The next Artist Interview Project installment features artist AJ Masthay. The first part of this post includes a student’s reflective summary. It is followed by the full interview text.
Learn more about the Artist Interview Project course assignment in Dr. Jenkins’ introduction to the series. You can follow the Philosophy School of Phish on Facebook, Twitter (@phishedu), and the course’s public website.
As part of my final assignment for my philosophy course, I had the opportunity to interview artist AJ Masthay. Masthay specializes in making limited edition concert and event prints. He is a passionate fan, or “phan,” of Phish and has a website that sells merchandise such as posters, t-shirts, stickers, and pins. After reviewing Masthay’s responses to my interview questions, I connected his perspective to concepts that our class studied, including aesthetics, beauty, and sublimity.
As part of a class discussion on aesthetics, students were asked to decide which song, “Big Black Furry Creature From Mars” or “Divided Sky,” was more beautiful. Because our responses varied drastically, many of us concluded that judgments of beauty are subjective; beauty is based on individual aesthetic preferences. In Eduard Hanslick’s book, The Beautiful in Music, he states:
It is extremely difficult to define this self-subsistent and specifically musical beauty. As music has no prototype in nature, and expresses no definite conceptions, we are compelled to speak of it either in dry, technical terms, or in the language of poetic fiction (p. 70).
Hanslick explains that beauty is decided based on an individual’s preferences. I was curious if an artist would agree with my findings, so I asked Masthay to define beauty. He answered, “Beauty is a very subjective thing in art, what one finds beautiful may be horrid for another.” While Masthay’s response supports Hanslick’s thoughts about beauty, it also highlights the extent to which individuals may disagree about aesthetic judgements.
In our interview, Masthay made a statement that I, at least initially, strongly opposed. He said, “I find beauty in nature and organic shapes, I have a large collection of skulls which I find beautiful and inspirational.” For this reason, he intentionally adds elements of danger and darkness in his artwork. I was shocked by this response, because I do not find skulls to be beautiful; in fact, I think they are creepy! After considering Masthay’s comments more, I think that his appreciate of nature, including its darkside, is similar to what philosopher Immanuel Kant describes as sublime. In his Critique of Judgment, Kant defines the sublime as:
a pleasure that only arises indirectly, being brought about by the feeling of a momentary check to the vital forces followed at once by a discharge all the more powerful, and so it is an emotion that seems to be no sport, but dead earnest in the affairs of the imagination.
Therefore, the sublime is something that can be awe-inspiring. If we consider skulls under the sublime category rather than beauty, Masthay’s works invokes sublimity.
Masthay’s art is strongly influenced by his love for the band Phish. He states:
I never envisioned gig posters becoming my occupation, it was just a way to make some money on the road and get to the next concert. So it was just natural to create Phish themed pieces at the time as I was primarily going to Phish concerts. Had it been another band things may have been quite different.
What Jnan Blau calls the “Phish phenomenon” gave life to Masthay’s career and continues to inspire his work. Masthay’s discussion of his relationship to the Phish community reminded me of our class discussions about the value of music and how it can influence our lives. Speaking of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, Kathleen Higgins writes, “The centrality of music to his philosophy indicates nothing less than his conviction that music is quite literally indispensable to meaning in human life.” The dedication and passion exhibited by Phish phans like Masthay demonstrates that Phish creates a community where individuals can participate in something larger than themselves. In my case, music is there for me in my darkest moments and is able to pick me up. When I listen to my favorite artists, I feel that I can achieve anything. As I learned in my interview with Masthay, this is why Phish phans come back, again and again.
Your bold style and use of colors is very unique. What drew you to this type of style and medium of art?
I attended the Hartford Art School back in the mid 90’s where I learned all the classic printmaking techniques – etching, lithography, relief printing, etc. The only medium I was not exposed to is the same medium that is the industry standard in gig posters – silkscreening. My primary focus in school was lithography, using both stones and plates. If you had told me back then that I would make a name for myself doing relief printing I would have laughed.
There’s only one thing that rivals my love of the visual arts, and that’s my love of live music, specifically the jamband scene (Grateful Dead, Phish, etc). Being a poor college student at the time, I noticed that people often created and sold artwork at these concerts in the parking lots prior to the event. I figured “I can do that” and began seeking out a printing press of my own. Due to my ignorance of silkscreening, I leaned towards relief printing as a fairly quick and inexpensive way to set up a functioning print shop. With the help of one of my printmaking professors I tracked down and purchased my first press, a Vandercook Universal I. I spent the next few years honing my craft and striving to push the boundaries of the medium, that and following bands around the country. Over those years I was lucky enough to develop an audience for my work, people began collecting my prints and actually seeking me out at the concerts to purchase them in person. I eventually began being contacted by bands and merchandise companies asking to create editions for their concerts, exposing my work to an even broader audience, and gaining more clients. As they say, the rest is history.
What do you think makes art beautiful? What would you say is beautiful about your pieces?
Beauty is a very subjective thing in art, what one finds beautiful may be horrid for another. I find beauty in nature and organic shapes, I have a large collection of skulls which I find beautiful and inspirational. I find beauty in the grace of the human figure as well, but these are just subject matter, the true beauty is in the artists hand, the marks they make – regardless of the medium, the composition of a piece, how your eye moves throughout, and most importantly – how the piece makes the viewer feel. When it all gets boiled down beauty is about evoking an emotion, isn’t it?
Are my pieces beautiful? That I leave to the viewer to decide. I will say my work has a look and feel unlike any other in my industry. Ive been told my prints come across more as paintings than prints. These many factors that contribute to this, but I believe its primarily the fact that I hand carve all my plates. This means each and every print has the feel of an original, not a digital representation, as many reproductions are.
What inspired you to create Phish-themed art?
Really the same reasons as I outlined in question one. I’ve been a fan of the jamband scene for many years and began collecting gig posters, primarily Phish, before I ever created my first poster myself. I never envisioned gigposters becoming my occupation, it was just a way to make some money on the road and get to the next concert. So it was just natural to create Phish themed pieces at the time as I was primarily going to Phish concerts. Had it been another band things may have been quite different.
Does Phish have an influence on you and your work? How does Phish impact the way you create art?
Phish did have a heavy influence in my early gigposter days when I was selling work in the lots. There’s a certain “vibe” around the Phish crowd, there’s an eclectic almost prankster feel to it. This is something I tried to tap into when creating art for that scene.
What emotions do you hope to express in your artwork?
Each piece is obviously different but emotions can run the gambit. The band or the event that the print is for can dictate a lot of it. A print for a Valentines Day show should evoke much different emotions than something for a Halloween event. Some bands have more of an edge to them than others and this should come through in the imagery. I will admit I do enjoy adding just a touch of danger or darkness in all my pieces. It may not always be obvious, but there’s usually something that’s a bit “off” in my work, that’s intentional.
I have read about your process in making your linoleum block prints and it seems to take a very long time. How long does it take to make one single poster? How many prints do you usually make of one design and how long does that take?
There are many factors that determine how long an edition takes, edition size, number of colors, print size, etc. I usually spend anywhere from a day to a week on the concept drawings alone. Once on press it usually takes anywhere from an hour to a couple hours to hand carve a plate and a similar time to actually print whichever color I am working on. Multiply that by the number of colors in a print (usually 5-8) and that’s the production time, plus signing, numbering, trimming, packing, etc. The reality is my schedule is dictated more by the drying time of my inks than anything. I use oil based inks which usually need to dry overnight prior to running the next color, so I can really only run one color a day. This means a run of 7 colors is going to take a week to print whether it’s am edition of 50 or 1500.