Friday, January 10, 2014

Winning or Losing?

Poised for the end

In the last year of his work toward a printmaking teaching method that may be the achievement of a lifelong goal as a teaching artist he wonders if the next opportunity—putting his idea in front of ambitious business students—will mean progress or demise.

Eve of glory?

There is the possibility of being one of three winning companies to get an audience with students at the university’s business school—students who form teams to figure out the means to take my press-making venture to the next level. Six months ago I launched my final year in this venture, knowing that I could not—and should not—continue manning it as a proprietor.
The first six months were given to exploring the range of possibilities—from the making of a Print Maker Faire to working one-on-one with individual printmaking enthusiasts both locally and far away. I introduced a new, less costly model of the Halfwood Press, also trying the Plasteel concept. I found help in a graphic artist, and bought into print advertising in the Journal of the Print World, plus I reserved a booth at an upcoming printmaking conference.
Yesterday, I applied for consideration by the Business Impact Group (BIG), a program in which teams of business majors work with faculty and consultants to solve problems faced by small businesses. If my business is selected, then I will get to meet with the team and they will work on finding and giving advice. I am hopeful, but not over confident, that Emeralda Works will be accepted for their teamwork.
It could be the eve of the year’s Big Break.

Eve of Doom?

As I filled out the form, several things nagged at me. I have written business plans for over 15 years, annually trying to shape my vision into a viable business. Yet, it never works out. I am especially bothered by a sense there is no desire on the part of very many people for what I offer—any more than there was when I had my position at the university.
I believe I was suited for the position of a professor in a major research university because I did real research in my field—fine art printmaking. I learned the history and application of the techniques, and then I looked toward the future as to what was likely to be the nature of printmaking ten, twenty and thirty years into the future.
Today, my forecasts have come true. What it might have meant to students in the 1980s was lost, however, as the administration and faculty refused to consider my vision to be valid and they made it clear they wanted nothing to do with a multimedia curriculum based on printmaking. I had to resign to be true to myself and true to those who believed in me enough to support me.
For almost thirty years I have kept my dream—and my faculties—alive with the vision of a “perfect studio.” However, like an artist working alone, it has been a lonely process. I have had support from co-workers in many phases of developing my quest for the Perfect Studio—other artists, museum people, gallery owners, engineers, and crafts people. Also I have had customers for the products of my experiments, discoveries and designs. In a few instances, I have had support for the most creative of my ideas—distance learning for printmaking using serious games as part of the medium of conveyance.

Not in the business plan

In all the years I wrote my business plans, it was with this ultimate goal in mind: A company where teaching, research, production and service were continuous, seamless and concurrent. Sustainability is the key to this business plan. However, the research behind the plan is the kind of substance that makes university-level thinking what it is and what gives a university a reputation as a major research institution.
My business plan is no less than the transformation of the printmaking curriculum I promoted in 1984! Therefore, when I put forward my business plan to the business school, it is dummied-down so that one product is presented as the core of the business, not the entire package.
For example, the etching press has a flash memory drive built in, and this is symbolic of putting my whole self into my invention. For distance learning, and to give printmaking the reach it can have worldwide, the PressGhost, so called, unleashes the power of the press and gives users a threshold unknown to the brick-and-mortar institutions.

I compare my business concept to the Teaching Company. However, to read the business plan I am prepared to submit, this is lost—or at least, hidden from view. Yet it is there, in my mind, every day, and always will be whether the BIG program sees it or not.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Press reader

A PressReader is based on the Kindle, the leader in making a near-perfect e-reader, with the added benefit that the PressReader also prints. It is a combination printing press and reader specialized for printmaking. Artists, designers and crafts people who are familiar with printmaking are scattered all over the world as a result of fifty years of education programs that included printmaking as part of the liberal arts courses in schools and colleges.
Compared to fifty years ago, when I was a student, there are now more people who know what printmaking is as an art form and that it is not only a means of reproducing other graphics and paintings. When I moved to Seattle, fresh out of graduate school with an MA in Printmaking, I found quite a few people had not been introduced to printmaking as a fine art form. I had invitations to speak at museums and schools about creative printmaking.
Glen Alps had preceded me in this evangelical campaign to bring a wider audience to the art and craft (and products) of printmakers. He went as far as to put the collagraph on the map of the printmaking world. We taught that technique is important, but that there were more than technical reasons to teach printmaking at all levels.

Social art

There is, for example, the social aspect of printmaking. When people must share a printing press, for example, they are forced to communicate, arrange their spaces and follow the rules of the facility. In many cases, it is the very human aspect of interactive exchange that draws people to printmaking in a shared facility. This opens the way to understanding other individuals, mutual respect and problem-solving.


A press is not crucial to printmaking because printing one’s hand is a simple proposition. The first prints made, intentionally, were hand prints on the walls of caves and cliffs. However, as printmaking became more complicated and the demand for detailed, exactly repeatable pictures increased, the machine age was at the forefront and, with it, higher costs. There are exceptions, such as the wooden spoon for relief printmaking and the Japanese-style baren. These are not expensive, but a press for lithography or etching can run to tens of thousands of dollars.
But the fact that an artist or designer can produce multiples with a press means that the sale price of the work is less and, therefore, many painters kept food on their table by producing prints alongside their master works in other media. It often happened that the exposure to printmaking even helped their painting and sculpture as methodology and material restrictions had their say in the creative process.

