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Serigraphy, Celebrities, and Joe Petro III

We revisit Kentucky printmaker Joe Petro III, a talented artist whose screen-printing skills have attracted attention from a wide variety of personalities.

It began with an Internet search for something to make me laugh. A few clicks later, I found myself on a Website featuring screen prints by Jonathan Winters, seminal funny man of the Boomer generation. I vaguely recalled that Winters had gone to art school, but I'd never known of his screen-printing connection. Because my own background included time in the screen-printing industry, I decided to investigate further.

As I began researching Winters' art career and its intersection with screen printing, I discovered that author Kurt Vonnegut, the "Mark Twain" of the Boomer generation, had screen-printing connections as well. And two more mouse clicks yielded a link to screen-printed illustrations by Ralph Steadman, the "Gonzo" artist who earned notoriety for his illustrations in Hunter S. Thompson's novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

The common denominator among all three of these individuals isn't just serigraphy, it's the serigraphy of Joe Petro III, a Kentucky printmaker and artist whose work was the focus of an earlier article in this magazine ("Joe Petro III: A Printmaker of Many Interests," by Craig Latscha, Screen Printing, Dec. 1990, p. 107). In that article, readers learned about Petro's introduction to fine arts and serigraphy and saw a collection of the artist's brightly colored original works, including pieces commissioned by the Iams Corp. and Greenpeace. In the years since that first article, Petro's talent has continued attracting prestigious clients, and today, he not only sells art to high-profile personalities, but he also works with many of them to bring their own art to life through serigraphy (Figure 1).

In the beginning

Joe Petro got interested in screen printing back in high school. The son of an artist, Petro liked the idea of printmaking and producing multiples copies of a design. In addition to screen printing, he tried various kinds of etching--intaglio, engraving, and aquatint--but he found that etching acids were too difficult to work with. "The process wasn't as free form as screen printing," explains Petro. "You can't get the color and the blend variation." Eventually screen printing won his heart, and for Petro, it became a way of life. In his early career as a serigrapher, his biggest obstacle was the lack of a real studio. "I originally started printing in the bathroom, then moved to the kitchen, then to the living room," he says in an unhurried baritone voice. "Drying racks were originally a couch."

In 1980, Petro opened his first studio in downtown Lexington, KY. "My studio was like 16 x 16 ft, and I had it for 15 years," he says. "It was basically a 4 x 8-ft. print table in the middle of a room with drying racks behind me." Today, he enjoys a more spacious 30 x 50-ft. area with a 17-ft ceiling in a studio custom-built to his specifications.

Petro's process

Joe Petro uses the word "caveman" to describe his approach to serigraphy. What he means is that rather than using high-tech equipment to produce photographic separations, he favors the more manual methods of hand drawing positives and overlaying colors as he prints.

Generally, Petro starts out with a line drawing of a design (Figure 2). To form positives, he traces elements from the original onto clear acetate using opaque ink or lithographic blockout solution (for large areas of coverage, he occasionally uses hand-cut Rubylith film). To maintain control over color-to-color registration, Petro works on one image element at a time and builds the separations for each element progressively. "I keep overlaying the piece and then just start printing," he says.

The result is a more artistic interpretation than scientific reproduction. For example, many of his works involve complex color blends in which more than one ink color is printed through the screen at the same time. Petro developed the unique blending technique, which has become one of the signatures of his artistic style. He explains that the colors do not blend identically throughout a series: "The blend will gradually spread, and you might get three or four prints and then take out the screen and reblend the colors. If you reverse blends and just keep blending, it will give depth to the piece and shadowing." The result is a powerful three-dimensional effect on a flat piece of paper (Figure 3).

Three decades of experience have given Petro the necessary background to understand what kinds of effects can be created with this raw style. And he's not afraid of experimenting to find new effects. "You might hand cut part of the image and then draw the other part with opaque on acetate and combine the two, which can give you a very sharp edge with very loose brush work and splatters," he says. "You can do almost anything with screen printing to get the effects you want, which is kind of fun. And sometimes mistakes work out pretty well."

