Andrew Brant is the founder of Mt. Zion Press, a new Chicago art collective. In this interview he talks about starting a screen print business, living where he works, and how he almost burned down his apartment.

Why don’t you begin the program by telling us about yourself.

My name is Andrew Brant. And I run a screen printing shop and art collective called Mt. Zion Press. We’re about six-months-old.

I have a website going, I have a screen print press, I have a pile of t-shirts, I have a few shows down the line, I have a lot of friends to promote through it, but we’re really trying to promote Chicago artists, and make some good designs, and do some good for the world.

How did you get started in print?

Thats a good question. When I was younger I had a job at a screen print shop. We pretty much did whatever job came through the door. And a lot of our clients ended up being the cross country team, or the dance troop, or the cheerleaders, or the fraternity in town, or if a bank needed embroidered shirts, the Army Corps of Engineers — everybody. If you ever needed a logo on a garment, we were your place.

Everything we did was new. You couldn’t take us a shirt. It was all bulk orders, with some individualization.

As a designer it wasn’t the most inspiring thing. It was really fun to try within these confines to be as creative as possible. I’m not a big sports guy. It isn’t something I just go to naturally, but it did teach me how to do things technically very, very well.

I think about cheerleaders, because it is so out of character for me. But making cheerleading clothes is fascinating, because you’ve got a new group of girls every year that need a lot of stuff — they need a shirt, and a hoodie, and a uniform, and a bag with their names embroidered on it, and all this stuff. They also are really sticklers for quality. Their clothes don’t just have to look nice, but it has to stand up to a fair amount of abuse.

It made me really happy to go to a Chinese restaurant in town, and see 50 high school wearing the stuff I made. The screen printing side was something I loved, because I could go into Photoshop and Illustrator. I loved just pulling the squeegee across the shirts, and making the screens, and getting messy, and just experimenting.

Then I started going to screen print shows. I moved to Chicago, and I realized that I wanted to do this myself. And so I started out like anyone would, and I got the most basic thing you need to screen print. So you can go to Dick Blick, the art store down in the loop, and for $50 you can buy a halogen work light, a screen, which is is just a wood frame with a bit of mesh on it, a little emulsion, which is the chemical for it, and some ink, and a t-shirt and that’s it. And so I did that. I made my screen in my apartment, and I almost burned it down. You have to take off all the safety features of the halogen work light to expose the screen. My chair started smoking, because it was set up all wonky in my bedroom.

So I found a place called Ryonet, and I met one of the owners. The owner had a cool philosophy. When he was younger and he was in a band, and they made t-shirts, and they screen printed. These guys would come up to him, and ask for t-shirts for his band. He’d tell them no, but we’ll sell you screen print equipment so you can make your own shirts. Now they are one of the biggest educational resources, and screen print suppliers, and screen print hardware designers in the country.

So, tell me a little about these screen printing shows? What happens there, and what are they like?

We have one in Chicago every year. They are usually run by people you haven’t heard of unless you are in the industry — Printware Magazine is one of the big ones. They are for all the people that advertise in the magazine to come and have booths. It’s just like Comic-Con except it is guys selling screens, or equipment — Hanes is there selling t-shirts, Riley Hopkins is there selling the giant screen print machines that have like 20 heads, and Ryonet has their big booth, and they are selling everything from DVD’s to ink, to ergonomic squeegees. It is a whole funny group of people.

The real trick and the think I always want to teach people about screen printing is that it is deceptively simple. You can go into these old screen print shops — and they are all over the place in Chicago, all around Kansas City, and all around everywhere. There are these 50-years-old guys, sitting around in overalls smoking Camels. And they don’t want to tell you how they do it, because they are afraid you will learn how to do it yourself.

It is frustrating because you can mess up a lot, and it’s messy, and it can take long nights. It isn’t rocket science, the process is exceptionally simple. In a short afternoon I could teach you how to do it. So, basically these screen print shows are places to learn about new products and new techniques.

