The Incomplete Printmaker Completed

The following is a transcript of Leslie Mutchler’s contribution to the The Incomplete Printmaker panel organized by Jon Swindler for SGC Philadelphia. Also included are a selection of images from her powerpoint. Due to unforseen circumstances, Mutchler was unable to complete her portion of the panel and asked Printeresting to share it with our readers and friends at Southern Graphics.

A Masters Degree in PRINT + MAKING by Leslie Mutchler

My own work is a fine example of the breakdown of traditional print processes taught, acquired, and then shed, over years of practice and personal mediation. I myself, graduated with two printmaking degrees, was thoroughly taught and somewhat well practiced in the bulk of such processes.

Print was always first and foremost, about multiplicity for me. The multiple. The modular. As I began in my practice, dealing and thinking about the complicated and palimpsestic nature of memory- accumulation seemed key. Accumulative memories, collected bits and fragments of ephemeral, layers upon layers of information. And oddly enough, that information always presented itself to me in physical forms: stacks and piles of papers. It only seemed fitting that print- with its proverbial foot wedged in the door of the multiple and of process- would be my preferred way of working.

I knew even in undergraduate school, that print was more about process and accumulation than image for me. I collected my own thoughts and memories and simultaneously, I collected all the detritus from the process- the evidence of the print. Raw. Unscripted. Typically forgotten. As I too wanted to commemorate it’s memory. I mean, what are we, if nothing but the trail of ephemera we leave behind?

So it shouldn’t be too surprising that upon my departure from the Midwest to the great and intimidating East coast that I choose a program that catered to my needs and wants as a print artist. A graduate program that would, in fact, allow me the freedom to make printed works or to collect ephemera- and that would grant me the permission to name either act my Art. And a peer and faculty structure that would, above all, support my ideas, not thwart them because they were perhaps not “traditional printmaking.”

In the fall of 2002, I chose Tyler School of Art, working not only with printmakers, but sculptors, painters, glass and fiber artists, photographers and designers. I learned so much from my peers- watched the assimilation of process though other media- the slow burn of the kiln, the multitude of steps involved in casting an object in lead, in glass, or in plaster. I participated in numerous critiques, often looking and talking about work I had never noticed before, issues I had been unaware of, and methods and processes that seemed as foreign and banal as I’m sure the process of stone lithography may look to a stranger.

But I found a voice amidst these differences- I learned what made my work unique. I believe graduate school is a state of mind. It’s true- you have two to three years that belong to you. You can be selfish. You can think only of yourself. In most young graduate student’s lives- you have little real responsibility. Instead your responsibility is to yourself. Your work. Your ambition. This is what I learned in graduate school. That no one faculty member, or peer could possibly teach me the way I needed to be taught. It was always my own search. And, for the most part, it will continue to be a solitary trip.

This same sentiment, I hear echoed in the voices of current grads that I work with at the University of Texas at Austin. Many of our print graduate students come into the program to explore options outside the confines of print. This doesn’t mean of course that prints aren’t being made. In fact currently, our print grads are making monoprints, relief prints, lithos and serigraphs- however, there is a collective understanding that these methods alone will not allow them to reach their desired end result. They too are on a journey. And they are willing to follow the path of their making, their process- to discover installation and painting. Follow the muse of their own work to harness the power of amazing technology, such as photochemical processes, adobe Illustrator, or a laser cutter.Print artists are always gambling with processes, trying out one, two, three paths of process until the end goal is reached. Experimentation in combination with digestion of technique continues to be essential to the growth of an artist’s work. I harness the power of a multitude of processes; from learning the software and digitally printing on paper, to vinyl, to fabric; to learning the process of pulping and recycling my own past installations into fresh paper. If the process supports the idea- if it is essential to the life of the piece- a print artist will research and I will learn how to do it.  After all, many of us take pride in figuring out techniques and problem solving, not solely becoming experts in one technique.

