Walker puts fingerprints on printing

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On Tuesday, artist John Walker and the staff of Riverhouse Editions stood around the printing press holding their breath.

Master printer Sue Oehme pulled back the blanket that protected the paper from the heavy roller. Then she pulled up a thick piece of paper to reveal John Walker's latest print.

"That is what I love about printing," Walker said later. "You pull back the paper and get something unexpected."

The page was marked with a streamer of bright and thick red, full of paint strokes.

They lay down a second plate and set the press up to repeat the process. Walker wanted blue letters calling like a roadside clapboard sign, "fresh picked berries and clams."

With this and all his prints, the ink stands off the page as thick and gritty as asphalt, the result of the materials.

Walker uses a technique called carborundum etching. Carborundum, another name for silicon carbide, is usually used as an abrasive but can be mixed into a paste and painted on a flat plate.

"This is a great technique for someone like John, because he uses a lot of paint and he paints fast," Oehme said. Once the carborundum is dry and hardened, it holds a thick layer of ink.

It's an old technique used by artists such as Pablo Picasso and Juan Miro, Oehme said.

For simplicity's sake, Walker designed a black and white print of a Maine tidal pool. The print is almost entirely black. The ink hangs from the paper with a light absorbing weight.

"I like this kind of work because I can see my fingers in there," he said.

This is Walker's second visit to Riverhouse Editions, a printing workshop in Clark. He came in 1994 and started, but never finished, a series of prints he painted in nearby Box Canyon.

The plan for this week's visit was to complete the Box Canyon series, as well as begin new work.

Walker, a professor of painting at Boston University and former visiting professor at Yale University Graduate School of Art, is well known in contemporary art circles.

Back in Boston, and more often at his second home in Maine, he has been painting a series of abstract Maine landscapes.

"I never considered myself a landscape painter. I avoided painting what was all around me (on the coast of Maine) because it was almost too beautiful," he said. "I wanted to paint what I saw, but I didn't want to see what everyone else saw."

While exploring the coast, he found a place called "Dirty Cove." It was full of dead wood. "It was the muddiest, smelliest place," Walker said. He could paint it.

And as he pointed his paintbrushes toward Dirty Cove, he started to notice the small tidal pools.

"I saw these shapes forming and changing," he said. And I saw how they looked after clammers came to dig. They would brutalize (the tidal pools) as they turned all the mud over. "They made it into something so beautiful."

He brought the memory of those tidal pools and his painted images of them to the Riverhouse Studio. He also brought another Maine memory to reproduce.

The print they were making Tuesday afternoon that read "fresh picked berries and clams" was a mimic of the signs seen on roadsides all over Maine in the summertime.

"I love those handmade signs," he said. "I love that kind of directness. I drive by a church and see a sign made with plastic letters. The message is so direct, I can't help but read it."

And repeat it.

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