smelser_headshot

MM&S:  How did you begin with monoprint-monotype printmaking? Your artistic career is long and varied, so how did printmaking come into it and how are you fulfilled by what you do?

 Sarah:  I studied and pursued intaglio in undergraduate and graduate school. I became interested in monoprint because I wanted to become more productive and I was not terribly invested in editioning, so I started making plates that could be easily combined with an image that was carried on a chine colle element. For example, I might do a drawing in India ink on a piece of Asian paper and then combine it with an etching via chine colle. I would try to re-interpret an etched image as many times as I could by varying the chine colle element as well as the ink color and then later by combining plates.

Toward the end of my three-year graduate program I took a monotype class and I found it very frustrating because it revolved around painted marks, which I really don’t enjoy making. When we looked at some prints by Paul Gaugin and I saw trace monotype, I started to use that technique as a way to make an image on Asian paper to combine with an etching. It felt very natural to me so I experimented with it further. After working with trace monotype, etching, and chine colle for a number of years I decided to try leaving the etching behind to see how it would go. After I started my family I decided to set etching aside for a longer period of time. Now, as a professor at Illinois State University, I teach mainly intaglio but I practice it very little in my own studio. I enjoy this separation; my day-to-day work with students involves one set of techniques and rules, and my solitary studio practice involves techniques and rules that are completely different.

MM&S:  What is the most exciting element about this technique?

Sarah:  Trace monotype is exciting to me because I keep learning new ways to use it. I have used the technique in my work for almost twenty years and I still keep finding ways that I can refine it and bend it to my desires. It has also helped me to expand my aesthetic and visual vocabulary.

MM&S:  Explain to us what trace monotype is and how you use it.

Sarah:  Trace monotype is a process whereby an artist lays out a ribbon of stiff ink and rolls out a thin slab, either on a sheet of plexiglass or on a glass counter (I use the counter). Then the artist places the artwork face-down in the ink and draws on the back to transfer the ink to the paper. Different mark-making tools and varying degrees of pressure can be used. Pencils, fingers and other objects each create their own interesting effects. When the paper is picked up, the positive image is on the image side, the negative image is on the slab. No press is required for this printmaking technique.

MM&S:  Do you find that the work of other printmakers acts to stimulate your own ideas for creative work?

 Sarah:  The work of other printmakers is stimulating in that it makes me want to get into the studio and get moving. However, it’s not the ideas per se that affect me; I like unpacking the work visually and seeing how it is made. That really makes me want to get my hands dirty.

The ideas for my work are stimulated by several things: conversations I have had, songs I hear, private jokes, anecdotes, lyrics, and poems. Although these references are present in the work, either on the surface or deep down below, they do not inspire or initiate it.  The work is generated by an urgent curiosity and is sustained by the excitement of discovery in the studio.

In the last several years my work has dealt with the relationship between self and environment. Through abstraction, I contemplate the way the landscape of one’s childhood conditions how one approaches the world as an adult. I don’t attempt to answer a question about this relationship, but rather to ruminate on the familiar and foreign feelings of place, landscape, and space, each with its own punctuations, patterns, and sequence.

My latest travels have led me to the Greek island of Skopelos, the city of Chicago, and County Mayo, Ireland: all places that are characterized by water.  I grew up in Northern California and the coast figured heavily into my upbringing.  As a child, when I couldn’t sleep at night I looked out my bedroom window to watch San Francisco’s lights reflected on the water.  When I learned to drive, the location of the coast was the only way I could negotiate east from west.  I went to college in Santa Cruz and lived in a house across from the beach, so that the sight, sound, and smell of the water were part of every day.

Though I have lived in the Midwest for more than 20 years, I feel indelibly branded by my experiences with the coast and water, and fundamentally defined by them.  I carry the redwoods, eucalyptus trees and the sight of the bay with me, and use them as a filter through which to experience my travels, as well as the vast openness, ferocious wind, and orderly farmland of central Illinois.

MM&S:  Artist often talk about residencies. You have had the opportunity to be part of them in the U.S. and abroad. Tell us a bit about what is entailed in a residency and what the differences are here and abroad.

 Sarah:  When I first started applying for residencies, about 20 years ago, I simply felt that residencies were part of an artist’s maturation process and I was supposed to be doing them. The first few that I did were emotional disasters. I felt thrown off in a new space, making the work felt horrible and the work itself looked awkward. In 2000, my husband and I went to the Franz Masereel Center in Kasterlee, Belgium. This was the first international residency for either of us and what it did, for me, was encourage me to explore foreignness and use it as a way to feel free and irresponsible in the studio. I felt that I had nothing to lose, and I might as well try things on a lark. The worst that could happen is that I would fill the studio garbage can in Belgium and fly home empty handed.

