It started as a get-rich-quick scheme, dreamed up on a vacation in Columbia. But for Jon Keefe and Jessica Smith, their small T-shirt printing business, Pink Eye Prints, has evolved into a passion.
“And, as it turns out, making T-shirts is not a good way to get rich quick,” laughs Keefe.
Smith, a graduate of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and Keefe, a programmer, started Pink Eye about a year ago, when Keefe found a half-price silk screen printing press at Michaels.
“I did some print in school and I always wanted to do silk screen, but it was the most popular class,” says Smith. “It was always full and I could never get into it. Jon and I were roommates, and when he came home with that, I went out and got one, too.”
“Then we aligned forces,” says Keefe.
Their first contract was making T-shirts for the Peter Easton Pub, in Rabbittown. They made the pub 50 T-shirts with the Peter Easton logo emblazoned on the chest.
“Man, what a battle that was,” says Keefe. “It was a lot harder than we thought it was going to be. We made a lot of mistakes. But we got better and better.”
After that, they managed to upgrade their equipment. Keefe found plans on the Internet to build a four-colour press and enlisted his father, a retired engineer. In just a few weeks, they had a professional-grade screen print press with two T-shirt stations and one station for paper.
“This whole thing is handmade,” says Keefe, gesturing to the wooden, four-foot-wide printing machine that occupies most of the far end of Keefe’s low-ceilinged downtown basement, whose walls are covered in test prints and transparencies. “It’s all just wood. We used regular C-clamps, and there’s even a swivel from a bar stool from the Peter Easton.”
They also build a screen stretcher, to put the silk screens onto the metal frames that they use.
“Between my Dad and I, it took us about a week to build it,” he says. “And it cost us two or three hundred bucks — lumber was the biggest cost. If you were going to buy one of these yourself, you’d probably pay about two thousand bucks.”
With the new rig, Keefe and Smith can crank out 40 to 50 shirts an hour, depending on how many colours they’re using.
The silk screening process is methodical but finicky.
First, says Keefe, they stretch a piece of polyester mesh onto a metal frame.
“Then we cover it in this liquid emulsion,” says Keefe, “which is basically like glue with photoreactive stuff in it.”
They print their images, in black, onto transparencies, one for each colour that they’d like to print. Then they place a transparency on top of the screen and put it under a special light table.
“Everything black is going to block the light,” says Keefe. “And where the light does come through, it hardens the emulsion.” Once the screen is dry, they remove it from the light table. The emulsion under the black image, which hasn’t completely hardened, just crumbles off.
“Then we’re ready to print on a shirt,” he says. “We place the shirt on the stand, load in the screen, lay it down, and squeegee on the colour.”
They use a spray adhesive to keep the shirt in place on the stand. Even the slightest movement could throw off the next colour and the shirt would be ruined.
“It’s kind of a perfect mix of technical and artistic skill,” says Keefe.
Pink Eye produced shirts for local bands like Kill Popoff, Be Alright and Monsterbator. Then they ventured into printing on paper.
For that, they had to build a vacuum table: a box topped with a piece of pegboard with a vacuum hose attached, to keep the paper sucked down in place.
Keefe’s father built that, too.
“That’s a real, live Shop Vac attached there,” laughs Smith. “When we started printing on paper, we had to learn everything all over again.”
On March 22, they released a zine called “A Whale and Other Disorders” comprised of artwork by Keefe, Smith, Steve Abbott and others, and poetry by Anthony Brenton. Each zine was 12 pages long, hand-printed by Pink Eye from front to back, and the spines were hand sewn. To balance the costs of the mistakes they would inevitably make in this, their first real print venture, they used cans of Behr house paint instead of expensive printing inks.
The result was a bright, brilliantly coloured book of provocative art, some of which verges on the grotesque.
“The zines sold out almost immediately,” says Keefe.
They’re hoping to publish “A Whale and Other Disorders” four times a year, with the second issue scheduled for June, though they still consider the zine a side project.
The big project they’ve been consumed with is “The Mechanical Egg Bughouse,” a book of poetry by Anthony Brenton. Also hand-printed and hand-sewn, the copies they delivered to Afterwords bookstore are steadily flying of the shelves.
“I did art for a previous book of his, called ‘Near Death, Maccles,’” says Smith. “He approached us and asked us to do a bit of art, and we just decided to print the whole thing.”
“We never would have thought, this time last year, that we’d be publishing books,” says Keefe. “But we’re going to keep going with that. Anthony has bankers boxes full of unpublished work.”
“Even now, we’re still learning so much,” adds Keefe. “We’ve done some cool stuff, but I feel like a rank amateur some days.”
“But then some days, I feel like a god,” says Smith. “Like, ‘I can do anything!’”
Though Smith is the one with background in art, the design and the technical operation is shared equally by the two.
“It’s a real collaboration, everything works out to be half and half,” says Smith. “One of us will have an idea or a drawing and we’ll work together to make it into a digital image and bring it to the press. Usually when we start swearing about how cool it is, we know we’ve got it.”
This summer, they’re hoping to do a lot more swearing as they move beyond T-shirts and paper.
“We realized that we could print on wood just like we print on paper,” says Keefe, “so we’re going to make chess boards and games.”
“And we’d like to work more with fabric,” says Smith. “Pillow covers, curtains, home decor stuff. We’re going to really buckle down this summer and have some great stuff ready for craft season. We could do wallpaper if we wanted to.”
Keefe looks worried. “Wallpaper?”
“We’ll figure it out,” says Smith.