After five years of successes and struggles, Sam Johnson is pulling the plug on Firecracker Studios, a onetime gallery and longtime gig poster factory that worked to build a bridge between art and music in Madison. "Firecracker has changed what it does and how it does it," he affirms in an announcement about the closing, "but has never strayed from it's goal of keeping the Madison art scene interesting and fresh."
Graduating from the graphic design program at MATC in 2001, Johnson soon set up a screen-printing shop with a friend named Jolly Roger Studios, rolling out numerous posters for local bands and promoters. Moving on from this project, he started working with David Mueller, a professionally-trained Milwaukee painter, and they conceived Firecracker, a studio and gallery open to local and national artists for the creation and display of "not so mainstream" art with a focus on the underground movement known variously as lowbrow and pop surrealism.
Firecracker Studios opened its doors on Winnebago Street just off Schenk's Corners in 2004, and hosted nearly two dozen shows, also serving as a collaborative studio, screen-printing shop, and school for art classes. After a couple of years, though, the pair closed it due to financial reasons. Version 2.0 came in the form of a warehouse space on the south side, opened by Johnson after his colleague got married and moved abroad. Used as a cooperative work space by several artists, it was also the home base for a series of "guerilla art shows" held in clubs, taverns, and vacant storefronts around the city, not to mention the Overture Center.
Over the course of Firecracker's run, Johnson also produced a wealth of gig posters promoting both local bands and those simply passing through town. Madison acts immortalized in ink and paint includes Box Elder, Droids Attack, Brainerd, and Helliphant, among others. The ranks of posters for touring bands, meanwhile, includes Ween, Hank Williams III, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Black Heart Procession, Old 97's, My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult, Dillinger Four, and many more. He has also worked regularly with the local label Crustacean Records, producing posters for its regular local shows, one for a Killdozer re-release listening party back in 2005, and another for its showcase last spring at South by Southwest.
This farewell marks the end of an era for Madison gig posters and screen-printing, Firecracker being one of the final redoubts of a scene that once boasted an impressive collection of artists who have since moved to other cities across the county. This diaspora started when Dan Ibarra and Michael Byzewski of Aesthetic Apparatus, birthed at Planet Propaganda, moved to the Twin Cities in 2002. James and Melissa Buchanan of The Little Friends of Printmaking left for Milwaukee a few years later. Last year saw two more departures. Billy Bartels of Sofaux relocated to Seattle, and Nathan Meltz of the Wisconsin Pop Explosion moved to upstate New York and set up shop as The House of Tomorrow. As Firecracker winds down, a vibrant chapter in the city's art and music history is closing as well.
"We feel very privileged to have had the chance to work with such great local artists such as Dave Mueller, Devon, Grace Lorentz, Dan Edwards, Sencer Hodgeson, Craig Grabhorn, Jethro Ford, Colm McCarthy and many more," declares Johnson and collaborator Greg Smithwick at the close of a Firecracker farewell message that also gives nods to nationally-known artists and various galleries they have worked with during the studio's run. "Seriously though, it really has been a privilege that we will always be grateful for and will never forget."
Firecracker is holding one final hurrah at the Inferno on Friday. Johnson took some time to answer via email a few questions from The Daily Page, discussing memorable art shows, his most sought-after works, and the gig poster scene in Madison.
The Daily Page: Firecracker Studios has hosted events at its Winnebago Street studio, its South Park Street warehouse, and at a variety of alternative art venues. What was your most memorable show?
Johnson: I guess one was when we, on a whim, rented out a space in Milwaukee's Third Ward for their gallery night a couple years back and had a turnout somewhere between one and two thousand people. We sold a lot of artwork and I was told, more than once, that we had the best exhibit on the walk. It was quite a nice feeling to hear something like that in a town that's not even your own.
What was your most unusual show?
I suppose the most unusual would be a show we did in Racine. The city's mayor had been at our show in Milwaukee and apparently thought it was the bee's knees. He contacted and enthusiastically asked us to do something like it for Racine's gallery walk and he would find us a space rent-free. That sounded great, you know, being invited by a town's mayor to spruce up their gallery night. That's pretty cool.
