Spudnik Press: Interview with Angee Lennard

[uds-billboard name=”spudnik”]The daughter of potato farmers, Angee Lennard chose the name “Spudnik Press” when she founded a nonprofit community printshop in her one-bedroom Chicago apartment in 2007. As Lennard told me once, “When I was in school, I always thought someday when I am in my 40s I will start my own printshop, but once I graduated I just thought, why wait!” At the age of twenty-nine, Lennard is now the Executive Director of this burgeoning art space: Spudnik has already expanded twice, first in a move to the 1821 W. Hubbard Street Lofts in 2008 and then to a larger space within the same building in 2010. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, Spudnik was recently able to add facilities for letterpress and offset lithography. Spudnik offers a growing number of classes from traditional print techniques to self-publishing software and professional development workshops. Lennard is also a practicing artist and recently completed a residency at AS220 in Providence, RI. Her work has been included in numerous group shows in Chicago since she earned her BFA from the School of the Art Institute in 2005. In many ways, Spudnik exemplifies the DIY spirit that pervades Chicago’s art scene, flush with apartment galleries and design collectives. If you want something to happen here, you better get to work!

Regan Golden-McNerney: There has been a lot of discussion lately about community-based artistic practices, especially here in Chicago with the Feast exhibition at the Smart Museum this spring, it seems to me that in printmaking there has always been a unique and complicated relationship between the individual artist and the community because all the equipment is shared. Is community an integral part of being a printmaker?

Angee Lennard: I personally feel that community is integral to printmakers and I feel that because there is this dependency that it actually draws people to the medium that like community.  That doesn’t mean I haven’t met printmakers who say, “I’m so glad I don’t have to share my press with anyone.” If you are really financially stable you don’t have to be community-based to be a printmaker, but I do think that working together is core to the history of print and the culture of it.

RGM: How do you strike a balance between the needs of individual artists and the desire to create a sense of community in the shop?

AL: Most of the artists who work at Spudnik do a lot of their sketching, brainstorming and research outside the shop, so that when they get to the shop they are in production mode and are really excited to talk to people about their ideas.  It is tricky to balance all the needs of artists who use the shop: between people who rent studios, having students come on field trips, and having classes who use the space. It is difficult sometimes to set a schedule so that an artist using the studio for their own creative practice isn’t always coming in to find twenty-four high school students working on a project in the shop, which probably wouldn’t give them the kind of mental space needed to think clearly during the printing process. But it is always exciting when there are other people printing and most artists who work here prefer that.

RGM: There are lots of different models for community print shops all over the world, how does Spudnik differ from or borrow from other models in terms of its structure?

AL: We borrow a little bit from all models, and what I mean by that is some printshops do one thing really well or cater only to one kind of artist, but our goal here is to have an entry point for anyone who needs to use printmaking, whether that is a high school student, someone who needs to have something printed, or an artist who needs a dedicated private studio. So, we have borrowed ways that print shops around the world are structured, so that there are lots of different ways to use the space. Lately, I’ve looked at art education programs and community centers to figure out programming as much as printshops.

RGM: What is Spudnik’s unique role in the Chicago art scene?

AL: We play a supportive role.

RGM: Kind of like a base-camp?

AL: We’re here and there are always different artists rotating in and out of the shop making prints. Because of the way we are structured, you don’t have to be a committed printmaker to work here. When artists need us we are here and when they don’t we support them in other ways.

RGM: Is there a core group of artists that work here regularly as well?

AL: We have a group of about fifteen people who would happily don the title of “printmaker” and they are in and out of here a lot. Even if they are not making their own prints, they might be working on a consignment project, curating a show, or representing us at an art fair.

RGM: Spudnik also invites local established or mid-career artists to the shop to edition prints. Can you describe the importance of this project to Spudnik’s future and what your role is as master printer?

AL: This is a really exciting program that we are trying to do more of because one of the reasons I founded Spudnik was to get artists at different points in their careers all in one shop, so that people in the community become more aware of each other and have a chance to interact. This program brings into the shop new skills and new talent from people who might not have sought Spudnik out for themselves just because their practice is established. I also think it is important for us to have connections to artists who are part of the “high-brow art world” because we need people in all sectors of the city to know about Spudnik, as well as the people we reach through the schools.