For instance, when my work demanded that I recycle the newsprint from previous installations- I did the research, bought some basic equipment, and found a suitable environment to soak, pulp, and dry the paper. When I had an idea for a tensile living unit, with a digitally printed interior with of wainscoting and crown molding, I pulled out a serger, I talked to some knowledgeable friends, and taught myself to pattern and sew.

We, as print artists, are resourceful. I think it’s rare to find a print artist who is afraid to try new techniques, new processes, new inks, or new papers. We are in a constant state of flux- and the world is changing around us. Digital technologies- are abundant- we can print almost anything, on almost any material. We can even print three-dimensionally. We have programs to aid in illustration, in photography, collage, architecture, building, planning, and so on.

You can, at any point in time (with the aid of a computer and the internet) talk to friends, send messages, share images; find the name of that artist that is on the tip of you tongue, find directions for processes; such as for papermaking, grinding a stone, or sharpening a tool.

Not to mention research an idea, a place, history, or simply stream an inspiring video, film or music by a renown artist or by a nobody. We delight in keeping current- reading up and investigating the current trends- we build readership around sites that present information focused on our interests. We are living, working and teaching in a world where we can constantly find visual, mental, and visceral stimulation. We can buy, sell and even barter for handmade goods from Etsy- no longer does it take a large expense account to acquire art- just a willingness to find it.

Point being- the world is open to us. And students know this. Students are aware of their surroundings- sometimes even more acutely than their faculty. Students today aren’t always looking to learn everything in the classroom. They have been self-educating for years. Yes, my generation too, and generations before mine, have self-educated- but the information hasn’t come so readily, as steadily, or as quickly as it comes now. These current trends should be addressed in the classroom.  Now is not a time for barriers and boundaries.

Instead we should be willing to help our students wade through the thick of information and process available to them. We should listen- always with the understanding that our jobs- as faculty- require of us to give- not to selfishly stifle or squander talent based on our fears of becoming obsolete.

Becoming dated might not need to be such a worry in the realm of print. After all, process and tradition have a way or making the rounds. We often see a resurgence of all sorts of things- from fashion, to music styles and tastes, artistic preferences, thoughts and beliefs.

Within print, processes survive and thrive. Letterpress has witnessed a huge resurgence in recent years- and we can witness the medium surviving in many ways- from the success of Hatch Show print to the magnificence of history, witnessed and utilized by students, in the Rob Roy Kelly collection of type housed at the University of Texas at Austin; to the individual’s desire to collect, build and maintain their own equipment; to the existence of commercial letterpress shops from Egg Press in Portland, Oregon to SIMPLESONG Press in Washington, DC.

Serigraphy continues to evolve, birthed primarily as a design medium, for the reproduction of wallpaper to signage, and it continues to delight and amaze today. From the Fabric Workshop and Museum, here in Philadelphia, “the only non-profit arts organization in the United States devoted to creating new work in new materials and new media in collaboration with emerging, nationally, and internationally recognized artists”; to collaborative operations like Space 1026, also here in Philadelphia, and whose members share “a common excitement for making, producing and creating, not for some outside world of aficionados, but for each other, for our own kind.” Shops like Coronado Studios, located in Austin, Texas, with the socially aware Serie project, designed to support the silk-screened works of “Latino and other communities” bring a variety of serigraphy processes that might not otherwise be available to such communities.

We are bombarded with rock posters, gig posters, and decorative posters (from Flatstock National poster convention to the online shops and galleries of Etsy, 20x 200, and DesignSponge.) Posters printed in a multitude of silkscreen media- and designed by well-known designers, such as Jason Munn (Small Stakes), Geoff McFeteridge, and Leia Bell. Serigraphy is so pervasive, that persons with no print training at all can easily purchase the Yudu printing system- the all-in-one modern successor to the print Goco system of the 1990s.

Relief is alive and flourishing as well; witnessed in Nicola Lopez’s vast and varied installations (first gaining critical acclaim in the Greater New York exhibition at P.S.1 in 2005); she says “I use the language of printmaking to address the processes of automation and mass production that have brought today’s world into existence. The specific media of intaglio, woodblock and drawing that I choose to work with, however, are still closely linked to the artist’s hand and allow the work to be about my own attempt as an individual to come up with a system of navigating this overwhelming landscape instead of simply consuming one of the pre-fabricated, mass-produced and -marketed versions, of which there are so many.”

