Mathias "Mo" Valdez is faced with a challenge: The poster he's screen printing needs black ink to show through seven layers of color — blue to start and more to come. It's a private commission, a poster for the award-studded Pixar film Up, featuring a graphite drawing of the iconic flying house, with spots of color over the balloons.
"What has to happen with this particular print is that we have to print the black first, which you would never do," he says. "You always print the black last. But in this one, we had to ... and all of the colors go on top." In screen printing, each color has to be printed onto the poster separately.
"What that's going to do is, as long as the colors are transparent enough, you're going to see through them to create different values. You get all of the lowlights and highlights in the black, but it has to print over the top." Valdez mixes his blue ink with more and more transparent gel. He zips through the cluttered studio to grab another misprint to smear the blue on, cigarette smoldering between his lips. When he's satisfied with the ink, he starts prepping the screen.
First, the silk screen gets coated with a polymer that dissolves in water until it's exposed to light. He puts the separation — a sheet of paper with black ink where he wants color — on the screen, sealing out air and water with vegetable oil. After several minutes' exposure on a light table, Valdez blasts the screen with a power washer, removing any polymer that the separation blocked from the light. Now it sits and dries in the cell-like restroom at the back of Valdez's cramped downtown Pueblo studio, LastLeaf Printing.
Typically, Valdez says screen-printers stick to around four layers. This poster has eight. Valdez's record, a poster for a Family Guy special, required 17.
"I get a lot of jobs that other printers won't do because it's not something that's meant to be screen-printed," he says. "Other printers will be like, 'No, that's not something we can do,' so they'll send it to me. I've devised all these fuckin' stupid ways of figuring out how to do shit that other people won't do."
That tenacity, the product of 10 years' experience that includes seven years of LastLeaf, explains why Valdez gets nationally renowned clients, from Paul McCartney to Marvel Comics.
"Marvel, for instance, we did all of the Daredevil stuff for San Diego Comic-Con," he says. "I also did the Spider-man stuff pretty recently for them."
Between the big names and the dogged determination, Valdez drew the attention of the Pueblo Economic Development Corporation, PEDCO. In December of 2015, Valdez was selected for a $25,000 grant from PEDCO, plus a further $25,000 in revolving business loans from Pueblo County.
"This is a whole thing they're trying to do with reinventing what they offer so that they can offer it to more small businesses," he says. "Really small businesses — mom-and-pop shops like myself, something where fifty grand is a game-changer."
Valdez has already ordered a brand new auto-press for printing his posters. He plans to send in his current jalopy of a press for a full factory retuning, upgrade his computer system, buy new screens — a top-to-bottom renovation.
As part of the agreement, Valdez has to create three new jobs by 2019, fill them with Pueblo residents and maintain them through 2026. He's already picked his first hire: assistant printmaker Carisa LVG (Lu Von Gasser). A Colorado native recently returned from Portland, Oregon, LVG is herself a printmaker with five years' experience.
"Sometime in 2011 Mo came across my feed on social media, we became friends and I discovered he lives in Pueblo," she says in an email. She has roots in Denver — she went to Cherry Creek High School — and family in Pueblo. Whenever she'd visit, she and Valdez would catch up and talk shop.
"I told him I was considering a move to Colorado, but wasn't sure where I would print from ... he would say 'mi casa es su casa,'" she says. "That helped the decision."
He's also hiring an office manager. Valdez wants to make art, not run a business. To grow his space into a full manufacturing shop, he needs someone to keep LastLeaf organized. Valdez will also be hiring someone to do the gruntwork — preparation tasks and general office upkeep.
All told, things are looking up for Valdez. Still flitting about like an eager insect, he checks the now-dry blue screen for any pinholes before lining it up on his auto-press. The machine lays down a layer of that new blue ink, then Valdez sets the print aside. He continues to dial in, adjust and test print until he's happy. He will print the blue layer onto every poster in one go — should the ink dry, the screen will be ruined, which means three more hours to make a new one.
It's hard to tell exactly how a layer of ink will look until it's fully dry. But the results are already promising.