Patrick Wagner | Black Heart Press
Written by Miranda K. Metcalf | Published 10 April 2019
Since starting pine|copper|lime last year, I have been thinking a lot about the social connections that are made in our field across the press bed and across the world. While much chat and ink has been spilled on why this is, whether it’s the communal space, the shared equipment, or the conferences like SGCI or Impact; I think there really is just something special about printmakers. In our current Age of Instagram those connections run deeper, or at least more uninterrupted than ever before. At SGCI in Dallas last month when the buses were, in classic SGCI style, not arriving when they were supposed to, I ended up hitching a ride with Ben Muñoz from Brookhaven College to North Texas University. I had never met Ben before, but I had shared some of his amazing woodcuts on the pine|copper|lime Instagram. I scored that ride with him because I had spent the better part of a two-hour bus wait, lounging in the sun with Marco Sánchez, who had also never met Ben, but reached out to him and Ben kindly offered us all seats in his Jeep. I met Marco on the bus ride in to Brookhaven because I was sitting with Kirsten Flaherty, who had never met Marco in person before, but had received some work for her latest fundraiser from him. Did you catch all that? I got a ride with Ben, who I had never met in person, because Marco, who had never met Ben in person, reached out for a ride, and I was hanging out with Marco, because I was with Kirsten, who knew Marco even though she had never met him in person. The end result? We’re all packed into a Jeep sitting in Dallas traffic, having a grand old time chatting about printmaking, podcasts, teaching, and the art scene in Texas. Well, some of us were having a grand old time, some of us were very hungover. These names have been redacted out of respect for the survivors. Where else would something like this happen? I fucking love printmakers.
This was all on my mind when I entered into my conversation with Patrick Wagner. The very act of asking him to be on the podcast comes from this kind of digital connection turned IRL connection. I didn’t know Wagner, but I followed him on Instagram. I knew that he drew skeletons, was some kind of Northern European living somewhere in Scandinavia, liked a sauna, had a robot who could draw on litho stones, and occasionally went bouldering. How could this guy not make for good conversation? As it happened, our chat was a reflection of all of these ideas that have been buzzing in my bonnet. His printmaking story is one of international friendships, teaching relationships, and guerrilla litho groups. We talked for about two hours and I feel like we just scratched the surface.
Wagner is a German printmaker who has been living in Sweden for the last five years. While he had always been interested in printmaking, it was when he was studying English in Oldenburg, Germany, that, as fate would have it, he happened to rent a flat next door to the Horst Janssen Museum. It took five years of monthly visits to the museum before he left his studies in English to find his way to printmaking. While he’s telling me this story, he drops a fly by about Janssen. Something along the lines of “He was a late, great German printmaker, you don’t have to agree with his opinions, or his persona, but somehow that was the right time for me and I literally lived next door.” I’m sure there is a story in there to be researched, perhaps a PCL minisode. My initial research of Googling “Horst Janssen jerk” only returned up his wikipedia page, and an oddly high number of Basquiat images from Pinterest, so I leave this in your hands now, dear readers.
Wagner was accepted to a small art school in northern Germany, where he says, “You weren’t allowed to go to the printshop the first year, you had to do your foundation year first, but, well, rules are kind of arbitrary sometimes... So I just went there and said, ‘I need to learn printmaking because I lived next to the Horst Janssen museum for five years.’” The master printer of the studio was quite an admirer of Janssen, and upon hearing Wagner’s story lurched forward and scooped him up into a bear hug, as if to say, “You’ve come to the right place, son”. This encompassing embrace was Wagner’s official welcome into the world of printmaking and the physical manifestation of what so many printmakers experience showing up in someone’s print studio in the new corner of the world.
While studying printmaking in 2008, Wagner went on exchange to Bucharest. Upon arriving, he found the university had limited access to the resources needed for printmaking, but this brought the students together to share knowledge and be resourceful. They would cook up their own hard ground with terps and beeswax in the basement while holding their t-shirts over their noses to make sure they were in compliance with health and safety standards. Furthermore, while the university had a litho shop, there was no one to teach it. Wagner and his fellow students went about figuring out the process for themselves, and they went right to the source. The library had a copy of Alois Senefelder’s treatise on lithography, but it was not allowed out of the building. Wagner made copies of pertinent pages to bring to the studio. He also had a friend who was working at Highpoint Center for Printmaking in Minneapolis at the time who sent him generously long emails explaining the process. The emails were full of amazing information, but still very abstract if the reader hadn’t ever created a lithograph. “Buff in a thin layer of gum.” What does that mean? How thin? What do you mean by buff?
Through trial and error Wagner and the other students gradually work their way to discovering the process of lithography. These litho meetups evolved into Wagner running a little teaching group for his experiments, which ultimately got him kicked out of the school. “You weren’t supposed to pass on knowledge like that, but it was a really good time. I’m not bashing the people or the school, but they also didn’t make it easy. The idea that it’s good when it’s a safe and nice welcoming learning environment, that’s something I carried later into my teaching. It’s pointless to be hoarding knowledge and not passing it,” he says recalling that time. The whole experience instilled in him an interest in the ways we teach and communicate printmaking skills, which informed the rest of his life as a printmaker.
