Thursday, November 17, 2016

Q&A with Flatbed Press Co-Founders

Flatbed Press, a collaborative publishing workshop in Austin, Texas, has become one of the premier artists’ printshops in America and an epicenter for the art form. Founded in 1989 by Mark Lesly Smith and Katherine Brimberry, Flatbed provides studio spaces for visiting artists to work with the press’s master printers to create limited editions of original etchings, lithographs, woodcuts, and monotypes. Prints produced at Flatbed have been collected by major museums—the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Art Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Brooklyn Museum, among others.

We asked Katherine and Mark about how Flatbed Press developed its ethos, how it has survived over the years, and about that time James Surls got Olympic marksman David Bradshaw to fire nine bullets at his artwork.

Don't miss the final weekend of the East Austin Studio Tour, where you can visit Flatbed Press!

Flatbed Press has hosted an impressive array of artists with incredibly diverse backgrounds. We won’t ask you to choose favorites, but how do you think Flatbed has been shaped by the work of its artist collaborators over the years?

Jack Hanley, Plague Doctor (1990)
Soft-ground etching and aquatint
Katherine Brimberry: Each Flatbed artist has brought their own vision, concepts, working practices, and history. One of the pleasures has been to learn and grow through each artist. My job as Master Printer has been to try to think like the artist and find a way to transform their concepts and working practices into one or more printmaking techniques. With every successful collaboration, I have learned something, created a new way of working, found a way to put ideas into print media. I believe that over time, Flatbed’s “style” may seem more varied than many other presses because of our insistence that we meet the artist where they are conceptually instead of giving the artist a formulaic way of working.

Some important collaborations sealed this direction early in our history. Jack Hanley’s work pushed us to try experimental etching techniques. He wanted to be “out of control” with the color field of the etchings we planned. His key plates were extremely controlled soft ground drawings printed over the chaos of the background plates. His concept pushed us to find ways to remove the artist’s direct control of the marks and etch.

Other collaborations were with artists whose work was camped in the nuances of mark making, color, and control. Listening to these artists and striving to meet their standards gave us skill and precision that became the hallmark of our editioning. Working with Melissa Miller on “Anima,” I may have pulled as many as 40 color trial proofs to get to the final solution, leveraging her discipline as an artist to do whatever it took to get to a successful print.

Melissa Miller, Anima (1996)
Line etching and aquatint with chine collé

Mark Lesly Smith: Flatbed hasn't been just "shaped" by its artist collaborators over the years, it has been created by them! 

One of the things that has made Flatbed so successful has been the incredible variety of artists. Of course, we have always tried to work with artists of high artistic value, but the range of their work has been all over the map. It has made the work extremely enjoyable and interesting, and I think has established Flatbed as a very open shop that is diverse in every way, artistically and otherwise.

Flatbed feels more like a living, breathing organism than an institution. Over the course of its life, what periods of growth do you identify as the most transformative?

KB: We never set out to be an institution and I am happy that it doesn’t feel that way. Beginning as a “Mom and Pop” styled business with two people who shared a love a printmaking but divided the work load made us more like a family. When Jerry Manson became a business partner in late 1990, the printmaking family expanded. Printers and interns came to us to apprentice and learn. Even when they left, we considered them extended family. Business was done with a handshake and not detailed contracts.

In 1994, when the Flatbed Portfolio was begun, we rose to a new level. We invited artists
Dan Rizzie, Blackberry Thieves III (2009)
Color woodcut with chine collé
we had always wanted to work with but who didn’t necessarily know us. We invited Terry Allen, Dan Rizzie, Larry Scholder, Sandria Hu, Melissa Miller, Luis Jimenez, Casey Williams, Celia Muñoz and Michael Ray Charles. We tried a new business plan of offering the group of resulting prints for $5,000 before the collaborations happened. Selling a few portfolios gave us the capital to pay for artists to come and create whatever work they could dream of doing that could be printed in an edition of 50 which we’d split with the artist. Their work gave us much needed exposure to serious collectors and credibility with other artists.

