A Season of Stuff: messy work surfaces

A Season of Stuff is a writing challenge that I will be doing for the length of Spring 2016.  The plan – to pick some object from within my personal possessions each day and write about it – its history, its significance, etc.  Come on in – check out my stuff.


the basement woodworking/project area


the upstairs screenprinting/project area

We spent a little time tonight checking out some of the open studio events that were part of the FULLTIMEPGH festival of local creative types.  We only got to check out two studios – Garbella and Sapling Press.  It’s always inspiring to get into other people’s spaces, see how they set up there studios and get a closer look at the work they do.

I’ve been friends with Amy of Garbella for awhile now and I’ve missed out on checking out her studio/storefront space multiple times now.  Her band Reign Check is playing the show that i’ve been silkscreening flyers for, so it doubled as a good excuse to get down there and give her a short stack of flyers.  Took a little time to talk process with her and she showed me the exposure unit she uses to burn her screens (very similar to the one I talked about the other day) and admitted to many years of burning screens with a single lightbulb as well.


Final 3-layer version of the flyer

After leaving Garbella we shot across Lawrenceville to Sapling Press, which is primarily a letterpress studio.  Really lovely old machines.  Ellery (who we are babysitting for the weekend) got to roll out a print on one of the machines with some help from Emma.  Pretty cool.  Upstairs from the studio is the offices of Bootstrap design where they were hosting the Pittsburgh Poster Show portion of the event.  Some fun poster designs in the show but the clear winner for me was this Strawberry Luna “City of Bridges” diptych.

The thing that struck me about all of these spaces was how clean and organized they were.  Of course they might just have been tidied up for this specific affair, but the general evidence seemed to indicate that these are workshops that are regularly well organized.  It’s hard at times like this not to feel a bit embarrassed about the state of my work areas.  In order to do my recent prints of these flyers, I had to remove stacks of materials from the work surface and  push things to the side.  The downstairs woodworking area looks like an avalanche.  I struggle with this; what does it mean about my commitment to my work?  What does it say about my work ethic?  I know some people say a messy work area indicates a creative mind, but maybe its just laziness.

I think this relates to a couple of my other struggles.  First is the life of a generalist.  I can do a lot of things ok – construction, woodworking, metalworking, silkscreening, drawing, drumming, etc, but I’ve never committed enough time to any one creative pursuit in order to really conquer it.  In some ways I feel this shows a lack of focus on my part, but in another way it shows a curious mind.  At nearly 42 years of age i’m not sure how likely I am to change these patterns, but at revolving intervals I try.  I get a little more serious about things – I build a proper silkscreening exposure unit, for example – and learn new skills, but then something new catches my eye and i’m off to a different thing.

Another struggle that’s been on my mind as I work on my piece for the Sidewall Project is with this feeling that i’m not a “real artist”, whatever that means.  My art leans heavily towards the “folk art” end of the spectrum.  It is not “fine art” (lots of quotes getting thrown around here).  Sometimes it just feels corny and weird and what’s the point, right? Who likes this stuff?  Who wants this stuff?  But apparently some people do get enjoyment out of it and probably more important than anything, I enjoy the process of creating and making, so of course there is some value in it.  But sometimes I just wish I was a “better” artist and I know that probably if I put the ol’ nose to the grindstone I could get better and be a more impressive artist, but once again, that’s not my nature.  I have a way.  I have a style and maybe I should just embrace that, right?

But mostly this is all to say: Keep making.  Keep doing.  Go check out other peoples’ creative spaces when you get a chance.  Get inspired.  Learn a new thing or two.  Learn how to do an old thing a little bit better.  Think about what you do.  Dwell on it occasionally, but not for too long.  Make some more stuff.  Share with friends.


A Season of Stuff: one for the manor

A Season of Stuff is a writing challenge that I will be doing for the length of Spring 2016.  The plan – to pick some object from within my personal possessions each day and write about it – its history, its significance, etc.  Come on in – check out my stuff.


I think upon buying our house Emma and I knew that it would eventually have a name.  We didn’t rush to give it a name; you don’t want to force these things.  But somewhere along the way, like every good punk house (and we do consider it a punk house, read my thoughts on that in the “Drag Me Home” compilation/zine), it ended up with one: Torley Manor.

But where did the name come from?  I don’t really remember how it came about.  Clearly the first half of the name is derived from the street that our house is on, but why manor?  I can only guess that I was inspired by Calgary Manor, one of the punk houses that Social Distortion/Youth Brigade end up at in Another State of Mind.  The residents described themselves as “one big happy family” and in the movie they cooked up a huge meal for the bands and all the local punks.  It always seemed like such a great example of punk community.  Of course they also say “Most of the punks come party here”, which does not accurately describe our house, but whatever.  Anyway, I don’t recall pulling that out as a reference when the name “Torley Manor” came about, but it stands out in my head as a possible influence.

