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The art and craft of putting ink on paper is the essence of printing. Whether it is a rubber stamp and inkpad or a printing press, the results can be magical. Converting ideas into a tactile form is the amazing capability that printing provides. An art collective in Port Hope, on the north shore of Lake Ontario, has taken this idea to a grand scale. Critical Mass Port Hope: A Centre for Contemporary Art is the driving force to put printing into the hearts and minds of the community at large. Throughout 2017, they have engaged the public in a series of free hands-on workshops and events to harnesses the imagination and creativity within Northumberland County. On the last weekend of September 2017, with temperatures over 30°C and a humidex of nearly 40°C, Critical Mass hosted a two-day printmaking extravaganza that included art sales, demonstrations, workshops, and the printing of four-by-eight-foot relief printing blocks with a 10-ton steamroller acting as a printing press.
The weekend was coordinated by Debbie Beattie and expertly executed by an army of volunteers who ran a thoroughly outstanding event. A group of nine artists, including Port Hope’s Christine Benson, were commissioned to design and hand- or CNC-cut massive blocks for the steamroller event, but other printers were also encouraged to produce cuts and bring them along for printing.
Although there are many online videos of steamroller printing, nothing can compare to seeing it in person. Local artist and skilled printmaker Liz Parkinson acted as print-master for Port Hope’s steamroller event. Early on the Saturday morning, the section of Queen Street selected as the “press bed” was closed to vehicular traffic and swept clean of dirt and debris. A set of purpose-built bearers were laid out to carry out three functions: first to form a chase to hold the large printing blocks; second to support the steamroller at “type height” so it would not need to climb onto and off of the blocks; and third to carry a set of track lines to guide the driver of the steamroller.
The printing process began with inking. A table was positioned nearby to act as an inking station. Each block was placed on the table and inked up with Akua water-based ink—about a ¼ to ½ jar per block per pull—by a team of volunteers using a collection of large and small brayers. The first time a block was inked up it took about 10 minutes. Once inked, each block was hand-carried and set into the chase on top of the make-ready. As artists were not given a specific “type height” to work to, blocks were of varying thicknesses, so some form of make-ready under the blocks was required. Organizers had cut a number of different papers to size; ready to be used for printing. Four people carefully laid out a sheet of paper on top of the wet ink to ensure the sheet did not shift. Kraft paper or polycarbonate plastic was then placed on top to protect the printing sheet followed by a piece of carpet underlay that acted as a blanket. Finally, a ¼ inch sheet of plywood was laid on top to protect the entire stack from the steamroller. With their work done, volunteers moved to the sidelines. The steamroller was started and slowly driven forward and then back across the block, before being shut down. Volunteers moved in from the sidelines and removed the plywood cap, rolled off the blanket, removed the Kraft paper, and gently peeled back the sheet to reveal the finished print, which was moved to an adjacent table to dry. Each block was printed five times, which took about an hour total. Professional blocks were also printed onto cloth for a more permanent installation.
Once the professional blocks were printed, blocks cut by other artists were laid out as a group and printed together as one print. While there were some issues with the make-ready, overall the results were very good.
The heat did cause a few problems, mainly for the volunteers who had to work in the hot sun all day. Liz did an outstanding job coordinating the volunteers and ensuring the blocks were inked and printed properly. Jeff Macklin of Jackson Creek Press jumped in and worked like a true printer’s devil to help out with the whole activity. A lot of hard work and endurance was required to complete all the prints planned for the two days.
In addition to the steamroller-printing event, a number of printmakers set up mini-galleries in the adjacent Rotary Park to display and sell their art. OCAD students set up a pop-up newspaper office to gather stories that they will print up to chronicle the event. Critical Mass artists had designed a pair of logos, which they silk-screened onto T-shirts. Jeff Macklin led a series of printmaking workshops for children.
Steve and Gayle Quick of Weathervane Press set up a tabletop Adana platen press so members of the public could print souvenir coasters and a tabletop Nolan proof press so they could print a poster. The sun and heat caused a few inking problems that required the presses and brayers to be cleaned periodically throughout the day, but despite the weather a steady stream of visitors stopped by to try their hand at printing. Weathervane Press also produced a three-by-four-foot linocut that was steamroller printed.
The Critical Mass Port Hope Steamroller Print Festival was a great event that instructed and entertained a lot of people. Debbie Beattie and her staff and volunteers did an outstanding job despite the hardships produced by Mother Nature and are to be commended. If you ever get a chance to participate in a Critical Mass event do so – you will not be disappointed!