By Shantay Robinson
Black women printmakers, Elizabeth Catlett, Betye Saar, and Margaret Burroughs, contributed to the evolution of printmaking as they used the artform to spread awareness of Black women’s oppression and resilience. Elizabeth Catlett’s series I Am a Negro Woman features linocut prints that depict the African-American women’s fight for equality. Betye Saar’s “Black Girl’s Window” consists of placing a lithograph print into a window frame as it explores race and representation of African-American women. Margaret Burroughs’ print, “Faces of My People” is a linocut print that depicts the strength, beauty, and resilience of African-American women.
Today Black women artists continue to explore printmaking in all its forms, including woodcut, etching, lithography, linocut, screen printing, and intaglio. They print on unconventional materials and push boundaries to circulate representations of Black women by the accessibility of prints. Here are five Black women artists working with printmaking today who continue the legacy of making fine art prints about Black women’s liberation.
Traci Mims received a Bachelor of Arts in Visual Art from Florida A&M and a Master of Fine Arts in Graphics and Printmaking from Temple University. Both programs focused heavily on printmaking.
The Atlanta-based artist loves the possibilities inherent with printmaking, particularly being able to make multiple prints with one image, resulting in multiple originals. She’s also keen on having the ability to use media like photography, drawing, and painting in making prints. Her process begins by creating an image on a piece of wood to carve the image, and she works from there. Recently, she’s been using more color in her work to make it painterly. Mims considers printmaking to be very process-oriented. She says it’s something you have to love because, in contrast to painting, which is more immediate, printmaking takes a while, making one layer at a time.
She tends to focus her art on personal experience as she grows as a person and gets to see the growth in the people around her. Through her art, she feels like she is preserving history and culture in the wake of legislation that is oppressive like, for instance, bans on hairstyles.
“I want viewers to see the importance of preserving culture and history and all those systemic ways that society has tried to hold us back.” She goes on to say that a lot of her art is about “some type of moral story concerning how our culture has been taken away or how our identity has been stolen.”
Mims is largely influenced by Elizabeth Catlett because of her ability to create such intricate prints without the technology that is available today. In addition to Catlett’s skill, Mims says the late artist encourages her to stay true to herself and tell the stories she wants to tell.
Delita Martin didn’t start printmaking until she went to graduate school. She earned her undergraduate degree in Drawing at Texas Southern University and continued at Purdue University with an interest in printmaking. The opportunity to take printmaking classes wasn’t available because there were never enough students interested in it at Texas Southern to form a class.
She wasn’t exposed to printmaking until John Biggers, who was reopening an edition of a print, was at her school’s art department signing the prints. She just happened to be retrieving a sketchbook when she saw him there. But she made a mental note of this discovery.
The Texas-based artist considers herself a mixed-media printmaker because she uses drawing, painting, and printmaking to create her art. “Drawing is that process that centers me. Painting is very meditative for me. And printmaking is that really exciting frenzy that you get in the studio. You never know what’s going to happen, so it’s always exciting,” she says. The troubleshooting that happens during the process is what she says captured her creative imagination.
Her work centers on the identity of Black women as they transition into their spiritual selves. She’s trying to get at, “What does it visually look like when we go into prayer? When a mother is praying for her child? Or when she’s having to shift through these emotional states, whether it’s prayer or meditation?” She wants viewers to have a conversation with the work. Martin says she wants her viewers to know “their story is just as important as any of the other stories that they’re looking at as they walk through museums and galleries.”
Elizabeth Catlett is an inspiration for Martin in terms of how she carved. But there are also other artists whom she looks at for content or context, particularly for how they deal with racism or how they deal with politics in their works.
Chloe Alexander was introduced to printmaking in high school, and she continued her education in printmaking at Georgia State University learning lithography, metal plate etching, screen printing and textile printmaking. Beyond her formal education, she learns about printmaking by attending workshops.
Alexander’s process starts with drawing. She plans the steps of her process intuitively as she goes along. “Just working through the process is interesting to me,” she says. “If you make a drawing or a painting, it’s very precious because there’s just one, where printmaking lends itself to a lot of experimentation because you still have the original kind of master matrix, and you can always recreate that image if something doesn’t come out right the first time.”
