Pioneers of Printing: Anthony Velonis and the Invention of the Serigraphy

In this edition of Pioneers of Printing we esteem the work of Anthony Velonis. The New York artist is mainly responsible for introducing the screen printing technology to public and making it popular, as well as inspiring other great artists such as Andy Warhol who created art with this printing technique.

In this edition of Pioneers of Printing we focus on the American painter and designer, Anthony Velonis, who is significantly responsible for making screen printing popular to a wider public.

While working for the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression, he experimented and mastered techniques to print on many different materials and therefore brought screen printing from an industrial use to the world of fine art. The so-called serigraphy inspired many other famous artists such as Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg.

A Rough Start in New York

Anthony Velonis has a rather poor background: He was born into an immigrant family in New York’s tenements in 1911. Taking minor artistic roles such as the illustration of his high school yearbook, he later received a scholarship to the NYU College of Fine Arts, which left him both, surprised and proud to be selected. In his student years he experimented with different art styles such as watercolouring, sculpturing and painting to find his speciality.

When he graduated in 1929, the USA was just hit by the Great Depression. On the one hand, he was lucky to leave university before the crash, on the other hand these times didn’t offer great opportunities to start a career. Also, he had to support his family as his father lost his job. But Anthony Velonis used his skills and got a job at Stern Brothers as a letterer for suitcases and trunks. In an interview from 1965 he said he hated this job, because it was really monotonous and he always wanted to do art. Although his family wasn’t very happy about it, he finally quit the job and started to work in his brothers sign shop. There, he was able to experiment with silkscreen process. Later he referred to this time as a period of plenty of fun as he could discover the technology little by little.

The New Deal and World War II

After getting in contact with New York’s city government through a poster promoting job in 1934, Anthony Velonis began working for different city departments and finally became employed in the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA). Like the Civil Works Administration, the main task of the WPA was to get the millions of unemployed workers rapidly to manual-labour jobs, mostly related to public projects. In 1938, Velonis joined the Federal Art Project, a subdivision of the WPA, to lead its graphic art division. In an interview from 1994 he stated, that he greatly enjoyed that period, especially because it allowed him to meet other artists with their different points of view.

With the experiences made during the time working for the city government, he founded the Creative Printmakers Group with other artists in 1939. Printing both, their own works and those of other artists, they immediately became one of the most important silkscreen shops of this time. In 1940, Velonis and other artists co-founded the National Serigraph Society, which started with small commercial projects like selling “fancy Christmas cards” to the upscale Fifth Avenue shops. In the same year he also founded the Ceraglass Company to experiment with silkscreen prints on glass and plastic.

With the United States’ entry into World War II, Velonis was drafted into the Air Force, where he mostly expanded military programs such as screen processing and graphic arts, for example, formatting raw data into more visual objects such as illustrations and infographics for military briefings.

The Career and the Legacy

After the war, Velonis returned to his companies, which had grown roughly. In the following years, he continued to print on various materials, especially on metal. An interesting fact is, that he focused less on painting, although he always wanted to do art. He later reflected this lack of creative energy as a result of this work, as this required him to “apply yourself day in and day out” for acceptable results. In retrospect, his loss was our gain, as screen printing would never have become that popular. In honor his legacy, the Society of Glass and Ceramic Decorators, has hosted an annual scholarship in his name.