A new take on the old craft of printmaking

Anna Flemke

Posted on March 30, 2012 in Arts & Culture
By Anna Flemke

The texture of paper, the smell of ink, the crank of the press.

For printmakers, these are more than just sensations. The act of printmaking is a multifaceted experience: one that ties the body and the mind. In Portland, a community of printmakers is working to bypass conventions of the art form.

Amy McIntire, a senior studio art major at USM, hopes to make a career out of her love for screenprinting. McIntire is spending her last semester as an undergraduate expanding her body of work in preparation for the University of Southern Maine Art Department’s BFA exhibit, scheduled to take place from April 21 to May 4 at the USM Art Gallery in Gorham.

A self-described “doodler,” McIntire likes to draw on regular paper with a Sharpie. The drawings are scanned and cleaned up in Adobe Photoshop, enlarged, then exposed onto a mesh screen using a light-reactive chemical emulsion. The image, similar to a stencil, is printed by transferring ink through the mesh screen.

“Screenprinting is a great way to multiply [my drawings] while still keeping that handmade element,” said McIntire.

McIntire screenprints her images on white paper with black ink, using watercolors to paint each individual print. The result is an entirely new piece of art that merges several mediums.

“I just really enjoy how process based screenprinting is,” said McIntire. “I get to explore other artistic areas that I’m really excited about.”

Multiple editions of an original piece of artwork can also be made using mediums like plexiglass, stone, linoleum or copper. Serial reproduction has led to the creation of numerous printmaking techniques, from woodcuts and monotypes, to lithography and intaglio.

 

A Collective Press

While screenprinting can easily be done from the comfort of your own home, other printmaking techniques can require more space, time and money. Seeing this as a barrier to up-and-coming artists, Portland resident Lisa Pixley decided to make a difference.

Two years ago Pixley opened Pickwick Independent Press, a small printing facility in the Artist Studio Building on 536 Congress St. The press has designed and printed promotional materials for clients inclduing SPACE Gallery and the Portland non-profit writing center, The Telling Room. A painter and a printmaker, Pixley’s hope was to reach out to artists who didn’t have access to a printing studio.

“There are a lot of students around here who get involved with printmaking at MECA, SMCC or USM. If those people wanted to print [after graduation], they’d have to buy equipment on their own, or marry themselves to the college they attended,” said Pixley.

For a monthly or yearly rate, printmakers can purchase studio time at Pickwick. An application process is required along with a submission of five to ten images of work. Pickwick members have access to a variety of printmaking equipment, from a screenprinting exposure unit to a large-scale press, capable of printing images four-feet wide to eight-feet long. The press was hand-built by Pixley and a Pickwick intern using parts recycled from old equipment.

“A press this size could cost between $18,000 and $60,000,” said Pixley. “We were able to build it for considerably less.”

Drawers full of type rest in a corner of the studio, packed with letters of all shapes and sizes. Each letter can be meticulously placed on Pickwick’s Chandler and Price letterpress, a 100-year-old machine intended for printing mass quantities of  paper goods. According to USM alumn Aubin Thomas, the hardest part of printing on the letterpress is finding the appropriate type, a difficult task when some letters are no bigger than a thumbtack.

Thomas assisted Pixley with the printing of tickets and invitations to Victoria’s Wonderama, a collection of artwork inspired by the steampunk movement. The “exhibit of curiousities” runs through April 21 at the Victoria Mansion on 109 Danforth St.

Pickwick also organizes its own events in an attempt to bring Portland’s printmaking community together. Last summer, the SPACE Gallery Block Party featured “Analog Tweets,” where Pickwick members, MECA students and volunteers carved a set of large type. The type was used to print messages of 140 characters or less, written by Block Party passers-by. Sheets of printed fabric were displayed on the front of the Artist Studio building, creating a larger-than-life art installation.

“It was really an incredible sight to see all of us come together and make something that big,” said Pixley.

Life After School

For USM printmakers, it can be a relief to know that opportunities exist outside the classroom. Richard Wilson, a printmaking professor at USM, encourages his students to consider a membership scholarship offered by Peregrine Press, another independent printmaking studio in Portland. Every other year USM faculty members participate in a nomination process, awarding one graduating printmaker a year-long membership to Peregrine Press.

“It’s an outstanding opportunity for any student serious about printmaking,” said Wilson.

Student Amy McIntire is preparing for life after graduation by looking into internships offered by companies like Nike and Burton. As a screenprinter, career paths might include designing for clothing, album covers, band posters or greeting cards. While knowing how to use digital software like Photoshop and Illustrator from Adobe may make designing more efficient, McIntire still prefers the physical connection to making art.

“I like to stay off the computer as much as possible,” said McIntire. “Since my images are hand-drawn and screenprinted by hand, I feel like I have more of a relationship with my work.”

In the classroom and at Pickwick, artists are surrounded by others who utilize different approaches to printmaking. Part of the learning process comes from the overlap in technique.

“[Printmaking] is about a cross-pollination of equipment. We’re continuously pulling in other mediums and sharing skills,” said Pixley.

Originally designed to make mass communication more utilitarian, printmaking has evolved into an art form that combines the traditional and the modern. Letterpress enthusiasts, type addicts and digital pioneers continue to reshape the culture of print, resulting in a re-examination of how we connect to process-based art.

“There seems to be a push back to craft appreciation, and that’s what we need more of,” Thomas said. “We need to bring back the aspect of working with your hands, and how its tied to us as human beings.”

 

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