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.”
|Visiting artist Endi Poskovic and master printer Jill Graham in the NSCAD printmaking studios last winter.|
“She’s odd but in the most brilliant way,” said visiting artist Endi Poskovic, while peering intently at a limestone slab. A print artist, he is also a professor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. “She’s a phenomenal collaborator. I rely on her input.”
One of the freshest faces at NSCAD is Jill Graham, printmaking technician and master printer. From Montreal, she was most recently at Artist Press in South Africa, printing editions and training a printer. Before that, she was a senior printer at the Tamarind Institute, and the technical director at Open Studio in Toronto, a non-profit artist-run centre dedicated to the production, preservation and promotion of original fine art prints.
As a technician, her job is to assist students, to make sure they’re using the equipment correctly and are supported to learn and make their best work. As a master printer, she works with other artists to make their prints: listening to the artist’s intention, preparing the stone and guiding them technically.
“If artists want to come here and work, we’re able to accommodate that,” says Jill, who studied with Christian Le Poul at Montreal’s Atelier Circulaire and with Bill Lagattuta at the Tamarind Institute, a nonprofit centre for fine art lithography in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She came to NSCAD after the retirement of long-time printmaking technician Murph Lively.
Both aspects of the work she does complement each other. For example, during Prof. Poskovic’s 10-day residency in NSCAD’s Printmaking studios this winter, students including Trish Hondzel, Quincy Brimstein and Mathew Stackhouse were able to assist and learn from the process.
“For me, that’s the best part, to see students get that ‘aha’ moment,” says Jill. “They’re just so impressive, dedicated and hardworking.
Lithography expert shares the value of handmade prints
For Jill Graham, there’s a big difference between a copy and an original. “The posters you buy at IKEA or a gift shop are just reproductions of an image created by an artist,” she says. “What I do is all original art work. The printed piece exists solely as an original art work, conceived and executed in print—there isn’t a painting or a photo of it somewhere else.”
Still, she’s aware that the majority of folks don’t really get what it is that she does for a living. “Most people don’t understand what fine art printing even is—never mind lithography,” she says. As a master printer, Graham is hired by other artists to create lithographic prints of their work. It’s the printmaking process, though, that’s particularly confusing.
“It’s a difficult process to explain,” she says. “Lithography is a printmaking form that’s done on lithographic limestone slabs, which were originally quarried in Bavaria. The stones have a particular quality of being both water and grease-loving stones, meaning they will accept both. The artist will create their drawing on the stone using greasy, waxy drawing materials.”
The next steps are done by the master printer, and involve etching, sponging, and something Graham refers to as a “chemical de-sensitization of the stone.” After hours of physical labour and close observation of chemical reactions, the prints are finally ready to be made. “When you place your paper in and run it through the printing press, what is offset onto the paper should look exactly like the drawing on the stone,” she says. “Well, that’s the cheat-sheet way of explaining it!”
The work naturally requires a pretty significant set-up. “The stones are expensive,” Graham says. “Most people who work in print will join a shared studio that has the equipment.” Graham is the technical director of such a place: Open Studio in Toronto, which is self-defined as Canada’s leading printmaking centre. “Print isn’t dying by any stretch; it’s actually very active and alive,” says Graham. “But as universities have started to sell off their equipment, the facilities are harder to access. That’s why a place like Open Studio is such a huge asset to the art community.”
Graham first encountered lithography while completing her undergraduate degree at Concordia University. Since then, she has gone on to help open three different studios in Elliott Lake, Sarnia, and Toronto, and has spent over a decade as a master printer. While she’s quick to point out that printing requires an “endurance and stubbornness,” Graham notes that the structured approach of lithography was part of what drew her to the art form in the first place. “When I describe the steps, it can sound obsessive,” she says. “Sometimes it can take three to four hours just to prepare the stone. But that suits my nature.”
The detailed process of lithography allows Graham to blend physical exertion, science, and art, and wind up with a truly unique result. “The fact that a place like IKEA just stretches canvases and sells them as prints really bothers me. It’s like going to a supermarket to buy an oil painting. It shouldn’t exist,” she says. “We’re a disposable culture and people want beautiful products, and they want them fast and cheap. But if they looked at the quality of an original print and bought it because they loved the work, it would be an investment that they could hold on to for years, and it would grow in value. A reproduction, on the other hand, has no value at all.”