Operating out of an old brick storefront space on Gay Street in downtown Knoxville, Tenn., two graphic design artists have realized a dream--to start a successful letterpress design and poster company here in the digital age. Relying on centuries-old technology--Guttenberg used the "rolling press" and handset type to print the first Bible--Yee-haw Industries' partners Kevin Bradley and Julie Belcher are not only preserving a dying printing process but creating highly desirable, hip art in the process.
Their original designs, which incorporate folk art heroes (Evel Knievel, for example) country music legends (Bill Monroe, Johnny Cash), and more, have been embraced by musicians--Yee-Haw has done posters and merchandise for Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams and even ex-Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio. And the artists have a separated-at-birth kind of symbiotic relationship with Chapel Hill-based folk-art aficionados and longtime clients Southern Culture on the Skids.
"It's the bargain of the South in real estate," says Bradley, adding that they checked out Chapel Hill and Asheville but couldn't afford it. But both he and Belcher had attended the University of Tennessee and had "good feelings" about the area. "We're here, and they can't kick us out. We're a working shop. People can come in; we're in the back: 'Holler if you need us.'"
Bradley's well into a 16-hour work day, trying to finish a postcard design for Ralph Lauren. Yes, that Ralph Lauren.
"They're openin' their Paris store," Bradley drawls in an exaggerated hillbilly style accent. "It's up there in Paris, and they got one in New York City, too. So we're doing 50,000 postcards for them. I'm trying to make it pretty space age; I'm fightin' with it right now ... modern yet old school."
It's a long way from a 15-by-30 foot, concrete, two-story shed in Corbin, Ky.-- also the home of Kentucky Fried Chicken--where he and Belcher first started the company. Going into the poster business was a gamble, although Bradley had spent time in Nashville honing his craft at one of the few letterpress shops still in operation. For two years to the day, he worked alongside printer Kenneth Hinson, who'd been working in the medium "since 1930-something," Bradley says. "It was just a job to him; and he didn't think anything about any graphic design stuff, but he was just a genius. He had all those old skills and he knew how to do it. He would teach me something new every day."
Belcher followed a more traditional graphic arts route, working as a graphic designer for Whittle Communications (Knoxville) as well as studying in New York and doing a stint at Seventeen magazine. "I talked Julie into starting the company," Bradley admits. "She took to it like a duck to water. She's a natural."
Still, it was a "frightening" experience setting up shop with "a couple presses and some type," hoping they'd be able to drum up some work, Bradley recalls. Because of their location, they knew they were going to have to reach out, so to speak.
"We knew a lot of people and we weren't afraid to send out samples, so we had to sit down and create some work," he says. He'd spent the previous year painting, and took the designs and carved them onto blocks to convert them into prints. As an artist, Bradley was inspired by the works of early 20th century printers. "Graphic arts used to be a big thing, and all those guys, they were considered artists--all those cats: Herbert Bayer was a great poster maker, and then a lot of those old Dada guys ... ," Bradley says, reeling off a list of his favorite letterpress artists. His own style is reminiscent of Howard Finster's primitive folk (or outsider) art, in large part because of his penchant for hand-drawn typography.
"I tried to get away from that immediately [the primitive folk art scene], 'cause starting out you're exposed to all that," Bradley says. "But I love hand-drawn typography and that's always been my thing, and if you look at any of my work, you'll see hand-drawn type on it somewhere." You'll also find Yee-Haw's phone number at the bottom of their prints.
"That's our calling card, so people see it, they call us, and it just snowballs from there," he says, laughing. "We built a monster, man, I tell ya."
The partners also found themselves in the role of preservationists, since they rely on equipment that's considered obsolete. That became one of the biggest rewards of the job, to hunt these collections of type down (which is often deteriorating in old barns or outbuildings), prying open the drawers of the old California-style type cabinets (now prized by collectors) to reveal an ornate font they'd never encountered, often pre-lead type carved out of ash, cherry or hard maple. The partners even rescued a collection of porcupine-gnawed wood type (circa 1860s) from ruin.
"There was little porcupine turds in all the type drawers; we had to pick 'em out," he says, laughing.
And the people, often former printers who've held onto the type all these years are equally thrilled to pass the torch down to a new generation of letterpress printers. "That's been the beauty and the joy, really, of startin' up our little shop here," says Bradley. "And these guys are truly patrons of the arts. They say, 'We're just waitin' on kids like you to come along. Load it up and give it a good home.' They feel good, because they don't want to see that type that they really have connection to end up in damn flea markets."
Early on, musicians were responsible for much of Yee-Haw's commissioned designs, as well as inspiring Bradley's personalized pieces, which include artists from bluesman Robert Johnson to Bill Monroe.
"I love the fact that something's connected to me here in Tennessee and all that, but you know, you get bored with the same thing [country music icons]. Bradley says I'm working on some 'Colonel Sanders, Barnyard Butcher' pieces--y'know, he killed more chickens than anybody. And Jimmy Dean--I've got some country music tie-ins with that, 'cause Jimmy Dean killed a bunch of pigs [for his sausage]. And then Kenny Rogers tried to kill some chickens, but he couldn't kill near as many as the Colonel. So I try to get a country music tie-in if I can, or at least a Southern flavor to it.
