Intro & Interview by Shanon Weltman
Hailing from the icy land of beer and cheese, we bring you Printmaker Patrick Smyczek. He’s the one-man powerhouse running the Milwaukee based T-shirt company Beast USA. Although he primarily specializes in a wide range of printmaking techniques, he’s an equally extraordinary illustrator. At times it’s hard to decide which is more impressive – his attention to detail in drawing or printing. Get yourself one of his amazing shirts while supplies last and the price is too good to be true. As they do in Wisconsin, grab yourself a frosty brewsky and enjoy our interview.
SHANON WELTMAN: Why do you print on T-shirts as opposed to fine art prints? You have a lot of formal training, what draws you to shirts?
PATRICK SMYCZEK: Accessibility I guess. That’s sort of the reason why I got into printmaking in the first place. Making my art more accessible just seemed more fitting for what I like to do and who I like to get my work to. I’ve always really liked printing on T-shirts and I’ve found that it’s just another outlet. It was an outlet before, but it became more important when I wanted to see where my work could go and also to make more of a living. I never sort of pictured myself as trying to hustle into a gallery or something. Also, I want people to be able to afford it. T-shirts seem like a fun way to do that. But with the tube that I make, that’s bringing more of my background into it also. That’s printed on paper and just happens to be shrink-wrapped around a tube.
SW: So, you mentioned you want it to be price accessible. Do you feel like you’re really charging enough? I was showing your work to some people and they were like ‘What?? This amount of work? No…’
PS: I feel like it’s a little undervalued right now price-wise, but I’m still sort of in the infant stages of the business and getting my brand legitimized. This will be my 12th shirt, the one that I’m working on now. So it feels pretty substantial to me, but I feel like I still have a ways to go as far as getting the word out, I guess. I think when demand catches up to supply… I would like to have the shirts cost more, but there’s so much labor that goes into it and that’s something that really doesn’t quite factor so much into the price. Also, using all American made materials, that’s a little bit more expensive for me. I’d like to make it a little more expensive, but I can’t afford to now. I’m in Wisconsin and people are just like, ‘Ah, I don’t know.’ That’s mainly because I haven’t found the right audience yet completely, but y’know $25 for a T-shirt is kind of a lot for some people, and I get that, y’know?
SW: Mmhm. Are there fairs and festivals where you can get a table at in Wisconsin?
PS: Yep! That’s been a really great way for me to get my work out. I think online is important and cool to have, but when people can actually see the pieces in person and interact with the tubes, it becomes this object. I think for people to sort of see the quality, it’s just much easier to do in person than in any other way that I’ve found so far.
SW: Have you considered sending any of your shirts out to people for free, but all over the country so that that internet fan-base will kind of develop? I hear what you’re saying completely, you see a thing physically, it’s way more special than an idea online.
PS: Right, like, bloggers and something like that, is that what you mean?
SW: Bloggers, fashion bloggers or even celebrities that you like, friends… one of the people we interviewed, she just gave away a lot of her paintings when she first started and her most recent client was Roseanne the comedian. You never know when you start giving away your stuff.
PS: Yeah, I think about that so much. I’d love to, but I’m just sort of… I’m almost shy about it I guess. Maybe I’m overthinking it. Even people that aren’t super famous but I think are amazing, y’know, like, ‘you’re doing something really cool, here’s a T-shirt.’ I’d like to. Recently Kyle Kinane the comedian, not sure if you know him, he was in Milwaukee. It was a pretty small venue, and after the show I wanted to get a poster and an album and I gave him one of my stickers. He was like, ‘oh cool, you make shirts?’ I’m like ‘yeah’, he says, ‘Ah! We could have traded.’ I was like, ‘I would have just brought you a shirt, but I was too shy.’
SW: Oh, yeah! Don’t be so shy, you have an awesome product!
PS: Isn’t that stupid? [Laughs]
SW: Not stupid, you have to have those experiences to learn, y’know?
PS: For me, in art school, this was just something I wanted to do. The making of it was something that I’m comfortable with. All the design stuff for the website, keeping all my books straight and inventory and accounting, all the aspects of social media and marketing, you have to kind of be a jack of all trades. I’ve been slowly getting better and better, it’s just there’s a lot to it.
SW: Are you ALL of Beast USA? You don’t have anyone helping you with anything?
PS: My Dad helps me.
SW: Oh okay, what does he help with?
