Printmaking has long suffered a chasm between understanding and assumption. On one side, the mindset is that printmaking is, for what it seems, a very simple, underwhelming process. On the other, stands Laura Cleary, Shaun McCallum, and Ashley Schick, founders of Straw Hat Press, all holding Masters in Fine Art in Printmaking. Straw Hat Press is perhaps best explained as a place/company where quality blissfully coincides with quantity. This week, we talked with the creators about what goes into their line of work.
BANG! So, how does one build a print shop, and what inspired you all to decide to take on that endeavor?
Straw Hat Press Straw Hat Press started thanks to the SCAD Atlanta Printmaking Department and especially thanks to Professor Robert Brown. It was due to Robert that we were each given the opportunity to work with and become master printers for artists Kiki Smith and Valerie Hammond. While working with these prestigious artists we discovered a mutual love of collaborative printing and publishing. It was fresh from coming off of this project that we stumbled upon the chance to purchases a press . As we were driving up to take a look at it the talks began about opening our own print shop.
Our shop has taken shape around this press, a 1970’s Charles Brand Etching Press. The press is a workhorse and a beauty, she has a 30 x 60” press bed, presses down literally tons of pressure and weights in at almost exactly a ton. Everything in our shop is second hand or custom built. Our large worktables have lumber from old houses or projects built into them. The flat files, some of the smaller tables, faucets, sinks and safety equipment, were all purchased from the Life Cycle Building Center, which is a group that rescues old equipment from schools and businesses.
It turns out that's what it takes to build a print shop is a press, with about a year of figuring out all the stuff you need to work around it. Ink slabs, dark rooms, acid sinks, work tables, and a lot of patience and love for the work doing.
BANG! What do you feel print making offers in terms of process that other mediums do not?
Straw Hat Press Primarily tactility, physicality, and repeatability – most people gravitate towards the multiple aspect of printmaking, and that has traditionally been its greatest benefit.
However, working with metal, wood and mesh screens each offer a variation in the surface of the paper upon which they are printed, and lend a distinct character to the finished work that is both indicative of and integral to the process used.
Etching for example is capable of fine deep lines and layering of color that are nothing like brush strokes or an inkjet, and they also emboss the paper leaving dents and evidence of the process used. Wood cuts also emboss the paper surface and leave a fine impression of the wood grain in the finished piece. Lastly screen prints sit on top of the paper surface showing evidence of the layers and thickness of ink that no other process replicates. Each process has its own use and character and depending on the needs of the aesthetic we decide on what process or combination of processes accomplishes what we need visually.
BANG! What does Straw Hat Press offer that other that other print shops do not?
Straw Hat Press We are the only fine art printing and publishing shop in Atlanta, so the list is fairly large, but the main things are the processes we work in. Specifically etching, photogravure, and hand book binding. We also do screen printing, which is offered at other print facilities, but we do it all by hand and it is primarily for fine art print applications which is something no other place around here is doing (plenty of poster and t-shirt places, but no fine art screen prints). One of the biggest differences between us and most other print shops is our target audience. We're focused on making really awesome stuff with artists, academic institutions, bands, and really anyone with a great idea.
BANG! I understand that the decision to create Straw Hat occurred while the three of you were attending SCAD-Atlanta. Was printmaking everyone’s course of study?
Straw Hat Press Yes, we each have a Masters of Fine Art in Printmaking from SCAD-Atlanta. Each of us is versed in all areas of printmaking, but while we were studying at SCAD we each had niches. Laura is the etching queen, Ashley is a screen printing/book specialist, and Shaun does weird stuff with photogravure.
As we have worked on more and more projects over the last year it has become apparent that what really has brought us together is our love of problem solving and community. Printmaking always seems to want to fight back and throw up new challenges no matter how skilled or experienced you are. The trick seems to be in a willingness to try again and open discussion and good humor.
BANG! How does Straw Hat cater to the inexperienced individual who would like to learn more about printmaking?
Straw Hat Press We love working with all levels! Experienced printmakers and inexperienced printmakers each come with their own joys and challenges. People new to the processes are so enthusiastic and excited about learning, and folks that are already well versed are always looking to push the print process limits. All of our workshops are geared towards people of all levels of experience. You could have never taken an art class in your life much less a printmaking class and still gain a lot from the curriculum we put together. The main thing we do to ensure everyone gets what they want from the class is small class sizes, individual attention and creating workshop offerings based on feed back from the local community and workshop participants. This way we're always learning and adapting to provide people with what they want to learn about with access to all of our equipment and facilities.
BANG! Does your location at The Goat Farm Arts Center present itself as a bevy of inspiration, or is it used as more of a sanctuary?
Straw Hat Press A bit of both. It is always a bit of a surprise to drive back out into the city after spending the day at the farm, but that is the inspiring part, to be right in the middle of the city with downtown only minutes away and be surrounded by goats, chickens and trains. There's also the fantastic community of artists that are based here at the Goat Farm, and the work we are all creating in the same space is like a huge pool of inspiration fuel that is driving all of us to make even better cooler stuff.
BANG! Is there any uncharted territory in printmaking that Straw Hat would like to or is already venturing into?
Straw Hat Press Well we're doing a lot of wacky things that include combining old and new processes to make things that would be impossible otherwise, like giant combination hand pulled screen-print inkjet hybrids, and breaking the traditional rules of processes to make marks that really change a piece visually. We've also built a fully functional dark room from scratch including a custom built exposure unit (thanks to Andrew Vaughn our engineer pal) that is allowing us to do some cool things with photogravure, which is a printmaking process you don't see...well, hardly anywhere (especially around here.) I guess the short answer would be yes, lots of stuff, but I'm not sure it would be fair to say that any part of printmaking is completely uncharted. We're just building on centuries of work that other people have already done and occasionally stumbling into an innovation, which usually sounds something like "Oh hell, I didn't know that we could make those kind of marks with this process. Let's see if we can do it again."
BANG! Speaking of inspiration, what sorts of things inspire the personal work of members of Straw Hat Press?
Straw Hat Press Oy, lots of stuff. Shaun is really into process, printmaking and otherwise. All of his work deals with the way human beings process their surroundings into something new; whether its processed food, changing materials into something else, or repurposing visual elements via photography or rendering. Laura is really interested in exploring the unknown; the pioneer portion of the human mind that is constantly trying to understand, so space exploration and scientific innovations often inspire her work. Ashley is inspired by systems of connectivity, wires, and storytelling; the way ideas are passed and changed from one place or person to another.
BANG! Why do you think printmaking has become an enduring staple in the Atlanta arts community, and consequently, Straw Hat Press?
Straw Hat Press Well, printmaking started out as way to make artwork more accessible. Instead of making one great drawing or painting, people started making one great drawing on multiple sheets of metal or wood then printing an edition of them. I think that still holds true for the Atlanta arts community. Prints are accessible by their nature, there are more of them and thus people can more readily get one. This makes them a little less expensive, but they still have all of the evidence of the artists hand in each piece. Beyond that there is just an aesthetic quality to print media that we are attracted to. Folks like the chatter marks and the evidence that the artist cut and carved into something to make the finished work, or that the drawing was directly transferred into a mesh screen with visible layers of color stacked together. There's also just been a lot of printmaking shows, maybe its as much consumer taste as it is curator taste. Atlanta seems to like prints, and we hope that doesn't change. I'm not sure if its fair to say Straw Hat Press is an enduring staple in the Atlanta Arts community yet after only being in existence for a year, but we aim to be, and as long as artists are interested in making bad ass print work we'll be here to give them a place to do it.