Rodney Konopaki worked at Tyler Graphics from 1976–1987 as head of the etching department, during which time he worked on major projects with artists such as Frank Stella and Alan Shields. Since 2005 Konopaki has taught printmaking in his role as Associate Professor at Emily Carr University of Art and Design, Vancouver. He continues to make prints in collaboration with fellow artist Rhonda Neufeld. The following reflections began as a transcription of an interview with Emilie Owens conducted in July 2013, and was then edited by Konopaki in March 2015.
On starting at TGL
In 1976, I had just been accepted into the printer-training program at the Tamarind Institute when Ken offered me a position in the intaglio area at TGL in Bedford Village. Leaving Tamarind was one of the more difficult decisions I have ever had to make. But the possibility to work with the artists who came to TGL outweighed staying in New Mexico. It was such an amazing opportunity.
I have the feeling that if I were to have finished the Tamarind program, Ken might not have hired me because he is a maverick who does things the way he wants. He was never concerned with doing it by the book – the “right way”. For Ken there were other ways, new ways, and exciting new approaches to be taken with prints, and, doing it by the rulebook might stand in the way of experimentation and pushing boundaries. Ken hired lots of people straight out of art school because he was looking for young printers with fresh ideas about prints. And he always expected them to work hard.
I arrived in Bedford Village on a Thursday evening in September. It was a dark and rainy evening. It was Kay Tyler who picked my wife and me up at the airport and we drove up to Westchester County. John Hutcheson greeted me at the door to the workshop. He and I connected instantly and it was the beginning of our enduring friendship. Claes Oldenburg was there and they were proofing stones for Chicago stuffed with numbers. Ken was kinetic, buzzing around like he often did when projects were underway. I came to know this buzz very well. He barely greeted me and said, “Put your bags down and grab a sponge, let’s get printing.” FrankStella was also around that evening, over at Ken’s house. Frank is one of my heroes, and I am still in awe of him and respect him deeply. In general, two artists did not show up at the workshop at the same time. That night was an exception. It was overwhelming to meet Claes and Frank on my first night in my new job.
The next day, Ken told me to come in and to take my time poking around the workshop – looking in drawers and cabinets – becoming familiar with the presses and my new home. It was one of the most relaxed days that I recall in all my time working at TGL. Things popped into gear on Monday after the weekend.
For about two or three weeks, my main task in the workshop was to change blotters on the Ellsworth Kelly Colored paper images project. These paper pulp pieces were made at John Koller’s paper mill in Connecticut and then transported as pressed but wet sheets to Bedford Village. The blotters needed to be continually changed or the works wouldn’t dry and the papers could mildew. There were twenty-one images and about 20 of each, that’s about 400 paper pulp pieces all interleaved with blotters. To change the blotters for all the work seemed a non-ending, revolving task. As soon as you changed all 400, the blotters on the ones you did first were already getting damp and it was time to start all over again. The scope of this full-scale production was eye opening for a young printer to see. I mean as an art student you are lucky if you have two blotters, and you preciously recycle them and put them back on the racks to dry. But here we had more than a thousand blotters, and all of those great paper pulp pieces in between.
My predecessor, Betty Fiske, started all the editions I printed in the first months after arriving. The first project that I was completely in charge of was with Nancy Graves and we started with the beautiful and delicate print, Saille. Nancy’s prints will always be special to me, as they are the first ones where I was actually doing what I was going to do into the future. It was on this project that I began to learn how to do it. Nancy had made a few prints prior to this, her first visit to TGL and we were really learning together. She was easy going and a sweetheart to work with and there was no one better to collaborate with as I was starting out.
The workshop environment
There were three printers in the workshop when I started. John was in lithography and Kim Halliday was in the screen area. I was hired to print etchings. When John left to start his own press in New Jersey, Roger Campbell and Lee Funderburg came to us. Then Kim departed for Boston to start a graphic design company. Ken realized it would be better not to keep travelling to Koller’s in Connecticut to make paper. Steve Reeves and Tom Strianese joined the team when he decided to set up the paper mill in Bedford Village. We all had crossover experience outside of the primary area that Ken hired us to work in, and this was always helpful when we needed to put heads together to resolve problems or figure out how to do something.
