insight - Laura Griffith-Jones
Written by Laura Griffith-Jones
London resident Laura Griffith-Jones makes her way to the captivating studio of the East London Printmakers, in the heart of the city’s booming contemporary art scene, to meet some of the group’s highly talented members.
Tucked away in a concrete building in a run-down street in Hackney, the East London Printmakers’ studio doesn’t seem like much from the outside. But go beyond those grubby, grey walls and you’ll find a whitewashed world of spacious rooms, where bright strip-lighting illuminates a maze of, giant etching presses, vacuum tables, and higgledy-piggledy shelves on which inks and rollers are neatly lined up.
Rory Brooke founded this artistic powerhouse in 1997, when he returned to London from Birmingham and saw there was no open-access printmaking studio in the East End.
“We held our first meeting in autumn 1998 and our first AGM in December,” he recalls. “Our first exhibition was at Spike Island in Bristol in 1999, and we opened our first studio in the Bow Arts Trust complex in 2000.”
It wasn’t until 2002 that they moved to their current bolt hole. “It took a few months of building wonky shelves at weekends, but we managed to open in 2003,” laughs founding member Ann Norfield.
Since then, East London Printmakers (ELP) has functioned as an independent, non-profit print studio led by professional artists – its purpose: to foster creative potential within an inspiring environment. There are now about 30 key-holders (with 24-hour access to the studio), over 250 members from the world over (such as Lithuania, Australia, Italy, South Africa), and more than 1,000 visitors annually – an impressive figure, but easy to comprehend. This artists’ den has exceptional equipment for numerous techniques, from silk-screenprinting and etching, to linocut and Japanese woodblock. People flock from near and far for the open-access sessions and workshops taught by ELP artists.
The key-holders feel a strong sense of community.
“It’s brilliant having so many knowledgeable people around. If you ever need to know anything about a technique, there’s usually someone who has the answer,” says Katy Goutefangea.
“We can bounce ideas off each other and learn from one other,” adds Wuon-Gean Ho. “The others inspire me with their approach, skill, and vision.” Unsurprisingly, the privilege comes with responsibilities – overseeing open-access sessions, attending meetings, and teaching. Wuon-Gean has certainly paid her dues: “I am a tutor and studio technician as well as making my own work here. I am in the studio a lot! I will run seven courses this year, in the UK, USA and Italy,'” she chuckles.
For a group of artists who inspire one another so much, their art varies dramatically. “Because we cover such a diverse range of printmaking practices, there are so many starting points for new work,” Ann explains.
Wuon-Gean specialises in two forms of printmaking: linocut and Japanese woodblock. She studied the latter at Kyoto Seika University in Japan. “It was amazing to be immersed in a different culture and aesthetic, and learn traditional techniques from incredible craftspeople,” she enthuses. Her work explores movement, memories, and dreams through prints and animation. She transformed a sequence of 40 intricate linocut prints, the Dancing Dress Series, into a dynamic animation entitled Shift, in which a crumpled dress unravels faster and faster until it begins to fly. Accompanied by haunting music, it engenders a powerful, unsettling effect.
Chairperson Dolores de Sade (or Bunny) is a master etcher (particularly zinc plate hard ground etching ). “I try to evoke the illustrative images of the 18th and 19th-century periodicals and books using traditional drawing techniques…I hope to make my work look like a study of something relevant, without becoming didactic.” Not Without Undue Prolixity conveys a mystical and symbolic scene: a lone man stands on a jagged bluff while another falls from a precipice. The etching is part of a series that explores the sublime.
“There is a need to present information but also to make art visually, allegorically interesting,” she pronounces. “The titles of this series were all quotes from an essay by Herman Melville about the failure of narrative – how it is used to cover up the fundamental emptiness of life.”
In contrast, Katy uses screenprinting to create colourful textile and paper products. “Having full-time access to the studio means you can experiment without feeling any time pressures. It’s allowed me to develop my work and turn what I do into a business,” she reveals. “My patterns start as drawings. When I’m happy with a pattern, I transfer it onto a screen using a light-sensitive emulsion. In essence, screenprinting is stencilling – the shape of the image is left on the screen, which allows ink to pass through. Once I’ve made the screen, I can use it multiple times and transfer patterns onto linens and papers to make cushions, purses, and notebooks.”
Ann’s work is different again: “I use printmaking as a way of putting together drawn images in exciting new ways. I screen-print more than anything else but also combine other techniques (monoprinting, linocut), according to the kind of image I wish to make.” Her recurring theme of life and death is evident in Lightning Trees, a thrilling series she produced after a trip to the Pyrenees where she saw trees struck by lightning. “I wanted them to seem both dead and alive simultaneously.”
Twice a year, ELP welcomes an artist-in-residence to the studio (24-hour access for three months). Applicants must propose a project and experimentation is encouraged – which is perhaps why Parisian ceramicist Simone Perrotte was selected from August to October 2012. During her MA at the Royal College of Art, the effects of printmaking on ceramics began to fascinate her. The residency enabled her to explore this relationship, and as a result, her art altered significantly. Her earlier work is illustrative – exquisite black-and-gold images of elephants and birds on chalk-white porcelain dishes, created with the ancient technique sgraffito – whereas her recent pieces are more abstract, using screenprinting to create vibrant forms on ceramics and fabric. In Camouflage, the tablecloth’s intense yellow-and-black stripes flow into corresponding shapes on the vase.
“Patterns have different effects on curved forms than flat,” she divulges. “The influence of nature is still present, but it’s nature on a grand scale. As animals blend into their environment, so my objects blend with their background.”
East London Printmakers is so much more than just another East London studio; as one member declares, “It is a wonderful group of artists, colleagues, and friends – a little piece of Utopia.“
In January 2012, Six Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm was republished for the first time since its publication in 1969. The man behind the book’s magnificent illustrations is David Hockney, renowned for his vivid, near-psychedelic paintings of the ever-changing landscapes of East Yorkshire.
The etchings in this childhood classic re-imagine these strange and supernatural stories for a modern audience. Inspired by earlier illustrators of the magical tales of Rapunzel and Rumpelstiltskin, they capture their distinctive atmosphere in a style that is recognisably Hockney's own.
Opficio della rossa
If a printmaking course in an East London studio doesn’t appeal, perhaps one in an Italian castello will. In 2009, Umberto Giovannini – an artist, exhibition curator, book designer, and lecturer – founded a non-profit, eco-art school, based in the medieval castle of Montefiore Conca in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region.
Here, he runs intensive annual printmaking summer workshops, taught by East London Printmakers (“ELP tutors are very high quality,” he says) and other international artists. The courses last from a week to 15 days, and aim to enlighten both beginners and professionals on printmaking with a low environmental impact.
For the ELP artists who are fortunate enough to go, it’s a wonderful opportunity to share their knowledge and create art in a startlingly scenic and evocative setting. The castle is at the summit of one of the highest hills in the Conca Valley and the views are glorious: luscious valleys stretch out before you all the way to the Adriatic Sea.