Zygote Press and the Collective Arts Network: An Interview with Liz Maugans

[uds-billboard name=”zygote”] Zygote Press has been an important resource to the Cleveland art community for the past sixteen years, offering affordable print shop access, workshops, residencies, and exhibitions. Their educational offerings include mobile printing stations and classroom carts for check-out. They also curate traveling exhibitions and Works in Progress—a program providing artists with opportunities for critical feedback.

Because many local and regional art organizations were under-represented or altogether unnoticed, Zygote founded the Collective Arts Network (CAN), a coalition of art organizations in Northeast Ohio, with support from the Ohio Arts Council. Soon after, the network published the CAN Journal, a quarterly magazine connecting and advocating on behalf of the art community. Inspired by Zygote’s pioneering example, many of their interns and program participants have launched projects of their own, some of which Zygote remains involved with.

Recently I visited Zygote Press, located in the Quadrangle arts district in Cleveland, and met with Liz Maugans, Executive Director and co-founder. This 6,500 square foot shop was packed with printing equipment, artist studios, print ephemera, and two (yes, two) gallery spaces in front.

Sage Dawson: Looking back, were there certain experiences or events that led up and contributed to starting Zygote press?

Liz Maugans: I went to New York in 1995, to visit Bob Blackburn’s Printmaking Workshop. I was excited about doing something similar, but on a smaller, Cleveland-sized scale. I had thought about it before, but this experience really got the ball rolling. Bob’s shop gave me the initial shape of what I thought was a very good, sustainable enterprise.

SD: At the time, did you see the press being as big as it is today, with so much equipment and such a large space, plus the residency program?

LM: It was kind of a win-win proposition for us either way. I figured that if no one came through our doors, it would still be a shop for me and the three other artist founders; Kelly Novak, Joe Sroka and Bellamy Printz. Obviously, that didn’t happen: we’ve had a lot of success, and here we are 16 years later, ready to start year 17! We continue to grow, constantly reviewing our mission, values and vision.

SD: Who else helped along the way?

LM: The learning curve of budgets, grant-writing and running an operation of this size was the most challenging part of the process. I have to give thanks to our Board for their guidance and governance in these circles.

SD: I’m impressed by how many different roles you play. Zygote Press’s place in the Cleveland art scene seems broad. Is there anything else I missed, that’s not already been mentioned?

LM: Zygote is a fertile ground for artists to test, tweak and implement ideas. We have become an incubator for other small arts enterprises. Just last year we had five off-shoot businesses start from residents and interns of our shop. These include the CLE Collective, Frack This, Rubber City Prints, We Love Letterpress, and the Collective Arts Network (CAN) and quarterly CAN Journal.

SD: It’s interesting to hear about the fracking expedition, especially with it’s regular mention in the news. Who leads the group?

LM: Jason Lehrer leads the program. He walked into Zygote one day, with no art training, and fell in love. He funded Frack This on Kickstarter, taking eight artists on the first two-week expedition to Laramie, Wyoming. Jason is a self-starter, a contract printer for Zygote, and has roots in community organizing in Chicago.

SD: Ok, let’s get back to your location. Being situated in Cleveland, with its industrial history, has location and history played a role in shaping Zygote’s mission to the community?

LM: We are starting to see the intersection of art and Cleveland’s industrial history, with the North Shore Federation of the AFL-CIO and the Arts and Culture Labor Committee. The Trades Project is a new program that creates art-making collaborations between our artist residents and union employees, teamsters, teachers, UAW, and service workers. Combining printmaking’s democratic nature with Cleveland’s manufacturing and labor history, along with our neighborhood’s trade unions, this makes a great partnership.

SD: That brings to my mind 19th and 20th century letterpress and Linotype operators: the working class driving presses their whole lives. Zygote seems to hold a unique position in a discussion about the working class, because of printmaking’s roots in manual labor and Cleveland’s own history. What does the collaboration look like for The Trades Project?

LM: We started this collaboration in January. As I was researching projects that brought labor and arts together, it was difficult finding anything outside of third-person documentary approaches regarding unfair labor practices. There was very little engagement between artists and laborers. The Trades Project teams up artists and labor union members to create prints for six months at a time.

SD: Ok, let’s talk about the major network Zygote founded, the Creative Arts Network, which now publishes the CAN Journal. How was it started?

LM: When the Recession was looming before us, in early 2009, I invited 12 Executive Directors together and formed the SALT talks (Sustainable Arts Leaders Talk). We identified issues that we faced and brainstormed cost-effective strategies to share resources. Exposure was the number one issue–we had no forum to share the amazing things artists were doing in Cleveland. Artists’ organizations contributed $100 and selected another institution/organization to interview.

Zygote Press itself was consistently challenged by the lack of exposure and limited communication between visual arts organizations. We knew we were equipped with an incredible writer and designer that could make the CAN Journal possible. The 2011-12 CAN Journal was very celebrated in the community. We had a launch party and people began to ask us, “When is the next one coming out?” We created a budget, and Cleveland-based Consolidated Printing agreed to support the first year for free, printing 10,000 copies. This kind of support enabled us to make the journal sustainable.

SD: That’s really inspiring. How do you think the Creative Arts Network has changed the Cleveland, and more broadly, the Northeast Ohio art communities?

LM: Several years ago The Plain Dealer, our only daily newspaper that covered arts, announced that it was downsizing arts coverage. A major benefit to our alliance was getting to know and support each other. It’s also been paramount that CAN members no longer have to wait for a review.

SD: There are a bunch of art organizations represented in CAN, right? What sort of events are held and how are they organized?

LM: Today we have over 50+ artist organizations throughout Northeast Ohio-all visual arts. As each quarterly journal is published, we launch it at a different organization’s site. This allows exposure to great spaces, galleries, and offerings that exist in Northeast Ohio. We have combined these with exhibition openings, Third Friday tours, and other community-wide events.



CAN Journal image courtesy of Michael Gill. Photos courtesy of the author.