Saturday, December 5, 2009

How Larry McNeil & Frank Janzen made the lithographs for the Migrations: New Directions in Native American Art Project

At its essence, I suspect that photography is simply about noticing stuff that other people don't.

Writing how-to essays are pretty low on my list of things to write about, akin to a trip to the dentist, likely because of all the time spent with students describing and discussing process. I'd much rather write about the creative end of being an artist, where magic & the unexpected reside. On the other hand, process has so much to do with informing content that I thought perhaps I should break with my usual protocols and write about how this collaborative process with Frank Janzen, the Master Printer at the Crow's Shadow unfolded. Frank and I had a mutual esteem for well-told stories, the struggle for good art, Guinness Beer, good food and travel, so we got along well from the moment we first met. We also had a mutual work ethic with the creative process that involved a somewhat blue-collar attitude of showing up early, working hard all day and going home exhausted but content with our day's work. Followed by an occasional beer, because after all, we're not fanatics. I think.

Last week I did an interview about Migrations from here in Idaho with good friend Joan O'Beirne at Keene College in New Hampshire via Skype, the online phone and video service. It was a first for both of us and we pretended we knew what we were doing and just pressed a bunch of buttons until we got it to work. The sound component was easy, but the video would keep arbitrarily appearing and disappearing and we'd keep asking whether we could see each other yet. My teenager would have rolled his eyes and laughed at our bumbling ways, but us two university scholars finally put our superior intellect together and quite accidentally finally got it to work. You should have seen us beaming at each other when each of our faces appeared on each other's screens in all of our glory. On her end of the connection, my feed was projected onto a screen for the audience. Now we're art techies! Cool.

Our very own digital virtuoso.

When it came time for the live interview, we were able to show the art in the Migrations: New Directions in Native American Art exhibit that they were showing in their gallery. I pretended that I did this all the time and tried to project an air of casual finesse, and I'm pretty sure it worked. Don't tell them that we were just kind of winging it and hoping nothing fucked up. Oops, a cuss word. When I introduce myself to my students on our first day of class, I tell them Sometimes I cuss, so if you don't like it maybe you should take someone else's class. Godam it. Then I laugh and they do too. This here is the Bible belt, so sometimes I get a few forced smiles, but that's Ok, because it becomes a lightweight litmus test to see which of them may be a future artist.

I had this weird dream where I got nailed for saying bad words, but it turned out to be just an exit. My son is a good sport about helping me with photos like this as we walk through life. I'm ensuring that he has the same experiences as I did growing up with a bunch of other Indian kids, whatever that means... (Photo by T'naa McNeil)

At any rate, the Migrations: New Directions in Native American Art project has been circulating a lot lately, most recently at the Pequot Museum and Keene College. My art gets around more than me lately-- what's that all about? I'm getting jealous of my art and want to go to the Pequot Museum too. Dang. When I posted the update recently, it occurred to me that when us six artists did the collaborative project back in 2004, I made a lot of photos of Frank and I making the lithographs. Things got busy and I never did post them, so here they are, arriving on Indian time. Once I came home a bit late and my son chastised me for being tardy. I told him A Professor is never late, T'naa McNeil. Nor is he early. He arrives precisely when he means to. Delivered with a small smile, of course, also mentioning that wizards sometimes copy our scholarly ways.

When I talk to my wife every day, I always ask if our million-dollar check came in today. It's one of our little rituals, and she usually says something like, Why yes, as a matter of fact it did, now you can be an artist. Then I say, Hey, I'm already an artist! Well how do you like that, she says. Then we go about our regular business, which involves talking to the dogs and patting the boy on the head. On one of those regular days, the notice for my participation in the Migrations project arrived and I called the Tamarind to arrange the travel dates to either the Tamarind or Crow's Shadow. I asked if I could collaborate with Frank Janzen at the Crow's Shadow on the Umatilla Rez next to Pendleton, Oregon.

Getting to the Rez was about four hours from home via I-84, and when I was there they still had a few retro signs around, as a magnet for people like me who were hungry. While driving onto the Umatilla Rez, I came across this Espresso thing on the way to Crow's Shadow and took it as a very, very good omen since I love coffee.

I always try to be respectful of Sacred Grounds.

After our polite introductions, Frank Janzen and I got right to work and dove right in. We got along well, lying down what was expected from both of us for this collaboration. Frank was easy going and an artist first I think, which was why we were able to speak the same lingo and just let the small stuff blow out the window as we experimented with various things during the entire two weeks of our collaboration. I relied on him heavily for his expertise while we both strove to actualize what I'd visualized for the art. We both loved the idea of the happenstance inherent with what sometimes happens with lithography. I've always been partial to the film She's Gotta Have it, by Spike Lee, especially the part where one of the characters' favorite lines was Please baby, please baby, please baby, please? That has been my mantra for quite some time and it was invoked many times to the heavens throughout the collaboration. I'm not sure, but I think it usually works because I'm most sincere when I ask.

