Arts October 12, 2010

Vita Brevis

Who would have thought that a Ketchum kid with snowboarding on his mind and a penchant for drawing in history class—to the frustration of even the most patient of teachers—would someday bring something new and wonderful back to the Wood River Valley? It was Nate Galpin’s good fortune to meet a fellow spirit, Jennifer Mikesh, at the University of Puget Sound; and it is our good fortune to have them here together, as the enterprising young founders of Vita Brevis, the newly established experimental printmaking studio in Hailey.

Hang around the studio and you will feel a heady rush of excitement: a sense of something new happening in the Valley, of youthful dreams tempered by a practicality beyond the proprietors’ years. This is more than just a new addition to our cultural life.

But first, what about that name, Vita Brevis? It comes from the Latin aphorism, life is short—an observation Jen and Nate have taken to heart. As studio art graduates and skillful printmakers, they have decided to put their talent and technical expertise to good use, and to do it now. Their art has already become their work. Their printing press is open to everyone: experienced artists, complete novices, and children of all ages. They also offer instruction in groups, or one-on-one.

So, what is printmaking? Unique in its potential for collaborative work, printmaking is the vision of the artist made real by the printmaker’s expertise. Internationally known artists such as Richard Diebenkorn, Edward Hopper, Robert Motherwell, and David Hockney, when producing sought-after editions of their work, must rely on the skill, knowledge, experience, and sensitivity of a master printmaker to make their vision a reality. Local artist Abby Grosvenor, who is working on an intaglio edition of her work at Vita Brevis, describes the process as “both dynamic and technical.”

Nate and Jen work in the best tradition of printmaking, balancing the artistic and the technical and offering advice, opinions, and expertise to the artists who use Vita Brevis. They are full of innovative ideas when it comes to “marking” the plate and getting ink onto it, using tools and methods to cut, scratch, or incise a design onto the surface. They know the effects of different kinds of “ground” (compounds that act as a “resist” to the acids used to etch where the artist has scratched), and keep extensive records of each press run because there are so many variables: different papers, print pressures, colors used, immersion times, and more. They have been known to use creative and novel ways to break down the pristine surface of a shiny metal plate before any kind of mark is made: sandblasting, skipping the plate across the blacktop of the driveway, or even driving a truck over it. If asked, they will offer their artistic opinion on color, line, or form, and make appropriate suggestions: “It won’t work that way, but try this.” Grosvenor, who did graduate work in printmaking, has a keen appreciation for the skill of these two young printers in their field, as well as for their prodigious talent as artists in their own right.

Gay Odmark, another local artist using Vita Brevis, gives credit to Jen and Nate for helping her progress in her own work and likens the process in their studio to being among extended family. Personally, she has found art “a vehicle for transformation,” and for that reason has organized the art program for the Silver Creek Alternative School in Hailey. Like others who have volunteered and worked at the school over time, Gay has been deeply moved by the changes she has seen in the students. Last spring, she introduced three of them to Vita Brevis. They committed to a six-week block of time outside of their school schedule, during which they showed up three times a week for three hours in addition to a weekly weekend session. During the six weeks, the students managed to produce a startling ninety pieces of art. Their work was offered for sale at an art show, and in the spirit of “pay it forward,” a percentage of the proceeds went to the Blaine County Education Foundation to benefit more students. These young people became absorbed and engaged in the process at Vita Brevis. With Nate and Jen’s guidance, they experienced the fun of commitment and passion in action. Reluctant to stop printing when school finished, all three applied for—and received—grants from the Sun Valley Center for the Arts to continue their work at Vita Brevis through the summer.

For Jen and Nate, every interaction at the studio is reciprocal. They say that they learn something from everyone, beginners or experts, and have as much fun as their students. The two look forward to developing more programs with kids of all ages.

To a rank outsider, this indicates one of the most wonderful things about the medium of printmaking: the collaboration works at so many different levels of skill and sophistication. One can sense the thrill of artists working together and the vital mix of art and craft. With so many variables in play, there is always an element of the unknown. “The process is completely experimental,” says Nate. “And printmaking is a seemingly endless means for making just about everything in your head.”

Jen and Nate’s own art, and what they say about it, gave me another glimpse into what makes Vita Brevis and their lives together so exciting. Both are interested in using their art to pose questions to their audience. This is accomplished with such articulate conviction that it is clear why so many people—including art dealer Denis Ochi, who featured their work at OCHI Gallery in a show that opened August 30, 2001—express fascination and profound respect.