International Man of Lithography
A few years later, Wagner came across a series of videos on lithography created by Satoru Itazu of Itazu Lithography Studio in Chofu, Tokyo. The idea of going through the trouble of sharing this information is an interesting one. Itazu knows perfectly well how to do lithography, so why go through all the trouble of setting up the camera and performing in front of it? This impulse to share and evangelize runs deep in our community. It leads us to create YouTube channels, blogs, and podcasts. Performing something, even something one is quite familiar with, in front of a camera makes things infinitely more complex, but it seems we can’t help ourselves. We want to make that connection through the computer and across the oceans to find our tribe. Even if it means a lot of extra work and sometimes expense. Even if it means, as Wagner says, “Opening yourself up to get random emails from Germans asking you questions.” Wagner reached out to Itazu and received a friendly gutentag in response. Through these emails Itazu and Wagner built a friendship which blossomed into Wagner visiting Itazu now three times in Japan and Itazu traveling to Europe to visit Wagner.
Some international connections are easier to make than others, however. At one point, Wagner was extremely interested in talking to the Nigerian printmaker, Bruce Onobrakpeya. Just to get in contact with him involved many phone calls to Nigeria, pushing through language barriers, and trying to convince strangers thousands of kilometres away that he wasn’t wasting their time, and that they should give him this famous artist’s phone number. Once Wagner had Onobrakpeya on the line, they talked for hours with Wagner’s phone on speaker mode so he could record it through his laptop. Onobrakpeya told Wagner the incredible story of how he came to develop his distinctive technique of mixing intaglio and relief in his prints. Onobrakpeya couldn’t get the acids he was looking for, and ended up etching a plate too strongly burning a hole right through it. He then took the plate to a friend who worked at an auto body shop to see if anything could be done to save his image. The hole was filled with epoxy, which fixed the hole, but of course would not etch. The epoxy was then carved and the technique that Onobrakpeya now calls “deep etching” was born. His process involves working in several layers of typography to creates incredibly textured and graphic prints.
Currently, Wagner is trying to soak up as much knowledge as he can from the Swiss printmaker, Ernst Hanke, who has been making lithographs since he was fifteen. You can follow their adventures on Black Heart Press’ and Hanke’s Instagram. The introduction on Ernst’s profile contains the simple and charming opening: “Born 12. Oktober 1945. Lives in Switzerland. When you have questions, you can ask.” Wagner writes detailed posts outlining what they’re working on. Their Instagrams is also where you can see the polargraph lithography experiments, a.k.a. I, for one, welcome our new robot lithographer overlords.
Along with this project, Wagner is beginning to reconnect with his own art practice. In 2016, a fire destroyed the studio in Stockholm that was home to Black Heart Press. Wagner’s archive of prints, everything he’d ever created or collaborated on, was completely destroyed. What wasn’t taken out by the fire, the water from the trucks took care of, leaving him with only what happened to be sitting in an A4 folder in his apartment at the time of the fire to show for years of work. Wagner’s clear and deep interest in the collecting of knowledge and the form and function of how one disperses it, I’m sure makes him an exceptionally dedicated teacher. So between the fire and the last few years devoting the majority of his energy to teaching his students, his personal practice is something that he’s in the process of rediscovering.
Wagner’s prints are filled with some of the most charming skeletons I know. He draws a direct connection between his work and the German tradition of the totentanz or dance of death. Highlighting the parallels between the turbulence of disasters experienced in the Middle Ages as similar to those which are today looming. Environmental change, disease, extreme social and economic inequality can all be found in our time and theirs. However, he is also drawn to the unification represented by skeletons. Death is the great equalizer, the final, final say, but when one looks at the drawing of a skeleton one can’t see its gender or race. On this inside, we really are the same.
A different kind of heat
Art Sauna is not Wagner’s project but he is its most devoted disciple. Created by Anton Wiræus in 2013 it is a communal, mobile sauna experience. “The only way you can make friends in Finland is if you drink, which I don’t, or if you have sauna, which I love, so I was good there,” Wagner says of discovering the experience. The sauna itself is built onto a trailer bed which can be pulled by a car. The patrons stay in as long as they can stand it or as long as they think is fun, and then go out to someplace cold, usually a hole in the ice. To make this work, they must drive the sauna to out of the way places, most recently, the grounds of an old ink factory. Once the sauna is parked, wood must be chopped to heat the room, and then everyone is welcome. They occasionally get questioned by security guards on the grounds of the old factories, but Wagner points out how difficult it is to be truly upset with a group of people in their underwear inviting you to sauna. He recalls one instance of two French tourists walking by and inquiring as to what the scantily clad group were up to. “So we told them, ‘We’re having sauna, would you like to join?’ and suddenly there is a random French couple in their underwear sitting with you.”
Wagner has made lots of friends in the art sauna. People who he would not have met otherwise. People who are not printmakers, or students, or colleagues. It’s become a huge lesson for him in being welcoming. “The sauna teaches you how to open the door, whether it's the door to your studio or the door to the sauna. It’s easier to keep it private and keep it locked, that way there is no surprises, but once you’ve dared to be inviting, it opens a world of deep rewards. It takes energy, but you get so much back.”
I loved talking with Wagner, he’s a great story teller, and it’s going to be a really delightful episode of the pine|copper|lime podcast. Hearing Wagner speak about building these relationships reminds me of the solace I find in the connections we can make with strangers in the midst of this turbulent ephemeral world. I loved imaging him writing to a stranger in Japan who turns into a friend, pouring over emails from Minneapolis while in Romania, standing with other students with their shirts covering their noses around a bubbling mix of hard ground as it slowly heats, or convincing a random person in Nigeria to give him a printmaker’s number, and once he gets him on the phone they talk for hours. The universality of these moments is something that I know will keep me in the print world for as long as I can. Sorry, kids, you’re stuck with me.