Angela Allen

Willie Nelson poster by Gary Houston

Gary Houston has been hand-pulling silkscreen collectibles since he began Voodoo Catbox in 1995 in Portland. It was born from his 8-year-old graphic design and screen-printing business, so he was poised to find a place in the rock ‘n’ roll poster world. He doesn’t use a computer. He does everything by hand – from lettering to drawing to silk-screening. Many of his posters go for $30, but some bring in $450. He’s sold one piece for $600. The Chinese invented screen-printing 2000 years ago, he says, and nothing much about the craft has changed. He calls the work hands-on, physical, creative and romantic. “It’s leaving a little bit of history.”

Find Houston at the far end of the studio, hunched over a drawing table. In the cold weather, he wears a wool cap. The heat sporadically bursts from big iron box suspended from the ceiling in the 2,100-square-foot studio of the onetime Columbia Sportswear building. In all seasons, he wears earrings in both ears. There’s usually a cup of coffee or tea nearby.

“This is my romper room with a lot of stress,” says the Portland artist whose witty hand-pulled music posters turn up regularly at such Portland-area music venues as the Aladdin, the Crystal Ballroom, and most Edgefield satellites. His posters feature the famous faces of Jimi Hendrix, Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams, Jakob Dylan, Steve Earle, Ryan Adams, Los Lobos and hundreds more.

Houston isn’t sure if museums, even music ones, display his work, but he’s heard that his posters hang in fancy places. He really doesn’t keep track.

Houston, 57 (his alternate age is 12, he says), calls himself one of “many” poster artists in Portland, a hotbed for music poster-making. Austin, San Francisco and New York are other hotspots.

But he is being modest.

Houston is the man. He has been hand-pulling multi-color silkscreen collectibles since he began Voodoo Catbox in 1995 in Portland. It was born from his 8-year-old graphic design and screen-printing business, so he was poised to find a place in the rock ‘n’ roll poster world.

He doesn’t use a computer. He does everything by hand – from lettering to drawing to silk-screening. Many of his posters go for $30, but some bring in $450. He’s sold one piece for $600.

The Chinese invented screen-printing 2000 years ago, he says, and nothing much about the craft has changed. He calls the work hands-on, physical, creative and romantic.

“It’s leaving a little bit of history. It’s nice to be part of a legacy.”

He leaves computer work to his assistant Hailey Poyser, who wears fingerless gloves and a jacket when she works in the studio during below-50 days.

If he has competition, Houston and his Voodoo Catbox operation carry a high profile.

He has been creating the Waterfront Blues Festival posters since 2001, and many have turned into collectors items. His 2008 ”Ain’t No Peace in the Barnyard” featuring the majestic velvet-coated rooster, and Houston’s WFB’s 2001-2004 series of bluesman Robert Johnson’s gritty history, have helped to keep his business in business.

He‘s matter-of-fact about it all, especially in this lousy economy. “When am I going to wake up and realize that I’m only as good as my next job?”

He appears to have plenty of those. “I’m a workaholic. I don’t get out and monkey around too much.”

If he does, it’s to hear music. An unembarrassed music junkie, he likes all types — blues jazz, rock, bootlegged, though opera is not on the list. “I like the grimy stuff. It’s all about the energy.”

X’s show is on his radar. “I’m stoked about that one.”

He likes to sneak in a little humor and symbolism in his work. Take the drink ominously gnawing at the heel of a womanizing Robert Johnson as he’s about to be knocked off by a man with a straight razor. That scene is depicted in one of the WBF posters.

Or check out the cross on Willie Nelson’s all-knowing horse’s forehead as Nelson rides blithely through the woods, strumming his guitar. Or the little cartoon-like x’s (for eyes) on the bird in the brilliant red “Fucked Up” poster featuring Burning Leather, Abandon and Dr. Loomis at the Hawthorne Theatre.

Houston plays around with guitar metaphors in his posters. Some renditions are decorated with wings or resemble constellations. Picasso’s “Old Guitarist” (1903) with the bony fingers and the deep blue oil paint inspired a piece for a blues poster.

Houston’s references are many, his mind a mass of quirky connections that emerge in dramatically differing styles of art, including his signature scratchboard posters that he uses a No. 11 Exacto-knife blade to create (and cuts himself every now and then).

If his symbolism or inside witticisms are lost on the crowd, who cares, says Houston. “If one person gets the joke, it’s worth it.”

He’s been doing his poster art “for a lifetime, it seems.” When he was a kid, he and a buddy made posters for a promoter in Wichita, Kansas. He attended Wichita State University and Bethany College in Kansas, studying sculpture, art history and drawing. He drew since he could hold a crayon.

He stuck with art-making but for a moment in record wholesaling. In 1988, he opened a design studio in the Pearl District. “We were in the Pearl when people were scared to go in there. We’d smoke cigarettes and put them out on the floor.”

But artists are first to come and first to go in trendy neighborhoods. Now he is settled in the slowing gentrifying St. Johns area, working harder than he was in the Pearl – with a bit more light. He has skylights now.

Though he likes to portray the rough edges of the rock and blues worlds — “gravelly and gritty, spiritual and really nasty”… he also calls those worlds, especially blues, “full of salvation, uplifting.”

Much of his work is like that and collectors see the beauty through the raunchiness. Otherwise, they wouldn’t pay $600 for some items (though most posters sell for about $30 through voodoocatbox.com).

Catch his work on sale from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday Dec. 11-12 at Music Millennium, 3158 E. Burnside St., Portland. There will be bargains in the record store as well as online at voodoocatbox.com through Dec. 13.

And don’t miss his posters, framed and unframed, at the Art of Musical Maintenance 7 show from 6 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 9, at the Goodfoot Gallery, 2845 S.E. Stark St. in Portland.