Concert art has been a large facet of the Phish scene for quite some time, as legions of fans have transformed into collectors who buy, sell and trade show posters. While this hobby, often bordering on obsession, once centered on official posters sold at the merch stands, in the past few years, more and more independent artists have been issuing their own print runs for shows. And, as a result, unofficial prints have found a legitimate niche in the collecting community. AJ Masthay, one of the leading independent Phish artists, has come into his own since the band has returned in this era, transforming his art into sought after collectibles with a style distinctly his own. The two prints AJ made for the band’s Hampton reunion, in his own words, “represented a turning point” for his work and took his art to “a new level.” Since then, his prints have become favorites of collectors for their bold, engaging imagery and vibrant colors schemes. I recently caught up AJ to talk about his history as an artist, the inspiration behind his work, and the current state of affairs at Masthay Studios.
MM: So, what came first, Phish or art?
AJM: Art came way before Phish—hell, my parents still have my kindergarten show & tell drawings of Spiderman! I was always the quintessential “art geek” throughout school, no interest in sports, proms, [or the more popular activities.] That’s probably one of the reasons I eventually clicked with heads and the counterculture surrounding the Grateful Dead and then Phish.
MM: Growing up, who were artists that you admired and who influenced your early vision?
AJM: When in art school getting my degree, I was heavily influenced by the old Italian Renaissance masters. I’ll never forget my first trip to Italy and just being blown away by Michelangelo’s slaves, unreal. My mentor at that time was a printmaker named Fred Wessel, and he really is the one who spurred on my love of prints and printmaking. As I became more interested in concert posters, I’d say my main influences were the works of Jeff Wood, Stanley Mouse and, of course, Jim Pollock.
MM: Talk a little bit about how you got into printing concert posters.
AJM: Well, I had to pay for going on tour somehow, right? I’m no good at making veggie burritos or French bread pizza, so it made sense to try to sell some artwork on the lots to help get me to the next shows. My absolute first experience selling on the lot was at the Lemonwheel. I had done a couple charcoal drawings of Jerry and made cheap photocopies of them to sell. Sure enough, they did pretty well at $5 a pop, and made me think maybe I had something here.
Fresh out of college I still had access to my university’s printshop, so I’d sneak in there and crank out 50 or so prints for upcoming shows to sell on the lots. Next thing I knew I found my own press and was able to set up my own humble printshop. I think the first works I created specific to the scene were back on TAB tour in 2001. These were small editions done on an etching press. They were well received and things just kind of snowballed from there.
MM: Your prints have gained popularity for their bold imagery, thick use of paint, and vibrant colors. Explain a little how you’re vision and style has developed.
AJM: I’ve always loved dynamic compositions when it comes to artwork, I guess that’s where a lot of the bold imagery comes from. I believe it’s important to create a lot of depth in a print, places where the viewer can crawl into the image and get lost. I also love breaking the borders of an image, again, making parts of the print appear to jump off the page.
The vibrant colors come from my traditional printmaking background and preference for oil based inks over water. I often get comments about the “smell” of opening a fresh tube from my studio, which is due to the oil based inks. Also the fact that I layer my inks on the paper gives the colors more depth and after enough layers, a really nice glossy sheen that you don’t typically find on other prints.
MM: Have you been hired to do official work for any bands?
AJM: Absolutely. Most notably, over the past year, would be the multiple editions I’ve done for Umphrey’s McGee and Widespread Panic. In all likelihood, the lot art will become a thing of the past as my schedule becomes busier with the official work.
MM: How did those jobs come about?
AJM: I know the art director from Umphrey’s was a good friend of one of my biggest supporters. He introduced her to my work and the band approached me to do their 12/30/09 print at the Aragon Ballroom. I guess they liked my style; since then I’ve done prints for them at Red Rocks, Minneapolis, Madison, NYC, Boston, Philly, and a full triptych for their last New Year’s Run at the Riviera in Chicago.
Widespread learned about my work through Jeff Wood. They had asked him to recommend some new artists and he turned them on to me. Thanks Jeff!
MM: Explain the process of making a print for people who might not understand.
AJM: The majority of my works are reduction relief prints, also known as “suicide prints.” Each color in a print is created by carving a sheet of linoleum—envision a giant rubber stamp. But because I layer my colors on top of each other and do multiple carvings on the same plate, the plates, themselves, are destroyed in the creation process, hence [the term] “suicide prints.” What this also means is that there will never be any second editions of my work because the plates do not exists by the end of the printing process.
