Arts in America; Seeking to Stretch the Boundaries of Printmaking
By Shawn G. Kennedy
Published: June 25, 1998
WASHINGTON— Setting up for a day in the studio behind his Cleveland Park home one recent morning, Lou Stovall, a master printmaker, plucked a jar of gray ink from a shelf where he keeps custom-blended colors. Holding the jar up for closer inspection, he gave it a gentle shake and said: "Yes, this is it. This is a very good color for our shark.'
The shark in question swims through the design that the painter Jacob Lawrence, 80, recently completed for a mosaic tile mural for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York City. The subway art, which will grace the Times Square station at its Broadway and 42d Street entrance, is still months from installation.
Meanwhile, the Transportation Authority has allowed a limited number of prints of the mural's design to be made to raise money for a not-for-profit project to catalogue all of Mr. Lawrence's works. The silk-screen prints, a limited edition of 50 in a double set, will come from Mr. Stovall's studio.
Before printing that morning, Mr. Stovall consulted shorthand notes penciled into the margins of the artist's color maquette. The notes reflected guidelines Mr. Lawrence gave him during a telephone conversation earlier: "Dark tan stripe -- go for off black. Ear out. Shirt blue. Shark gray."
Their partnership goes back to the mid-1980's, when Mr. Stovall started making prints of one of the painter's earliest works, a series of 41 gouaches (1937-38) on the life of Toussaint L'Ouverture, the 18th-century Haitian revolutionary.
Since setting up his studio, Workshop Inc., in 1968, Mr. Stovall has made prints for more than 80 artists, including Alexander Calder, Josef Albers, Sam Gilliam, Robert Mangold, Peter Blume, Elizabeth Catlett and Lois Mailou Jones.
"The most important part of what I do is to give artists who have ideas they want to express in a silk-screen print a way of doing it," said Mr. Stovall, whose workshop also turns out handmade furniture and fine-art frames. "If they can explain it to me or show me what they are looking for, I am willing to experiment until I find it."
Mr. Stovall's development of an intuitive understanding of Mr. Lawrence's style and palette is essential to their collaboration because face-to-face meetings between the artist and his printmaker are infrequent. Mr. Lawrence lives and works in Seattle. They consult by telephone on printing proofs that have been sent back and forth by express mail.
"Jake and I have the same sense of color," Mr. Stovall said, offering one explanation for the success of their 14-year collaboration.
For his part, Mr. Lawrence attributes Mr. Stovall's ability to translate his art into fine prints to the printmaker's attention to detail and to his artistic sensibilities.
"We speak the same language," Mr. Lawrence said in a telephone interview. "When I tell him that certain lines need to be sharper, that I want more depth or texture to the color, he knows exactly what I'm talking about. He makes it happen because he is a craftsman who is also an artist."
"There are few people, if any, I could work with cross-country like that," he added.
Sam Gilliam, another longtime collaborator, who is known for the textural quality of his hard-edged painting and collages, said that what he appreciates most about the printmaker's technique is that it is not formulaic.
"Lou is an innovator," said Mr. Gilliam, who also lives in Washington, and has worked with the printmaker for 20 years. "He has taken printing well beyond what is standard for the medium."
To make his point, Mr. Gilliam recalled the day Mr. Stovall sent an assistant out in search of castor oil. "I thought he was ill," Mr. Gilliam recalled. "But he showed me how he uses castor oil to break up the color so the white of the paper shows through." Mr. Gilliam and Mr. Stovall spend a good amount of time together when they have a printing project going, Mr. Gilliam said. "There is constant dialogue about the process, and at times it can be quite dynamic," he said. "We've had arguments about printing that his wife, Di, has had to come in and settle."
Mr. Stovall's wife, Di Bagley Stovall, is a painter.
Over the years Mr. Stovall has manipulated the basic flat silk-screen technique. Often forsaking the squeegee, a prime tool used to transfer color through the silk-screen, he has experimented with brushes, towels and hardwood scrapers and even his hands. To achieve a softer, painterly effect in prints, he often uses water-thin stains and glazes.
"At first I was doing silk-screening because I discovered it as a child and loved the medium," said Mr. Stovall, who studied at the Rhode Island School of Design and then Howard University. "When my art teacher taught me that it could also be a fine-art medium, it gave me something to pursue."
While working toward his degree in fine arts at Howard, he took a job in a commercial print shop. The owner, impressed with his skill and devotion to the craft, let him make prints of his own artwork after hours.
Later, a Stern Family Fund Grant provided the money for Mr. Stovall to establish a fine-arts printmaking studio. The grant came with the understanding that he would use the studio to teach printmaking to others. He still does.
