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A Trio of Printmakers

An intriguing exhibition brings together three artists all working in the discipline of fine art printmaking, yet with vastly different approaches. Words by Lucy Studley.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the phrase, ‘Three printmakers walk into a bar’, sounds like the beginning of a joke, but in this case it’s the start of something beautiful. From 1 April to 10 June, work from three of Cornwall’s master printmakers - Gillian Cooper, Sara Bevan and Graham Black – can be seen hanging together at the renowned small seaside hotel in Mousehole, The Old Coastguard. The ‘living gallery’ format of showing work in bustling, colourful, and peopled surroundings is inspired, allowing guests eating and drinking at The Old Coastguard to see art as it might appear in their home. For hotel co-owner, Charles Inkin, it also makes engagement with the local art scene much more accessible to the public.

“Visitors to Cornwall don’t always have the bandwidth to visit our wonderful local galleries, so we like to bring contemporary Cornish art to them here. Equally, locals popping in for a drink might discover a new favourite artist who they can visit during Open Studios week in May, or seek out in one of the many galleries in Mousehole, Newlyn, or Penzance.” With A Trio of Printmakers, The Old Coastguard continues its reputation for clever curation in an unexpected setting. The three talented fine art printmakers have been chosen to showcase the incredible diversity of the medium, and the richness of contemporary Cornish printing practice.

It’s an age-old craft, and Penwith has a fine history of producing noteworthy printmakers. From 18th-century topographical lithographs to etchings by Newlyn School artists, printmaking has always gone hand-in-hand with painting in this part of the world. Alfred Hartley and his short-lived New Print Society in St Ives witnessed a boom in the popularity of printmaking in the 1920s. Later in the 20th century, forays into printing of renowned artists such as Terry Frost and Patrick Heron continued the conversation between printmaking and painting, abstraction, and landscape. Figures such as Anthony Frost, Sheila Oliner and Bob Crossley followed in their footsteps as accomplished local printmakers working across various sub-disciplines.

For the current generation of artists making their mark in Penwith, the importance of this rich heritage as a source of inspiration is matched only by interaction with their contemporaries. “The arts community in Penwith is incredibly active and supportive,” explains Gillian Cooper, one of the printmakers featured in this show. “Many of us take an experimental approach in our work, constantly exploring new methods and techniques. So, to meet with other artists – be that at open studios or exhibitions like this one – to exchange ideas and tap into their experience, is really valuable.”

Printmaking is both a traditional and cutting-edge discipline. It’s a catch-all term which covers a huge variety of processes, and our ‘trio of printmakers’ each revel in the fact that they are still learning new skills and tricks all the time.

Sara Bevan is both a painter and a printmaker, who works from her home studio perched on the cliffs overlooking Sennen in the furthest reaches of West Cornwall. Despite her coastal vantage point, it is assuredly the land rather than the sea that captivates Sara’s artistic imagination. “I love depicting wild hedgerows, rugged moorland and big skies,” says Sara. “The intricate textures of ancient hedges, the myriad shades of greens and browns, and the popping yellow of gorse flowers in the sun is my world.”

Both her paintings and prints explore linear elements within the landscape, giving them a strong, rhythmic formal power. Hedges – Cornish or otherwise - fences, streams, paths, farm tracks, and powerlines bring a natural framework and cohesion to her gestural mark making.

Sara’s beautiful sketchbooks are a repository of inspiration, and it’s from these that she works up both her mixed media paintings and monotype prints back in the studio. In monotype printing, ink is applied to a plastic-coated card plate. Sara uses various tools including paintbrushes, cotton buds, sticks, twigs, and rags – basically anything that is to hand – to create new marks and texture. She works quickly, and her painterly style of manipulating the ink successfully captures the energy and sensations of being in the landscape. When ready, the plate is placed on a printing bed with paper laid on top. This is then fed through a printing press to transfer the ink onto the paper. Working in this way, each of Sara’s prints is unique. Meanwhile, Gillian Cooper’s printmaking practice is constantly evolving. Like Sara, her work is made in response to the natural world, but is more focused on the rich minutiae of nature – wildflowers, shells, or feathers, for example. From cyanotypes – a photographic printmaking process which produces a distinctive blue colour – she has moved recently to sepia monotypes, but experimentation is never far from the surface.

“I started drawing again quite recently, and that led me to my current phase of printmaking, which is all about nests,” explains Gillian. “I’d found the most beautiful tiny bird’s nest – it was like an intricate piece of three-dimensional art created with simple twigs, lichen and feathers. It was a serendipitous find, as my work seeks to express wonder in how simple forms can act as poignant metaphors – in this case for shelter, nurture, connection, loss, and the relentless passage of time.”

Gillian’s semi-figurative language of mark making is incredibly powerful and emotive, the starkness leaving plenty of space for individual interpretation. “Talking about the nest series always provokes a range of interesting responses,” says Gillian. “For some people, it brings to mind their children – from the ‘nesting’ of new parenthood to ‘flying the nest’ in emerging adulthood. For others, it’s anything from migration to loss, or simply the feeling of coming home. I like to leave my work with a slight sense of interruption, that it’s half-made or perhaps even unravelling. The finishing of the work rests with the viewer.”

The final printmaker in the trio is Falmouth University lecturer, and member of Cornwall Crafts Association, Graham Black. These days Graham’s work is vivid and bold in colour, but these saturated blues, yellows and oranges have only crept in recently, as he explains: “I left my job as an art director in London and moved to near Land’s End. Gradually, bright colour began to seep into my practice as if by osmosis. Like so many artists before me, my work is deeply rooted in the local landscape but in an increasingly abstract way, and these bold colours are part of that celebratory response.”

Graham uses the silkscreen method of printing, which was originally developed for use in advertising. Using Trugrain film as a canvas, he draws, paints, and creates textures inspired by the ancient granite monoliths and cliffs of Penwith, their surfaces inscribed by the wind and water of countless centuries. The pieces of film are then exposed directly onto screens. Graham has a library of these textured screens which he combines with hand-cut paper stencils, creating textural fields and building up layers of colour with varying transparency of ink, using multiple overlays to create a painterly effect. The result is a powerful combination of colour, texture, and raw form, which is almost musical in its resonance.

Three very different fine art printers, who all take the Cornish landscape as their central subject matter in one form or another – as have many generations of artists before them. Their joint exhibition at The Old Coastguard showcases the diversity of the medium, and the depth of contemporary talent. Perhaps we’re living through a golden age of printmaking once again - a discipline marrying tradition and innovation, which keeps alive the indelible mark of the maker in the digital age.

A Trio of Printmakers is at The Old Coastguard in Mousehole until 9th June.


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