A combination of experiment and practicality led Heather Halpern into printmaking. Her first print was a transparency designed to add interest to an encaustic painting she was working on. Once she was introduced to the medium, though, she began “scouring the West Coast for presses,” she said. She found her first one in 2014 on Craigslist, a 24-by-48-inch Ettan MS-3 etching press.
She and her husband, Paul Halpern, bought it, then realized they wouldn’t have room for the press in their home. And once they had a press, they knew they wanted to share it. So they decided to start a fine-art print studio, as compared with a commercial print shop, the next year. Today, Whiteaker Printmakers – known more familiarly as Whit Print and named after The Whit or Whiteaker Neighborhood in Eugene – comprises 3,000 square feet and multiple rooms. The complex holds five etching presses, two lithography presses, four letterpresses (or platen presses), a screen-printing room, and a dark room.
The Halperns never expected their member-supported studio to grow this large. Even with pandemic restrictions, when they had to put in-person events on hold, members kept coming in to use the presses and work on their art. With COVID restrictions behind them, people are gathering at Whit Print again for workshops, and Heather is planning to re-green the alley behind the studio where she held outdoor public events before 2020.
OREGON CULTURAL HUBS: An occasional series
With other more solitary art practices – drawing, for instance – artists can create on their own with just paper and a pencil. But presses can be expensive, heavy, and take up lots of space. Therefore, printmaking is usually done in a studio with people sharing machines and materials. The people who take advantage of the Whiteaker print studio are a diverse group. Some are master printmakers, which signifies a high level of standing in the fine art world, while others were trained in a commercial print shop or introduced to printmaking for the first time at Whit Print.
For students who have studied printmaking at either Lane Community College or the University of Oregon (Heather has taken classes at both), the studio offers artists a way to continue their chosen art form by providing access to presses.
The handful of artists I talked to associated with the print studio use it as a place to teach, learn, work, or just have fun being creative. Because printmaking is a practice done in multiples, or series, it has a social aspect that encourages exchanges among artists. Not to mention the efficiency and excitement of working with the old presses, as compared with modern digital technology.
Heather’s immersion into the world of fine art printmaking led her to Cascade Print Exchange in Corvallis, where she met its organizer, Yuji Hiratsuka, an Oregon State University art professor and master printermaker. Hiratsuka was thrilled when he learned the Halperns were opening a print studio. No such art center existed in Corvallis, and in a year’s time, he was teaching three to four workshops annually in Eugene.
Heather credits the success of Whit Print’s 5-year-old Emerald Print Exchange in large part to Hiratsuka’s participation. Originally from Japan, he has an international reputation that has helped the exchange earn attention from around the world. Entries have been received from as far away as Japan, Ukraine, and Australia.
Hiratsuka left his full-time job two years ago when pandemic restrictions kept students from learning in the classroom. They did preparatory work at home, like drawing or creating plates, but not any actual printing. It seemed like a good time to leave, he said.
Now a distinguished professor emeritus, he teaches at OSU part-time, with none of the other administrative duties associated with being a full-time professor. That allows him to focus on teaching, traveling for workshops, and making his own art.
The first thing he does when teaching a printmaking class is ask students to introduce themselves. “I want them to know each other,” he said. They have to communicate and work together. They have to clean up after themselves, too, so that common work spaces stay safe and functional. It’s no small thing, either, to be polite and communicative, Hiratsuka said, and to thank someone when they hand you a tool or negotiate a time for sharing a press.
Sharing art is also part of being a printmaker, he noted. He sees it in his classes – students keeping one or two prints out of a series for themselves, then sharing the rest with their friends in class.
This sharing practice is at the heart of a print exchange.
The way prints are made, an artist draws or transfers an image onto a plate, then many versions are made from that original work. Each print in the series is also considered an original. The Emerald Print Exchange accepts the first 200 people who submit their entries, no judgments made or questions asked. But each entry must contain a series of 12 hand-pulled original prints. To produce a uniformly shaped or sized collection, each print must be 5-by-7 inches.
The Halperns take one artwork for Whit Print and give one to Print Arts Northwest, a nonprofit and educational organization in Portland where Heather once served on the board. Then each participant receives 10 prints by other artists. The event most often results in an exhibit of 200 artworks hung installation style; in Eugene, the shows have taken place at Karin Clarke Gallery and Maude Kerns Art Center.
