Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.

Behind every print, there's a story.

In 1981, 30 years after he accidentally shot and killed his wife during a drunken impersonation of William Tell, the Beat Generation icon William S. Burroughs retired to Lawrence, Kansas. In 1996, Michael Sims, owner of Lawrence Lithography Workshop, a small printmaking business in town, introduced Chicago painter Ed Paschke to Burroughs, with whom Sims had become acquainted. Paschke and Burroughs decided to collaborate on a print. Given Burroughs's history, the image they chose was provocative: a single bullet.

The plan was for Paschke and Sims to execute much of the piece at Lawrence Lithography. They would carry the work-in-progress back and forth to Burroughs's home, so the 81-year-old writer could make his own changes and additions. Burroughs "was making art himself in those days, doing weird things like putting paint cans in front of a canvas and shooting them with a gun," says Sims. "As it turned out, he was too far gone" health-wise to do any significant work on the print. Burroughs dropped out, and Paschke made the image more pacific: capping the bullet's cartridge with a nub of lipstick and angling it upward to suggest an erection. Together, he and Sims finished the work, titled "Missile." Copies now reside in the Fogg Museum at Harvard and the New York Public Library, among other institutions.

Most people associate America's art industry with its shiny coastal cities. Sims, 70, is a deep-dyed Midwesterner, who opened his workshop in Lawrence in 1979 and relocated 45 minutes away to Kansas City, Missouri, in 2001. If the Midwest is America's breadbasket, then Lawrence Lithography performs a comparable supportive role: producing masterful prints and feeding them to museums, galleries, and collectors around the country.

The man behind the artist

To understand Lawrence Lithography, which employs just three people, you first must understand printmaking. That is not the same as printing. Sims helps artists make and sell original prints, or lithographs, "which means that the artist has his or her hands directly in the process, and the image is conceived for that print," explains Sims.

Artists draw images on aluminum plates or slabs of limestone with crayons or grease pencils. They then apply inks: Each color requires a new stone or plate. After additional steps, they use a press to reproduce the inked images from all the stones or plates as a single print on a piece of paper. Corrections are made; then the artist proofs each print and tosses those with flaws. Sims directs or assists at every step except creation of the initial image. Even there he may advise artists on the qualities that make a good print.

Lawrence Lithography has produced work by more than 130 American artists, including well-known names like Robert Stackhouse and William Wiley. It sells to institutions as prestigious as the Whitney, the Smithsonian, and the Cleveland Museum of Art. "If you look at my resume, I have work in probably over 100 museums, and Mike is responsible for a lot of them," says Roger Shimomura, who has been making prints at Lawrence Lithography for more than 30 years.

Yet despite the company's longevity and reputation, it has always struggled financially. Most businesses in this industry--and it is not a populous one--are nonprofits, often working in conjunction with universities. Lawrence Lithography is one of very few that is purely entrepreneurial, and Sims had few models when he set it up that way 36 years ago. "We are successful in the sense that a lot of our work has risen higher in value and purpose in the world than I have personally," says Sims. Why has he stuck with it all these years? He sighs. "Love. Madness. Masochism."

Fortunately for Sims, many appreciate what he does and want him to keep doing it. Artists travel to Kansas City for a few days or weeks just to work with him. Dick Belger, a local business owner and patron of the arts, offered Sims a rent-free studio and utilities if Lawrence Lithography would relocate from El Paso, Texas (where the company very briefly resided), to Kansas City. "It gave him a chance to keep doing his work and to establish a fine-arts printer in this area," says Belger. "Now you have a thriving arts community, and Mike's business contributes to that."

A fateful week

Behind every print, there's a story. Behind every company, too.

Growing up in a blue-collar Michigan town with no exposure to museums or galleries, Sims drew to entertain himself. An art major, he gravitated toward lithography as a graduate student at Ohio University and ended up teaching the discipline at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. After eight years in academia he took a job at Landfall Press, a large printmaking shop in Chicago. "Printmaking in schools tends to be a loose kind of experience," says Sims. "What I saw at Landfall was a different structure geared to quality-controlled production."

Sims did not intend to start a company. Fate thought otherwise. In 1979, during a weeklong vacation in Lawrence, Sims heard from a onetime colleague about a hand-crank press for sale cheap out in the countryside. Sims picked it up for $600. Then a former student alerted him to a stash of lithographer's stones moldering away in someone's garage. Those cost him another $100 or so. Finally, during the same week, the owner of a local gallery mentioned that the ceramics business operating in the building's basement was closing. The landlord offered him the space for $125 a month, plus another $125 for the student-ghetto apartment above the gallery.

Starting a business "was less of a plan than the fact of all these things coming together cosmically," says Sims. "I just did it."

Lawrence Lithography started life as a cash-and-carry shop. Artists--mostly people Sims knew--would pay a fee, make their prints (with help from Sims whenever necessary) and dispose of them as they liked. Sims always kept a print or two, and after a few years a local library held an exhibition of the shop's work. That show garnered glowing reviews in both Lawrence and Kansas City. Established artists came calling.

A new business model

Sims's business model began to change from that of a contractor to one of a collaborator. He worked more closely with these new artists: hands-on, head-to-head, over days, weeks, months--occasionally more than a year--to create museum-worthy works of art. Typically he will take on five to 12 artists a year, depending on the complexity of their projects. Rather than relinquish all rights to a work in return for a flat fee, he now absorbs all or part of the production costs upfront and markets the prints himself. Sometimes Lawrence Lithography keeps a majority of prints and sells them, while the artist sells the remainder. Sometimes the company markets all the prints and divides the proceeds with the artist. Sixty percent of revenues come in from road trips that Sims makes several times a year to visit museums, galleries, and private collectors.

Sims says he is not a confident person, which is why he's never accepted investment in the business. Yet with this model, each new project presents a significant risk. "It's all speculation," says Sims. "We could get a really good artist who happens to do a bad print, so we wind up eating it. But with a good print it's possible to do really well."

Usually an edition will run between 20 and 60 prints. A single print may start anywhere between a few hundred dollars and a couple of thousand. But as the number available dwindles, the price can rise close to $10,000. For example, in 2002, Sims collaborated with Ron Adams, one of two 20th-century African-American master printmakers, to create a portrait of Bob Blackburn, the other 20th-century African-American master printmaker. The Library of Congress bought the first print for $850. By the time the edition ran out the price had climbed to $9,000. Sims has sold several prints at that price.

Which blue is the right blue?

Customers value Sims's work for its virtuosity. "The surfaces of the prints are beautiful, and the luminosity and color he achieves are gorgeous," says Emily Eddins, co-director of Haw Contemporary, a Kansas City gallery that has sold Lawrence Lithography's work for 20 years. "Technically, Mike is at the top of his field--a master."

Artists, meanwhile, appreciate his judgment and willingness to work in whatever way makes them comfortable. One of Sims's most popular collaborators was "Grandma" Elizabeth Layton, a Kansan who started drawing at the age of 68 and became a national sensation, culminating in a one-woman show at the Smithsonian Institution. "The corner of her bedroom was her studio, and she would never leave her house," says Sims. "So I would take the plates out to her. And of course there was a separate plate for every color in each print, so I would keep driving back and forth."

Over decades, Sims has achieved what a business based on partnership must: absolute trust between collaborators. Shimomura praises Sims's intuition for the artist's vision. "When I say 'light blue,' he will know exactly the kind of light blue I want, even though the sample I put down may not be what I had intended,'" Shimomura says. "That takes a pretty special kind of relationship."

Published on: May 4, 2015