We can see relief’s strong presence in Betsabee Romero’s careful and exquisite relief carved from tires to Drive by Press’ mobile printing facility, “They specialize in on-site Wood Block apparel printing at events, concerts, and marketing tours. Drive By Press can custom cut any block to suit your event.”

Not too surprisingly- most of these artists and collectives have one very important thing in common: a graduate degree in print. Choosing to be a print graduate student means many things. I’d like to make the argument that today’s “complete printmaker”, rather than being focused on particular techniques, is an amalgamation of three equal components: community, print + making (a broader definition of print), and an inquiry-based approach to production.

First, it’s a decision to work and think in a community of artists. As I thought about graduate school, I realized I wasn’t terribly interested in squirreling away in my studio, working quietly and anxiously, anticipating a visit. Instead I was craving a conversation. I wanted an open forum, constant dialogue and a team-like camaraderie. The kind of situation where you feel as though “together” anything is obtainable. Together you can make changes however small or insignificant. Together a win (whether it be an exhibition, a residency, a job, grant or fellowship) for an individual can be a win for the team.

Having been out of graduate school now for close to six years I find my colleagues and I talk often about our graduate experiences, especially those of us still living in and wrestling with the print world. From badminton at University of Iowa to softball games at Arizona State University, for many of us, it was a time of community.

A sense of community remains central at MFA programs with energy and the power (in the form of sheer numbers)- from the physical gathering of the University of Georgia at Athens and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville’s “UGA/UTK Graduate Printmaking Collaboration”; which “was initiated, organized and executed by grads on both ends. In the fall of 2009, several of the graduate printmaking and painting students spent a weekend at UTK making collaborative, multi-authored prints.  An exhibition of the work traveled from Knoxville to Athens the following Spring”.

The urgency of this community is apparent in the prolific observations and writings of Amze Emmons, Jason Urban and RL Tillman at Printertesting.org. This type of online media serves not only as a great resource for all matters of print miscellany and as a teaching tool in our classroom, but as an online community for the print-minded.

Perhaps you could argue it ironic to view and research printed matter online- in a purely digital, non-tangible way. When typically print is a purveyor of all things real, residual, a physical marker of existence. But having the ability to view a vast quantity of work online should be exciting to us; and I believe the fundamental goal of such online tools like Printeresting.org is to widen our perception of print media. Print can include both the technical of the touache wash but also the analytical response of the designer. We can learn from both. We can examine, study and understand both. But most importantly our students can make work that starts and ends in a dialogue with both. Tools like these spread the excitement and power of print media today. University programs should embrace these virtual communities while continuing to nurture their physical communities.

Second, students today choose print programs for both the interdisciplinary possibilities of print and it’s anchor in difficult, but precious processes.

Which explains how sometimes the most difficult question to answer, the hardest truth to explain, or to sell to an incoming graduate student is the answer to a complicated, but important question: what is a print graduate degree?

For that answer we must concentrate on the relevant issue of defining Printmaking.

We can assume if one is attending graduate school to obtain an MFA in print, one is there to study, make works in, and absorb all things print. And as we’ve already discussed, our students probably have a very broad understanding of what constitutes print. For some of us, this might be the most difficult hurdle to move past.

As we sit in this room, surrounded by these tough questions- we are simultaneously surrounded by answers- in the form of exhibitions, lectures, demos, discussions and the general print-extravaganza taking place within this city at this very moment. As Ken Johnson wrote in the New York Times, on February 5th, 2010, about Philagrafika, “The fine art of printmaking is not what it used to be. To produce printed images using tools more sophisticated than potatoes and rubber stamps once required the esoteric knowledge of an alchemist and the manual skills of a surgeon. Today anyone with the right software and a good color printer can make infinitely reproducible images that are hard to distinguish from professionally made drawings, paintings, montages, commercial illustrations and other sorts of pictures.”