Though all residencies are different, I have enjoyed my international residencies the most because they provide a complete break from my regular life. I usually abandon all email correspondence and trappings of being a teacher or home owner, so I feel free to focus on the studio work and the new place with all that accompanies it: sightseeing, people watching, and sampling local food. This feels like true living to me; I feel the most vital when I am transplanted somewhere else. The last two international residencies I have done have been family affairs. My husband and three kids have come with me and had their own experiences. When I went to the Ballinglen Arts Foundation I enrolled the kids in Irish schools and they spent five weeks soaking up local Irish culture while I worked in the studio. It was also very nice to see our trip through their eyes and think about how I could use the events of their lives as a starting point for imagery.

MM&S:  Artists seem to use everything from oils to specialty inks and acrylics. Is there a particular medium you prefer?

 Sarah:  I’m pretty flexible within limits. I work with lithography inks and I keep a very simple palette in my studio. I have a small variety of papers I like to use, and a few ink modifiers that I simply cannot do without. However, I am open to new materials and like to share ideas with friends and colleagues.

MM&S:  What does your typical studio day look like as if anything is typical for an artist?

 Sarah:  Before I had children, and got enveloped by academia, I worked long days in the studio without much concern for a schedule or deadlines. I wandered around and made images leisurely. Now I have many things that keep me out of studio for days at a time, and sometimes when I make it to my studio I have only a few hours. I now work with a sense of urgency that I really enjoy. I work more confidently because I don’t dillydally and explore all my options: I make a choice in a piece and go with it. I find that my loss rate (or rate of failure) these days is about the same as when I pulled my hair out as to whether something should be red or yellow. I enjoy my studio and my time in it immensely, much more than I did as a younger adult.

As a favor to myself, when I finish working in my studio I leave a note about what I was working on or what my plan was for a certain piece. That way when I come back I don’t have to scratch my head and figure out what to do. Sometimes I change my mind because I have a fresh look at the work but I often try to go with at least the first step and see where it leads me. I work on 10 – 20 pieces at a time and add elements to them according to what colors I use that day. Hmm, today is a red day and I know which pieces need red so I will group them together and modify the red as I go so each piece doesn’t get the same exact color

MM&S:  You and your husband started Manneken Press in 2000. Tell us about some of the projects the organization is working on.

 Sarah:  We started Manneken Press in 2000, working initially with a small group of artists Jonathan had met during the 12 years he lived in New York City. Publishing several projects each year, Manneken Press’ roster of artists now numbers more than twenty-five and we have participated in fine art fairs in Chicago, New York, Miami, Boston, Baltimore and Houston. In a typical year we publish prints by four or five invited artists. 2016 has been a particularly busy and by the year’s end we will have completed projects with six artists: the first volume of ten photogravures by Philip Van Keuren presented in a beautiful handmade folio; two large monoprint series by Gary Justis; a woodcut edition and monotypes by Scottish-born artist Jack Davidson who travelled to Manneken Press from his home in Barcelona; two series of intaglio and relief monoprints by Colorado artist Kate Petley, two multi-plate etching editions by St Louis artist Mary Judge, and a series of colossal monotypes by Colombian artist Carlos Andrade.  We will be exhibiting many of these new prints in early November at the Editions/Artist’s Books Fair in New York City, and Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington will host an exhibition of our recent prints in March 2017. All of these prints and more can be viewed on our website: www.mannekenpress.com.

MM&S:  How do you balance your time with the creativity of your fine art career, family and a growing artistic business?

 Sarah:  I am quite busy juggling varied activities and days can be very long. I try to do something that I am happy about every day, whether it is in the studio, at work, or at home. Sometimes this means accomplishing a difficult or daunting task, sometimes it means exploring a new project or just getting time in the studio, sometimes it means spending time with my kids or going to the gym. I am a list maker and I love crossing things off my list!

I try not to beat myself up about what I should be doing. Everything has its proper time, and time is quite fleeting. I look at my kids growing and I understand the importance of spending time with them; they won’t always be so close. I look at my career and acknowledge not only how hard it is but also how well it is going despite the many things in competition for my time. I do fret occasionally but it’s never a productive activity.

The word “balance” implies equality, and I am not able to give all parts of my life equal attention. I am quite comfortable with this knowledge because I feel that true balance is out of my control. Sometimes I get very little studio time, but lots of family time, or visa versa. Often I remind myself that I am doing exactly what I have always wanted. I have it all. That means figuring out how to juggle everything and keep moving forward.

MM&S:  What artists have influenced you?

