Instructor Nancy Callan making one of her glass clouds.
Betsy DeWitt has an image.
The image, an idea, pulls her slowly through weeks, sometimes months. Eventually, she takes a photograph of a house, and makes a digital negative. There’s no rush to Betsy’s process. By the time we visit, she’s made some tests of white-gum prints featuring the “becoming-dilapidated” dwelling–white-on-white prints. She’s making one now. We watch her reach into a box-like space lined with black trash bags. She reaches in as if to pull out a bird, a rabbit, something alive–a wood case. She unlatches the case, lifts the print.
“Photography, for me, is a back door to chemistry and to printmaking,” says Betsy as she washes the print in water. The orangey rust color, Betsy explains, is the potassium dichromate she’s applied. It will soak out eventually, leaving white pigment in the hardening gum arabic. This is nineteenth-century magic, and Penland’s photography studio is a technical juke joint packed with the stuff of present and past: small dark bottles, baths, brushes, large-format cameras, every kind of camera, a pod of Macs, printers, white spaces for setting up, wires and wires, sweet class portraits on the walls, dags and cyanotypes, strands of tiny rooms, stacks, cupboards, and a shifty, haunted-house hallway into the big dark. Betsy manages it all.
In one of the small back rooms, Betsy shows us more of her work:
“I didn’t know what I was looking for,” says Betsy about making these small, intimate portholes. “I was thinking–I have been thinking–about memory and family. I don’t know all the stories in these photographs. But as I framed them, the images began to talk to each other.”
The images, Betsy explains, were made by looking into a microscope through the viewfinder of a digital camera. “I moved the image until something made me stop,” Betsy says. When a halting feeling arrived, she took a photograph. Here’s her set-up:
“Warmth” is a word that artist Amanda Lee uses to describe Betsy DeWitt’s work. You might not expect how right this word is, seeing the set-up, above. But Betsy’s work glows. She turns on the digital camera to show us her process with the microscope. As she moves a scanned photograph with her hand, dropping us into the family album, another kind of intelligence, a story about an artist’s intelligence, begins. Watch:
—Writing by Elaine Bleakney; photographs and video by Robin Dreyer
Instructor Dan Estabrook and student Cynthia Cukiernik discussing the fine points of exposing black-and-white film. (On a fine spring day.)
One day last winter, I ran into Daniel Beck in the coffee house, and asked him how he was. “Not great,” he said. “I’m down. Not really sure why.” He said it to a few of us. Nothing in his voice induced worry. No one clipped the moment with concern or sympathy. The room paused, and held what he said. That was it.
Months later I’m looking at “Entry,” Daniel’s inflated steel sculpture, shown above. The coffee house moment comes back. How do we make space for what we can’t say? Outside the fond ambush of being social—how do we make ourselves known? “Entry,” for start, might give someone’s lonesomeness a landing place.
“Entry” began, Daniel says, with an idea about thought bubbles: white, graphic space that hosts speech. The steel is thin to the touch, and the welded seams at the sides of the hollow add another signature of intention. “I get super snapped in, welding those,” Daniel says about the seams with firm delight. “I want to make work that’s visually direct, but the process, for me, needs to be challenging.”
Part of the directness in this piece is the black strip: coal dust and fire scale applied to white paint that continues, down the “soft square,” below the seam. “The black mark is the material,” Daniel says, “a way to keep with the material’s integrity.” And then he adds, in his thorough chuckle, “It’s totally a door to me.” Daniel’s friend, Ian Henderson, recently wrote about “Entry” and Daniel’s work at large for the Penland Benefit Auction e-newsletter. (“Entry” will be auctioned at this summer’s event.) Ian marvels: “Nimble, efficient construction somehow produces visual heft in one piece and cloud-like lightness in another.”
This winter, Daniel set up his studio space in what used to be Canipes Wrecker Service in downtown Spruce Pine. He also worked on multiple projects in Penland’s iron studio. One, a huge steel frame to anchor a roadside sign welcoming drivers to Spruce Pine. (One end of this frame can be seen behind Daniel’s shoulders in the portrait above). In another wintertime feat of heft, Daniel made a blacksmith’s ideal work table, constructed side by side with his friend, resident artist Andrew Hayes.
As Penland’s able and amiable iron studio coordinator, Daniel finds ample chance for friendship, collaboration, and a consistent soundtrack of power hammers and forging. Quiet can be hard to come by. Why not take over a local auto-body shop in the name of space, time, thought, and abstraction? We won’t intellectualize it. We’ll call it awesome and leave it at that.
Read Ian Henderson’s writing about Daniel T. Beck and his sculpture here.
Follow Daniel on Instagram here.
Writing by Elaine Bleakney; portrait of Daniel T. Beck by Robin Dreyer
Instructor Andy Dohner demonstrating the use of collars, a component of blacksmithing joinery. “This doesn’t look like much, me just holding it like this,” Andy said, “but there’s a lot going on here.”
Let’s just take a closer look at what’s going on here (not the least of which is Andy’s stylin’ safety glasses).
Jay Fox places his work on the table: a hammer. A caulk gun. A much smaller print depicting a screw. The prints cover the table. Black lines and markings play against pale, considered colors. The tools without a box float in the flecked and thready shades of handmade paper. A carpenter’s tools, images of tools; why this kind of care for representing them?
The litho/relief prints, Jay tells us, were part of his MFA thesis exhibition at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, a show he put up while transitioning into his new role as Penland’s print, letterpress, paper, and books studio coordinator. The show, called “From the Ground Up,” turned the gallery into a transitional work space–fresh paint smell and all. Viewers encountered custom-sized drawers that Jay made to house the stacks of just over 300 tool prints. He set up an “honesty box” for anyone who wanted to buy, and he priced each image (printed on 50/50 cotton/abaca paper that Jay made himself) with the retail price of the tool the print depicted. The print’s sale, then, echoed the object’s actual purchase.
The tools in these prints belonged to Jay’s father, “and had been sitting around in Morganton since my dad died fourteen years ago,” Jay says. The prints are titled. “Shrapnel,” is the name of the screw. “Long Pull”–the caulk gun. “Pocket Full of Worry,” is a print of an unwrapped, unfinished roll of antacids. In the prints, a pause for each object’s singularity and an indifference to any narrative beyond what might be suggested in the titles. When I ask about them, Jay doesn’t skip a beat. “I was thinking of the titles as somewhere between action and idea,” he says.
As one of the newest members of Penland’s band of artist-coordinators, Jay is happy to report that he has found in his role a reliable flow of print nerds. Bourbon nerds, too. Penland also marks Jay’s homecoming to North Carolina after his years of undergraduate and graduate work. “In Georgia [as an undergrad at SCAD] I was ‘the guy from the mountains.’ In Milwaukee, I was the Southerner that everyone came to look at, and I felt like it was my duty to portray it well,” he says in a half-jesting way.
Now, when he’s not tending to Penland Print, or getting hitched (Jay and his wife, Molly Evans, married last January), Jay brakes for curious road signs. He plans to work on a series of prints based on signs like the one on the plate above, spotted near his wife’s parents’ house in Georgia. “I love the homemade quality to this sign, says Jay. “I’m thinking about making work in the region I grew up in rather than making work about where I’m from.” Jay pauses. “That’s where I am with it, at least for now.”
—Elaine Bleakney; photographs by Robin Dreyer
More about Jay Fox’s thesis show, “From the Ground Up,” on Printeresting.