The Southern Graphics Council printmaking conference is an annual affair of ink (whether there is more in on paper, or on the arms of the attendees is still up for discussion). The conference usually gravitates toward the typical artistic destination cities; Portland, San Francisco, and New York City are found among the short list of recent host-cities. However, the neon allure of middle Tennessee seems to shine as a beacon for creative individuals across the world. Knoxville, an oft-overlooked town in art conversation, has been home to one of the top printmaking departments in the country for decades. The University of Tennessee volunteered as host school for this year’s conference titled Sphere. They undoubtedly delivered on the expectations of southern hospitality and home-cooked creativity. During my four days among the Knoxville downtown area, I met printmakers from Belgium and Birmingham, Texas and Tacoma. It’s interesting to see how an art process can unify such a diverse group. Not only does the conference aim to host helpful workshops, informative and interesting speakers, and portfolio sessions, they also work to build a community among the artists in attendance. Throughout the week, there were official conference social events scheduled and aimed at facilitating the camaraderie of creativity, and even more were spontaneously born at local social establishments. It seemed that everyone was there to share their knowledge and learn from each other. Tips and tricks of the trade were passed around like the latest gossip on the playground, jokes were told that only a seasoned pressman would catch. As a student I was astounded at the breadth of technique I found in many of the artists’ work both in casual discussion and the workshops. One workshop was particularly impressive (and over my head). Ohio University professor Art Werger demonstrated how to achieve an infinite range of tone in his etchings through a two-plate, à la poupée inking technique using complimentary colors. The process was delicate, intricate, and innovative. Undoubtedly, the most memorable event hosted by the conference was the printmaking/performance piece by Midwest Pressed titled Freebird. Througout the day images of iconic Americana were heavily screen printed on oddly shaped pieces of plywood nailed together in a structure reminiscent of an 8-year-old’s fantasy backyard fort. During the performance, members of Midwest Pressed and their friends strummed through a rough rendition of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s famous track of the same name. Then, all of the sudden, in a fight for freedom the lead guitarist and operator of Midwest Pressed, Tim Dooley, swung his instrument into the broad side of the fortress splintering and shattering the rickety makeshift building. Blow by blow, the red white and blue clad plywood crumbled, and by the final swing, the guitar was wedged perfectly horizontal in the center of the wall, declaring its defeat over the contrived edifice. The performance perfectly depicted the expressive spirit of the conference.
The final day of the conference was a full open portfolio session. Every artist who was able to register for a table displayed their work for an hour. The sea of work was dizzying and after the first hour, I found that my mind had a hard time deciphering one image from the next. It was like a year’s worth of Saturday Art Crawl’s in one afternoon. But, by the end of the conference, I found myself already thinking of ways to emulate some of the new and interesting things I found there. I contemplated the use of new methods, and relished my new friendships and acquaintances. Among my new friends were many of the entertaining folks who work at Hatch Show Print, Nashville’s most famous letterpress shop. Many other of our town’s locals made the drive down I-40 for the conference, and I realized how lucky we are as a city that the printing industry is alive and well here. It’s a funny thing how travel can make you appreciate where you came from. The community of printmaking, especially in middle Tennessee, is a thriving source of creativity and culture.