Posted // 2011-09-04 -
As both the art and craft scenes grow bigger, not only do we see an influx of new talent, we're seeing the bridges cross between the two. It can be said that art is a craft and craft is an art, but not many meld the both into a business where two very distinct forms are sold under the same banner. Which makes the local print company we'll be chatting with today such a rare find.
Paper Wasp started up early last year when the married duo of illustrator Megan Mitchell and designer Nick Burke took their illustrations and prints online and around town, gaining a small following in printmaking circles and eventually the art community with their bold style. The duo added small figurines to the inventory this year, which earned them added interest and a spot at craft fairs. I got a chance to chat with both of them about meeting each other, forming Paper Wasp, their artwork and thoughts on local craft.
Megan Mitchell and Nick Burke
Gavin: Hey, guys. First thing, tell us a little bit about yourselves.
Magen: I’m the illustration and design end of Paper Wasp. I’ve been doing commercial art for about seven years now, but it wasn’t until recently that I have been pursuing and promoting my own art. I work as an in-house graphic artist for Discovery Gateway and the rest of my time is spent on freelance work or developing Paper Wasp’s inventory and brand. Every once in awhile, I sneak a video game or a book into my schedule.
Nick: I don’t have a lot of formal art training, but I like creating for my own entertainment I like to say I’m better at design than illustration. I’m primarily a writer, although I’ve played around in several mediums. I am a first-class nerd and I love reading classical literature from all over the world. Really, I just love research.
Gavin: How did both of you first take an interest in art and crafts, and what were some of your early inspirations?
Magen: As early as I can remember, I have been absorbed in visual stuff. My parents recognized this and, as a tactic to encourage me to read more, they bought me comics. I was always picking up pretty random stuff based on their covers. One of those was The Sandman by Neil Gaiman. I had no idea what it was really about, but I loved the illustrations. Marc Hempel’s style has always stuck with me. Even as an eight-year-old, I made an immediate connection with the characters through their expressions and stylized forms. I could understand the story without reading any of the text.
Nick: I’ve been drawing since I was five and I’ve always had a natural affinity and ability for art. I remember drawing a lot of the eponymous monsters from Aliens when I was seven. I hadn’t seen the movie, but I was crazy for the line of toys tied to the movie so I guess I was inspired by H.R. Giger. When I was 13, some of my more bohemian relatives showed me a video tape of The Brothers Quay. I still watch the much-updated DVD regularly. On a trip to New York City when I was 14, I remember being really excited by an exhibit of Salvador Dalí’s paintings. My father has an amazing gold-leafed Bible illustrated by Dalí.
Gavin: Magen, you studied illustration at Salt Lake Community College. What made you choose SLCC and what was its program like for you?
Magen: I had a really positive experience at SLCC. Even before I attended the community college, I received lots of encouragement from the illustration faculty and was even able to take a college-level course for free, sans credit hours. I attended almost all of my schooling on scholarships. Their visual art programs were flexible so if I was interested in typography, finances, or screen printing, I didn’t have to worry about me being an illustration student limiting what classes I could take. But this has led me down a path of acquiring all sorts of skills but never a bachelor’s degree.
Gavin: Nick, you went to Westminster College for your degree. How did you decide on its program and what do you think of your time there?
Nick: I studied two years of communication before I eventually received my BA in history. I now have a wonderful understanding and love of history that makes me a better person, but it has never gotten me a job. Westminster’s history department was small and dedicated when I attended, but I think two of the three professors have since moved on.
Gavin: How did the two of you meet each other and become friends, and eventually marry?
Nick: I found Magen seven years ago when I was cruising MySpace for girls. We saw Hellboy on our first date. We shared a lot of the same obscure artistic tastes. I really love women with artistic talent, be it illustration, music, language, etc. It is a sign of intelligence that I find very sexy. Magen and I dated all throughout college and married three years ago. It was a small courthouse wedding with an informal reception. Then we took our wedding money to Japan for a three-week honeymoon.
