gregory santos | like and share
Written by Miranda K. Metcalf | Published 28 aug 2019
Before I started pine|copper|lime, I already knew printmakers were my favourite kind of human. I’ve had plenty of varied interests in my life and I’d like to think that I understand the dynamics of subcultures that accompany them. Even for a subculture, though, printmakers have something special. The camaraderie that strangers feel when brought together around a shared interest, or a shared press bed, can be profound. Often, the further the interest is from what is consumed by the mainstream the deeper that connection will be. If the average person on the street doesn’t understand what you do, or that it even exists, finding a kindred spirit who shares your passion, and the sacrifices you make to keep it in your life, can feel like finding a long lost sibling. The connection that printmakers share has been a theme since the first day I turned on my mic and started recording the conversations I have with amazing people around the world. Nathan Meltz talked about it episode two, when he spoke about hearing other artists tell him that printmakers have the best parties. Deborah Maris Lader spoke to it in episode five when she talked about showing up anywhere in the world, looking up the local print studio, walking in the door and finding instant family. The number one piece of feedback that I get about the podcast is that it makes people feel connected to the broader printmaking community no matter where they are in the world. “I came for the art, I stayed for the people,” is a common refrain among the artists who tell me the story of how they ended up in this world in the first place.
While this camaraderie is at the heart of pine|copper|lime, I have been hesitant to write something that directly addresses it. This hesitation comes from a combination of my fear of failing to capture the lighting in a bottle, meets the Observer Effect. I worry that I will not be able to do it justice, and in attempting to do so, will end up with 2500 words of clodhoppy schlock, or that in observing and quantifying it I will somehow break the spell. It is, however, such an important part of what brings us here, of what has brought you to this article. Part of my philosophy behind pine|copper|lime is that narrative is the best way to share information. I don’t want to be told facts. I want to be told a story, and I want that story to do its job, and get me new information. I want the story of Gregory Santos, who he is and what he does, to bring into focus something about this community that perhaps you knew intuitively -- pull it into the light where it can be celebrated without fear that in doing so it will vanish.
When I caught up with Santos to record his podcast episode I was stealing a few, rare, free moments from him. He was supposed to be helping someone move a press that day, but she had never called to finalise the details. When I suggest that maybe he lucked out being let off the hook for unpaid manual labor, he tells me he actually likes moving presses because he gets better and faster each time he does it. He sees each move as an opportunity to get more information about where the bolts go and how many pieces one needs to reduce a press to before you can get it out the door. This interest in process and improvement is at the heart of why I was so keen to chat with Santos. He runs two of the most interesting, prolific and transparent lithography instagram accounts out there, @nycgps and @mixedgrit, and he is a very practical person as well. Santos doesn’t mind building his network of people who owe him a press moving favour for when the day comes he needs to cash in those chips. This is also part of the joy of talking with him. He is open to learning about the process and sharing the failures that inevitably happen in the studio, but he also won’t sugar coat it. He’s not going to admit it isn’t frustrating or ego bruising to go through it.
While Santos lives in Denver now, he was born in New York, and like many New Yorkers his heart is still there. Santos received his BFA in printmaking from Syracuse University and hasn’t strayed very far from the print world since. He’s been a book binder, book printer, dabbled in letterpress printing and fine art framing, but always keep one foot in printmaking. He grew up with two art teachers as parents, two studios in his childhood home, and lessons in perspective drawing around the dinner table. “If I was sitting watching my brother play Ninendo and waiting for my turn, my parents would encourage me to be drawing the characters while I was waiting. They were always finding ways for us to be creative every day,” Santos recalls.
Despite the omnipresence of creative practice, Santos didn’t discover that printmaking even existed until his freshman year of college. He knew he loved drawing, but hadn’t begun to think about ways to reproduce his drawings in multiples until he walked into the printmaking studio and saw a student printing a lithograph on a wedding dress. “Looking back on it now, I’m a little horrified to think of what the uneven pressure of that dress must have been doing to the press, but that is what being in school and not using your own equipment is for,” Santos says.
Thus began his journey toward a BFA in printmaking, many different jobs, and a year at Tamarind Institute. He now runs the printmaking arm of Art Gym Denver. Art Gym is a shared working space for artists boasting printmaking, metalsmithing facilities, with performance, digital, and culinary arts resources. It is from this spot, in the middle of the United States, Santos is both building and tending to his global network of printmaking friends and colleagues. While Denver is a pit stop for many artists traveling around the country, Santos felt that he was missing some connection to the greater printmaking world. As he puts it: “Life gets in the way, and for me life would seem to always get in the way every spring right when it was time to go to the Southern Graphic Council International conference. I would always feel like I was missing out on so much.” For anyone who hasn’t heard of this event before, it’s an annual conference hosted by SGCI, a professional organisation for printmakers. It is the kind of global event around which the whole printmaking year revolves, much like Impact. The people you meet, the opportunities to which you find yourself connected, and the prints you see, make it feel like coming home. Nothing quite compares to the warm fuzzies you get knowing that everyone around you loves and understands this medium like you do. I ate tofu stir fries for two meals a day for six months in order to afford to go to SGCI 2019 in Dallas. It’s worth the hype, and Santos would feel the loss of missing out every year.
