At a time when the silk-screening industry, like much of the world’s manufacturing, is produced in bulk in Asian factories, a group of Oberlin College-trained artists is doing the exact opposite.
To find them, one must travel the back roads of Long Island City, knock on the dented metal door of an old greeting card factory and descend into its doldrums. There, in that forgotten basement space, is where The Bread & Butter Collective’s (B&B) designs come alive. It’s like something out of “Frankenstein.”
Armed with a $12,000 grant from Oberlin, Gabriel Cohen, Jolie Signorile and Sara Krugman struck a work-trade deal with LIC’s Flux Factory; the trio would execute printing requests from Flux and teach resident artists how to silk-screen, in exchange for a studio space.
But there was a catch – one that involved months of pouring concrete, installing a drain, building a wash room, plugging holes and soliciting materials and equipment from area suppliers. Only then, after three months of work converting a dank cellar into their miniature, artistic take on a mammoth Asian operation, was B&B ready to produce.
Throwing three wildly creative artists, each with unique sensibilities, into a 200-square-foot windowless space may sound like a recipe for disaster, or, at best, a sick, sick version of “The Real World.” Yet, somehow, B&B makes it work.
For starters, the group considers itself a management collective as opposed to a design collective. Cohen, a graphic artist prone to using Photoshop to manipulate typography, is B&B’s email manager. Krugman, who leans toward bright colors and hand-drawn objects, heads up the collective’s education department. And Signorile, the financial manager, produces hybrids of colorful shapes and vivid text.
“Silk-screening is remarkably versatile,” Cohen explained, as the group rattled off a list of commissioned projects. “When we say you can print anything, you can print anything.”
Since becoming operational in October, B&B has printed 10 different designs, in addition to 26 box sets of artists’ work sold at Flux’s fall fundraiser. Work has ranged from t-shirts for a pit bull breeder to aprons for a cupcake shop in Israel and the volume varies from 10 calendars to 500 postcards.
“I believe that anybody, no matter what you do, can benefit from silk-screening,” Signorile noted. “Even a dentist.”
In the end, silk-screening hardly feels like an occupation; it’s an applied art, B&B says, with “commercial-ready potential.” The process involves creating a design and printing it out on clear film. The film is then positioned in front of a framed screen, which has been coated with a photo-sensitive emulsion. Exposed to light – in B&B’s case a donated light box – the design is burned onto the screen. And when the screen is rinsed, the emulsion washes away in areas where the image was present, leaving a stencil ripe for printing – over and over and over again.
“Being able to replicate my designs is amazing,” Krugman noted. “You only have to draw it once and you can have a million of them. It’s super direct and clear.”
And each print is unique, with its own original imperfections.
“If you walk by a silk-screened poster,” Signorile said, “it has some quality to it because it is one of a kind and attractive.” She added that silk-screening is a “DIY” – Do-It-Yourself – “medium. It’s almost addictive.”
Silk-screening aside, the B&B members are thrilled – and a bit relieved after initial post-graduate anxiety – that they’ve ostensibly been able to replicate the Oberlin art experience, hundreds of miles off campus. Working with artists in a community as vibrant as Flux, they say, has been an exciting twist.
And B&B is bound to stick around for a while. Flux offered them a five-year lease and they’re hoping the collective’s fourth member, Asa Ivry-Block – who will graduate from Oberlin this spring – can help secure more funding from the college.
Because after all, Krugman explained, without the grant “we would have to borrow money and bust our asses.”
“Well,” Signorile interjected with a smile, “we’re still busting out asses.”