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Art Works

Behind the screen

The silkscreen print's finished surface conceals its sometimes frenetic genesis, an artistic process that demands creativity and technical skill.

By LENNIE BENNETT
Published May 2, 2004

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[Times photos: Toni L. Sandys]
Carl Cowden, left, and his assistant, Mike Massaro, an artist who volunteers at Studio-f, examine a print after its second screening, which added green to the yellow background of the first screen. A third screen, with black paint, will be used for the image’s facial details.

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Audrey Flack
Artist Audrey Flack surveys some of the monoprints she created with master printer Carl Cowden for the Studio-f Visiting Artist program at the University of Tampa. Cowden silkscreened images of her new sculpture Bella Apollonia, and Flack individualized each with hand embellishments.
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Master printer Carl Cowden hoses down a screen after the image has been photographed on its light-sensitive surface. The blocked portions of the emulsion wash away and the remaining lines will prevent paint from passing through the screen, creating the image on paper.
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Paint collects on the press’ squeegee, which forces color through a fine-mesh polyester screen onto paper.

An occasional series on the creative process

TAMPA - Beautiful, aloof and mysterious, she stares down at you.

Over and over.

Dozens of Bella Apollonia images line the tall white walls of Studio-f at the University of Tampa, two-dimensional versions of a bronze sculpture by artist Audrey Flack, recently installed at the Tampa Museum of Art.

Flack and master printer Carl Cowden have spent two weeks, sometimes working through the night, to create a series of silkscreens based on Flack's statue, which was commissioned by the Hillsborough County Public Arts program.

Hours before they must finish the work for their show's opening, Flack continues to work on the images emerging from Cowden's press. He has overlaid Apollonia's striking features and riotous mane with terra cotta or creamy yellow, set her against a background that is sometimes a brilliant cerulean blue, sometimes a psychedelic rainbow. Using hand-applied paints, pencils, even glitter, Flack imbues her with the shadings and nuance of a human personality.

All of them are similar. Each is unique.

* * *

No medium offers as much variety as the print. Or such confusion. A print can be a $5 poster or a $50,000 monotype. It can be a simple ink-jet reproduction that is one of thousands. Or it can be a multistep, one-of-a-kind image made on a hand-operated press.

Traditionally, a print is made either by lifting an impression on paper from an inked surface or, as Cowden does with silkscreening, pressing ink around a shape onto the paper. Computerized printers have muddled the mix, able to produce photographic prints in large quantities using fine sprays of color, often called giclees (pronounced gee-CLAYZ).

But, depending on the kind of print and the personal involvement, sophistication and aesthetic values brought to it by its creators, it can be as pedigreed as any other medium.

Silkscreen printing has its roots in some of the oldest art. It's based on stenciling. Cave dwellers traced their hands on stone walls with chalk. In ancient Japan, artisans stenciled patterns onto samurais' leather armor.

Silkscreening became popular in the 17th and 18th centuries; fine silk was stretched over a frame, a paper pattern was attached and paint was forced through the fabric, creating a design on the surface underneath. It was a decorative technique, used to embellish wallpaper and fabric. Today, silkscreening is a favorite of T-shirt manufacturers and a staple of elementary school art classes.

Silkscreening - also called serigraphy - as art is another matter. Probably its most famous practitioner was Andy Warhol, who helped legitimize it in the 1960s with his radiant portraits of Marilyn Monroe and other celebrities.

The process suited Warhol's love of rich, flat colors and iconic imagery. It also suited his predilection for collaborative art: All printmaking at its finest is an intensely collaborative process between an artist and master printer.

* * *

Audrey Flack, 73, lives and works primarily in New York. A distinguished artist who began as an abstract expressionist and evolved into one of the early superrealist painters in the 1960s and 1970s, she turned to sculpture about 20 years ago as her preferred medium.

"I've done some watercolors and drawings," she says. "But I haven't really painted in 20 years. I've done some printing but never like this. These are more like little paintings."

Cowden, 47, has worked as a printer since high school, although he concentrated on sculpture and ceramics as a fine arts major at the University of Tampa. He has worked for sign companies on logos and billboards. And he paints; one of his big projects at the moment is a large mural of the French wine country commissioned by Bern's restaurant in Tampa.

But he loves fine art prints, especially silkscreens. His mother, Dorothy Cowden, and Lois Berghoff hired him in 1990 to run the print shop of their Berghoff-Cowden Galleries, which brought in prestigious artists for collaborative printmaking before it closed in 1996.

"Screens are so much more versatile and so artist-friendly," he says. "It's not a reverse image you print like other kinds of printmaking."

Several years ago, Dorothy Cowden became director of Scarfone/Hartley Galleries at the university. Wanting to replicate the visiting artists series and have a hands-on operation for students, she asked her son to get a silkscreen press going.

