Klea and I did something a little different recently. Instead of visiting an artist in their private studio space we spent some time at Crown Point Press to learn more about its considerable history and influence and most importantly, the work of its master printers. Founded in 1962 by Kathan Brown, this year marks its 50th anniversary which the De Young Museum is currently celebrating in its show Crown Point Press at 50 (through February 17, 2013), featuring prints by 15 internationally renowned artists made at the press over the years. Kathan’s new memoir Know That You Are Lucky was just released this October, which recounts all the ups and downs of Crown Point Press and her interactions with seminal artists, along with her own personal history. So, it certainly felt timely to visit the press and take the opportunity to chat with Kathan and observe two master printers, Ianne Kjorlie and Emily York, at work.
Master printers are highly skilled printers who work very closely with artists to produce editions of the artists’ work. The title “master printer” is usually attained over a long period of time and involves a disciplined development of specific skill sets. At Crown Point Press it takes three years of intensive training to become a master printer. During this time those in training work very closely with the studio’s master printers to learn all of the technical demands of etching as well as the subtleties of working with artists in the studio. It was exciting to meet and chat with Ianne and Emily because so much of their work is about the legacy of craftsmanship; very specific skills are duly earned by putting in long hours and lots of labor, and maintaining focus and dedication.
Located in downtown San Francisco on Hawthorne Lane, the space is beautiful; there are massive windows, exposed brick and beams, and a palpable airiness. Upon our arrival Kathan walked us around the gallery space to show us painter Richard Diebenkorn’s 1986 etchings “Red-Yellow-Blue” and “Green” along with the working proofs for each piece. She took some time to chat with us too, and we discussed the long history of Crown Point Press, her thoughts on current (albeit sometimes fragmented and convoluted) art movements, and the satisfaction of completing her memoir. With regards to all her hard work at Crown Point Press, Kathan simply said, “In this technological time, it’s nice to be involved in something that’s all about using your hands.” A simple, but perfect statement.
Crown Point Press is an important Bay Area organization that has had a great deal of influence on the local arts community— it has widely been credited with sparking the revival of etching as a viable art medium. Functioning as both gallery and studio it focuses on the creative process in the art of printmaking, primarily etching. For the last 50 years Crown Point Press has invited international artists to come to San Francisco to work with their master printers to create a limited edition piece of work. Generally, five or six artists come each year and spend about two weeks working with the master printmakers. More often than not these artists are painters, sculptors, and conceptual artists who are encountering printmaking for the first time and therefore are approaching their work in a very different way.
While we were there we got to watch Ianne and Emily in action— working on editions of painter Anne Appleby’s color panels. The prints are made of squares of color, each color created by layering multiple plates to reveal a precisely formulated luminous hue. The press they worked on was impressive, and some of the tools themselves are quite lovely to look at— like the brightly stained tarlatan cloths used to wipe the copper plates. Emily and Ianne steadily worked as we chatted, never really breaking rhythm with the tasks at hand.
At one point in discussing what the process of working with different artists is like, we bumped into the wordcollaboration. I’m the one that said it and immediately I sensed uneasiness around the word. Ianne and Emily explained that the philosophy at Crown Point Press is that everything about the work of visiting artists is their own— all ideas, decisions, marks, colors, etc. are to originate solely from the artist. The printmakers are simply there to help bring a vision into fruition with their technical skills and knowledge. To me, this still seemed like collaboration, so I prodded a bit and asked, “But isn’t this work the product of printmaker and artist? Certainly it couldn’t happen without the skill of a master printmaker, right?” Ianne and Emily conceded that it was a collaborative effort in that respect, but clarified that they don’t offer aesthetic suggestions, only technical support and that they’re very careful when disseminating practical information to the artists that they don’t ever imply a creative bias or judgment.
In our conversation I realized that Crown Point Press is careful with the word collaboration because it’s imperative for visiting artists to maintain creative integrity and autonomy even though they are often in the throes of learning a new medium and therefore somewhat reliant on the skillset of the master printmakers. It’s such an interesting relationship— the printmakers lend their expertise, labor, and dexterity to the artists’ impulses and vision to bring something new into existence. After our visit I mused over the technical and creative aspects of these limited editions and how they are seemingly intertwined — in many ways, the technical perimeters dictate what might be creatively possible, and often the creative impulse pushes against technical limits to forge fresh approaches. This joint effort seems thrilling, complex, and delicate. Ultimately, for me, the work at Crown Point Press is incredibly compelling because of this convergence of skills and creativity that then brings about wholly authentic, often unexpected, work.
Can you tell us about your creative background and how you came to printmaking?
Ianne: My mother is a painter and pretty much raised me in her studio. Most of my family members have their own art practice, so pursuing art was a natural path for me. In college I found printmaking and quickly knew that etching was the medium that spoke to me. I love the process of etching, the physicality of the materials and marks, and the ability to move color around so freely. No other medium allows me this same freedom and depth. While I was still in school I learned about Crown Point Press and fell in love with the work they had published. I couldn’t believe that you could make etchings so complex and colorful and I was blown away by the technical craftsmanship. After learning that a career as a professional printer was possible, I immediately applied for an internship at Crown Point Press.
