Interview: Flatbed Press

The following is a brief interview with Katherine Brimberry and Mark Smith, founders of Flatbed Press in Austin, TX. The interview is accompanied by Peggy Tenison’s photographs of Advancing Tradition: 20 Years of Printmaking at Flatbed Press, currently on view at the Austin Museum of Art. Here’s a link to the Printeresting post about the exhibition.

Q: What was the impetus for starting Flatbed Press and where does the name come from?

MS: Kathy and I both wanted to provide a printmaking studio where artists could come and make prints and I wanted to publish limited editions, so we combined the two ideas and hung out a shingle.  In my research on Rauschenberg, I had encountered Leo Steinberg’s writings about “the flatbed picture plane” pioneered by (Pollock and) Rauschenberg.  It seemed perfect for art that is composed on a horizontal surface (work table, press bed) instead of on an easel.  And, we liked the poetry of the word and its industrial image.  We designed our chop and Kathy printed it as a linocut.

KB: We agreed that a combination of open studio and publishing could work if we divided the publishing time from the open studio time.  It made sense that we needed to be as diverse as possible to finance the press.  After looking for spaces to locate, we found a great spot on West 3rd Street (912 West 3rd).  It was a warehouse circa 1925 on the train tracks with a front area we could use for offices/gallery and a back area we could carve a studio out of.  The total sq. footage was 2000 square feet.  I moved my press, an American French Tool, over there in November 1989, and we started building tables out of the lumber that made up storage decks in the space.  I took out a personal loan for $5,000 and Mark sold a pickup for the same amount to finance the improvements and the up front rent necessary.  We negotiated a partial trade and purchase of another press, a mid-size Takach intaglio press, and we were the recipients of a long term loan of a new over-sized Takach intaglio press, created to our specifications.  By January of 1990, we started out first collaboration with Jack Hanley.  We had an party celebrating Flatbed’s opening in February of 1990 where we showed first proofs of the three Hanley prints.

Q: This may be an unfair question but can you sum up what Flatbed is about in few sentences?

MS: No, of course not!  But I’ll try anyway:  Flatbed is about collaborating with artists to help them realize compelling images in the form of original prints. I like to say we’re in the transport business; we move images from the artist’s heart to the collector’s.  As educators, we are also about informing and enlarging the audience for fine prints.

KB: I like to think that Flatbed is a place where artists can find ways to most fully express their ideas and images through collaborative printmaking.

Q: How has your location, the city of Austin, affected the identity of Flatbed Press?

KB: Our first location, West 3rd Street, put us into the thick of the city.  We were easily accessible and being right on the tracks, gave us the feeling of being at the edge, and now being hemmed in.  We looked out over the lake.  Times changed and we were located in “valuable” space that became more and more hemmed in.  We looked east.  Our friends at Slugfest had asked us about moving this direction a couple of years before.  When we saw the warehouse that is now Flatbed, it seemed huge, 18,500 square feet!  It was a skating rink sized place!  But it also offered opportunity to share space.  The warehouse looked across an open field.  We didn’t feel hemmed in and the train tracks were close.  It felt like home.

I love it here on the East side, but never considered that it has affected our identity.  It feels close to UT and close to a lot of other artists who live over here.  There may be some hesitancy from people to come to the East because of perceived dangers, but I hope that is changing.

MS: At first, we worked with artists close at hand, especially university art professors and artists working in Texas.  Austin is blessed with a large population of excellent artists, so we had a high-quality clientele from the beginning.  Also, many of our Texas-based artists exhibited a bravura style we came to call “Texas grit.”  Austin is a friendly place, so I think there has always been a printmaking culture here that is unusually friendly and cooperative.  The only down side of being in Austin has been that the big collecting markets are in larger cities but we have compensated for that through the internet.  As we expanded to include artists from around the country and around the world, it made less and difference where we were.  We may have missed a few artists we wanted because we are so far from New York City but there are so many extraordinary artists in our region that we have not suffered for good choices.

