Chris Creyts worked at Tyler Graphics for seven and a half years, from February 1993 until the workshop closed. He was involved in many exciting projects – from many of Frank Stella’s complex series, to the beautiful woodcuts of Helen Frankenthaler. Creyts now teaches printmaking at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and continues to work as a printer. He is currently working with Alex Katz.
What was your role at the workshop, and can you tell us a little bit about what that role entailed?
My role at Tyler Graphics was complex. I was hired by Ken Tyler when I was 25 years old. I completed a BFA in printmaking from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, and then spent a year in Japan studying Japanese woodblock printing at the Nagoya Art University. My Professor in Nagoya – Matsumura Takizawa – was good friends with Tadashi Toda in Kyoto. Toda was the woodblock printer in Kyoto for Crown Point Press. I went to his studio five times while I was there to receive critiques and pointers from the master on how to improve my printing skills in Japanese woodblock. (I did have the good fortune to buy two of his hon barens).
So when I was initially hired by Ken my position was to serve as a woodblock printer. On my first day, Ken put me in charge of cutting a David Salle woodblock. Next, I was cutting blocks for Radius a work by Helen Frankenthaler. Then I started working on the etching team, mostly cutting, fitting and sawing up metal plates for the Moby Dick deckle edge series by Frank Stella. I did spend a lot of time over the years that I was at Tyler Graphics making films and plates for Frank Stella's prints. The best work that I did for Frank was on the series Imaginary Places III. Lee Funderburg and I worked well together setting up the registration for those prints. Ken was interested in the series having really tight and complex registration. As time went on, the Stella prints became more complicated as his sculpture really started to come into play in his prints. We started to use more cast metal plates that Frank made at the foundry. His prints became sculptural with much more embossing. I worked directly with Ken to develop ways to print these matrices. In the end we were moving the handmade paper two or three inches with the metal plates. I also spent a lot of time printing lithographically. I started printing with John Hutcheson on the Dufa 8 (I still feel indebted to John for distilling a ton printmaking experience into me) during the Moby Dick deckle edge series and when the time came we did the Lichtenstein Nudes.
I felt at times like I had a special relationship with Ken. Ken seemed to move me around the shop which kept me excited. I found myself doing everything - etching, lithography, paper making, woodblock, Japanese woodblock, and sometimes even assisting in silkscreen.
Can you outline some of the technical processes involved in your work?
I think that some of the most interesting technical work that I performed was putting together Stella prints. At TGL we had tons of collage materials. Frank would find patterns, materials – computer generated smoke rings among other things – and would bring them to TGL. These would be made into large plates, printed in different colors, and then be given back to Frank. Frank would cut up these materials and collage them on a board as a mock up for a print.
The first thing that would then be made for a print was a key line. This was an outline drawing of all the elements/passages of the print. Ken would always make the call of what passage would be printed in what media. The key line would then made into a lithographic plate and printed in light blue on handmade paper. For the etching part of the print, the key line print would be soaked for twenty minutes (handmade paper when soaked grows radically, especially when it is a 4 foot by 6 foot sheet). Then the sheet would be blotted to keep it from growing anymore. At this point the key line print would be traced onto Mylar, this would accommodate the etching matrix for the growth of the paper. This would then be known as the etching master Mylar. Not to be confused with the litho/screen master Mylar, which would be a different size. The etching master Mylar was then traced again and would be used as the base of the print, where all the etching plates were assembled. Since the etching plates were being made for an area that was bigger than the original collage the films that were originally used to make the collage materials would not work to make the plates. In order to compensate for the growth of the wet paper, and then the shrinking of the paper when it dried, I would have to spend time with the photocopy machine to enlarge the imagery so the etching plates could be accurately made. There were many times (especially with the smoke rings) where I would have to rework by hand or interpret the films to get the best results for Frank's art.
Can you tell us about the atmosphere in the studio? What did you enjoy most about working there?
The atmosphere of the studio was complicated. To be truthful – it was like a pendulum. The highs were incredibly high and the lows were really low. It was like a roller coaster ride without seat belts. When we were making beautiful prints it was almost euphoric. When you screwed up, you were definitely "a deer in the headlights" (or a joey) of an oncoming semi truck. The most enjoyable was definitely the work! And the studio. No greater printmaking studio has ever been created.
Do you still work in the arts? How did your time with TGL affect your career path?
Yes, I still work in the arts. I am still a printer and I am also a professor teaching etching and Japanese woodblock at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. The only way that it affected my career path was that TGL closed. I believe I would still be there today. However, I would say that working there has helped open doors.
Do you have a favorite project from TGL, or did you have a particularly memorable experience with a specific artist? Can you explain what made that project or person so special?