Emily: I was always an avid artist as a child and decided to pursue an art degree at UC Santa Cruz. I didn’t know much about printmaking before college aside from a couple of experiences making linocuts in high school. During my Introduction to Printmaking class I quickly found that etching suited me very well. I appreciated its many laborious steps and the precision and attention to detail it demands. My Senior Studio etching class took at field trip to the Legion of Honor to see the “35 years at Crown Point Press” show. This was the first time I had seen etchings by very well known contemporary artists. When I saw the names of each printer embossed into lower corner of each print and realized that was a career possibility I instantly knew it was what I wanted to do.
What technical training or experience led to you becoming a master printer?
Ianne: For both Emily and me, our experience in college with etching cemented our interest and enthusiasm for the process but the real learning came on the job. Kathan Brown established a master printer program early on in the history of the press. In addition to herself there have been 29 master printers in Crown Point’s 50-year history. What we both learned in the process of becoming master printers ourselves is a distillation and accumulation of the knowledge passed down from these master printers. It takes three years of intensive training to become a Crown Point Press master printer. During this time we both worked very closely alongside the studio’s master printers to learn all of the technical demands of etching as well as the nuances to working with artists in the studio. In order to earn the master printer title we both needed to successfully run three artist’s projects from start to finish, which includes the time spent working with the artist to create their etchings and then the editioning of their images. We both acknowledge that while the master printer title shows that we are highly skilled and competent in our craft that working with etching is a lifelong learning process that constantly engages and challenges us. Every time we work with a new artist or with the people who come in for workshops we are exposed to a variety of approaches and ideas, so we are always developing our skills and the way in which we utilize them.
How long have you been working with Crown Point Press?
Ianne: I have been a Crown Point Press printer for seven years.
Emily: I have been printing professionally for thirteen years and will soon mark my ninth year of printing at Crown Point Press.
You assist visiting artists from all over the world to create original prints that are hand-printed in limited editions. What’s it like helping to manifest another artist’s vision? In what ways does the collaborative process shape the outcome of the work?
Emily: As master printers, first and foremost we don’t view our role in working with artists in our studio as a true artistic collaboration because it is their artwork not ours. Our goal in working with them is to teach and guide them through the etching process so that they are able to express their artistic ideas through this new medium. The artists we work with are painters, sculptors, photographers and conceptual artists whose primary medium is not etching. Their lack of experience with etching is often one of the most interesting aspects of our time working with them. As printers is all too easy to get caught up in the details and structure that etching often demands. Their fresh perspective often brings about new ideas and approaches to mark-making that can at times not seem possible. However, our role in working with them is to say, “let’s try it” and most often great things come from that.
What we also find really interesting and valuable is what artists take from their experience in working with etching and apply to their primary artistic medium. The artists we’ve worked with often express how valuable it is to see their images pulled apart and broken down into individual layers. These layers can be individually manipulated, moved within the image, and colors easily changed before arriving at a finalized image, which we call their OKTP (Okay to Print). They also are left with a physical record of all of the working states of their image along with this final print. No other medium other than printmaking allows for this kind of flexibility.
On our website Magical-Secrets we have numerous short videos in which artists talk about their experiences in working with etching in our studio and what they’ve taken from the process. Most all of them touch on how etching has challenged them and influenced their work in their primary medium.
What are the biggest challenges in doing this sort of work and how do you deal with them?
Ianne: Most artists are solitary and not used to having to rely on someone to technically assist them in making their work. The biggest challenge and nuance of working with them is knowing how to offer them the tools they need to create their work without overstepping or influencing them. Our end goal is for them to feel comfortable and confident within our studio and the process in order to make the best work they can. This is a very delicate working relationship that we are privileged to be apart of. Most people do not have the opportunity to watch artists work and observe their process.
The artists we work with each have their own unique approach to working in their own studios and in our print studio. Some begin with a more organic approach in which they make one plate and then move forward with the next based on an intuitive response. Others begin with much more structured ideas and images. In order to know how to proceed through each step we devise a roadmap for the image in the very beginning that lays out a plan. Each situation offers different challenges and opportunities for us to grow and learn.
Do you have your own art practice in addition to being a master printer? If so can you tell us a bit about it? How is it different than or affected by what you do here?
Ianne: My position as a master printer directly affects my own art practice because I work primarily in print. I mostly work with etching, photogravure and drawing. I use the process of printmaking to explore the concept of time and its effects on personal and historical events. Specifically, I use printmaking techniques to manipulate and deteriorate a photographic image and I print each state of change. I install the work in layers so that you can see the history of the image. The final state of each image tends to resemble a map or a blurred color field.
Emily: My love of craft and the precision that etching demands influence my studio practice though etching is not my primary medium. I primarily make small, highly detailed gouache paintings and photogravure prints. Though I’m most often not working with etching, its sensibilities affect the way I approach any kind of art making. I’m inspired by and reinterpret themes in folk art, textile and needlepoint designs.
Can you briefly describe the printmaking techniques you use Crown Point Press?
Emily: Many other professional printmaking shops offer lithography, silk-screen, woodcut and etching. At Crown Point Press we specialize in etching and photogravure (which is a photographic etching technique). Our techniques are essentially the same techniques as those that were used by the old masters since the 17th century through we have added a lot of color and have developed new approaches and techniques over the years. When Swiss artist Pia Fries came to our studio she was apprehensive because she associated etching with small black-and-white engravings. In her artwork she uses color and texture in a very loose and painterly way. She was thrilled to find once we began working here that etchings can have color and that she could use specific etching techniques in the same manner she uses them in her paintings.