At TGL, each printer was usually in-charge of the smaller projects running in their area. Often though, the projects were big and intense, combining more than one process in new and unexpected ways. If a huge or hybrid project were underway everyone would be out of their area working where the action was to get things done. In that case, the one most familiar with the printing process that was key to the project would be the lead hand. Always, of course, Ken was present – buzzing around – helping to nudge projects forward by dropping new ideas into the mix for things we were doing. Sometimes these suggestions catapulted everything to a new, bigger, and better place. Other times they made proceeding even more difficult than it needed to be. But there was no fear of difficulty at the shop.
Some of the things we did to make prints had been done before. In those cases, we used the simplest print techniques and delivered the excitement by doing the very most with them. But Ken’s vision for printmaking was ambitious and he was always trying something new, unexpected and often nearly impossible. We pushed to expand everything we were involved in making and to combine processes creating what some called the new surface of prints. More than once we wondered how we might best get something accomplished. Sometimes no one knew how to get there; everyone just had to be willing to work and go where the process took us. We strived to deliver prints with the highest possible level of craftsmanship, and I think if you look through the prints we made you will always see that.
Working with Frank Stella
Ken was frequently on Frank Stella’s case to make etchings. From what I learned, this was an ongoing necessity, and not just with Frank. He constantly needed to excite artists about the possibility of coming to the studio to work and to try out stuff. I believe he motivated interest with everyone from those artists who knew the shop well and were frequent visitors to others who might be coming for the first time. Pushing ideas for projects to artists was an ongoing task for Ken, as a print publisher.
As much as Ken tried to persuade him, Frank was not convinced that he wanted to make intaglio prints. At one time, we started working with him on small copper plates that were reminiscent of his first lithographs from Gemini GEL, but the project never got off the ground. All the same, Ken was tenacious and he and Frank always enjoyed a back and forth exchange. Ken facilitated a lot of the work that Frank was engaged with outside of TGL. The two of them frequently went to Swan Engraving [a commercial printing company] in Bridgeport, Connecticut to etch magnesium sheets for the skins that were being used on Frank’s constructions and other works – such as his three-dimensional sculptural and relief “painting”. And on one of those visits a light bulb went on and they realized they were making etching plates. I am not sure whether it was Ken or Frank who made the recognition. But they both returned from Bridgeport one afternoon eager to have me get ink on a small sample offcut and to wipe it.
The first plate we printed was a single magnesium sheet about an eighth-of-an-inch thick. It was etched really deeply. At that time, Bob Cross was just starting at the studio and we wiped it and printed it together. Frank was okay with the results but he really wanted most of the heavy black lines that printed to be white lines. Etched lines are supposed to hold ink and now he wanted part of it the other way around. I am sure all of us wondered quietly, how do we do that? But none of us wanted to discourage anything from advancing. Ken suggested wrapping our fingers in rags and running them through the grooves on the plate to clear ink. He even offered to go purchase Q-tips hoping that might work. Bob was surprised that we were proceeding, and I thought it would prove to be so time consuming and difficult to do that Ken would back out somehow. We struggled through printing the second one with these changes and Frank was ecstatic. “This is what I want! This is what I want!” and so it was happening. Bob turned to me and asked incredulously, “Now what?” I gulped, “I guess now we’ve got to print these things.”
So there’s this huge etched magnesium plate that has to be covered with ink, and then that ink has to be wiped off. All the wide and deeply etched lines were filled with ink, and we would have to use Q-tips to take the ink out of them. We would partially wipe the plate down, and then we would remove the ink from some of the selected deeply etched lines using Q-tips – but doing that would push ink back up onto the surface, so we would then have to wipe the surface again, and the ink would collapse back into the lines. It was a back and forth process taking considerable time. And if we wiped the lines too clean Frank wouldn’t like it, so it had to be just right, the lines filled, then mostly wiped clean with just enough ink around the very perimeter of the shapes to print and define just the edges.
