Justin Lentz and Ink to Media

As Justin Lentz slept in the middle of the road one night recently in downtown Ritzville with the music of the band in the nearby bar playing in the background, he was achieving another piece of the dream that he has been working on for 5 years at his art printing business, Ink to Media, located in the Valley at Pines and Alki.

The road to the middle of the road in Ritzville began in Fairfield when as a 9th grader he taught himself printing and photography software as well as how to rebuild broken computers . “I had my own business printing business cards in high school,” he told me during a recent interview. “Not a lot people my age can say they have 18 years of experience in Photoshop.” Justin is only 32.

After high school he kept moving down the road he is still on by getting a degree in graphic arts in Tempe, Arizona and then taking a job at a print shop/art gallery that 50 other hopefuls applied for as well. His new boss sent him off to train at an art printing shop in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

It was a great opportunity because that area of the country is home to several art world heavyweights and so the people that print their art are the best in the business. Even with a sophisticated $10,000 scanner, reprinting art takes an artist. “It is really about layering,” he said explaining that artists come up with colors outside of the computer’s range by brushing color on top of color. It often takes hours of fine tuning and fiddling with the 32 million colors that are available digitally to match the original piece of art.

After two years in that environment, Justin’s road led him to Seattle where he and his young wife, Stephanie moved to be closer to the grandparents of the children they were thinking about bringing into this world. Unable to find work  printing art, Justin took a job framing it.

Through the course of the next several years Justin paid his dues and learned the ropes working for print shops and frame shops, often working his way up to manager. He wound up managing The Great Frame Up in the Valley Mall until 5 years ago when he came to a fork in the road.

“I was on the way home from the hospital with my wife after our third child was born and we stopped to pick up my schedule at work,” he said. “When my wife saw I was scheduled to work 13 hours a day for two weeks straight she asked my boss about it. He said, ‘your young, you’ll heal quick.’ I turned in my three-week notice the next day.”

It was the incentive he needed to go for what he had in him. “It seemed I was always trying to make things better everywhere that I worked,” he said, “but there is always somebody above you with rules and ideas of their own and so there is really no place to go.” Since Washington Photo, one of the area’s few art printing shops, was going out of business, Justin figured it was time to hit the open road and get back to owning his own business.

While four auto repair shops have come and gone next door during these past five years of the worst recession our nation has seen since the Great Depression, Justin has been building a very unique business one piece at a time. Hard working and independent, he owns every piece of equipment outright. Last month was his best month  by more than 25 percent.

If you have not visited the Ink to Media location, then you have never been in a business like it, not around here anyway. “I don’t think there is any place in our area that does what we do,” he said, explaining that to find a similar business you would have to go to large population areas or art communities like Tempe, Arizona where his art printing career began at a business Ink to Media is modeled after.

What places like Seattle and Santa Fe have is lots of artists who need to have their original pieces printed and mounted and framed and sold and shipped and marketed so that they can continue to work in their studios creating more original pieces of art. It turns out that the regional-hub status that Spokane has always prospered from applies to artists as well. Today Justin prints the art for about 250 of them , and that number continues to grow.

While printing is his bread and butter, he offers them a long list of services. For example he has 6 artists that he is an agent for, meaning that he sells their product for them at his shop or at street fairs and festivals. “For one reason or other, be it age or health or just time, they no longer want to sell their own pieces and so I sell them and we split the profit.”

Never having been more than a one or two man shop, it has taken long hours and years of work to get the pieces of the equation to begin to add up into a tidy sum. “I think the package is coming together and I think I’ll have all the pieces tied up this year,” he said, adding that they have recently started building websites for artists and are putting together a program to handle the shipping for their clients.

While the web may take care of the worldwide marketing piece of the equation, the task of selling art locally is a battle often waged in the streets or parking lots or parks. That is why he was happy to sleep in the middle of downtown Ritzville in the back end of the 1977 school bus that he recently converted into a travelling art gallery with humble sleeping quarters in the last eight feet.

As the artists whose artwork he brought to the Memorial Day Western Art Show slept at home in their beds like his own small family was doing, Justin slept alone in a sleeping bag on a hard plywood bunk as partiers danced the night away in the bar nearby. When he helps one of his clients succeed he is successful. On top of that, the art shows are where artists are and so Justin is able to network with them and pick up new clients.

Whether sold from Jason’s green bus or not, Ink to Media’s product will likely be sold at every local outdoor gig from Valley Fest at Mirabeau park to Art on the Green in Couer D’Alene this summer. That is because Jason peddles and prints and appreciates the work of Valley area artists. He has a symbiotic relationship with them that is win-win squared with residual win-winnings for years to come.

 

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