Recently, JAC got the chance to speak with Will Livingston, artist, member of JAC’s network, and author of Live from the Cell Block: Will Livingston and His Silk Screen Machine. Live from the Cell Block is a collection of Will’s screen printed concert posters. In partnership with Justice Arts Coalition and Brick of Gold Publishing, City Winery NYC is celebrating the recent launch of his book with an exhibition of the same title. The exhibition is now on display!
Art for Will started at night. “For me art started manifesting itself when I started doing it late at night or in the wee hours of the morning. After a lot of drinking and stuff like that…one of the things I jumped into when I was in a weird state in the middle of the night. I don’t know if there was a strange comfortability in those moments to feel free enough to explore that and express that and see what that was.”
It wasn’t until his incarceration that he began to devote more of his days to art. Largely out of necessity, Will began making art of all kinds. Trying to figure out what he enjoyed most, “I spent the first couple of years there…dabbl[ing] in all kinds of stuff. From woodworking to different crafts, I finally just settled into painting, which I had played around with before. During those first couple of years I started to find a style in there, and a voice in there, and found something that really worked for me.”
And then, after a couple years, a change in location brought a change in possibilities. In 2013, Will was moved from “basically the worst place in the state to the best, and the opportunities were just wide open there in a lot of ways.” Through the connections and trust he was able to form with staff and others inside, Will notes that he was allowed to explore a lot of crafts that “not only had never been done there, but I’m pretty sure haven’t been done in any prison in this country.” One of these would be screen printing.
The last time Will had been exposed to screen printing he was working for the Universal Limited Art Editions on Long Island. In a dream come true moment, he was using screen print and offset press lithography, working with a variety of amazingly talented artists. And this experience stuck with Will: “I knew someday I would get to really try my hand at that. I knew I would have to at some point. I would have to try that again.” And he did.
Once the silk screen printing materials were acquired, it didn’t take long for Will to come to the conclusion to do a concert poster: “I had to do one. That just seemed like the next step. Something I always collected. Something I loved. Why wouldn’t I?” One quickly turned into many. As Will told us, “then my personality kicks in and it’s like: okay, well let’s just do another one. After that I couldn’t help myself. I was gonna have to find ways to continue to do this. So that’s where [the poster project] was born out of.”
“I think the third thing that I did was actually a Ryan Adams show in Tulsa. He was coming to town, I am a ridiculous fan of his.…I made this print that felt like a real concert poster. I loved the design. An image of him kicked back playing guitar…After I made them, I’m sitting there thinking, ‘what am I going to do with this?’ I don’t have permission to do it, I haven’t talked to anybody. I can’t sell these, that would be opening myself up to a whole nightmare. So I decided ‘I’m just going to give them away.’ I talked to my family and a couple friends already going to the show and said ‘Let’s just pass them out. Let’s just hook up the fans. Why not?’ They agreed to do that, and then a few days later it dawned on me that there was more that could be done with that…I knew that the old me at that time would have definitely driven home drunk from that concert. I knew so many people that would’ve been doing the same. It just seemed like a nice fit, that I could add that message to that at the same time. And at the time I don’t even think I was really seeing it as something that could be this whole advocacy program. At the time it was just one poster. One thing going out somewhere. I would just put my story on the back and ask people ‘just don’t drink and drive on the way home tonight.’”
For three years Will made concert posters non-stop, 165 shows. It didn’t take long for those involved to start really embracing it. Bands would hear about it and welcome it just as long as they got their own copy. “We could just call the venues ahead of time, ‘hey we’re gonna be here this night.’ Usually that came with a ‘go on inside, enjoy the show while you’re here!’” Concert goers started to recognize his work and many began showing up simply to collect the poster and take it home. But for Will, sending them out from the inside, he only ever saw them one by one. Until the idea for Live from the Cell Block: Will Livingston and His Silk Screen Machine was born.
“It all started with JAC. It really did. I’ve been working with Wendy now for almost five years, and trying to support JAC in any way I can. I always saw the value in the organization and the bonds they build with people. At some point I started discussing with Wendy, I may have even started the conversation with ‘I’m thinking about making my own book’…she started talking to people and at some point found Nate and Brick of Gold publishing…then City Winery actually was the publisher’s idea. He started talking to them and was able to work out a three month gallery show with the posters displayed.”
“Seeing the display at City Winery right now, they have 141 of the posters displayed. Just beautifully framed and displayed there, and I’ve never seen them like that. I’ve never seen them together. I just saw one at a time, because they went out as I did them and then they left. So seeing the book too was a pretty amazing thing. I’ve never seen them like that.”
Will’s dream is that one day, the concert poster project will become a national advocacy program. Although he would still create his own art, his real hope is that it could become a project which includes other incarcerated and local artists to bring more awareness to their art as well. In this way the poster project becomes for those creating as well as those receiving. As Will noted towards the end of the interview, “my ego’s not in my art being on there. It’s ok. My purpose in this is to try and prevent what I caused happening to someone else.”
The exhibit “Live From the Cell Block: Will Livingston and His Silk Screen Machine” will be on display at City Winery New York City for another month and his posters are available for purchase in venue and online. A portion of the proceeds will benefit JAC. Don’t miss the chance to view Will’s exceptional art in person!