Last summer, Melanie Finlayson took a break from her intense duties as Penland’s studio manager and traveled with fellow printmaker Lisa Blackburn to Haystack Mountain School of Crafts to make new work. They drove to Deer Isle, Maine from Penland–not an easy trip, but these two artists have been comfortable with each other for a long time. “Collaboration is very special to me,” Melanie says. “Ever since I was a child, making photographs and videos with my little sister, pairing has made sense.”
Pairing with Lisa Blackburn made almost instant sense for Melanie. Lisa helped Melanie step into her role as Penland’s letterpress and print studio coordinator, became her prime artistic collaborator, and also informed Melanie’s curations at Green Plum, Finlayson’s gallery-turned-pop-up venture. In the winter of 2013, the two artists challenged each other to make 300 monoprints in three weeks, completely covering the walls at a Green Plum exhibition they called “Inspiration by Chance.” Leading up to the show, the two artists worked across from each other in the studio, listening to podcasts, talking, printing and painting on top of the prints. The poet W.H. Auden said in an interview once that “when a collaboration works, the two people become a third person, who is different from either of them in isolation.” For Melanie Finlayson and Lisa Blackburn, this third person is boundless:
At Haystack, Finlayson and Blackburn took their collaboration into the “fab lab,” a space that allows artists to experiment with digital fabrication. Attracted to shape and movement of water and rocks in the local landscape, Melanie took photographs. The two artists selected images, hand drawing from them, and then uploaded the drawings to Illustrator.
“The goal,” says Finlayson, “was to see how to make machine drawings that were ours.”
Some of these drawings became directions for the CNC router in the lab to cut into birch plywood to make blocks for printing. Lisa and Melanie also tried another method: rasterizing the photographs, laser cutting on paper, and drawing on top. They also experimented with etching in plexiglass, free drawing with the router–as well as creating matrices inspired from compositions from nature they both found compelling. The experience resulted in rock drawings, new directions, and a reconsideration, for Melanie, of negative space in print.
Melanie’s office at Penland holds ample clues about her leanings as a collaborative artist. The space is meticulous. Stacks of boxes and items for the studios are arranged on one side. A row of binders above her desk is marked with instructions for others. Projectors and other equipment are stored for sign-out. It’s a tight ship she keeps in order to keep Penland’s studio life humming. In working with others daily, Melanie finds unexpected transit for her artistic life.
This winter, Melanie and Lisa returned to the studio to print matrices they created at Haystack. Melanie also worked on another collaboration, a collection of prints from etched steel plates that her friend, blacksmith Eric Ryser, sent her from his studio in Kansas. This slower collaboration-by-mail inspires Melanie, too. “I love to surprise him,” she says, about the prints she makes from his plates. “He’s a dude, he likes black, so it’s always fun to get color in there and hear back from him.” The hearing-back, the conversation made in creating with another person, is Melanie’s all.
—Writing by Elaine Bleakney; photographs by Robin Dreyer