Gavin: Where did the idea come from to start up Paper Wasp, and what's the story behind the name?
Nick: Magen wanted a commercially savvy brand under which to sell her art. Her art usually centers on animals so she wanted the brand to focus on “critters.” I came up with Paper Wasp to represent our printing and painting with the industrious nature of communal wasps. I researched away while Magen designed several styles, logos and mascots. Then we went through a very commercial elimination process; difficulty in printing, applicability, comprehensibility. Then Magen polished the final product into what you see now.
Gavin: You started off making screen prints of various drawings. What's the process like for you coming up with those designs, from concept to final product?
Nick: Magen and I like to doodle together in a game we learned from Jean Miro. We take turns doodling over each other’s doodles until a humorous picture emerges. This has inspired a surprising amount of our art.
Magen: For our screen prints thus far, I go from sketch to film-ready art in Adobe Illustrator. Illustrator is a tool that lends itself so much to my style. It’s easy to create and manipulate flat, stylized illustrations. By changing a particular curve you can dial in a huge range of subtle expressions. In the back room of our house, we have a small setup for doing the actual printing. Before we moved into this house, we were printing in a small one-bedroom apartment and locking our dog up so he would not step on all the prints that we laid out to dry. Now we have room for a little drying rack that helps a ton.
Gavin: What made you decide to go the traditional route for it instead of creating digital prints? And how are you set up equipment-wise to produce your works?
Magen: I took a screen-printing class early on at SLCC and liked it, but I struggled through the printing process. All the equipment and chemicals seemed daunting and not a very viable system for making art in an apartment. A few years passed and it really didn’t cross my mind again until the opening of Signed & Numbered. The themes of their group shows were just too fun to pass up and it came right at a time when I was looking to promote myself. I took another SLCC screen-printing class and this time around I learned how to use water-based inks. When you’re doing screen-printing out of an apartment, water-based inks make a world of difference with clean up and chemical fumes.
Gavin: What was the initial reaction like to the prints when you started making your way around the craft scene?
Magen: I think that my background in graphic design really appeals to other artists, but my subject matter is intended to be relatable and enjoyable to everyone. This is the first year that we’ve had a more physical presence in Utah and so far, we have been mostly attracting the attention of other artists. But we’re happy with that.
Nick: We set up shop on Etsy and Big Cartel soon after we started printing and our online fan base has been growing steadily. Magen’s paintings are mostly low-brow fine art, but the low price on our prints has helped us move a lot in the craft scene.
Gavin: How did the idea come about to start constructing the small toy figurines?
Magen: I’ve been admiring the DIY vinyl-toy thing for a while, but it was Kidrobot’s Custom Munny Contest that really got me off my butt and making something. I’ve come to really like the process, and both times I have entered I have taken third in some category. I’ve gotten a lot of great responses from our custom-toy creations and it’s something that we both want to keep pursuing.
Nick: Another thing Magen and I have in common is that we never stopped collecting toys when we grew up. Customized vinyl toys are really big in Asia, but the American market is waning. We’re hoping to put on a group vinyl-toy show sometime in 2012.
Gavin: What kind of work goes into making one of those, and how long does it take to add all the painted details?
Magen: When it comes to painting, I lose myself in the work and forget about time. With commercial work, you have to keep a close eye on how much time you spend on everything and deadlines can be tight. It gives you a sort of art ADD. At first, it’s hard to sit down and paint. The toys and paintings are a way to try and slow down. But like commercial projects, I still go through a process of sketches and color choices in Adobe Illustrator. From there I will print out and transfer the line work onto the blank toy. I start with acrylic paints for the large areas of color and details and subtle color shifts are done in oil paints. The convenience with the toys is that you can take it apart and just noodle away on one body part at a time. If you’re impatient like I am, you usually want to put it all back together before it’s dry and then you usually end up making more problems for yourself. Some designs are created much faster then others, depending on what style I am going for on the toy. If I am using a more painterly style, it has a tendency to get done a lot quicker, about a week. Something with fine, clean lines usually takes a bit longer, maybe up to two weeks. Like I mentioned, I enjoy the process so much I lose track of time.
