Sunday, June 6, 2010

Printsy Interview - Mary Louise Sullivan


Brief Bio
I’m one of the few native Nashvillians left standing and it’s the perfect sized city for me. As my etsy site indicates, I’m a proud tomboy; always have been and always will be. Growing up as the middle child of 2 siblings and also as an older twin I seem to have developed a competitive nature. Just ask any older twin and she’ll tell you exactly how much older she is than the other (I’m six minutes older than my brother). It’s not an obsession, just a twin thing. While I’m physically competitive with other people, artistically my greatest competition comes from attempting to make my imagination a reality. When it comes to learning something new, I usually have little training. If I see something that intrigues me, I do a little research, pick up the tools, and get to work learning as I go. I completed my undergraduate degree in Fine Arts at Maryville College in 2006 and have since been working in my hometown of Nashville, TN as a letterpress printer/designer and I love every minute of it. It’s a stressful job, but it’s cathartic, offer a lot of creative freedom and it’s the kind of job that I’ll regret ever having to leave once I plunge back into graduate school and beyond.

How did you get started in printmaking?
In high school I quit playing flute in the band and instead started taking survey art courses. In my art classes we explored a variety of media and even did a little printmaking. For reference images in these studio courses I often used old photographs of my younger twin brother. When we explored linoleum prints I used an old photograph of my brother loading his little Tonka truck with Christmas ornaments at the base of our Christmas tree when we were 2. In college I dabbled with printmaking in a few studio classes learning a little in etching, intaglio, linoleum, silkscreen, and woodcut. Now I letterpress for a living.

Describe where you work.
I work at a 131 year old letterpress poster shop in Nashville, TN called Hatch Show Print. I’ve worked there since the fall of ’06 and typeset, print, and listen to music all day every day. It’s not an easy job by any means. We’ve got a strict and fast moving deadline with well over 600 jobs to get out every year. What makes this job work despite our demanding workload is my relationship with my coworkers. We all love what we do and we get along with each other. We feed on each other’s strengths and we pick up where the other has left off if need be without having to be asked. We are one well-oiled machine. It’s a great family. You could say that we’re a living breathing Vandercook.

What's your favourite printmaking process?
I like letterpress because it’s available to me now. Letterpress to me is also just a means of printing, whereas many people view it as a medium in and of itself. Linoleum, woodcuts, alternative printing, transfers, offset, monoprints, typography, all of it can be done with letterpress. My challenge is not only honing my skills as a carver but also pushing the boundary of what a letterpress print can be, how it can be created, and how to obtain a desired effect without knowing how to get there until my hands are dirty and I’m immersed in the process.

What's your creative process for any given print?
Whether by nature, my familiarity, or my poor skills as an illustrator, I tend to work photographically. Much of my undergrad work was in photography, working with black and white images in a wet darkroom. I almost enjoyed printing in the darkroom more than I did capturing that image. I care very much about the process of creativity, sometimes more than the result of it. I work very meticulously, attempting to create the best possible likeness of an image that I can muster considering the limitations of the media that I choose. For one of my last shows I used one image and broke it down into layers, shapes, colors, and abstract forms in order to explore various methods of printmaking. One of my pieces was created using a typewriter, essentially yielding a one of a kind monoprint.

What do you enjoy most about printmaking?
At the moment I am obsessed with the idea of the multiple. Whether I like it or not, I work in the multiple everyday. At the moment it’s just what I’m used to. Multiples make sense to me, it’s what allows more people to enjoy art, to have it and experience it. To me the essence of a print is its ability to be distributed to many people instead of having one precious item. My ultimate challenge, however, would be to make just one print or a closed edition. I still have yet to attempt a reduction print or a closed edition. I understand the value of it, but to me it’s just so finite. It’s something that I’ll have to decide and commit to before I start a series.

What's your least favorite part of the process?
For me the physical process of printing is easy. I’ve had a lot of experience, I print every day and I have a good knowledge of our machines and how to throubleshoot problems while making a run of prints. Carving is a challenge, but to me is still a physical aspect of the process, and active parts of the process drive me. It’s the getting started, the making real of the intangible conceptual aspects of creativity that are difficult for me. I think, and think, and think of what I'd like to do and how I want to do it, but it’s a challenge for me to just dive off the cliff and get started. Once I do finally get going on an idea and I’m actively working, I’m in heaven.

What are your inspirations (other artists, people, places, events, etc.)?
I find inspiration not only for my work, but in my life from things that I see everyday. Dirty alleyways. Rusted signs. Cigarette butts on the sidewalk. I appreciate artists who work with a medium that takes years to perfect. I am drawn to the traditional craftsmanship of finely made functional items. Jim Croft’s books inspire me to explore the history of binding and make me daydream as to what was contained in the books of the past. Printmakers and painters like Chuck Close, Durer, and French engravers who thrive on perfection and precision inspire me to do the same or at least get close. Andy Goldsworthy’s art and documentation challenges my comfort in the idea of art’s longevity.

How has your work changed and evolved since you started?
Since I first began to print, I’ve become very skilled at creating multiple items of a consistent nature. The carving is more of a side note to my current profession and custom carvings are a rarity. I collect many things. For a while I collected clipart books with old engraving illustrations. That inspired my small series of linoleum engraving style hand prints. I also collect cameras. My latest series, which is ongoing, challenges me to interpret a three dimensional, primarily black and white object, with the use of another three dimensional medium that prints in 2 dimensions. I find that I get more precise at carving the more I do. I also tend to develop tricks along the way that help me to interpret line and texture in order to get the most possible detail out of linoleum before it crumbles.

How do you get past creative slumps?
I think about what I want to create before I start. It sounds simple, but I often have many ideas on how to start a project before I decide on how to start working. Most of my series show my thinking process in action from piece to piece as I work. Sometimes I just pick up materials and start working to drown out my brain. It helps to just have my hands busy.

How do you promote your work?
I have a great group of printers with whom I work. We have a group called Popsicle Sticks and Rhinestones and are comprised primarily of printmakers who show together and encourage each other to work. I also promote my Etsy shop via my blog, facebook, twitter sometimes, although just for promotion and not for the 2 second update. I’ve heard it works. We’ll see.

Any other comments or advice for others who want to try making hand-pulled prints?
I would recommend that you surround yourself with at least one other person who is excited about the same thing if you can. Even if by the Internet you can talk with someone and learn what steps, materials, techniques, and resources are out there. On the whole artists tend to be a lot more open to helping people who are interested in learning. I’ve also found that people who enjoy what they do also enjoy sharing. Start small and use readily available materials. For a beginner, potatoes are just as good as linoleum and a wooden spoon as much as a barren. Don’t go out and buy a press at the beginning. Most of the presses out there are priced way too high, believe me I’ve looked. There are things that can be learned from doing it by hand that can be lost on a machine. That being said, multiple color pieces and longer runs can benefit from the precision and consistency of a press. Also, from personal experience, never carve towards any finger or other body part. I sliced through 3 fingers at one time while I was carving once. Never again! Invest in a few pieces of wood and a few screws and make a simple block holder to put on your table.

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