Interview: Russell Muits of Storm Print City
Storm Print City turns printmaking into a public act of art, at once preserving history, making art, and serving as a beacon of curiosity for any passerby. Once a dear-friend clued me in to the work of Russell Muits, it resonated with so clearly.
Accessible, beautiful, simple, concise. His vision is clear and the world is fuel as he hads locations to his roster, making relief prints in public and adapting technique in a way that turns the art into a vehicle for dialogue and engagement, because he’s printing out on the street, but also shows us that art is lurking around every corner just waiting to be envisioned.
As IPaintMyMind earmarks Storm Print City’s prolific relief print output for our permanent collection, we’re thrilled to look behind the curtain into Russell’s trajectory, process, and inspiration.
We also find out if the cops have ever put the kibosh on his public art making.
Evan La Ruffa: I’m so glad to have connected, Russell! A friend clued me in to your Instagram account and as soon as I saw the work, I was like, “This is sooooo up my alley!”
Russell Muits aka Storm Print City: Hey Evan – I’m glad we connected as well. Love the work you’re doing and honored for a chance to be a part of it. It’s funny you said “alley” as I’ve spent a lot of time in those over the years.
EL: Lol… Ok, so first things first. How did you come up with this idea?! I love it so much. Such a fun way to print! Tell us the story of how you came to making this work.
RM: In the Fall of 2007, I was working in downtown Seattle as the Art Director for a digital curriculum provider. There was a hatch cover outside my office with a map of downtown molded into it. I kept stopping, admiring, and thinking how cool it was. One day (after happy hour), I was showing someone from my team and I thought, “we should print this.”
We grabbed some crude materials from Blick, made two prints of it, then sat there for 3 hours waiting for it to dry cause we had no real plan on how we were gonna carry the 3×3 foot pieces back home. I ended up taking it back to my place and stared at it all night. The next morning and over the next couple of days, I started to notice little things I had not seen on the actual cover. After that, I became obsessed. Storm Print City was born.
EL: I love that story, dude. Sometimes you just need to follow your attention! Where are you from and where do you live now?
RM: I grew up in South Jersey outside of Philly, spent a number of years in Seattle, and currently live in Chicago (Ravenswood).
My Dad was born in Atlantic City and my mother on South Street in Philly. I’m pretty sure they looked at a map and chose a piece of land directly in the middle. That gave me access to the city, some country, and the ocean. I would go and visit my great grandmother in Philly almost every week and it was always exciting. We would wonder inside of Zipperhead, witnessed Isaiah Zagar’s Magic Gardens grow from a few bottles to what it is today, and we also watched her rag rug collection take over her 1830 rowhome. People in the neighborhood would bring my great grandmother their old clothes. She would then rip them to rags and crochet circular rugs that she would sell on South Street. She was known as the rug lady and now that I thnk about it… they were almost the exact size of the covers I print today. Maybe one day I’ll design a “rug cover”. I always loved going to the city and ended up there for college. In the early 2000s, I created a portal for local Philly artists where I offered them free websites to promote their work. In the first two years I created over 200 websites and connected with so many inspiring people. thought I’d never leave the city of Brotherly Love. My design career started to take shape, I became Art Director for a company based in Seattle, and I got to visit for a company meeting. Before that, I had never been west of Harrisburg or north of NYC. I got off the plane that day and it opened a whole new world. The white capped mountains on a summer day, lots of green spaces, and a completely different cultural vibe. It’s almost the same feeling I get today when hunting for iron in new places. I spent the next 7 years living and working in downtown Seattle, exploring the Pacific Northwest, and building new relationships with strangers. Seattle is where the project started. It’s where I created the Overlooked Art Tour and it’s where I got that first excitement of exploration. I did miss the grit, the people, the food, and family on the East Coast. In 2010, a late night Craigs’s List job search had me looking in Chicago. I applied for one job – the owner happened to be from Seattle, he saw my current address, and said come on over for an interview. 10 years later he’s a friend, a client, and I’m running my design business from a workspace inside their building. I love Chicago and have made some great friends over the years. Plus, it’s kinda in the middle as I travel to both Coasts a few times a year.
That was long. Philly made me curious and gave me a passion. Seattle gave me the excitement of travel, and Chicago brought it all together 🙂
EL: How many cities have you visited to make these urban relief prints? What have you noticed as far as the various designs for these manhole covers?
RM: Honestly, I kinda lost count a couple of years ago. It was over 50 at that time so I’m guessing somewhere around 75 different cities or towns. My initial goal as Storm Print City was to make at least one print for all 52 states – I’m getting close along with a handful of international cities.
The designs often vary in each city and they also use the same designs or very similar elements. Many cities have designs and symbols unique to the specific region for instance: Memphis has a Steamboat, Nashville has a record, New Orleans has a pelican, Philly has a keystone, and so on. In the more modern designs, you’ll see messages like “Drains to Waterways” and cons of fish. This tells you it’s a drain that goes directly to a water source. If you ask me, those messages should be bigger (and painted brightly).
I’m more drawn to the history, stories, and local markings rather than the details of the actual design. 150 years ago, most cities had multiple foundries pouring and casting iron products almost exclusively for their neighborhoods. Today, there are less than 5 total that I know still producing covers in the U.S. Most modern cities are using the same design produced in the same foundry just with a different name or function written on it.
I look for the oldest or most unique pieces I can find. Iron that has the foundry’s name on it, maybe an address, and if I’m really lucky – a date. There’s nothing cooler than printing an antique piece of iron on the same block it was made over a century ago.