I drove up there to meet with him two or three times, and they took us out and paraded us around town for free drinks, introducing us to all the "important" people as the "Madison artists". Great we thought, he's gonna tell all his rich friends to check us out and maybe we'd actually make some money.
Long story short, he found us a killer spot in a beautiful historic building and then, for reasons unbeknownst to me, told no one about it, sent out no press releases, and in fact never even showed up himself though he was out at other galleries that night. We had catering and two DJs, and I had spent hundreds just on gas driving back and forth to Racine multiple times, and only about 15 people showed up, six of them drove from Madison. Needless to say, we sold nothing. It was the biggest single loss of money and time that had ever hit Firecracker, and was quite honestly the beginning of the end for us.
How many posters do you think have been made under the Firecracker banner over the last five years?
Which ones are your favorites?
I really like the posters I did for Box Elder, now Dear August, because I was actually inspired by the band's music and great personalities. I really think they turned out beautifully because of that.
Which posters have received the strongest response, both from the bands and from fans?
I'd say the two posters I did for Ween. Those turned out slick for the same reasons of inspiration as the Box Elder posters. But they are also my best selling posters to date, and from what I hear their value to collectors keeps going up. Hurray!
What kind of poster selection will you have at the farewell party?
Everything, and cheap. I've got stacks and stacks of posters and I would like to get rid of as many as possible so I don't have to store them.
Like many other places, the last few years have been very fruitful in Madison for screen-printed posters. How do you think this scene will develop over the next few?
Hopefully some dudes or dudettes will start crankin' out some good shit. I suspect there will be a void to be filled once we stop, and to tell you the truth, I'd much rather look at someone else's cool posters than my own. So get to work you screenprintin' goofballs.
Why do you think you have received support for this work during Firecracker's tenure?
I think we offered the Madison art scene something it was hungry for: Great art presented in a fun way, usually with some kind of alcohol involved. I know we couldn't have done it without all the great Madison artists who have contributed to the cause throughout the years.
I think the "not-your-average coffee shop art" we usually presented at our shows really grabbed people's attention, and showed them that Madison had more to offer the art scene than what might have first been supposed. I've actually noticed that coffee shop art has actually gone up in quality in Madison since we came on the scene. I wouldn't presume to take credit for that but I am definitely glad; some of that shit is just atrocious.
What's your next step as an artist?
To rest and try to get mentally and physically healthier until inspired, and then create art for art's sake, with no deadlines or monetary goals attached to it. I need to slow down and take the time it really takes to create something truly kick ass. That could be a year, two years, or six months from now, or maybe never. Hard to tell when inspiration will strike.
Any final thoughts about Firecracker?
Millions of things but they would probably come across as cynical and jaded. Perhaps I should wait till I can relax a little and take a breather before I keep running my mouth. Mostly, what I'd really like to do is to thank everyone who has supported us in anyway whatsoever, be it monetarily, verbally or just by showing up because you thought we might have something interesting for you to see. It really meant a lot, and we greatly appreciate it. These things are what kept us around as long as we did, and it truly was a lot of fun. It just kicked my ass.
Firecracker Studios will go out with a bang with its final extravaganza of art and music titled "The End is Here" at the Inferno on Friday, December 12. The fun gets started at 9 p.m., and the cover is a mere $5, which includes a free limited edition poster. Tunes will be provided throughout the night by a motley line-up that includes Pat MacDonald, melaniejane, Dear August, Slim Reaper & His Dim Peepers, and a special appearance by ROBOMAN.
Art is at the heart of Firecracker, though, and there will be no shortage of it at the farewell show. New works will be shown by various artists from Madison and Milwaukee, including Johnson himself, along with HIGHFLYER 13, Grace Lorentz, Colm McCarthy, Pierre Abarca, Dan Edwards, Get Bent Press, and others. Alongside the gallery art, the studio is also selling t-shirts to mark its send-off, along with its last remaining stock of gig posters that mark five years of live music memories in Madison and around the Midwest.