But this was all before that remarkable platform of Instagram came into our lives. I know that it can be a bit controversial to praise the beast without quantification, so I’ll just leave a quick nod here to the fact that I know it’s listening in on me, the algorithm is a pain, they own your images, and it’s owned by Facebook and that Mark Zuckerberg helped Russian propagandists influence an election and exposed the personal data of over a billion people, and probably all kinds of other nefarious things, but it can’t be denied that it has changed the way in which we communicate, share, and build our community. Not to mention levelled the playing field a bit for people like Santos who haven’t been able to dedicate somewhere around the $2000 it takes to get to SGCI every year. That’s not counting the loss of revenue we all experience from missing work. Santos uses his Instagram accounts as a way to connect to other lithographers and other printmakers throughout the world, and does so with an incredible degree of transparency and generosity. “The difficulties of being an artist, they never go away, no matter how much practice you have. And that is often what is missing from the whole social media presence. It gets so focused on success and beauty,” Santos says of Instagram. “It’s interesting to try to tell these stories in 200 characters. What I find most enjoyable is when I’m being transparent about the problems or the technical issues I’m having and someone will jump in the comments sections with a suggestion.” Santos loves the fact that even if that particular piece of advice won’t work for him for one reason or another, he knows that there’s a possibility of a third person reading that discourse and learning something new that they may be able to use in their own studio. That kind of interactive element of the internet is so wonderful for him -- and for all of us -- to share information, gain information, and trade secrets and stories.
Santos points out that if someone is reaching out to a total stranger through Instagram about lithography, he knows that means there is likely no one in their life that can help them. He gets messages from people in small towns and villages who are trying to make this medium work for them when they are self taught from online resources. Instagram offers them the opportunity to connect with knowledgeable and open people like Santos. Where as even eight years ago finding that source would have been much more difficult, and their print journey might have just stopped there.
In January of this year Santos started Mixed Grit and, in doing so, moved this online community into a real world print exchange unlike anything else out there. Santos mails four printmakers small lithographic stones, on which they draw a composition, and mail it back to him. He prints the editions and mails the finished portfolio back to the participating artists. Many people may be wondering how all this is possible, but it’s through the magic of the United States Postal Service’s flat rate shipping boxes which are a single rate up to 70 pounds. Upon conception of the project, Santos’ original thought was to mail plates to the artists, but he quickly ruled that out. “There is no drama in that, it’s not sexy!” he says. Being the smart social media user that he is, Santos knew that mailing these stones throughout the US would turn some heads.
Santos is also quite smart about the artists he invites to participate. Some of them he’s been friends with for years, others he only knows through the connections and sometimes daily, if small, interactions people can have through social media. With Todd Herzberg, from the inaugural group of artists, the two still haven’t gotten a chance to connect in real time yet, but they have both been able to take part in this exchange of energy, ideas, and creativity. When Santos selects his artists he thinks of it as playing printmaking matchmaker, looking for artists who will not only contribute strong individual pieces, but who all together will be having a dynamic conversation.
All of this doesn’t happen behind closed doors with the information solely circulating among the chosen few. Not only do the participating artists share their process of drawing on their Instagrams accounts, once the stones are safely back in Denver, Santos begins processing and printing them. He is extremely open about the trials and tribulations that he endures. Santos is a Tamarind-trained printer, and is sharing all the elements of his process for the over one billion instagram users to see, with humour and enthusiasm. I understand and identify with voices suspicious of the The Gram. I don’t suggest that we shouldn’t engage critically with the media we use. But I think there is also something inherently elitist about dismissing social media as well. For those of us already in the inner circle, with an email contact list already filled with friends and colleagues we can reach out to about acid ratios, of course we don’t need Instagram. However, it is people like Santos who are harnessing the power and the reach of social media to bypass traditional learning channels - and the roadblocks that come with them - to share printmaking and build and diversify our beautiful community.
Santos plans on keeping Mix Grit going himself for three years, and after that he’s hoping to make it - in his words - “Fight Club” or in my words, as a woman who grew up in the 1990s, “The Dread Pirate Roberts.” Either way, I think you get the idea. Santos hopes that there might be another printmaker in Portland, or Atlanta, or Cincinnati who will want to take over the Mix Grit legacy. Mixed Grit, like our printmaking community, only exists because of the shared passion of strangers. In a world increasingly marked by suspicion, walls, and othering, I can’t help but feel an overwhelming need to lean into the openness and warmth I feel in our community. Whether it is through the beautiful messages that slide into my DMs or on the sunny beaches of Puerto Rico in April 2020, I like many others came for the art and stayed for people. Santos is fostering the reach of our medium, decentralizing the knowledge needed to gain access to it, and keeping us in the dank memes needed to keep any online community alive and well.