One warm night in February, a group of friends sit laughing, talking and clattering mugs in a cluster of upholstered armchairs at The Flying Saucer. It could be a scene from any Hollywood movie about a reunion of old friends, so comfortable and filled with inside jokes is the conversation. You'd never guess the nondescript group contains some of the best visual artists in Nashville.
The guy with the Buddy Holly horn-rims is Mark Hosford, whose old-timey fedora and protruding Adam's apple make him look like a black-and-white ad man. But the Vanderbilt professor is the only local artist represented in the Frist's current Fairy Tales, Monsters and the Genetic Imagination exhibit, and his work has been shown alongside the likes of Kiki Smith and Chuck Close. He'll be featured in another show at the Frist later this summer — just across the parking lot from where he's sitting.
Beside him is Hatch Show Print's Laura Baisden, who gives everyone high-fives and flits from conversation to conversation. She's as bright-eyed and effortlessly comfortable in this group as an extroverted kid sister; she also represents one of the most influential print shops in the country.
Also greeting people with hugs and warm enthusiasm is Bryce McCloud, whose Isle of Printing shop is drawing attention well beyond the city limits. He's just had to move into a larger space and retail outpost downtown, beside Hot Diggity Dog on Ewing just off Lafayette.
It's a close-knit group, and McCloud, who seems a kind of unofficial leader, has given it the tongue-in-cheek name The Mysterious Order of the Print. They laugh it off, but as more printmakers file in — forcing those gathered to move to a table, then to two tables, then three — it's clear something is happening beyond coincidence. As the group keeps expanding, a visitor notices the words Hosford has lettered Night of the Hunter-style across his knuckles: PRNT CLUB.
The printmaking explosion happening across the country, with Nashville as a vital part, is less an underground phenomenon than a movement hidden in plain sight. Like advertising, of which it is sometimes a subset, printmaking is so ubiquitous in our image-saturated landscape that some people don't even register it. And yet the blocky rough-hewn poster for a Ryman show, the antiquated intricacy of an Olive & Sinclair chocolate wrapper and the sly simplicity of T-shirts bearing the Third Man Records logo all spring from this small but growing group of friends.
Unlike other art movements, however, this one is inclusive rather than exclusive. To be sure, it has many variations of style, purpose and procedure. But its practitioners embrace each other as kindred spirits, rather than arguing over who does or doesn't belong. It has retained some of the band-of-outsiders ethos that once characterized punk and indie rock, two forces vital to the resurgence of print culture. It is cheap yet collectible, adventurous yet accessible, painstaking to produce yet immediate in impact. And it's invigorating the Nashville art scene like live current.
Arguably, printmaking is the people's art. For all the ways printmakers have incorporated digital advances, it remains much the same process that fifth-century Chinese woodcutters used. Whenever a band grinds out T-shirts, a kid mashes down a potato stamp, or a neighbor spray-paints yard-sale signs from a stencil, each is practicing an art that's survived for more than 15 centuries.
In its simplest terms, printmaking is the act of transferring ink onto a surface through some sort of "matrix" or mold. Most often the process involves letterpress (where a relief image coated in ink is pressed onto a surface, like a stamp), screenprinting (where ink is pushed through a stencil onto a surface), or etching (where a plate is created to hold ink in its crevices, with the raised portions remaining blank).
Within those broad parameters, all sorts of variables exist. So does a whole language of printmaking that's reminiscent of the slangy shorthand that once characterized greasy-spoon kitchens and other blue-collar workplaces. Examples include "furniture" (the blocks used in letterpress to take up space without transferring ink) and "ghosting" (a faint printed image that unintentionally appears on a printed sheet). For hard-boiled eloquence, it's tough to beat the term for cutting the top layer of a pressure-sensitive sheet and not the backing: "kiss die cut."
The rise of Pop Art and the counterculture in the 1960s brought a new appreciation for printmaking, especially the concert posters that proliferated in the age of psychedelia. In recent years, printmaking has seen a similar resurgence, not just as an art form, but as a valuable commodity. To collectors, a print is more affordable than a painting, while its handmade aesthetic offers a similar appeal.
