Saturday, August 12, 2000

Printshop Stories

The evolution of Norwalk's Center for Contemporary Printmaking
by Brita Brundage - April 8, 2004

The stone building in Mathews Park in Norwalk that houses the non-profit Center for Contemporary Printmaking must have stories coursing through its walls, from the former stable areas where artists roll pages through printing presses to the upstairs hay lofts where a class undertakes lessons in monotypes. Where a gallery exhibits a celebration of the "solarplate revolution," female prisoners from the 1930s to 1950s once huddled against the wall awaiting bail. Former prison or no, the 19th-century building which sheltered horses for the Lockwoods Mathews Mansion Museum has all the traditional charm of large windows, low ceilings and wooden floors.

The police station across the driveway is another story. That squat, brick, charmless structure, which will be replaced by a new state-of-the-art police headquarters in South Norwalk in March of 2005, is awaiting some sort of judgment regarding its fate. The adopted plan for Mathews Park called for the demolition of the police station when the officers relocate. In February, Norwalk Mayor Alex Knopp announced that he was considering turning the former station into an arts center for performance and exhibition instead.

"In my view, Norwalk needs an arts center," says Knopp, "and it's always seemed to me the Mathews Park would be ideal. ... Instead of spending $400,000 to demolish the police station and then $350,000 to construct a landscaped parking area, let's use that [money] to be part of the financing of renovating the old police station into a Norwalk arts center." Structurally, the 1950s era police station may not be easy to convert. As Anthony Kirk, a Scottish master printer and CCP's artistic director says, "There's a lot of concrete and cells, and the basement was the firing range for the police department. There's [possibly] a lot of lead contamination in there."

Though the Norwalk planning commission removed money for a feasibility study, Mayor Knopp says he is having an engineering audit done on the existing building, using in-house staff and Grubb & Ellis, who manage many of the city's buildings.

Right now, says the mayor, "it's still in the conceptual stage. ... This really doesn't become an issue that's ripe for decision until quite some time away."

Kirk is ready to welcome any additional arts development to the patch of pavement he shares with Lockwoods, Stepping Stones Children's Museum and the YMCA across the street. "It's not competition," he said. "The development planned between Wall Street and the Maritime Center for business and residential will offer more to do locally for families who want to walk around."

With its historical presence, CCP already has something no new building can capture. And Kirk and crew could not have put it to more appropriate use. The old printing presses, the etched plates and inks are ancient art tools. "If Rembrandt were here, he'd know what I'm doing," Kirk said, peering over his glasses at a mezzotint, his hands stained with black ink. While the center does include a digital production room upstairs for manipulating images in photoshop, as local inner city kids are being taught to do through a program called Arts Task Force, it's the classic papermaking and printmaking techniques that are the center's pride.

"People say there is a lessened interest in traditional printmaking," said Kirk, "But I can't believe all that knowledge will disappear. Can you imagine in 50 years people saying, 'What is a dark room'?"

While CCP has had no trouble attracting wealthier Fairfield County women to its classes and lectures, it's had to work a bit more concertedly to find diversity. Last year they scored a few points shy of the total necessary to garner a grant from the Connecticut Commission on the Arts because of a lack of racial diversity. Kirk has since made it his mission to expand the CCP's racial reach. The next exhibit, works from students representing 21 area high schools, will showcase the fruits of CCP's labor. From George Washington Carver Center in Norwalk to Darien High School, the resulting self-portraits from two courses taught by artist Benny Andrews should tell an interesting story about CCP's ongoing evolution. Upstairs, where Ronnie Maher of Briggs High School teaches photography to after-school students, kids are given digital cameras to snap shots of their home environments, often brick-bound projects bordered by fencing. One picture shows the back of a police officer, another shows kids in a desolate playground. All photos are black and white and give an honest portrayal of the forlorn places these students return to every afternoon.

A few steps from CCP's back door, another story is unfolding in a cottage that was renovated and opened last year at the cost of $250,000. The project was funded half by the city and state and half by private donations. There, in a cozy two-bedroom-one-bath house with two large printing presses and a small kitchen, artists receive a stipend to take up residence and complete a series of work in private. The first artist the center welcomed to stay was Scotland-based artist Paul Furneaux, an award-winning 40-year-old painter and printer who lost nearly all of 15 years' worth of work as well as his tools and supplies in the raging "Old Town blaze" in Edinburgh in 2002. Having lost his woodblocks, his prints and nearly all of his possessions, the trip to Norwalk afforded Furneaux and his family a chance to rebuild.

Currently, prints depicting Manhattan on the back of a whale in bright red and blue line the cottage's walls. They are the work of famed Czechoslovakian children's book author, illustrator and filmmaker Peter Sis, who collaborated with Bob Dylan on the film You've Got to Serve Somebody in 1983 and won a McArthur Fellowship for his pictorial children's books. Now living in Tarrytown, N.Y., Sis is using the solitude of the cottage to make etchings and reproduce prints of a poster he made for the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

"This place frees an artist from the cares of the world for a while," said Kirk.

Fifteen years ago, the cottage was derelict, full of debris. One can only hope the old police station willget razed or refurbished long before the same neglect sets in.

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