Petro prefers printing on a textured, rather than smooth, paper. "It's usually 290-gram, machine-made, cotton Coventry rag," he explains. "It has a pretty sturdy, hard finish--not smooth. I don't like the real smooth gloss finish because the ink is going to be mottled a little. I prefer it soaking into and not sitting on top of the paper. A lot of early screen prints I've seen from the '60s, '70s, and early '80s crack when they use gloss poster and the ink sits on top of the paper. I like to stain the paper."

Rather than butt register his colors, Petro prefers to overlap his inks by 1/16-1/32 in. "That way you use the white paper underneath, which makes the color brighter," he says. "If you're out looking at a tree or a fence or anything, there's always an outline. I use that outline as basically another color when you've got the overlapping of two colors."

A lot of serigraphers overprint colors to achieve color variation, but Petro feels this approach builds up too much ink. "It'll quilt the ink together," he says. To get the soft, consistent finish he desires, he prints each color directly onto the paper, rather than on top of previously printed colors.

Petro uses standard, solvent-based poster screen-printing inks. From a small palette of basic ink colors, he blends a wide variety of printing colors. Sometimes, he also mixes a clear varnish into the inks to make the work child proof and scuff resistant. Over time, he's learned how much thinner or retarder should be added to each color to optimize its printability. He says, "Through trial and error, I found that some colors don't print as well as others due to the pigment used."

His eight screens are 4 x 6 ft in size and stretched with multifilament mesh. "It seems to work, and I can get pretty good details," he states. The larger screens give him a sense of freedom, enabling him to put one, two, three, or even four parts of an image onto one screen. His typical print sizes range from 4 x 5 to 38 x 50 in. With small designs, Petro may put the whole print on one screen, while larger prints may require several screens.

Petro still relies on the same screen-printing press he's used since opening his first studio. It consists of a 4 x 8-ft print table and screen holder with a manual one-armed squeegee carriage. "It's marine plywood and I don't need a vacuum," he says. "Most of my equipment I've built for my own needs. It's just the way I like to print and am comfortable printing."

Sought-after skill

Since his first profile in Screen Printing, Petro has enjoyed a growing collection of fans and an expanding network of collaborators that include renowned authors, entertainers, and artists. The following sections highlight several of the personalities with whom he has worked:

Kurt Vonnegut Kurt Vonnegut entered the landscape of Petro's world while on a speaking tour in 1993. Vonnegut was to speak at Midway College, ten miles outside Lexington. "I grew up reading Kurt's work in high school, just like everybody, and a friend of mine here in town ended up getting Kurt to come to the college to speak for a fundraiser," recalls Petro. "We came up with the idea of doing some prints for the college, and it just grew from that. Kurt had done a few lithographs earlier, and he's been painting for 34 years, so we got along."

Vonnegut's first use of the screen-printing process was for an edition featuring his quintessential self-portrait, a limited edition created and signed with his characteristic flair. The edition was donated to assist Midway College in their fundraiser for a new library building. Since then, Petro has worked with Vonnegut on many other pieces, including the print shown in Figure 4. "I don't know how many images we've got, but I'm compiling the catalog right now," says Petro. "We've collaborated on at least 200."

Vonnegut, like Petro, came from a family that enjoyed making art. "My father was a painter and so was my grandfather," says Vonnegut from his New York home. In his first collaboration with Petro, he made the acetate positives and the screen printer did his magic. He says the limited edition was a success, "so we kept on going...and here we are."

The collaborative printmaking efforts have been coordinated in a variety of ways. Frequently, Vonnegut just sends positives and Petro makes the screens and prints the editions alone. But occasionally, the influential author has been present for the performance.

Vonnegut's description of Petro at work is evocative: "In a way it's very physical. He moves around, and there's all kinds of stuff for his hands to do, a lot of movement. It's dance."

Jonathan Winters Jonathan Winters may be best known for his antics as a comedian and performer, but his original career path started at an art institute in his hometown of Dayton, OH after he returned from service in the Marine Corps during World War II. Art school is the best thing that ever happened to me," says Winters. "I was really doing what I wanted to do."

With his sense of humor, it may have been inevitable that Winters ended up in the entertainment industry. However, during his private time, he continued to indulge in his passion for painting, reflecting his talent and singular style in a wide range of works.

