steven campbell | landfall press
Written by Miranda K. Metcalf | Published 11 aug 2019
Steve Campbell isn’t afraid to get metaphysical when it comes to talking about printmaking. He has been working at the iconic Landfall Press for thirty one years as a director, marketer, and collaborative printer and he still speaks about printmaking with romance as if they were on their first date. I called Campbell in the studio in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a few weeks ago and recorded our conversation for a forthcoming episode of the pine|copper|lime podcast. During the hour we spent on the phone together he began several sentences with “And that’s another thing I love about printmaking…” During his three plus decades at Landfall Press he’s worked with Judy Chicago, Christo, Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg, and Kara Walker, to name a few, and he says he’ll still get lost in the magic of admiring a print in the moments after it has been separated from the stone, requiring someone else in the studio to remind him they have 50 more of these to pull before the day is done.
Campbell grew up in pre-Apple Cupertino, California. He describes his family as “desert people” and makes sure to point out that this is not to be confused with “hill people,” although admits there are some similarities. He was first introduced to lithography in community college in an “bass ackwards” class. “The instructor would do the 50 drop etch on everything and that stone would just sizzle,” he recalls. After community college, he attended California State, Hayward (now California State, East Bay) and there found himself surrounded by the remarkably talented printmakers who were working in the Bay Area in the 1970s. Mel Ramos, Kenji Nanao, and Ray Saunders were all instructors at the time. “It was the best place I could possibly land,” he says.
After finishing his bachelor’s he moved east to Chicago to get his master’s in printmaking. Upon graduation, he taught for a year at the Chicago Art Institute before finding out about an opening at Jack Lemon’s Landfall Press. Landfall had been around since 1970 and was already making editions with incredible artists. It was 1985 and Campbell was excited to have the opportunity to work in a publishing studio of such repute. When he arrived for his meeting with Lemon, Campbell had brought along his portfolio, which Lemon showed no interest in whatsoever. The characteristics Lemon looks for in a press assistant, according to Campbell, are “big arms and a small head.” Campbell remembers distinctly thinking that their meeting was not going well long before it was over. As he was packing up, Lemon looked back at him and said “I suppose you heard I’m kind of an asshole.” To which Campbell replied, “Yeah, but I came anyway.” He was hired on the spot.
For the next sixteen years the two produced work at Landfall Press in Chicago and fourteen years ago, they moved Landfall to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where it currently resides in what Campbell calls “its best incarnation yet.” Lemon is the president, he finds the artists and gets them in studio. Campbell, whose official title is director, works alongside Lemon as a collaborative printer, but also goes on the road as a sales representative, showing the work of Landfall to various collections around the United States. Campbell’s wife, Christina Ziegler Campbell, works the office. “I think she’s the only one of us that can type,” Campbell says. Their current shop is 5000 square feet. In Chicago there was nowhere he could look and see something that wasn’t man made, now in Santa Fe, Campbell enjoys taking his dog for long walks in the desert with the time and space to let the guhboi explore. Campbell tells me, “Since 1974 I really have never been more than an arm’s length from a press,” and the joy in his voice when he talks about the printing process is palpable.
If Lemon provided Campbell with practical, rough around the edges approach to printmaking as only a marine could, it was his undergraduate mentor back in California, Kenji Nanao, first introduced him to the connection between meditation and printmaking. The repetitive motion of printmaking makes it uniquely suited to entering a flowstate. Colloquially known as “the zone” most everyone has been in a flowstate at one point or another, even if they didn’t know it. In a flowstate you’re so immersed in an activity that you lose sense of time and sense of yourself. Whatever task you are trying to accomplish becomes nearly effortless, and as the author of that task seems to disappear the creative endeavor seemingly creates itself. It can happen when practicing sports, playing an instrument, writing, and of course in printmaking. While Campbell never uses “flowstate” specifically, I can identify strongly with how he describes his favorite time in the studio.
I think, at least I hope for your sake, that all of us have gotten at taste of this magic at some point in the studio. It is one of the few moments that we can enjoy a respite from the racing thoughts that make up so much of our lived existence. The loss of self to the act of creation can be an almost spiritual experience.
Yet Campbell would be the first to admit that there can be bad days as well. He recounts one instance when he was printing a lithograph for Christo and nothing was going well. He’d been wrestling with it for hours when Lemon walked through the studio. Campbell called him over to bear witness to his struggle. Lemon’s assessment of the situation was simply, “You’re not listening to the stone” before walking away. As any lithographer will tell you, each stone is different, they have their own personalities, and contribute their own voices to the printmaking process. Limestone is composed of the skeletal fragments of countless marine organisms from millennia gone by who, at least from this author’s point of view, every once and awhile take exception to the disruption of their eternal slumber and refuse to let your tusche dry correctly. When I share this cosmic, unifying theory of lithography with Campbell he doesn’t bat an eye before agreeing with me. He even takes it a step further by pointing out that the same thing can be said about paper. He describes it as a living, breathing thing, and recalls the trials and tribulations it creates in the studio when their usually stable, dry climate of Santa Fe is disrupted by a humid day.