Her southern identity exists in her work. She only depicts people she knows, so she’s relying on that shared cultural knowledge of the South to inform her prints. “I love the south,” she says convincingly.
Alexander’s primary modes of art are figuration and portraiture. She created a series of self-portraits that explores how messages and media affect women. It deals with how Black women present themselves and how they are encouraged to maintain prescribed dispositions. Her artworks, including “Maybe They’d Like You If You Smiled More” and “Learn to Fix Your Face” speak to the kind of messages Black women receive from society that tend to dictate how they should behave.
The Atlanta-based artist uses an aesthetic that people can connect with, even if they don’t see themselves in the artworks. “I try to use colors and motifs people are familiar with,” she continues, “I want people to connect themselves with the narrative and see where they fit in, even if it doesn’t directly reflect who they are.”
She believes that the greatest contribution that Black women can make to the field of printmaking is to continue the legacy of being present in the medium to encourage those who come behind them to pursue it as well.
Ann Johnson has a Master of Arts in Humanities with a concentration in printmaking. But she’s always been an interdisciplinary artist. Unlike many printmakers who dabble with acids to create art, Johnson is trained in green printmaking that uses nontoxic chemicals. Her printmaking combines sculpture, found objects, and assemblage. Her fondness for structures and installations are blended in her work while foregrounding photography.
In 2015, Johnson turned her art into her form of activism. “I’m able to make statements and speak through my work.” The Sandra Bland encounter impacted her in a way that she was afraid to drive to work and get pulled over. So, she put her angst into her artwork.
The Houston-based artist is known for making art using unconventional materials like cotton and leaves. She’s currently working on a series based on Juneteenth about the community of Black people who found out about their freedom two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. The project focuses on Freedman’s Town, the community they built that took up a large portion of downtown Houston. She says there are only a few streets left made of the bricks they used to pave the streets. For her project, she's using a transfer printing method to transfer the images of their descendants onto bricks that she's also making.
“The thing with Black women printmakers is the same thing with Black women in life. Most Black women printmakers I know are not just printmakers, it’s part of their practice,” she says, “Black women printmakers are pushing the boundaries in terms of not just printing on paper but may be printing on cloth or cyanotypes.” As a printmaker, she’s always looking at ways to push boundaries.
Jennifer Mack Watkins
Jennifer Mack Watkins has practiced printmaking since high school. She attended Morris Brown College, so she was able to take art classes at Clark Atlanta University and Spelman College. She eventually matriculated at Pratt Institute to earn a Master of Fine Arts in Printmaking. For Watkins, the combination of printmaking with other media and techniques is the draw. She says, “For me, printmaking brings all the different mediums and techniques into one form.”
Her subject matter revolves around how, she as an African-American woman, experiences, observes, and navigates the world. Artworks like “No Pattern Necessary” and “Afrohawk” depict Black women with glorious natural hairstyles. But she also has artwork that depicts her love for Black children and her passion for education, as she taught K-12 for 15 years. Lithographs like “Space Girl” and “Space Boy” show us the heights Black children can achieve. Watkins also illustrated a children’s book, titled You Gotta Meet Mr. Pierce! The Storied Life of Folk Artist Elijah Pierce where all the artwork in the book was created using Japanese wood blocking.
The Savannah-based artist works with varied types of printmaking, including lithographs, silk screening, and Japanese wood blocking. She had the opportunity to travel to Japan in 2014 for a conference and again in 2015 for a residency to practice printmaking techniques introduced by her teacher April Vollmer. “I stayed for about a month, and I got a chance to be taught by Japanese printmakers. And we had to create a body of work. And we did that in six weeks, and then we had a show in Tokyo,” she shares.
After her first solo exhibition at Battleboro Museum in Vermont, the board of trustees asked her to join the board. She says, “I can contribute how I observe the world. And that’s kind of how I want to continue to see myself as an artist by working on creating the partnerships that build community.”
Watkins is attracted to printmakers who can make work about the time they were living in. She says, “Printmaking is a way to be able to say here are some real-world problems and with printmaking you can make more than one meaning. Your work can exist in many places at one time.” In essence, printmaking can spread important messages farther.