Three print makers startled the senses of the art-viewing public in Billings at last Friday’s record-breaking Rocky Mountain College Fall Art Show, “Steve Kuennen – Buffalo Art Press,” featuring Robin Earles, her husband, Steve Kuennen, and their student, Brad Hines.
Sally McIntosh, Rocky’s art gallery director, said, “The show was a record-breaker. We extended the opening reception to four hours. We have never had this many people attend a show like this.”
The show runs through Oct. 5. A breathless viewer said that Ms. Earles’ frolicking sparrows, marauding robins and gliding swans inspired an expansive sense of movement deep within her.
The visitor was Sharon Forman, a movement, yoga and DanceAlive teacher who offers classes at RMC and at other locations around Billings. Ms. Forman said, “Robin’s work has so much movement. It is beautiful, colorful and inspiring.”
Ms. Forman said she has known Ms. Earle for many years and that they are longtime friends. Ms. Forman, who has lived in Billings for 10 years and previously lived in Los Angeles, Calif., is from Philadelphia, Pa.
She was just one of the 96 precisely counted visitors who attended. Another visitor, Jeff Sandridge, a Billings printmaker himself and a friend of Mr. Kuennen’s, said, “I love printmaking. I am very excited to see print media up on the wall.”
Ms. Earles was similarly excited not only by printmaking, but also by the wonderful sponsors she said she and her husband have met as their journey in art took them from their master of fine arts programs in Southern California to their new life in South Central Montana, here in Billings.
“I basically followed Steve,” said Ms. Earles. “We met at a critique in graduate school. You work alone, so the only time you know who is in your class is when you show your work. Steve did large scale pen-and-ink drawings of long lyrics. I was 25 when I met him.”
She spoke of the helpful people who assisted them with their mechanical, real estate and other needs. “Some friends of ours asked us if we would be interested in renting their downstairs studio,” said Ms. Earles. “Rick Dagenhart, who is from Billings, built our press for us. And he customized the design based upon some blueprints he found on the internet. It is one of the most incredible presses we’ve ever seen.”
She added, “Gary Kemple and the people over at Meadowlark Gallery took us in,” comparing them to patrons or supporters. She said Gary and Mary Lee were also crucial to establishing the art studio in Billings.
She and Mr. Kuennen operated a Billings lawn service business in the summer and a snow removal business in the winter for many years while trying to save up money for the creation of their dream studio.
“All of the resulting clients,” she said, “helped us to build this studio so we can teach people in Billings art.”
Born in Michigan, Ms. Earles spent 20 years in California and has lived in Billings for seven years. “Printmaking organizes your thought process in a completely different way,” she said. “My use of space has completely changed. And it’s always good to have a variety of tools in your tool chest.”
Earles and Kuennen said they met Hines in a metal gallery when he was doing carpentry. Later on, they asked him to remodel their spaces, became friends and now have formed Buffalo Art Press.
Mr. Hines, who holds a bachelor’s degree in art from the University of Akron and has been creating prints for about seven years, said, “I met Steve and Robin while I was remodeling their art studio, then I remodeled their studio apartment.” Now retired from remodeling, he said he likes to recycle items in his art.
“All my frames and glass are recycled from Billings’ turn of the century homes,” he said. He pointed out that the waviness in the glass covering “Dreamscape,” a print of a fish skeleton underwater, resulted from the weather effects on old-fashioned glass. He said Kuennen taught him several different kinds of printmaking processes.
Mr. Kuennen, from Minneapolis, said he moved to Bozeman when he was 2. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine arts from California State University at Long Beach. Kuennen said, “Why printmaking is important is we have reached a point now where we have the computer so we can take an ancient art like printmaking, put it on a screen and have a lot more people see it.”
The printmaking processes he teaches include intaglio (an Italian word meaning “to cut”), relief, lithography and serigraphy, an adaptation of the silk-screen process. Mr. Kuennen said that printmaking “has gotten a bad name in past years due to toxicity, but the technology has changed, so it’s way safer now.”
“The first prints were hands on cave walls,” he added. “Then people found out they could cut into wood, so people would carve out of trees.” Ms. Earles added, “Lithography was originally used to make sheet music, because there was no other process that would hold the marks.”
“Lithography was the last printmaking to come around. As a medium, lithography is new – the early 1800s,” said Mr. Kuennen. He said that lithography requires etching a stone with nitric acid, so the stone accepts the imprint, resists any marking outside the imprint, and dries looking like shiny droplets have attached themselves to the outsides of the shapes.
He said intaglio requires cutting a metal so that a hard ground resists acid from eating into it, and the artist can scratch the design on top of the hard ground and then etch it in an acid bath. He said in printmaking, ink is pressed onto the paper.
“If you look at an intaglio print through a loupe (a magnifying glass used by jewelers), you can see that the ink stands up on the page,” said Mr. Kuennen.
The artists at the opening reception also used a technique called “chine colle,” which roughly translated from the French means “tissue (because the papers used for chine colle were usually fine papers imported from Asia)” and “glue” or “paste,” according to Brian Shure, author of “Chine Colle: A Printmaker’s Handbook.” “It is often confused with collage, and a major purpose of chine colle is to add a different background to a print,” wrote Mr. Shure.
Mr. Hines described copper etching. “I take colored rice paper and I lay that on a copper plate, which is full of ink. When it runs through a press – the secret is a little bit of wallpaper paste – the ink must be moist, the registration must be perfect. Then it all gets kind of squashed together,” he said.
The printmaking studio owners invite all to their open house from 2-5 p.m. Sept. 29, during which guests will have the opportunity to see the presses and get a better idea of the mechanics of how the images are made. On Sept. 30, they will hold an artist talk at noon. Classes, for $20, are taught on Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to noon at 114 ½ N. 29th St., downstairs in the old Arthur Murray Dance Studio. Call Buffalo Art Press at 259-6563 for more information.