PS: When I print, he has been doing the shrink wrapping of the tubes and he has also been helping me when I’m printing the shirts, he puts them on, takes them off, puts them through the dryer. My mom makes baked goods for openings that I have.
SW: [Laughs] Aww
PS: It’s pretty great. [Laughs] They both retired recently and they both like to help me out. They live like 15 minutes from my studio, so it’s pretty cool. Yeah other than that, it’s pretty much I try to do everything by myself.
SW: Our parents have offered to help with stuff, but they’re in Florida. I’m sure if you were in a different city that had a bigger art scene you’d probably have different support systems, but that’s great that they can help.
PS: Yeah, it’s incredible really. In the future it’d be nice to maybe get some interns, we’ve got MIAD the art institute here just up the street. There’s a pretty big printmaking school there, it’d be fun to have someone that brings some energy to the shop also, y’know, new energy. But you know, at this point right now it’s small enough where it’s pretty manageable, just to do by myself. I try to get extra side projects going, so, maybe it takes half of the month to make the shirt and the other half I’m doing contract work for other people, or illustration work, stuff like that. It’s not completely full time just working on the shirts, I wouldn’t mind if it was, for sure.
SW: Can you talk about the experience you had doing lithography? You went to a studio in Madison didn’t you?
PS: From MICA? Like when I left MICA, what did I do printmaking-wise?
PS: I worked in New Mexico, and then I worked while I was in graduate school at this place Tandem Press in Madison [Wisconsin]. Is that what you mean?
PS: Tandem Press is one of the best printmaking studios in the country and they bring in a lot of top-tier blue chip artists to collaborate with. I was fortunate enough to be offered a position there for the three years I was in grad school and be able to work with these artists that I admire. In the three years that I was there, towards the end I was doing more projects. I was a more important part of the projects I guess, doing more of the actual printing. They do that with a lot of their students, which is pretty incredible. You’re working on these pieces that are just incredible, really valuable ultimately. It gives you a lot of confidence, it really builds your skill set working on that sort of level of printmaking. It’s basically the highest standards that there are. That’s something that I think about when I’m working on my own work. I want to believe that someone is looking for flaws in my printmaking, my work, stuff like that. I want to make it very tough for them. My craft is pretty important to me, as well as you know, balancing that out with the fun I’m having while making it. I’m hoping that translates as well. Tandem was one of the most important professional experiences of my life, without a doubt. Check out their website, it’s really good.
SW: What did you do in New Mexico? I remember reading about that online, but what were you doing out there?
PS: That’s the lithography school [Tamarind], they train master printers there. The most students that they will take in a year is eight, it’s pretty competitive to get in. For my year, there were four students from the US and four from other countries.
PS: Essentially you go through a two semester academic year, learning everything you could ever even dream about learning in lithography technical-wise ,and then that transitions into collaborating with professional artists. So, the first half of the program you learn these techniques, become really proficient. They just put you through the wringer, it’s a really really rigorous program and by the end of it, you’re a much better printmaker then when you entered. So, for me, that’s really where my professionalism and my proficiency in printmaking really started. Not just lithography. Lithography is the most difficult, you could argue it I guess, but technically speaking it’s probably the most difficult process in printmaking. To understand that completely helps you understand every other process, it just makes everything a little easier. I spent that whole year just doing lithography, but it made me a better screen printer. The attention that you pay to these minute deals, I mean, people wouldn’t necessarily notice, but you’re just so focused on making these things perfect that are really difficult. There is a charm in printing something by hand and having it look like it was made by hand, and having its small imperfections and stuff. But this school was basically like, ‘Okay, these all need to be perfect.’ There’s an integrity and history to this field you’re going into. They want to graduate students who have the skills and professionalism of those that came before. Tamarind and Tandem are probably the most important places I’ve ever worked, they set the standard that I keep in my own work and my studio today. [Laughs] It sounds so serious when I’m talking about this stuff.
SW: There’s so many personality types in the world. For me, I like organizing stuff, stuff that people are like, ‘why is that fun to you?’ So, what is it about printing, the way you’re talking about it, that’s fun. Sincerely, what is it that draws you to all of this?
