In a neighborhood of tech giants and startups, the San Francisco Center for the Book is decidedly analog. The nonprofit has been a hub for printmaking and book arts for Bay Area creatives since it opened 25 years ago, offering about 300 workshops and classes in papermaking, letterpress, binding techniques, and a range of other processes to thousands of students each year.
Beyond wanting to provide a space for local artists and those interested in the practice, though, one of the center’s tenets is community engagement, a commitment that manifests in the spectacular day-long Roadworks festival. The annual event, which was pared down in 2020 due to COVID-19 precautions, began in 2004 as a way to expand the organization’s footprint beyond its own walls, but it wasn’t until 2013 that it grew into the dramatic occasion it is today. Roadworks celebrated its 18th year this September and brought back its prized activity: printing dozens of linocuts with a 1924 Buffalo Springfield steamroller.
Each year, the center brings in the seven-ton machine from Roots of Motive Power to produce a series of 42-inch square prints in the middle of San Francisco’s streets. The process is as monumental as the event, requiring dozens of volunteers and fast-moving hands to create works successfully in the midday sun and wind. “It’s an interesting printmaking challenge in that you get to practice once a year,” says Chad Johnson, the center’s studio director and a resident instructor who’s been at the helm of Roadworks in recent years. “There’s no replication of all of the conditions except for when you do it.”
The actual process utilizes the street as the base of the press, with an insulating rubber mat on top to counter any debris. A piece of MDF particle board—the team prefers this material to plywood because it has no grain and can distribute pressure evenly—marked with a taped registration system sits on top. Once Johnson inks the plate with the yellow- and purple-tinted pigments specific to Roadworks, he has to quickly position it on the ground and have two others cover it with paper. “The only other trick is keeping the plate wet up until two minutes before. There’s no amount of ink that I can get on it that won’t dry in the wind and the sun,” he says.
After that, the rest is similar to the etching press, although it happens on a much greater scale. The team lays down a plastic tablecloth to prevent steam leakage on the paper, then a wool blanket, and finally a thick rug that serves as an insulator from the massive machine. After two rolls, the team peels off the layers and reveals the finished prints. Roadworks “has the ability to broaden the range of outreach by the sheer fact that it’s a steamroller,” Johnson shares, sometimes printing “Godzilla, sometimes a tree, sometimes a plant.” Most years, the group produces between 30 and 35 pieces within a few hours, although 2021 saw its largest collection of 38.
Alongside the larger prints created by a trio of committee-selected artists, the festival also sells linocut kits prior to the event that allows community members to carve their own works and see them realized day-of. “The idea was to get people excited about printing on a grandiose scale, and I think for me, that’s still really an amazing, powerful thing,” Johnson says, noting that these projects also garner essential funding for the nonprofit.
Although this year’s prints are sold out, the center is selling totes that feature a 2004 steamroller design by Rik Olson, a local artist who’s participated in the festival for nearly two decades. You can see more photos from Roadworks 2021 and watch for information on next year’s event on Instagram.
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An exhibition opening this weekend at the Art Institute of Chicago plunges into the vast archives of renowned Japanese ukiyo-e artists Katsushika Hokusai (previously) and Utagawa Hiroshige (previously). Fantastic Landscapes brings together the vivid scenes created by the prolific printmakers through the first half of the 19th Century with a particular focus on their innovative uses of color. Peach skies, grassy bluffs in chartreuse, and their extensive applications of Prussian blue—Hokusai’s “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” famously layers the chemical pigment—mark a broader shift in the artform. Today, the pair are largely attributed with sparking a worldwide fascination with Japanese prints.
Explore some of the woodblock works on view as part of Fantastic Landscapes below, and see them in person between July 17 and October 11. You also might enjoy this monumental book compiling Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji and Hiroshige’s delightful shadow puppets.
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Enchanting Scenes Combine Multiple Precisely Carved Woodblocks into Full-Color Prints by Tugboat Printshop
Valerie Lueth, who’s behind the Pittsburgh-based Tugboat Printshop (previously), continues to cultivate dreamy scenarios painstakingly printed with intricately carved woodblocks. Her recent creations include a distant truss bridge peeking through vegetation, a whimsically intertwined pair of trees—now in full color, this piece began as a black-line woodcut commissioned for an edition of Jean-Claude Grumberg’s The Most Precious of Cargoes—and a web of vines dripping with rain and jewels evoking a dreamcatcher.
After sketching with pencil on plywood blocks, Lueth hand-carves the meticulous designs with knives and gouging tools and often cuts multiple panels with slight variances for each print. In addition to building depth of color, Lueth’s sequential process yields greater highlights, shadows, and overall detail to the completed work. The lush, leafy scene comprising “Blue Bridge,” for example, is the product of four blocks coated in black, blue, green, and purple oil-based inks, which are pressed in succession to create the richly layered landscape.
Prints are available on Esty or from Tugboat’s site, and you can see more of Lueth’s process and a larger collection of her works, including a glimpse at a new floral relief in black-and-white, on Instagram.
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As an antidote to lockdown boredom, Sussex-based Tom Boulton designed a lightweight, portable printing press that brings the inky art form directly into people’s homes. In contrast to traditional machines that are heavy and bulky, the F-Press was created using 3-D printing and CNC machines and easily fits on a tabletop, letting users produce A5 artworks, greeting cards, and other type-based pieces even without access to large equipment.
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As a follow-up to last year’s wildly successful woodblock-printed matchboxes featuring the questionable decisions of tipsy cats, Ravi Zupa has just released a set of canine designs. Comprised of ten designs, the set includes a Boston Terrier with a high opinion of himself, a loyal hound, and an endearingly self-deprecating pug.
“These are the people in our lives with complicated dispositions and attitudes who never fail to bring
us joy, even when they’re jerks,” Zupa explained in an artist statement. “This new set of matchboxes is an effort to give the overly expressive, stubborn, supportive, unpredictable, confused and self important beings in our lives the recognition they deserve.”
Zupa used oil-based intaglio ink to create the three-color prints, and each one includes a pint-sized certificate of authenticity. The matchboxes can be ordered in the artist’s online shop, along with pre-orders for larger prints of the same designs. You can see more of Zupa’s vintage-inspired and humorous works, ranging from prints to paintings and sculptures, on Instagram.
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Intertwining stems and leaves crowned with bright pink blossoms comprise the newest print from Tugboat Printshop (previously). Clover Blossoms is a four-color woodblock print, which means that Tugboat owner and artist Valerie Lueth drew, hand-carved, inked, aligned, and printed four separate panels to comprise the finished piece. Lueth prolifically dreams up and creates new work, and frequently exhibits her prints across the country. Tugboat prints are currently on view at the Staten Island Museum in New York City as part of the Field Notes exhibition, through February 23, 2020. Leuth also has a solo show at Bloom in West Virginia in November, 2019. Clover Blossoms and other prints are available on the Tugboat website and Etsy shop. Follow along with Lueth’s meticulously documented studio process on Instagram.
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Editor's Picks: Art
Highlights below. For the full collection click here.