We needed a pound-and-a-half of ink for each plate, and it took six hours to wipe it, with both of us working. We got a bit faster, but it was always about five hours to print one - two guys, pound-and-a-half of ink, five hours. To keep ourselves from going crazy and for entertainment, we named every one of the lines on that print by relating each to a map of upstate New York. Each line had a street name or a road name. And I would say, “Bob what are you doing, where are you right now?” And he would say, “Going up 684, and I will be at Route 22 in a minute.” We used 17,000 Q-tips on that project.
This print [Talladega Three I] was the precursor of the Swan Engraving series. The difference between this print and the Swan Engravings was that the Swans are made from thinner magnesium plates and multiple shaped pieces were collaged to sheets of plywood. I have often thought that many etchers might not do what we did to get this print. What we were doing was at least “backwards” and large in scale, too. But Talladega Three I is a special print and it is worth thinking about the extent we went to produce something the wrong way around. It may be the hallmark – but there are other print candidates - of the atmosphere at TGL.
In every project there was something that happened that was funny or silly or problematic. I especially loved working with Alan Shields – I think that most of the guys did – because he was just so honest and interactive. You were really involved with him, anything that you had and offered he would use. He usually asked us to print things the “wrong” way to get the results he was after. Often this went against our perfectionist inclinations but always the results were unparalleled.
I always regret that I did not get an opportunity to meet Josef Albers. His final print project, Never before, was wrapping up posthumously when I arrived at the workshop. I asked Kim what it was like mixing a colour with Albers. He said the discussion was always more “poetic” than clinical: Albers trying to mix a green like spring leaves in the morning sun or a rose at dusk. I was fortunate though to work with Anni Albers and got an unexpected colour lesson along the way on her Second movement intaglio prints.
Anni came to the shop multiple times over several months to make the plates for those works and then to select and mix colours with us for their printing. She then would depart leaving us to pull proofs before returning to further refine the images or approve them to begin edition printing. We had early proofs of all six prints and Anni particularly liked the blue used on Second movement III. Before proceeding all the plates were nickel-faced so that colours were not affected by the oxidation of the copper. But then a problem flew up as we started on the final round of proofing. It was virtually impossible to get the blue she wanted again because of the nickel-faced plates the colour no longer oxidized. Trying over and over, I just couldn’t get it.
We worked for over a month finishing the proofing for all six prints. Anni was coming to see them and we hoped she would approve them for edition work to begin. Ken and I decided to put the proofs with the blue she liked away and show her the newer nickel- faced impression instead. This was the one we knew could be printed reliably. When Anni arrived, Ken had tea and goodies ready and wanted everyone at the shop to stop work, and to sit down, visit, and talk first. Anni had a different plan. She insisted on seeing the prints to finish business before partying. As she glanced over the wall with all the prints on it, she immediately observed, “Where’s my blue?” We were caught. After explaining our inability to deliver what she wanted Anni accepted what we had achieved. It was an incredible lesson: most artists know their work intimately. Even though it had been out of her sight for over a month, the colour and overall balance of the work was indelible in Anni’s visual memory.
More about colour, I remember that mixing the red for Roy Lichtenstein’s prints was always a conundrum. As everyone knows, Roy used a fairly limited palette in his work. The essential colours: red, two blues, two yellows, green; occasionally there is a pink or one or two pastels and black. At the beginning of a project Roy would show up with his colour swatches, “Here is my red, here is my blue, and here is my yellow.” It was important to mix colours for the prints that carried through the palette from his paintings with continuity. And the real impossibility of the situation was that no one could mix that red because his was an original and old magna colour swatch (dating from the beginning of acrylic paint) that he started using early in the 1950s. It seemed the pigment for that red existed once and never again or perhaps his swatch was so old that the colour had gotten dirty, faded or somehow shifted. But any printer working with Roy had to try and mix that red as close as they could. I remember an afternoon of mixing and testing: it was too red, not red enough, too clean, not clean enough, too bright, too saturated, not saturated, whatever. You could get the blue and the green and the other colours, but forget about the red. We joked at the shop that every printer who had ever worked with Roy had faced the test of mixing that red – it was a rite of passage.
