The Art of Democracy / The Democracy of Art
By Nancy E. Snow
In a post-Cold War environment, democratic initiatives are emerging all over the world. One of democracy’s many distinct features is to promote the concept of collaboration and it’s underlying philosophy the “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” The art community is no exception to this process as exemplified in an ambitious visual arts exhibition and exchange program, Crossing Over / Changing Places, presenting American modern print projects and paperworks which is on a four year European tour.
On the surface, Crossing Over / Changing Places, is a collaboration between the public and private sector, a necessary good in an age of scarce government dollars. It is sponsored by the Office of Arts America of the United States Information Agency, an independent federal agency responsible for the United States Government’s overseas information and cultural programs, and by the Pew Charitable Trusts, one of the nation’s largest private philanthropies which supports the work of non-profit organizations in the fields of culture, education, the environment, and other human services.
Crossing Over / Changing Places began as a collaboration of 40 artists, an eclectic group of varying ages, ethnicities, and cultural identities who came together to work with techniques in printmaking and papermaking. The artists worked with four Northeast print shops and studios which support the work of artists who might be considered somewhat “risky” by the commercial art world. In this atmosphere they could be free to pursue art as a means of public expression, as opposed to the standard “fame and fortune” art which is subject to temporal and economic pressures. The four print shops represented are the Lower East Side Print Shop, The Print Club, Pyramid Atlantic and the Rutgers center for Innovative Printmaking. The print shops pooled their resources to form the Crossing Over Consortium specifically for the European tour. The Mission of the Crossing Over Consortium is o serve as an umbrella organization that promotes national and international collaborative projects, including exchange-of-person programs, which center on printmaking, papermaking, and the book arts.
Many of the artists whose work is now appearing in the tour are participating in artist residence programs, the first time that Arts America has sent an artist to each exhibition venue to lecture and work in local print shops introducing different print techniques and the philosophy of collaboration in the American artistic community. Helen Frederick, master printer, papermaker and director of Pyramid Atlantic spent a week in Prague, sharing her techniques for water-based monotypes and handmade papermaking at three academies in conjunction with the opening of the exhibitions European tour. Eileen Foti, master printer at Rutger’s Center for Innovative Printmaking, was the artist in residence in Rijeka, Croatia, where she gave several workshops to local artists and students on print monotype and chine colle’. Artist Robert Cumming spent two weeks in Zagreb where he gave public lectures on the exhibition and his own work and worked with students at the Academy of Fine Arts to collaborate on a portfolio of intaglio prints. Lynne Allen, professor at the Rutgers Center for Innovative Printmaking, was in residence in Novo Mesto and Ljubljana where she worked at the International Center for Graphic Arts to conduct collaborative workshop project on plate lithography. The group of eight artists she worked with produced a limited-edition artist’s book, Hisa, (House in Slovenijan).
Iowa master papermaker/artist Rick Hungerford carried hundreds of pounds of paper pulp, molds and equipment to Bulgaria where he gave two intensive pulp-painting workshops for local artists at the Varna showing of the exhibition. Kathy Edwards, director of The Print Club in Philadelphia went to Sofia where she conducted seminars for local curators on traveling exhibitions, United States non-profit arts organizations, fund-raising, and gallery trends in the United States.
Printmaking and papermaking are media which require a different type of collaboration between the artist and master printer. For artists accustomed to more solitary pursuits like sculpting and painting, the complexity and social aspect of working with printers or papermakers was an exhilarating challenge. William Jung, who collaborated with Susan Rostow at The Lower East Side Print Shop in New York, summed up the collaborative process in a panel discussion which preceded the European tour: “I came with a total misconception. I was thinking, ‘I’m an artist.’ So, I was going to say, ‘Here, print this.’ Well, no way. Most painters that I’ve spoken to worry because there is so much technical stuff that seems to stand in the way. We’re so used to just picking up a brush and knowing what we want to do. In printmaking there are many steps involved, often without an immediate response from the medium; therefore people shy away from it. They don’t quite get over the initial hump. Once you get over the initial hump, then suddenly it’s very exciting.”
