myles calvert | ottoman empire
Written by Miranda K. Metcalf | Published 12 dec 2018
“It’s fantastic to be able to put your whole life into a bag or two bags for a summer and disappear into the world. It’s fantastic not just as an artist, but as a human.”
—Myles Calvert, Visiting Professor, Alfred University
Myles Calvert is a visiting Professor in Expanded Media at Alfred University and Alfred State College and when they say “expanded media” they mean it. The facilities boast a collection of over one hundred lithography stones and two presses, and an offset press for stones as large as 35 x 45 inches (89 x 115 cm) which is also used for laser engraved woodcuts. They have steel and zinc etching baths with multiple intaglio and relief presses, a full range of screen printing equipment, high resolution scanners, large scale digital printers, a vinyl cutter, a laser engraver, a AGFA imagesetter and plate developers for both photolitho and photopolymer etching and relief plates. Their newest toy is a dye sublimation fabric printer, which despite its name, can basically print onto anything flat. We could get into the vast cage of equipment available for sound and video that they often incorporate into printed work, but that might be best saved for its own podcast and article.
Throughout my conversation with Calvert, which I recorded for the forthcoming podcast, the concept of craft came up over and over again, which made me realize for the first time, even after years of friendship, just how interested he is in doing things well for the sake of doing them well, and that he has put a lot of thought toward craft: the craft of printmaking, the craft of career, and the craft of teaching. This also makes him someone who isn’t afraid to try shit. He’s easy to talk to, intelligent, and a delightful mix of classic Canadian nice with unexpected lashes of some of the best dry wit west of Manhattan.
On the craft of teaching:
Calvert completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Guelph in Ontario, and was brought into the printmaking fold by Professor Jean Maddison. He speaks with clear admiration of her direct and honest teaching style and credits this, in part, for fostering what is now looking to be his lifelong love affair with print media. Calvert has a tattoo of an etching scribe on his forearm -- so I’d say he’s committed.
Now an art teacher himself, Calvert knows all too well how teachers in universities get only a handful of years, really only a handful of hours, to bestow on students the skills they need to succeed in the very process-based art of printmaking. He credits the forthrightness of Professor Maddison as key to his acquisition of this specialised knowledge in that short period of time. I asked if he tries to emulate her teaching style, and he admits to probably being a bit more gentle with the kiddos than she was. When I point out that this might come from the fact that, unlike Maddison, Calvert is not a British woman, who, as a group, may inherently have more of a gift for delivering sternness, Calvert laughs and says, “Oh, you never know. Give me time.”
While he is interested in crafting the delivery of feedback to his students, he also gives a lot of credit to the students themselves for taking responsibility for the learning of their peers. “You’re going to learn the best from the people you spend all your time with,” he says. One of the first things he does is get them to talk directly to each other during the crits, believing that hearing from someone going through the same experience as you is always going to be more meaningful than hearing from that older person in the room. This comes from a concern for their current academic practice, but also from the belief that this is the only way a student will have a chance for success once he or she gets kicked out of the ivory nest. He says, “Once you’re in the world of professional artists, if you’re not consciously surrounding yourself with people who are trying to do better, and looking to achieve more, you’ll quit evolving.”
On the craft of making:
Calvert’s printmaking practice is influenced by his role as the traveling, visiting, adjunct professor. As a nomadic academic, from one semester to another he doesn't know what facilities will be available to him, but he doesn’t tell me this with a shred of negativity. In a world rife with justified tales of woe about the current state of stable jobs in the field of liberal arts, Calvert is admirably positive about the situation he’s in. Rather than seeing this instability as a limitation, he uses it intelligently to keep his art practice dynamic and ever changing. Thus practicing what he preaches about making sure that one is constantly challenging oneself and striving to be better and do better.
The content of his work focuses on objects with histories, and through their reproduction, utilising varied technologies, he brings them into the present day. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century domestic items show up with regularity in Calvert’s images: ottomans, spoons, and, probably most consistently, toasters. A finished piece for Calvert might have screenprint, with photographic processes. By adding modifiers such as phosphorescent pigments or puff additive to the ink, or by other methods such as laser engraving, he makes them contemporary prints, not just contemporary images. He says he gets the best results often during residencies where experiencing a new studio, new health and safety standards, new rules, new facilities and new chemicals is terrifying for about 30 seconds, then completely freeing.