Society and economics meet

The press of the past has not kept pace with the changes brought about by the technologies that replaced printing on paper. Electronic arts and digital arts do not require a press, nor hard copy, to have their effect. Social networks are more powerful than the artists collective printmaking studios. I would venture that printmakers spend quite a lot of time on Facebook and updating their online galleries and blogs instead of laboring on an engraving. In fact, the pressure of modern times have made printmaking difficult.
Not only the pressures of time, but also the pressures of money. I am told the market for art of any kind is in a slump, lately, and it’s true for prints, too. Many artists are turning to inkjet prints to save labor and to offer work at lower prices. Recently two artists collaborated on a suite of print which were available both as hand printed woodblocks and giclee prints—the latter at about a sixth of the price of the former. At last report, they grossed over a quarter million dollars in a very short time.

The press reader

Therefore, I propose a new device to address the needs of artists making prints to surmount the problems of time and money, and get printmaking back on track as a social and economically viable art form. I call it a PressReader after the idea of the eReader, or eBook, such as the Kindle, Nook, and Kobo devices.
It is, as it says, a combination printing press and reader but it is different from an e-reader because it functions as a kind of global screen to connect with other printmakers. I base my PressReader on my design of the miniature etching presses (aka Halfwoods) and my plan for a global network called Proximates.
There is a bit of fun built in to my concept because social networks and casual video games indicate that there is an entertainment and playful quality that can be programmed into Internet-based communication.
The benefits of the PressReader go further, because education—the teaching of printmaking—is a field at risk. I saw my former employer—the University of Washington School of Art Printmaking Division—go into a tailspin after the mid-1980s, and today’s program is a shadow of its former self.

The world I was born into, and the joy of printmaking that I know, is so restricted now that we may be losing ground, going from printmaking boom to bust. The PressReader is my offering to pick up the loose ends and get printmakers all over the world back in “virtual touch” with each other and put back together what social and economic setbacks have damaged.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Merely a designer

      When it comes to the making of a company based on the printmaking experience, a business suited to what is popularly referred to as the “experience economy,” all I have done is make a nice design for an etching press. The design is so successful that people who buy my etching presses say they are “works of art.”
While I may eschew the label, work of art, when applied to a little mechanical device—the customer is always right when you separate art from business. People are willing to pay twice as much for a press that is beautiful as well as functional. I proved this, several times, and I have real life stories to support it.
The printmaking experience is partly made up of owning your own press. In the past there was no alternative to a big, heavy and expensive machine. This fact has been the death for many an aspiring printmaker—because after they got their exposure to the art and craft of printmaking and the history of it and left school, they had no access to a press. A few used alternative, less cumbersome methods, such as relief printmaking with wooden spoon or a Japanese-style printing baren.
Those who wanted to continue intaglio or lithographic work were out of luck. If they lived in a large city, there might be a printmaking club nearby. Or, they could re-enroll in a school as a part-time student, and thus get access to the press in evenings and other scheduled open studio times.
The small press changed all that. Now, for a price under one-thousand dollars, a person could have a press large enough to print their etchings and engravings—and even processes similar to lithography—yet small enough to fit in a cabinet when they weren’t using it.
The mini press is a boon to those who like the printmaking experience, whether it is a hobby and they only do it during seasonal greeting card times, or the professional with a bona fide market for their prints. Other artists, crafts people and designers use the mini, also, such as book artists, graphic designers and photographers.

Business or bust

The end is near, for me. The facts are in: I have been losing money on this “business” for ten years and in consideration for my family and my own future I must admit that I am merely the designer in this venture, and the real business can now be established. You might compare me to a hired designer in a company that produced a wildly popular model because of its beauty. For my design I might get a raise in salary, or even shares in the company, as my reward for doing a job above the norm.
In my situation, I am not only a fair designer, I am also a subject matter expert and therefore I could make design changes as needed based on my knowledge of printing processes. Moreover, as an art teacher, I could lay out my own promotional materials, design a Web site, and make demonstration videos.
As a tinkerer with hi-tech, I could introduce ways to add value to the press by making it “smart” in the sense of onboard instruction. All these innovations give me the title of Designer, but not CEO, CFO, or COO. As a result of my having kept these processes to myself, the very profitable idea of a printmaking experience for all ages, at all times, in all places, is at risk.
My artist’s imagination and vision make me a valuable player on the team, but not the quarterback. In fact, I am not really a “good team player” when it comes to making value judgments. And, as an artist, I do make value judgments and this propensity gets me in trouble at times. For example, in the strategic plan to let the company grow to its proper proportions, one critic said that my teaching aspirations were “admirable,” but she implied that this ambition would stunt the growth of a plan aimed at professional photographers seeking ways to improve their graphic art.

Business solution

The solution—and the plan for June of this year—is to turn over the company to a CEO who knows how to finance and coordinate the growth of the company. In the process, I can strive to maintain a share in the company in the form of royalties or shares—akin to a retirement pension.
If my persona is worth it, then I could also participate in customer support materials, such as the short lessons that customers want and need to go along with their purchase. These are considerations in describing the Halfwood Press value proposition.

Strategic design

As a visionary, however, I am worth still more. For example, the continued use of the press is important to word-of-mouth promotion. This is where the printmaking world meets the Internet of Things (IoT). In my opinion, this is crucial to the long-term life of the business, and a CEO would have to understand this and work for its realization.