A painter as well as a master printmaker, Mr. Stovall has had his work exhibited in many museums and galleries, including the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington; the Bristol Museum in Bristol, R.I.; the Bayly Art Museum in Charlottesville, Va., and the Studio Museum in Harlem.
Despite the increased demands of his frame making and his struggle to find more time to paint and draw, Mr. Stovall has no plans to cut back on printmaking.
"I am always trying to make the most beautiful print I can," he said, adding: "I have more than one purpose. I want to make art, through silk-screening, more accessible to more people, and to make it a more honorable and appreciated medium."
Lou Stovall (born 1937) was credited by artists and critics alike with helping to transform the concept of silkscreen printmaking from a commercial craft to a true art form. He was also an accomplished draftsman, as well as a designer and builder of fine furniture.
Luther McKinley (Lou) Stovall was born in Athens, Georgia, on New Year's Day, 1937. When he was still a young boy his family moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, where Stovall's interest in printmaking was born. It was while working at a summer job in a grocery store that young Stovall discovered a printmaker making "Sale" signs for the store. Before returning to school at summer's end, he had begun assisting the printer.
Stovall's formal art education began in 1956 at the Rhode Island School of Design, where he studied for a semester before having to return home to help his family. In 1962 he enrolled at Howard University in Washington, D.C., under James A. Porter, the department head who became Stovall's adviser and mentor and who had written the definitive book on African American art. Stovall continued his printmaking studies at Howard under James Lesesne Wells, himself a renowned printmaker. When he graduated in 1966 with a BFA degree in art history Stovall had already established himself as a talented printmaker.
Following his graduation, Stovall began working as head designer at a sign shop in a Washington, D.C., suburb. He fulfilled his job responsibilities during the day and would then work on his own designs after hours. It was during this period at Botkin's Sign Shop in Silver Spring, Maryland, that Stovall produced countless posters for community, government, and labor groups and collaborated with Lloyd McNeill, a musician and fellow artist, on posters for jazz workshops.
By 1968 Stovall had opened his own studio (Workshop, Inc.), teaching silkscreen techniques to other artists while further refining his own style. He was joined thereafter by his assistant, Diane (Di) Bagley, who was later to become his wife and occasional collaborator
Traditionally, the silkscreening process entails the cutting of a stencil, which is attached to the silkscreen in areas where the artist wishes to prevent the color from coming through. The color is then spread over the stencil with a rubber blade, where it passes onto the exposed silkscreen underneath. For each additional color used in a particular print, the artist must cut a new stencil. It is not unusual for a printmaker to cut dozens of stencils in order to complete a single silkscreen design.
By utilizing tools and techniques not customarily associated with silkscreening, Stovall's prints exhibit an intricacy not usually attained with the medium. In addition to the use of the traditional stencil and rubber blade, or "squeegee," Stovall painted directly on the silkscreen, using a color blocking lacquer. On other occasions he used sponges and large brushes to achieve subtle shading. When customary tools proved insufficient for his needs, Stovall created his own instruments in order to produce the thin, engraving-like lines found in many of his works.
Although he readily admitted to a fascination with the human form, Stovall's art never depicted people. Instead, he imbued his birds and landscapes with a human gracefulness.
It is from nature that Stovall received much of his inspiration. He was perhaps best known for his circular prints of flowers and landscapes, depicting flowing streams and graceful trees. In his trees, a favorite subject, Stovall's intricate style can be easily detected. One can almost feel the textures he has depicted on the trunks. In 1986, upon request, he made the print, American Beauty Rose for the Washington, D.C., Area Host Committee 1988 Democratic National Convention.
Besides producing his own designs, Stovall was frequently commissioned to make silkscreen prints of other artists' work, including that of Joseph Albers, Leon Berkowitz, Peter Blume, Alexander Calder, Chun Chen, Gene Davis, Tom Downing, Sam Gilliam, Sidney T. Guberman, Selma Hurwitz, Jacob Kainen, Jacob Lawrence, Robert Mangold, Mathieu Mategot, Pat Buckley Moss, Robert Newman, Paul Reed, Reuben Rubin, Roy Slade, Brockie Stevenson, Di Stovall, Franklin White, and James L. Wells.
Stovall's sensitivity to line and form was repeated in the furniture which he designed and built in his studio. He was sometimes commissioned to create both the furniture and artwork for a client and frequently built the frames for displaying his silkscreens.
Stovall's work has enjoyed exhibition throughout the United States, as well as in Japan and Moscow, USSR. (now part of the Federation of Russian Republics). He has also been featured in various fundraising events and benefits, making special contributions to diverse groups from Amnesty International to The Environmental Law Institute.