Our struggle may be more with a misunderstood and misused vernacular. We say “printmaking” when maybe we should be saying “print”.

Let’s break it down to print versus printmaking. Print can be defined broadly; it’s applicable, it’s interdisciplinary- it’s an impression, a mark, a record. It’s both art and design. Printmaking (as academics might describe it), however, continues to be defined narrowly as technique-specific. But if we are allowed to expand upon both ideals- we can arrive at print + making. (Making of course being defined as manufacturing, mass-producing, building, constructing and so on.)

According to Jose Roca, chief curator of Philagrafika 2010, “Fixated on defining the realm of printmaking based on technique, some printmakers have printed themselves into a corner, away from the center of contemporary artistic trends.”

So perhaps we can agree that in our overly-saturated and ever-changing world, we should think of print (as it exists within the realm of academia, and for our purposes here, such purposes being to discuss the legitimacy of a graduate program in printmaking as viewed through the lens of a current contemporary art structure) as the amalgamation of technique, process and a multitude of disciplines- as simply print + making. After all, isn’t this what our current graduate students want?

Third and finally, the ever-important question of reality: what can I do with an MFA in print?

As well as resourceful, I find print artists to be some of the most organized artists working and teaching today. As specific mediums within print each require a certain level of planning and organization- we have ultimately learned as printmakers how to plan, arrange, and structure.

I find this skill translates into the “real world” in a very prominent way. I find my colleagues (in academia) who also have print backgrounds to be highly organized within their classroom- from efficiency within demos, to organizing visiting lecturers and exhibitions, to constructing thorough rubrics, guidelines and even syllabi for their students. And print artists outside the realm of academia are often entrepreneurial. I see this skill translated into the existence of real communities, events, forums, and businesses; such as Southern Graphics Council and it’s yearly conferences, to the Mid-America Print Council and it’s bi-yearly events. To endeavors outside academia, from Philagrafika and the incredible planning and organization of a print- triennial, to smaller operations owned and run by printmakers- Tugboat Press in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, All Along Press, St. Louis, Missouri, and the soon to inaugurated Second State Press, Philadelphia, PA and the list goes on and on. Even to online ventures that pull our community together from the previously mentioned Printeresting.org to the social networking site, Inkteraction.

And truly, in today’s art world, an individual, working to make it to some regional, or national, or even international placement and recognition needs to approach not only their work, but the proliferation of such work, with organization.

Today- you should be online, you should know how to update sites to keep them current, you should be aware that your networking opportunities grow exponentially once you enter the virtual realm. Show opportunities, grant opportunities, portfolio opportunities, teaching opportunities- the list goes on an on. Gone are the days of slides and paper applications- so much has moved online, and the web can be an artist’s greatest resource. Professional practice extends beyond the studio.

And I too, am an example of a Masters in Print degree at work. Currently, I am Assistant Professor at the University of Texas at Austin- and no, I am not teaching print. I am the head of the 2D Foundations area, and while I work closely with Grads from all areas- including print, the bulk of my energy lies in teaching Foundations. Print lives in my classroom- from rubber stamp relief projects, to 3-color reductive linoleum posters, to large-scale digital prints. If I, and several other young faculty, catering to a widely undergraduate student body, are teaching students within their first year of school, the possibilities of the expansive role of print media, I can assure you, their understanding of such media will only broaden as they too head for graduate school five years from now.

In my short, but current experience, MFA Print graduate students are not necessarily pursuing their masters in hopes of mastering a technique. Instead I find that print + making, as a medium and discipline, allows for collaboration, experimentation, and organization that might not be so obtainable within other disciplines. Thereby making it an invaluable degree.

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Categories: Critical Discourse


2 Responses to “The Incomplete Printmaker Completed”

  1. Chun li says:

    I follow your web site for quite a extended time and have to have tell that your articles always prove to be of a high value and quality for readers.

  2. Adriana Salazar Lamadrid says:

    Excellent article. I specially like the difference you made between print and printmaking.