Block printing, in its most basic form, is similar to a making a stamp—designs are carved in rubber or wood, such that you can reproduce your design, as many times as you want, on multiple surfaces. With each color of the artist’s vision, there is a layer to carve. It’s a technique that is centuries old but there are gifted artists who continue to apply this technique in fresh and interesting ways. Jon Rose is one of these artists, breathing new life into the art form today. I always like the idea of taking something traditional and flipping it on its head. And in a way, I feel like that’s what Jon Rose does with his block prints. He is the primary artist for the band Spafford. It’s no surprise, vibrant colors and bold details jump off the paper, Jon’s work perfectly illustrates the spirit of the band’s transformative tunes.
It’s not just Jon’s work but his character and reputation that has earned him the love and respect of Spafford’s fans, affectionately known as SpaffNerds. It’s more than deserved.
Jon has a kind voice and an easy way about him, even over the phone. As humble as he is
talented, Jon starts telling me about his work, and that he “depends on his wife to tell him what sucks”. A self-deprecating joke, we have that in common. I smile and breathe a sigh of relief as Jon begins to speak to me on work, family, community and love of a band.
Growing up Jon, like most of us, liked to draw and color but “wouldn’t say that he was overly artistic as a child”. It wasn’t until college, and several classes in ceramics and oil painting, that creating art took on more significance. And longer still until “prints became an idea for [Jon]”
An Interview with Jon Rose
Tour Stories: When did you get into print making for music and shows?
Jon: The actual spark to do what I do now came from a video of Jim Pollock and explaining how he landed on the medium of lino-printing. It basically boiled down to how he can come up with an image and reproduced it all by himself without needing to rely on anyone. That simplicity of reproduction made a lot of sense to me and it really was the moment where I thought this would be something fun to do as a hobby. The way it melded illustration as well as sculpting (carving) was also very satisfying.
I had another friend, Chris Fritton, who was studio director for the Western New York Book Arts Center (WNYBAC) back in Buffalo New York. The things that he was doing with letterpress simply blew my mind. Using movable shapes, letters and numbers in unconventional ways to produce images was really neat stuff. Around that same time I stumbled upon the work of David Welker, AJ Masthay, and J.C. Richard.
Tour Stories: When did you realize this was more than a hobby, but actually a big part of your life, even a career?
Jon: As far as doing this as a full-time job, that sort of happened by accident. I used to do data management & analysis work on research grants at a local University. I was in the fan art scene with Phish and making prints for shows I was going to and all was well. Around 2015… right before my second daughter was to be born I [was] in a tough position and [ended up leaving] what was essentially my dream job and go into another department because it was a full-time gig. This new situation turned out to be less than ideal … people throw the term ‘toxic workplace’ around quite a bit, [but] this was the definition of it. I had never quit a job in my life [to that point]. [However,] with the support of my wife, I left that position after 3 months (with plans to get another position within the University). [On] a Monday I handed in my resignation at 8 a.m. sharp. I went home and promptly started carving up the key line block for a print to sell for the Fare Thee Well shows up in Chicago. That print turned out to be very popular, in fact it came in 15th place for ‘Art Print Of The Year’ on expressobeans.com. Considering the artists that it was up against, it was a little overwhelming for me at the time. I ended up using the proceeds of that sale to upgrade my equipment. [Until that] point, it was all hand done and my back was suffering for it.
It all paid off. Those are the moments which Jon tells us led to even more moments, “all of that work that I did, fan-art and art prints, I really feel led [to] Spafford.”
Tour Stories: Obviously you have a relationship with Spafford, how and when did you first hear them?
Jon: Chuck (Johnson) introduced me to Spafford back in 2012 or 2013… it was a YouTube video.
(As any Spafford fan knows, a YouTube video of their live performances can make quite an impression. Sometimes that’s all it takes. It wasn’t long before Jon was at his first Spafford show and creating for the band.)
Tour Stories: Tell me about your first Spafford show.
Jon: It was February 22nd 2014 at the Sail Inn. It’s also the show I began working with Spafford. I had a moment during my first show with them during Windmill, and it sort of dawned on me that I’d be working with them. It was definitely a vision. I knew they had a tour coming up and I essentially told them after the show I’d be making prints for their tour, for cost of materials only, and if it worked out we’d go from there. We did and it did.
Those guys are such a deep well of inspiration for me to create from. I feel like as long as I listen to them I’ll never run out of ideas. I am so very thankful that they let me do what I do and have given me that trust. … I definitely recognize how special my situation is and it’s all due to the grace of the band. I love those guys and the fans and honestly I’m just trying to keep pace with them. Aside from making some prints for Spafford, I also handle commissioning artists to do prints for us and just sort of mapping and planning out the whole poster thing for the band with Chuck, we riff off each other really well … To see this little thing blossom and grow into what it is today gives me goosebumps.
(The goosebumps must be contagious!)
Tour Stories: Are you familiar with the Spaffnerds, and the Spafford fan art groups?