The Washington Post
By Ferdinand Protzman
February 24, 2000
Although silk-screening has been used to make fine art since the 1930s, the medium is still falsely dismissed as a simple-minded printmaking technique, the foolproof staple of school art classes and T-shirt shops. Even Andy Warhol, whose silk-screened Campbell's soup cans were snapped up by collectors and museums, reveled in the process's plebeian status.
Lou Stovall was well aware of silk-screen's reputation when he received his fine arts degree from Howard University in 1965. Some of his professors, hearing that he was going to dedicate himself to the medium, hinted that he was wasting his talent. That didn't deter him. He loved silk-screening. He was very good at it. And he felt a calling to try to expand the medium's boundaries.
"I've been on a mission since 1965 to show that silk-screen is a great medium and shouldn't be denigrated," Stovall says. "I chose it because the medium put forth enough challenges for me that it engaged my intellect and my spirit. I think I've accomplished a lot, but the challenges are still there today."
A small sampling of Stovall's masterly accomplishments from the past three decades can be seen at the Arts Club of Washington, which is hosting "New and Recent Prints from Lou Stovall's Workshop: Lou's Favorite Flowers and Selected Collaborative Prints." The exhibition features a partial retrospective of Stovall's own work, as well as prints he made at his studio, called Workshop Inc., in collaboration with such prominent artists as Sam Gilliam, Peter Blume, Jacob Lawrence, Lois Mailou Jones and David Driskell.
Because the exhibition is split between the club's first and second floors, it's a bit difficult to track Stovall's development as an artist and master printmaker. Visitors should start with the upstairs gallery, where some of his prints from the 1970s are on display, and work their way down.
In both galleries, color is the key element, whether the work is by Stovall or a collaboration. Color holds this stylistically and physically fragmented exhibition together and it is also what separates silk-screening, developed in the early 20th century primarily for commercial printing of textiles, from most other forms of printmaking.
Lithography and intaglio printing, for example, are essentially single-color techniques albeit with considerable tonal range. But a silk-screen is more akin to painting, allowing an artist to use many colors in a single work. In the process, a stencil is attached to a fine-mesh silk-screen stretched on a frame. This is placed on paper or fabric. Pigment is then forced through the unmasked mesh by a squeegee or some other tool, producing an image on the paper.
It may sound like the visual arts equivalent of playing "Chopsticks" on the piano. But in the hands of a master like Stovall, the results are closer to Chopin's etudes. His own works are characterized by a remarkably subtle, refined use of color, an exceptional depth of field and a calm, unshakably positive spirituality.
Stovall's earlier prints are more literal than his recent ones. The beauty and strength that flow through the colors of his landscapes, flowers and trees from the 1970s are rooted in the real world. He depicted scenes and things that inspired him.
That changed in the 1980s, as Stovall drew inspiration not just from nature, but from music, poetry and dance. His prints, such as the swirling, avian labyrinth of "For Ascending Larks," from 1981, are more intricate and refined, reflecting those intellectual and artistic passions. Abstract imagery began to join the natural forms.
In recent works, such as "Hearts VIII," done earlier this year, Stovall has continued to combine representational and abstract imagery, creating idealized flowers and birds, in truly lyrical combinations of colors.
"It's all about color," he says. "I wanted to push the boundaries of what's possible in a silk-screen print. The truth is, if you can perceive the image and have the patience to capture it, making the print becomes a matter of line by line, dot by dot."
Stovall's ability as an innovative silk-screen printer also shines through in the collaborations on display. Since setting up his studio, Workshop Inc., in 1968 with the help of a $10,000 grant from Washington's Stern Family Fund, he has made prints with more than 80 artists, including Josef Albers, Alexander Calder and Elizabeth Catlett.
Some of his most fruitful work has been with Gilliam and Lawrence. Translating Gilliam's paintings, many of them three-dimensional works on wood featuring whirlpools of color and a variety of textures, isn't easy. But the two artists succeed admirably in prints such as "Providence," from 1999, and "Think Tank," created in 1995.
"I just love making prints. I don't care that much if it's my print or from somebody else. I have the most fun working for Jacob and Sam because they like to see the medium expand itself," Stovall says. "They're willing to experiment. The nice thing is that I'm trusted by those guys. If I don't think a piece works, I say so. Sometimes we disagree and let a piece sit overnight and come back to it fresh."
The collaborations can be laborious. To make Blume's "Autumn," from 1988, a gorgeous depiction of a New England farmstead with the leaves at their peak of color, Stovall used 121 different colors. That's roughly 117 more than Warhol used on his soup cans. It's something only a master can do.