Early customers included Mammoth Records, for whom Yee-Haw did album covers and images (Jimbo Mathus' Knockdown Society and Squirrel Nut Zippers) and clients/friends Southern Culture on the Skids, whom Belcher had initially met.
"He's such a genius," says Bradley of SCOTS leader Rick Miller. "My partner Julie's known 'em for some time. Met him about five or six years ago back when we first started this, and we've just been thick as thieves ever since."
Both partners are big music fans (Belcher "plays a little fiddle," Bradley confides). "We have a lot of friends who do [play music] and all, but I'm just a visual artist," he says. "Making music posters seemed like a good thing on every level, because you're making something that means something to somebody else.
Because of the time it takes to carve each block for a print, Yee-Haw won't accept any poster orders fewer than 200. "We've done some 5,000 four-color runs, couple times, which takes a couple weeks to do, for the guy from Phish, Trey Anastasio.
"We have a minimum now of 200, just because it's so hard to make 'em that we can't afford to do less--it just takes 40 hours, at least, on everything.
"It's all either linoleum or wood, and we hand carve everything; it takes a little while. I'm pretty fast at it and a three-color poster still takes me about 30 hours of actual carving time.
"We're very traditional in the sense that we don't really use polymer plates, although we tried, but I don't like 'em. And what's the point of taking something from the computer environment anyway when you're doing letterpress? You can use it for sizing things and stuff, as a tool, but I try to keep it out of my production at all costs.
"There are no shortcuts--and it's tiring," Bradley says. "It's a contact sport. You're on your feet all day long, going from drawer to drawer. ... We got like two or three thousand fonts of type, but they're all in those tight little type drawers, so you gotta fish out every little piece of everything."
Yee-Haw buys whole skids of poster paper. If they're busy, they'll go through two big skids--4,000 pounds--of chipboard, which are fed into the company's '50s-era Vandercook presses.
"They weigh about 3,000 pounds, cast iron. They're like tanks, you can't hurt 'em. I bet--seriously--that we've made two million posters off this one press we have.
"I use a lot of chipboard. People will buy, like, six to one, chipboard--they're against any glossy kind of paper. It's the lowest grade paper they make, anyway, so it's just perfect for this medium. And it just instantly dates it back, like, 20 years--old school all the way. It's perfect for what we do."
Still, the prices are affordable. Most posters sell for $10 to $35, with numbered fine-art prints (on handmade French paper) going for around $100. There are some big woodblocks, 30-by-40-inch prints, that go for $250.
The company also does business cards (in a hip, beer coaster style design) for ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, who's also commissioned cards for scads of his heavy friends (Farah Fawcett, "Billy Bob"). Yee-Haw also does a lot of wedding packages, from invitations, RSVPs, envelopes and more. "But it's just beautiful 'cause of all this cool stuff we've got," says Bradley. He estimates that 40 percent of their business is wedding related.
Because their work is all handmade letterpress, it's hardly surprising that Yee-Haw has been embraced by the graphic arts community. They've appeared in Print magazine and the AIGA Journal and have been profiled in Southern Living and the Washington Post.
Still, don't expect to find their work at your local galleries. "I'm really anti-gallery, almost," Bradley admits. "When I was starting out as a painter and I wanted to do the gallery thing, no one would give you the time of day, then they take half the money and damage your stock, and it's just a big hassle. So we just found a way to make art for the people. I can sell a print for $20, $30 dollars, although I have gone upscale and put a lot of stuff on the handmade French paper now."
You will be seeing their work on an upcoming record cover for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Will the Circle Be Unbroken project, due out around Christmas. "They just re-recorded a bunch of stuff, and it's got everybody from Johnny Cash to Dwight Yoakam on it. Julie is working on the booklet for it--we're doing the whole thing," he says, proudly.
Yee-Haw's current show at the Dead Mule, a private club, will culminate in a party and poster sale Aug. 25. Organized by local sculptor/painter Mark Elliott, a close friend of the couple, the closing reception will provide a rare chance to meet the Yee-Haw folks and take home a piece of their work.
"Yeah, we don't throw [art shows] a lot of places out there in the public, but if Mark Elliot says it's OK ... ," says Bradley, trailing off. "I'm guessing it's a bar. That's our perfect place. That gets it out of the museum--being a precious thing--and back to the people."
"I think a whole new generation of kids is getting interested in this as an alternative way of producing stuff," says Bradley. Yee-Haw continues to employ interns and is looking to hire another designer. "We're trying to hire an N.C. State kid," he says. "They have one of the best design programs in the country."
Although the letterpress process is time-consuming, physical work, the results are immediate, and lasting.
"We can produce something, start to finish, and design it, print it, the whole thing," Bradley says. "And it's something that's made--it's a real thing. And that feels good at the end of the day."