Susan Groce, Invasive Species, 16 segment detail of 216 segment print installation, 2008
Printmaking is at a crossroads. While printmakers have engaged in ongoing evolution, pushing boundaries of thinking, visual creativity, and refinement of technical process in expression - parts of the delivery medium - some of the "how" in printmaking has remained in near stasis until relatively recently. While our craft has grown with each successive generation, the inks, solvents, acids, materials and work places have had a toxic familiarity that a time traveling printmaker would find fit like an old glove, even if the rest of the world was wondrously strange.
The good news is that change is in the air - literally!
The challenge we face as artists is to apply the same discipline, research, and testing we bring to visual ideas to improving the materials of the medium. Over the last few decades, art schools, universities and colleges in far flung corners have engaged in a lively conversation of innovation, researching and sharing materials, technology, processes, and production methods balanced with a healthy dose of concern about economics, environmental issues, sustainability, workplace mandates, and liabilities. We now have viable choices in guiding the production of our own work and that of future printmakers as we respond to the social, environmental, economic and political pressures that artists have always sought to illuminate.
Our research in substituting the tried and true, but toxic, for safer materials allows us to incorporate and build traditional print processes while becoming better global citizens. The greening of printmaking is urgent - the material choices we make not only affect the printmaking community but also those with whom we share our habitat.
Without question, using toxic materials has proven detrimental to personal and environmental health. The motivation for finding safer alternatives to toxic materials is an imperative not simply compelled by regulations - by the piles of OSHA mandated paperwork - but from an acknowledgement of responsibility to our own and the next generation of printmakers, for a safe workplace, a safe environment. Thankfully, making printmaking artist-friendly and eco-friendly is entirely possible.
We have already made great strides in replacing toxic materials while maintaining traditional effects and quality; we have even augmented our capabilities by adding new visual possibilities within a larger technical vocabulary - but most importantly, the research is ongoing - and this is where it is critical for art schools, along with professional workshops, and individual printmakers to work together to continue to improve and expand our practice.
Let me share with you a little of my own history, and the changes brought about from switching to safer processes with the students and facilities at the University of Maine.
My printmaking roots
I began making prints as an undergraduate in the early to mid 70s, prior to material labeling laws, when we never knew exactly what was in our materials or, consequently, the proper way of handling them. We considered our materials on the basis of visual results achieved, not the chemical processes, waste, and residue left behind. To this day I remember my first encounter with photo-etching and KPR fumes, thinking this can't be good - but having no viable alternative.
In grad school (late 70s) at the University of Michigan I was a research assistant to Professor Frank Cassara (inventor of white ground). While UM had taken on the issue of safety in printmaking, the focus was on how to mix versatile etching grounds while handling the toxic materials that went into them safely and responsibly. In retrospect, perhaps what we really needed was a total paradigm shift in our thinking - we had the wrong questions. Rather than asking what to wear, or how to vent and dispose of these toxins, the better question was to ask, instead, how do we substitute materials known to be extremely toxic for ones that were safer. It is kind of a turning off the faucet problem.
In 1979 I began teaching as a "one-person-print-department" at the University of Maine. My first memory of arriving at the UM print studio (after taking the job site unseen), was of each student clutching their own bottle of nitric acid, which they would dutifully pour into a tray (without benefit of an acid hood) each time they etched and of another student elbow deep in Prosol. It was a sobering moment, steeped in the realization of the responsibility, and importance of working with the next generation of printmakers to create a safer working environment - we started immediately with a studio safety retrofit.
At first, between a full teaching schedule, running the print studio (a print technician was beyond our reach), and making my own work, I had little time to contemplate new approaches. I mixed all our own grounds and relied on extensive safety equipment - from charcoal respirators to having proper vent hoods installed. Even with this safety equipment, as time went on, I was becoming less and less comfortable using toxic materials and feeling more and more responsibility for what I was passing on to future printmakers. To compound matters, living in rural Maine, where one feels close to the land, my own prints had shifted to environmental themes of sustainability that were outright incompatible with the processes and materials I was using to produce them. The incongruity was discomforting and I felt there had to be a better way.
