Printmaking: Challenges, Discoveries, Art


May Mantell Photography

“Oceanomania: Souvenirs from Mysterious Seas—Musée Oceanographic de Monaco, 2011” by Mark Dion.


As the semester draws to a close, so do the three temporary exhibits at the Middlebury College Museum of Art. One of these three, titled “Ten Years: The Cameron Print Project,” chronicles a decade of collaboration in different forms of printmaking between Middlebury students and contemporary artists, including Mark Dion, Tomas Vu, Kati Heck and Rona Yefman. 

The Cameron Print Project is overseen by professor Hedya Klein, who teaches silkscreen and intaglio printing in the Studio Arts Program. The format of the program stems from an ancient pedagogical system that trained artists from the Greek Bronze Age to 1648. Each year, Professor Klein makes regular trips to New York and Vienna to view galleries, museums and art fairs to the work of contemporary artists. 

“The first thing I look at is the artists’ work,” she said, when explaining her process of inviting artists to Middlebury. “During my last leave when I attended a residency near Paris, I had an opportunity to visit Christy Gast during the installation of her exhibition at the Kadist Foundation. Her work had always interested me but her silkscreened soft sculptures at Locust Projects in Miami and the cyanotypes she made in Paris piqued my interest and prompted me to invite her to Middlebury.” 

The exhibit carries a remarkable array of different artistic styles, mediums and themes. Artists such as Michael Jordan and Kati Heck employ styles that drew upon graphic novels, Nicola López displays a permanently constructing and deconstructing urban landscape in multi-layered architectural drawings, Tomas Vu uses abstract combinations of fantastical cityscapes to explore the post-industrial advances of humankind.  

“Invited artists work in various media.” Professor Klein said. “Often these artists [who have not used prints as their primary medium] bring a fresh perspective to the print project.  Some artists, such as Tomas Vu, exemplify the collaborative and interdisciplinary approach to art-making more directly. Tomas brought a plethora of laser cut elements that students hand glued onto his edition.” 

Other artistic media at the exhibit include video animations with original music and laser engraved wood block prints.

For Mark Dion, this year’s visiting artist, the studio chose to make photo transfer intaglio print editions, which would make them look as close to pencil drawings as possible. Dion’s work questions the way in which dominant ideologies and public institutions such as museums shape our understanding of the world around us. 

In a lecture on April 12 in Twilight Hall, Dion described himself as someone who has “one foot in science, one foot in magic.”

Much of his work is inspired by the tradition of the Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, which he said is the “infancy of science and magical thinking.” Past projects have included “The Amateur Ornithologist Clubhouse” equipped with field guides and extensive equipment for birdwatchers in Essen, Germany, “Den,” a massive sculpture of a sleeping bear hibernating on top of a hill of human material relics from ancient times to the present, and “Oceanomania: Souvenirs of Mysterious Seas,” an exhibit for the Oceanographic Museum in Monaco, of which drawings for the Cameron Print Project are based.

“The lines of a silkscreen print are flat whereas photo transfer intaglio retains the crumbly nature of his pencil line,” Professor Klein said of the intaglio print technique. “This printmaking technique reveals moments where the line is fully visible and moments where it’s not – just like the line of a pencil pressed with a certain amount of pressure on a piece of paper. One may think he or she is looking at an original drawing if it weren’t for the embossed edge and the penciled-in edition size on the bottom right hand corner.”

The process of intaglio printmaking can be difficult and unforgiving for a beginner. Designs are etched onto a copper plate, which are then processed through a printing press that inks the design onto a piece of acid-free paper. Scattered throughout this relatively straightforward-sounding process are various highly specialized steps that prepare the paper, plate and ink to allow for optimal printing conditions. The studio produced an estimated 200-300 test prints and dozens of test plates this year.

At times, said Jay Silverstein ’19, who worked on the Project this spring, the studio has held more than twenty people working together on different elements of the printing process. 

“The shop is really alive,” he said. Depending on the number of people in the studio, the environment can be “hyper-calm or wildly active.”

“Using Intaglio as a means of creating one’s work is no different than any other tool available to artists. Drawing, painting, and sculpture have also been around for a long time,” Klein said. “What matters is how one uses the material. What is the final outcome?”

The time-consuming process of printing an edition of the artists’ work occurs over a period of approximately four weeks, during which students may voluntarily spend up to 12 hours per week in the studio, helping with preparation and final printing, an informal presentation and open studio demo, and the packing and shipping of the finished portfolio.  

“Each print is different,” said Silverstein. “As you become more involved in the [printing] process, your eyes become more keen to when things go awry. This is perfect for people who get obsessed over process…. [The project] takes your drafting and drawing levels to the peak.” 

“You fall into it,” he said of learning to print, which he said is similar to the process of learning to ride a bicycle. “You wake up one day and you’re like: I know how to make a print.” 

“Students’ focus and ambition triple after these projects,” Klein said. “Because students work closely with a master printer and professional artists they learn the ins and outs of how to create a professional print portfolio. They have the chance to speak directly with these artists in an intimate classroom environment. They work on a team which creates an artistic community, an important part of being an artist.”

“We talked about his work while doing the work,” Silverstein, who is double majoring in biology and studio art, said of his interaction with visiting artist Mark Dion. “He approaches art from a scientific lens, which I appreciate a lot.”

According to Klein, some past student participants in this project have gone on to graduate programs or careers as professional printmakers and artists.

“That’s the dream,” said Silverstein. “What I make, that’s small potatoes compared to the other work that I see come out of Johnson.”

For young artists, the importance of exposure to contemporary work cannot be neglected. 

“I want to show our students what the scope of the art world looks like,” Klein said on the website of previous visiting artist Christy Gast, “and to introduce them to artists they may not have read about in an art history book.”

An exhibit of works by students in Klein’s intaglio class is on view in the Mezzanine of Johnson Memorial Building until April 24.