So I invested about $1,000 and I got a real four-top press that I could mount to a table. I got a backlight exposure unit. It allows me to expose the screen safely, and cooly — so I don’t burn down my apartment.

I’ve got a wholesale account with a t-shirt distributor out in Boling Brook that sets me up well. The nice thing about them is that if you order a shirt by 4 p.m. it will show up by 10 a.m. the next day. That keeps inventory super-tight. I don’t have to have a lot of shirts on me. They a real key to the business.

This is your second try at the screen print business. Tell us a bit about your first try.

Yeah, so my day job was a barista at a brunch restaurant in Andersonville. That had me working a 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift everyday. I was getting paid minimum wage plus tips.

A buddy of mine had open a furniture store across the street. I worked out a deal with him. He let me work there one day a week, and let me sell my t-shirts there for seven days a week. My payment would come from whatever t-shirts sold.

It put my name out there. People knew who I was. I was making good money, but I was making random stuff. I was putting whatever I wanted on the shirts. One might be Ginsberg in a funny hat, another might be some birds on a wire.

Let’s get to the nitty gritty about printing. What do you need to know before starting your own print business?

I think you need to know about the equipment, and you need to spend some time actually trying it. There are a few places to do that, at least in Chicago. You can try Lill Street Art Center, or Skrewball Press, or Spudnik Press. You need to know that it is frustrating, and time-consuming. It isn’t that hard you just need to watch someone do it a few times.

What kinds of operating expenses do you have?

That is a good question. Screens themselves are reusable, but they cost about $20 a piece. Ink is so cheap it is negligible. It costs $10 for a quart of ink. It is mostly about time.

I could make shirts affordable, but I have to put a minimum of about 24 shirts just because it takes 2 days to make a screen. You have to coat it in emulsion, let it dry for eight hours, expose it again, spray it out, let that dry again — and thats before you even put ink on it. After the initial investment in $1,000 in equipment, it isn’t to complicated to make a profit. Just make sure you are smart about ordering on time.

What about managing inventory?

I’m wearing a shirt with one of my designs. What I am trying to do now is sell the brand and sell the image. And that means very different inventory questions.

You can run to many shirts at once. I’m trying the Toshiba Just in Time stuff for inventory management. I’m want to have as little inventory as possible. It means that if I end up making a shirt that sucks, no big loss.

How do you market yourself?

We launched mtzionpress.com on March 16 after working on it with a long time artistic collaborator Kenton Quatman for six months.

Right now it has been word of mouth. I tried Facebook Ads, but they didn’t really do anything. I got a mailing list with about 100 emails from the show. I’m going to use a company called wisecanvas to do some email and social media marketing.

We also put together a show. The show had about 200 to 250 people show up. It was me and three other artists: Dan Ivec, Chris Kitahara, and Kenton Quatman. I’ve gotten a couple thousand dollars worth of commissions just from that show.

It is funny sometime you try and head in one direction, and sales steer you in another — I think that is something every entrepreneur should think about.

I’m trying to figure out what is the longer term goal, and how can I steer it while taking clients.

Well what is the long-term goal?

The long-term goal is to move locations and find a live, work space that I can make my own. It is really important for me to find a place that I can live and make my art.

Spudnik is a great place where I could do everything I’m doing right now. It is also, pretty affordable at $80 a month. It is important to me to be able to work in my pajamas, and go to sleep when I want to, or walk over to my drawing desk for 20 minutes and go along with the rest of my day.

Why is it important that you live where you work?

It is important to live where you work because you can’t force creativity.

I’m not one of those artists that want to be free — with the butterfly net and everything. I’ve got a minimum wage mentality. I need a deadline. I need to work, and I need to have it present wherever I am. Right now that means walking around with my computer, and my pens, and paint.

Its kind of like that quote from Frida. “If you’re a real painter, you’ll paint because you can’t live without painting. You’ll paint till you die”

Do you have any rituals or routines?