I have a lot of fond memories from many different projects. I think that working on the Nudes with Roy Lichtenstein might have been the most important, but Helen Frankenthaler and I did have a special relationship. When I was first hired at TGL Freefall, a giant woodcut by Helen was just being started. I had been carving Radius for Helen and was dying to get on that project. Luckily enough I was picked by Ken to edition the woodblock. It was a gigantic puzzle block and to date I think one of the most beautiful prints made by anyone anywhere! Tom and Rob made beautiful hand colored paper. John Hutcheson worked the massive Dufa to create a beautiful blend for the center block. Kevin rolled the big green block and did the blend for the "candle in the middle". My job was to roll the giant lavender woodblock and all the little white and yellow blocks in the center. After all the blocks were rolled we would assemble them all and take the massive sheet of paper and and place it on the inky blocks and give it a squish.
When this project was finished, Ken informed me that Helen was coming back to do another woodblock. He asked me to assemble woodblocks in the studio for Helen to look at. I guess that my OCD took over. When he came back to the studio I had moved about 30 of 40 blocks into the studio. He looked at me and said "Chris! Jeez what are you doing we don't need all these blocks!!" I looked around and started taking blocks out of the studio. While I was in the wood room I kept seeing the old blocks from the center of Freefall. Every time I walked by it, it was burning into my skull. I do not know what came over me. I took a straight edge and a saw and found my rectangle and cut. Top, bottom, side, side. After I was finished I brought it into the studio and propped it on the wall. Suddenly it hit me! Should I have done that? I just cut the center block to FREEFALL! Should I have ASKED? It was like a giant bolt of static electricity that was cycling between my ears, crackling and buzzing. Right then Helen walked into the room. I calmed myself, and greeted her "so I hear we’re doing another woodblock". She looked around the room at the blocks. She looked at the center block from Freefall and said "I like this one". I said "Yes, it is a great size". I put it on the table. She asked if I had any paint. I got some out. She started painting on the block. Just then Ken walked into the room. He saw what was going on. It was one of those magic moments. Ken then asked me to make some more blocks that same size. "I want them rough wood, not smooth". I tried to pick the boards with the most character and cut them to the aesthetic that I thought was best. I brought them into the studio. I looked at what Helen had painted. It was magnificent. This painting on the wood became known as Tales of Genji II. I left the next two boards in the studio and left. When I went back into the artist's studio Helen had painted the other two blocks. They were so beautiful. They became known as Tales of Genji I and Tales of Genji III. That was a truly great day; there was a lot of magic in the studio!
Can you share your favourite memory of the workshop with us?
When I first started at TGL I was 25 years old 6'2" and about 225 lbs. I liked to bike, swim and work out. At that point I would say that I was surprisingly strong for my size. Ken loved that. Ken would direct me all the time to move the heaviest stones in the shop. One day I was working with Hutch (shop manager John Hutcheson ) on the Dufa 8 press printing the Moby Dick deckle edges for Frank Stella. Ken was working in the room behind us trying to break some slag aluminium that Frank had cast for future prints. Ken called me in. He put a four foot, five pound sledge hammer in my hands. He then picked up an eight inch coal chisel and held it to aluminium and said "swing". I picked up the hammer, lined it up and gave a quarter swing, to make sure not to hit his hand. He looked at me and said "swing". I tried to tell him, that I didn’t want to hit his hand (I was not a good shot with a hammer). He yelled "I know where my hand is, now swing!" I took about a half swing. "Harder, Chris, Harder!" I took about a three quarter strike on the hammer. At that point I think he made some comparisons between me and a little girl. I hit it harder. He kept on with the taunting, screaming "Hit it! Hit it!" Soon, I had the head of the hammer behind my back and was giving it full swings. He kept up the taunting, wanting each swing harder than the last. I was no longer fooling around. I was giving that chisel full on blows, cracking and splitting inch thick cast aluminium. I hit that chisel with all my might and weight. Ken's hand remained the whole time about a quarter inch from the top of the chisel. The impact had to go through his hand up his arm. I was hitting that chisel so hard that the top of it was mushrooming out onto his hand and cracking the metal. He did not flinch once, he thrived on this. It is easy to say that if I had missed he would not have been like a man hitting his thumb with a hammer but more like an asteroid hitting the moon. There would have been little left of his hand.
After I had broken the slag that he needed I went back to printing with Hutch. He called me in five times that day to break more metal with him, the whole time his hand less than a quarter inch from the impact of the hammer. At the end of the day he called again from around the corner, "Chris, Chris" I was bent over the Dufa, and for some reason that I cannot explain I screamed back " What? What do you want?!" in a harsh joking around voice. As I looked up, Hutch was gone. I think he was hiding behind the Dufa. Ken turned the corner, put both hand on his hips and said "Don't you why me farm boy" and smacked me on the back of the head as I went by. That is the way Ken was, he always wanted the most out of everyone and everything and was not afraid of anything.