Method Actor

Chris Fornal’s interdisciplinary approach and emphasis on old-fashioned art-making gave a multinational business an innovative new look for their company calendar.

By Ron Wagner

Chris Fornal thought he was simply showing his teacher what he could do with some colored paper, but “Chris being Chris,” as assistant professor Judith Sweeney O’Bryan puts it, he ended up showing the printer company Ricoh what its own machine could do.

O’Bryan’s assignment in her fall Typography III class was for the students to choose from options in sample books and “do something that shows how you can creatively use them.” Fornal went with Neenah’s ASTROBRIGHTS paper line of 25 different hues.

“Conceptually it wasn’t the most complicated thing,” Fornal says. “I chose to illustrate a bunch of bright-colored birds that would look nice on these bright-colored papers, and that was about as far as my thinking went into the project.”

For every paper color, Fornal digitally drew a different bird and created a front-and-back mailer that also included facts specific to each species. He printed them out using Watkins’s new PC Ricoh C7 printer. Satisfied—and unaware of a casual conversation between O’Brien and a sales rep during the installation of the printer late last summer—he thought he’d most likely never think about the assignment again.

O’Bryan had a different idea.

“The rep said, ‘I’m really curious to see what the students are going to do with the printer, because we really don’t get to see much of what our customers do,” O’Bryan remembers. “So, I took her up on that offer when Chris created this. It was very, very clever. Really well done.”

I work with a bunch of different mediums, and I think that kind of puts me apart from a lot of my graphic design friends.

It wasn’t long before Fornal got a phone call from RJ Young, which sold the printer to and still maintains it for Watkins, seeking to commission him to create a promotion for the C7 based on his work. And just like that, Fornal’s senior year got a lot busier as he hustled through the rest of October and through November to edit and modify his birds to fit them into a 12-month desk calendar.

“They thought it was a really nice way to show off the printer,” Fornal says. “It can print in really high res, and the registration is almost spot on every time, so there are no questions asked. It’s a really cool piece of technology that deserved something equally as cool to show what it can do.”

O’Bryan says the ultra-modern machine’s capabilities have opened doors for all students at the school.

“It was a wonderful purchase that Watkins made, especially for our design students because they went gangbusters on it,” she observes. “The idea that all the students could lay down a layer of white and then overprint just meant that color paper was not an obstacle anymore. This machine has just really opened a lot of opportunities for them in terms of creativity and materials that they can work with. And Chris really ran with it.”

That seems to be a pattern when it comes to Fornal. Yes, he got paid, and he got an excellent resume booster to boot, but in O’Bryan’s opinion finding work won’t ever be a problem for the Ohio native.

“Chris is a hard worker. He’s very talented. He’s very thoughtful in his work,” says O’Bryan, who taught Fornal in multiple classes over his four years at Watkins. “He’s one of those students that if something isn’t working out and he steps back and looks at it and thinks it’s just a bad idea, he tosses it, whereas other people would just keep working it and working it to try and get it to work. He really edits himself well, which I think is a huge sign of his maturity and his talent. Also, he’s really smart.”

Fornal seems to be the only one still surprised his birds turned so many heads.

“The bewilderment I have that that project went so far—it was an in-between-two-bigger-projects kind of thing,” he says. “It took a lot of time, but I wasn’t expecting it to flourish as much as it did.”

The project was also unusual for Fornal in that the creations were entirely digital, which goes against his strong preference to create with physical things. Such an approach is increasingly uncommon.

“I work with a bunch of different mediums, and I think that kind of puts me apart from a lot of my graphic design friends,” he says. “I get in the woodshop a lot more than they do, the metal shop. I’m in the printmaking studio all the time working with linoleum and screen printing. I’m a lot more hands-on than a lot of other graphic design people are. A lot of people get locked up behind a screen and just kind of do what they do there. Nothing wrong with that; I just don’t work that way. I can’t work that way.”

Asked why he prefers the unpredictability of the real world when screen printing, he says you just answered your own question.

“There a lot of little happy accidents that can happen during just the printing process. If you over-ink a plate, maybe you get a little bit of bleed in some areas or a typeface that you want ends up working pretty well,” he says. “Those accidents give it a variety, a new life. It gives it substance, it gives it a background, it implies a process that has gone on while the piece is being made that I think needs to be there. I think it puts a thought behind it—kind of a drive or a passion.”

But all that can be done with a computer, right? Not in Fornal’s opinion.

“You can do anything with a computer that you could do with a press, but I don’t like doing it that way. It takes me longer to create something that feels like it happened,” he says. “A lot of it’s lost if you just stick to the computer. It doesn’t have the life to it. It doesn’t have that physicality. Being completely digital and being completely born from the computer, it just lacks something for me.”

Fornal’s post-graduation plans include setting up a screen-printing shop in his apartment while he takes a break before choosing his next step.

“I just want to keep learning really,” he says. “I want to keep doing new things and trying new processes and exploring art.”