By Michael Hamad
1:25 PM EDT, October 23, 2013
If you're looking to buy a rock-music-inspired piece of art, there are essentially two categories out there to choose from. There's the official stuff — sanctioned by bands, with approved names and/or logos proudly displayed, often in huge, eye-catching letters — and then the unofficial pieces, often just as attractive and desirable, produced by artists equally talented as the lucky few who land commissions.
West Hartford-based artist A.J. Masthay, 38, has had success on both sides of the equation. He cut his teeth at Phish shows, creating unofficial prints and posters, paying his way on tour by hawking his creations on Shakedown — that dedicated area of the parking-lot scene where vendors offer T-shirts, grilled-cheese sandwiches and other in-demand items. Phish, like other road-warrior bands like the Grateful Dead and Widespread Panic, have huge, built-in followings, and fans will often hit every show on a tour, often with money to spend on merch.
"I never had any incidents, but I always played by the rules," Masthay told the Advocate. "They are pretty simple. You don't use the word 'Phish.' You don't use likenesses of the band. No song lyrics." Some venues, he said, have strict policies about vending in general; Masthay avoided those shows. Or at least he avoided getting caught.
Now 37, Masthay no longer has time for that sort of thing. His one-man shop, Masthay Studios, has more work than he can handle. A couple of years ago, he quit his day job at the University of Hartford and starting working full-time on his art, designing for bands like Furthur (featuring former Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir and bassist Phil Lesh), Widespread Panic, Umphrey's McGee and other major touring acts. His impressive website is crammed with colorful designs — official and unofficial — created for specific bands, shows and tours.
"I lump my inspirations into modern and old school, really old, like Italian Renaissance," Masthay said. "I can go all the way back to Da Vinci and Michelangelo, but also the icons of rock art: Stanley Mouse, people like Jeff Wood [of Zen Mystic Studio], who I'm honored to call a friend, David Welker in New York." (Welker created, among other things, the iconic cover art for Phish's 1993 Rift.)
Masthay, who was born and raised in Southington, started attending live shows while still in high school, beginning with the Dead before discovering Phish. Later, as a student at Hartford Art School, Masthay thought of himself as more of a fine artist, one who might try to land his work on the walls of a gallery. Back then, he said, designing rock art was just a hobby.
His luck soon changed. A fan of his work was friends with the art director for Indiana-based jam-band Umphrey's McGee. "They were going to a Phish show together, and he was looking for new art, new blood," Masthay said. He landed a gig with Umphrey's, and that led to more work, notably a commission for Bob Weir's 2010 Bridge Sessions. "Really, it's been word of mouth for the most part," Masthay said. "It was a dream come true, doing a Steal Your Face design… I was over the moon at that point."
Other bands came calling. Masthay now works out of a 600-square-foot studio in his West Hartford home. He'll probably outgrow it soon. And although his name is known in Phish-head circles nationwide, he doesn't have much of a presence on the local Hartford art scene.
Masthay hopes that will change. "I've focused more on the national scene," he said, "primarily through the Internet, where there are no real boundaries. But I love Hartford. I've lived here my whole life. That's one of my goals, to get a local show."
Masthay's process — a subset of relief or linoleum block printing he calls "reduction" printing — is time-consuming. "Generally I'll spend a good week or so on the sketch drawing," he said. "I liken it to giving birth. Sometimes it's easy, and sometimes it's like pulling teeth. I'll go through 10 concepts before something sticks." For the prints, Masthay carves into a linoleum block, sometimes as many as six or seven times. Between every cut, he runs each print through the process with a single color. "For 100 prints, it takes a couple of hours for each carving session and a few hours for a printing session, usually three or four. It's definitely a labor of love."
One recent design, commemorating Phish's two-night run at the Gorge Amphitheatre in George, Wash. this past summer, doesn't mention the band anywhere, but fans get the idea . Another print, commissioned by Widespread Panic for their July 12-13 Las Vegas run, shows a bright, neon-colored guitar towering prominently above the Las Vegas skyline. (If you grew up with black-light posters in the 1970s, this one will appeal to you.) The band's name (and that of the supporting act, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band) stretches from one end of the print to the other. Masthay shipped 500 prints to the band, then sold another 50 in-house. They all sold, for somewhere between $25 and $60 dollars. (Bands generally don't disclose the selling price to the artist.)
When he works with Panic, the whole band approves the design, and that's terrifying. "I like the fact that the actual band members will see it and give it their approval," Masthay said. "But you have to have thick skin. I'm okay with feedback, as long as it's constructive."
Buyers can also opt for an "enhanced" print, which makes the work a little more personal. "One of my goals is to bring the fine art of printmaking into the poster world," Masthay said. "I want to elevate the art a little bit." Some artists balk at the idea of parting with the original sketches or blocks, but not Masthay. "The reality is that I'm running a business. I need to pay my bills as much as anyone else. As much as I love my pieces, I have to let some of them go. For the most part I'm okay with that."
Masthay finds inspiration everywhere. "I assume it's like any other creative process," he said. "I can be watching TV and think, 'That image would be perfect.' A lot of times I like to work in something about the venue or the region, something that the locals will connect with." As for band commissions, Masthay prefers to have at least a month's notice to produce a print, but he's worked under shorter time constraints.
"My process is more time-consuming than your standard silk screen," Masthay said. "But the bands I've worked with in the past have been great."
Masthay Studios, West Hartford. Visit masthaystudios.com