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A Sculptor on Prints

A Sculptor On Prints

(A Conversation Between Melvin Edwards and Alejandro Anreus, March 19, 1999)

AA:    When did your first encounter with printmaking take place? Was it as a student? What kind of an encounter was it?

ME:    I didn't know what prints were, really. The words etching and sketching were similar to me, and at that point no one explained them to me. When I saw a book with the etchings of Rembrandt, well, are they sketches? At first to me they were Old Master graphic images. It was only after I was at the university that I found out what the different techniques really were. I took a printmaking class at the University of Southern California, I believe in 1957, with Leonard Edmondson. There were two printmaking teachers there at the time, Edmondson was one, and the other was Jules Heller. Heller is rather famous, because he has written on contemporary printmaking. So, I was introduced to etching in all its varieties, and also lithography. I did not have much to do with serigraphy, since it was a medium that really gained popularity in the 1960s. Based on the first examples I saw of serigraphy, well I just wasn't that interested. I was around at the time that Tamarind first opened up in Los Angeles. June Wayne founded Tamarind. In the mid 1960s I was driving for a film company in Los Angeles, which was near Tamarind. So I would go around at lunchtime and meet the artists who came from New York to do prints at Tamarind. At that time I met briefly, not that I knew who she was, Louise Nevelson. The sculptor Gabriel Kohn Introduced me to Nevelson. We had a nice little chat. I told her I was a sculptor, she told me that she wanted to come see my work. But somehow in the conversation I did not get her name. Anyway, her visit never came to fruition, but the reason I say this, that had I known who she was, I would have been very impressed. Her work was a major presence as far as wall relief in sculpture was concerned. At that time she had one piece that took up an entire wall at the LA County Museum. Her work was really special; anyway Nevelson had come out to LA to do a print at Tamarind. At Tamarind I met Richard Hunt, when he came out to do a print. Hunt was also an artist-in-residence at the Chouinard School of Art at that time. In the same manner I met Leon Golub, George Sugarman. You might say that through Tamarind and printmaking, well, it was a way for me to meet New Yorkers, although Hunt is from Chicago. Through Tamarind I also met Riva Castleman, the former director of the print department at The Museum of Modern Art. Castleman came out, I believe to catalogue the work at Tamarind; it was for some project at the Modern. I took both Castleman and George Sugarman to see the Watts Towers. It was at a time that, because of the Watts rebellion, folks like Sugarman and Castleman would not have has easy access to the Towers on their own.

Another encounter regarding prints and Riva Castleman took place in January 1970. I had just received a fellowship from a foundation in February, and I went to San Juan, Puerto Rico. On the beach, walking on the beach, I encountered Riva Castleman lying on the sand, and she told me that she was in San Juan to be a juror at the First Biennial of Latin American Printmaking, which was taking place in San Juan, right then and there. So, I went up to, I believe Morro Castle, and saw the Biennial, which was very impressive. Within the Biennial there was a special print retrospective of José Clemente Orozco, and there I encountered his powerful lithograph of lynched Black men.

AA:    Yes that is the last lithograph Orozco executed in the U.S. He gave it two title. One is rather ironic, it's "American Scene," the other is "Negros Ahorcados."

ME:    I didn't know that. Anyway, at first in my career I though I would be doing more printmaking, but then I became more and more involved with sculpture. Yet, it has always been a very parallel, although occasional, activity. But looking back, now that I have the opportunity to look back, I have made prints in Senegal, in Cuba, in Morocco, in various places in the U.S., and this "occasional" activity becomes a substantial body of work. The only thing is that I haven't really exhibited this body of work until now. Early in the 1960s I stopped painting and focused on sculpture. The funny thing is that since then I have exhibited sketches, all sorts of drawings with my sculptures, but never the prints.

AA:    What kind/type of printmaking were you first aware of? Old Masters? 20th Century? African-American Artists?

ME:    In LA City College one of my fellow students showed me the work of Charles White. It was probably 1956 or 1957. Maybe 1955. Also in 1957 or 58, I took a class at the University of Southern California, and Herman "Kofi" Bailey, who was the graduate assistant, and a mature artist in his own right, introduced me to the graphic work of John Biggers. Biggers had been educated at Hampton University. Anyway, there was a connection among these artists, athread that ran through the progressive liberal side of American politics. I am sure that White's work had been circulated through progressive bookstores, civil rights organizations, etc. Especially at this point when there was no such thing as a Black art world in LA, with galleries and a support system. So it was the progressive organizations that made the work of artists like White and Biggers available. In the spring of 1958, Charles White had an exhibition of his work at the University of Southern California, and Marvin Saltzman introduced me to White. It was also at this time that I saw reproductions of Hale Woodruff's woodcuts from the 1930s. They were in the collection of Atlanta University, I think.

