Jul 15, 2023

To learn printmaking, students at the Kansas City Art Institute hop into a 3,000

A festive crowd gathered in front of Vanderslice Hall last week on the campus of the Kansas City Art Institute. Students there had spent the week carving images into 4-foot by 4-foot print blocks made from fiberboard.

Miguel Rivera, head of the KCAI printmaking department, climbed into the seat of a rented road roller and started up the engine. It was time to make some big prints.

"It's a pressure machine," Rivera explained. "It's a steamroller, and what it does (is) it pounds the pavement, the gravel. And that's how they pave the highways."

The 3,000-pound machine is about the size of a tractor, and rolls on two large drums. Rivera said it might look intimidating, but it's fun to drive.

"It is really simple," Rivera said. "It's like driving in a kid's toy, you know. It's just back and forth, there's nothing to it."

Typically this work is done in a studio — not out on the pavement. To create the cleanest image, printmaking requires controlled, even pressure.

KCAI President Ruki Neuhold-Ravikumar said this annual event is a chance to share the process on an epic scale.

"Printmaking is a really old, traditional craft of transferring ink onto either cloth or paper from a carved surface like wood or linoleum — and to do it really large is extremely special," Neuhold-Ravikumar said.

Before printmaking, works were painstakingly copied by hand. When printing on paper was invented in China, around 700 A.D., the ability to create multiples helped make art and literature more affordable.

In Europe, the first book with moveable type was printed in 1455. Johannes Gutenberg's Bible and the printing press he invented laid the groundwork for the mass production of books.

It takes many hands to prepare the blocks for printing, so students have to collaborate.

"Each person has carved their own block but, ultimately, to actually pull that print off together, you do have to help each other," Neuhold-Ravikumar said. "To roll the ink out, put that either cloth or paper down, and then eventually to drive that road roller on. ... It takes that whole village or community coming together in order to make sure you get that perfect print."

This year the students had the help of visiting printmaking artist Taro Takizawa, currently the printmaking artist-in-residence at the Lawrence Arts Center. Takizawa was on hand all week to advise the KCAI students as they worked on their large blocks.

First, the students use rollers to cover the face of the blocks with thick, black ink. Then they move the blocks onto the hard pavement. This year's theme is water, and students have carved images of fish, wading birds and mermaids.

Printmaking junior Emily Morgan was bundled up against the cold, damp weather.

"We generally hope for sunshine but, you know, we put up some tents, threw on some coats. It's all OK," Morgan said.

"What I've been doing is just "clean hands": no ink at all, and I just put the fabric, or the paper, directly on top," she explained. "Then we tuck it in with newsprint and blankets and another board to make sure that the fabric or the paper lays completely straight, so there's no creases in the print."

Once the stage was set, each student took a turn driving the road roller over it — everyone except Morgan.

"I refuse. I’m too scared," Morgan said with a laugh. Driving the road roller requires a steady hand to make a good impression, she said, and printing in the studio gives an artist more control.

"Generally when you're printing small scale, it's just on a press. So you have a drum and it's meticulously put together to make sure all of the pressure is completely even," Morgan said. "Once you introduce a steamroller, it's a little bit more difficult to control it."

Morgan said it's been nice to get outside and take a break from working in the studio.

"A lot of the process has to happen in a studio, so it's really fun to be able to do an event like this where we get to show everyone just exactly how prints are made," Morgan said.