In 1999, Flatbed moved to our location on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. We up-scaled the studio, expanded into lithography, and brought on new printers. All these changes gave us a depth of productivity and creativity we didn’t have before. We borrowed enough funds to renovate the whole un-air-conditioned warehouse to include private studios with the goal of leasing out approximately 70% of our space. Gradually, we built a community of artists and galleries around us.

MLS: In the beginning, we chose a location in the semi-industrial center of downtown Austin because its working-class environment felt good to us. We both came from blue-collar backgrounds, Kathy from a farming family and me from a carpenter and baking family. Printmaking also has a very physical aspect to it, so a location on the working train tracks with a loading dock and a warehouse space seemed right to us.
During our time on West Third Street, we remodeled the space to give us an acid room, storage, an office, and a gallery. Getting an extra-large press allowed us to feel like we could compete with larger and older state and national shops. Many artists love to work big, so that increased our range of possible collaborators quite a bit.

When we decided to quit our teaching day jobs, take on Flatbed full-time, and find larger space, of course that was a big transition. We chose a very mixed, urban, and hard-working neighborhood in East Austin, again, very close to the railroad tracks.

The other big change on E. MLK had to do with our business plan. Even using that huge space for gallery exhibitions, we still had space to rent out to creatives of various types—designers, architects, musicians, galleries. That created a diverse community of creative professionals that we loved. We had great neighbors in our old location, but the new one upped the scale tremendously. It also gave us a source of income that we needed. So, we got into the commercial-real-estate business, allowing us to “feed our habit” of working with the artists we wanted to work with.

As time went on, that large community of creatives in an up-and-coming part of town really enhanced our “brand” and artistic identity. I remember when some of our best collectors and supporters simply refused to go east of I-35.

What are the challenges of keeping a print shop and gallery going for 25 years? How have you had to adapt?

KB: The primary challenge has been funds for rent, supplies, and utilities. For the first ten years, we didn’t pay ourselves a dime and plowed all income back into the press and our operations. We learned that sales of prints keep us afloat better than contract printing. Projects that were risky, interesting, and avant-garde took about three to five years before they gained appreciation and started selling to collections. To maintain steady income, we diversified our revenue sources and offered printmaking workshops, open shop subscriptions so other printmakers could use our facilities, and also took on contract printing.

MLS: We were able to not pay ourselves a dime for ten years because we kept our day jobs teaching at local universities, and we both had working spouses. With time, we increased our efforts at marketing limited editions, but without the real estate, I don’t think we could have survived financially.

Of course, the amazing cultural growth of East Austin has also helped Flatbed continue and adapt. E.A.S.T., various development projects, and the residential transformation of East Austin has been a huge benefit, though we were sorry to see the old, blue-collar East Austin disappear. It was inevitable, but there are both benefits and losses for longtime residents.

The biggest challenge has always been marketing the art. Art is a niche market anyway, and printmaking is even more niche! I think Flatbed has survived because we’ve always been willing to adapt. As our spouses will confer, it has not been without personal sacrifices, but it has been worth it.

Many people are intimidated by the technical aspects of printmaking. How do you make the process not so scary for artists who are just starting out in the medium?

KB: Collaborating with a Master Printer is a matter of trust. To build that trust, we often do small projects we call “test projects” with most new artists. In the test project, we spend a day using materials and techniques on a small scale matrix and “playing” with the image. This helps build the communication between artist and Master Printer and will hopefully give the artist confidence in the printer as well as experience with the techniques that they will be using. Sometimes these tests end up being amazing works in themselves and we choose to edition them. (i.e. Terry Allen, “Caged” or Jules Buck Jones “Continental Divide”)

Jules Buck Jones works on “Continental Divide,”
inspired by his experience in the jungles of Central America.
MLS: I think the fact that Kathy and I both came from a teaching background helped; we both were used to explaining the technical processes to students, so professional artists became our new students. Most of the artists published by Flatbed, and many of the contract artists, are not printmakers by training. So, our challenge was to help with the technical part without getting in the way of the artistry.

Not every artist could make the transition from their primary medium—painting, for example—to printmaking, with great success. But most have, and that is due to the rare ability of the printers to collaborate with them properly. Flatbed has always put the artist and their work at top priority.

What are some examples of the most difficult prints to execute?