Jon: Oh yes! … We have some of the best fans in the business I feel like and they’re always very gracious accepting new artists and just generally being good people as far as the poster thing goes. The Nerds are [gracious], I truly feel like I’m just trying to capture the vibe through my eyes. … I tend to make the prints as close to the show as possible so I can really get a sense of where things at “at”. Music is such a profound thing, to see these communities sprout up around bands is amazing. Very tribal and a great way to stay connected to our shared humanity which goes a long way in the greater world; always building on the previous generation.
Tour Stories: Speaking of generations and tradition, do you go to shows with your family? Do they love it as much as you?
Jon: As often as possible. We tend to stick to outdoor shows where we as a family can find some space away from the crowds. With the kiddos still young it makes it tough. Once Alice is older she’ll be coming along with me to Spafford shows more often. The scene is right up her alley, she loves concerts, and dancing. My wife and I fell in love on Trey Anastasio tour back in 2002. She’s also a big fan of the Grateful Dead. There’s certainly a deep love for music in our household.
Tour Stories: Who is your favorite show print artist?
Jon: So hard to answer! … I have to say, though, Jim Pollock has inspired so many people to pick up lino/relief printing, and printmaking in general that the guy should get a medal. He’s put out so much great art over the years, and continues to do so, yet I think the most profound impact he’s had is the number of people he’s inspired to take up art in some fashion. David Welker and A.J. Masthay are two others that I just can’t help but love and follow their stuff regularly.
Both are real masters at their crafts. Other than that I’m really hooked on seeing what my friends and peers are working on. It’s a great scene… I enjoy seeing what people are doing very much, I’m a big cheerleader of rock poster art for sure.
Tour Stories: I’m told you play guitar, is it just for fun or a possible aspiration?
Jon: I do play still, I used to be in a few bands back in my old hometown and I was in one out here in Arizona for a bit. I think I’ve given up on being any sort of a career musician. Those guys work too hard!
Tour Stories: So can we expect a Jon Rose a sit-in at Spafford show?
Jon: I highly doubt it, but you never know! I never thought the crew jam would be a thing before it happened, so there’s that.
Tour Stories: That’s right! Can you tell us about the Crew Jam?
Jon: The “Crew Jam” came about prior to the VIP show up in Denver a few years ago. The crew were riffing on a melody after sound-check on stage and Brian was grooving to it on the floor and suddenly decided that the crew would start the second set off, with the band members replacing each member of the crew one by one. No one was playing guitar at the time and Brian asked “who’s playing guitar?”. A couple fingers pointed at me and that was that! I’m definitely not saying no to a great gag like that… When duty calls, I’ll do whatever those guys need from me.
And he does. Anyone who has seen Jon’s work knows it’s not just ink, but a tremendous amount of time and energy (and love!) poured into each print.
Tour Stories: How many hours does it take to physically carve the block(s) to make a print? Since you work with multiple layers, how many hours per layer, on average?
Jon: It depends on the detail of each layer and size of the print. In general for the larger pieces it’s in the 3-4 hour range for each color.
Tour Stories: And how many layers on average in one of your prints?
Jon: If I added all of them up and divided, I think the answer would be pretty close to 4 colors. I’ve been trying lately to “do more with less”. I think I talked about placing restrictions on myself and how it helps to foster ideas. Now with some of the tour prints where there’s 40 or so dates, I’ll get a photopolymer plate made and print using that for just the dates. That adds an extra pass for each print.
I start doing the math in my head. 3-4 hours per layer, an average of 4 layers per print, that’s just to make the prototype. Then he has to duplicate this, but only a couple hundred times or so! My head hurts just trying to compute this.
… But the press I have is instrumental in being able to do so much in so little time. I purchased a Vandercook Universal III P a year and a half ago, and it has totally changed my life. Where before the majority of the time was spent on printing, now the majority of time is spent designing for a print. I strive to eliminate bottlenecks wherever I can. Making my studio as efficient as possible is one of my hobbies. Now, once my 3 year old goes off to pre-school in 5 months I will have all day to print. I get really excited about having that much time on my hands.
Tour Stories: Do you ever get printers block?
Tour Stories: How do you break it?
Jon: The very first thing I have to admit is I don’t have anything. From there I’ll either go to my notebook where I’ve scribbled out future ideas that might work, or really start from scratch. A lot of the time I will restrict myself right from the get go and that is usually what starts the ball rolling. Say for instance, “for this print I will not use the color red or blue”. Other times I have a certain technique I’d like to try and when I find myself at a loss I’ll tap into the concept. There are also times I’ll start with all of the lettering or a border and that will lead to the rest of the print coming together. Most of the time I’m figuring out what I don’t like as opposed to what I do like. It’s sort of backwards, but it works for me. My main ‘go to’ though is falling asleep. The majority of my ideas come from those moments between being awake and being asleep. I have a notebook and pencil next to the bed for those occasions.
As I edit this I’m staring at one of Jon’s pieces on my wall. I wonder if this image was sprung from a Jon Rose dream, frantically scribbled in a notebook, somewhere between asleep and awake. I think about the layers, the number of hours to carve and then match each one to fit together, painstakingly, precisely, perfect. It blows my mind every time I walk by. His work requires a level of talent and patience that I can’t begin to comprehend and luckily I don’t have to, I leave that to the artist. We continue to look forward to see where he takes the art form, and us, next!