“Printmaking is such a powerful entry point into creative production for people from all walks of life,” says Duncan Dempster, executive director of Honolulu Printmakers. “People are drawn to it immediately, to the pure joy found in being a creator of something rather than a mere consumer. We as printmakers often take it for granted, but when you watch a kid at a printmaking demonstration pull their first print off a woodblock, it’s pure magic, and it’s powerful.”
In May 2013, Duncan became executive director of the 86-year-old nonprofit art organization, filling the shoes of Laura Smith, who stepped down after 25 years with the nonprofit to focus on her artwork. After Duncan’s first year at the helm, the longtime Honolulu Printmakers member and lecturer at the University of Hawai‘i Department of Art and Art History has already had an impact on the group’s programming and the community—spreading that pure printmaking joy.
“My predecessor did a terrific job, and she did it for a long time, so it was a tough act to follow,” says Duncan. “But the [Honolulu Printmakers board] made it clear that they wanted me to take the organization in new directions. My goals are, simply put, to promote printmaking far and wide; to provide opportunities for local printmakers to earn a living in the arts; and to nurture a sustainable creative community in the long term. The transition in leadership is paralleled by a generational transition. My task is to make the next generation of printmakers who will be invested in this community for the next few decades, printmakers for life.”
One tangible change he has made is cleaning up the printmaking process—a traditionally toxic practice, with some methods using unavoidably dangerous acids and solvents. “One of my goals when I started was to look at what chemicals we’re working with and whether we can work with them reasonably safely in our studio at the Art School. This is so important because we have so many people coming in and out of our studio, not to mention the school’s larger student population—many of which are children!”
In one of the school’s smaller printmaking studios, Duncan lifts the lid off a narrow vertical tub in which a copper plate is being chemically etched by Ferric chloride. Above the tub, a vent pulls the fumes out of the room. Back when the printmakers were using zinc plates in nitric acid, close contact and simply breathing in such spaces was potentially dangerous. Now, everything is uniformly safer: nitric acid is no longer used, all materials are labeled, and the mystery bottles Duncan found upon arrival have been disposed. “There will always be some risk in art-making. Instead of ‘non-toxic’ I like to emphasize safer or less-toxic methods, as very little is actually truly non-toxic,” he says. “So, we’ve made some changes and eliminated some chemicals that have been used in the past, but in every case we have viable alternatives. The net response I’ve gotten from my membership has been positive—most people find that they want to work in a space with cleaner air and to encounter fewer carcinogens after all.” Duncan and Honolulu Museum of Art School director Vince Hazen aren’t afraid of ruffling a few traditionalist feathers. As Hazen puts it, “Our ultimate goal is to be totally solvent-free.”
In the printmaking wing of the Art School, Duncan gestures around the three adjacent rooms as he explains the diverse, sometimes imposing equipment. “There’s all kinds of printmaking going on,” he says. From relief and intaglio, to lithography and linocut, it’s all here, available to students during classes and working artists during open-session hours. In a room filled with sinks and heavily cogged and spindled machinery, Duncan hefts a lithograph stone from a shelf that recalls a catacomb wall. It’s a white slab the size of a shoebox with an old advertisement for the New Orleans Motor Company etched into one side. Worn down from repeated use, Duncan explains how a newspaper company probably used it to press the advertisement onto the page. Although this stone is now used for teaching, Duncan points out how printmaking is really “in the same cultural moment” as newsprint—a turning point at which new technology is displacing some traditional methods and even rendering print itself obsolete. As he goes on, he explains how “the printmaking studio—like it’s cousin the commercial print shop—has always been an unhealthy place, mainly due to the ubiquitous presence of solvents, acids, and heavy metals.” However, unlike printed newspapers, printmaking is having a dual upswing in safe practices and cultural popularity. “It’s about making instead of just consuming,” he says, driven by both the artists inside and the art buyers outside.
Printmaking runs deep in Hawai‘i. While not officially part of the Honolulu Museum of Art, the Honolulu Printmakers, founded the year after the museum opened in 1927, has long had ties to the museum, and has made its home at the Honolulu Museum of Art School since 1993. Today, Honolulu Printmakers members teach printing classes in the Art School and use the school’s printmaking studio.
“We do have deep roots in this community, and I think they speak to the inherent usefulness of printmaking to artists in general,” Duncan explains. “I see this everywhere, beyond Hawai‘i. Printmaking strategically sits at the nexus of so many cultural trajectories, traditions, and impulses—you can come at it from so many angles. The ability to work serially and to produce multiples has proven economic as well as conceptual value to artists everywhere. Many key modernist figures in Hawai‘i were involved to various degrees in printmaking, and the University of Hawai‘i deserves credit as well for keeping the flame burning.”
The enduring power of printmaking stems partly from the fact that while its goal is to generate duplicable prints, it is also about a process that revels in its own errors. Although it’s his job to impart “tried and true methods,” Duncan says that “there are many ways to make prints, and frankly some of the best prints are incorrectly made. I always tell students that if someone tells them there is only one way to do this or that they’re dead wrong, including myself!”
Honolulu Printmakers has a lot on the burner—Duncan envisions for more outreach, shows, sales, classes, fundraisers, and community involvement. “We just completed a week-long collaborative residency in at the new Kaka‘ako Agora, which resulted in a monumental 20-by-40-foot print installation, worked on by scores of people, and experienced by many hundreds more.” To increase public collaboration, Duncan is now working on securing a second, possibly mobile, location.
In light of all his ongoing duties and projects, Duncan has a lot less free time for his own printmaking, but he’s not worried. “I have discovered arts organizing, teaching, and collaboration to have the potential to be satisfying on a similar level as personal artistic production,” he says. “In a way it’s a new medium for me.”