While creating last year’s Summer Camp Festival print, I made a nice little process page on my website that explains the process with tons of photos. Check it out for a better understanding.
MM: These days, how do you decide what Phish shows to make prints for?
AJM: I can’t say there is much rhyme or reason to it. I guess it’s based mostly upon what venues or locations I’m interested in or at least get my juices going. Nine times out of ten these are the shows I’ll be hitting on a tour, but not always.
MM: How do you get your inspiration for your prints? Do you consider location and Phish history? What type of things factor in?
AJM: I’ve learned that inspiration can come from any direction, usually when you least expect it. I have a running note on my iPhone entitled “Print Concepts” and every time something pops in my head, I force myself to stop and jot it down. I know if I don’t, it’ll be gone forever. (Damned short-term memory!) I enjoy doing prints for venues I’ve actually attended and will usually use some type of personal experience I’ve had there to work into the image. Sometimes it resonates with others, sometimes it doesn’t. Phish history can also play into an image. One specific example is my MSG prints from the last New Years Run. My first shows were the ’93 New Year’s Run with the fish tank stage. I’ve always wanted to create something around those memories and it became the basis for the underwater theme of those prints.
MM: What are your favorite Phish prints that you’ve done? Overall?
AJM: That’s a tough question, like who’s your favorite child. My two Hampton prints from 2009—the Bass Bomb and Bass Bomb II—have to be near the top, if not at the top. I think those two prints really represent a turning point in my work, where something “clicked” and my prints went to a new level. Other highlights would have to be my Telluride and Atlantic City prints from last year and the Bethel and Portsmouth prints from this current run. Telluride and Portsmouth because of their classic, dignified images, and AC and Bethel because they are just downright fun.
MM: Let’s go through your Leg One prints for this summer. What was the inspiration for each? (To purchase any prints, simply click on the image!)
AJM: I had a tough time coming up with concepts for Leg One. I pushed myself a bit outside of my comfort zone and chose all venues I’ve never been to so there was no way for me to draw from personal experience.
Bethel Woods Triptych – 5.27,28,29 : Originally I wanted to do something for Bethel based around the Furthur bus and the whole Woodstock thing, but as I worked out sketches it all felt trite and I knew it wasn’t going to work. So I thought about the fact that the whole place used to be a dairy farm, and imagined what it must have been like back in the early ‘60’s before all the hippies descended; just cows roaming around. What kind of craziness might have happened in those fields back then? Why, alien cow abductions of course…
PNC – 5.31 & 6.1: PNC was a fun one. Sometimes when I’m stuck on a venue I turn to the good ol’ Internet and see what Wikipedia has to say about the history of a city or venue. It turns out Bell Labs had a headquarters in Holmdel for many, many years. God only knows what kind of freaky experiments went on there, which got me thinking “How would a scientist explain what makes a Phish show special?”. I don’t think it’s a question that can be answered by analyzing the scene, but it sure would be fun to watch them try!
Alpharetta – 6.14 & 15: Alpharetta is what I affectionately call the “Jabba Frog.” Having never been there, I’m pretty sure there are no swamps in that part of Georgia, but to be honest, that didn’t matter to me. I wanted to make a print that had that feeling of a humid overgrown swamp lake with huge flies buzzing around and a big fat frog getting fatter off them. I enjoyed playing with the borders on this piece, almost making the flies break out of the image to escape being eaten.
Portsmouth – 6.19: Portsmouth has obvious ties to the nautical history of the town. In Connecticut, we have Mystic Seaport, where they have some of the really old, majestic tall ships, and I thought it would make the perfect image for that town. Again, I think this print has almost a vintage feel to it, something anyone could appreciate whether knowing it’s a concert poster or not. Really, one of my all time favorites.
MM: So, in regard to a possible collaboration with Phish in the future, do you know how they select artists for their official prints?
AJM: I’m not aware of what the process is, but hell yeah, I would love to do official work for my favorite band.
MM: Before signing off, any last words or anything you’d like to add about your craft?
AJM: I just really enjoy creating art. Honestly, I do it for myself. I think I’d still be drawing and printing if no one else were interested in my work. The fact that so many people appreciate it still blows my mind to this day and I appreciate the support of every person that digs my art.
If you would like to order any of AJ’s prints for only $35, head over to Masthay Studios! AJ is also offering Leg One “subscriptions” for $225, where you will get the same number for each print in the series and get them delivered all at once. Check it out…
Jam of the Day:
A throwback to Summer ’98’s second show of summer in Den Gra Hal and one of the most mind-melting sequences that dropped all season