At TGL, I learned that working with an artist to make prints is a very delicate, sensitive and nuanced relationship. It can also be the source of much anxiety for all. But of course, at the end (and in most cases), the reward is great elation. Each artist who came to the studio worked differently and expected you to be involved in their work in different ways. Sometimes Ken invited an artist to come who may never have made prints or worked in front of (or with) others. I am sure it was nerve wracking for them. If that artist had little print experience, there was pressure to get results quickly, often within days. Otherwise, that artist may decide to retreat to their own studio and the security of what they did and were primarily interested in doing. Essentially, this was a high-pressure teaching moment where promising results were mandatory to make sure the project could go ahead. And, if a prospective project fell apart the workshop might face a period with not enough to do.
There were other dynamics in collaboration, though. That was when the artist that we were working with had a complete understanding of the printing processes and knew what to do and how to do it. Stella, Hockney, and Shields are in that group. The discussion didn’t ever need to be about how to do something and what it might look like. Instead, you could make contributions to the work underway that could impact on the creative generation of the print and even change what the artist did with or expected from the project. People chemistry is at the heart of a good print collaboration. If it goes off the rails, a project can go sideways and in the worst instance it could terminate a project. Happily I never saw this occur at TGL. Many viewers of art do not know exactly what or how much a printer does. But the artists always knew. Their acknowledgement and gratitude were the reward and made it worthwhile. I always believed it was a privilege to be involved in an artist’s work and that in the end my contribution, whatever it was, must remain invisible.
Since returning to Canada, I have realized that I have always been interested in and involved in collaboration, and that there are many types of collaboration. My first collaborative experience was as a young guy when I played in rock and roll bands and we wrote music and played it together. Another type of collaboration is what happened working at TGL and, later, in print projects I involved myself in with Canadian artists after returning. In its most basic practice, these print collaborations might be comparable to a recording engineer working with a musician. At its best though you transcend those parameters and rise to a more inclusive and exhilarating relationship. Trust and respect are integral before that happens. Having experienced the printer-artist collaborative relationship at TGL, I have recently become curious about collaborations where all partners are involved on an absolutely equal and creative basis.
In 1987, the new workshop was built in Mount Kisco and TGL moved. It was an exciting moment but it pushed the level of activity to new heights. The original shop was a series of patched-together coach houses: it was rustic. Once on a visit, Henry Geldzahler [Curator of American Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art] referred to it as being ‘American additive architecture’. The new shop was more industrial, more of a showcase studio. We knew that when it was being put together. All the printers were involved with the planning and the move. We came over from the old studio and fine-tuned everything at the new one. But, it was a totally different place and an adjustment to get our heads around – not having the special, quaint atmosphere of the original workshop. The move to the new studio felt comparable to moving from a mum and pop café to a big franchise space in a mall.
Around this time, I started thinking it was time to move on. There were several factors in the decision. One of them was that I was no longer making my own work. Ken believed and often said you were either a printer or an artist. Some of his printers tried to stay involved in their own art while at TGL but at the end of long days at the studio you were either exhausted or your head was filled with the work of the artist with whom you had just spent all day. My wife and I also had three small kids. I loved the United States, but it was often a scary place, even in Westchester County. We were hearing rumours that some of the public schools had metal detectors at the doors for kids in second and third grade to pass through. Those were some of the reasons we returned to Canada.
I left Tyler Graphics about eleven years after arriving. The crew of three had blossomed to at least eight of us and there were more than that employed at the shop in other capacities. At the time, a large Lichtenstein relief sculpture project was underway. At least twelve graduate students from NYU were coming up to Mount Kisco to help with the work. My wife and I had arrived at TGL with one trunk and a couple of suitcases; we were leaving with a young family and a twenty-six foot rental truck packed to the roof. While there I had learned most of what I know about art and printing through hands on experience. In hindsight, there was notably little discussion about art in the studio among the printers or with the artists who came there to work with us. TGL was a place of action, of doing.
Several of the guys from the workshop came and helped us pack. Needless to say, the job was done quickly with the consummate expertise that I had grown to anticipate in everything they did. I departed grateful for the opportunity Ken gave me and proud of the work we made during my tenure at the workshop.