KB: Multiple plate (matrix) color works are the most difficult to print because of registration. The work we do is not photo-mechanical in the sense that it is photographically color separated. Each color usually has its own plate or matrix and all the plates need to register to print one on top of the other to build the final color image without seeming to be out of registration. The artist needs to create the plates to be in registration to each other and the printer needs to print them in registration.

One of our most difficult prints was “Red-Winged Blackbird” by Billy Hassell. We had to set
Billy Hassell, Red-Wing Blackbird (2007)
Color chine collé aquatint
up a complicated registration system to get it to print correctly because it had been etched slightly off registration.

The etching and printing of Vine Line Suite which includes “Mason Dixon Line” by Linda Ridgway was difficult to create because the plate was longer than the etching bath and the press bed. We solved it using a makeshift bath and some tricky maneuvering of the bed and blankets while printing.

MLS: Some of the extremely large prints, like Linda Ridgway’s nine footers, and Jack Craft’s sculptural giants, really gave us a run for our money! I think keeping a sense of humor probably has helped as much as anything!

Tell us the James Surls shooting his woodblock story!

KB: James Surls brought a large woodblock to Flatbed when he was moving from Splendora to Colorado. He explained that he wanted to do a second edition from this block since it only had a small edition of 15 created from it. We agreed to do it if it was printed on entirely different paper, with different ink and signed with Roman numerals clearly indicating that it was the second, different edition from the first. It was the first edition we printed in our new MLK space. After it was signed, we showed the print in Dallas, where a collector of the first edition saw it and complained. This collector threatened to sue James if the second edition was not destroyed. James’ solution was to gather all the prints from the second edition and stack them face down on the woodblock, then have Olympic marksman David Bradshaw fire seven bullets through the “packet” of prints and block. This was done in 2003 at Splendora as a public “happening” with about 70 witnesses. The prints now with bullet holes were then re-distributed as “destroyed” prints. Some are still for sale.

MLS: The collector who threatened to sue accepted “The Execution” as settling the issue. The Execution was quite the art event. Houston’s famous Art Guys made a short documentary about it. It was a “blast”! The story ruffled a few feathers in the art world, but it remains quite a Texas art story to tell!

James Surls, Thought (1992)
Soft-ground etching with chine collé

How does Flatbed compare to Tamarind, Gemini, and other print shops?

KB: Most well-known print shops like Tamarind (Albuquerque, NM), Tandem (Madison, Wisconsin), Graphicstudio (Florida), Gemini (Los Angeles, CA) Crown Point Press (San Francisco, CA) and ULAE (New York City) were established in the 1960s. Some have academic funding or underwriting (Tandem and Tamarind) and others are individually owned or are non-profits, so the business aspect varies according to funding. When we started Flatbed Press we were told that it was too late to start a new publishing press; that the profitability of the art market in the 1980s had dried up.

Flatbed Press is different in that we have published more emerging artists and Texas based artists. We followed in the footsteps of Peregrine Press in Dallas, Texas, which closed in 1991. We firmly believe that the art world is too large and too widespread to rely on just a few large presses. Our work is comparable in complexity and quality to the works of the larger presses, but our artists usually have ties to Texas in the same way that Paulson Bott Press (Berkley, CA), Harlan Weaver Press (New York City), Center Street Studio (Milton, MA, near Boston) or Lawrence Lithography (Kansas City, MO) have ties to artists in their area or through their contacts.

Tell us how people can get involved in Flatbed.

KB: Come to the exhibitions of work we do or bring to be seen in Austin. Meet the artists when they come to work and show at Flatbed at the receptions we host. Learn more about printmaking to enjoy the work on a deeper level. Don’t be shy about asking questions. Flatbed offers classes about printmaking to those who are interested. Collect works by Flatbed artists. Learn about upcoming projects and be the first to support the project. Volunteer during PrintAustin, a city-wide celebration of the print in which Flatbed participates.

MLS: Whether you are an artist or an art lover, visit us to see the galleries and fine exhibitions and openings, take a class in its education program, take a tour of the shop, do some work as a printmaker in the open shop, and of course, view the vast inventory as a purchasing collector.

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