On July 12, 1962, a neophyte rock ‘n’ roll band that billed itself as “The Rollin’ Stones” gave its first ever live performance. The gig at London’s Marquee Club must have been hastily put together, since years later most of the principals had trouble remembering who played drums. Advertisement for the show was probably limited to a few posters, which may have looked something like the letterpress prints now on display in the Brownlee O. Currey Jr. Gallery on the campus of Watkins College of Art, Design and Film.
“Paint It Black,” on exhibit through Aug. 26, was created to celebrate the 50th anniversary of rock’s most durable mega-band. The show is a collaboration between Watkins College and Nashville’s Hatch Show Print, one of America’s oldest letterpress print shops. Eleven Watkins graphic design students created the posters during a one-day workshop this summer, using a variety of image blocks from Hatch’s extensive collection.
“We’ve been doing this collaboration for a number of years now, taking about 10 to 12 students over to Hatch to spend a day,” says Steve Wilkison, an associate professor of graphic design at Watkins who organized the workshop. “It’s a rare opportunity for our students to work with someone like Jim Sherraden, the manager, designer and chief curator at Hatch.”
For the current exhibit, Sherraden created a template for the posters that featured a header along with an old black-and-white photo of a very youthful looking band (Jagger and Richards are probably no more than 20 years old). The students did the rest, decorating the posters, each of which had as its theme a specific Rolling Stones song title.
Ily Phelps captured the essence of the song “Dead Flowers,” substituting a red target bulls eye for the “o” in “flowers.” Richard Cook, meanwhile, played with the lettering in “Wild Horses,” creating a design that read like an optometrist’s eye chart – with horses spelled “SƎ5R0H.” Josh Rowe collaborated with Watkins professor Dan Brawner in “Honky Tonk Woman,” producing a delightfully suggestive design complete with red lipstick and a decorative triple-X.
During their one-day workshop, students got to experiment with some of Hatch’s antique wooden image blocks, using them to create period posters. Some of these designs, featuring roosters, pigs, cows and strawberries, were used decades ago to promote local county fairs. A few have now found their way into the “Paint It Black” show.
By far, my favorite posters in the exhibit were the free exercises, ones in which the students simply followed the dictates of their imaginations. Among these was Phelps’ terrific piece that featured her own design for a “Hatch Show Print” logo.
The skills needed to produce the fine Watkins-Hatch posters seen in “Paint It Black” have become something of a rarity. Computer graphics have all but replaced letterpress printing. But Wilkison considers traditional printing to be the new vinyl – a niche of such high quality that’s it’s bound to make at least a modest comeback. He may be right, since his analogy seems accurate. Vinyl adds a warmth to recordings that’s usually missing in the crisp but cold clarity of digital. Letterpress printing endows posters with the human touch.
IF YOU GO
What: “Paint it Black,” original letterpress posters celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Rolling Stones.
Where: Brownlee O. Currey Jr. Gallery at Watkins College of Art, Design and Film, 2298 Rosa Parks Blvd.
When: Through Aug. 26. A reception is 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 23 at the Gallery.
Admission: Free. Call (615) 383-4848 or go to www.watkins.edu.