Toast(ers) came out of frustration while pursuing his MA at Camberwell College of Arts, at the University of the Arts London. He wanted to develop a practice that utilized the medium of print in a new yet historically rooted way. He started screen printing on sliced pieces of bread, which he toasted and then installed. With an irreverent nod to the tradition of finding Christian icons appearing on toast, Calvert started by putting Damien Hirst’s face on the slices as part of an exploration regarding the power of having a recognisable face. Yet most of the celebrities he chose were only of interest to a specific group of people. Rather than Angelina Jolie or Michael Jackson, Calvert’s icons reflected that particular level of celebrity in which the subject may have specific power over a specific group. Poking the bear of a recent British celebrity scandal, Calvert placed an image of Nigella Lawson on a slice of bread and pinched it just around the neck, referencing a paparazzi photo of her then husband Charles Saatchi putting his hands around her throat while they were sharing a meal al fresco.
Toast led to toasters, which in the Calvertian world, function as their own kind of celebrity. They are an object that is not only easily recognizable by anyone who sees it, but also one for which the form and function have not changed in almost the entirety of its existence. The toasters are icons in and of themselves, and they show up in his imagery with appropriate reverence and repetition.
This is where color comes in. Calvert returns to these icons, celebrities, and familiar domestic objects again and again using colors to change the viewer’s perception. This taps into our unique experience and color associations. For each of us, colors are bonded to different histories and memories. Turquoise will forever be my years in the Southwest of the United States. I knew a curator who couldn’t accept work with too much red and green as it reminded her of unhappy childhood Christmases. Through this, Calvert is playing with the moment of experiencing an artwork, where history and memory become active players in forming meaning. It is an effective approach to the repetition of printmaking, and one he wields with a mix of humor and reverence.
On the craft of getting rejected by Damien Hirst:
During his years in London, Calvert spent time at Thumbprint Editions, a London studio which produces editions for Anish Kapoor, Chapman Brothers, Tracey Emin, and Damien Hirst -- you know, just some young bucks trying to break into the scene. So I was keen to hear his views about the state of printmaking in the UK. I know that some of the most beautiful editions come from their studios, but I was most interested in the cultural space that printmaking takes up there. While in The United States, and as I’m discovering, in Australia as well, we wax on about our misunderstood medium, I had a sense that things might be different in the motherland. Calvert found that printmaking is more present there. Perhaps through a connection to the old world, or the to industrial revolution, but mostly just from people having presses, using them, and pushing them to their full potential, while not constantly looking for the new, best thing. Artists live right in the heart of London, and they’re there, making an amazing etching around the corner and no one is bothering them.
It may have turned out that this connection to tradition wasn’t all a happy marriage with Calvert’s propensity to try shit. Part of discovering craft means not being afraid to do something new, to investigate, and to be unconventional. As any scientist will tell you, it is the experiments that fail that can tell you the most.
During his time in London, Calvert applied for a job at Hirst’s store, Other Criteria, which sells multiples from artists he invites to participate. As Hirst was already a robust part of Calvert’s practice, to apply for the position Calvert printed Hirst’s face and his own on many pieces on toast, filled a cardboard box with the slices, placed his resume on top and hired a courier to deliver the whole package. However, upon arriving the courier called Calvert with the unexpected news that Other Criteria was actually closed that day. Not one to let a hiccup like this stop him, Calvert instructed the courier to put every piece of toast through the mail slot and then drop his resume on top. Two weeks later he received an email saying “Would you like to retrieve your toast? And you did not get the job.” Calvert and I are laughing (me probably a little bit too loudly for a professional podcaster blowing out the input) while he tells me this story. These are the moments in which I have so much admiration for him. He went out on a limb, which promptly snapped beneath him. With other artists’ stories like these turn into how unappreciated they are, how the system is stacked against them, or how it’s all about who you know, Calvert pleasantly sees it as just another tale in an adventurous life of discovering the craft of being a printmaker.