For its latest project, Eastern Market letterpress shop Signal-Return wanted to push Detroit artists out of their comfort zone — for a good cause.
Its new poster series, On Press: Making Visible an Unseen Detroit, pairs artists with a different local nonprofit to create a poster. But while all of the participating artists are seasoned pros, few had experience with the art of letterpress, a printmaking method that dates back to the 15th century.
"It was sort of a two-part idea," Signal-Return director Lynne Avadenka says. "One, to get artists in here and then to get them to make beautiful work that people would see and buy. And through that, to bring attention to these under-the-radar nonprofits and organizations in the city."
The first six artists released the first batch of prints in April. On Thursday, the shop will debut a new group of prints from another set of six artists featuring an additional six nonprofits. A July exhibition is also planned.
Funding was secured from both the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Windgate Foundation. Through the grant funding, the shop was able to purchase supplies and offer participating artists a $1,000 honorarium. Signal-Return will sell the prints at its shop, and split proceeds with the nonprofits.
The new set paired artist WC Bevan with community radio station WNUC; Olayami Dabls with the Mariners Inn homeless shelter; Andy Krieger with the Children's Center, which offers services for children facing behavioral challenges; Nicole Macdonald with Wild Indigo Detroit Nature Explorations, an offshoot of the Audobon Society; Azucena Nava-Moreno with Detroit Horse Power, which teaches Detroit children to learn how to care for horses; and Renee Rials with COTS, which provides services to the homeless.
The first set featured Mark Arminski with the Georgia Street Community Collective community garden; Louise Jones (aka Ouizi) with Detroit Hives, a nonprofit which purchases vacant properties and builds beehives on them; Sabrina Nelson with Black Family Development, a family counseling agency; Renata Palubinskas with Keep Growing Detroit, a community gardening organization; Pat Perry with Freedom House Detroit, an organization that assists asylum-seekers; and Vito Valdez with Last Day Dog Rescue, a no-kill dog shelter.
Avadenka says Signal-Return came up with the list of nonprofits and left it up to the artists to select one to work with. The artists then came up with a design that loosely illustrates what the nonprofit does, with the organization's name featured prominently.
"We're not putting their mission statement on there," Avadenka says. "The idea is to make something beautiful and meaningful inspired by what they do."
Other than that, the only guidelines were that the artists would work with Signal-Return master printer Lee Marchalonis to create an edition of 175 prints using three colors or less. For some of the artists, learning to work in printmaking — a process which involves separating an image into different plates for each color, creating blocks that can be coated in ink to print the image on paper — involved a bit of a learning curve.
"We invited artists who don't have much printmaking experience at all," Avadenka says. "We wanted people who had never done prints to come in and work and learn so they can come in and hopefully do this again."
For some artists, the project wasn't too much of a stretch from the way they typically work. Arminksi, for example, is best known for creating rock concert posters using screenprinting, a relatively similar method of mass production. And while an artist like Ouzi is best known for her large-scale murals featuring floral motifs, she was able to scale it down and pair it with a subject matter like Detroit Hives; her poster features one of her signature flowers being visited by a busy worker bee.
For other artists, the challenge was to create an image using a new method to promote an organization they support. Macdonald, more known for her documentary films and for painted portraits of historical figures mounted in the windows of vacant buildings, says she chose Wild Indigo based on her own budding interest in birdwatching. Macdonald says she became an amateur birdwatcher while shooting A Park for Detroit, a film about the natural beauty of Detroit's Belle Isle, meant to raise awareness about the opposition to the annual Grand Prix races held on the island.
"A big focus of the film is animal life, but in particular birds," she says. "So in that time I was going to the island really early in the morning and filming them."
While Macdonald admits it was at times challenging to translate her work to letterpress, she credits Marchalonis for her expertise.
"I really like how it was set up like a class," Macdonald says. "There were some artists I knew and some that I didn't. I just loved the whole intention of the project, taking people who have done art in the city, in different sorts of mediums, and then posing them with this challenge."
"I'm so excited about this project," Marchalonis says. "The results are great, and they're all so different, which is wonderful. It's the same set of tools that everyone gets, but there are all these different marks, and framing devices, and different use of text."
"On a Saturday we get so many people in here, and we're always talking about what we do," Avadenka says. "So now we're talking about these prints and these nonprofits."
A release party for On Press: Making Visible an Unseen Detroit will be held from 5:30-8 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 20 at Signal-Return, 1345 Division St., #102 Detroit; 313-567-8970; signalreturnpress.org. Prints are on sale for $80 each.
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