It’s hard for me to believe, but I first learned to make prints nearly ten years ago during the summer of 2011, when I took an introductory workshop at Burlington City Arts. I had recently arrived for my curatorial fellowship at Shelburne Museum, and was going to be working primarily with its fine art collection, which included a substantial number of prints. I initially took the workshop because I thought gaining a hands-on familiarity with different printmaking techniques would benefit my curatorial practice. It most definitely did, but it arguably had a greater impact on my artistic practice, with intaglio printmaking in particular becoming one of my preferred mediums.
Or at least that was the case before I moved to Williamsburg. With limited access to printing presses, a situation that the pandemic only exacerbated, my printmaking dwindled to the occasional relief print I could pull by hand. Not that my creative output stopped altogether, I took up knitting during the lockdown and have revitalized my sketching practice, but all the while I’ve been hoping to get back to a press and pull new impressions.
And that’s exactly what I’ve been doing on the weekends recently.
It started when I learned about an organization called the Open Press Project, which produces small, 3D printed intaglio presses at an affordable price. As a present to myself for completing my prospectus, I ordered one, and soon began to experiment. For the first couple of sessions, I worked on calibrating the press. Through trial and error, I figured out the optimum pressure settings, how to best hold the press bed as it went through, and how many times I needed to run an image through a press for it to print effectively. As I discovered what worked best, I also wrote it down, allowing me to duplicate the conditions in the future.
Initially I worked with an old intaglio plate, but as I got more comfortable with the press and its settings, I made a new one based on the deer skull I’ve been sketching. I’m happy with the prints I’ve managed to get off the press. At 2″ x 3″, they’re perfect for my annual holiday cards, and after years of working in other media, I’ll look forward to producing my first intaglio card since 2016.
As exciting as that is though, I’m arguably even more interested in my latest explorations. In addition to printing on paper, I’ve also been experimenting with printing on clay, as part of an ongoing journey to produce practical art objects. Initially I tried out polymer clay, but ultimately these attempts were unsuccessful because the clay could not absorb the ink. Nevertheless, I learned about the pressure I needed to make an impression, coating clay with a light dusting of corn starch to ward off stickiness, and other useful tips. I next tried paperclay, figuring that the more cellulose base would be better able to absorb the ink. Taking what I had learned from the polymer clay experiments, I managed to get some good impressions that actually imprinted into the clay rather than just sit on it.
After the pieces had dried and I coated them to Modge Podge to seal and protect them, I started thinking about turning them into jewelry as a way of creating wearable prints. I got so excited that I created another new plate based on some yellow lady slippers I’d recently sketched, and made some prototype earrings. I also went back to the skull prints and turned them into pins and barrettes. In some instances I left the plate intact, in others I cut out the skull image from its background.
All in all, I’m very excited about the direction I’m taking with my printmaking. As so often happens, the constraints of my current living situation have encouraged innovation within my creative practice. The small scale at which I work now, far from curtailing my printmaking, has encouraged me to explore new forms and materials. After years of being dormant, I’m happy to not only be actively printing again but also experimenting.