*  *  *

Almost every year our friend Bethany goes off to “ceramics camp”, a weeklong getaway where she gets away and does pottery/ceramics.  Some years Eric the Red (her partner) goes along with her.  Several years after we bought the house and after the Torley Manor name was well established he went along to ceramics camp and that year he made us this ceramic nameplate.  It’s just a slab of clay with stamped in letters and three owl designs (they are not what they seem!) stamped in the corners.  A couple mounting holes and glazed up.  Nothing fancy but a nice addition to the house from a friend.  It’s been hanging in our kitchen ever since.

A Season of Stuff: poundin’ iron

A Season of Stuff is a writing challenge that I will be doing for the length of Spring 2016.  The plan – to pick some object from within my personal possessions each day and write about it – its history, its significance, etc.  Come on in – check out my stuff.


From 2006 through the beginning of 2012 I worked for a company called Red Star Ironworks, a small local custom ornamental ironwork company.  I was the “office manager”, working in the office handling phone calls, finances, ordering, scheduling, human resources, etc.  Basically I did a bit of everything, including being called into service to help carry heavy pieces of ironwork, help do the occasional installation, and other shop related work.  For the most part I stayed out of the shop but the great thing was that my boss was totally cool with me using the tools there and encouraged me to learn some basic blacksmithing and welding skills.

One of the first times I got to work in the shop was when Red Star was supposed to make a handful of awards for Bike Pgh, an organization we had worked with extensively in building their iconic Three Rivers bikeracks.  My boss Peter kept putting it off until they were almost due and finally it was coming down to when they needed them.  I told him “We need to get these things done.  We’re gonna come into the shop at night and you’re going to show me some skills and we’re gonna knock these things out.”   And we did, making a handful of trophies that were tiny versions of the Three Rivers bikerack.  Bike Pgh still gives these as awards but the newer ones look like they are just lasercut out of sheet metal.  That original batch were full-on blacksmithed, so if you have one of those, consider yourself extra lucky.

One of the projects that I wanted to do when I started was to build my own new railing for the front steps of our house.  I drew up a design and made a full-size drawing of it.  I spent a couple nights at the shop with Peter and he showed me a little of what was necessary to get the railing built.  I bent some of the necessary pieces, did some cutting and then those pieces would sit in the back of the office for years and never get completed.  Looking back on it, that’s probably fine because the design was a little overdone.

During one other nighttime session when I was trying to learn some skills, I got to work on some forge work, which means getting the steel red hot in the forge and then manipulating the steel either by bending it or hammering it.  The photo above is one of the pieces I worked on that night.  It has no specific function but it was my first time really heating up a piece of steel and banging it into a shape.  It now hangs out by our front door and is used as a sometimes doorstop.


Over the coming years I would get to learn a lot more about working with metal culminating in my largest project – a run of 100+ of these keystone coathooks.  The original batch were all hand cut out of steel bar, but the major run of about 100 of these were lazer-cut out of sheet metal.  The final assembly of the hooks still required some countersinking of the holes using a drill press, smoothing the sharp edges off using an angle grinder and then welding the hook and back piece together using a MIG welder.

Angle grinders are scary.  I’ve worked with lots of power tools over the years – circular saws, table saws, nailguns, etc, but angle grinders are probably the scariest thing i’ve ever used.  I had the displeasure of seeing a couple angle grinder accidents during my time at Red Star, including seeing one guy take a grinding wheel to the face.  Not pleasant.  Luckily I kept my head about me and had no major accidents to my name.

Welding is a pretty fun skill to learn.  It takes a bit of time but there is a certain meditative nature that comes with it once you get in the groove.  At the end of doing 100+ of these hooks, I felt like I finally was getting the feel for it, just in time to never use the skill again probably.

Unfortunately since leaving that job I no longer have access to these tools and metalworking is not something that most of us can set up and do in our own home.  Chances are my metalworking days are done, but if you get the chance to do some blacksmithing or welding, I definitely recommend giving it a shot.



A Season of Stuff: collected silkscreening supplies

A Season of Stuff is a writing challenge that I will be doing for the length of Spring 2016.  The plan – to pick some object from within my personal possessions each day and write about it – its history, its significance, etc.  Come on in – check out my stuff.


The first time I silkscreened was in 7th grade shop class (it might have been 8th grade).  It was at the height of the Op/Gotcha/whatever surf-related clothing trend, so I made a design that was this dude holding a surfboard.  It wasn’t the type of silkscreening where you use a photosensitive emulsion to expose your image; it was the type where you had a film that you cut out your design and adhered it to the screen.  Thus my design was really simple, but I remember that project fondly.

