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Interview with Prof. Christopher Nowicki

Could you please tell me a bit about your artistic journey? When did you begin to draw, when did you make the first print, what kind of encounters were important to you?

My artistic journey is a bit long. I actually made my first print in 1966 when I was in high school. It was a lithograph printed from paper. But it was just a sampling of the process and didn’t impress me very much. I didn’t make art when I was small. My first exposure to art was when I was 10 years old. My parents sent my brother, sister and me to the Saturday Children’s Art Classes at the prestigious Toledo Museum of Art School of Design. And my only memory of that experience is looking at ‘old’ paintings while waiting for my mother to pick us up after class.

I actually started my career in screen printing while in high school. I got a job after school helping the art teacher make signs for the City of Toledo. So my first commercial screen printing experience started in 1967.

My first real printmaking experience was in 1970 when I was a student at the University of Toledo and luckily, at that time, the art classes were taught at the Toledo Museum of Art School of Design that I had attended as a child. I was studying many different disciplines – ceramics, drawing, painting, metal work, design and when I tried printmaking, it didn’t impress me. I really liked drawing the human figure. But as my schedule at the university evolved I took more printmaking courses and after the second semester I had a sort of epiphany and decided that I really liked printmaking. I was making etchings at the time but I became interested in everything about printmaking. We learned all the different printmaking techniques so I also learned woodcut, linocut, lithography and all the metal plate techniques. My professor Peter Elloian was very encouraging and during the next year I learned to make paper, to print ink, and to make photo etchings. I also tried mezzotint for the first time and although it was a very appealing technique it took too much time, so I only made one matrix.

“I try to instill in my students a sense of honour and respect for their work.”

Did you have a master? Was it difficult to get in touch with him/her?

I really didn’t have a master but Professor Peter Elloian was my mentor. He taught me all of the printmaking techniques except screen printing. Anyone can teach technique but what he taught me about attitude, discretion, expertise and honour has stayed with me throughout my printmaking career. I cannot thank him enough for this. After graduate school, when all my friends were sacrificing their aesthetic values to try to make money having art shows, etc. I focused on my work and how to make it better. I was not interested in creating works to sell but in creating art.

You are an artist born in America, of Polish ancestry. What determined you to settle in Poland?

When I first moved to Poland the people here thought I was coming to find my “roots”; I was able to do that as well but it came later. My Polish ancestry had nothing to do with my decision to live in Poland. I moved to Poland because of its long and distinguished reputation of excellent printmaking. I heard this in all of the schools I attended in the USA, and after my first visit I was able to see why Polish printmaking deserved this high regard.

In your opinion, what are the contemporary differences between the European printmaking – more specifically, the Polish branch – and American printmaking? But also, are there any similarities?

In my opinion, there is a significant difference between American printmaking and European printmaking. Personally, I believe the academic structure is the reason for the difference, with exceptions of course. When I studied in the USA there was an intense focus on technical issues – what type of paper to use, which printing ink was best for which technique, what press was the best. If you had an exhibition, many questions from viewers would be about materials and technique. My experience with printmaking in Poland has taught me that it really doesn’t matter what paper or ink you use – if the image is weak nothing will help. That is exactly why I decided to move to Poland to pursue my journey into printmaking.

Do you consider yourself an American, a Polish or a universal artist of the world?

I have never really thought about whether I was a Polish or an American artist. I don’t even know if I consider myself an artist, I just do what I do. I am a teacher and I make mezzotints. I don’t get involved in many “artistic” activities. I seldom have solo exhibitions, my income from art is not even worth mentioning but I am concerned with making mezzotints that are respected for being creative and of the highest quality technically and artistically.

You are a Professor at the ASP Wroclaw. What does the relationship with your students mean for you? Is it important to pass on your craft and art?

My relationship with my students is extremely important to me. First of all, after my experience with Prof. Elloian, I know that being an artist and printmaker does not involve only technique. I try to instill in my students a sense of honour and respect for their work, a desire to continually try to improve their imagery and philosophy. I believe this is more important than technique. But also, technique is the tool that allows you freedom of expression. It is difficult to express yourself if you don’t know the proper language. If you are fluent, it is no problem. It is essential that I pass on everything I know to students. The technique that I use personally and like to teach is mezzotint; this technique was almost lost once and I want to make sure it will survive. As far as teaching goes I believe that it gives you honour to have your students surpass you. I am very happy when I hear of the success of my present and former students.

