An interview with Outlaw Printmaker Sean Starwars
Gators, cereal, arcade games, and Charles Bukowski are just some of the recurring themes in the art of Outlaw Printmaker Sean Star Wars. His prints borrow from pop-culture nostalgia and can have a humorous narrative within them but his work output is no joke. Sean is constantly churning out prints and cuts that are meticulously outlined with electrified colors. He specializes in woodblock printmaking which entails some serious carving time and even completed a challenge called "A Woodcut a Week" for a whole year. Sean's art is unique because it is considered without being too careful, the prints read fast with a hint of spontaneity. The art and design team at Hurley thought his work was well suited for a skateboard graphic which was huge because skateboarding had a major influence on Sean's trajectory as an artist. We recently got to catch up with Sean and get some intel on his work and influences.
I read in an interview that it was skating in the 80s that drew you to drawing and eventually print making when you saw these skaters making their own boards. Can you tell me more about that.
Well, I was initially drawn to the creativity of Neil Blender. His drawings, creative writing (I loved his Aggro Zone column in Transworld) and of course his unbridled creativity in skateboarding. I really liked Chris Miller's board graphics and his drawings too. When I discovered that they were woodcuts, and linocuts I was intrigued, but I didn't really know what that meant. A couple years later when I was in college and I had an opportunity to take a printmaking course we learned how to make woodcuts. I instantly connected with it, spurred on by the idea that this was how Chris Miller made his graphics!
You get to do printmaking for yourself full time now. It started as an interest as a kid, into a vocational pursuit, but you now get to create how and when you want to and that's earned. What was the mindset when you were working other jobs before doing this fulltime? Was this always the end goal?
It took me a long time to develop the discipline to complete my first art degree, I think it took me 8 years. I was always making prints, I loved it, but I didn’t go to my other classes or only took printmaking classes some semesters. When I finally matured to the point that I finished my degree I realized that I would need to go to graduate school if I wanted to be a professor. I wanted to excite college kids about printmaking as much as I had been. I couldn’t imagine just being a full time artist, but I also didn't have any idea how difficult it can be to get a full time job teaching college. It’s not exactly competitive, it’s more like alchemy and I could never land on the right formula. Along the way I’ve been a janitor, a busboy, and a used car salesman. It always seemed like one of the great universal tragedies - to be so committed to making woodcuts, and to have to fight so hard to have the time to do it. It took a long time to get the guts to go for it and just make art. I have a wife and five kids, that’s a lot of mouths to feed just off of woodcuts!
Can you tell me about the "Woodcut a Week" and "Woodcut a Day" projects. That sounds like some serious work output.
I’m in a group of artists known as the Outlaw Printmakers. There’s about ten or so of us and includes Dennis McNett, and Carlos Hernandez (whom you guys have worked with) and some other top guys like Bill Fick and Tom Huck. All the other artists are always working on pretty major projects with big companies and major museums. Their work gets a lot of coverage, and I'm down in this small town in Mississippi working by myself in relative obscurity. I realized I needed to challenge myself to do something that would help me earn my status with the Outlaws. I figured I could make a woodcut each week, and the culmination of that work would be pretty epic. It turned out that I was able to do it fairly easily and so I challenged myself to make a woodcut every day. I got about 75 days in before I bailed on that because there were too many days when I was away from the studio and would have to make two or three the next day, and the artwork was getting pretty bad. It wasn’t worth completing the project just so I could say I did it.
How did the Hurley board collaboration come about?
Well, that’s kind of complicated. I did a collab with Mishka Los Angeles and did a woodcut workshop on site as part of my pop up exhibition there. One of the people that took the workshop was this guy JP Olson who worked at Hurley. When I finally got it together to go full time artist, JP was one of the first people I reached out to. He was able to get me some money to come out to Hurley and do a woodcut workshop for Hurley's Art and Design teams. Hurley actually has a fully functional print shop on their campus which is kind of unheard of. Anyway, as you know there are a ton of Surf and Skate companies in Costa Mesa but I wasn't really aware how close these businesses are to each other. During the workshop JP mentioned that PAUL SCHMITT might swing by for a minute to check out what we were doing, but when he popped in, I couldn't believe it was him! He actually brought a special piece of wood (one of his one ply Maple skins with a wood grain face naturally occurring in it), and he thought it might be cool if we printed one of my woodcuts on to it to take advantage of the face in the wood grain. I think the three of us (Paul, JP, and myself) instantly realized the potential of printing the woodcuts directly onto the Maple. For me it was a nice departure from printing on paper, and for Paul it was a more organic way of getting artwork onto a skateboard, rather than the more conventional transfer process or screen printing graphics onto the decks. So now we have a very casual arrangement of me making woodcuts at my studio, JP printing the maple skins at the Hurley Printing Press and Paul turning them into completed decks. It's not a big production run, we print up like twenty or so boards of each graphic, but it means the world to me, to be able to work with those guys, and to make these boards!
Paul Schmitt, Sean, JP Olson
Exhibition at Hurley Pacific City
Where do you get ideas for prints? A lot seems like stuff from when you were a kid and they have a sense of humor. Is there anything in particular that gets you super psyched?
Anywhere I can find them, bumper stickers, billboards, cereal boxes, old magazines, coloring books. Yeah I read somewhere that Steve Olson was the eternal 17 year old so I guess I’m the eternal 10 year old. That's why I’m so stoked on Star Wars, Frankenberry, Pacman, soda and cupcakes. I love bright colors and ugly faces that automatically injects humor into artwork. Even though I have had an impressive collection of vintage Star Wars toys (that I sold off to finance my Mountain Dew bottle Collection) I think the thing that gets me the most excited is when I find something really obscure like the Monster Halloween Safety Kit that inspired Frankenbery v.s.The Klan, which to me is still the funniest thing I ever made.
Why Charles Bukowksi? I first became aware of him beginning of college and have been a fan since.
Yeah that's kind of what happened with me too. My friend Kenny turned me on to Bukowski right when I was starting college, but the thing that has stayed with me about Bukowski was his work ethic, and his willingness to return to his past over and over. He famously said "you’re only a writer when you’re writing" and that’s how I have modeled my career as an artist and that's how I try to maintain my studio practice.
Charles Bukowski woodcut