I was a bit different than Frank's usual collaborators because my media was both photography and digital media, as opposed to being a painter, drawer (is that a proper term for someone who draws, or is a drawer just something in a desk?), or a regular printmaker. I must admit that I felt that I was pretending to know what I was doing, but on the other hand, I spent a couple of weeks making images prior to arriving at the Crow's Shadow and brought a lot of images to experiment with. I was quite proud of how well I armed myself for the encounter and had backup plans on the side just in case anything went the path of total ruination. I didn't have any plans of last resort however, so the stuff had to work, come hell or whatever.

Living by your wits means realizing that there was no scanner anywhere, and by the way, you do work in digital media, right? Aha! Your camera can be a scanner if you've been saying your Holy Smackers diligently.

In reality, I did a lot of research prior to going to the mountaintop, and my favorite artist by a long shot was Jaune Quick-To See Smith, one of the Jurors with the project. She was my artist hero and I'd get as many books and catalogs as I could find with her art; sometimes going to sleep reading late into the night with her catalogs scattered around me. She is the lithography master and I loved her beautiful visual aesthetic coupled with her wry wit and intellectual commentary. She was the artist I was pretending to be, but didn't let that stop me, even as I realized that my visual vernacular was all my own too, so what was to worry about?

Jaune Quick-To See Smith's poster for our First Nations Conference in 2004 when she was one of our keynote speakers and featured artists.

For the project, each artist was allowed five plates per lithograph, so our challenge was where to place them, what size, color, and so on. We had to place the prints on the plates very precisely prior to exposing them in the darkroom.

As a photographer, I readily identified with the plate-making process because it involved making a negative, exposing it with UV light and then processing it in a darkroom. All of those things were perfectly natural to me and it helped me with the creative process immensely. I felt like a photo lab rat again and finally breathed easier. I was able to make these two photos in darkness because my digital camera had a true infrared feature.

The images looked even cooler on the aluminum plate than I'd imagined. There was a very sumptuous tactile nature to them that was completely new to me. And this was before any inks were involved, which was really invigorating, and I wanted to ink them up right then and there! By now it looks like there were only moments between these steps, but some of them took an entire day to do properly, and the days were literally flying by. I had no idea what day it was for the most part. There were a few mistakes here and there, such as a plate that didn't look the way we'd expected, so we'd just make another. A few of the small mistakes looked cool, so we let them be, agreeing that just in case anyone asked, hey, it was a lot of hard work to get that look.

When Frank put on all his protective gear I stood far back and used a short telephoto lens. Ok all you lithographers, what's he doing here? Do I even want to know? Frank was clearly a well- seasoned pro with the press; it seemed to be an extension of his arm. That red bottle had the nasty stuff in it, and I still stood way back and left the room until the fumes cleared the air. Frank was a safety first kind of guy, which made me feel more comfortable as my fingernails fell off. Just kidding! He was looking after everyone's safety at all times.

It seems to me that every art form has a magical aspect to it, in spite of knowing the physical and scientific properties of things like silver halide coated on photographic paper. When you get right down to it, it's simply magic to see a photographic image emerge from the nothingness of seemingly blank paper. The same was true of seeing a test print from this plate, it was breathtaking to see how the image looked as it was carefully peeled back. I found myself subconsciously holding my breath until it was peeled all the way back and Frank laughed, saying nearly everyone does that.

Selecting colors was really, really fun and this was the part where you attempt to pre-visualize how that layer would look on that particular paper. The other challenging part was figuring out how the various colors would potentially interact with each other. Will one dominate the other in unexpected ways or clash instead of harmonize? I was very sure of the dominant color for the prints, a color named Chilkat Blue in Tlingit. It was a copper patina color and would change shades depending on how it aged, the light, or which artist mixed the colors. It is in the turquoise group of colors and was at the essence of the concept of Migrations for me; the color made an instant migration home to our ancient tribal lands and made me feel like an important part of myself was merging with the art. When we got the color, I knew instantly that it was perfect.

Frank and I got the color I was exploring for using various colors of inks, including phthalo blue, white and other mysterious inks, sheens and or tints. As I recall, we spent almost an entire morning mixing a small spectrum of variations of this color. Frank was really great with this part and if he thought I was being too fussy, he never let on.