Many print studios are elaborately equipped, but Studio-f is not among them. Cowden designed and built a vacuum light table, used to make the screens, with ultraviolet lights ordered from a catalog for tanning salons. A retail purchase would have been as much as $10,000, but this one cost about $1,000, he said. His computer, which he uses to refine the tones of the images artists want translated into prints, was "commandeered" from a professor who was using it for e-mails.

* * *

Flack and Cowden have never worked together before, but they must blend her vision with his technical expertise. Cowden is an artist too, but as the printer, he must submerge his ego in service to hers.

"I don't know how I manage that, because I do have an ego," he says. "I think I never worry about my own ideas when I'm doing this. It's theirs; I'm giving it to them even though I'm doing the work."

As the artist in the process, Flack chose the subject of the series: her sculpture, which is classical in form but with a contemporary sensibility.

Several photographs of it are the basis for the lead images in all the prints.

"Selecting the images and their size is the most important part of all this," she says. "I've been struggling with them all week."

Using library books on Renaissance art, she made small sketches of classical sculpture and architecture and a dramatic head of Medusa to layer over the Apollonia images.

To make the screens used in the printing, Cowden stretches polyester fabric over wood frames and coats them with a light-sensitive, gluey emulsion. Flack's enlarged photographs of Apollonia have been printed onto transparent acetate by an outside lab because Cowden doesn't have the facilities to do it. Photographic transfers are commonly used today, rather than paper cutouts, because they are capable of infinitely more detail and ensure a good register when the overlays are merged into a single print. For each finished series of prints there will be at least three transparencies and, subsequently, three screens: the silhouette of the image; the background surrounding the image, like a reverse silhouette, and the details of the image.

Each of these transparent templates is taped to a screen, then transferred to the light table and exposed for seven seconds. Light that penetrates the surface hardens the emulsion. The blocked areas, containing the image, remain soft. When the screen is hosed down, the soft emulsion is washed away and the image emerges on the fabric. Paint will push through the polyester in the unexposed areas only.

Once dry, the screen is loaded into the press and paper is positioned underneath. The printer dribbles a line of paint along the right side of the screen, sweeps a squeegee across the screen to soak it, called the flood stroke. Then the screen is lowered onto the paper, which is held taut by suction, and Cowden passes the squeegee across the screen again. When the screen is lifted, its silhouette has been transferred to the paper.

Cowden uses acrylic paints for their nontoxicity, but they also have the advantage of drying quickly. Within an hour, the paper is ready for another printing.

A second screen is inserted into the press, a reverse image of the first, and the process is repeated with a contrasting color. For the third printing, the screen with facial and body details is used.

The mastery comes in lining up each screen so the printed images will appear seamless, and in knowing how much pressure to apply so as not to distort the image.

But Cowden keeps everything, even his goofs.

"Artists sometimes like mistakes," he says. "That's what's so exciting about low-tech printing. The tricky thing is when they like the mistake so much they want you to do it again."

Flack has chosen most of the colors used on the screens, but Cowden experimented by dotting several bright colors in a row. When applied, they form gradations that blend into each other and have the appearance of an air-brushed surface.

"I didn't think she'd like them but she does," Cowden says.

Artist and printer are feeling a lot of pressure midway through the second week. Flack has been slow to get into a rhythm because, she says, she hasn't painted in so long and because she's not well-versed in silkscreening. But she wades into the process, beginning tentatively with cross-hatches of color on the first prints off the press. After several hours, she has found her focus.

"It's working for me because of my background as an abstract expressionist," she says, "where you learn to use mistakes. Accidents are part of the history of the painting. You never erase them. It's all starting to come through, all that freedom. I like lithography a lot, but screenprinting is more graphic, more modernist."

She's also seeing her Bella Apollonia in a new way, as a two-dimensional image.

"As a sculpture, she's nine feet off the ground," Flack says. "You really see her face here. It's almost a distillation of her essence."

* * *

After Flack, Cowden and his assistant, Mike Massaro, pull an all-nighter, the first series, of the statue's head, looks complete. Apollonia is resplendent in variations that bear the artist's handiwork.

Flack and Cowden work for the next two days with only brief breaks to finish two more series, a three-quarters view of the statue overprinted with Flack's sketches, and a straight-on version, backed by a detail from the Sistine Chapel and the coils of Medusa's snakes.

About half of the total of 100 or so will be judged good enough to keep. Flack will keep half of those, the university will keep one for its permanent collection, and Cowden will select one for himself. The rest will be for sale for $1,500 each, says Dorothy Cowden, a bargain for a hand-painted, signed Flack.

Referred to as multiple originals, no two are alike, yet taken together, they have a satisfying uniformity.

Flack is off on a break outside the studio, and Cowden is clearly exhausted.

Massaro shows Cowden some unused transparencies that could possibly be yet another series.

"Hide these," Cowden says.

- Studio-f does not have regular visiting hours, but Audrey Flack's silkscreen monoprints may be seen by appointment. For information, call Dorothy Cowden at 813 253-6217. Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or lennie@sptimes.com

[Last modified April 29, 2004, 12:39:37]


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