Hanging with the printmakers

Tara Bradbury
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A new show space give St. Michael's Printshop a place to let the members shine

Artist Ericka Walker. — Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

Printmaking, compared to other forms of visual art, is quite tedious. In addition to skill, it requires planning, technical abilities - even physical strength, since artists are often working with heavy slabs of limestone.

Printmaking in this province has developed since the early 1970s, when St. Michael's Printshop was founded by artist Don Wright. At the time of its opening, its facilities included one lithography press and one etching press; these days, along with those two original presses, the printshop's extensive list includes two more presses and close to 40 different stones used in the printmaking process, earning the venue a reputation among artists across the continent for its equipment.

Over the past 40 years - 26 in the current location, on Harbour Drive in St. John's - St. Michael's Printshop has seen the creation of some of the Newfoundland and Labrador's most important art by some of its most well-respected artists. Though the printshop's mandate has always been that artists leave them two prints of each edition they produce (one to sell and one to keep in the archives), they've never really had an appropriate space to show the work.

Until now.

The printshop has gone through a renovation, explained business manager Caroline Clarke. The ceiling has been repaired, the studio and storage places have been gutted out and the whole facility has had a makeover, from head to toe, including a freshening-up with magnetic paint, allowing easier displaying of work on the walls.

"It's gone from a place that was used for storage to a bonafide place to show art," Clarke explained. "We have more than 700 prints on the premises which are for sale, and many of them have been kept in drawers because we never really had the space to display them. It's a real archive of of the history of printmaking in Newfoundland."

Even the printshop's website has been redone, she said.

It's not an effort to launch a commercial gallery: St. Michael's is still not for profit. The changes have been made with the goal of giving printshop members a place to show their work, and with that in mind, an annual members' exhibit, something that always happened, but not consistently, has been reinstated.

The 2013 members' exhibit will open with a reception at the printshop Saturday afternoon from 1-4 p.m., and will run until June 15.

A look at the printshop's online inventory of artwork reveals artists from all over the province - like Gerald Squires, Boyd Chubbs, Christine Koch, Will Gill and Bonnie Leyton - as well as the rest of the country and places like the U.K., Holland, Czech Republic and India.

"I think printmakers really like the process," Clarke said. "You have to really think out what you're doing. It's very technical, and it's not the same as sitting down at a canvas and painting. I think they really appreciate working with their hands."

Many printmaking techniques are still performed the way they were in Renaissance days, by hand. This means there will always be variations of each print, making them originals. Printmakers have to meticulously plan out their piece and have a vision of their finished work in mind before they start, Clarke explained.

"There are always happy accidents, but there are accidents and you have to accept that," she said.

In the case of lithographic prints, artists use grease to draw on large slabs of limestone. The grease is absorbed by the stone, creating a memory of the drawing. When ink is rolled onto the dampened stone, it sticks only to the drawing, based on the fact that water and grease don't mix.

For a copper etching, artists use a stylus to carefully scratch lines into a copper plate.

In both cases, the artwork is often turned over to a master printer, who does the ink rolling. Afterwards, the original piece is destroyed: the artist will often scratch their name into a corner of a copper etching, cancelling it out, and for a lithograph, the process is even more final: the face of the limestone is ground to a fine finish, erasing the image.

"It's really interesting, going through our inventory," Clarke said. "What's been popping up a lot lately is lithography, and it's really amazing, the number of women who are getting into it. It's very heavy, very cumbersome work."

The development of the artists is evident when looking through their work over time, she added, saying it was interesting to see the pieces change as the artists come into their own.

For the 2013 members' exhibit, close to 30 artists have chosen to take part, including Scott Goudie, Christine Koch, Lori Doody and Ilse Hughes, as well as Ericka Walker, the printshop's current visiting artist. Most pieces of art are prints, though there are some mixed-media and collage pieces as well as a glass mosaic by Joy Hecht. Some of the works will be available for purchase.

"We have many award-winning artists taking part," Clarke pointed out. Goudie is nominated for the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council's 2012 Cox and Palmer Arts Achievement Award (which will be presented at a gala event this weekend), while Audrey Feltham and Audrey Hurd have both been nominated for Excellence in Visual Arts Awards this year. Feltham is vying for the Large Year Award, while Hurd is up for the Emerging Artist Award.

More information on St. Michael's Printshop and the members' exhibit can be found online at www.stmichaelsprintshop.com.

tbradbury@thetelegram.com Twitter: @tara_bradbury

Organizations: Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, St. John's, Holland Czech Republic India

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