Interview with DJ Ramsay, Creator of Lancaster Coloring Book
“What’s your favorite Pantone color?” We laugh, but I’m serious, and if you don’t already know DJ, you won’t know why this is a perfectly acceptable question for me to ask.
Friends call David Ramsay Jr., “DJ.” DJ is the guy who gives me a hug everytime I see him and it’s not annoying. This is the guy who comes up with entire sticker campaigns when he’s upset about something, the guy who’s always up for the domain-name game. This is the man with a keen artistic eye, and the observant hand behind the Historic Downtown Lancaster Coloring Book. This is a glimpse of Tuesday night at the Springhouse Taproom downtown, and that means tacos. DJ and I talk about lots of things on Taco Tuesdays at the Taproom, but this night we decide to talk about coloring books.
If you haven’t seen the Historic Downtown Lancaster Coloring Book around town here and there, then I’m not convinced you’ve been paying attention. You could have caught glimpses of of the two volumes at BUZZ, Festoon, or BohoZone, and I wanted to figure out exactly where they came from. When asked about the inspiration behind the coloring book project, DJ time travels back to 2011 during the closure of the Millersville University Library when he was asked to come up with some line-drawing mock-ups of the new facility vs. the old, dusty, well-loved Library before. The assignment triggered a newfound love of architectural illustration; “it also kind of really makes me happy because they’re full of right angles and perfect shapes…perfect for someone with OCD,” he offers. After putting the illustrations away and forgetting for a time, their rediscovery in early 2016 led to a new desire in creating, so he decided to try his hand at depicting the Lancaster Central Market. “The next thing I knew, I had, like, 30 illustrations.” Thus began the coloring book campaign.
The first of the books focuses on the “Golden Age” of Lancastrian architecture around the city with clean, precise renderings of well-loved and recognized buildings: Central Market, City Hall, Fulton Opera House, etc. It capitalizes on the recognition of famous Lancaster landmarks and appeals to natives, transplants, and tourists alike. The second volume, more focused and nuanced, brings with it an overarching theme of “buildings that were lost to progress and saved through creative reuse,” DJ explains.
“I was really inspired by these old photos I would see of the 100 block of North Queen where they tore down beautiful buildings to build the monstrosity that is Lancaster Square.”
I take a sip of my beer and think of all the fireworks I watched in that strangely hollow, carved out piece of city.
“I wanted people to look at buildings differently,” he tells me. In this second coloring book, “most of the buildings were not standing anymore, so I see it more as a historical artifact.” As a writer, I have to say that I enjoy the second book slightly more than the first as it zooms in more closely on story—buildings that once stood, just down the street from us, paired with short vignettes of facts and timeframes providing context. DJ and I swoon about some of these lost pieces, and he tells me about a few he really struggled with; namely the old insane asylum.
“There were some buildings, like the insane asylum, that were beautiful buildings, but I didn’t want to trivialize it by saying ‘hey, let’s color the insane asylum.’” Ultimately, he decided to include it in the finished product, understanding the importance of the story the place could tell.
Sip of beer. Circle back. PANTONE! I need to know—I need to know what color a person who (self-admittedly) could obsess over a single shade of black finds the most favored.
“It was definitely a pantone color of the year, but it wasn’t recent,” he supplies. [SIGH] “my favorite pantone? It has to be Pantone 14-0754: ‘SUPER LEMON.’” I take another sip of my beer, and I am so glad that it’s Super Lemon.
“Name something that you’ve learned about yourself (as an artist…as a human) since you started the project,” I ask. (Please note that I wanted to make a really great “when life gives you super lemons” pun here, but it never coalesced.)
“I’ve increasingly grown to appreciate the influence of the past in what we do and how we tend to ignore that influence. Or, instead of influence, the subtle homages to the past that you only know if you know the past.” [[Forgive me; this felt incredibly prescient, so I am going to draw attention to this statement by putting brackets around this sentence.]] “So, in Lancaster Square, there are pieces of the Northern Trust and Savings Company that were discovered by the river.”
Seriously, you can see them when you go to Lancaster Square to watch the fireworks all of your parking tickets have paid for.
“Or, it’s just little things, like the awareness I know have of architecture now,” DJ posed. We talk about looking up at our city more often now, about eavesdroppers, about the number of lions on buildings here. There’s something telling about “looking at a building’s past and then looking at why it’s used the way it’s used now,” and DJ’s coloring books absolutely capture that wonder. We are surrounded by story in stone.
A friend comes in and sits down with us. We talk about wanting tacos, and we talk about how maybe we don’t need an extra 100 hotel rooms instead of useable space. We talk some more about Pantones.
“How does the idea of the Lancaster Coloring Book contribute to story or storytelling?”
His answer is just one of the many reasons I am happy to call DJ a friend because this is where he talks about stories encompassing us. He speaks of buildings being the example of past turning present, and explains that, with something like a coloring book, we get to rewrite the way we see the world in our own ways.
When I ask him where he thinks this project might be going, DJ tells me he has a vision of expansion through the lense of “DIY History”—an ever-evolving interaction with the past and that which surrounds us now. By coloring in (or outside of) the lines of history, we recreate it every day. He also emphasizes the importance of conversation:
“Who doesn’t color something and then want to show it to someone? I see it as a way to build conversations.”
We finished our beer and talked about ordering food before I asked him one last question:
“How can art, as writing, or painting, or coloring in a coloring book, be used for good?”
DJ didn’t pause, or blink, or sigh, or take another sip, or scratch his beard; he simply responded immediately, “fostering conversation. It’s like, it’s a way to do it without having to actually approach someone and start it. It’s just kind of like, conversations evolve naturally,” and we talk about how much more we need that in the world. We talk about buildings, and we talk about God being disappointed in us from the eaves of our houses, and we talk about our favorite colors to color with (Super Lemon), and then we order tacos.
For more information about the Historic Downtown Lancaster Coloring Book, or to purchase a few copies, go to www.lancastercoloringbook.com.