PS: It starts with thinking about this image that I really want to make. I’m not a really big sketcher. I don’t have a sketchbook really, I just keep a lot of lists. I picture something, work on it in my mind over time until it gets to a point where I can just draw it, then I put it on paper. It’s so exciting to see that for the first time and then imagine what it’s going to be like once it’s screenprinted in color. It’s all the steps in the process leading up to the moment where you pull the last color on a shirt. Lift up the screen for the first time, it’s incredible! It’s so exciting, all the parts of the process. I really like process oriented things because, first, I can listen to music, books on tape, whatever, and time’s just flying and I’m locked into this process making sure things are going the way I want it to. There’s a sense of accomplishment that happens. You’re working towards the satisfaction through creating this thing. Every step there’s just a different satisfaction in it all the way up to having the final product, this tangible physical thing you can hold and sort of appreciate. I think it is also, too, because it is such a slow process in making a shirt from drawing to printing. So much goes into it, for me it’s really exciting. It’s something that I did, it’s for me. I’m making shirts that I want to wear and I hope other people like them too.
SW: That’s exciting!
PS: I have so much fun.
SW: Your images are so fun and crazy, what inspires them?
PS: It’s a lot of the same things, but sometimes it’s different from shirt to shirt. I think a lot of times, there’s the Beast USA, the name. People like that the most, and animals. I like to draw animals, I like to draw patriotic stuff. For me, I’ve traveled a lot, I’ve lived in a lot of places. The identity of the United States has all sorts of different types of baggage that comes with it. For better or worse, I guess, it all depends on how you look at it. The way I like to look at it is, it is all these things. Nothing’s right or wrong necessarily, but there is some absurdity to it. I think, that’s really the point that I draw from. It can be anything, the identity of who we are. It certainly is, I think, in a lot of respects. I guess, using animals as stand ins for people or something like that. I like taking these sort of iconic symbols or imagery everyone sort of gets. Bald Eagle, you know, it’s our state bird. It’s a symbol for the US, so we started adding other symbols to that. It creates this small sort of narrative, to have humor with some things, it’s like, ‘is he serious? Is he just being ironic?’
PS: Just trying to walk this line… where is the place this work is coming from? I want it to be a little bit more ambiguous, there’s people who really like my work, my shirts, that are really hardcore Republican and then there’s people who love my shirts that are hardcore Liberal, y’know? They’re looking at it in different ways, or maybe not so different. I want my shirts to be patriotic in most cases, but not political at all.
SW: I think you’ve accomplished that.
PS: Yeah! And it’s fun. It’s like making something that was so specifically something, but not being able to put your finger on it. Having it be slightly different for other people, the experience of it or something. It sort of draws from the work I was making in graduate school, asking all those same questions. Offering a little bit more than just, ‘Oh I get it’, looking at it for a second. I want there to be more of a moment of ‘…What?’ and bring people in, offering more questions than answers, I guess, but It doesn’t have to be. I hope it can just hold up, as just like ‘oh, that’s cool.’ You know?
SW: Yeah, okay.
SW: What is the most amount of screens you’ve used for one image?
PS: I’m only set up to do four colors for shirt, so every shirt I do is four colors. So…
SW: So four colors. [Laughs]
PS: I try to do overlapping. I think some of my shirts it looks like there’s more colors than there are, just because I don’t use super-opaque inks, or I mess with the opacity. I can make it seem like there’s more colors through overlapping.
PS: Yeah yeah, I’m only setup for four, I’ve got kind of a small setup.
SW: It looks like more than four! But I guess not.
SW: The last question we like to end on a random note, and we wrote this inspired by your imagery. If you could direct “Sharknado 3”, where would it take place and who would star in it?
PS: I haven’t seen “Sharknado” at all. [Laughs]
SW: [Laughs] Well, it’s in LA, the 2nd is in NY and the people who star in it are like Tara Reid, the people from 90210, kinda washed up…
PS: So wait, the city floods and there’s sharks everywhere?
PS: Or… like, there’s a tornado full of sharks?
PS: What?? [Laughs]
SW: [Laughs] Both.
PS: Maybe Honolulu and… Matthew McConaughey, would star in it? Maybe too famous?
SW: Too famous. [Laughs]
PS: He’s really good in True Detective [Laughs], let’s see… I only have the measuring stick of the last “Sharknado”, I’ll just say some actors that I think are great. [Laughs] Let’s do Anne Hathaway, that’s for my friend June, that goes out to him. Steve Buscemi is great, great. Ryan Gosling because people say I look like him.
SW: I can see that. That’s a pretty good cast, you know, they really saved it for “Sharknado 3”.
PS: That’s the toughest question I’ve ever been asked in an interview…
PS: …which, this my first interview. [Laughs]