artbeat (2006-22)

KMA’s latest design lab shows us how they work


by Mike Gibson

Many of us recognize the telltale design elements of a Yee-Haw Industries print—the stylized folk-art renderings and the run-on block lettering and the dense, geometrically improbable arrangements of text and shape. But for those of us who aren’t fluent in the methodologies of the visual arts, their execution is something of a mystery.

We may not realize, for instance, that all of Yee-Haw’s preliminary sketches and carvings are done backwards, so as to achieve a mirror-image effect when they are transferred to the final print; that every design is preassembled in a veritable jigsaw of carvings and letter blocks; that Yee-Haw designers utilize equipment that’s decades old, in a process that goes back centuries.

“Everyone and their cousin’s uncle knows what we look like, but a lot don’t know what goes into making those prints,” says Yee-Haw designer/printer Brian Baker. “It’s a side of Yee-Haw that’s never been shown.”

The latest installment of Knoxville Museum of Art’s Design Lab series, Yee-Haw Industries Design Lab, will be on display at the KMA through Sept. 24, with an opening reception on Thursday, June 1. The KMA Design Lab is an ongoing series of exhibitions that explore the philosophy and mechanics of design techniques in a variety of media.

Yee-Haw’s work is all done via the letter press, a venerable but seemingly outmoded method of relief printing that requires designers and printers to spend untold hours of painstaking preparation and assembly to fashion elaborate plates that will ultimately sit on presses and stamp, by turns, each individual print. In essence, the letter press has the same relationship to modern printing techniques as feather-and-ink-on-parchment has to a PC and a laser jet copier.

Except in this case, there are aesthetic considerations that often cry out for the quill pen instead of the laptop. “With the press, the ink doesn’t rest on the page the same as screen printing or computer printers do,” Baker says. “We’ve brought back the design element of hand-carved imagery.”

To make a print, Yee-Haw designers first sketch a design, complete with both text and non-textual elements. The non-textual, or pictorial, components are then carefully carved into blocks of wood or linoleum, and the text is assembled around it, puzzle-style, from Yee-Haw’s seemingly limitless cache of individual letter stamps, moveable type collected over the years by founders Kevin Bradley and Julie Belcher in all sizes and fonts.

All of which sounds tedious in plenty. But there’s a catch, in that each plate assembly represents only one color—or one trip through the press. So a simple rendering of a green circle inside a red square would require two separate plates, both of which must take into account the space that will be occupied by the other. And if you’ve seen some of Yee-Haw’s colorful, labyrinthine visual designs—two-platers are definitely not the norm—maybe you can extrapolate just how painstakingly-wrought one of their prints must be.

Or maybe it’s too complicated to conceive based on nothing more than a verbal description. But then that’s what KMA’s Design Lab was created for—to illuminate both the human and technical elements that are intrinsic to a particular mode of design. At the Yee-Haw lab, the exhibit will consist of various key pieces of equipment, including one of the shop’s 1950s-era letter presses, and work samples from all stages of the process, from carved linoleum blocks to 30-some-odd framed finished pieces. (The carved blocks are veritable works of art unto themselves, Baker notes, the letter-press equivalent of an illustrator’s elegantly roughed-out sketchbook: “They’re actually sort of beautiful.”)

“The KMA wants (the lab exhibit) to look like our design environment, a recreation of our studio,” Baker says. “In most design shops, that would mean monitors, keyboards, and mouses. For us it means lead alphabets, tweezers, and carving knives.

“But it’s more than just a letter press how-to demo,” Baker assures. “It also delves into the elements of design that make us different. It’s how Yee-Haw achieves its look.”

What: Knoxville Museum of Art Design Lab with Yee-Haw Industries