PROCESS AND INNOVATION: 20 YEARS OF PARTNERSHIPS IN PRINT
Ralph J. Nagel Dean
E. Desmond Lee Professor for Collaboration in the Arts
Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts
Washington University in St. Louis
It is serendipitous that the exhibition, “Process & Innovation: 20 years of Partnerships in Print at Hand Print Workshop International,” is opening at a time of heightened focus on the tenuous relationship between the United States and Russia, which has garnered more attention during the recent election and transition of power in Washington, D.C., than at any other time since the Cold War. There is no doubt that we are in a precarious moment, grappling with issues of hacking, fake news, and corrosive political discourse across the United States. This is a time of international uncertainty, and I believe artists will play an increasingly critical role in reminding us all of our need for civility, tolerance, inclusion, and a shared sense of humanity.
Giving voice to artists who speak to the human condition and pushing the boundaries of contemporary screen printing through innovative new practices is at the heart of Hand Print Workshop International (HPWI). This modest yet extraordinary print studio is nestled on the Alexandria, VA, property of artist and master printmaker Dennis O’Neil and his wife, Nancy Zimler. Together, Dennis and Nancy have created a serene, collaborative, and nurturing environment for immersive artist residencies that make the artist feel at home and part of the family. Equally, the studio is distinctive for its responsiveness and adaptability on a number of technical and philosophical levels, leading to exciting new approaches for artists individually and within the field. And yet another important legacy of HPWI is that of international exchange; the studio has bridged cultures and advanced printmaking as a powerful contemporary art form in its Virginia location and also in Moscow from 1993 to 1996.
The Moscow Studio formed as a partnership with the Russian Academy and was focused on reaching out to artists who had extremely limited access to printmaking, and in some cases, to any art materials at all. Central to the success of the Moscow Studio was Dennis’s deep passion for the Russian culture and people -- coming to know the stories of individual artists and their politics writ large through their experimentation with printing. When the HPWI reopened in Virginia in 1997, this philosophy was extended by inviting Russian artists to the studio in the U.S. and establishing new relationships with artists in the D.C. area and across the county.
The artists who have worked at HPWI seem to share a common sense of purpose. Through work generated from personal experience, they express ideas about social justice and human rights as they navigate the social and political moment. Dennis has made this work possible through his steadfast vision to use printmaking as a means to provide artists with a platform and a voice. He has been especially tireless as an advocate and champion of collaborative screen printing, realizing the unique capacity of this medium to embrace an endless array of artistic possibilities for personal expression, including effects most often associated with the fluidity of painting as well as qualities of lithography, intaglio, and relief printmaking.
In his development of water based screen printing techniques, Dennis has established a unique process that he describes enthusiastically as an “excavated print” — a process that involves building up color images by printing in successive layers to create a low relief surface on paper. This dimensional surface can then be manipulated by sanding and dissolving image areas selectively to reveal the buried layers underneath. The excavation strategy is often combined with an intaglio-like processes where a combination of wax and oil based pigments are applied directly on the paper for each print. Other applications that enhance the haptic characteristics of the work include applying glass beads or coffee grounds to increase the physicality of the line quality or flocking iridescent colors to the wet ink for more exotic effects. All of this is combined with hybrid techniques that allow for painterly approaches to create rich, mysterious, and even wondrous effects that could not be achieved effectively in any other print media. Often the artist is working directly on each print in situ under Dennis's tutelage, allowing for tremendous spontaneity. While the excavated print and this non-linear process are in many ways distinctive traits of HPWI it is really the flexibility that Dennis grants his artists to explore their individual ideas and artistic expression with these processes that gives the studio its unique identity.
Printmakers are often criticized for their reliance on and infatuation with technique and craft, and while HPWI has indeed developed a rich array of techniques, these really just serve as part of the artist’s arsenal. Over the years, they have been employed under Dennis’s direction to enable artists to express powerful and provocative ideas about the contemporary condition. Perhaps more significantly, all of the work at HPWI is generated through a deep trust and personal collaboration between Dennis and the artist, giving power and resonance to shared goals to produce the best work of art possible. As an artist and printmaker who has had the opportunity to work at HPWI, I can attest first hand to this deep personal connection, the vitality and responsiveness of the studio, and the nurturing yet get-to-business atmosphere. It is a place where making is thinking, and process is both a means to an end and a metaphor for the work and life itself.
The Exhibition, Process and Innovation: 20 years of partnerships at Hand Print Workshop International features a wide representation of prints created in HPWI's Alexandria studio from 1997 to 2017, including 36 collaborative prints by 21 artists. The prints in this exhibition both on display and in the catalogue, collectively contribute to the rich legacy of HPWI and exemplify the creative spirit of this extraordinary studio. HPWI has been committed over the course of 20 years to make beautiful, poetic and powerful works and to give voice to artists who speak to our humanity and address critical issues of disparity, discrimination, violence, and political corruption. I am proud to be part of this exhibition, and I feel privileged to be among these artists, whose work ranges in conceptual approach and artistic practice, but who all share the experience of working with Dennis O’Neil, a truly inspired artist and collaborator who has dedicated his life to this amazing endeavor.