ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Jessica Pinto, a VSA Arts of New Mexico student for four years, had a greasy ink applied to the wheels of her electric wheelchair two weeks ago.
Then, she rolled her chair over a metal plate that was lying on the floor of the North Fourth Arts Center, inscribing the plate with swirls of ink.
Other VSA Arts students used grease pens to draw images that sprang from their imaginations onto other metal plates.
On Friday, those plates were treated and inked by master printers and master printers-in-training at the University of New Mexico’s Tamarind Institute, the world’s only training center for lithographic master printers. While the delighted artists looked on, their drawings were replicated dozens of times. The prints will be given away Saturday morning at Robinson Park in Downtown Albuquerque at what Tamarind Director Marjorie Devon calls “a printervention.”
(Full disclosure: My son is a VSA artist whose prints will be available at the printervention.)
If cities have souls, and I believe they do, they are nurtured at places like North Fourth and the Tamarind Institute, where people express themselves and by expressing themselves contribute to the entire city that which is unique and meaningful about each human being.
“It came out so pretty,” Pinto said as she watched Jackie Riccio and Candice Corgan apply a blend of ink – sort of a rainbow effect – to her image.
“You moved so gracefully,” Devon told her.
“That’s proof of it,” Devon said, pointing at the print.
“It came out super-amazing,” Pinto said. “I love the rainbow combination.”
The color choice was arbitrary, Riccio said. “Blends are so much fun,” she said. “We’ll jump at any excuse to do a blend.”
Lithography is labor-intensive and demanding. Artists like Chagall, Matisse and Picasso called on master lithography printers to create the images they had in mind ever since they made their first line drawings on stone or metal plates. Few artists know how to print, so they come to Tamarind from all over the world to confer with the printers.
They watch as preliminary prints are produced until they see the impressions they want. The printers roll out inks by hand on the plate. They carefully place sheets of paper over the ink, then run the paper through a press. Hundreds of impressions can be created, and remarkably, given that the entire process is done by hand, the prints are consistent.
The institute was organized as the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in 1960 on Tamarind Avenue in Los Angeles as a way to preserve and promote lithography in the United States. It moved to the University of New Mexico in 1970 and has been housed for the past four years in an airy, sunny building at Central and Stanford. UNM provides only a fraction of its funding. Tamarind also relies on grants and donations, and two-thirds of its revenue comes from sales of art.
There are easier ways to replicate fine art than lithography. Rather than painstakingly drawing on a plate, then even more painstakingly capturing the drawing with ink on paper, one could take a computer image of a drawing on paper or a painting, then print it off on a laser or inkjet printer by the thousands.
“It’s strange to pull a hand print in this day and age,” Riccio said. “It’s kind of like darkroom photography.”
Artists make lithographs because the medium forces them to think about their work in new ways, Devon said.
In 1956, Pablo Picasso created an image for the cover of an exhibition catalog. The image required four colors. To print such an image, Picasso had to think of his image as four different images, each one printed in a different color.
Then, those four images had to come together into a single image that captured the artist’s vision. Also, he had to think of the final result as the mirror image of what he drew on the plates, because the image on the printed page is the mirror image of the drawing on the plate.
Tamarind routinely makes far more complicated lithographs than that.
“It’s a different visual language,” Devon said. Artists who try lithography find they never think about their work in any other medium in quite the same way, she said.
VSA Arts of New Mexico has been helping people with disabilities become artists or appreciators of art for decades, but Devon had never visited the VSA facility on Fourth Street NW until six months ago. One of Tamarind’s seven employees told her she needed to see what VSA was doing.
“I was blown away by the work going on there, and more than anything else, the pride they took in being artists,” Devon said. “I really wanted to involve our students with VSA.”
Devon, who is retiring next January after running Tamarind for 30 years, smiled as the plates yielded the VSA artists’ impressions of faces, animals and abstractions to the paper.
“You can see how much from their hearts this art comes,” she said. “You see how honest the work is.”