August 22, 2013

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Garuda Screenprinting melds old and new forms.

When Michael Lester and Mary Beth Sanders get their hands in paint, pushing it through a screen with a squeegee, they are continuing an art form dating back 12 centuries before Christ, possibly as far back as the Phoenicians. Screenprinting was improved by the Japanese, who created a way to use stencils glued to a screen made of human hair stretched over a wooden frame.

Fast-forward to the early 1900s and an Englishman named Samuel Simon, who patented a process of printing through a silk screen, using rubber blades—now called squeegees.

Fast-forward again to today’s Chattanooga’s North Shore, and you’ll find essentially the same process being used at Garuda Screenprinting to create both commercial items, from business cards, band posters and T-shirts, to limited-run art posters inspired by the past.

Garuda founder and owner Michael Lester got his training in the technique in Cleveland, Ohio. “I started working with a friend in 2001…he had a print shop, and we were in a band together. We needed a job where we could go on tour and not get fired,” he said, laughing. Though that shop did printing only for apparel, Lester realized he could use his experience to create art as well.

In 2011, he moved to Chattanooga. “I got into history around age 10, and Chattanooga had always seemed like a magical place to me,” he said. “So I got here, and everything kind of clicked.”

One major thing that clicked was meeting Sanders when both were living and working on the Williams Island farm. Her background was also in arts and music, so together they launched the first incarnation of Garuda Screenprinting in the St. Elmo Firehall in mid-2011. Outgrowing that space, they’ve moved a couple more times before landing on River Street. 

“We’re still in the basement, but it’s a basement with windows this time,” said Sanders. Her own arts work had not included screenprinting before meeting Lester, but she’s enthusiastically embraced it and now co-manages the business.

Asked about a seeming revival in screenprinting here in Tennessee, Lester said, “It’s always been part of the underground culture…there have always been print nerds.” But, he acknowledges, the hands-on aspect of screenprinting has gained in appeal as people become more wedded to their electronic devices. “Having a paint brush in my hand is different than creating something on the computer,” he said. “There is heart to it,” said Sanders.

So far, small businesses, bands and individuals have found Garuda mostly by osmosis, social media and mutual connections, the pair said. Their T-shirts are printed on the highest quality cotton the client can afford, and are frequently sourced from American Apparel, whose all-American production, no-sweat-shop code fits with Garuda’s own business practices. 

“We really enjoy having a connection with the customer and building a community with them,” said Lester. Clients include The Hot Chocolatier, Good Dog, the Main Street Farmers Market, and the Shaking Ray Levi Society, of which Sanders is a former board of directors member.

Still, it’s truly the art prints that have Lester's heart, despite the time-consuming process to create them. Each one has a run of only 25-50 pieces, and at an average cost of $50-$75 a print, are a perfect way for beginning art collectors to access original art. Lester is drawn to older images, often from his own family history (this issue’s cover, “Stevadora,” features a Lester ancestor), but, he pointed out, modern technology offers many options for screenprinting. “You can use large blocks of color or fine details,” says Sanders.

Yet the many steps, the small-but-crucial decisions that must be made in the moment, remain the lure of the process, no matter what the original inspiration. And that’s just fine with Lester. “I’m proud of every job,” he said.

Contact Garuda Screenprinting at 149b River St., Chattanooga, (423) 602-8568,,


August 22, 2013

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