Four box fans buzz away inside Napkin Art Studios as Jonathon Kimbrell screenprints a batch of business cards for Rigor Mortis Printing Co., a new venture he launched with Richard Reed in May. The motto etched into the card's skull logo ("Print to the death!") seems fitting for a company operating out of an 1,000-square-foot garage, but one advantage to printing in 100-plus-degree heat is that the eco-friendly, water-based media Kimbrell and Reed work with dries in an instant.
As Kimbrell methodically prints sheet after sheet in the studio, which is sandwiched between Dowdy Studios and Dallas Lampworking on Garland Road, just behind Goodfriend and Good 2 Go Taco, it's impossible not to notice the wall behind his workstation. It's covered with dozens of colorful limited-edition, hand-printed posters, prints and cards of various shape and size for The Polyphonic Spree, Old 97's and Sarah Jaffe, and touring acts ranging from The Sounds to White Denim to Pink Martini.
Kimbrell's work owes a huge debt to pop art and culture. He cites Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Ed Ruscha and Tom Wesselmann as his primary influences, but it's easier to spot the influence of music, film, classic comic books, vintage pin-ups and mid-century advertising and design on his work.
Dallas may not know Kimbrell or his Napkin Art Studios by name yet, but there's a good chance one of his hand-printed designs caught your eye in a storefront, record store or theater marquee, not to mention the 3-D billboards he designed for Good Records. Remember the ones with the Hank Williams "confounded cat hair" lyric?
For the past two years, Napkin Art has cranked out screenprinted posters for Record Store Day at Good Records, as well as posters for Granada Theater, for acts as diverse as Sleigh Bells, Carolina Chocolate Drops and the Ian Moore Band. Texas Theatre's lobby currently stocks a few of the limited-edition prints Napkin Art produced for special screenings of Fist Full of Dollars, Carrie and 8 1/2.
Because the requests kept rolling in faster than his one-man operation could crank out, and because he wanted to keep Napkin Art separate from his other work, Kimbrell and Reed teamed up to found Rigor Mortis Printing Co. earlier this year.
"We just joined forces," Kimbrell says. "Equal partners. Equal owners."
Together, the two specialize in T-shirts, posters, album sleeves, patches and pretty much anything a band, promoter or other musical entity wants designed or printed.
"Yes," Reed jokes. "Even panties."
"The Rigor Mortis stuff is already booming," Kimbrell says just three months after launching. "Plus, I have some new Napkin Art paintings in the works, as well as some commissioned works. It's been, and is going to be, a busy summer."
Kimbrell moved to Dallas from West Texas in 2004. He held a day job until June 2010, but now he's a self-described "full-time artist." After that first year, Kimbrell says he discovered how bare and brutal Texas summers could really be for an artist. "The ship was pretty close to capsizing, but there was no turning back," he says. "I had to figure out how to keep things going. And I definitely have to thank Chris Penn and the Old 97's."
Penn turned the Old 97's on to Napkin Art. The band needed 300 gig posters in a hurry for a spring tour with Teddy Thompson. Kimbrell delivered, and the Old 97's liked the print enough to commission 200 more for the band's "Midsummer Nights 2011 Tour" with Sarah Jaffe.
"Music is the biggest part of all of this," he says, looking around his studio. "It makes up probably 90 percent of what I do." He's been collecting vinyl for more than a decade, quite heavily in the past three years. Kimbrell regularly posts album art and tracks to his blog-turned-Tumblr, Classic Waxxx. He's the kind of collector who occasionally buys an album he already has, which just means "classic staples" by the likes of Paul Butterfield or Bo Diddley end up as studio copies. Which brings the story back to Good Records.
"He's been a customer for a long time," says owner Chris Penn. "One day he mentioned his studio, and said he'd be available. He has a really good Warholian vibe, and I just let him take a crack at something. He's one of those guys who doesn't get bogged down in the details, and he shuffles his stuff to meet your deadline."
Soon, Kimbrell was regularly designing and printing for the Good Umbrella. He did the layout for Preteen Zenith's Rubble Guts & BB Eye CD, and the label and album sleeve for the vinyl release. (Good Records' other go-to screenprinter, Nevada Hill, designed and printed the five different covers for the vinyl release.)
Earlier this year, Napkin Art started printing posters for Parade of Flesh shows. "He's flexible to changes, and his output is top-notch," PoF's John Iskander says. "I keep recommending him to people. They have something good going on, just wait and see ... or actually, don't, because then I won't be able to afford them."
Enter Richard Reed, a longtime friend of folks under the Good Umbrella. Reed isn't new to the T-shirt, poster and flier world. A self-described "jack of all trades artist," who first worked as a screenprinter at a T-shirt shop in '95, he got his "first big break" doing T-shirts, banners, lighting and visuals for Hazy Daze Collectif, which threw field and warehouse parties. After immersing himself in the underground dance scene, he started doing work for Boom Brothers, Sound Proof Recordings and Eclectic Souls Project.
"He's a badass," Reed says of Kimbrell. "But I think he was getting overwhelmed with it, and wanted to do something a little bit different."
A few weekends ago, the two were busy breaking in their new four-color, four-station press with a batch of Rigor Mortis Printing Co. T-shirts. It's hot in the studio, but this summer, Kimbrell says he'll just keep buying more box fans, and more cold beer for the mini-fridge.