Not a lot. I’m not like a baseball pitcher that has to do all these things for luck.

I drink too much coffee.

Where do you get your source of inspiration?

My mom is an artist, and an art teacher. My dad was a woodworker, and made things with his hands all the times. I guess I always leaned on those sort of DIY strengths I had.

It all started with mail. If you’ve ever been a freshmen in college, and you go to that mail room — there is seldom mail in your mailbox. Me and my friends started doing things like signing up for catalogs just so we could get mail. Another thing I did was start mailing postcards to my friends. But I was too cheap to go to buy postcards.

I remembered my mom did a semester in France when she was in art school. She painted these beautiful water colors of France. I just remember that thick, heavy paper those were painted on. I figured I could take that paper, scribble something on the front, put a stamp on it, and mail it out.

If I sent ten out to my friends I would get two of three back. So I would send ten more, and then ten more. By the time I had sent 300 postcards out, I started to get better as an artist.

Later I did a semester in Rome. I went with just a backpack, and my stuff to live in a dorm room, which happened to be in an old monastery. All I had was a set of watercolors, and two brushes from Dick Blicks. I started painting postcards there, and I started getting better just by the inspiration of Italy. There are all these beautiful buildings in Rome, and the Vatican was down the hill, and there is the Pantheon, and there is all this beautiful Renaissance artwork.

When I came back I had a show. That show got me a job as an illustrator at the Pheonix (Loyola’s School Paper). I got a lot of confidence from that, because it was a weekly check for my drawings.

One of my big inspirations has always been John Goodman. He went to Hollywood and realized he had to make money somehow. He was a carpenter, and did odd jobs. Someone hired him for a TV show, or something like that. He didn’t know if he was any good at it, but figured he’d keep working since they were paying him.

I see John Goodman as an inspiration because I have the same mentality, I just need to keep working.

Talking about those postcards. Are there any postcards you made that you wish you didn’t mail away?

Not really.

I don’t have a lot of attachment to them. I once had an art teacher that had us work for three hours on a piece, and then ripped it up at the end of class. It is a good way to teach that lesson.

I have kept two postcards. One night I was sitting on a bridge, and the sun was setting on the Vatican — it was gorgeous. I needed water to paint it. So I bought a 5-year-old bottle of water from a street vendor to paint it. I kept that. There is also a one of a wedding on a boat — I kept that.

I take good photographs, so I can make reproductions. I keep memories of all of it.

What is the best thing you’ve ever created?

At this point I think it is Mt. Zion. I’m really very happy with it.

I’m getting to the point where I can help other artists. I’m opening up artists to other types of artwork. So a kid who designs websites, and does a lot of drawing — Let show him that he can sell screen printed material. That’s what I’m really proud of.

I want to do things to help other people sell some t-shirts for good causes, and have the proceeds go to charity.

What was your most valuable job or experience?

I’ve almost always worked for small independent businesses. I’ve always been surrounded by entrepreneurs. It is really inspiring to work right by the owners — people who really have skin in the game.

Who do you look up to?

I look up to so many people. I draw inspiration from everyone.

I mentioned John Goodman. I really like his attitude, and his Missouriness about him.

Ian MacKaye is another person. He always kept his shows $5, and never sold a t-shirt because he wanted to put his music first.

Anyone who can stand alone, and build something, and put a dent in the universe that is very inspiring to me.

What advice would you give young entrepreneurs watching the show?

Nobody owes you anything.

You are going to fail. You are going to be turned down. You are going to miss a sale. Someone you work with is going to disappoint you. You just have to be relentless.

If you feel like you are entitled to something, or somebody owes you something — that is probably where you are wrong, and you are going to fail.

You have got to recommend one book. What book is that?

Howl by Allen Ginsberg.

Do you have any other comments, stories you need to tell?

I think you’re asking a dangerous question. I could keep talking.

No, this has been really wonderful, and thank you Sam for letting me be part of it.