What do you think characterizes the intaglio printmaking in Wroclaw?

Intaglio printmaking in Wroclaw is characterized by expertise and creativity. The traditional methods play a huge part of this character but other more contemporary techniques also contribute to the reputation of Wroclaw printmaking. Wroclaw’s printmakers are experts in their fields. They take their art very seriously and don’t compromise just to sell work.

Since you moved to Poland, you work almost exclusively in mezzotint (although I know that during your periods spent in Alaska you used screen printing). Where does this special affinity for mezzotint come from? How many of your students are interested in learning this technique?

When I moved to Poland I didn’t have a studio. I had an apartment of 23 m2 and no room for anything. I decided to focus on mezzotint because you only need three tools to make mezzotint. You can do it almost anywhere. It is not as difficult a technique as many people think. It is different in that it is similar to linocut, it is a reductive method. The scraping and burnishing you do creates light areas, so you are, in a sense, working backward. But – in my opinion – this makes it more interesting. Because of the time involved it is not an attractive technique for students. It takes a specific type of person to want to make mezzotint. Students that are focused on the image they are creating and not on time are the best for mezzotint. Unfortunately, in our world of media overload, finding students like that is getting more difficult. But this time-consuming feature is what sustains mezzotint as one of the most appreciated and elite techniques.

Although you do not use the common elements of fantastic printmaking (such as characters, animals, fantastic happenings), still in some of your works there is a strange atmosphere, fantastic or magical. It seems that you invite the viewer to face an enigma, a magical act. In these circumstances, do you believe that your art can be enlisted in the fantastic or in the space of magical realism?

In my imagery, I attempt to change one’s sense of reality. My favourite artistic movements are Dada and Surrealism and this interest began when I was a student. I think it is a huge challenge to use realistic imagery. People have preconceived ideas of what everything is, what images are and changing this perception is difficult but I find it an attractive challenge.

Usually, I try to show people something of themselves with my work. I would like my work to be some sort of mental mirror. The combination of perspective, the images and objects I use, and the specific symbolism helps me build an idea or emotion that I want people to think about.

I often use a raven as a symbol. I learned about the raven from friends that I worked with in Alaska. They are Native Americans and the raven is their symbol of the creator, trickster and destroyer. For me all of these characteristics plus many more make the raven the perfect observer for what I want to say. This is an example of how I use images that have preconceived meanings (maybe incorrect ones), to help create atmosphere. Many people think of the raven as a symbol of evil or death but I know better, he is much more than that.

In some ways I think my mezzotints are surreal – not in the traditional sense but more in a philosophical sense. I don’t care about creating fantastic creatures and scenarios. My focus is on how to show people something that they aren’t able to imagine for themselves.

A work that caught my attention in this regard is “Decisions”. We see a shadow that is not someone’s reflection, projected on a gate that is also a clock. Does this shadow have its own destiny or is fate itself merely a shadow? What is the metaphor that you, the creator, suggest in this work?

The title of the print “Decisions” is the clue to the meaning of this print. The door is a symbol of a two-way portal. Doors can open into a new and different space or they can act as a barrier. It is similar to the dilemma “is a glass of water half full or half empty?”: a door can be open or closed, allowing one to pass through to a different space or blocking one out from the same space.

In life, there are many doors in the sense of challenges that one must deal with. A hypothetical situation can explain this a little better. Suppose you have a good job but are offered a new job in a distant location. There is a choice you have to make. Do you want to stay where you are in a secure and familiar place or do you want to risk the challenge and go to a new unknown place that could be better or worse? My symbolic use of a door is an illustration of this dilemma. Do I want to stay here, nice and comfortable or do I want to take a risk and see what is on the “other side”? These challenges in life are fraught with consequences that we must consider. Our personal solutions to these challenges define who we are as artists and as people.

The shadow in this print represents man. It connects the idea about portals to the human situation. Without the shadow this print would just be a technical mezzotint of a door. But I hope the shadow of a man who in fact doesn’t exist brings a philosophical and surreal aspect to this image.

