Giving old art new form at Stonington High

*This piece originally appeared in the Stonington Times on March 1, 2007

At Stonington High School, kids and adults are getting to know ink intimately. Students in Sadie DeVore’s printmaking class and adults enrolled in Mara Beckwith’s printmaking workshop at the school have been experimenting with a variety of the art’s forms, all of which involve transferring ink from one medium to another.

Printmaking is a deceptively simple art. The final product, which might appear bold and spare, belies the complex thoughts about space, color and texture that precede it. Once an artist conceives of an image, they undergo a long process of planning, carving, and printing to ensure that the ink ultimately conveys what they imagined.

“Ink is the message,” Sadie DeVore, who has been printmaking since she was a child, said.

“It’s interesting to see if it comes out right,” Kate Stonely, one of DeVore’s students, said while she laid ink over a design of cut out birds. “Like to see if it comes out the way you thought it would.”

Despite the ancient history of the art, most of the students, young and old, had never tried printmaking before this year. Most find it requires a unique artistic sensibility.

“It’s hard when you’re only dealing with two values, you know, just black and white, or positive and negative space,” Stonely said.

Both the youth and adult classes have produced an array of relief, monotype, and intaglio works, all of which involve different processes of transferring ink onto paper.

Most students in DeVore’s class started with relief printmaking, the oldest form of the art. Typically using wood or linoleum blocks, the artist cuts away all of the areas that do not form part of the desired image. They then ink the block and lay paper over it. By rubbing the paper with certain tools, or by running it through a press, the artist stamps the paper with block’s image.

For most of the seven years that DeVore has been teaching printmaking at Stonington her students haven’t been able to try one unique style of printmaking, intaglio, which requires a heavy-duty printing press. A recent grant from the Bodenwein Public Benevolent Foundation, however, has changed that.

In 2005, the school received a grant that allowed it to purchase a printing press valued at around 8,000 dollars, making intaglio printmaking possible for high school students and Stonington’s Adult Education classes.

Intaglio works as the inverse of relief printmaking. Instead of carving away areas of negative space, the artist uses a variety of tools to carve the desired image directly into a plate, usually made of copper, zinc, or plexiglass.

“You have to carve deep enough so the ink can get into the lines,” Adam Delacruz, a Stonington High student, said.

After rubbing ink into the carving, the artist thoroughly cleans the surface of the plate, leaving only the ink that has seeped into the grooves of the carving.

“Then we put the paper over them and put them through the press,” DeVore said.
”The ink is all below the surface in the grooves of the plexiglass. And when you put it through the press the ink gets sucked out onto the paper.”

To produce quality intaglio prints the press needs to exert more pressure than it does for relief printing. The Bodenwein grant also helped purchase high quality paper and fibrous mats that don’t wear down under the pressure of the press.

The new press has opened even more printmaking possibilities. Students can use it for relief printing or complex callograph-intaglio prints, in which they create a collage of images on one print.

For DeVore, the versatility and openness of the art make it a fun art to teach. Her students constantly surprise her with the variety of their work.

“There are so many different directions to explore that don’t even have to be teacher motivated … like I’ll say paint a block with three colors, and the way that they do it might be entirely different from what I intended. And each kid can design their own patterns of dark, light, weight, color, and textures. You’ve got to do those things. You’ve got to be independent with this art.”

Both youth and adult students also take to the freedom involved in printmaking.

“There are so many things you can do,” Adam Alex, a Stonington High student, said. “After you make up a design … then you can try adding more paint, or taking paint away in different spots.”

“Although we are all working on the same lesson with the same supplies, we all come up with very different finished products,” Skye Tyler, a student in the adult workshop, said.

Working with printmaking for most of her life, DeVore knows a bag full of subtle tricks and techniques that can enhance or alter a print. She rummaged through drawers in her art room, holding up multiple examples of different styles of the same callograph print. She described how an artist changes a print by changing the pressure of the press, the texture and wiping of the ink, or pre and post-printing coloring.

“There are all kinds of tricks you can use,” DeVore said. That’s one of the things that’s so fun about printmaking. There are so many ways to do the same things.”

The art’s infinite possibilities seem to make it an addictive hobby. Five students in the adult workshop liked it so much after their first few sessions that they made a road trip to buy small portable printing presses to use in their homes.

Beth Sullivan, a member of the adult workshop, makes prints at home whenever she can.

“It’s so different from my usual, detailed watercolors,” Sullivan said. “It is a much more physical process … active, moving, inking, cleaning, printing. Handling the paper, mixing the inks. I like the change.”

Sullivan isn’t alone. This year a group of local artists, including kids and adults from both classes, banded together to form the Stonington Society of Printmakers.

The Society is helping to put together the best pieces from the two classes for an exhibition at the Hoxie Gallery in Westerly. The exhibition opens the evening of March 7th and runs through the 30th. The gallery will display works of all forms and styles of printmaking.

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