One stone (and press) at a time

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Le Green (from left) and Kathleen Baker Pittman, directors of StoneMetal Press. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

StoneMetal quietly builds an empire of printmaking arts

It never ceases to amaze me how much history lies below the surface of San Antonio's art spaces. Recently I visited StoneMetal Press in the Blue Star Arts Complex and it was like sitting on a front porch, with artist Le Green telling tales of adventure. Granted, it was printmaking adventure but I guess it's all in the telling.

In 1991, Le Green and Kathleen Baker Pittman met while finishing their printmaking degrees at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where their teachers included Kent Rush and Dennis Olsen. Like many art majors, once they were out of school they had trouble finding a place to work, especially since press equipment and materials are inordinately costly and bulky. They tried enrolling in continuing education classes but nothing was geared to professionals who really just wanted to use press equipment to work on their own projects.

Rather than lose their momentum, Green and Baker Pittman explored the idea of creating a cooperative where printmakers could share a studio while working independently. Green describes their attitude as, "If somebody needs to do it, I'm somebody. I'll do it." The two began with one printing press, a loan from local artist Margaret Wallace, and moved into a space on the second floor of Blue Star's Building B. The women hung out a shingle with a powerful name, StoneMetal Press.

They worked full-time as teachers in middle and elementary schools, and donated their time on nights and weekends to the press. Despite the volunteer schedule, they managed to establish the first international exhibition of any kind in San Antonio, Hand-Pulled Prints, just one year after opening. The annual juried exhibition is a way to connect with national and international printmakers and it is recognized for its high quality of craftsmanship. Past jurors have included Lyle Williams, curator of prints and drawings at McNay Art Museum, Charles Heasley, professor of print media at the State University of New York College at Cortland, and Fran Colpitt, professor of art history and criticism at UTSA. It is generally held during April, which the two successfully lobbied San Antonio to celebrate as Print Month.

Ten years after the coop's founding in 2001, Green and Baker Pittman caught wind of a Houston studio deacquisitioning their equipment. The two hoped to purchase a single drying rack, assuming a competitive auction and high prices would prohibit anything more luxurious. As it happened, they were one of only two bidding organizations at the sale. They spent their allotted sum and got the drying rack, two printing presses, and 22 stones. Thanks to the great haul, the coop expanded and now comfortably supports intaglio, relief, monotype, lithography, silkscreen, and other printmaking techniques, as well as papermaking and book arts.

Those of you who have no idea what those terms mean, you are not alone. It is the very technical nature of printmaking's various forms that is both alluring and daunting. Ironically, printmaking is little understood despite its history as a democratic art. Four or five centuries ago, prints were often made to commemorate an important painting, allowing its image to be circulated before the invention of photography. Today, some viewers admire artists for their prints without realizing it. Think of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's Parisian cabaret posters, Andy Warhol's screenprinted paintings, and Robert Rauschenberg's light boxes. On a local level, StoneMetal's pantheon of associated artists includes George Yepes, Luis Jimenez, and Vincent Valdez, the latter of whom made his first prints through StoneMetal.

Back to my story, though. In 2002, after a generous 10-year loan, Margaret Wallace announced she was moving to Dallas and would be taking her printing press with her. This could have crippled the studio, but a new donor emerged: Cy Spiegel of Westchester County, New York, had recently lost his wife and decided StoneMetal should inherit her printing press, one of the last hand-tooled Charles Brand presses - a Gucci of presses. After a few pitfalls, Green and Baker Pittman drove it away like Thelma and Louise, bolted to the floor of a 24-foot U-Haul. But rather than drive it over a cliff (wasteful!), they brought it home to San Antonio where volunteers met them with a forklift and ushered it into Building B.

Today it is one of four presses in a new, 2,500-square-foot studio in the old Grona Mattress Factory at 1907 South St. Mary's. The studio's tall windows admit a lot of natural light. (Not that that matters to nightowls in the 24-hour keyholder program, which allows member printmakers round-the-clock access to all of the equipment for a low monthly fee. If you are interested in the program, apply before October 1 when rates will go up.) StoneMetal's founders, currently slated to receive their first City arts funds in several years, have plans to expand their board, volunteer base, and programming. They hope to add regular class times and an international portfolio exchange. The next StoneMetal Press exhibition will hang salon-style, covering the walls floor-to-ceiling with works. This allows Green and Baker Pittman to showcase their member artists with a grand gesture, as well as make room to remodel storage spaces.

So, stumble into Blue Star's Building B, or any other gallery space you've been meaning to visit but haven't. I enjoyed an afternoon of storytelling and artwork in the gallery shop and walked out realizing that it is actually the tail wagging the dog. •

By Catherine Walworth

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