In terms of graphics, the thought of, the influence of graphics, I can go all the way back to 1953-55, to high school and the movie Moulin Rouge. In the movie the lithographic process was explained a little bit in the sequence when Lautrec takes up lithography to do posters. I took my sketchbook to the movie, I drew, took notes. I eve did a small painting of Toulouse-Lautrec, after seeing the movie.

AA:    So, your first encounters with printmaking were with figurative printmaking.

ME:    Well, I am sure that for some artists that is an issue. Not so for me. Anyway, I knew the prints of Jean Arp and Paul Klee. Also the prints of the more abstract German Expressionists. I am sure that somewhere in the back of my mind, it all comes together and it has all had an effect on my work. I am saying effect, I would not say influence. In college I learned the techniques, you know, etching, some others. I did not keep any of the work from this period, I don't think they were very good. I learned to make woodcuts, one or two linoleum cuts. I always remember that when I was in college I sent away for two books: etchings by Rembrandt and Goya's La Tauromaquia. I just liked their work, I still do. I would sit and look at the reproductions of the prints. The processes of drawing and printmaking; their similarities of production, the linear qualities, etc. I would draw using architectural drawing tools, I liked the clean sweep, the particular quality of the lines drawn with those tools. I was also aware of Japanese prints, particularly Utamaro's. I had bought a small book of Utamaro's prints. In my drawings I would imitate Utamaro's forms, his lines, but not his images. This kind of exercise was of interest to me. I was aware of a certain kind of work, and I had respect for what that particular kind of work achieved. I also owned a copy of Vesalius' book of anatomy and I studied the quality of his line. The same thing happened with Durer's engravings.

So much of my exposure to other artwork at the time was through books. Through the reproductions in books.

AA:    I think that what is important about all this, is not so much the idea of influence, as of all this visual vocabulary being a part of an environment that you were exposed to.

ME:    That's right.

AA:    What was your first hands-on experience with printmaking?

ME:    It was with etching. I studied with professors Leonard Edmondson and Jules Heller. Little experiments. Nothing particularly successful. Nothing substantial or serious. What mattered here was learning the process, knowing how to do it. Then I would just move on to the next class. Continuing along this line of first hands-on experience, I met an artist by the name of Connor Everts, about ten years my senior, who taught at the Chouinard School of Art. He was one of the first master printers at Tamarind. Everts was one of those artists who was in trouble, politically that is, because of his work. At that time he was censored because of the erotic imagery in his work - it was the kind of imagery that we would not say anything about today. In the 1960s Los Angeles was a very oppressive city. We became friends. He did lithographs at his own place in LA. His current studio is called "The Market," and is located in Redondo, California.

In the fall of 1965, I followed Richard Hunt as artist-in-residence at Chouinard, and at this time Connor Everts was leaving Chouinard. I ended up teaching at Chouinard for two years before I moved east. Anyway, I did a couple of lithographs with Connor at his LA studio in 1966, but I did not get beyond the proofs, that is they never made it into an edition. These pieces survived, but in time I transformed them into drawings. One of them is actually quite erotic. Unfortunately, I do not know where they are. Probably they are somewhere under the many sheets of paper, here in the studio. From these prints I did at Connor Everts, I evolved a form, an open book form, which I used later in a public sculpture at Livingston College, Rutgers University, in 1987.

AA:    You also worked with the open form again, when you did some prints with your wife, the poet Jayne Cortez.

ME:    Yes, but those prints came later. Before this I had made drawings for her books of poetry. We did the prints with Ben Wigfall in Kingston, New York in 1975. As a matter of fact, one of the print/poems is entitled Carolina, Kingston. It consists of line of barbed wire with the written image by Jayne Cortez.

AA:    Tell me the different kinds of processes and techniques that you have used over the years - any preferences?

ME:    With me it tends to be just a case of getting involved. If a workshop situation is set up and I walk in Monday morning ready to go, then I go with it. This was the recent situation on Goree Island in Senegal; there was some wood and I got involved with it and in the end I produced a couple of woodcuts. I have been working at the Goree Institute on a portfolio of 12 etchings with three other artists. The proceeds from the sale of this portfolio will be used to begin a printmaking center in West Africa. It usually happens when I am not in my studio, so in that sense it is not the usual, everyday place of comfort, therefore I just start working until something appears. Most of the people that I know who are master printers or printmakers want to get you involved. They are like preachers in their fervor - now, you might not be necessarily looking for a religion, but you might enjoy going to church on occasion, you know, enjoy the ritual. I respect people who believe, who are authentic in what they are doing, barring the negative. So that if somebody has figured out the ways of the universe, or their commitment to printmaking, that's fine with me. I may not quite have this level of understanding; I tend to se things more organically. It's the same with printmaking; throughout my career it has just happened, and it keeps on happening. With a medium like printmaking, if I can get my hands on it long enough, I am pretty confident that I can do something. As far as one medium within all of the printmaking mediums, I guess I prefer whichever one I end up working with at a particular time. Still, I tend to prefer the printmaking medium that is most closely related to drawing; that's probably either etching or lithography. One of the tendencies that I have, which is improvisational, is that when I am involved with a print and it is not working, I have a tendency to want to draw or paint on the print, transforming it from a print into something else. On the other hand, sometimes it is this tendency to draw or paint on the failed print, that either saves it or somehow makes it work. What am I telling you with this? Sometimes one thing works, at other times something else. It all boils down to the condition of the environment, my resources - both mental and physical - then you work hard, and something starts to happen, and I can make something.

