Vendor Spotlight: Kate Conlon & Sustainable Printmaking
“Vendor Spotlights” are a recurring blog theme, where we highlight different artists and businesses who will be attending Lightfoot Market, focusing on their background, connection to sustainability, and what products they will be bringing.
Kate Conlon has played a crucial role in spearheading a movement to make traditional art processes better for the environment and for the health of artists. In 2007, Kate started working with her art professor at Smith College in Northampton, MA, Dwight Pogue, who was starting a major research project for his eventual book, “Printmaking Revolution”, a textbook designed to help students and artists transition away from using toxic and harmful materials in print shops. She continues to work on this movement by promoting these practices at colleges as a professor, conferences, and artist workshops around the world.
In addition, Kate is a Chicago-based artist whose multi-media work uses the language of scientific investigation to explore issues of reality, perception, and speculation. She is also a Co-Founder of Fernwey Gallery and Director of Fernwey Editions, a Chicago-based press that collaborates with emerging and mid-career artists on limited edition prints.
I spoke with Kate to learn more about her work, specifically with sustainable printmaking, and how this revolutionary process has had, and continues to have, a positive impact on both the health of our planet and of the artists who do this type of art. Take a look at our conversation below!
Kate, you got involved with sustainable printmaking at Smith College under your professor, Dwight Pogue. What about his research captured your interest and made you want to work with him?
I became Dwight’s assistant during my freshman year at Smith after taking a printmaking class with him. Dwight has been in the fine art printmaking field for decades and has begun to notice that the past generation of printmakers, including many of his colleagues and close friends, are developing serious illnesses, life-threatening ones in some cases. Traditional printmaking processes use a number of highly-toxic petroleum-based solvents and lacquers. Professional artists have been breathing in fumes from these materials and, as a result, are becoming very sick. Dwight made it his crusade to develop alternative printmaking methods that eliminate the need for toxic chemistry without compromising the quality of the art. I was inspired by his dedication and was excited to be a part of such innovative work.
Sounds like an extremely noble cause. Can you explain a bit more about the printmaking process specifically and how this new way is better for the environment and the artists’ health?
Of course! When you think about printmaking, there are four umbrella categories: lithography, etching, screen printing, and relief printing. Dwight has come up with solutions in all of these categories to improve the sustainability of the processes (read more here). The details can start to sound pretty nerdy and complex, but basically we are adopting one-to-one replacement products, switching from harmful materials to much less harmful ones. For example, one of the products we distribute, D&S Bio-Solut, is a solvent that is made from corn and can be used to replace a whole category of toxic petroleum-based solvents in the studio. We have also eliminated the need for asphaultum and plastic lacquers in lithography and etching by developing a versatile bio-based alternative. Not only are the materials we use more natural, reducing a printshop’s environmental footprint, but all of the components are also FDA approved as food or drug additives. This means that they can be safely metabolized by the body.
Through our research, we have also looked for ways to reduce material waste in the studio. In 2012, we introduced the Century Plate, which is an alternative to single-use aluminum lithography plates. The Century Plate is made of heavy gauge, ‘commercially pure’ aluminum, that can be re-grained and re-used hundreds of times. This means less waste and less use of virgin resources and also makes the process of lithography more affordable, particularly for my students who can now purchase a single plate each semester instead of 10 or 20.
It is very interesting to think about this process from several different perspectives: reducing the environmental footprint, improving artists’ health, and making this art form more affordable.
Exactly! We are also focused on learning from existing commercial applications, such as circuit board printing, to research materials that are already successfully being used on a large scale. Then out of these materials, we can identify which ones can be applicable for printmaking. We completed a lot of testing on different materials to eventually find out which ones worked best. The proven track record of the products have allowed us to be confident that these processes will continue to work.
This all makes so much sense! So now that you have identified less harmful materials and more sustainable processes, how are you spreading this message?
I support Dwight and his business partner, Skip Klepacki, by promoting the sustainable materials and educating printmakers about the process. Dwight is the artist and innovator, Skip is the materials guy with extensive knowledge about the commercial printing side, and I help spread the message. I have had the opportunity to travel across the country to give demonstrations of our new processes at Universities and gatherings of printmakers. I have presented our research at the Southern Graphic International Conference, which is a big global print conference, for the past four years. Last fall, I went to Chile and met with printmakers in Santiago to teach them how to adapt these safer techniques. My day job is a part-time professor at Columbia College in Chicago where I teach printmaking classes.
Have you found it difficult to get people to adopt this new way of making art?
Well, as you can imagine with such a traditional, maybe even antiquated process, that getting these veteran artists to change would be hard. Getting people to change anything is hard! But we have received a great response so far. Universities, in particular, are very interested in teaching these methods in their classes. There are also a number of established artists we have worked with who understand the benefits of these processes and are beginning to adopt them. The teaching piece is key, and as a professor, I have also been able to teach students and peers. Hopefully teaching and spreading the word will create a younger generation of artists who will do this work in a safer way.
Lastly, when you are not traveling the world spreading the word about sustainable printmaking strategies, what kind of art do you like to create? And what are your inspirations or themes?
My work is really investigative. Maybe more on the analytical side. It is largely research based, but I’m kind of not interested in conveying information. I’m interested in the poetics of finding stuff out, of searching. Often it is about the idea of trying to figure out where you are in the world, how to orient yourself in the world. Physically and metaphorically.
Thank you so much for speaking with us! Your work is extremely impressive, from researching materials, to finding solutions that work, as well as your serious efforts to spread this message around the world and push this art revolution. We are very excited you will be at Lightfoot to showcase some artwork and also to provide more information to attendees about the sustainable printmaking process. See you in April!