FEATURES • Summer 2001

By Liam Otten

Printmaker Joan Hall is inspired by a sense of journey. A talented sailor, Hall uses the natural beauty of the sea and its inhabitants as a backdrop for her imagery.

 

Joan Hall's midtown studio is big, really big—big enough that the prints and the presses and the flowing works-in-progress seem to dwarf an old hand-wrought sailboat whose unfurled canvas bridges the gap between work space and living room. The placement is no coincidence. Hall, the Kenneth E. Hudson Professor of Art, is also an experienced sailor, and her elegant abstractions often reflect the rippling, ever-changing features of light on water.

For the moment, though, Hall's attention is fixed on a small architectural model, a scale rendition of the Museum Art Center, Silkeborg Bad, in Silkeborg, Denmark, which recently invited her to create the largest installation of her career. A renowned print- and papermaker, Hall has spent 12 weeks researching and planning a 100' x 20' flood of brightly colored undersea creatures and polymorphous vegetation, punctuated with gunmetal scraps of nautical flotsam and the occasional ashen cargo ship. All that remains is to cast each of the 112 elements in thick, three-dimensional cotton rag pulp. And then, of course, to start printing. (She is one of 10 artists from around the world invited to work in an original way with the medium paper.)

"The ocean is like another world," Hall muses. "Being out on the water, when you can no longer see land, you definitely feel like you're out of your element. I wanted to recreate that sense of journey and of the human need to explore and dream of new horizons.

"Making paper, that's the easy part."

Thinking About Making Art

The Silkeborg installation is Hall's latest work that crosses the boundaries of printmaking, papermaking, painting, and sculpture. Unlike more orthodox printers, for example, Hall rarely prints editions of her work, preferring to treat each as a one-of-a-kind artwork. In the early 1980s, she began using plaster casts to create large, freeform shapes from cotton and abaca pulp, often painting into the wet mixture with pure, undiluted pigment. A few years later, she hit on a method for hand-packing, rather than mechanically pressing, pulp into stiff, cardboard-like sheets, which she then overprinted and collaged with a spontaneous-seeming mix of media and materials.

"Linocut, collagraph, monoprint—I'll use whatever works for a particular piece," Hall explains. "Printmaking and papermaking are so unbelievably physical and labor intensive that if you don't keep pushing, you can get caught up in technique and not think enough about making art."

"I wanted to recreate that sense of journey and of the human need to explore and dream of new horizons," says Professor Joan Hall.

Today, Hall's artwork can be found in prestigious collections around the world, including the Saint Louis Art Museum; the Leopold-Hoesch Museum in Duren, Germany; the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City; and the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University. The National Endowment for the Arts has awarded her two fellowships—one in printmaking, one in papermaking—and her work has been featured in major survey texts like Printmaking, A Primary Form of Expression (1992), PaperArt: The History of Paper Art (1994), and Artforms, An Art Historical Survey (two editions: 1994 and 1999).

Recently, Hall has taken to working with thin, luminous Japanese papers like kozo and gampi (made from the boiled inner bark of mulberry trees), which she stacks in semi-transparent layers, allowing hints of color and pattern and nautical imagery to float through like waves. The finished pieces often approach 10 feet high—their sensual, richly textured surfaces offering a kind of one-woman seminar in the varieties of mark-making. They are also surprisingly kinetic: Tacked to the wall by upper corners, each is free to flutter and twist in the air.

"Among American artists today, Joan has a deep commitment to the innovative usage of papermaking and printing techniques," writes Cornelia Homburg, curator of modern art at the Saint Louis Art Museum, in the catalog of a 1999 exhibition of Hall's work. "Creating the enormous sheets of paper requires technical know-how, but the assembly of the various layers ... is very much a process of intuitive development."
A 15:1 scale model of Professor Hall's installation at the Museum Art Center, Silkeborg Bad, in Silkeborg, Denmark. Actual size is 100' x 20.'