RGM: When you are publishing works for established Chicago artists do you try to get them to work in a material or technique outside their comfort zone?

AL: We try to find artists whose work lends itself to print media, not just slapping printmaking into their process. We already see a natural connection.

RGM: How do you envision your role as master printer and collaborator in this process?

AL: The master printer usually doesn’t add their handwork to the print, but we definitely talk through ideas together and bring the technical skills needed to help the artist excel in whatever they already do.

RGM: On one extreme you are printing for established artists and on the other extreme you have Open Studio Nights. Can you explain the Open Studio Nights program?

AL: Open Studio Nights was our founding program; it was the first thing we offered when Spudnik was operating out of my apartment and it remains identical to five years ago. During Open Studios, an artist can just drop in with no appointment needed and use our studio for the night for fifteen dollars. We’ve added that artists using the space need to attend an orientation and be authorized for use of certain equipment, but we don’t make anyone do a portfolio review or jump through any other hoops, we just want people to feel welcome. I feel that accessibility is a lot about attitude, not just income and money.

RGM: The residency program invites local, national and international artists to Spudnik for three months of intensive work time. What kinds of projects have come out of the residency?

AL: Our first two residencies both went to two people working together on a project, which I was really excited about because this spoke directly to our mission of collaboration. The end products that our resident artists produce have been very broad from traditional series of prints to illustrative work and book arts. We look for projects that are large enough in scope that without a residency the artist simply would not be able to complete it. In our application process we also look for people who are doing projects that are sensitive to the community and relevant to what is happening in Chicago.

RGM: The resident artist has a studio space inside the shop. How does that change the dynamic in the shop?

AL: We’ve developed a lot of really great artistic relationships with the residents who work here. We have a lot of younger printmakers who work in the shop, whether they are mid-life and haven’t taken an art class in a long time or people who are right out of art school, many of them have not had experience making larger bodies of work. The resident artists serve as role models of where technical skills can go or just how a professional artist balances art making with other opportunities.

RGM: The techniques of printmaking are always on the cusp of obsolescence, why do you think so many young artists are so invested in these outmoded means of producing images or making books?

AL: I think people are drawn to these techniques because of their near obsolescence. Not because they are into obsolete machinery, but because printed matter these days is so slick and temporary that people are reacting to that and want something really physical and tactile.

RGM: This definitely runs counter to the emphasis on the disposable in our culture.

AL: Exactly, and some artists working here also use these print techniques because they want to feel connected to the rich history of printmaking for disseminating political messages.

RGM: When I was here a couple of weeks ago an artist was screen-printing posters for an Occupy Chicago event. Do you feel like that use of prints to disseminate political messages or call people to an event is still significant?

AL: There are some people who probably won’t see the difference between a screen-print and a digital print which is okay (laughing), but if you make a poster that is hand-printed I think it is an attempt to elevate whatever it is you are talking about, whether that is a rock show or a political event.

RGM: What changes have you seen in the Chicago art community since Spudnik started five years ago?

AL: There is a lot more community-based work. Even when artists are working independently, the way that their work is displayed or shown is much more community-based and interactive. When I started five years ago there were also a lot of apartment galleries, and there are still a lot, but I feel like they are transitioning to be more legitimate. They are lasting longer and their shows are more professional. Academic institutions and critics are also taking these spaces more seriously.

RGM: I’ve noticed that many apartment galleries have also expanded their programming to include panel discussions, music events, and reading groups. There seem to be fewer one night only exhibitions.

AL: I know there is another art world out in Chicago that I participate in less that is very commercial and not as community-based, but I feel like with artists that are up and coming there is definitely an awareness of the community and that is exciting.

RGM: What is ahead for Spudnik?

AL: There is so much ahead. We’ve been putting a lot of energy into expanding the exhibitions side of Spudnik. I never wanted Spudnik to be a place where artists only create work. I want to follow the process all the way through by helping artists make the work, show the work, and learn how to represent themselves because if artists can’t sell their work often times they can’t keep making it. We’re partnering with other spaces in the city that already specialize in exhibitions, as well as launching our own exhibitions committee to give our members who want experience curating an opportunity to do so.


Images courtesy of  the author unless otherwise noted.

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