Printmaking at Texas State University
by Jeffery Dell
In the art world, Austin is often compared to Houston. Houston shines in many ways but Austin leads the way in printmaking. The print programs at area colleges— The University of Texas, Texas State University, Austin Community College and others— can be credited with bringing attention to the medium and graduating a steady stream of young, enthusiastic printmakers.
One afternoon in December, I had a chance to tour the BFA Thesis Exhibit at Texas State University in San Marcos with Professor Jeffery Dell, who, along with Brian Johnson and Adrienne Butler, teaches printmaking. Dell joined the faculty at Texas State University in 2000 and has been instrumental in the growth of the University’s School of Art and Design. The printmaking program is recognized as a vibrant, integral part of the school’s offerings.
Dell and I continued our conversation in the printshop where advanced students worked to complete their semester portfolios. Intense and articulate, Dell talked about the program and his philosophical views about what makes a strong printmaking program in the university setting. I encouraged him to share his thoughts with our readers. -Judith Taylor
The Printmaking area at Texas State is well grounded in print methods and contemporary print communities, but it is also integrated into the larger areas of Painting and Drawing. Printmaking majors cycle through a program of topics and techniques covered across five levels, and as they enter the thesis level they work with instructors from Painting, Drawing, and Printmaking to make their BFA thesis work. Specifically what I want to avoid is the dual traps of print programs: to either be defensively exclusionary or to be subsumed by painting. I believe strongly in the value of print media for all students, whether in Studio Art, Communication Design, Art Education, or even Physics, for that matter. But I also believe that the various print worlds can sometimes do themselves a disservice by allowing the conversations in the larger art worlds to never cross over to those topics addressed in print. I remember hearing something years ago, “Painters talk about ideas, printmakers talk about aquatints.” I like talking about aquatints, but I do not want to do so at the exclusion of other conversations. I do not want print to be quarantined.
I believe print needs to be defined very broadly. If we limit this definition to the traditional hand-pulled techniques then we are effectively staking our identity entirely on a craft. I love craft, I love tools, and I love really well made things. I also love beauty in all forms. But if all of this is studied and celebrated without also participating in elements of other media, then we become stifled and inbred. I try to cultivate an atmosphere of openness; I do not control the definition of print. We all need injections of surprising and foreign media.
Screen printing is one of the fastest and easiest to learn of the print techniques. Many students already know about it even if they don’t yet know how to do it. We teach it early in the progression of courses as a means to pique excitement. It’s different than a few decades ago when screen was a sort of bastard child of fine art printing. We have a Color Theory class that Adrienne Butler teaches that is based in screen printing. We replicate some of the Joseph Albers experiments and do other projects that use layering of transparent colors as a means to mix them. Albers’ use of serigraphy to explore perceptual phenomena of color theory remains highly influential. Serigraphy creates an entirely flat surface, without any texture, and this allows the hue to be isolated. It’s an ideal medium for insightful work that engages color. It’s challenging, but really rewarding. Cyan, magenta and yellow are, after all, the “corrected” primaries, as I call them. They yield a much wider gamut of colors than the traditional blue, red, and yellow.
For many years my own work was nearly exclusively black and white and based in copper plate intaglio. People started to know me for my large mezzotints. But one Christmas break I decided I needed to try a few ideas with screen printing, and I really haven’t shifted back. The work jumped into color in a major way, which is now really central to what I do. My last show at Art Palace Gallery in Houston was called Follies, and color is a central element in that— color as light and as a phenomenon of human perceptual psychology, how we “read” color spatially, how we imagine it sometimes or exaggerate it. It’s easy to forget that color, although dependent on natural phenomena, is still something that happens between our eyeballs and our brain.
Our Printmaking Program is distinguished by its connection to the Communication Design area of the School of Art and Design. Communication Design is a super strong program that attracts very driven and talented students. Our printmaking classes are always populated with a mix of design and art students, among others. The rigor and professionalism of the design program is a nice counterpoint to the healthy strangeness of the art students. This feature— design wedded to art— is, along with the general quality of students, one of the major elements that make me so happy to call this place home.
I am very proud of our program. Many of our students go on to do graduate work in print at institutions like Rhode Island School of Design, Cranbrook Academy of Art, the University of New Mexico, the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Edinburgh College of Art in Scotland, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Multiple alumni have had work accepted into the prestigious juried exhibitions at the International Print Center New York; plus, over the last few years, four undergraduate students were accepted into IPCNY’s exhibitions. Most recently, Alison Whitworth, who is a current printmaking major, had two of her pieces accepted into the New Prints: Winter 2014 exhibition and we are super excited for her. I think that’s rather incredible since the IPNYC shows are highly competitive, and our students competed with faculty, professional publishers, and students in MFA programs.
One of the biggest challenges in teaching print is knowing when and how to transition to talking about the world of ideas. I love really fine technical work, but if the work is going to have legs in the larger art world, it’s still going to be judged as an image, and only very rarely solely as a print. Critiques are the primary means to begin this discussion with the students, and consequently play an important role in classes. Looking at good examples of other artists is also really important, getting the students to feel like they’re part of these larger communities.
Printmaking offers a diversity of opportunities for skills. It remains a field grounded in technical and manual skills, but, like most art, the poetics and ideas remain paramount. At Texas State we try very hard to find a balance between these elements. We enjoy the fact that the students feel they are gaining a set of concrete skills, something they can point to and easily name. But they also graduate being able to articulate their ideas, to recognize the dialog created in the body of work, and to see their work in the context of larger art worlds.
Texas State’s print shop is a great place for research, refuge, hard work, collaboration, and positive spirit. It’s a good place to solve technical problems and overcome frustrations. It’s also a great place to be a part of a community, which I find essential. We all need the intelligent dialogue that good community offers.