AA:    When did you cease to condier yourself a painter and cease to make paintings?

ME:    Roughly, I'd say 1963. Yes, pretty much 1963. Just because this is when the Lynch Fragments started, and I realized that I really did have "something to say" working in sculpture in that way. What was not happening in painting was happening in sculpture. What I had been searching for in painting, just happened in sculpture. If I continued to paint, it would probably have happened over time with painting. But not in the same was as it was happening in sculpture.

AA:    Was your visual vocabulary at this point abstract?

ME:    Yes, but you see, my abstraction always understood figuration. Anyway, I never had any dogmatic precepts about figuration vs abstraction. For me all visual art is abstract. Anybody who does not know this is not very sophisticated. In the end, to me the issue between abstraction and figuration is one of style, not comprehensively as a view of the world through your art. It is all abstract, therefore all real.

I always say that the only way to make real art is when you have a baby. And in this process men are at best, assistants in the creative process. The result will have a life of its own.

AA:    What printmaking workshops have you worked at? Any recollections?

ME:    I have worked at Bob Blackburn's Printmaking Workshop in New York City. Bob Blackburn - and you can quote me on this - well, if Bob Blackburn is standing at the door of the Printmaking Workshop and a dog walks by and pauses, Bob will get him in the shop and convince him to become a printmaker for life! Such is the love, the commitment this man has for printmaking. Bill Major's studio on 7th Avenue in the 1960s was an important place where you could meet Norman Lewis, Romare Bearden and others.

I worked with Ben Wigfall in Upstate New York, in Kingston, where he had a print shop. Wigfall taught at New Paltz and before that he had taught at Hampton. So I did a couple of prints with Wigfall. In terms of different workshops, chronologically I have worked at Blackburn'' Printmaking Workshop in New York, Ben Wigfall'' shop in Kingston, New York, the Rutgers Center for Innovative Print and Paper in New Brunswick, the Rene Portocarrero Serigraphy Workshop in Havana, the Brandywine Workshop in Philadelphia, and most recently at the Goree Institute Printmaking shop on Goree Island, Senegal.

AA:    Do you draw a great deal? What is the relationship between your drawing and your sculpture? How does your drawing relate to your printmaking?

ME:    I draw a great deal. I keep sketchbooks all over the place, usually carry a small one with me . . . two or three times I have bought a goat's head, boiled it and kept the skull, or the jaw bone to draw from. I draw from architecture, its abstract, geometric qualities. I have a curiosity about forms, which I explore in drawing.

Drawing is a perennial activity. I do it all the time, as opposed to printmaking, which is more occasional. You could say that I am obsessive about drawing. As I said earlier, I keep sketchbooks, I fill them up. It is an activity all of its own. Of course, some of the drawings are related to my sculpture, but others are not. I draw signs, symbols, and self-portraits.

There is no doubt that my printmaking comes right out of my drawing, then it takes on a life of its own. You see, in the end all of the work is linked, because I make it, and it is about my feelings about form and content, my feelings about the world.

AA:    Do you believe in the so-called "old-fashioned"notion of printmaking as a more accessible, more democratic art, due to its multiple editions?

ME:    I wouldn't use the word "democratic." Any despot could use this technical process, and they have! But it definitely costs less. You could say that when I heard of the Taller de Gráfica Popular, the spirit of their endeavor has always seemed right to me, and I definitely agree with the humanistic bent in the work of the Mexican muralists and the printmakers of the Taller de Gráfica Popular. For me the prime example of a sculptor committed to printmaking is Elizabeth Catlett. Elizabeth has produced an incredible, powerful body of work in the printmaking mediums. Together with her husband, painter Francisco Mora, Catlett has made a significant contribution to printmaking in Mexico.

Going back to the issue of access and prints, I guess you could say that prints could be more accessible to the people. Particularly for the African American and Latino communities. Also the graphic aspect of the medium itself makes it connect with street posters, etc. It is perceived as more "populist" than a painting or sculpture.

AA:    This is going to be the first survey exhibition focused exclusively on your prints.

ME:    Yes. As you stated, it is a survey, not a retrospective. I would have to be dead to have a retrospective of my prints, and I don't intend to die any time soon. I do intend to keep making prints. As we speak I am finishing the portfolio I mentioned earlier with Senegalese painter Souleymane Keita and South African writer and artist Breyten Breytenbach.