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Artist finds passion in the printing

Sunday, January 11, 2009 | 4:00 p.m. CST
Ben Chlapek, a Columbia screenprint artist, prepares prints for a showing of his work at the Ragtag Cinema on Nov. 11, 2008.

COLUMBIA — Ben Chlapek is like his artwork: lighthearted.

“With Ben you get pretty much what he presents,” said Bob Hartzell, who taught Chlapek’s printing class at MU. “Nothing fake about him.”

Chlapek, a 2007 MU graduate, quit his full-time graphic design position in the Kansas City area to return to Columbia and pursue the art he enjoys most – silkscreen printing.

The floor of his living room/studio creaks as Chlapek takes sock-footed steps from his worktable to a paper-drying shelf. The room has just enough light for the 23-year-old artist to do his work. Pulling ink across the screen, he makes a print. He removes the poster from the screen and then slips the piece onto the shelf. The print is of a forest with “you + me” carved into one tree.

“It’s cheaper to live here, and you can walk everywhere,” Chlapek said. After moving back to Columbia, he took several poster jobs, including producing work for The Blue Note and Mojo’s.

While his work has childlike qualities, Hartzell, a printmaker with a master's degree in fine art from MU, defines Chlapek’s work as deceptively simple. “On the surface it appears to be simple, but there’s depth,” Hartzell said. “Ben makes it look easy.”

Everything is drawn by hand — no stencils. Chlapek uses bold lines and pigment-rich colors, creating dark images that are more fun than they first appear. "It's playful, on the lighter side of things,” said Jeff Brooks, a friend and fellow artist. “It's lighthearted, and there’s humor in everything.”

“You don’t need an explanation for his work," said another friend and artist Garrett Karol. "It's just sarcastic.”

Brooks and Karol share Chlapek's tiny studio space, all printing their work in the living room — just tables, the drying shelf and a bookshelf  fitted tightly with books that inspire Chlapek, an art book of Warhol alongside Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are."

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Chlapek’s apartment is part of an older house, almost every inch covered in artwork of some kind. Posters hang on the wall; some are in stacks on tables. And no room is without a sign of creative process. In the bathroom, for instance, ink canisters sit on the counter next to the cleaning supplies; the bathtub is stained with various ink colors; and the shower head  has a series of connections for water hoses. In the hallway, screens from past prints lean retired against a wall.

Chlapek chooses not to make second-edition prints. “If you make a second edition, it makes (the first) less special,” he said. “People don’t feel cheated.”

Chlapek said he just wants his work to be fun.

“A lot of art is made for the artist, more about the artist than the audience,” he said. Chlapek shared a similar sentiment in an artist statement he wrote for a recent show at Ragtag Cinema, and he laughed quietly when talking about having to write it, saying he does not take himself that seriously.

“The critters he draws would annoy the fine arts people who cross their arms and use big names,” Hartzell said. “He was so beyond that.”

Hartzell recalls Chlapek in a fibers class weaving with speaker cord, commonly used with audio equipment, while everyone else was using fabrics and other traditional material.  “Given an assignment, he finds a different way to go about it,” Hartzell said.

“He approaches silkscreen printing differently than I do,” he said. “Ben and his friends are doing it on their own, adding something to the story.”


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