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Big Table's Big Ideas

On a quiet afternoon just before the holidays, Kelly Perlick, an intern at Big Table Studio (BTS), is deftly applying vibrant red to a screen that will be printed into a new poster for Studio Sendero: The St. Paul dance company has a flamenco performance this month. Perlick hovers over one of the big tables in the new shop, which is a screen-printing studio, multi-purpose workshop, office, gallery, and retail store on 6th and Wabasha in downtown St. Paul.
The big table for which the studio is named is behind the floor-to-ceiling storefront windows, past the racks of original screen-printed cards and t-shirts, beyond the walls where posters from the INKCICLES Holiday Poster Show are hung, and behind the worktables where Perlick is slinging ink. It’s a large round table (yes, the knights and King Arthur come to mind) with eight chairs: one for each of BTS’s eight members.

Around the Table
Those members include Spunk (code for designer and BTS financial backer Jeff Johnson), multi-media artist Zara Gonzalez Hoang (the only woman “at the table,” who designs posters, installations and iPhone apps) and Nick Zdon, who is setting up to shoot a knife-sharpening how-to video for his New York client, Best Made Co. “People buy into the table and get a seat, get a key, and can come and go as they please” says graphic designer and musician Peet Fetsch, one of BTS’s founders.

In addition to using the print facilities or worktables as they please, members can sell their products through the BTS retail shop. Some pay for a year at a time; others rent by the month. “It’s an all-purpose space in which I can do a number of things,” says Zdon. “I’ve also tripled my book collection, doubled my lps, and there’s tons of random stuff brought into the studio that I have access to now. It’s about sharing stuff as well as mental and creative energy.”

Getting Visible

Fetsch and Zdon, along with Craig Johnson and Bill Ferenc originally set up shop inside the Jax Building. They constructed a big table to work around, and Craig Johnson “came up with the clever name,” Big Table Studio, Fetsch says. But the guys had few visitors and even less visibility.
Meanwhile, Joe Spencer, Director of Arts and Culture for the City of St. Paul, was looking to fill the empty street-level retail spaces in the city-owned Lawson Commons with creative, like-minded businesses that would generate synergy downtown. “The strategy for the whole block was to bring in a group of creative businesses all drawing similar audiences that were somehow related to music,” Spencer says.
The Amsterdam Bar and Hall, a music venue and bar/restaurant owned by the Jon and Jarret Oulman (331 Club in northeast Minneapolis) was already in the spot formerly occupied by Pop, and before that Fhima’s. Eclipse Records also moved from the Midway area to a storefront next to Amsterdam. Then Spencer approached Fetsch about moving Big Table Studio next door.                

“I was out talking to poster artists who are known for creating gig posters for bands, and that led me to Peet Fetsch and the concept that has become Big Table Studio,” Spencer says. Fetsch joined forces with Jeff Johnson as financial backer, whom he’d worked with on Poster Offensive (a bi-annual political poster show), and made the move. Johnson, also founder of Spunk Design Machine, holds a seat at the table.
BTS “is a huge addition to downtown St. Paul, not just because we've got a new gallery/art-retail presence, but also because it brought together some of the most entrepreneurial artists in the region,” Spencer adds.

Sources of Inspiration

Fetsch took inspiration for BTS’s cooperative format from two primary sources. One was CoCo (for co-working and collaborative space), located in St. Paul’s Lowertown and downtown Minneapolis, a place where members—who may be freelancers, small-business owners or corporate groups—can work, have meetings or hold events. The other was Lunalux on Loring Park in Minneapolis, a letterpress shop owned by Jenni Undis with a storefront that interests passersby in the goings-on inside and draws them into the retail store.
Similarly, passersby have started to drop by. “We’re doing custom work, ordered by people coming in off the street,” Fetsch says, such as the flamenco poster for Studio Sendero. “A guy who runs a record label was on his way to Amsterdam, stopped in, and ordered a poster for a Charlie Parr show,” Fetsch adds.
Not only is BTS working across disciplines, but also networking in the neighborhood. Fetsch has done work for the St. Paul Conservatory and McNally Smith College of Music. He’s hoping to offer corporate team-building workshops for EcoLab (directly across the street) or Travelers Insurance (over on Washington St.), using screen-printing as a creative exercise.
This month, BTS is also teaching its first class, Slinging Ink 101. And on February 3, Big Table will hold a Valentine's Day poster show, "For the Love of Love," in conjunction with a fundraiser at the Amsterdam supporting the campaign against Minnesota's proposed Marriage Amendment.

“We are hoping, and planning,” Fetsch says, “for a bigger table in the future.”

Camille LeFevre's last article for The Line was a profile of artist/activist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, in our August 31, 2011 issue.

Photos, top to bottom:

Peet Fetsch, a cofounder of Big Table Studio

Peet Fetsch, Grace Moran, and Nick Zdon at work

Grace Moran prints on a 1929-vintage Chandler and Price platen press.

Work in progress on one of Big Table's tables

All photos by Bill Kelley

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