Because each artist gets 10 original works by other artists, a print exchange is a great way for artists to connect, as well as a fast way to collect art.
Each participant in the Emerald Print Exchange winds up with a unique group of 10 prints. They are randomly selected, Paul said. “No two people wind up with the same collection.”
The workshops at Whit Print are a way for people to learn printmaking. Because there are so many different types of presses and techniques, even master printmakers can learn something by taking a workshop in a technique new to them. For instance, besides teaching a wide variety of printmaking techniques, Hiratsuka in February took a workshop in screen printing with Brit Howard.
“I wanted to brush up on my screen-printing skills,” he said, “since I’m currently teaching the same class at Oregon State University this term.”
Paz Méndez and Lynn Pedersen have different professional backgrounds and are at opposite ends of their careers; one is just beginning and the other is retired. But they have in common that each has taught one workshop at Whit Print. Méndez was teaching linocut printing the weekend I visited the studio.
Raised in The Dalles, he came to Eugene to work as a commercial printer. When he lost that job, he began entertaining the idea of making a living as a fine art printer. He’d always liked to draw and knew how to print, but he wondered how to go about selling his own art. (I’m sure lots of students in art school right now are wondering the same thing.)
He is trying to be methodical about the problem by doing research, such as talking to others who are already working full-time selling art at markets or festivals. After looking at the numbers, he figures he could make a living this way, too, selling on the weekends and printing during the week. He’s already transferred some of his art onto coasters, which he sold at Eugene’s Holiday Fair. He is trying out other items, too, like an eco-friendly tote bag printed with a large picture of a snail.
“Everything I do is eco-friendly,” he said, acknowledging the trend toward being environmentally safe in printmaking.
One obvious hurdle he had to overcome was gaining access to a press. His research led him to Whit Print. As a member of the studio, he has an access code that allows him to work in the studio 24 hours a day. If it wasn’t for Whit Print, Méndez said, he wouldn’t still be in Eugene.
His first choice for a venue, in terms of selling, was Eugene’s Saturday Market, but that was a long-shot. With 200 spots for booths, and hundreds more people waiting in line, those who have already been participating get seniority. So he’s taking his art on the road, trying out farmers and crafters markets in Lincoln City and Salem, as well as in Eugene.
For a while, after he lost his job and before he found Whit Print, he thought he might open his own print shop. Because that wasn’t necessary, he has been able to focus on making prints and working on the problem of making a living selling his own art.
Pedersen isn’t worried about selling. She just likes making art, she said. A ceramist as well as printmaker, she’d been doing both in her home studio. She made prints using a wood block and a hand burnisher, a technique that didn’t require a press. But to make etchings, she needed an etching press. That’s when she became a member at Whit Print. She produced so many artworks that Whit Print exhibited them at the studio. Some sold and the rest she gave to the Halperns to use as examples. Her art hangs in a long, narrow hallway, an exhibition space that doubles as an art library, where Heather shares art books from her personal lifelong collection.
Pedersen, who cofounded the alternative Eugene Family School, has been at Whit Print since it began and remains a member, even though she stopped going to the studio during the pandemic and isn’t making etchings as much these days. “I still want to support them,” she said.
Now that she’s retired at 75 years old, she is finally “fulfilling a life’s dream by making art full-time.” She has had a print in all five of the Emerald Print Exchanges, and the workshop she taught was in Mokuhanga, a Japanese woodblock printing technique she learned at the University of Oregon from now-retired art professor Margaret Prentice.
Lyell Castonguay lives in Maine, about as far as you can get from Eugene and still be in the mainland United States. Nevertheless, Big Ink, the business he cofounded with his partner Carand Burnet, holds a workshop at Whit Print every other year. They have worked with many Northwest artists, Castonguay said, including Keith Van Norman from Corvallis and Pearlyn Tan from Portland.
Big Ink sends links to instructional videos months in advance of their workshop to participants. The video walks them through the process of carving their artwork into wood blocks. It takes months to work that big, just carving a single piece, but it’s a satisfying experience when you get it done, said Castonguay. For him, the carving is a meditative process.
I spoke to him while he was on the road in Kansas City, between gigs.