To what extent does artistry still matter nowadays?

I am not sure how you are referring to artistry – artistry of technique or artistry meaning creativity. Of course, artistry of technique is extremely important. How can you possibly express yourself accurately if you don’t know technique and are relying on accidental effects to create your image? Many artists would call the accidental effects of printmaking, spontaneity. But these “spontaneous” people have no control over their results and – consequently – must rely on accidents to convey an idea. I believe a philosophical statement is crucial to art. All great artists had something to say that defined them and raised them to a high level. They had feelings, emotions and ideas that they wanted to express. They did not rely on accidents to express their ideas, they took control and expressed exactly what they wanted. Technique allowed them to do this.

Artistry in the sense of creativity is more difficult to discuss. It is very subjective and has different definitions for everyone. The artist has ideas (I hope) that he wants to portray which by definition are subjective and the viewer too sees a creation subjectively. This is a very interesting dilemma that would take many meetings and much time to discuss. But as I mentioned earlier, technical skills which allow you to communicate are extremely important and a philosophical idea that you want to communicate are essential. Artistry is the creative combination of these elements. In today’s world anyone can call themselves an artist but true artistry is difficult to find. It matters because it gives art its foundation.

How do you see the role of traditional printmaking in a world that rather encourages artistic experiment and digital art?

Traditional printmaking plays an extremely important role in this age of digital everything. It really gives a base for all new digital techniques. And all of the traditional techniques cannot be duplicated with digital procedures. The image can be copied but the impression on the paper, the texture of the ink, the pure blackness of the metal plate techniques cannot be made with computers.

Then there is the question of creativity again. Digital printmakers are limited to the programs they use for their creations. No matter how creative you can be with Photoshop, you are still using Photoshop. These programs – while having millions of options – still have a finite limit. A pencil can do things that are impossible with a computer. One can get a close facsimile and can make a high resolution scan but then whatever is made is produced on a digital printer which also has its limitations.

Often of course you have to examine the works very closely to see a difference and maybe this just doesn’t matter to most people but it matters to me.

From what I see, digital printmaking is pushing more attention to the traditional techniques. Traditional techniques require hand skills that aren’t necessary for computer work. It is a lot more difficult to draw a picture than cut and paste a photo. And not everyone has the talent to draw or paint well while almost anyone can use a computer when they learn the program. But what I mean about traditional techniques getting attention is that now people are more impressed to see something that is made totally by hand. The hours it takes to make a drawing, etching or even engraving or mezzotint surprises most people. The more we are bombarded with media, the less people want to spend hours and hours making art. And this is exactly why artists with traditional skills are gaining more respect. The traditional methods are extremely important as a basis for all printmaking techniques.

I know that you have regular academic placements in China and that this experience seems to be an important one for you. I noticed that also other Central European printmakers have ties with the Asian world. For example, the Slovak artist Peter Kocák also teaches in China and is now learning Chinese and the related calligraphy, while the printmaker Marina Richterova had as her PhD research subject “Japanese Aesthetics in European Artistic Creation”. What is your motivation for opening yourself towards this? What does this Chinese experience bring about for you as an artist?

I have been very lucky to have a China connection. I initially went to China to set up an exchange program between our Eugeniusz Geppert Academy of Fine Art and Design in Wroclaw and the Academy of Fine Art in Tianjin, China. I was so fascinated and impressed by the quality and expertise of the Chinese printmakers that I immediately began thinking of how I could connect Polish and Chinese printmaking.

The effect of this was the largest exhibition of contemporary Polish printmaking ever assembled. I thought that the quickest way to make contact between artists would be to arrange an exhibition and I began to talk with our Rector Prof. Jacek Szewczyk and Vice-Rector Prof. Piotr Kielan about this idea for an exhibition. I was the curator but without the help of Prof. Szewczyk and Prof. Kielan, this show would have never happened. The exhibition took about two years to organize and opened in Tianjin at the Association of Independent Art and Design Schools’ annual conference that was held in Tianjin. From there, the exhibition went on to Kyung Hee University in Seoul – South Korea, New Delhi – India, Porto – Portugal and finally Wałbrzych – Poland.

