interned at the Book Arts Program. There, I was able to hone my crafts and learned how to print on a letterpress. Learning to print has been a very organic process for me. It can be frustrating at times, but I think letterpress especially, is a great way to incorporate image and text which is something that was stressed in the Illustration program at RISD.
Gavin: How did the idea come about to start up Birdbrain Press?
Max: Birdbrain Press is really the end result of an idea originated by a group of our friends from RISD, who were looking to band together to create something; a company, a gallery, maybe a bakery, a lot of ideas were thrown around. We all had this common desire, but after graduation, we all sort of split off on our own paths, each one better tailored to our own interests. For the two of us, that path led to Birdbrain Press- a vehicle for us to produce and present work we think is worth seeing.
Gavin: What was it like for you both putting together the first issue of Birdbrain Collective, and what challenges did you meet along the way?
Max: When we started hearing back from people that were excited to make something for us, it was very encouraging. It put me back in touch with some very talented artists I hadn't seen in a long while, and it really felt intoxicating. That's the way it feels when I'm working on something like this-- a little drunk, and happy as a clam. There were some sobering moments, of course. When promised submissions never arrived, or technical difficulties arose out of no where. Our living room was a mountain range of collated stacks of copy paper and accumulated debris, but we pushed through it. At this point, we're quite organized, but that's because of hard lessons learned while making that first issue.
Laura: The few nights before our debut were crazy. We definitely didn't sleep very much. Since we chose to stick with tradition, we photocopied everything. The Kinkos on 3300 South is open 24 hours. There are some really crazy people in there. I'd say that was my biggest challenge.
Gavin: You officially made your local debut at the Alternative Press Festival this past summer. What was that event like for you, and what did you think of the other designers and artists involved?
Laura: I was very intimidated. A lot of the other artists had done something similar before, this was our first time. They were all very talented had such a variety of things. I also felt really bad because I had to work for the first half of the festival. Max was our sole representative. It was very encouraging to have such positive feedback. I remember I got to the table and Max was gleaming with exciting news.
Max: It was fantastic to be there in the morning. The Salt Lake Main Library is seriously like a glass cathedral, a really beautiful building. The light was soft, everything was quiet, and we all just stood there, setting out these objects we'd each cared about, worked so hard on. It's great to be in a group of people like that, and then to see the crowd get excited about it too. That was the best part. There was this one guy who came to the Birdbrain table, middle-aged and sort of jittery, and he was very into it. He told me he'd done a lot of drawing in high school, that he'd never taken it seriously, but he had loved doing it, and then he left. A few hours later, the guy comes back with his sketchbook from high school! Just to show us! It was amazing. So much natural talent, really complex concepts, and a truly enviable facility with drawing. It was absolutely gorgeous, and I feel honored that I may be one of the few people who has seen this thing. I feel so happy that what we're doing with Birdbrain Press can help connect people with parts of themselves like that.
Gavin: What was the public response like to the first issue and the works you had on display?
Max: People could tell that we were really excited about it, and I think that drew them in. When they saw that this project was something we were really pretty proud of, that we wanted to show them and talk about, they paid attention. I think people also really responded to the community aspect of it. People seemed really happy that we're pulling from the local community to find the work we're printing.
Laura: We got a lot of traffic. Like Max said, I think people were really into the community aspect of Birdbrain Collective. As people would stop by, we would ask them to sign-up for our mailing list and note if they were interested in participating. We have included some of those people in our later issues. I would say that Birdbrain Collective sparked more interest than we even anticipated; enough to fuel two new issues in less than a month.
Gavin: What's your overall goal for Birdbrain, both print and publication wise?
Max: I want us to get better at what we know how to do, while we keep learning to do new things. Burn the candle at both ends. I love doing this stuff, I'd probably be doing it no matter what, and if people can get involved and excited about it, that makes it even better. I said Birdbrain Press was conceived as a vehicle for exciting work, and I'd like to see us expand the type of work we put out. Build our web presence to support video, animation, and music. I hope we continue to find ourselves facing challenges, and then surpassing them.
Laura: We want to continue on with Birdbrain Collective; it's a fun way to see what our friends and contemporaries are doing, and to be a part of that. Our original "mission statement" was to have this collective, as well as publish individual's work. We have already begun to do that with some of Max's comics. I think we originally envisioned ourselves as small-time, independent publishers of our own work, as well as that of artists we think are exciting.
Gavin: Being new-comers to the creative communities, how has it been for you both in taking part and interacting with people who have been here for years? And how do you feel you've been received?
Max: It's funny, because to me that sounds like there are these elder statesmen of the Salt Lake Alt Press community, and I've never met one. Certainly, there are people that have been doing this way locally longer than us, and that's very cool for us to see, but no one's ever come up to me in a robe and sash and given me a pep talk. People go "Oh, you've got a zine? Wanna trade?" I feel like we've been welcomed into a community that is just starting to take shape in the last couple years, thanks to events like the ones we've been participating in. It's pretty wide open, and very exciting that everyone can feel like contemporaries.