That combination of artistry, accessibility and affordability has created something of a boom. It's been boosted by the popularity of Flatstock, a rock-poster convention established by the American Poster Institute in 2002. It's scheduled concurrently with Austin's SXSW every year, and it is proving as galvanizing an influence on printmaking culture as the surrounding festival has been on music and film. Perhaps more importantly, it has helped establish a printmaking network, a web of encouragement and creative exchange.
The nexus for Nashville printmaking is Hatch Show Print, the legendary shop that serves as the one degree of separation between many of the city's most talented print artists. Bryce McCloud worked there out of college in the late '90s; Laura Baisden, Brad Vetter and a handful of other talented printmakers are there now. Hosford grew up knowing about the famous printmaking shop, whose history dates back to 1879.
"Hatch has always been a feeding ground for printers who are learning to cut their chops," Hosford says.
Jim Sherraden — pronounced with the emphasis on the second syllable, "like 'Aladdin,' " he instructs automatically — has been running Hatch Show Print since the early 1980s. No one is more aware of the space's historical value.
"These posters were meant to get you off the tractor and into the shows," Sherraden says, with a directness offset by his worn workboots and Wrangler jeans. Once he learns your name he repeats it throughout a conversation, a salesman's mnemonic trick put to good use.
Hatch's walls are papered with historic posters. The farther back you walk, the deeper you find yourself in the Hatch archives. Magicians, minstrels, vaudevillians — enormous posters of bygone acts line the walls, floor to ceiling. The inky sawdust smell fills the air like an antique fog.
Though it's a space that literally emanates history, Hatch is peopled with young artists. Bethany Taylor has long blond dreadlocks and uses a press to experiment with layers of woodgrain and ink colors to psychedelic effect. Vetter rides his bike to work every day — a sleek Italian Bianchi with a Brooks saddle. Yet they all share Sherraden's almost religious respect for the shop, and by extension, for Nashville's fabled history as an epicenter of print culture.
For all its branding as Music City, Nashville is arguably foremost a printing town. Its status as the hub of Christian publishing helped earn Nashville the nickname "the Protestant Vatican." It's a capital city with a history of important newspapers and two centuries of tumultuous journalism. At the center of this bustle was one of the flashiest spots in the city, Printers Alley.
Few know Printers Alley in anything other than its current incarnation as a tourist destination of karaoke bars, blues joints and topless clubs — a gleam of ersatz French Quarter decadence on the Bible Belt's buckle. But in the late 1800s it was a workingman's hub of ink-stained shirts and fingers. (People once casually referred to printing as "the black art" — not because of any nefarious implications, but because it would literally blacken workers.)
At the alley's industrial peak, Nashville could boast two large newspapers, 10 print shops and 13 publishers. The way Kentucky's coal mines and Detroit's automobile plants define their hometowns, the print industry defined Nashville for many years. Throughout that time, the people involved rarely considered themselves artists — they were just working stiffs. As Hatch's own homepage says, explaining why many historic posters are lost to the ages, "No one kept an archive, or 'copies,' of the jobs because for decades a letterpress poster was perceived as just a poster — nothing special, not a prize."
"I think it's a medium that was a craft for a long time, and people who did it focused on craft, not creativity," McCloud says. "The work could certainly be beautiful, but craft was paramount to the artist. It's like the act of making it is the art. Like a crazy Persian rug."
In the 19th century, printmaking was above all a way to reproduce paintings and ideas. In recent years, that way of thinking has subsided. The rise of printmaking as a creative art may have coincided with the decline of printmaking as a reproductive medium, but that didn't stop printmaking tools from becoming accessible to people who wanted to try them.
"A lot of really talented artists are using this as their medium," McCloud says, shrugging off larger claims for what's happening in Nashville printmaking. "That's indicative of the national movement."
But one thing makes Nashville unusually fertile ground for the print revival, and it's there in the name "Music City." The thriving live music scene guarantees there will always be a vehicle for print art — gig posters.
"In the late 1800s Nashville was a print industry city, and then you have the music publishing industry," Hosford says. "So you have these two different forces of printing and artists, and they feed off each other."