During the first year working on this exhibition I was invited to Tianjin to provide a class in mezzotint. After that I was invited to Changchun, China to teach mezzotint and afterwards, the Northeast Normal University in Changchun invited me to be a ‘Visiting Professor. After a few lectures at Yanbian University in Yanji, China they awarded me with an ‘Honorary Professor’ title. So since 2007 my roots in China have been growing deeper.

But all this is avoiding the obvious. My motivation for initiating and maintaining my China connections is the beautiful prints that are made in China. I am continually amazed by their high quality and fine workmanship. In my opinion, Chinese printmaking in general is of the highest quality and incomparable to any in the world. This has affected my own work and made me strive to become a better printmaker myself. It has inspired me and I think any serious printmaker can find motivation in China.

Do you have particular artistic affinities and friendships? In general, do you feel that they are important for an artist?

Yes, I have many friendships with printmakers. My closest friends are mezzotint artists; Guntars Sietins, Jukka Vannetin, and Fan Min come to mind. I think having friendships with other artists that do what you do is very important. You can exchange technical and philosophical information. And you can expand your communication network to find out about competitions, exhibitions and galleries. This can save a lot of time and it is nice to communicate with people who are in the same situation as you. Maybe you can find solutions to mutual problems.

If you had the chance to talk to any printmaker, regardless of the time in which he/she lived, who would you choose?

If I had a chance to talk with any printmaker regardless of when they lived, I don’t know if there is really anyone I would want to talk with. My imagery is very personal and the symbolism I use is from my life and experience. By this time in my life I have so many things that I want to say that I am not looking for new inspiration or advice. This may sound arrogant but for the techniques that I know and use, there are no problems that I couldn’t solve myself. During my student years, I was trained in aesthetics but I also was trained to be an excellent printer. So I fulfill all senses of the word “printmaker”. I do everything from beginning to end. I create my own images on plates and I do all my own printing. I don’t trust anyone else to print my mezzotints for me. I know exactly what I want and how to get it on paper.

Do you think there is a connection between magic and printmaking? Is the printmaker some kind of magician? How about a connection between printmaking and literature?

With mezzotint you spend so much time with a copper plate that by the time you start scraping and burnishing you feel that you know the plate. You do in fact, because you have very personally changed the entire surface. And then you begin. After spending 5-6 hours on each square inch of the plate you start to feel that you know it very well.

There is really no magic involved. Maybe to other people what you do seems magical and with years of practice there are certainly things that you can do that are impossible for people with less experience. Through practice, work and experience, you gain a complete knowledge of your technique and it becomes a tool that allows you to express exactly what you want to say. When you demonstrate to other people, you can easily do things that they find extremely difficult. But magic, I don’t think so.

The printmaker as a magician? People that are experts in their printmaking field are exceptional technician/artists. People may think they have supernatural powers but they are just people.
There has always been a connection between the engraved image and literature, since people needed illustrations to clarify their written words.

Back to the magic idea, there certainly are moments when working on an image can seem spiritual. The moment when you have a flash of insight to solve a compositional or technical problem, the moment when you are working on your plate and you feel that “this is REALLY what I want and like to do!”, and when your image finally comes together and it expresses exactly what you want to say, these are times when you really feel this connection and it can certainly feel spiritual. I think these are the moments that all true artists seek.

Thank you for finding time to answer these questions. I have one last question: what advice would you give to a young person who decides to choose the path of printmaking?

Young printmakers today are impatient. They want results right now. The advice I would give these students is to work hard and try every technique possible. Learn everything you can about printmaking including how to make paper and ink. It is difficult to understand how paper or ink work unless you know what they are and how the elements fit together. There are so many different papers, inks and other materials – how do you know the one you buy off the store shelf is the best for you? Many times you can make better materials yourself, at lower costs.

And don’t be afraid to work! The best way to learn is by experience, the harder you work, the more experience you get and the more you learn. Printmaking takes practice. Without a lot of luck there is no way that you can learn how to make a successful etching by reading about it. Work, practice, experimentation and focus are essential to success in printmaking.

  • Bulldozer-1920
  • China Still Life
  • Chris Nowicki photo
  • Decisions
  • Locomotive-1920
  • No 12
  • Pozny Tramvaj