Bethany Shorb: Designer/Printmaker

15 November, 2010: Bethany Shorb: Cyberoptix Tie Lab

Detroit. My first shoot in Detroit takes me to Gratiot Street, not far from Eastern Market. I park my car on a service street behind a row of rough-looking industrial buildings, but, as I zero in on the addresses, I realize that some care has been taken here to beautify and personalize the private entryways to points beyond: new security doors, painted trim, even some house plants on window sills. This is still very much an alleyway environment, but evidence shows that the former industrial purpose has been softened a bit. There also exists the tell-tale sign of youthful presence: hints of stylized community art ranging from selective murals and tiny graffiti to clever placement of stickers touting bands and upcoming events.

I press the button for 2A. A buzzer sounds, and a click releases the door lock. I am no sooner inside the landing when the mailman yells up from the sidewalk, asking me to hold the heavy security door open for him. I oblige and take it one step further by gathering up Bethany’s mail for her.

I walk the stairs to the second floor. The stairwell is massive. Iron and heavy, not even the century that has passed since it’s construction has had an effect on it’s functionality. I glance up the dozen or so floors of the stairwell beyond bicycles, ladders, and dust. While a good cleaning would do the building wonders, this is the kind of place that may last forever if a roof is kept overhead. This is a testament to the workmanship of the industrial age, and where vacancies are concerned, Detroit is littered with this kind of building in startling numbers. Bethany greets me at the third landing. She’s got another security door propped open, a white sign with a large black “2” across the front– very industrial. I deliver her mail.

I met Bethany the month before, at the screening of Detroit Lives. She was featured in the film, and was effective at explaining the influx of young talent to the city. We had exchanged information then, and through Facebook I had learned more about her professional association with Omnicorp and Jeff Sturges. I had also learned about her screen printing and textile business here on Gratiot Street: Cyberoptix Tie Lab, a web-based storefront for custom, one-of-a-kind, hand-screened neckties and scarves.

Bethany has been in New York City for the weekend. It’s Monday, and she is behind on filling orders. She makes a few phone calls to bring in her helpers, those necessary hands required to maintain an efficient workflow. As Bethany preps for a long day of production, I explore her studio: it’s a cool loft with high ceilings, and examples of her art and interests fill walls and corners and personify her expression. It is evident that Bethany is involved in music as well as the visual arts, and her appreciation for vintage artifacts serves her proclivity for dark themes. At the same time, Bethany is the epitome of modern. Evidence of creative re-use abounds; she is as much a re-inventor as she is an artist.

Cyberoptix has been in operation since 2006, after Bethany had developed an online reputation for costume design and wardrobe construction for art installations and underground music groups like Skinny Puppy. When inquiries for a particular tie design (involving a gas mask motif) took off, a sideline project evolved into what is now Bethany’s bread-and-butter moneymaker. Whereas the first ties were hand painted, the current styles are screen printed for better control, quality, and durability.

Bethany’s designs are entirely original. They project her appreciation for irony with clever concepts (ie., “Terminal Illness” graphically combines a microscopic representation of a flu virus with floor plans of the world’s airports) and succeed with their surprising elegance. Orders are gathered from her own web site as well as an artisan storefront web site called Etsy. Every order is made to spec, by hand, by Bethany. She’s constantly monitoring the computer, pulling blank tie stock, mixing colors, masking her screens for runs of anywhere from dozens to but a single tie. Her clientele runs the gamut from working class stiff to the newly betrothed to the corner office, executive level professional. Lawyers and doctors are particularly faithful customers, and often the targeted recipients of gifts ordered by the well-meaning relatives that love them.

Bethany shows me a photograph on her computer. It’s an image of several elderly gentlemen standing shoulder to shoulder in an email she received last week. She points out the necktie worn by the man in the center, one of her own. It features circles and squares of varying sizes, lines and groups of boxes in an exciting yet beautiful array. “Nice design,” I say. “Who are these guys?”

“That’s General Tom Stafford, commander and pilot of the Apollo 10 mission.” She put a tie with the same design into my hand, and pointed out the print. “This design is adapted from the control panel layout of the Lunar lander’s cockpit. Seems someone found my tie online, and made a gift to the general. Now all the Apollo astronauts want one. How cool is that?” I agree. If it’s the little affirmations that mean a lot, then Bethany and Cyberoptix should have enough to last a lifetime.

Over the course of the afternoon and into the evening, Bethany and her three assistants keep the assembly line moving. While Bethany does all of the screen printing herself, one assistant irons tie and scarf stock flat before she can apply the ink. Another keeps the screens clean and dry– a task made more challenging due to her use of non-toxic inks, as they dry fast and can gum up a screen if not washed promptly. Her third associate packages the finished product, wrapping and hand tying each bundle. For an additional fee, a sleek wooden gift box can be used. As the day progresses, hundreds of ties are printed and packaged.

It’s sunset, and I look out the window at the downtown skyline. So many buildings are empty, and the city is surprisingly quiet. Some might call it dead. Bethany could be operating her business anywhere, so why Detroit? Because of the economic blight here, Bethany does get a great deal on rent. But, more than that, she embraces the city that has been formative for her since graduating from Cranbrook Academy of Art way back in 2001. At that time she considered moving back to the east coast, where she was born, but the relationships she’d formed in college suggested a continuation of her efforts here. Participation in a new art and music scene was exciting, and a degree of pride and ownership in that scene made her reconsider the exodus chosen by most graduates at that time. Feeling that Detroit was at its lowest back then, anything to come from the ashes would be a positive that Bethany wanted to be a part of. Now that the rest of the country has caught up with the bottoming out, Detroit’s reputation as the country’s catastrophe has taken an interesting turn, one that’s only beginning to get press. Because of spaces like hers and the freedom from the economic restrictions prevalent in every other city in this country, Detroit represents a tremendous opportunity for the hungry artisan, and their numbers are expanding. “You can have so much here, for so little. I can’t imagine giving up the advantage I experience here in Detroit for another city, even New York. I love it here.”

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