Steve Walters, 57, is a Chicago artist and screen printer. In 1991 he founded Screwball Press, which he still runs today; it’s come to be recognized as a pioneering and influential local institution in the business of screen-printed rock posters. He creates original art for bands and venues and does production printing for other artists’ projects. This past fall he opened Burgoo, a shop and gallery space in Rogers Park.
As told to Salem Collo-Julin
I drove down to Atlanta this week to pick up my daughter, and then I’ll bring her back next Tuesday. She’s going to college there. I think all of her classes this semester were online. I think she’s been tested for COVID like four or five times over the semester.
I grew up in the suburbs, Hinsdale, and then went to college in Iowa City. I hung out in Iowa for a year after I graduated and I worked, because I still had a lot of friends there and didn’t have any solid plans. It was the George Bush Sr. years, and there weren’t really a lot of jobs out there, especially for someone who studied sociology.
I played bass a little bit in some bands, but I wasn’t very good. I got a set of drums at an auction in Iowa City, and I was a drummer for a little while. And then I was a DJ at the college radio station. Music has always been a big part of my life, but I’m not a great musician.
I didn’t study art at school. I always kind of messed around with it—I mean, it’s in the family. My grandfather was an artist. He painted his own stuff, and his job was doing illustrations for magazines and catalogs and stuff like that.
I moved to Chicago after Iowa in 1986. At one point, I was working at a grocery store down by the Wiener’s Circle and I got laid off. I got unemployment, so I spent some time messing around with art supplies. I made some of my first art for bands then—I had some friends in bands that were coming through town. At that time, you’d see all xeroxed black-and-white flyers, so I wanted to make flyers in color, to make my flyers more noticeable. I would do the xerox stuff and then I’d go back and paint on them.
Eventually I started doing some linoleum block prints, and my friend Scott Rutherford wanted me to do 2,000 covers for his magazine Speed Kills. Halfway through that I realized it was going to take me, like, 12 years. So I went and bought a screen-printing kit at the art store, learned how to do it to finish the covers, and then just kind of stuck with screen printing.
I hadn’t known a lot about screen printing before that, but then I got a part-time job at a T-shirt place. I did some album sleeves during this time for Ajax Records using the T-shirt screen-printing presses at my job after hours, as artists do.
When I was starting out, computer programs for this kind of design were pretty primitive and prohibitively expensive. And at this point I still don’t really know what I’m doing with the computer. I still work a lot by hand, and I’ve gotten better and faster. But I do use a computer for typesetting and a few other things.
There were a lot of good shows going on then. Red Red Meat was a big band for me. I don’t know what I’d be doing now without the encouragement of the people at the Lounge Ax back then. I loved most of the bands that they booked there. I met the Coctails and got to see their practice loft, and they were doing letterpress stuff there and making all their own merch—so that was really inspirational for me.
I named my business Screwball Press with no thought that I’d still be working at this 30 years later. The name was based on a few things, like screwball comedies from the 1930s and Warner Brothers cartoons. I didn’t want the name to suggest that I knew what I was doing. It’s that whole Generation X thing where everyone was mocking the establishment. Other people I knew had their own record labels, and the sense was, “See? If I can do this, anyone can do this!”
I started teaching screen printing to other people as part of the business when I started having kids, and the business was in our living space so I could stay at home and watch the kids. I had friends who were designers and wanted to hire me to print posters, and I didn’t always have time between the kids and other gigs. So I offered to let them come down to the basement, and I could show them how to do it themselves.
After some time, I moved the business out of our house to a bigger space and started teaching small groups. I advertised the classes at one point—I made posters, of course. Most of my students have just come to me via word of mouth. Word of mouth has been very kind to me over the last 30 years.
About a year ago I got a space about two blocks from my house in Rogers Park, allowing me to work close to home during COVID. Twenty-twenty was a nightmare. I thought at first we’d be down for a few months and just weather it out, but yeah, it’s going to be a while still. I turned my workspace into a gallery and shop to sell my stuff and work from other local artists, and I started renting some of the upstairs space to other printers. My girlfriend Allison and I named the store Burgoo (she’s from Kentucky, and burgoo is a kind of Kentucky stew). Jon Langford has some pieces there. Jewelry makers, woodworkers, a lot of my friends that make art are selling it there.
It’s hard to guess what 2021 will bring. I’ve been trying to do my own art for fun, but I’m finding that I really relied on having deadlines to get stuff done. Anything I can do to get by and get through this—short of getting a real job. After 30 years of this, I don’t really have any skills that are useful in the real world. To be honest, there are days that I would kill for a real job, to not have the responsibility of doing everything. But mostly I like working for myself. v