Laura: As a newcomer, I haven't really been introduced to the veteran independent publishers, but I think self-publishing fits under the category of book arts. My job has actually introduced me to a bunch of book artists, and I have found that they are very encouraging. I think art has a tendency to draw in pretentious people, but book arts is a much smaller community that doesn't seem as snotty. Especially not around Salt Lake- people here just seem to want to help and promote you.
Gavin: Going a bit local, what's your take on our local publishing scene, both good and bad?
Laura: I am indeed a new-comer and I don't really have a solid feeling for the publishing scene here yet. From what I have seen, at the Alternative Press Festival and a little bit at Craft Lake City, I think things are looking great. I would like to see more events like the APF where self-publishing and small time companies are the spotlight.
Max: Salt Lake has really impressed me with it's community of dedicated individuals. Artists, designers, writers, poets. They're all confident in their abilities and passionate about what they do. But it feels compartmentalized. I'm over here doing my thing, and you're over there doing yours. I think the Alternative Press Festival and Craft Lake City are great gateways for these people to encourage each other, and even collaborate. I think just seeing other people making things is helpful for those that maybe don't know how to get started.
Gavin: Is there anything you believe could be done to make it more prominent?
Laura: I think more sponsored events, like the Alternative Press Festival, would be a great way to expose people to the local publishing scene. Exposure is really the key, the more people who contribute to these events and the more publicity they get, the better.
Max: I think more common art spaces would strengthen the connections that are forming. Not just publicly funded programs like Youth City Artways, whose funding was cut from the city's budget this year. We need to support establishments like Providence's Dirt Palace, a feminist art collective, or the now defunct Fort Thunder-- places that give artists space to gather, work, and learn from one another. Copper Palate Press is a good local example, as is Captain Captain Studios. There's a really great art scene here, and I think that there's a lot of potential for growth. We need to be willing to take some risks, and expand.
Gavin: What are some of the local zines you enjoy and think people should be checking out?
Max: Potter Press, owned by Nick and Erin Potter, also debuted their zine "Paper Noise" at the Alternative Press Festival and we think it's really awesome. It has a phenomenal concept, some great content, and the Potters' signature craftsmanship. We are really big fans. Emily Moroz self-published her first zine for the Alternative Press Festival. Her drawings will really knock your head off.
Laura: Hayley Heaton is a local poet that everyone should be checking out. Her book, French 75, is hilariously delicious. If you can find it, squirrel it away, and read it over the collection's eponymous cocktail. We're big supporters of the Salt Lake City Public Library's Alternative Press Collection, a huge collection of zines and mini-comics gathered from all over the place. It's really impressive, and a great way to find artists, local and not so local.
Gavin: On the same token, what are your thoughts on the local art scene and what its doing?
Laura: Salt Lake's art scene has really blossomed over the past few years. I remember going to Gallery Strolls in high school; there wasn't a huge art scene at the time. Now, every third Friday, people are flooding out into the side-walk from the galleries. I heard a rumor that Salt Lake City is a city to look out for in terms of art in the future. It's pretty exciting to be a part of that.
Max: I was pretty surprised on my first visit to SLC to find such an active art scene, and it was a huge factor in my decision to move here. People really care about the arts here, and treat each other's endeavors with a genuine interest. I consider Salt Lake City to be on the short list of the most vital art communities peppering the space between the coasts. It's up there with Chicago, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Savannah, Philadelphia-- the growing row of art cities strung like brightly glowing lights between San Francisco and New York City. The art scene is going to keep growing here, and I'm happy I can be a part of it.
Gavin: What can we expect from you and Birdbrain Press over the rest of the year?
Laura: Birdbrain Collective #4 is underway. We're producing a whole slew of new prints and mini-comics. No big events are planned for the rest of 2010, but we're looking to expand our set of appearances next year to include some national shows like APE or SPX. We'll also be setting up an online store, making our wares available more than a handful of times a year.
Gavin: Aside the obvious, is there anything you'd like to promote or plug?
Laura: We are always looking for new talent and contributors. If you're interested, feel free to contact us via email: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow us on our network of blogs: Our BIRDBRAIN press hub, Max's art and comics blog, anchored by his mini-comic series, BIRDHOUSE. My art blog, connected to my website. We'd like to encourage readers to seek out more work from Birdbrain Collective contributors. Many of them are practicing artists, writers, cartoonists, etc. Adriana Yugovitch has a great blog. John Dermot Woods just had his book published! It's called The Complete Collection of People, Places, & Things, and it's wonderful. Tom Toye is like some sort of art genius caveman from the moon, and worth checking out! If you're from Salt Lake City, and you haven't heard of Claire Taylor, you need your head examined. And that lovely couple over at Potter Press, everything they do just makes us smile. Those are just a few of our Birdbrains, so please check them all out!
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