Winters first crossed paths with Petro through his son, Jay, who met Petro while he was exhibiting his serigraphs on the West Coast. After getting to know one another, Petro and Winters decided to collaborate on several editions based on Winters' original paintings.

Although he finds serigraphy fascinating, Winters prefers to leave printmaking to Petro and concentrate on his skills as a painter. "I don't have to tell you, but for a guy who is working in acrylics on canvas, [screen printing] is an entirely different field," says Winters. "Lotta' work, long hours...one color laid on another, on another. So I kind of backed off from Joe, and said 'Let's go in a few different directions.' I'm certainly fascinated by the process and really enjoy what people have done with screen work, but in the long pull, it's not my cup of tea. I don't have the patience for that."

Since their first meeting, Petro has been to Winters' studio, where the two worked together to select which Winters paintings to turn into editions and determine the treatment each of them would get. Between other projects, Petro has managed to reproduce several of Winters' works as limited-edition prints, beginning with "Hung Up On Strange Fruit," which appears on the cover of Winters' book, Hangups (Figure 5).

Ralph Steadman Petro had corresponded with artist Ralph Steadman for years before they ever met. The two first came face to face in 1993, when Steadman and his wife, Anna, who live in Kent, England, were traveling in the US. Upon arriving at the airport in Cincinnati (about 80 miles from Lexington), Steadman decided to give Joe a call. Petro, who was minutes from departing for Nashville, immediately altered his plans and told Steadman, "I'll come and get you." Petro and Steadman have been good friends ever since.

Steadman recounts that first meeting: "Joe said, 'Would you like to do a print with me?' and I said, 'Well, what should we do?' He said, 'I'd like to see you do something from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.' So I did 'Bats Over Barstow,' from cold, on a sheet of acetate. That was the first thing we did. We went and printed in his little studio downtown, down on Main Street." With a laugh he added, "It was so small we nearly got ruptured every time we tried to get past the two tables he had in there." It was the first of many editions on which the pair would work together.

As for a favorite collaboration, Steadman says, "I think probably when we did 'Lizard Lounge' together, just to see the colors go down, trying to make it work. It was big. Huge. That one to me is one of the best." A sample of "Lizard Lounge" is shown in Figure 6.

In May 1995, Steadman returned to the US to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the first Thompson/Steadman collaboration. On Derby Day, May 6, 1995, Thompson and Steadman signed 77 impressions of an image called "The Sheriff," which had been printed by Petro. The signing took place on the trunk of a white Cadillac at Thompson's Owl Farm near Woody Creek, CO between shooting sessions (that's shooting, as in guns). Thompson mixed and served Mint Juleps, in memory of his "old Kentucky home," Louisville.

Well-earned respect

Since Petro's last appearance in these pages, his work has been featured on 60 Minutes, Bay Watch, The X-Files, Murphy Brown, Undercover, Seinfield, ABC News, NBC News, CBS News, CNN, and too many other places to list. While his name may not yet be on the average person's celebrity list, a lot of celebrities now have Petro on their list.

Although technical mastery of his craft is a big reason why Petro's talents are in such high demand, Steadman attributes it to another of Petro's qualities. "Let me tell you, he's got a terrific talent for engaging the trust of the most diverse number of very well known people--you know, Rauschenberg, Adams, Rosenquist, Christo.... Kurt Vonnegut's a very good friend of his, and so is Jimmy Carter." Steadman continues, saying, "He's so likable. That's his strong point, bless his heart. He's a good man."

The biggest challenge Petro faces right now is getting everything done because he has more to do than there is time. The self-taught artist learned through experimentation and developed an outside-the-box style that he plays down as a throwback. But those who know him and his work readily see a maturity and sensibility of style that is very cutting edge.

Author's note: To learn more about artistic endeavors of the individuals presented in this article, visit the following Websites: www.joepetro.com, www.sideshow-art.com, www.vonnegut.com, www.jonathanwinters.com, and www.ralphsteadman.com.

About the author

Ed Newman is a freelance writer and marketing-communications specialist whose background includes positions with Amsoil, Inc. and The Chromaline Corp. Based in Duluth, MN, he has written more than 200 articles for publications serving a variety of industries. Newman also is an award-winning author of fictional work.

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