I wouldn’t silkscreen again until college, sophomore year.  I feel like at this time every other punk rock fanzine had a “how-to” article on how to do silkscreening at home.  I invested in a Speedball silkscreening starter kit, a 150-watt lightbulb, an aluminum pie plate and I was off on decade+ journey of piss-poor silkscreening, doing a bunch of patches and t-shirts for my bands, flyers for shows, some record covers, etc.

In 2009, after almost 15 years of half-assing my silkscreening, I had decided to try to become a bit better at it.  In an attempt to do so I took on doing a series of art prints that were multi-color.  In the past I had mainly stuck to single color prints or a couple multi-color prints where the registration was not significantly important.


One of my first multi-color art prints, made for Roboto’s 10th anniversary, November 2009

Over the coming years I would do a handful of 3-color art prints, sell silkscreened prints and other goodies at the local I Made It Market craft fairs and even create an Etsy shop.  During this period I would build a proper exposure unit to allow me to expose a screen in a matter of 2-3 minutes instead of futzing around with exposing a screen with a single 150-watt bulb for half a hour or so.  It’s amazing what having “proper” equipment will do.  The percentage of times that I need to re-burn a screen because it wasn’t properly exposed has been greatly reduced with building that unit.

Which brings me to my “stuff” for the day.  Over the years my interest in silkscreening has meant that i’ve adopted various silkscreening supplies from the people in my life.  Before heading off to California, Nathan Martin gave me a bunch of his silkscreens, including several that still had Creation is Crucifixion designs on them.  Friends who bought screens for one specific project would often give me them after they were done using it.  And shortly after I started doing these art prints, my father-in-law gave me a bunch of his old silkscreening supplies that he hadn’t used in some time.

Among these supplies were a bunch of abnormal size frames – mostly a bunch of smaller ones and a few “full-size” ones.  One that really caught my eye was the one in the top photo which has a screen size of about 10″ tall by maybe 3′ wide.  It presented a different layout that I wasn’t used to and I was eager to try to use it for something.

Shortly after getting the frame, my friend Jude asked me to be part of an art show dealing with mountaintop removal coal mining.  I decided to use this frame to make my print.  So I made a design that was short and wide of a bulldozer pushing along the lyrics to the song “They Can’t Put It Back”.

At this point I still hadn’t built my proper exposure unit, so to expose this screen I had to get creative.  For those unfamiliar, “burning” a silkscreen involves coating it in a photosensitive goop, letting it dry and then exposing it to light with a positive transparency of your image on top of the screen.  The areas of the screen that are exposed to the light react and become hardened while the areas of the screen hidden by the blacked out areas of the transparency don’t react and should wash out when rinsed with water.

Of course all of this relies on you having the proper amount of light at the right distance for the right amount of time.  Doing this with the gutter-tech setup of a single 150-watt lightbulb in the middle of the image often means that the middle of the image could get overexposed while the edges would get underexposed, meaning you couldn’t wash out the middle of the image while they sides of the screen might all wash out.  To do this long image, I tried setting up a double lightbulb exposure.  Of course this just meant that instead of a single hotspot, I had two hotspots.

In an attempt to get this screen properly burned, I burned and re-burned it at least a dozen times.  I nearly found my breaking point.  Seriously, I became so pissed, but eventually I would get a burn that I found acceptable and here is the final print:


Some of the text was still a bit sketchy but it worked with the overall feel of the print.  But this was the process that made me realize that if I wanted to be at all serious about doing silkscreening in my own home, I was going to have to upgrade my equipment and make a proper exposure unit (the key to my exposure unit is a handful of F20T12BL fluorescent blacklights).

I don’t do as much silkscreening these days as I did from 2009-2012 or so, but I’m still at it.  This week I’ve busted out this trusty old short and wide frame to use to make some flyers for the show i’m doing on May 13th.  Nothing too fancy on the design front this time around, but I plan to try out some process of multiple layers of the same print to get some interesting effects.  First layer went down tonight.  More shots as they come together.


A Season of Stuff: things that rattle loose

A Season of Stuff is a writing challenge that I will be doing for the length of Spring 2016.  The plan – to pick some object from within my personal possessions each day and write about it – its history, its significance, etc.  Come on in – check out my stuff.


I took a few days off to visit family, see the Mountain Goats, ride bikes in the woods, and eat burritos and donuts.  It was a damn fine weekend.  Too damn nice out to worry about making up for those days, just picking up where I left off.