Teaching Imagery, Process, and Fearlessness

Born and raised in Ohio, Hall earned a bachelor's degree from the Columbus College of Art and Design and spent a summer at San Francisco's Institute of Experimental Printmaking, working with Garner Tullis before receiving her Master of Fine Arts from the University of Nebraska. She came to teach at the School of Art shortly thereafter, in 1978, largely to work with Peter Marcus, the iconoclastic coordinator of the printmaking/drawing major area. "Peter was teaching graduate students how to build presses," Hall recalls. "I thought, 'Hey, I need a press ... '"

"We wanted our program to take a mixed-media approach," explains Marcus, now professor emeritus. "Adding new stuff, new materials, building things in layers—the idea was to experiment with imagery and process so that each time you run a print you're adding to the body of knowledge."

That philosophy continues to inform Hall's work, both as area coordinator for printmaking/drawing and Island Press, the School's highly successful contract print shop and visiting-artist program. Over the years, printmaking faculty and students, working under the direction of a master printer, have issued editions of more than 100 pieces by major artists such as Raphael Ferrer, Roy Lichtenstein, Juan Sanchez, Joyce Scott, Juane Quick-to-see Smith, and, most recently, Franco Mondini-Ruiz. For her many contributions to the art school, Hall was named the first Kenneth E. Hudson Professor of Art in October 2000.

"As a teacher, Hall has inspired a generation of students and demonstrated, both in the classroom and in her own practice, that artistic boundaries exist solely to be overcome," says Jeff Pike, dean of the School of Art.

"Joan is pretty fearless in her own work and that encourages her students to be fearless as well," points out Romi Sloboda, B.F.A. '93. "As a young artist, it's very important to have someone who can tell you that there's no reason not to try something. Unless your ideas were highly flammable or physically dangerous, she'd say, 'Go for it.'"

Still, even the most cutting-edge classroom requires discipline. "We used to have a sign that said, 'No road kill through the press,'" Hall says. "Food, fish—it's a 24-hour shop, so you never really know what goes through there.

"Some things I'm sure we don't want to know about."

 
Guantanamo, 8' x 12'; handmade paper, pulp painting, mixed media printing; 1992.

Using Technology as a Tool

In recent months, Hall has added a new instrument to her artistic toolbox—digital technology. Sketching on a computer tablet, Hall, aided by her husband, Tim Miller, is able to arrange and resize images and export them to a sophisticated plotter developed for the commercial signage industry. The plotter cuts her designs from thick sheets of vinyl, which, mounted on plastic panels, make ideal intaglio plates: positive spaces wipe clean, negative spaces hold ink.

Despite the high-tech innovation, Hall's art remains resolutely handcrafted. Plates are individually inked and rolled one at a time through her gleaming new press, printing onto large, flowing sheets of handmade paper (image size up to 5' x 10'). "For me, color and surface and texture are still really important," Hall explains. "I love technology as a tool, but I don't think it's necessarily interesting on its own. You have to manipulate it somehow to keep it from becoming predictable."

One of Hall's new works, inspired by sailor's knots, will be featured in the Brooklyn Museum of Art's ultra-prestigious Print National this summer. The show's organizing theme is computer-generated art, which Hall finds both ironic and appropriate to her own mix of experimentation and tradition.

"Knotting is a craft of primitive times. Sailors used them to secure lines, tie up the boat, etc.; the wrong knot could cause injury or loss of equipment. And 'decorative knots' were developed on long voyages as a means of entertainment," she points out. "Today, even with global positioning satellites and all the other equipment available, we still tie knots the same way as ancient mariners."

Merging this understanding of tradition and technical expertise with a desire for exploration, Hall continues on her artistic journey.

Liam Otten is a senior news writer in WU's Office of University Communications.

For more information, visit: artsci.wustl.edu/~artweb/washUSoa/ faculty/hall.html.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dead Reckoning, 119" x 99" x 2.15"; handmade kozo paper, pulp painting, printing (8 layers of paper); 1999.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Y-Knot, 84" x 60" x 1.25"; handmade paper, pulp painting, printing (5 layers of paper); 2000.

 

 

 

 

 

An avid sailor, Joan Hall looks to the ocean for creative inspiration. Here, she races on Carlyle Lake, in Illinois.