He and Burnet travel across the country with a large press they call the Big Tuna, holding workshops and educational events. They will present 19 workshops this year and return to Whit Print next April to help participants make impressively large, gorgeous black-and-white prints. Whit Print is an unusual stop for them, because it’s the only place they go to, in the entire country, where they don’t use the Big Tuna. No need, because Whit Print has an etching press that prints really large.
“It’s unusual to have access to a press that big,” Castonguay said.
The press in question makes prints that are 48-by-96 inches. It was purchased from Margaret Prentice, with whom Pedersen studied at the University of Oregon. Prentice was a printmaker and professor until she fell ill, and the massive press she used became too heavy to operate. She initially took up painting as a way to keep busy while recovering, then fell in love with that very different genre, and painting developed into a second act of her art career.
As a printmaker, Prentice worked with stylized figures and abstraction, but as a painter she creates realistic landscapes, mostly of Oregon – places you feel you could recognize if you saw them in nature.
The press at Whit Print was made especially for her by Ray Trayle, a Portland machinist who designed and built custom-made presses. It is one of 60 presses Trayle made for artists or art institutions in the Pacific Northwest.
These days, if an artist is talking about some new way they’ve found to make art, it’s probably related to the latest in digital technology. But at Whit Print, the opposite is true: The more antique a machine is, the more exciting it is to use it.
Aside from the novelty of working with equipment from days gone by, both Méndez and Hiratsuka spoke about the benefits of using hand presses versus digital printers. Méndez put an emphasis on quantity. Working as a commercial printer, he used offset printing or lithography to make advertisements, stationery, and invoices. He said that large jobs work better with the “old-school printing process.” Even top-of-the-line digital printers break down with large jobs, but the offset hand press he used at the commercial print shop was able to print 13,000 sheets per hour.
Hiratsuka talked about the longevity of the hand press. Anyone with a digital printer at home knows the machines have a limited shelf life, he said. Due either to upgrades in technology or wear and tear, you’ll find yourself buying a new printer at some point. But the old printing presses, even ones more than a hundred years old, are still functional as ever.
Whit Print has two platen presses from around the turn of the 20th century. Heather thinks one is from the 1880s and both look as if they belong in a museum. But they are fully functional. To demonstrate, she hops on one that runs in part by pedaling. Showing how it works, she said, “It’s a good workout, too.”
Platen presses were the first presses used for letterpress printing. The one she was demonstrating was sold to Whit Print by master printmaker Mark Mahaffey. It had to be hauled out of his basement by a small team of people, Heather said. “It weighs 2,000 pounds.”
The Trayle press donated by Prentice weighs about twice that – a couple of tons. “It takes a lot of space to be a printer,” Heather said.
We walked through the complex looking at all the presses and wound up in a dark room that contained an enlarger donated by Eugene Weekly Arts Editor Bob Keefer. Keefer is a fine art photographer whose hand-tinted nature photographs can be seen at Karin Clarke at the Gordon Gallery.
He donated the enlarger after he came to terms with the fact that he was done with darkroom work. “It was a heartbreaking decision,” he said, but he knew that he had moved onto digital photography and printing.
Whit Print’s 23 members pay $80 per month for round-the-clock access to all the presses and equipment after an orientation – and Heather being satisfied that potential printmakers are capable of working on their own. She has come a long way since she made her first transparency print about a decade ago, but she still has much to learn.
“I want to know it all,” she said, then recognized her enthusiasm for printmaking comes across strongly sometimes.
Isn’t that just what the job calls for though, getting a nonprofit off the ground, not to mention, in just eight years having had a significant impact on so many in Eugene, Corvallis, Portland, and beyond.
Paul retired from his full-time work as an engineer a couple of years ago and is at Whit Print lots more now to help Heather. But the art center has grown larger than the two of them can handle. They would like to get assistance managing the studio, workshops, and other educational events they host for the general public.
Meanwhile, they have received the first 200 entries for this year’s print exchange – and there’s a lot of work to be done.
Upcoming Whiteaker Printmakers events:
June 24-25: Yuji Hiratsuka Aluminum Plate Lithography workshop
July 21-23: Yuji Hiratsuka Multi-Color With One Plate workshop
Sept. 8-29: Emerald Art Exchange exhibit at Maude Kerns Art Center, with online auction Sept. 4-29
April 27-28, 2024: Big Ink workshop