* * *

In 2004 Emma and I bought our house.  Prior to that I was living in  Wilkinsburg and Emma and our friend Andy were living in  Bloomfield. When Emma and I got the house, we invited Andy to live with us.  He took us up on the offer and lived in our attic for the next several yearas.

Over that first year we would find lots of little treasures around the property.  Firecrackers under the linoleum in the middle room, green army men and marbles in the garden, old newspapers in the walls.  Some of these treasures have gotten trashed, others are on display around the house.

In 2005 Andy graduated from Pitt and we went about throwing a graduation party for him at the house.  Unbeknownst to him, we arranged for one of his favorite bands at the time, Des Ark, to come up and play a set at the house.   The band at that time were a two-piece, guitar and drums, and the members Aimee and Tim lived in North Carolina.  I’m not sure how we convinced them to come up for one unpaid show, but they did it, literally driving up from North Carolina, playing, spending the night and then driving home.  One of those great punk rock experiences where you think “why not ask?” and then the person you ask apparently thinks “why not do it?” and before you know it your roommate is completely surprised when some NC punks show up and start setting up their gear in your basement.

Anyhow, as I stood in the back of the basement while Des Ark played, I suddenly felt a light *bonk* on my head.  I look down to see this tiny section of Lincoln Log laying on the floor at my feet.  It had apparently been sitting on top of the heating duct above my head and the thunderous punk rock shook it loose.  Another little hidden treasure from the house that I never would have expected to be there.

I picked it up and after Des Ark finished playing, I placed the Lincoln Log back on top of the heating vent where it sits to this day. Some hidden treasures deserve to stay hidden.

A Season of Stuff: The game of life

A Season of Stuff is a writing challenge that I will be doing for the length of Spring 2016.  The plan – to pick some object from within my personal possessions each day and write about it – its history, its significance, etc.  Come on in – check out my stuff.


I don’t think I took any board games along with me my freshman year of college.  But starting my sophomore year, once I was in something of a proper apartment, I slowly began taking the board games out of my parents’ house and back with me to college.  I think the first two to make their way with me were Trouble (with the pop-o-matic bubble) and The Game of Life.  By this point I think I have all of our better games from when we were kids – our original Monopoly, Payday, Connect Four.

I really like Life because it fits nicely between the simplicity of something like Trouble (or Sorry or any of those other simple roll and move forward games) and the complications of Monopoly.  Yes, there are a lot of rules and things to remember, but if you forget to do some of the things, you can still play the game and have fun.  But you can also be a sneaky dick and remind people of the rules when it benefits you or vice versa.  And it’s got a defined beginning and end – none of this neverending game nonsense of Monopoly or Payday.  People don’t get angry like they do over Risk, Monopoly or fuckin’ Uno.

Its largely a game of luck (and the ability to actually spin that wheel that always seems to cause lots of people trouble), but there’s enough illusions of choice (buy insurance?  buy stock?) that it keeps things interesting.

There are lots of really out of wack dollar amounts on the board too.  Spend $30,000 on advertising your business, but then a roll later you’re buying a house for $15,000?

And there’s dumb shit on there like “Ram iceberg with yacht.  Get rich selling icecubes. Collect $100,000.” (paraphrased, not looking at the board right now).

Doing some quick research,  it looks like we have the 1978 version of the game.  Look at that box cover.  Don’t those people just scream 1978?

Fun thing about this box is that during its time residing in my sophomore/junior year apartment (the aforementioned F7), a scrawled note was added to the upper corner. Clearly the writing is that of my old roommate Leon Lutz.  The note reads “Bleed.  Ebullition” with a date and phone number listed.  Clearly Leon taking notes for a show that he was promoting for the Philadelphia band Bleed on Ebullition Records.  Ahhh the boundaries of property in the communal punk house.


Really digging the Mondrian-like layout of this photo

So  come on over and play The Game of Life sometime.  I’m the orange car.

A Season of Stuff: those punk stickers you never knew where to put

A Season of Stuff is a writing challenge that I will be doing for the length of Spring 2016.  The plan – to pick some object from within my personal possessions each day and write about it – its history, its significance, etc.  Come on in – check out my stuff.


In 2002 my old band He Taught Me Lies went on our first tour with our friends’ band Virginia Black Lung. VBL were a 6-person powerhouse of noise – cynical, caustic, political, loud.  On that tour they had these “Ashamed to be an American” sticker.  This was at the height of post-9/11 jingoism and it was a bold statement to make.  Recently I pulled out their 7″ and discovered I still had a copy of this sticker.

While i’d really like to write about my thoughts on pride and shame, my brains too scattered to get into that today.

But with Trump in town today this sticker seemed like it had an apt message to share.

So I’m just going to leave this here.  Discuss among yourselves.