Chances are you've seen Jay Ryan's gig posters
plastered to a window, wall or telephone pole near your neighborhood bar. And not just seen, but noticed. The homegrown artist's signature style stands well apart from traditional in-your-face music propaganda: Careful blends of muted colors and pudgy, empty-eyed animals give the posters a touching, human tone, like picture books for grown-ups.
Garnering large-scale exposure in the last few years (you can catch his illustrations on a billboard for Converse at Ohio and Wabash) and fresh off the release of his first book, Ryan has become a major name in world of collectible posters. His limited-edition, signed and numbered prints now sell quickly via his printmaking business, The Bird Machine, and he's currently working on bringing international poster show Flatstock to Chicago in time for Pitchfork's fest in Union Park.
But Ryan's happy to keep things quiet and make time to skateboard, play with his band, Dianogah, and relax with his wife (printmaker Diana Sudyka) and their beloved greyhound.
How much do you listen to a band when you're designing a poster for its show?
A lot. I'll try and immerse myself in the music for a couple of days before I start drawing. I just finished something for a German band that I don't really know, called Tomte. I still don't know what their songs are about, because they're all sung in German, but I think the poster fits the mood of the music, or at least what I get out of it.
Your work is made to attract attention, to advertise a show. But it's really subtle. So why do you think that works?
Because everything around us is trying to get your attention. Just to make something that's more like real life, and more calm and quiet, that has mistakes, that has inaccuracies, and also not treating an image or a piece of work like it has to appeal to everybody. We don't use true reds or royal blues; the blacks we used are muted down toward brown or gray. It warms the posters up a lot.
Why do you draw animals?
If it was a guy in that drawing instead of a bear holding a ham, you wouldn't necessarily feel any connection to that. Maybe the guy has a moustache and long hair, you look at it as somebody else. If it's a bear or a platypus, you can look at it and think, "Oh, the bear represents me,' or 'The bear represents my friend Joey.'
Why do you call it The Bird Machine?
I wanted a non-specific name. We could have started making rock posters and if in two years we spent more of our time doing something else, like manufacturing bicycle tires or being a day care or a bakery, it wouldn't be like, 'Jay Ryan Poster Shop,' where I drop my laundry off to get it cleaned."
When did you know that you were big-time?
I remember years ago, telling my dad that I'd made $300 doing a poster, and he was like, "You're really making money doing this, huh?"
What about when you saw your name on the bottom of that billboard?
Aw, I was pissed. They told me they weren't going to do that (laughs). Overall, I'm very happy about the billboard. I've definitely been given a lot of crap by my friends and people I know for taking money from Nike. If it had been an ad for Nike, I would not have done it, but I've worn Converse all my life. It seemed okay.
Do you have a favorite venue?
I really like the Hideout. I really like Schubas. I like Danny's. I just went to the Charleston for the first time to see a friend play, and it was, like, the most pleasant bar experience I've had, possibly ever. There's really not a bad venue in Chicago. But I don't go out much.
What local artists do you feel most tuned in to?
There are the people who work in the shop here, like Mat Daly, Diana, Nick Butcher, Dan Grzeca and Nadine Nakanishi. I really like some of the comic book artists, like Jeffrey Brown and Paul Hornschemeier, and obviously Chris Ware. And Chris Kerr's drawings, paintings and dioramas are really funny and involved.
Do you count any children's books among your influences?
Yes. I only recently realized what an impact Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss had on me. You could hang 80 percent of my work in your three-year-old child's bedroom, and it wouldn't be inappropriate, but that's different than making posters with a three-year-old in mind.
How does it feel to have your work be so attached to certain points in time?
I like that they are, but for very personal reasons. Being able to look back at a physical thing that has a date on it, where there's a poster with information for a concert, which is a supposedly exciting event where you might have met your girlfriend, or you saw your friend so drunk that he got kicked out of the bar. It's one thing looking at the five years later, but I think that 30 years from now I'm going to appreciate them a whole lot more.
What about work that's not attached to a specific date and time?
It's mostly just dogs.