Jen’s work is small and exquisite. Using pieces of fine Baltic birch plywood, often only five to eight inches high, she sands and gessoes and hinges to make a diptych or triptych. With the panels closed, you read the title of the piece inscribed in a meticulous font on matte black: remote control or camouflage. Inside, as you open the panels for remote control, you find an array of prescription bottles so eerily real you feel you could pick them up. Open the work entitled camouflage and you find the battery of gear used for makeup: bottles of foundation, mascara, eye-shadow palettes, blush, and lethal-looking eyelash curlers.

Jen says of her work, “My panel paintings juxtapose the written word against imagery for the purpose of creating a single impression between the two. I am interested in the construction of identity, and in examining how much of our identity is unwittingly dictated to us by our society. Little things that we can find in our bathrooms, such as makeup and medication, are powerful objects. They are the tools we use to alter realities and build identities, whether by choice or by default. These objects have achieved a position of status, whose voice is sometimes louder than our own, in telling us who we are. I am interested in exploring and exposing the power that these objects have in our lives and in determining our identities.”

Nate, also an observer of our culture, questions the power of television in an intriguing way. He fixes powerful line drawings on the screens of small televisions, then “streams” live broadcasts behind each drawing. On one screen is a drawing of a crowd in a city. Look closely, and you see that all the figures are a self-portrait, symbolizing the power of the medium to “homogenize” us. We all see the same images and are unwittingly programmed to consume, feel, and believe without even realizing it. Another screen contains the careful drawing of a playground jungle gym: Children watch television uncritically, absorbing it all, wanting what they see, controlled by it regardless of any adult intervention.

In other media, Nate uses benevolent natural forces to question what is artificial and unnatural around us, and then contrasts this with the beauty natural forces can create. In his Sumi ink drawings, he does not use brushes to manipulate the ink. Instead, he drops the ink on the vellum and then tilts the paper, so that it is the angle of the paper, the pull of gravity, the viscosity of the ink that makes the mark.

Vita Brevis has brought a new resource to the Valley that was not here before. The studio will soon expand to accommodate more artists, add lithography, and offer more programs for children and young adults. There is immense satisfaction for Nate in his return to the Valley, and Jen feels the same way about being here—not just in the enjoyment of what life in the mountains can offer, but because together they are contributing something of value to this community. In relief printing, the non-printing part of the block or plate is cut away, leaving the design in relief. (Think lino blocks, potato cuts, and wood blocks.) Jen and Nate say that Japanese ukiyo-e wood block prints are good examples of the relief method. Hiroshige, Hokusai, and Mary Cassat are quintessential ukiyo-e artists, while Edvard Munch, Chuck Close, and Helen Frankenthaler are more contemporary relief printers.

Intaglio (“below the surface”) printing is the opposite of relief, with printing done from ink that is below the initial surface. In the simplest type of intaglio, called drypoint, a needle is used to cut, scratch, or incise a design into the surface of a soft metal plate (usually copper, zinc, or steel). Ink is spread all over the surface, and tarlatan (a type of muslin) is used to wipe it away except where it has collected in the lines. The plate is then run through the press with a piece of heavyweight paper on top.

In traditional etching, a more complicated intaglio procedure, different means are used. The plate is covered with a compound called a “ground” that acts as a “resist.” The ground is scratched off the surface of the plate with a needle, and when the drawing is complete, acids or corrosive salts such as ferric chloride are used to “bite” or etch the surface where the artist has scratched. The longer the plate is left in the solution, the deeper the lines are etched, making them appear thicker and heavier in the print. After the ground is washed away using solvents, the plate is inked like a drypoint plate. The intaglio process requires the application of enormous pressure (3,000-10,000 pounds per linear inch) to emboss the paper into the incised lines. Albrecht Du¨rer, Jim Dine, Matisse, and Picasso all used this technique to achieve incredibly diverse effects.

The monotype, a unique process using a Plexiglas or ball-grained aluminum plate, is the technique employed most often by artists and students at Vita Brevis. Instead of scratching on the plate with a needle, the artist typically uses oils, watercolors, inks, or pencils directly on the surface. The plate can be reworked and the same paper passed through the press again, allowing for much layering and reworking. For examples of monotype, Nate and Jen suggest checking Ted Waddell and Tom Leiber’s work at the Friesen Gallery, Gay Odmark’s work at the Gail Severn Gallery, and Abby Grosvenor’s work.

Kate Wright has had a long-standing passion for the arts, starting with her architectural training in England. She managed one of the first galleries in Ketchum, wrote a book on architecture, The Mountain House, and served as Performing Arts Director for the Sun Valley Center. She is currently pursuing graduate work in organizational management, specializing in nonprofit consulting.




This article appears in the Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.