I thought some extraordinary aspects of the inks was the ability to do things like alter its opacity, its subtle color differentials and the delicate luminosity which gave it an understated glow that was thoroughly unexpected. What a marvelous surprise. I instantly loved lithography and we hadn't even made a print yet. See how the inks glow in the reflectance of Frank's shirt? Watching Frank with that big roller made me realize that there is such a thing as artistry in technique, they are not necessarily separate. He obviously transcended the ordinary and his years of training as a master lithographer at the Tamarind Art Institute certainly manifested itself here. It was like an elegant dance, replete with rhythm, sound and impeccable timing. You could hear when the inks were on the roller perfectly and precisely because it made a peculiar wet smacking noise that sounded different when it was just right.

The proof prints were nothing less than superb and it was pleasing to actually see the characteristics of the inks mentioned above and how they interacted with the paper and other inks. Some pleasant surprises were how the other layers of inks held their integrity and had an understated sense of dimensionality within the flat surface. I think this had to do with the luminance and various levels of opacity of the inks that were interacting with the paper. You could see that various layers of ink were either in front of or behind other ones, and some of them were lightly absorbed into the paper, giving them a slightly different look. My experience as a photographer helped me immensely, because I was very used to evaluating extremely subtle nuances of both my photographs and digital prints.

I think that the coolest and most gratifying parts of being an artist are seeing your work come alive and have spark because it involves so many disparate elements, from your own personal visual aesthetic, to your intellect, intuition and how one generally strives to simply make sense of the world. Because the world constantly changes, it is an unending act; not futile by any means, but always challenging and certainly very fulfilling, especially when we get it right.

At this juncture, I noticed how Frank kept meticulous notes on everything we'd been doing the past two weeks. He explained plainly that after I leave, he has to print the editions and needs to be able to precisely replicate everything we'd done. Ohhhh. It never occurred to me that what we were doing was making a number of artist's proofs and he would be doing the lion's share of the work printing the editions after I left.

One of the last things we did as a collaborative pair was to have me approve the proofs. As I recall, they didn't have titles yet, but I designated, signed and dated them. This felt splendid and maybe even bordering on magnificent. We were both beyond exhausted, our two week collaboration had literally taken everything out of us. In a good way. Don't we look happy and ready to have another go at it? Well, maybe later.

Native Epistemology

Edward Curtis' Last Photograph

The best part was that this same process was going on with five other artists all summer long and culminated in a series of exhibitions all over the country. A book was published with essays by leading critics, art historians and theorists with portfolios of our art. The exhibitions are still going strong, including the one currently at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum. One of the benefits of the project was receiving a copy of the lithographs made by the other artists; I really love how each one of us offered our own interpretation of what the concept of Migrations meant to us and the various visual aesthetics we all captured. Here's to Migrations, and I'd like to offer a sincere thank you to everyone who made this art project possible, especially Marjorie Devon, at the Tamarind Institute, who gathered up all the people with innovative ideas about how to put forth such an ambitious idea in the first place, and to my partner in crime, Mr. Frank Janzen, Master Lithographer extraordinaire.

Steven Deo
Tom Jones

Larry McNeil

Ryan Lee Smith

Star Wallowing Bull

Marie Watt


Marjorie Devon, Director of the Tamarind Art Institute
Siri Engberg, Curator of Contemporary Art at the Walker Art Center, Juror
Jaune Quick-To See Smith, Artist, Independent Curator, Scholar & Activist, Juror
Truman Lowe, Artist, Scholar, Curator & Advocate, Juror
Deborah Wye, Chief Curator of Prints & Illustrated Books at the Museum of Modern Art

Contributing Authors:
Kathleen Howe, Director of the Pomona College Museum of Art
Lucy Lippard,
Critic, Author, Activist, Independent Curator, Feminist & Theorist
Gerald McMaster, Artist, Scholar, Curator, Arts Administrator, Activist
Jo Ortel, Associate Professor at Beloit College, Author, Art Historian & Theorist

Tamarind Master Superstar Printers:
Deborah Chaney
Frank Janzen
(at the Crow's Shadow)
Bill Lagattuta

James Tesky

Primary Funding:
Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts
National Endowment for the Arts

Here is a link about the organizers, jurors and contributing authors for Migrations: New Directions in Native American Art

UNM Press, link for Migrations: New Directions in Native American Art
(low stock, nearly out of print).

Tamarind Institute
Crow's Shadow Institute of the Arts

TREX, The Traveling Exhibitions Program of the Museum of New Mexico.

All of the above is © Copyright Larry McNeil, 2009, All Rights Reserved.

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