A desire to go green put into practice
In the early 90s, I read about Keith Howard's gelatin process, which reinforced my interest in finding better and safer alternatives. Then, quite by fortunate circumstance, in 1995 I landed in Edinburgh for a year and on a first day of wandering in a strange city found the Edinburgh Printmakers Workshop (EPW) had joined in the effort to research safer materials. Very quickly EPW became one of my homes away from home. While there, I learned about Acrylic Resist Etching and Intaglio-Type photopolymer films from Friedhard Kiekeben - I had arrived shortly after Keith Howard's initial introductions of A.R.E and Intaglio-Type to EPW and Friedhard Kiekeben, Carol Robertson, Robert Adams and Alfons Bytautas were all involved in refining and building on this initial research with European products.
Through a series of fortunate encounters I found yet another home on Darwin's turf, in the collections at the Royal Botanical Gardens Herbarium. I joined the "green" of source material with the "green" technical processes and spent months between the Herbarium and EPW, making literally hundreds of photopolymer and acrylic resist plates to test the limits and possibilities of the new safer materials. While convinced of the need for safer materials, I was not willing to give up quality. I was fortunate to have this block of time, and once committed to the idea of re-training and testing materials, was delighted to discover that my traditional background was easily incorporated - the processes were largely similar with a learning curve centered on exploring common non-toxic substances that could stand in for traditional ones, and research into the international variations in these manufactured products.
The more I worked with the new materials, and experimented, the more convinced I became that "going green" was not only a wise move environmentally and economically, but one which offered all the benefits and quality of traditional printmaking with added new visual possibilities - it was also a more direct and simplified way of working, and an easy way to tie in digital technologies. Finally, I had also found the means to align safer processes and materials with the concept of environmental sustainability explored in my own work.
Given the climate in the mid-nineties of university print shops closing because of increasingly stringent OSHA guidelines, safer printmaking offered a viable option for longevity. Knowing that Maine is a state that has an affinity with the environment, and a history of ingenuity and innovation, I felt confident that my students and colleagues would not only be supportive of this initiative but would welcome the challenge.
The Conversion of the Print Studio begins
On my return in 1996, I spent the summer researching American products that could be substituted for the European ones I had been using in Edinburgh. When classes started in the fall, students were offered the option of experimenting with these new safer materials or continuing on with established traditional materials. All but one student signed on - the "hold out" became our control subject for the first month...until she saw our results and switched over to the greener materials wholeheartedly.
Safer techniques, materials, and processes were all rapidly incorporated in the UM print studio. With the proceeds from a University Trustee Professorship grant based on safer materials research, I was able to buy a UV light unit, vertical tanks, computers, scanner and printers - enough to get us going. The students were eager to participate in the research and conversion of the print shop - they were extremely motivated, and empowered - the buy in, collaboration, enthusiasm, and innovation was enormous. This created a dynamic learning environment where students were highly vested not only in creative projects, but also in material-based analysis. Problem solving through play and experimentation, evaluation and comparison was balanced with concept, theory, process, and practice - synthesizing all aspects of the creative experience. Encouraged to think out of the box and experiment in this way, the students helped to identify and test out various US products and to strengthen our integration of the print medium with digital and emerging technologies. Intuitive and independent thinking, and innovative working became central to their education, giving them the ability to adapt to (and influence) ongoing changes.
Later in the year, during a visit by Friedhard Kiekeben, we got rid of the nitric and converted to the Edinburgh Etch. It was at that time that Friedhard and I worked collaboratively on the Orono Ground*.
* The Orono Ground is a very flexible all-purpose acrylic resist etching ground with the ability to pick up extremely fine soft ground detail as well as serve as a hard ground that extends work time to weeks and months with good draw through flexibility without chipping; it also has good mordant resistance for deep and layered bites, yet strips easily off the plate.