Since its inception, Landfall Press has seen the world of printmaking change. Campbell talks openly about how artists don’t jump as readily at the opportunity to make prints as they might have done twenty-five years ago. It is not the first time I have had a conversation like this with someone who remembers what printmaking was like in the 70s and 80s. I see the printmaking world as exciting, opening, and growing. I see my readership, my followers, and subscribers increasing every day. I read beautiful messages from people around the world with whom I feel an instant connection. Yet it would be short-sighted not to acknowledge that those in our community with a longer memories have seen changes. When Campbell travels to universities to share Landfall’s available editions with curators he always visits the printshops and sometimes finds them empty. Education about and resources for printmaking in institutional settings are not what they once were. As budget cuts and belt tightening often go for arts funding first, printshops suffer quickly. There are so many commentates to making a shop happy and healthy, so many moving parts, each one as crucial as the last. Take away funding for any, and the shops sit empty. Non-printmaking artists may not even fully understand the incredible experience that is being offered to them when they receive an invitation from a place like Landfall Press. While the face of our academic exposure to printmaking may be changing, the emptiness of university printshops may happen more than it once did, it is not universal. Campbell tells me that he can still find studios where the energy is there, and when he does, he loves it, and will stay for hours, talking with everyone. While the young students just beginning their printmaking career might not even fully realise how lucky they are to have a master printer like Campbell in the studio, the intergenerational exchange of knowledge is at the very heart of keeping printmaking loved and alive.
“That’s another thing I love about printmaking,” Campbell says, “it’s exhilarating to think about the connection you have to those who came hundreds of years before you.” He points out that when you’re etching you are participating in a tradition that takes you back 400 years to Rembrandt, or if your doing lithography, to Alois Senefelder. There is something romantic about knowing that the work we do in the studio is almost identical to the actions of all of our beloved printmakers from years gone by. If you’re graining a stone or wiping a plate your hands are taking the same actions they would if they were running over a plate created by Albrecht Dürer or a stone on which Joan Miró had drawn. In our process-driven medium it is the labor and the repetition that connects us all. Our physical actions reach back into time across well worn pathways of studio life and extend forward to those who are coming into printmaking.
The future is alive and well at Landfall Press. Joshua Orsburn, a recent graduate from the Tamarind Institute, has been there as the press assistant at Landfall since 2017 and Campbell speaks fondly of the experience of working while talking to a twenty-six year old across the press who understands and cares about all aspects of lithography as much as he does. Just as the flowstate of a good day printing can make time seem to disappear, the action we take and the labor we engage with in the studio connects us back to those who came before us and those who will be swearing at a lithostone filling in long after we’ve gone. While certain aspects of printmaking may be changing and as we begin to learn that we can rely less on academic institutions like universities to support our beloved medium, presses such as Landfall become more important than ever before. They are printmaking centers that have survived on the passion and drive of the people behind them, who have shown up in the studio every day for decades and, as in Lemon’s case, at 83 are still hauling around giant rollers in front of the backdrop of a Marine Corps flag.
2020 will be the 50th anniversary of Landfall Press and in celebration and recognition of this tremendous achievement there will be a comprehensive exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum, which houses Landfall’s archive. In October, the exhibition will travel to the Knoxville Art Museum and perhaps a handful of other as yet to be determined venues. These exhibitions will also occur in conjunction with the publication of a grand book filled with interviews and of course stunning photos of the five decades of collaborative printmaking. The idea of trying to write about the work of Jack Lemon and Steve Campbell and what they have accomplished by dedicating their lives to printmaking is more than a little intimidating. It can’t be done on a blog post. I’m sure that forthcoming book will come a lot closer. You can support the funding of the self-published book here.
What I came away with from my brief but delightful talk with Campbell is the love of the medium, the labor, and the connections we make with one another are universal for those who are lifers when it comes to printmaking. The idea that we can be tied to the past and the future through repetitive words and actions is not a new one; it is at the heart of every ritual and every prayer. I was calling Santa Fe, New Mexico from Sydney, Australia to speak with someone I’d never met before and I was instantly charmed by the grace and affection with which Campbell spoke of printmaking. Our talk went by all too quickly for me, falling into that slippery time of when you’re doing something you truly love and it’s coming effortlessly.