Crossing Over / Changing Places, like so many previous cultural presentations of the United States, the artists’ finished products tell a story, some intensely personal and others more social commentaries. Through these stories, comments curator and project director Jane M. Farmer in the exhibition catalogue, the exhibition attempts to “bridge differences of culture, gender and politics- and even humanity’s rift with the natural world.” The artists ask the enduring questions that continue to challenge our creative capacities: “Why are we not whole? How can we make ourselves whole? Can we live at peace with one another and with our planet?”
The artists in this exhibition have varying responses to such questions. For artist Arlan Huang, his Smooth Stones series centers upon the personal relationship he developed with his grandfather and the stories his grandfather shared with him about his childhood memories of China. One story moved from the muddy streams and giant carp to latrines and water snakes and, finally, to smooth stones. Huang’s grandfather would lecture the boy on the size and shape of the stones, memories which the artist now honors through making glass stones, which have been recreated through print for this current exhibition. Huang explains his artistic motivation for the Smooth Stones series: “For many years now my work has been centered around relationships and how memory and context shape these relationships. The stones have come to symbolize our relationship in particular; in general, they’ve become a symbol of strength for the long view of life.”
For Miriam Schapiro, who collaborated with printmaster Eileen Foti at Rutger's Center for Innovative Printmaking, their working together signified a cultural contrast to what is often emphasized in he United States Schapiro explains: “there is a lot of emphasis in this country, maybe other countries as well, on being independent. You push your little kids to become as independent as possible. Yes, I have my independent side, but I acknowledge it. I was totally dependent on Eileen for making this work. The issues of trust and love are very important. I got myself to the place where these feelings were in operation. Then I could work and I could think, with the dependency factor of the printer at every turn explaining this is how it will work. It’s very intellectual at that point. The technique of printmaking is very intellectual at that point. The technique of printmaking is very intellectual.”
An African-American artist, Margo Humphrey, provided yet another explanation for her printwork, a visually stimulating self-portrait entitled, The History of Her Life Written Across Her Face, which used three years of the sketches, clippings and ideas collected by the artist. Huphreys says that the print “is like a prayer. In some religions you recite the same thing over and over to elevate yourself to a certain spiritual level. The more you recite the more you unburden; the more you recite, the more you unburden; the more you unburden, the more you cleanse, the freer you are. When you are free you can experience almost anything. The image then became an expression for the things that all women go through and the fact that women need to use experience toward character building, not consider it as an obstacle. The image is about empowerment and the projection of oneself forward, about oppression as a vehicle for self-expression, and about the physical and inner-beauty of African-American women.”
In many respects the exhibition, Crossing Over / Changing Places, is a perfect vehicle for a worldwide tour. It celebrates the emergence of personal story telling and mythology in print and paperworks, a trend which is responding to the universal need that every culture has to tell it’s own story. As artist Schapiro remarks, this art is “so much more engaging because people empathize with the idea of telling a story. It’s the people’s art.” For artist Bilge Friedlaender, a Turkish immigrant to the United States, the echo of one’s own story in the art is a new way of looking at ourselves in the world. “It is not by chance that we are all talking about the personal, the inner person, the feeling, and the relationships arising from interdependency. All of this is happening because the feminine is on the rise, and by ‘feminine’ I don’t mean the female gender; I mean the feminine in the human psyche and culture that for centuries has been dominated and repressed.”
The European tour of Crossing Over / Changing Places has served as an impetus for an American-based exchange program in which the four American print shops will host foreign artists from various countries on the tour. The first groups of residencies are scheduled to take place in June 1994, and will be comprised of artists from the Czech Republic, Croatia, Slovenia and Bulgaria. A highlight of the residency will be a panel discussion of print shop directors and artists which will be hosted by the cultural attaches from the Washington embassies of the artist’s home countries. Many of these cultural attaches are artists themselves. These exchanges, which are being supported by the Trust for Mutual Understanding and the international Program for the National Endowment for the Arts, show the multi-tiered dimension of Crossing Over / Changing Places and give testimony to the growth potential of the art world as global village through collaboration and partnership in creativity. This Model Exemplifies the ideals of a democracy where partners come together in a mutual trust and reciprocity, a message that regrettably has not yet worn out its welcome.