The print studio at NSCAD University is a learning place for students, but also a collaborative hub where world-renowned artists and technicians can get together, hone their skills and create.
Jill Graham, the university’s new master printer and print technician, recently brought in American print artist Endi Poskovic for a 10-day visit to collaborate on original artwork, sharing their expertise and techniques with students.
“It’s great to work in an environment where what I do professionally is embraced,” says Graham, who manages the equipment in NSCAD’s printmaking studios. One of Canada’s top master printers, she holds a master printer certificate from the world-renowned Tamarind Institute of Lithography in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “It’s the Vatican of lithography,” she says.
She joined the university in October 2014 after spending 10 years as master printer and technical director at Open Studio in Toronto, an artist-run centre that focuses on contemporary printmaking. She met Poskovic there in 2008 during his artist residency and sparked his interest in lithography. They’ve been collaborating ever since. “My images are drawn and transferred on heavy slabs of limestone, and they can fail at any given moment,” says Poskovic with a chuckle. “Unlike with a sheet of paper, you can’t easily make changes [with lithography].”
Born and raised in Sarajevo, Poskovic is an acclaimed print artist, Guggenheim fellow and professor at the Stamps School of Art and Design at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. During his Halifax visit, Poskovic and Graham used NSCAD’s printmaking studios to test and create four original artworks.
As master printer, Graham handles the technical side, making Poskovic’s original artwork come to life the way he envisions it. “He’s the artist, I’m the printer,” she smiles. “I lend the technical precision.”
Poskovic compares the process to filmmaking. “It’s like a film needing a great cameraperson,” he says. “Jill is able to make those thoughts come through.”
Fine art lithography is a detailed process done by hand. Graham and Poskovic work with large slabs of limestone that can weigh several hundred kilograms each. Graham grinds down the stone to make a smooth, level surface for the image that Poskovic creates, in reverse, using greasy drawing materials. Graham then chemically treats the stone so that ink only sticks to the image areas and is repelled on the non-image areas.
At the press, she sponges the stone with water, applies ink with a roller and prints numerous colour variations (called proofs). “It’s quite nuanced work, like playing a cello or violin,” Poskovic says. “It requires such attention to detail and even then, everything can go wrong.” Once Poskovic decides on final proofs, Graham prints a set of identical prints numbered in succession and signed by Poskovic (called an edition). For their recent collaboration, Graham printed editions of 25 original prints for each artwork.
The artworks were combinations of landscapes Poskovic photographed and those he adapted from other artists, including Dutch artist Hercules Seghers. The seventeenth-century artist did not travel, yet he produced landscapes that looked nothing like the Dutch countryside. “I’m fascinated by that,” says Poskovic. “I look at landscapes as a way to understand what the artist may have intended.”
For one work, Poskovic added a modern domed building into a barren, moon-like landscape. “The domed building was actually a construction proposed in the late 1960s for what became the Frans Masereel Center, an artists’ studio in Belgium,” he says. “I spent close to a year there and made creative discoveries in that space.”
Doing the work at NSCAD gave students a close-up look at a professional collaboration. “Students wouldn’t have exposure to this normally,” Graham says. “The nature of printmaking is to collaborate and borrow skills.” Students participated in the process. “They’ve been involved with almost everything, from tearing paper to sponging the stone at the press,” Graham says. “It expands on the skills they’re learning in classes. It takes it to the next level.”
Mark Bovey, NSCAD’s chair of fine art and an associate professor in printmaking, says this kind of experience is invaluable. “Students are right there watching how the artist and the printer are working…They get a hands-on account of the process.”
He notes that lithography collaborations at NSCAD were common in the late 1960s and ’70s under former president Garry Neill Kennedy. “The school defined itself during this time,” Bovey says. “Kennedy put into motion the NSCAD Lithography Workshop, which had its own master printers who collaborated with artists like Claes Oldenburg and Joyce Wieland. We’re trying to rejuvenate something like that, but it needs funding…It’s a great opportunity, if we can make it work.” As part of the plan, he would like to develop master printer internships for NSCAD students interested in the technical side of printmaking.
For Poskovic, it’s all about ushering students into the artist way of life. “They begin to feel less intimidated with the idea of being an artist,” he says. “It’s important that they see it as a multi-faceted operation with a diverse set of challenges and costs. You might work on a stone and take a lot of time to generate an image, and then the results may fail. Just because you make the work, there’s no guarantee it will be a success.”
Poskovic will be taking the NSCAD editions to exhibitions in Poland, Sweden, China and Scotland. “This is great promotion for NSCAD,” Bovey says. “Every exhibition the work is shown in brings notoriety to the school.”
Having won the U.S. Senior Fulbright Scholar grant for 2015–16, Poskovic is headed this fall to Krakow, Poland to research and teach at the Jan Matejko Academy of Fine Arts. He’ll also collaborate with faculty and students to create more original lithography. “Every place, every context, brings a certain kind of influence,“ he says. “I like seeing the students being so involved and supported.”