Framed prints of Cincinnati landmarks line the walls of James Billiter’s studio. Accurate, two-dimensional renderings of the Roebling Suspension Bridge, Union Terminal, Music Hall, a blend of Victorian and Art Deco architecture in striking black and gold with a vein of turquoise running through.
These could be old posters announcing the opening of the new Carew Tower or one of the city’s many international exhibitions.
But these are Billiter’s own creations, inspired by his passion for Cincinnati culture and history. The city is his muse.
A graphic designer by training, he developed his own style of architectural illustrations coupled with stylized typography that mimics the appropriate era.
âIt’s nice to tinker with, expand and experiment with different aesthetics and maybe evolve slightly,â Billiter said from his space at Essex Studio in Walnut Hills. âI call it refined design, where you elevate graphic design and make it more of a work of art. “
In his hands, Cincinnati looks chic but fresh. What he hopes for are inspiringly beautiful graphic art pieces that truly capture the landmarks. Its goal is to create affordable and accessible art prints for everyone.
âThere were times, especially like 15 to 20 years ago, when we weren’t so proud of where we lived,â Billiter said. âThere was less enthusiasm in our community. I remember feeling this and wanting to move, but once I stayed here I really wanted to improve the city, if possible, or make people proud to live here.
âSo I hope my art celebrates the place, and if you are proud of where you live, maybe you are more proud of who you are and contribute more to your community. So that’s kind of the underlying theme.
New and old ways merge
In the computer age, when posters can be digitally printed in seconds, Billiter works the old-fashioned way, silkscreening each layer of color one by one by hand. But that doesn’t mean he’s avoiding modern technology.
He sketches either in pen and ink or on an iPad, then tightens the design on the computer, giving it the precision it needs and allowing it to fix any mistakes.
New and old at the same time: Images drawn and refined on a computer, then printed in a method that dates back to the 1930s.
Billiter prepared a screen printing installation, a mesh screen stretched over a frame with the image of the 150-year-old Tyler Davidson fountain. His design was printed on film like a photo negative and then exposed to ultraviolet light, which caused a reaction in a layer of photosensitive emulsion applied to the screen and created a stencil.
For this bundle of monoprints, Billliter hand painted orange and verdigris watercolor dyes onto the screen. He poured a transparent line of ink and smeared it across the screen, then used a special squeegee to pull the ink through the holes in the mesh, transferring the ink – now infused with watercolors – through. the stencil on the paper below.
âIt’s kind of a high-end process,â he explained. âA lot of my big editions use the typical screen printing or typography, and this one you usually get five, which makes it a bit more valuable. “
The printed image is imprecise, individual.
âThat’s the interesting thing with engraving,â Billiter told CityBeat. âEach one you receive is both a duplicate and an original. “
Layer by layer
Billiter, 45, lives in Madisonville and grew up there. He remembers taking trips with his father on the subway, epic adventures in downtown Cincinnati. Go to the observation deck at the top of the Carew Tower, visit Fountain Square and the vacation train display. This cultivated his interest in city buildings.
A metallic print of one of his most popular images is an array of Cincinnati landmarks, layered on top of each other as if they were gathered together to pose for a photo. The Music Hall, PNC Tower, and the Great American Tower are joined by a few surprises – the Mount Storm Park lookout, the historic zoo buildings and UC’s much-maligned Crosley Tower, the single-fluted concrete tower at the Mountain peak.
âI usually try to hide it while it’s there,â Billiter said of Crosley Tower, which is slated to be demolished in 2025.
When he was 6, he went to a pediatrician near campus and noticed the tower. âIt looks like a weird rocket crashed into the earth. That’s what my little 6-year-old brain was thinking. I love it,â he said. âI think it was one of the first times I really thought about architecture. This architecture was just not in the past but alive, growing. It’s not just history.
Further pressure of the ink creates another impression with slight variations. No two are the same.
âIt’s almost like when you stamp a stamp,â he said, âevery time you print it gets paler and paler. “
His mother was a stay-at-home graphic designer, and he watched her work with pasted designs back then before computers. He used to sit on the studio floor and do his own projects.
âShe was kind of like an art teacher, giving me something to do so she could focus on her projects and I was there in the studio with her,â he said. “I didn’t realize I was somehow following in his footsteps.”
Billiter graduated from the College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning at the University of Cincinnati in 2001, then studied screen printing and typography in evening classes at the Art Academy in Cincinnati.
âIt was probably around 2014, I really fell in love with the work and the production of the work, and I think it was a way to share my passion for the city and obviously the history,â Billiter said.
He used to commute on his bike and pass by landmarks in the city, then come home and try to replicate them in his designs. He likens his images to Victorian posters, a reminder of the city’s history with the Strobridge Lithography Company which printed world-famous circus posters, he said.
Old and new. Another impression of the fountain, paler than the previous one.
Pinned to the walls where Billiter creates his art are building sketches by Enquirer artist Caroline Williams and a copy of ET Hurley’s “The Midnight Mass”, showing the Immaculata Church in Mount Adams. Charley Harper’s geometric animal designs are another influence, said Billiter, inspiring his playfulness, a tribute to mid-century illustration.
This side is reflected in some of his murals. He recently collaborated with artists Maria Nacu, Michael Colbert and Anissa Pulcheon on a colorful community mural in East Walnut Hills.
âIt’s such a reward to make public art,â he said.
Billiter travels back and forth between the two aesthetic worlds, one historic and formal, with dark and golden colors, the other modern and charming. âThen it’s really fun to make it playful and embrace the whole rainbow of colors,â he said.
After four or five prints, the ink is no longer as effective. Like an aged and weathered advertisement.
Then the screen is washed and rubbed, ready for another print.