Warhol program screens teen artists for activism



Annie Erickson shows off her screen printed Dunder Mifflin T-shirt.


For a brief moment this summer, a normally uninhabited storefront on the edge of East Ohio Street clamored with the sound of squeegees and printers.

During July, the Andy Warhol Museum transformed the site of the former Liberty Tax Service on the corner of East  and East Ohio streets into a screen printing studio for its summer RUST program. RUST — or Radical Urban Screen printing Team — is one of the Warhol’s newer community outreach programs.

The program’s raison d’être is to teach screen printing and career skills to a select group of teenage artists with a flair for activism. Six students were selected this year to work alongside the Warhol’s artist educators on independent screen printing projects every weekday in July.

“Really the idea for it came out of working with Schenley and CAPA [high schools] over the years, doing projects that focus on activism,” said Tresa Varner, head of education at the Warhol.

The projects, which vary from posters to postcards and sometimes t-shirts, all aim to communicate an explicit social message.

“The whole idea is to do socially-conscious artwork, so it’s not for band posters or anything like that,” said artist educator Ashley Brickman.

In exchange for their time spent learning the skills of screen printing and community activism, the students are paid a $300 monthly stipend.

“If we don’t pay them a little something, we’re going to lose them to McDonald’s or the mall,” Varner said.

The prints that hung around the studio reflected a wide range of student opinion. Some decried global warming; others, senseless violence. One prominent poster showed a baby fetus dressed up as Rosy the Riveter, complete with red bandana and outstretched bicep. In small type the artist asked why after so much progress in women’s rights during the 20th century, female fetuses lack legal protections.

“We did a whole brainstorming session where we chose topics that interested us,” said Marissa Gillcrease, an 11th grader from Perry Traditional H.S. who heard about RUST from the Young Men & Women’s African Heritage Association.

Gillcrease chose to design an anti-littering print. The print shows a group of fish swimming off the Point, near the fountain. Above the water, Downtown’s skyscrapers stand in stark relief. One fish asks the others “HEY! Where is everybody?” Above the city, a lone seagull says “I’m moving.” A paragraph in the middle of the poster states: “Human Waste Containing Drugs or Hormone Replacement Therapy and Birth Control is Getting into the River, as are Estrogen-Mimicking Chemicals such as Laundry Detergents and Plastics.”

As Gillcrease dragged the squeegee across the screen to apply a gold layer to the fish, another student asked if there aren’t any fish in Pittsburgh’s rivers.

“There’re some fish,” Gillcrease responded quietly, “but not as many as there should be.”

RUST, a collaboration between the Warhol and Artist Image Resource, or AIR, is in its second year. Last summer RUST spent its inaugural month next to the gallery Space on Liberty Avenue, Downtown. The plan is to move RUST into a different neighborhood every year.

“We wanted to get it on a main street,” said Brickman. “This month we wanted to focus on the Northside.”

All six students are Northsiders. From noon to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday throughout July, they spent their time designing and producing elaborate screen prints.

Last year RUST students aided specific community groups, such as Bike Pittsburgh and the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, by producing media to advertise each group’s message or events.

“This year while we’re more loose with the structure,” said Brickman, “we still have community partners to work with, like the farmer’s market.”

Students created signs to advertise the farmer’s market and also painted large cutouts in the shape of vegetables to decorate the event.

Screen printing, in its modern form, has existed since the early 20th century. The first step is to draw a design onto a clear film called an acetate. Students at RUST use either opaque markers or computers to print designs onto the acetate. When the acetate is finished, it is placed onto a light table, which contains strong light bulbs that shine upward through a transparent surface. Then a silk screen, kept in a darkroom to protect from the sun, is placed directly on top of the acetate.

When the light table is turned on for seven minutes, the light catalyzes the emulsion on the silkscreen and the acetate produces a negative against this backdrop.

After this process, called “burning,” the screen is washed and prepared for the print. Once paint is squirted onto one side of the screen, an artist uses a squeegee to spread it evenly. Multiple prints can be made from a single screen, and most students burn several different screens to create the separate layers of a single print.

Although the RUST program only accommodates six full-time student artists, the workshop offers a free open house every Wednesday in July for youth.

On a recent Wednesday night, teens from as far away as Latrobe were busy drawing on acetates and screen printing their own clothes.

Annie Erickson and Robin Redpath, both of North Allegheny H.S., made “Dunder Mifflin” T-shirts in honor of the paper company in NBC’s “The Office.”

“A lady who taught classes at CMU mentioned a place on the Northside where we could screen print t-shirts,” said Redpath, who followed the teacher’s advice and attended the open print shop AIR on Foreland Avenue.

AIR charges a small fee for use of its screens and printers, but many of its younger patrons came to RUST during July to take advantage of the free equipment.

“That’s why we come so often,” said Redpath.

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