Sometimes a couple of us would be gathered near someone who was in the middle of working, or we might be on the roof outside the painting studio, or next to the hot kilns in the sculpture yard, or in someone’s living room. Inevitably, somebody in the group would blurt out, “alright, shit… I need to take off and go grind my stone.” We’d usually chuckle. We’d all heard it before, or had said that ourselves. “Poor bastard. Have fun with that. We told you the lithography class was going to be a pain in the ass.” The rest of us would resume our conversation knowing that we’d probably see them the next day and they would’ve survived just fine. But whenever I walked through the lithography lab and past Fran’s office, one of the printmaking professors, I’d look over at the presses and the work tables, and usually see someone scowling while they slowly ground their stone. You don’t usually see someone smiling while they’re grinding their stone and there’s no shortcut. Eventually though, you’d see a print someone completed a month into the quarter and it would take your breath away, and if you were lucky, you’d see them smiling while they peeled the paper off their stone. To top it off, they’d get to reprint it and reprint it again, and repeat that same feeling over and over until they were satisfied.
My friend Ed made lithographic prints. He was a print maker and a ceramicist. Sometimes his prints seemed to defy the hard stone he was working on because his images were soft and intimate—other prints were hard just like his stone. I never learned lithography. I learned a little screen printing, a little intaglio and a lot of photography. Each medium has its own thankless tasks of drudgery, but all of the drudgery is the price you have to pay to break through—to print from stone, from aluminum, through screen, or through a chemical bath. There’s always the ‘possibility’ and I know that’s why Ed kept grinding.
My friend Dave was mostly an intaglio print maker. He used found photographic material and created black and white photo-montages which he then exposed to light sensitive film, and then everything was exposed onto photo-sensitive aluminum plates and etched in an acid bath. He also drew directly into his metal plate to scratch-out, or add details as needed. Eventually, he could use that plate to make prints onto thick lucious paper. He had a background in painting too and his prints reflected that. They were beautiful and dense. Sometimes they hinted at politics, other times they were bleak domestic images filled with melancholy. You’d often find him sitting on a stool at one of the long tables in the central print lab workspace. He was usually humped over his plate, preparing it, or manipulating the kodalith films he used to expose his plates in the darkroom. His ear buds were usually in, probably listening to Lou Reed, Roxy Music or Bowie. He’d look up and give you a friendly nod if you were just passing through, or if he sensed you wanted to talk, he’d remove his buds and welcome you to sit.
One particular evening I was up in the painting studio on the second floor. I had it to myself. During the weeknights you’d often share the space with a couple of other folks, but after midnight, or on a Friday and Saturday night, you could count on being alone. Sometimes I’d be in the painting studio, or the photo lab, a friend would be in the printmaking studio, another might be in the sculpture studio and if it was really hopping, there might be a few folks in the ceramics studio. It felt like we owned the art building. The way students should feel.
I was sitting alone staring at a big, white canvas. I had just finished applying the last coat of gesso an hour earlier, and was waiting for it to dry. Dave walked in and greeted me. He went out of his way, up to the second floor, to check-in with me for the night. It was a little unusual for him to stop up. The printmaking studio and small photo lab where he spent most of his time were on the first floor, which is where he was headed. After smoking on the roof outside the studio windows, we came back in and sat and talked for awhile. While we sat there, he scanned a few of my paintings that were around and then settled on the large blank canvas I was about to work on. “I don’t know how you do it.” “Do what?” I said. “How you’re able to stare at that white surface and just start painting without a specific plan”. I asked him why. “Because I’m uncomfortable with the whole immediacy of it, the confrontation, that’s why I make prints. I have a plan and the process takes quite awhile before the image is printable so I can just ease into it.” I understood what he was saying and told him that I’m way too impatient. I’m most comfortable with something I can immediately respond to. That’s why I used latex paint along with oils. House paint allowed me to obliterate areas of paintings I didn’t like on the cheap. His way of working was far more methodical. That conversation was huge for me. I’d never heard anyone reveal themselves about making art in that way, about the fear, about how the emotional part of the process can affect the approach.