There are the true artists. The art-for-art’s-sake artists. The artists who walk away from the sure thing for the more compelling, hardly-sure thing. The artists who march to a drumbeat which the rest of us often don’t hear.
They are the Hortons who hear Whos.
The city of Bishop is fortunate enough to house a few of these aliens, notably the painter Karen Nielsen Licher and multimedia artist/husband Bruce Licher.
Bruce takes center stage this week as we celebrate Labor Day Arts – not in person as we customarily do at Sam’s Woodsite, but right here within the pages of The Sheet.
Bruce has come out with a beautiful coffeetable book this year entitled “Savage Impressions: An Aesthetic Expedition Through the Archives of Independent Project Records and Press.”
Unfortunately, the book came out in March, and all promotional events were subsequently canceled. The book fell off the radar before it even had a chance to get on the radar.
Which is shame, because the book, which chronicles four decades of Licher’s successful, eclectic career (how many folks do you know locally who boast two Grammy nominations on their resumes?), deserves radar.
The title of the book gives away Licher’s initial and lasting claim to fame, as the leader of the 1980s post-punk band Savage Republic.
But Licher is not a guy to spend the rest of his life resting on the laurels of one early success.
Savage Republic inspired career offshoots that took him in multiple directions, most notably in the realm of letterpress printing.
A former student at the UCLA School of the Arts, Licher said his initial goal as a young man was to found a record label (which he did). His inspirations were a pair of British labels – 4AD and Factory Records. Albums put out by these labels were easily identifiable in record stores. There was a care and an artistry in the presentation “You’d be inspired to take a chance on it [the album],” said Licher.
So he took the same care with Savage Republic. He went so far as to create his own set of stamps to go with all Savage Republic correspondence. This was part of what Licher described as a Mail Art movement in the ‘80s. So long as your stamps don’t interfere with the official postage stamps in the righthand corner, you can decorate a piece of mail anyway you like.
So for every piece of mail that went out, there’d be a USPS rate and an SR (Savage Republic) rate. “Our rates were generally half of what the U.S. rates were. We were kind of a socialist republic,” Licher explained in his low, gentle voice punctuated with the subtle trademark grin.
Other bands liked what Licher was doing. They wanted him to design their album covers and jackets. Others began sending him demo tapes – like Camper Van Beethoven.
Licher ultimately received two Grammy nominations for his work in album packaging.
In the 1990s, he was hired by the mega-band REM to produce its annual Christmas Fan Club mailing.
As Rudy VanderLans, publisher of the graphic design magazine Emigre said of Licher’s work: “Vernacular styles cannot be taught in the traditional sense. They are born out of a direct need or out of a particular way of working that is often indigenous to a certain trade. Bruce Licher’s work is a case in point. His gritty letterpress style evolved from the need to package his records. he bought a second-hand letterpress, taught himself to print, and in the process, created a highly personal approach to graphic design.”
Bruce Licher’s parents met at an MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Glider Club meeting. Mom had a pilot’s license – which is about the sexiest thing there is to a man (Lloyd Licher) who was later inducted into the National Soaring Museum Hall of Fame.
Another thing about Bruce’s father: There’s hardly been a person who’s walked this earth who was more fastidious or organized.
He died earlier this year, but had been keeping pocket notebooks (essentially daily journals) since 1953.
On his walks, he would keep track of all the garbage he picked up, as he wished to leave the world a better place. Bruce says his father catalogued 220,000 pieces of trash.
His father also wrote a postcard a day to his mother. Every one of these postcards is catalogued. Bruce has the box.
This is offered as background to say, there is a keen organizational gene which runs through Bruce Licher, and also permeates his work and this book. His work is spartan, clean.
And what’s particularly fun about the book is that there are little gems everywhere – both the art and the stories behind the art.
One favorite. An insert in the For Against “Echelons” album, which was nominated for a Grammy as best album package: “While the album was being made we took a short trip to Mexico, and, in a store, I saw a big bundle of wheat stalks. Knowing Karen had the drawing [of a wheat stalk] as the cover, I saw an opportunity. I bought it and put one in with each record. To protect the album there was an outer and an inner poly bag, so I put the wheat in between and started shipping them. A week later, the distributor rang up and said there were moths inside the sleeve! They’d laid eggs and moths had hatched! She said, ‘What do we do?’ We said, ‘Charge extra!’ But of course, they had to be removed. Some old copies even have pieces eaten out of the paper.”
Another favorite: Bruce was commissioned by Penguin books. “His work was considered ideal for a seroes that was intended to give the impression of hand-made small press editions.
Turns out the poets complained that covers made them seem small-time, and they wanted to be glossy “Hey look, I’ve made it!” and big-time.
For Bruce and Karen, life has been a straddling of art and commerce – how to get to do more of the first while doing just enough of the second.
Letterpress printing has provided an outlet to combine both. As Arizona-based writer Pete Gilstrap says, “What Bruce Licher creates at Independent Prioject Press rides the line between ‘art’ and ‘product.’
And don’t forget the music. Bruce followed up Savage Republic with Scenic and now plays with wife Karen as SR2.
“Savage Impressions,” which was largely written by Karen and then mutually edited, can be purchased at Spellbinder Books in Bishop or through Independent Project Press (760.873.3600). It retails for $79.95. There is an accompanying musical album to the book which can be purchased for an additional $25.