Laura Brown: The Great Lakes of North America

If you know me in real life, you know that I’m pretty excited about having recently met Laura Brown.  She’s a printmaker, and we first met through….um…twitter.  Laura recently returned from the Women’s Studio Workshop in New York, where she was an artist-in-residence, working on a new artist booked called The Great Lakes of North America.  On Tuesday, there will be a party at the Minnesota Center For Book Arts celebrating the release of the book.  I asked Laura to share some thoughts on printmaking, and the process of making the book.

Give us print making for dummies.  What does it involve?  How long does it take?
The broadest, most basic way to define printmaking is this: you make an image on one surface and ink it to transfer it to another surface. We call the first surface the print matrix. This might be a screen, a wood or linoleum block, a metal plate, or a litho stone. Usually the second surface is paper, though you can print on almost anything. As a rule, you need a new print matrix for each color you want to print (though lots of printmakers will combine colors on one block or plate). So, if you want to print a four-color screen print, you need four screens, one for each color. Making a print is, in general, a long process- the more colors, the more complex the image, the longer it takes. But, the beauty of it is that you can make multiple originals! So you put a ton of work into making your print matrix and then you can make many of the same image.

Why were you interested in the Great Lakes in the first place?  What made you propose the project?

Place is a really strong theme in my work. I grew up in the mountains of southwestern colorado, so moving to wisconsin as a teenager was quite a shock. I am fascinated and mystified by the midwest, with its lush green summers and flat farmlands. Early on, making prints about this strange landscape and the weird industrial/agricultural architecture in the midwest became a way for me to work out the things about the culture I don’t understand. The Great Lakes are, to me, a mind-blowing geographical feature that both connects and separates the midwest from the east in a lot of different ways; they’re an in-between place.

Because the Women’s Studio Workshop is in New York,  I wanted to emphasize how place fit into my relationship to the studio and to my artwork.  I made my first artist book a couple of years ago during a residency at the Minnesota Center For Book Arts and I was interested in learning more and expanding my work in that direction.

What was a typical day at the Women’s Studio Workshop like?

The Women’s Studio Workshop was founded in the mid-70’s by four artists who were intent on providing creative space, time, and money for women artists.  They get funding from by organizations such as the NEA, and the Andy Warhol Foundation, and they bring printmakers and book artists to their studios to publish books. Money from the sales of the books keep the studio running.

In the beginning, I was responsible for teaching fifth graders how to make prints, which was really fun and quite exhausting. The rest of the time, I was free to work on my book. All of the studios are housed in what was originally a country store in the middle of nowhere in the Hudson Valley; it was really picturesque.  I would hole up in my tiny studio with the sweet depression-era vandercook press and a pot of coffee, and had few distractions.  Twelve to fifteen hours of the day was spent printing, and  I LOVED it.  The staff, other artists-in-residence, and I would take breaks together for meals, or to run or hike, but otherwise we were working.  There were a lot of hard things about being away from home and working so intensely on one project for a period of time, but I learned so much and am so grateful for the experience.

What surprised you about the process?

As a printmaker, I am really comfortable working with 2-dimensional images, using processes that allow for a lot of spontaneity in the development of the image. Making a book takes so much more planning. Every element of a book has to work with all the other elements–the prints have to line up correctly, the binding and structure have to make sense. Making a beautiful book requires a lot of meticulous attention to detail. I learned a lot about when and in what ways to let myself work spontaneously and when I had to plan–sometimes the hard way.

You can find out more about Laura’s book here.


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