Once we were up and running, the University of Maine offered workshops for professional printmakers; we brought in visiting artist Elizabeth Dove to help us with lith film positives and photo-processes, and were most fortunate to have her stay on for a year, as a professor in printmaking, to continue to strengthen and build the program. Also fortuitous, was having Bernice Cross as our studio work-study student - Bernice was instrumental in endless trials, as was Kris Sader, who nailed the Crisco lift. Printmaking professor Susan Camp, then an alumni, and non-traditional student, later embraced and tackled polyester plates and 3D printmaking with interesting crossovers between papermaking and digital print.
The results of collaborative research
In addition to the obvious health and environmental improvements, a range of other tangible benefits have come about as a direct result of our collaborative effort to convert to safer materials and practice:
Since the mid-nineties I have been active in introducing and helping printmakers and print programs in the US, the UK, Northern Ireland, Australia, and Canada to switch over to safer materials - momentum seems to be gathering pace with a greater understanding, acceptance and enthusiasm for change. From my vantage point it seems that interest in safer applications is spreading from art schools to professional workshops and vice versa. With this enthusiasm, more and more printmakers are experimenting, refining and expanding the medium - collaboratively, we are keeping printmaking a sustainable and vital medium well into the future.
I am honored to chair a department that is vested in and supportive of green initiatives, but it is important to note that work generated in our print studio is (and always will be) founded on quality - nontoxic printmaking is not the focus of the studio, it is simply a safer means of production. We have gone from what began as a quest to replace known toxins with safer substances, and once there, to an incredible excitement of continuous discovery of new potentials for this dynamic medium. But we never lose sight of the ultimate aim: to produce artwork of the highest standard.
Professor of Art, Chair Department of Art
Susan Groce received her MFA from the University of Michigan and B.F.A. from the University of Arizona. She works in large scale Mixed Media Drawing, and Printmaking (Intaglio and Lithography). Her research focus is on emerging technologies, and non-toxic materials and processes. She has worked at Atelier 17, Paris; the Edinburgh Printmakers, Scotland; Open Bite Print Workshop, Australia and the MacDowell Colony, NH. She is an Artist Mentor for the MFA program at Vermont College, and has been an Artist in Residence, Visiting Artist, Guest Lecturer and Visiting Researcher at over 40 Art Schools, programs and Universities in Australia, Ireland, Northern Ireland, England, Scotland, Canada and The USA.
Her prints and drawings have been in over 160 solo, invitational and juried International, National, and Regional exhibitions and is included in private, public and corporate collections in the USA, The UK, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Singapore. Susan served 6 years on the Visual Arts Panel of the Maine Arts Commission, 2 of those years as Chair, and has received a variety of research grants and awards in the arts, inclusive of the University of Maine System Trustee Professorship. which is designated to provide research support to recognize, reward, and retain exceptional scholars, for her research project The Interface Between Digital, Non-Toxic, and Traditional Print Technologies.
University of Maine
Location Orono, Maine, USA
Faculty Susan Groce (Professor of Art, Department Chair)
Faculty Susan Camp; Christina Wentworth (Technician)
About the Department of Art at UMaine
The University of Maine, Department of Art offers both the Liberal Arts based B.A. degree in Studio Art and the B.F.A. degree in Studio Art with a concentration in Printmaking.
The Printmaking program at the University of Maine, currently housed in historic Carnegie Hall, embraces environmental responsibility and personal safety in the studio. We have been devoted to investigating and using safer, less toxic print media since 1995.
Coursework within the program is guided by conceptual exploration and development of technical aptitude. A fully equipped Intaglio area anchors our facility, where we test and employ a variety of acrylic based grounds and photopolymer films. Complementing our etching area is a lithography area devoted to polyester plate processes with option for some metal plate work. Course work and facilities include relief printing (linoleum and wood block), collagraph, water-based screen-printing, digital media, book arts and type setting, monoprinting, ephemeral printmaking and integration of print media with installation, sculptural and interdisciplinary practice.
We are currently designing the renovation of Stewart Hall, which will house a new state of the art "green" print facility and open access print studio. Our new facility will bring together Print, Digital, and Photography and will be housed side by side with The New Media Innovation, Research, and Development Center at UMaine. Our program welcomes educational exchange, innovation in technique, and emerging technologies that push the parameters of printmaking.
additions art school listings can be found in PRINTMAKING RESOURCES