Gavin: On the side, you also offer commercial work such as apparel printing and logo design. How has that end of the business worked for you and what are some projects you've worked on?
Magen: Commercial work is what really pays the bills but I find it just as satisfying as my own. Commercial work brings challenges that I would never assign myself. Many of my previous clients have been involved producing children’s design and illustration so I have been able to create many pigs dancing jigs, robot and superhero bees and the shearing cycles of sheep.
Gavin: You recently participated in Craft Lake City last month. What was that event like for you and how was it seeing all the various artists and crafters around the state?
Magen: I’m such a homebody and lately I keep myself buried in work so it was nice to get out and finally put some faces to names. Not only is Craft Lake City a great way to promote and make some money, but it’s also a great way to network with the art and craft community. That, for me, was the most valuable thing.
Nick: It was a really fun experience. We met some great artists, made some good connections and it was a great opportunity to gauge personal reactions to our art. The most frequent comment was that women want more kitty prints.
Gavin: Are there any plans to expand or add new artwork to your inventory, or are you mainly focusing on what you currently produce for now?
Nick: We rarely stop making art. The only time we aren’t working on new inventory is when we’re engaged in other commercial projects or making funny art for each other. But I’m sure you will see some new art for sale on our Website
Magen: We have quite of bit of print concepts that have to be put on hold because of commercial work. We’re looking into new papers as well as introducing new ink colors to our prints.
Gavin: Going local, what are your thoughts on our art scene, both good and bad?
Nick: Hmm. “Art scene” is a big term. Utah has a ton of very talented landscape painters whom you’d rarely see exhibited outside of the tourist galleries that populate Park City and other similar resort towns. But Salt Lake and Provo together have a more modern scene. StruckAxiom has been a goliath in terms of clientele, quality of design and awards won for commercial work. Leia Bell, Trent Call and Sri Whipple have become the trinity of local lowbrow. I don’t get out enough to tell you about our fine art scene.
Gavin: Anything you believe could be done to make it more prominent?
Nick: I like Peter Corroon’s new county-run playhouse idea. But in that same spirit, I think the city should foster a true art district on Broadway. They could offer incentives for galleries and rent-controlled studios to congregate between the Rose Wagner Theater up to 300 East. Then we could have a true Gallery Stroll. We already have several bars on Broadway and it’s a block from Trax at all times. Corroon is obviously trying to give Salt Lake a more sophisticated image with this new “Broadway-style theater” and a more unified, organized art community would certainly do that.
Gavin: What do you think of Gallery Stroll as a whole and how it's doing today?
Nick: I’ll refer back to my last answer. We have strong artists now, but a closer community strengthens artists, encourages patronage and community involvement and it creates new, better-equipped artists.
Magen: I am a little embarrassed to admit that it’s a rare day that I actually attend Gallery Stroll. However, local art is bringing me out more and more. And more often than not, this art falls under the category of illustration, craft or lowbrow. I enjoy high-concept art, but when it comes down to it, I would rather be watching a documentary on Crumb than I would most of the Art21 artists.
Gavin: What's your take on the rise of the craft movement in Utah and the works coming out of it?
Nick: I think it’s great. Mormon culture has a strong DIY ethic so I am surprised that it has not caught on a little quicker in Utah. Maybe it’s the counter-culture edge currently associated with it. Scrapbooking was all the rage with Mormon moms about five years ago. You’d see punks, burners and Relief Society girls all buying crafts at Michael’s.
Gavin: What can we expect from both of you and Paper Wasp over the rest of this year?
Nick: We’ll have some new holiday cards and/or prints in the store, we’re co-sponsoring Dr. Sketchy’s in September and we’ll have pieces at Gray Wall, the Hive Gallery and maybe Blonde Grizzly.
Gavin: Is there anything you'd like to plug or promote?
Nick: Shout out to Big Cartel for sponsoring us at Craft Lake City.