jill graham | the art of craft
Written by Miranda K. Metcalf | Published 27 sep 2019
Jill Graham describes her story as one of coincidences: she coincidentally knew the right people, she coincidentally was in the right place at the right time for that great lithography gig, or she coincidentally applied at just the right time for grants. She has accomplished a lot and has the impressive CV to prove it. Yet with all due respect for letting Graham be the author of her own narrative, when I hear her story, it is not one of coincidences, rather one of a talented, dedicated, ambitious, and resourceful woman. While none of us get where we are without one or two good coincidences on our side, I won’t be telling Graham’s story from that point of view. Graham has taught lithography, started printmaking studios, trained collaborative printers, waited over 10 years to go to The Tamarind Institute, and is now working to reestablish the NSCAD Lithography Workshop in collaboration with the Anna Leonowens Gallery Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University. Through it all she has held a deep dedication to her craft. “If I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it to the best of my abilities,” she says. It is this kind of commitment that gets us where we want to be.
Graham grew up in Montreal, Quebec, in a family of musicians. Her father and brother are both professional percussionists, and while Graham found herself drawn to the visual arts seeing the dedication it takes to be a musical performer at that level undoubtedly influenced her.
Like many of the artists I interview for pine|copper|lime, Graham caught the printmaking bug hard and early. She still speaks fondly of her high school art teacher with whom she had a connection. One day a master’s student was invited to come speak with the class. The grad student brought with him a little press and the high schoolers all made linocuts together. That was it for Graham, she was hooked. When it came time to apply to university, Graham originally wanted to be an interior designer, but at interior design’s loss and printmaking’s gain, she was not accepted into that program, but was invited to study fine art at Concordia University in Montreal.
After graduation, Graham completed an apprenticeship under Christian Le Poul at Atelier Circulaire. The studio hosted artist residencies, and Le Poul ran the lithography section of the studio. Graham was “really eager” and for the three months she spent there she would do any job he threw her way. It was there that Graham was first truly introduced to the life of a collaborative printer. She had been drawn to the technical side of printmaking, even in her own practice, so the time she spent at Atelier Circulaire only stoked her interest in the craft. When her apprenticeship was complete, Graham was faced with a problem: in Canada there is no Crown Point Press or Gemini G.E.L. So having just graduated and just spent time at the time at the top institution in your province, where’s a young Canadian printmaker to go? While Graham had heard about Tamarind while at Concordia, at the time she also had a young daughter to consider. The time and financial commitment the program takes just wasn’t feasible, so while the specific training that Tamarind offers on the technical side of lithography was an ideal fit for Graham’s ambitions and interests, she had to table the idea for the time being.
Instead, Graham headed west to Elliot Lake, Ontario, a small town just north of Lake Huron. She had been hired to set up a print studio and work as the technician at White Mountain Academy of the Arts, a collaborative effort between the North Shore Tribal Council, the Serpent River First Nation, and the city of Elliot Lake. “They all had big dreams to make this art academy in the middle of nowhere,” Graham remembers. While in Elliot Lake she built the lithography, etching, and screen printing studios and even though she came there to be the technician she quickly ended up teaching classes as well. After her contract ended she packed up again, moved to Toronto, and thought, “Okay, well, let’s give this whole being an artist thing a try.”
In Toronto, Graham began printing at the artist-run Open Studio, but it didn’t take long before she got a job there as well. Soon she was contract and collaborative printing with the visiting artists as well as teaching classes. While she was always happy there, an artist run studio unfortunately can’t always pay much of a living wage. The next 10 years Graham spent running around the city of Toronto working a full time job as the technical director at Open Studio, printing for artists, supplementing her income teaching pilates, and being a single mom to her growing daughter. While she loved everything she was doing, it was a lot, and she could feel some of the joy she was taking in printmaking starting to burn out.
In 2011, Graham attended the IMPACT conference in Melbourne, Australia, and something just clicked while she was there. She knew then it was time to go to Tamarind. She started in autumn of 2012, survived the first year (Graham is quick to point out that anyone who knows Tamarind knows that “survived” is the correct word here), and was selected to continue on to the second. In the program the second year at Tamarind is taken up with working in the Institute’s editioning studio, printing what are widely regarded as some of the most technically perfect lithographs in the world with top national and international artists. Graham worked side-by-side with now retired master printer Bill Lagattuta. She speaks so affectionally of this time, working in the shop and being “Jill and Bill,” but after that year came to an end, it was time to move on. Although she says she would have stayed forever given the chance.
Around this time, Lagattuta had been contacted by TMP Mark Attwood who was looking for someone to come to The Artists’ Press in White River, South Africa, and train up their sponger, Jacky Tsila, to take over as the printer. So immediately after two years in Albuquerque, Graham found herself on the other side of the world working side-by-side as “Jill and Jacky”. It was an amazing time for her, she spent a total of three months in White River and finished her visit with a tour around the country. One surprise Graham discovered upon starting at The Artist’s Press was that her new colleague, Tsila, was color blind. While he used a spectrometer to check the color reading on prints, his ability to see tonal shifts was far more precise than Graham’s. Tsila would see ink shifting before Graham ever could.
