“‘Is the artwork the finished piece or is the artwork the process?”
Printmaking seems to be one of the most mysterious of mediums. Almost everyone has heard of it and almost everyone has the same questions: “so that’s the one that you have to do backwards, right?” and “why go through the trouble of etching the plate if you can just draw the image instead?” Well Kate MacNeil, a fantastic printmaker currently working out of Redux Contemporary Art Center and 2011 graduate from the College of Charleston’s Studio Art program, is here to discuss her relationship with printmaking, her specific process, and hopefully answer one or two of your questions along the way
*For those of you who would like to learn a little more about the specifics of etching techniques before reading further (which you should because it’s a pretty sweet medium), please reference the end of the interview!
Why did you primarily favor etching as your technique of choice while at CofC?
“I really like that feeling of either drawing into or onto a surface, especially with etching because you can get such fine lines and really nice detail. I got kind of sucked into that world.”
Printmaking and animation are two dramatically different routes to take as an artist. How did you find yourself making the tie between the two mediums?
“Within printmaking, you get a huge stack of proofs that show your progress. You know, as you start the plate, you work into it, you print it, you go back, you work into it, you print it; I started off just really interested in seeing my own progression and flipping through and watching the plates sort of move.
“I originally started with a reduction block print I had done and I scanned every layer of each color into a computer and then pieced it together to make a little gif. I’m really kind of interested in that idea of tracking the movement of an image through an artist’s eye in a sense of constantly making these changes.”
What is the driving thought process behind your work and how are you presenting this inner dialogue to the viewers?
“I’m trying to show the progress in the work and kind of posing the question ‘is the artwork the finished piece or is the artwork the process?’ That’s sort of the overall question that I’m asking myself and asking my viewers through the work.
“I’ve been doing these drawing of space in regards to the rooms we are in every single day. A lot of my previous work has been about memory and time, so I was kind of relating that spatial imagery to that idea of time degrading memory.
“My most recent work has been utilizing the process of printmaking itself – proofing, printing, altering, re-proofing – to examine these memory lapses. The transformative nature of memories often leaves us with false impressions of an actual occurrence. They relate to the imperfection of the person behind the process.”
Yeah, I do like that because with really any work there’s a lot of layers in it, like a lot of things that an artist will decide to take out or cover up so it’s nice to see the progression- of seeing things you decided to remove or change […] even if you do decide to take something out , that initial decision is still documented.
“And I mean, it’s pretty obvious that some of the animations I was working on are very heavily inspired by William Kentridge. He’s working on, for the most part, a single piece of paper that he’s removing charcoal from and adding charcoal to, but you can still see the traces of the image that was there before. I was kind of trying to relate that same idea to printmaking which is what I’m more familiar with.
“The other part of it is that having worked with printmaking for a while there’s also this feeling of being a little stuck in the medium. It’s this very traditional medium that has been around for hundreds of years and it’s like trying to reinvent something new from something so incredibly old; trying to find different ways to stay within the realm of printmaking but reinvent and interpret and push the envelope as much as possible.”
So where do you plan on taking this progression of ideas and mediums?
“I need to take a break from etching for little while. A lot of my prints have been kind of tying into an animation of sorts, and I want to attempt to do that with a relief print. I’m also going to be working with a subject matter I don’t work with a lot which is the figure.
“The next piece I want to work on is going to involve animation, prints, but then a performance element to it as well. So I’m really excited and it’s probably gonna be the first thing that I start on when I get into grad school.
“Specifically I’m going to be doing video work recording myself within the print process and it’s not necessarily just gonna be a videotape of me making a print. I am going to be working within self-portraiture and dealing a lot with the self of the artist within the process, the self of the artist within the work itself.
“I’m excited. It’s totally new territory for me. I’m just like this is either going to be awesome or it’s gonna suck. But either way I’m gonna do it and learn from it.”
Once you have an idea like that how do you plan? How do you execute the process?
“Usually the ideas kind of start really, really small and then let them I kind of let them simmer for little while. I don’t like jump on it right away, I kind of let it sit and build and gather source materials. I read a lot. I let the books that I read influence my work. I let movies that I watch influence it. I talk to people. I kind of sit and let all these outside influences come in and affect the work.
“Usually [an idea] would hit me at 2 o’clock in the morning right before I’m trying to go to bed. I’m like, I literally have to get this written down or I can’t go to sleep. I feel like they’re kind of initially a little amateurish, you know. I’m always second-guessing myself, second-guessing whatever my next image is gonna be. Is it even worth it to put it on paper?
“In the end it is always worth it to put on paper. It’s always good to get it out of your system.
“And that’s why I do little sketches. I’ll do little drawings. I’ll do test prints. I’ll do kind of mini mockups of the thing and then decide to commit to it or not.”
Discuss the process of a specific work.
“In a sketchbook, I wrote down a quote from a short story I read from Italo Calvino that had to deal with The Void. I really love that idea of how he interpreted falling through space, but I was able to translate it into a personal interpretation of living with depression. Sitting with that quote in my head, it slowly kind of develops, pulling together other ideas that I have, it turns into a bigger piece.
“Utilizing one copper plate, I abraded and altered the surface of the plate a series of 25 times, printing the progression along the way to piece together a single image. With each section representing a single year, the entire piece comes to represent my state at the age of 25 (when the piece was originally conceived).”
I know it must vary a lot, but on average, how long does that process tend to take?
“I mean for The Void (above), that thought process started, I would say, a good six to eight months before I started working on it, and then I worked on it for a good six to eight months.
“But with etchings I found out I was spending months at a time working on these really huge plates that were very detailed and after six months I was like wait, why am I still working on this image? I don’t care about it; I’m not interested in this subject matter anymore.”
What jobs have you had/do you have that have influenced you as an artist?
“A year out of college I started working at the College of Charleston as the printmaking technician, and I did that for two and half years. That was a great experience, partially because I had access to this really awesome studio space, but it was also just a huge opportunity for me to learn and really develop my work.
“It’s good to be in an environment like that where everybody’s working really hard. Getting to watch students grow, it’s sort of like watching like an art process happen in a petri dish. I could kind of see like ‘oh hey, it started off here and it’s gonna go somewhere else, so like even if your stuff if shit right now it can get better.’”
“I currently work at Artist and Craftsman.”
What other cool things have you done that pushed you to grow as an artist?
“I was at the Vermont studio center from the end of November through the end of December  for 4 weeks. That has probably been one of the best experiences I’ve had as an artist; I would highly encourage recent college graduates to do a residency of some sort. It pulled together so many different artists from all over, all doing totally different things.
“When I was up there I was like pulling like 10, 12 prints a day. I pulled 211 prints that I kept at Vermont. Granted, now I have to go to work and walk my dogs and stuff, but I’m like ‘I need to be working faster.’”
Well Kate, we wish you the best in Buffalo and are convinced that you’ll be working plenty fast once you’re up there. We’re excited to see how you’ll continue to bring printmaking into the modern age, you’ve got hundreds of years of tradition and rules to break.
* The Deets:
Etching: so you’re basically creating grooves in a zinc plate with acid.
Soft ground etching: the plate is covered with an acid resist soft or hard ground, and the acid will eat away the metal wherever it is exposed by removal of the medium
Hard ground etching: the plate is covered with an acid resist hard ground which can be scratched into. The acid will eat away the metal wherever it is exposed
Aquatint: A solid tone or gradient can be added, beginning with a dusting of rosin, the plate is then placed in the acid
Drypoint: A plate is hand etched with a sharpened metal or diamond tipped tool
Thank you for informing yourself about printmaking. The Printmaking Gods look favorably upon you.