EL: Have cops ever hassled you while you were trying to make one of these prints for Storm Print City? If so, what happened? I could totally see plenty of folks just walk by, including cops, without necessarily thinking twice about it!
RM: I’ve only had to plead my case a few times over the years. One officer in West Chester, PA watched over me until every last drop of ink was removed.
EL: Oh, so he was super busy. Lol…
RM: I do use non-toxic water soluble ink so it would wash away on its own eventually.
I had a little scene in downtown Chicago on Labor Day but rightfully so. I was in the middle of Erie at 7 AM on a holiday with what looked like a tarp draped over the cover. I guess they got a call about two guys trying to break into the sewer system. After some explaining (well a lot of explaining), they finally let me pull the canvas up. They got it at that point but not everyone was happy about it. It did end with one of the officers asking me to paint a Chicago flag in his driveway.
EL: All’s well that ends well!
RM: About 7 years ago, I drove to the MIT campus in Boston from Philly looking for a specific cover. Apparently, someone turned the “D” from “Drain” into a “B” so it reads “M.I.T. Brain”. Whoever did that is a true genius and I had to find it. I scoured the campus from 5 -7 AM and never did find it which is a frustrating part of the game I guess. I couldn’t leave without a print so I decided on an MIT Electric cover. As I was setting up the supplies, an officer comes over to see what I’m doing. He seemed confused and radioed to his partner, “I got a guy over here making some art on a manhole.” Within a few minutes, the second dude pulled up on his bike. He’s mean mugging me while I give my elevator pitch the second time. I’m telling him “Sorry, I’ll clean it up. I don’t have to print it, etc.”
He then says “So what’s this cover you came here to find look like.” I tell him and he takes off. The first cop tells me to get my car and double park in front of the cover so I had easy access to my supplies. He directed foot traffic away from me while his partner radioed in every few minutes. “How about MIT drain? I found a sewer cover. There’s a square one over here.” He eventually came back looking somewhat defeated. At that point, I’m pretty sure he wanted to find it as bad as I did. They gave me directions to the Campus Grounds Director and offered to watch my stuff (and my car) while I went there to ask. After I explained what I was looking for, I had the whole office asking around. I never did find the cover that day but it was awesome to see how many people wanted to help. It turned out the bike cop was an amazing artist himself. He showed me some of his work, chatted about graphic design, and we all exchanged numbers before parting ways. They didn’t even make me clean it up – those guys were awesome. One day, I’ll find that cover, make a print, and send one to both of them.
Overall, my experiences with police have been totally positive, but I do have that elevator pitch down to a science at this point.
EL: If you weren’t making this art as Storm Print City, what do you think you’d be up to?
RM: I studied graphic design in the late 90s where mockups, ads, logos, and such were still being made by hand. I always enjoyed the tangible product even if it was for a corporate entity. Then I learned photoshop. I had spent the next 8 years doing nothing but digital art, staring at screens, and pleasing the corporate world – I was bored.
“Street Printing”, as Storm Print City, has been my escape from that. A way to get outside, make my own art, meet people, and collect memories along the way. I guess if I never started making the prints, I’d be working on the computer a lot more, and I’d probably have a lot more cash :). I still do graphic design as a living and I love my clients/work today, but I would probably be burnt out with the design work if it weren’t for this project. The balance keeps me honest, creative, and they support each other in many ways.
EL: What contemporary artists are drawing your attention or inspiring you? It doesn’t have to be limited to visual art, either.
RM: I spent a lot of years with my “head in the gutter” per say – not really paying attention to what others are doing – which I know is a bad thing. Over the past couple of years, I’ve been following more and more artists which has opened my eyes to new ideas and inspiration. Currently, I’m all about Warhol. I saw the exhibit at the Art Institute and it made me realize there’s so much more I can do. I had already started layering the prints and making large scale compositions. Now, I’m thinking about how I can evolve and transform some of my earlier pieces in a number of ways.
EL: Very cool. What plans do you have to travel and make more of these prints?
RM: I have no prints from L.A. so that is definitely in the plans for 2020. I want to go back to New York City as I only have a few from there and I feel like my technique has evolved since my last visit. Hopefully I can throw in some more European cities and been thinking about some South American cities. When I’m not traveling to new places, I plan to visit cities and covers I printed from in the past creating new layers onto old canvas (hence the warhol inspiration). I also have a couple series in mind for Storm Print City that use elements from the street besides utility covers.
EL: Was there a teacher or experience engaging with art you had as a kid or young adult that inspired you to make art yourself?
RM: First off, my mother. She was always making something growing up: Halloween costumes, trinkets she would sell, birthday decorations, MC hammer pants and Jams (or whatever clothes were in style at the time :). I remember wanting the real brands at the time but also remember thinking how cool it was she was able to make them herself. She’d even throw in a pair for a friend or two which is also my typical approach to life.
I had a professor in college who helped shape my career and future. Dave Stencler was, and still is, a successful graphic designer with a home office, a positive outlook, and an inspiration to many. He taught me a lot about design, always pushed for more, and made me want to live the freelance life of freedom. Now I just need that sweet rowhome he had.
EL: If you could live in one creative or artistic era in history, what would it be and why?
RM: Tough…I would say Modern Art even though it’s a huge range and timeline :). It was a century of experimenting with new techniques and new approaches to what art was considered to be. It seems like artists were creating and producing new art without worrying about acceptance or what others were doing. Often overlooked, there were countless new styles created during that period. I also love to see works from the early Modern Art eras that start to incorporate a graphic design approach creating paths to Pop Art and other contemporary approaches.
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