Before the beginning

mono print by Wendy Fernstrum

When I applied in 2019 to this residency at KKV Grafik, the project I proposed was to print an artist book about the continuum of beginnings and endings, using letterpress, intaglio, and lithographic printing techniques. Here’s an excerpt from my application:

When does a beginning begin and an ending end? At what point does an ending become a beginning? My work explores this in-between space where identity is constantly shifting and all that seemed certain loses form.

Where does each of us begin and end? Are the drops of water in the ocean distinct? In my work I explore individuality within a united oneness, and the continuum of beginnings and endings. Although my diptychs present two distinct images – presence and absence, beginning and end – they transcend “either/or” to convey “and/both.”

During my residency I will continue to work with the line that appears in much of my work, representing the thread that connects us all and the unique strand that we are or the distinct mark we make in the world.

I had planned to use imagery from the diptychs I’d been working on. Since the images were one-of-a-kind, I needed to find a way to produce them as multiples. The image with the hand drawn lines could be produced using an intaglio printmaking method, where lines are carved into copper or plastic, the ink pushed into the grooves and then carefully wiped from the surface. When the paper is placed on the plate and run through the press, the paper pulls the ink out of the grooves.

The mono print image would be trickier to produce as a multiple. I anticipated lithography as an option.

As proposed, the artist book would include text with the images. The text would be from T.S. Eliot’s epic poem, “Four Quartets.” For example: Or say that the end precedes the beginning, and the end and the beginning were always there, before the beginning, and after the end. And all is always now.

I was excited about this proposed project when I applied, and when I learned that the residency would be postponed due to the Coronavirus, I sadly put the project on hold for another year. Then the residency was postponed a second time. When I received word earlier this year that the residency would actually happen, I started thinking about the project again, considering whether or not it still held enough interest to engage me. I had the option of working on an entirely different project. In the end, I decided this artist book still needed to be created, and I forged ahead with planning.

There is one significant difference between the book I’d imagined and the one I’m printing. I’d envisioned a folio or possibly individual sheets contained within a box. But, given the paradoxical nature of the text, that structure felt too organized, too straightforward. Borrowing a process from Maya Lin, I started the project not by making anything, but rather stating my intention for how I wanted the book to be experienced: I want the reader to lose certainty, to feel the vastness of uncertainty and experience the bewilderment of an open mind. To embrace unknowing and paradox. To shed limited beliefs and enter into infinite possibility.

I wondered: could the book be in the form of a mobius strip? That would work for an installation. But I couldn’t figure out how to make it function as a book.

After some experimenting, I landed my solution: dos-a-dos (two books in one) with spiral accordions. The spiral accordion requires a long strip of paper, which meant I had to adjust my approach to the images.

What, you might be wondering, is the title of the artist book? Good question. The book is still in an embryonic form, too soon to know what it wants to be called.

The sound of a freight train

offset press controls

Shortly after I began my first print run this morning, a man named Sebastian came into the studio and spoke to me rapidly in Swedish. He works in a recording studio across the hall. When he switched to English, I learned that he’d been recording with highly sensitive microphones, and every time I ran the motorized press, the microphones picked up what sounded like a freight train. 

The press I’m using is indeed quite loud. To make matters worse, the press bed is long. Since all I do is push a button, there’s no way to work more quietly. 

The person he was recording was already in the recording studio. I was just partway through a printing run. It takes some time to build up the ink on the plate, and I really didn’t want to start over again. Eva, who serves as my main contact here at KKV, explained to Sebastian that I’m one of the resident artists. It seemed we were at an impasse. Then Sebastian said he and the client would go out for lunch while I finished my run. Since I was aiming for a print run of 30 pages, I figured I had just enough time to print all 30 pages before 1 pm. 

On Friday, I’d experienced quite a few issues. I began to worry that the printing technique I’d chosen was too difficult and that I wouldn’t be able to complete my project during the residency. Today I was encouraged by the ease of printing the 30 pages, as well as the results.

offset printing press with a plate and paper on the bed

The press I’m using is actually an offset press, not a litho press. The plate sits at the end of the second press bed, the paper at the end of the first bed. After the plate is fully inked, I press a green button, and the motor carries the blue roller to the end of press bed, where it picks up ink from the plate. I press another green button and the motor carries the roller back and lowers the roller against the paper on the first bed.

Unlike with traditional lithographic printing, where the image that is printed is opposite of the image on the litho stone or plate, with offset printing, I’m working with a positive image. This means that the marks I make on the mylar look the same on the plate and on the printed page, not backwards. 

lithographic plate on the press bed
The inked plate on the press bed

To ink the plate, I wet it first with a combination of water and gum arabic. The marks on the plate resist the water, so when I roll ink onto the plate, the ink sticks only to the marks. If the plate is not wet enough, ink sticks to the negative areas of the plate, and if the plate is too wet, the ink won’t stick to the marks. As with any printmaking technique, it’s imperative to pay attention. I need to keep track of the number of times I’ve rolled the ink on each section of the plate, look closely to see if any areas need more ink, and avoid adding too much ink. My goal, since I’m printing an edition, is for all pages in the run to have the same ink coverage.

printed page on the press bed
The printed page

I’ve mixed a good amount of transparent base into the ink because I’ll be printing several layers. With transparent layers, the colors interact to create additional colors and the layers are more obvious than if I used opaque ink. I’ll be printing 4 layers on top of this one, all different colors and shapes.

printed pages drying in a rack

I worked quickly and completed my print run of 30 pages by 1 pm. It’s deeply satisfying at the end of a run to see the pages stacked in a drying rack. 