Q: Looking back twenty years later, what advice would you give your younger self when you were getting started?

MS: Well, first of all, I’d say “go for it!”  We are living proof that two artists who are determined enough can pull off something like Flatbed.  If I had it to do over, I would engage a third partner, a “business” partner who could help us with the capitalist thing.  I’d also tell us to put more energy into developing our artist and collecting bases in Houston and in Dallas.

KB: There was a lot to be said about being naive when we started this business.  At least two people who knew what it was about told us to “Not do it.”   Being naive gave us some optimistic courage about approaching projects that were extremely difficult.  Being naive put us out on a limb financially to do some of the projects we proposed to artists.  We kept our day jobs to support the press and ourselves for over ten years.  A lot about this business we learned by experience, but most of the experiences have been good.  Some advice though: Split editions when ever possible.  Look for funding for projects before starting. Ask even if you think someone will say no.

I would not tell my younger self to “Not do it.”  I would tell my younger self to be prepared for sacrifices when starting a press, and unless you love doing the work and the work is good, it would not be worth it.

Q: Clearly things have changed considerably in the last twenty years… what’s easier about running a Press and what’s harder?

MS: For me, it’s easier because of our long experience in doing it; we’ve just gradually gotten better at it.  And, there is a wider and more exciting range of artists from which to choose these days.  This is a very exciting time to be in the visual arts; it is SO richly varied in style, content, and media.  It has gotten more challenging to market art, especially in this economy.

Q: It must be exciting to see so many Flatbed publishing projects brought together in one place. When you walk through the AMOA show, what new aspects of the work are revealed?

MS: It feels very good to see them in the museum.  But that’s a tough question because I am so familiar with the works that it is hard for me to see them with fresh eyes.  So, I need more time with the show to answer that fully.  All of the prints were vetted for artistic quality at many levels throughout the process, so when I see them in the museum, they all look good to me artistically.  There is one aspect that is a part of what we do with each artist that I see up close at many steps along the way of each collaboration.  But it has a special impact on me when I see so many at once in their dress clothes and that aspect is the craftsmanship that goes into each impression, the impeccable details that distinguish the work of an exacting artist and a professional shop.

KB: I need to walk back through again.  I started a blog about this and the conversations that the prints seem to be having over at AMoA.  I feel as if I know each of the prints so well, that when they were put into the groupings that they are in, it did create some kind of conversations.

I spent some time in the room with Liz Ward, Linda Ridgway and Joan Winter’s prints.  I can’t quite explain how those prints affected me there.  They are all female voices speaking in a musical tone, a harmony that kind of soared above the ordinary.  I guess I always knew that they were on the same wave length, but they get amped up in that room.
Robert Lever’s print is still one of my very favorites we have ever done.  I’m not sure it speaks up enough in the setting it is in…not sure why.
A friend of mine took her three year old into the show, and she got freaked out by the “scary room”.  I think she meant the room with Luis Jimenez.  It is quite a gutsy room.  Jimenez, Charles, Allen…those prints all have what Mark and I call the Texas grit.  Quite a contrast to the room with Ridgway, Winter, and Ward.   I came away feeling good about the variety of works we have done at Flatbed…that they don’t look the same.
I need to go when no one is there!

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Categories: Interviews

3 Responses to “Interview: Flatbed Press”

  1. […] Printeresting: Written by Jason Urban Advancing Tradition: 20 Years of Printmaking at Flatbed Press, currently on […]

  2. […] dispatches from China and European travels, and some great studio visits including Flavor Paper, Flatbed Press, Axelle Editions, and Space 1026. As always, we showcase the role of print in popular culture. Even […]

  3. I really enjoyed and appreciated this interview. I think it will be important for readers of my blog to link. Please check out my January blog, which I will published in a few days, I am recommending a visit to AMOA and will provide a link to the interview. Congratulations on the exhibition.