Working Proof: Experimental Etching Studio

(Originally published in the book Working Proof: Experimental Etching Studio by David Acton, Deborah Cornell, and Rebecca Nemser, Boston Public Library, 1992)

Ten years ago, I spent a very happy summer working at Experimental Etching Studio, so I was delighted when The Boston Public Library invited me to help shape a conversation among a group of artists who are or were long-term members of this extraordinary printmaking cooperative.

My memory of EES as a creative and peaceable community of artists with just the right balance of independence and support was confirmed during a lively afternoon of reminiscences from Meryl Brater, Constance Jacobson, Deborah CornellElsbeth Deser, Shlomith Haber-SchaimLeslie Roitman, and Judy Bergman Hochberg, and  about what the Studio meant to them.

All spoke warmly of the value of the daily rhythms, the freedom to experiment, the nurturing of independence, and the sense of belonging. Several felt that the studio had been most important to them in their formative years, when they were learning techniques, working out their personal imagery, and finding themselves as artists. They all gratefully acknowledged that their time in the Studio had played a major role in their development as artists.

Elsbeth Deser: We came because we wanted to learn about the medium. And we stayed because it was a very good atmosphere. You always knew when you came here that there were conversations you wanted to continue, and work you wanted to continue.

Shlomith Haber-Schaim: One of my first impressions was how hard everybody worked. Each of us brought something completely fresh and new. We learned from each other. I remember when we all tried soft ground. Sugar lift. We tried everything. But each in our own ways

Judy Bergman Hochberg: I remember Shlomith used to crank out 20 prints a day. She was the most prolific printmaker I’d ever seen

Constance Jacobson: I came from a litho background and I was doing monotypes with three plexi plates of identical size, with my key drawing on the back. And then Shlomith came in with her big rollers, and solvent all over her rollers, and she was going in for her tenth pass on her plate! That was really exciting to see. She really stretched.

Shlomith Haber-Schaim: Maybe 10 percent of those prints are worth something, but I needed to do it.

Meryl Brater: If you want to do printmaking, you need a place to work. Printmaking should happen in a workshop. If you had to pay a couple of hundred dollars a day to be able to work in a print studio, you would never experiment, and your printmaking would never develop. Whereas, the way we work, we keep the costs down by pooling our resources, so we can develop our vocabulary using this equipment.

Elsbeth Deser: I felt free to try everything. I felt I had to get to know the techniques and also find my own images.

Deborah Cornell: Elsbeth would come in and something would happen because of something that happened to her on the way to the studio. I remember in particular the time she heard on the radio driving in that Saul Bellow had won the Nobel Prize. And within a couple of days there was a series of beautiful prints about that.

Elsbeth Deser: All with writing. That was the first time I worked with writing, and that’s continued in my work.

Leslie Roitman: I was looking for a place to find out where printmaking fit into my artmaking. Judy was the first person I saw who really reworked her prints, and I started to rework my prints, too. My exposure here gave me lots of new ideas and techniques. Techniques rather than imagery. But it clearly changed the way my work looked.

Elsbeth Deser: You may look at something that someone did and not even think about it. But then it will come back to you, maybe in a dream, and you’ll want to use it, and it will widen your horizons.

Meryl Brater:  You see things through different eyes.

Constance Jacobson: Meryl used to use this pink rose color that I hated. And now I’m using it! Ten years later it’s metamorphosed into a beautiful color. But it’s the same color Meryl always used.

Meryl Brater: And I don’t use it much anymore. My colors have gotten more intense, like Jake’s used to be.

Constance Jacobson: The social aspect is important, too. Not while you’re working, but afterwards.

Meryl Brater: It’s not so much that they influence your work as it is that they influence the way you approach your work. That’s one of the advantages of being in this group. It’s like a family. Some people drive you nuts and some people you really are close to.

Leslie Roitman: Even when 20 people belong to the studio I can still come in here and have privacy.

Meryl Brater: It’s also that everything is here. Technically. If you want to try something, we are pretty much fully equipped and there is somebody here who knows how to do it. So you can try things, and you never know how fruitful it’s going to be.

Shlomith Haber-Schaim: The availability of so many materials allowed us to try so many different things. Techniques. Textures. Lines.

Deborah Cornell: Different kinds of metal. Different kinds of paper.

Shlomith Haber-Schaim: The sharing of expertise and of tools.

Meryl Brater: The feeling that you could learn what you needed to learn because it was all here.

Judy Bergman Hochberg: I had the sense of discovery for many years. I was learning so much and developing myself as an artist. Now, I don’t really need this group as much, but it’s still great to have a group here.

Meryl Brater: I came in without a lot of formal training. In the early days, I was really teaching myself printmaking. Now, I view printmaking as a way of making a mark. It’s in the service of what I want to do as an artist.

Constance Jacobson: Now it’s not a total surprise when it comes off the press.

Judy Bergman Hochberg: It’s still a surprise sometimes.

Meryl Brater: And they’re different when they dry!

Constance Jacobson: That’s the biggest thing that Meryl taught me. I’d be furiously ripping the paper off the press and she’d say, “Don’t hurt your print. Put it in the blotters. Wait until tomorrow. You can rework it. Trust me.”

Elsbeth Deser: Now the hard part is finding something that does surprise you.

Meryl Brater: I still feel a certain mystery to the process, even though I’m so much more dextrous.

Constance Jacobson: Me too

Meryl Brater: It’s still very exciting to pull the print off the press.

Shlomith Haber-Schaim: That’s what makes it worth it. You can play with it. There are no limits and no rules.

Meryl Brater: There are rules. We just don’t do printmaking that way.

Elsbeth Deser: But we all know the rules. That’s what makes the difference. The excitement comes precisely because you have the knowledge and you are working away from it.

Constance Jacobson: It was a sanctuary.

Deborah Cornell: A workspace.

Constance Jacobson: A very serious workspace.

Shlomith Haber-Schaim: I really loved coming here. It seemed that everything I needed was here.

Deborah Cornell: Looking back, it was just completely nuts and bolts.

by Rebecca Nemser for rebeccanemser.com

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