Arts·Print's Not Dead

In the '70s, the world's top artists flocked to Halifax. This new project revives that moment

NSCAD's Lithography Workshop helped transform the city into a centre for conceptual art. Thanks to a New Chapter grant, it's released the first new editions in decades.

NSCAD's Lithography Workshop releases its first new editions in decades

A peek at the eight limited-edition prints created through the NSCAD Lithography Workshop. (litho.nscad.ca)

Eight Canadian artists have returned to the famed lithography workshop at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, to work with a master and create some fresh prints. Print's Not Dead follows these artists through the process — how they're making their works and the thinking that informed them.

The premise is simple. An artist  an artist with no printmaking experience on their CV, if possible gets an invite from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Prepared with an idea, they show up in Halifax, where they're paired with a master printer. And together, they make a lithograph  a brand new original artwork.

If you reduce things to the absolute basics, that's the functioning idea behind the NSCAD Lithography Workshop, now the subject of an 8-part CBC Arts series called Print's Not Dead. And 50 years ago, that particular project helped turn Halifax into the most unlikely hot spot in the international art world, as notables including Sol LeWitt and Claus Oldenburg  were tempted by the chance to participate.

Decades have passed since the workshop was active, though. Founded in 1969, production slowed by the mid '70s, and financial troubles caused it shutter by the end of the decade.

What's left is its legacy. The story is familiar to generations of art students. (File under: history of conceptual art in Canada.) But a new project is reviving its past glory, and the workshop itself. And if it's successful, it won't just be a one-off.

Shary Boyle's print Cephalophoric Saint (2018). (Shary Boyle)

Starting Saturday at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, the NSCAD Lithography Workshop's newest editions will go on display. The exhibition features prints by eight notable Canadian artists: Shuvinai Ashoona, Jordan Bennett, Shary Boyle, Brendan Fernandes, Amy Malbeuf, Ed Pien, Derek Sullivan and Ericka Walker. Following the same rough guidelines as their '70s predecessors, each artist spent two weeks at NSCAD with Master Printer Jill Graham, creating an original work.

Limited edition prints will be available for purchase, with sales supporting future plans to rebuild the program, and potentially the NSCAD Press. The details, however, are still in the works.

For Fernandes, a multidisciplinary artist now living in Chicago, it was an invitation he couldn't refuse. "When [NSCAD] said they were recreating the press and we're going to be making works, I was so honoured and thrilled," he says. "Just the history and the legacy of it was such an important thing for NSCAD, and our country as well."

"The print program was like a catalyst to bring in established artists from around the world," says Melanie Colosimo, director and curator of the Anna Leonowens Gallery Systems at NSCAD and an organizer on the revival project.

"At the time"  that time being the early '70s "[Halifax] was this very unknown city, basically on the edge of the world on the Atlantic Ocean." But the workshop was an appealing opportunity, especially to a particular kind of artist: "a conceptual artist," she says, "who did not give a damn about aesthetic or sales or what it looked like."

What was interesting and important was that this was a documentation of conceptual art at that time.- Melanie Colosimo, director and curator, Anna Leonowens Gallery Systems

"I think that was what was exciting about it," she says. "You're getting these people like John Baldessari and Vito Acconci who were performers or writers, and they did these one-off projects. [The workshop] tried to get them here to make a physical object that they could then sell. And conceptual artists weren't selling anything — they were doing live work. So this was then something that they could profit off of."

Joyce Wieland. O Canada, 1970. Lithograph on white Arches paper, NSCAD Impression. 57.0 x 76.3 cm. Collection of NSCAD University. (Photo courtesy of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia)

"I think [NSCAD] unintentionally created this kind of incubator space where artists came together. I think a lot of people also came because they were draft dodgers," she laughs. "But today, I think we look back on it because a lot of the most interesting projects came out of it. It was a way to document ephemeral work. Like Joyce Wieland I see her print O Canada where she's mouthing the words of 'O Canada' and kissing the stone. The performance part of that [...] is way more exciting to me than the actual print."

"What was interesting and important was that this was a documentation of conceptual art at that time."

When the workshop was founded, NSCAD itself was unlike any other Canadian college. In 1969, it became the first degree-granting art school in the country. Its new president, a young artist named Garry Neill Kennedy, was transforming the place into an environment where students could mingle with the most innovative artists of the era. The Lithography Workshop was one strategy for luring them there. No educational institution had anything like it.

According to Graham, there's still nothing like the workshop in Canada today. And when she joined NSCAD as the printmaking technician in the fall of 2014, she began talking with fellow faculty members about resurrecting the program. Ultimately, a Canada Council for the Arts New Chapter grant made the idea possible, and by summer 2017, guest artists were joining her in studio.

"We wanted to keep it as close to the original intent as possible," says Colosimo. Though printmaking typically took place during the slow summer months, students were hired as assistants, giving them access to the artists at work. Staying true to the workshop's original idea of "collaborative printmaking" was also key, she explains, meaning the process was an equal partnership between the artist and Graham, the Master Printer.

Jill Graham (left) and Brendan Fernandes (centre) collaborate in the NSCAD Lithography Workshop. (litho.nscad.ca)

"The idea of a Master Printer is that I've trained to a level where I have the technical skills to collaborate with other artists and produce their work," says Graham. "It's a true collaboration in that they can challenge me with their ideas and what they want to accomplish. I bring the technical side of it. It frees them up to focus on the piece."

But the project isn't just a case of history repeating. According to Colosimo, the revival gave them the chance to improve on the past. "The big issue with the [original] project was that it was predominantly male and very white," she says.

"So that was the opportunity. If we're going to do this, let's make it right and make it pretty diverse and bring people from different backgrounds, but also different levels of their practice, from emerging to established senior artists."

"It had its legacy, and now we're creating a new legacy," says Fernandes. "I look forward to seeing how it continues."

Watch Shary Boyle on Print's Not Dead:

Shary Boyle makes a lithograph that investigates artist studios and takes down the "cock party" of 70s conceptual art. Filmmaker: Marcia Connolly 7:00

Videos from inside the NSCAD Lithography Workshop will be appearing on CBC Arts in the coming weeks. Hear from the eight participating artists in these special short docs.

NSCAD Lithography Workshop: Contemporary Editions. Featuring Shuvinai Ashoona, Jordan Bennett, Shary Boyle, Brendan Fernandes, Amy Malbeuf, Ed Pien, Derek Sullivan, Ericka Walker. Nov. 9 to April 26 at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Halifax. www.artgalleryofnovascotia.ca

About the Author

Leah Collins is the Senior Writer at CBC Arts.