Billiken Club / Firecracker Press Posters in Archives
In the Archives and Manuscripts unit of Special Collections we often work with material that represents a significant or interesting moment in time. Usually this is a document of some kind – a record, letter or perhaps a photograph capturing some noteworthy event. Occasionally we also collect material whose value lies in what it is, rather than what it represents – a painting, piece of music, or other work with some artistic merit in and of itself. We recently acquired for the University Archives a collection that combines both aspects: a virtually complete run of posters created by the Firecracker Press of St. Louis, MO, for the Billiken Club, Saint Louis University’s well-loved music performance stage.
Produced between 2006 and 2011, the posters advertised local musicians who performed in the Busch Student Center’s Billiken Club, one of the region’s hottest venues. Under the direction of Chris Grabau and operated by an all-student staff, the Billiken Club was known for attracting both nationally renowned and talented local acts, and featured many artists who would later go on to become big names. The club received rave reviews from local press, and won two “Best of Saint Louis” awards from the Riverfront Times: one in 2007 for Best Rock Club and another in 2009 for Best All Ages Venue. Indeed, the Riverfront Times went so far in 2009 as to say that the club held “some of the best concerts this city is lucky enough to host.”
In addition to praise garnered for the quality of the music, the Billiken Club was recognized as exceptionally well operated (noteworthy as a rarity among student run organizations of its kind). Though the Billiken Club is currently on hiatus while undergoing a transition in management, it retains a vocal and devoted fan following hoping for a rapid return of the excellent programming for which it was known. Many patrons of the Billiken Club were Saint Louis University students, for whom it was not only an exciting destination on the weekends, but also a point of pride in their University. To many attending SLU in the mid to late 2000s, the Billiken Club was a vital part of their student experience; for some, it was also a valuable early opportunity to work or intern in the performing arts. As such, the Billiken Club Poster Collection documents a vibrant period in the cultural life of SLU and the local St. Louis music scene, which is why these materials are now part of the University Archives.
These posters represent the convergence of two different artistic spheres – the visual and the musical – at a time when St. Louis was home to energetic and creative members of both. Produced by the Firecracker Press as color woodcuts, the posters are also both art prints and advertising; they are graphically striking while at the same time powerfully evocative of the bands they advertised. Founded in 2002 and led by its proprietor, Eric Woods, the Firecracker Press is a collaborative effort between several highly talented local artists, working together to produce artisan works of commercial art using computer design in combination with traditional letterpress and printmaking techniques. Artists first design the prints on computers, then hand-carve the images into blocks of wood — one woodblock for each color represented in the image. Each block is inked with its appropriate color and separately run through the press with the same sheet of paper, so that the colors build up to create the final multi-colored print. The woodcut medium encourages strong, bold lines and also captures the texture of the wood, lending the resulting prints a warmth and immediacy of the artists’ involvement. Each poster, then, is an original work of art, each hand-printed, rather than produced by an automated offset press.
A new series of posters was produced for each concert season, and many of these series employed inventive design elements, such as prints combining to form a larger image or folding into small artists’ books. Once put up, the prints were often stolen for their artwork, as much as for concert souvenirs. They are outstanding examples of the dynamic letterpress printing and printmaking industry that has emerged in St. Louis over the past ten years, concentrated on Cherokee Street and spearheaded by the Firecracker Press. The Firecracker Press, alongside other local printmakers such as Evil Prints, All Along Press, and Rad Lab, was recognized by the Riverfront Times as a mover in the Best New Local Art Trend of 2009: Artist-run Print Shops.
We are proud to add this collection to the University Archives and plan to share it through an exhibition scheduled for the start of the fall 2013 semester. The acquisition of these posters was made possible with funds generously provided by the Saint Louis University Library Associates, and we wish to thank them for helping us preserve an important part of University life. We are still processing the collection, but if you wish to find out more about these posters, please contact Timothy P. Achee, Associate University Archivist, at 314-977-3109.