Later this afternoon Sebastian came to my workspace to tell me that his client is available only from 10 to 3 on Wednesday and Friday for the recording, and he asked if I could adjust my schedule. If I were a different person, I could insist on printing during the day since I’m here as an Artist in Residence. However, the recording is scheduled only for this week, and I can use that time to make more drawings and plates, so I readily agreed. I have 20 days (not including weekends) to print 11 more runs. If all continues to go well, I may have time to not only finish this project, but also work on individual prints, experimenting with techniques I’ve learned from the other printmakers at KKV. There is a wealth of knowledge and experience here.

I hope I haven’t jinxed myself by expressing such optimism. We’ll see what tomorrow brings…

Kaborundum för slipning

grinding texture into film with stone and carborundum

Today, after consulting with my lithography friend Cecilia, I felt confident to begin working on the images for the artist book I’ll be printing at KKV Grafik in Malmö, Sweden. The first step was to prepare the mylar (a flexible plastic film), giving it a texture to hold the mark.

The mylar, cut to the right size for my project, lays on top of a stone. I then add water and carborundum (silicon carbide) and then push a smaller stone over the top, making a figure eight, for approximately 5 minutes.

The grinding makes a gorgeous sound and I felt myself swaying along with the figure eight. It’s a mesmerizing process I really enjoy, which is good because I have many pieces of plastic to prepare for this project. After the grinding is complete, I rinse the plastic, wash away the carborundum, and, because my strip is wider than the stone, start the process over again on the side not yet ground. Fortunately I don’t have to worry about grinding too much. 

When the plastic is fully prepared, I rinse and hang to dry. In this image, the prepared plastic is to the left and an unprepared piece is hanging to the right. 

Cecilia confirmed the litho plate picks up only dark marks when exposed. The marks I made that did not show up on the experimental plate were too light. Cecilia brought me something that looks like a hockey puck and that, when mixed with water and a brush, creates a dark black mark suitable for this lithographic method, where the artwork is exposed onto a metal plate.

I intended to ride a bicycle to the sea each day, but the timing hasn’t worked out. Finally, today, after a full day in the studio, I hopped on the bike and headed toward the Baltic Sea. I rode on bike paths the entire way, past a large, wooded park I plan to visit tomorrow, through neighborhoods, ending up on a path along the coastline. It took less than 30 minutes.

Many Swedes were swimming. But not me. My swimsuit is in Minnesota.

However, I’ve heard of a sauna here in Malmö where people jump into the Baltic, naked, to cool off from the sauna. Tempting…

Lots of questions

Today I experimented.

Using a variety of materials (ink, tusche, crayon) I made marks on a piece of mylar that had been prepared for lithographic printing. My goal was to determine how dark the marks needed to be to show up on the litho plate. Those smudges from the lines drawn with a lithographic crayon and then rubbed – would they show up? How about the faint lines painted with a thin brush? The thick lines painted with a brush? The text outlined with a micro tip pen?

It’s fun to play. Rarely do I have the time and space to explore new methods and let go of pre-conceived notions. That’s one of the luxuries of a residency. There’s little to distract me, and I can devote hours to experimenting without interruption. (Although I did take a break to do laundry this afternoon. The apartment I’m staying in requires residents to reserve the laundry room, and the only open slot for several days was today from 3 to 5.)

Making the plate is easy here at KKV. They have a humungous exposure unit that tightly seals the film against the plate. You place the film on the glass and the plate on top, then pull down the lid and clasp shut. Then twist a knob, turn a dial to engage the vacuum, flip the unit upside down so the light coming from above will expose the plate, enter the exposure time and push “start.”

After exposing the plate, I took it to a sink and poured developer over the plate and rubbed with a sponge until the images appeared. As you can see, only the darker marks showed up on the plate. 

I’m very pleased with the thick line and how the smudging showed up. The lettering worked well, too. As for the rest, well, back to the drawing board. Hard to know what went wrong. Was the exposure time not correct? Did I not leave developer on long enough? Does this process require dark marks? Tomorrow my lithographic printing friend Cecilia will return to KKV to answer my questions.

Printmaking mecca

I’ve waited three years to experience the wonders at Konstnärernas Kollektiva Grafikverkstad (KKV) in Malmö, Sweden. Although I was awarded an artist residency via Women’s Studio Workshop in 2019, the coronavirus interfered with me traveling to Malmö until, finally, this year. Now. For an entire month I’ll be printing an artist book at KKV.

Yesterday a KKV member named Sofie picked up my fellow resident artist Maggie Puckett and me at the train station and delivered us to this amazing facility that has printmaking equipment I’d never dared to dream of. We met several members, all kind, generous, knowledgeable and friendly. They all speak impeccable English. I know 8 Swedish words.

Maggie and I each have personal workspaces and full access to all of the printmaking equipment and supplies. Here’s my workspace on day 1. Note how clean and uncluttered it is.

Today – day 2 – a KKV member named Cecilia kindly introduced me to the lithographic equipment, supplies and printing process. We prepared a piece of mylar (clear plastic film) for drawing and painting images that will be exposed onto an aluminum plate. To prepare the mylar, we applied water and carborundum, a steel-colored grit. 

When I learned lithographic printing decades ago at Minneapolis College of Art & Design, I drew and painted directly on the aluminum plate. This process that Cecilia demonstrated has some unexpected advantages, and I discovered I am lacking some needed supplies. Tomorrow I will use a bike provided by KKV to ride to an art supply store for brushes, gouache and perhaps India ink. Cecilia returns to KKV on Thursday to see my progress, which means I have a lot of work to do tomorrow. Today I worked on sketches, searching for the right images to print. I’m not satisfied yet, but getting closer. 

Here is Cecilia, talking with another KKV member. Note! (OBS! in Swedish) the tray with a coffee pot and sugar in the middle of the large table. Yesterday we experienced “fika,” a delightful coffee break with a small group of artists. Strong coffee, tasty biscuits, sweet new friends.