 Sarah:  I think Agnes Martin has had the largest influence on me. I love the wholeness of her work, and how it is both simple and complex at the same time. I value her writings, more than her images, because they show such a beautiful mind at work. She writes with elegance and honesty, and I find her words so affirming. Many other artists have had an impact on me and inspired me to try new things in the studio: Philip Guston, Barbara Rossi, Brice Marden, Terry Winters, John Cage, Richard Diebenkorn, Squeak Carnwath. One of my undergraduate professors, Zarina, is having a fabulous career making concise and sophisticated prints, drawings, and cast paper pieces. She has shown me, by example, how to sustain meaningful ideas over time.

 

MM&S:  What advice would you give artists just starting out in this technique?

 Sarah:  Get off your phones! Stop texting and live your life through activity and experience. Don’t get hung up on success or failure. Just work, work, work and then take some time to see what you have done. Make notes about your tendencies; try to figure out what kind of artist you are. Journal as much as you can. Write about your influences, dreams, and goals. Be present.

Don’t worry about money until you have to, and try to gain experiences that make sense rather than make money. Some of the best and most fruitful experiences I have had were unpaid internships. I worked at Bob Blackburn’s Printmaking Workshop after my first year of graduate school, trading intern time for my own studio time. I think that was the first time I felt like an adult and truly took ownership of my life.


Thank you for an insightful interview.
Additional work and contact at :
www.sarahsmelser.com
email:  [email protected]



Selected Monoprints and Monotypes



See more of this artist’s work in our E Zine MM&S online HERE



Artist Information


Sarah Smelser received her BA from University of California at Santa Cruz, her MA and MFA from the University of Iowa.  She has been an artist in residence at the Vermont Studio Center; The Franz Masereel Center in Kasterlee, Belgium; Artica in Bilbao, Spain; Kala Art Institute in Berkeley, CA; Jentel Artist Residency in Banner, WY; and Skopelos Foundation for the Arts in Skopelos, Greece, Anchor Graphics in Chicago; and the Ballinglen Arts Foundation in Ballycastle, Ireland.  Her work is in such collections the Readers’ Digest Association, the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, the Jane Vorhees Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, the Spencer Museum at University of Kansas, Hallmark Corporate Collection, and the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts.

Smelser has had solo exhibitions at Bridgewater/Lustberg & Blumenfeld in New York City, Kathryn Markel Fine Arts in New York City, Urban Institute for Contemporary Art in Grand Rapids, MI, Carnegie Mellon University, Bradley University, University of Wyoming, Diablo Valley College, Luther College, and Simpson College.  Her work has been included in many invitational and juried shows, and been shown at numerous art fairs including Art Frankfurt, Estampa in Madrid, the Affordable Art Fair in New York, Art Miami, Red Dot Art Fair in New York and Miami, Art Santa Fe, Art Chicago, EDITION Chicago, Boston Print Fair, Baltimore Contemporary Print Fair, Editions/Artists’ Book Fair, and the Los Angeles Art Show.

Smelser’s work has been reviewed in Art on Paper: The Journal of Prints, Drawings and Photography, as well as Abstract Art Online, and has been reproduced in New American Paintings.

Smelser is a Professor of Art at Illinois State University and a co-founder of Manneken Press with husband Master Printer Jonathan Higgins.  Manneken Press is a fine art print publishing venture, currently thriving in Bloomington, IL, publishing the work of artists from around the United Stares and Colombia.  From 2006 to 2008 Smelser acted as President of the Mid America Print Council, a national non-profit organization of artist printmakers and educators.

My studio practice revolves around comparing types, memories, and impressions of landscapes, and examining how a place can be translated into an abstract image.

Travel has become important to my work as I contemplate the way the landscape of one’s childhood conditions how one approaches the world as an adult.  My work is not an attempt to answer a question about this relationship, but rather to ruminate on the familiar and foreign feelings of place, landscape, and space, each with its own punctuations, patterns, and sequence.

My latest travels have led me to the Greek island of Skopelos, Chicago, and County Mayo, Ireland: all places that are characterized by water.  I grew up in Northern California and the coast figured heavily into my upbringing.  As a child, when I couldn’t sleep at night I looked out my bedroom window to watch San Francisco’s lights reflected on the water.  When I learned to drive, the location of the coast was the only way I could negotiate east from west.  I went to college in Santa Cruz and lived in a house across from the beach, so that the sight, sound, and smell of the water were part of every day.

Though I have lived in the Midwest for more than 20 years, I feel indelibly branded by my experiences with the coast and water, and fundamentally defined by them.  I carry the redwoods, eucalyptus trees and the sight of the bay with me, and use them as a filter through which to experience my travels, as well as the vast openness, ferocious wind, and orderly farmland of central Illinois.