When it was time to return home, she flew back from South Africa to Toronto, unpacked a bag, repacked a bag, and flew into Nova Scotia to start at NSCAD University where she currently works as their technician. There Graham has taken on revitalizing the NSCAD Lithography Workshop which she has added the title Contemporary Editions to. The original studio’s publishing program which operated from 1969 to 1976 were set up by Jack Lemon of Landfall Press, and the focus during this time was very much on conceptual art. The workshop worked with many of the great artists of the day and produced iconic lithographic works, such as Joyce Wieland’s “O Canada.” Graham has taken over the reinstitution of the workshop in full force since receiving a A New Chapters grant through the Canada Council for the Arts in conjunction with NSCAD’s Anna Leonowens Gallery, which oversees the original archive and print sales. At the time of publication of this article, Graham will be at the end of publishing a folio with eight artists from across Canada. The artists range hugely in their practice and are Shuvinai Ashoona, Jordan Bennett, Shary Boyle, Brendan Fernandes, Amy Malbeuf, Ed Pien, Derek Sullivan, and Ericka Walker.
Graham’s hand in the revitalisation has a distinctly more intersectional focus than the twentieth century incarnation of the workshop and a huge part of the project is working with Kinngait Studio in Cape Dorset through the West Baffin Eskimo Co-op. Kinngait Studios has been producing lithographs for years in collaboration with the local community members. September of 2018 Graham traveled to Dorset Island near the Fox Peninsula to up train their collaborative printer, Niviaksie Quiananqtuliak. While Quiananqtuliak is certainly an accomplished printer, the geographical isolation of the studio means that he rarely comes into contact with other artists. Graham was able to catch him up on some recent tricks of the trade and started to build what she hopes will be a long and fruitful collaborative relationship between Kinngait Studio and the NSCAD Lithography Workshop. Graham’s vision is for a workshop that is not only producing high quality lithographs, but is also contributing “to the emerging critical discourse surrounding decolonizing practices within the arts.” This is where Graham is now, rebuilding an amazing lithography workshop all while making connections for a more inclusive future.
Through all of this, the trainings, the workshops, going from the top of Canada to the bottom of Africa it is the work and craft that keeps Graham coming back for more. When I ask her, “Why printmaking?” She tells me “It’s all of it. It’s the ink. It’s the tools, the presses, and the labor are all very important to me.” Graham is deeply drawn to working with the materials for long hours, the rituals of the movement, and the repetitiveness of it all. As a collaborative printer often the concepts she is bringing to life are not hers or at least hers alone, but she sees the finished product as the residue of a collaborative effort.
“When I’m in a project, it really is mine, I’m attached to it like it’s my work and I’ll put really long hours into the work just to make sure it’s coming off just the way they want to see it come off and so that I’m proud of it as well.”
In this way, Graham, like most collaborative printers, is an author of the work and a contributing artist. By training, she does have an undergraduate degree in fine art, and that training is a huge asset, but she has no ego in terms of thinking about what she’s going to do next. Graham is driven by the desire to find the next project, meet the challenges it will bring, and see it through to completion.
When talking with collaborative printers like Graham, I inevitably end up wrestling with thoughts about craft versus art and the arbitrary hierarchy we set up between them. While most people in the print world I know wouldn’t hesitate to say that what collaborative printers do is an art in and of itself and should be shown the same respect as other forms, the myths that surround fine art hold this hierarchy in place. The confusion is two fold: the first being that we are told that labor is not something to be respected or honored and that work that is done with the hands will forever be lesser to that done with the mind. It is accepted that the plumber is lesser than the philosopher, even though one could easily say that water sanitation has been of equal if not greater value to the development of humanity than the writings of Aristotle. The second is a fundamental misunderstanding on the part of the art consuming public as to the process of fine art creation. Those outside of the art world often seem to think that the life of an artist involves sitting in a sun-filled Chelsea studio waiting for a fully formed idea to strike, which the artist can birth onto a canvas. The labor that is involved in the production of art is hidden from the general public. What is hidden is the dealing with logistical challenges, finding the correct materials, working within deadlines, and trial and error -- which is exactly the work of a collaborative printer as well. So while the tradition of the collaborative printer is one as old as printmaking itself, and while “the greats” such as Picasso, Miró, Chagall all went to fine art printshops to produce their lithographs which are now on display in The Met or on the block at Christie’s, the printer’s name is more often than not missing from the wall tags. Most collaborative printers I know are not by their nature suffering from an excess of ego and instead are primarily interested in the process over the glory, I am here taking offence on their behalf. The dedication, creativity, and skill artists like Graham utilize in their practice deserves acknowledgement. It is the art of craft and the craft of art. Just like more well known and traditional forms of fine art, to make a career of it takes dedication, perseverance, sacrifice, and, well, okay, maybe one or two happy coincidences.