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Art People: Steve Walters's Screwball genius

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In the early 90s Screwball Press founder Steve Walters was just another underemployed guy about town, working random jobs, hanging out at Lounge Ax, and trying his hand at comic art and other media. "I had friends in bands and probably would have been in a band, but I didn't have any musical talent," says Walters, though he did briefly play bass for Yum Yum and Number One Cup ("I was horrible"). Instead, he started creating vivid hand-printed posters and record jackets for local bands and, in the process, "made myself useful to the scene."

"Steve is like the godfather of screen-printed rock 'n' roll posters in Chicago," says Mike Timble, curator of the exhibit "Fucking Genius, Part 1," which opens this weekend. "He started it all, and almost everybody who's done work in Chicago has come through Screwball or been influenced by Screwball Press." The show features a few hundred examples of Walters's work from 1991 to the present. "Fucking Genius, Part 2" opens in mid-May and will spotlight Walters's protege Jay Ryan, who plays bass in Dianogah and runs a print shop called the Bird Machine.

Walters never studied art formally, but growing up in Hinsdale he watched his grandfather, an artist, operate an offset press in his basement. He moved to Chicago in 1986 after graduating from the University of Iowa. "I lived pretty close to an art store and would buy pastels and play with them for a week and a half, and buy oil paints the next time and play with those," he says. After experimenting with wood-block printing and hand-coloring some Xeroxed flyers he bought a screen-printing kit and started using clip art and images from old Life magazines. "It took a little while of doing it until I figured how much I liked it--it was a kind of gradual process," he says. "I got so much positive feedback it spurred me to keep going." He called his venture Screwball "because it was so preposterous for me to have my own business. I had no idea what I was doing artistically or in terms of printing."

Soon he was producing posters, T-shirts, and album sleeves for Ajax Records and bigger local bands like Shellac, the Coctails, and the Handsome Family, at times turning out a hundred prints a day. His posters were featured prominently in the 2000 film High Fidelity, and pieces for shows by Wilco, Pavement, and other big-name bands have fetched as much as $200 on eBay. Last year he designed coffee mugs for a WBEZ pledge drive, and his work will be showcased in Paul Grushkin and Dennis King's forthcoming book The Art of Modern Rock. But he doesn't have a car, and uses a 1994 Power Mac for typesetting. He didn't have an e-mail account until last year; he didn't get a computer until last week. "He is not egotistical, maybe to his detriment," says Timble, who's been friends with him for years. "Even though he's one of the most prolific poster artists in the country, a lot of people don't know him. I think he'd be making craploads of money for his work but he chronically undercharges people."

Walters, who's now 41 and the father of two, says he didn't start to take himself seriously as an artist and designer until a couple years ago, when he started using clip art and his own drawings to make prints. Recently he created and posted a series of anti-Bush graphics around town. One depicts the president inside a bottle of poison held by a skeletal hand; in another Bush has the word "Lies" plastered over his mouth. "In Chicago I'm preaching to the converted, but people will still put nasty messages on them," he says. The project is part of an effort to "do more prints for the sake of printing."

Last year he moved Screwball from his Rogers Park apartment to his current digs in the basement of Acme Art Works in Humboldt Park, and started offering lessons under the informal moniker Screwball Academy. He currently has about 35 artists, band members, and students using the 1,000-square-foot facility at different times, and next month he plans to open a satellite shop in the basement of Propaganda Screen Printing's new location in Wicker Park. He'll offer more classes there. "I'm trying to get people in bands to make their own posters," he says. "It's an extension of [the Minutemen's] D. Boon's 'band in every garage' ideal--I'd like for there to be a printer in every band."

His posters--and some dartboards with Bush's face on them--will be for sale at "Fucking Genius, Part 1," which opens Friday, April 9, and runs through May 16 at Propaganda, 1418 N. Milwaukee. Prices range from $25 to $100. There'll be a free reception from 6 to 10 PM on Friday with music by 36 Invisibles and Headache City in the basement. On Saturday from noon to 6 there'll be a "spring cleaning" sale of posters and prints priced around $5 each; Walters will give a printmaking demonstration and lead an informal Q & A. Call 773-395-8337.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.

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