Boodle Hatfield Printmaking Prize with Woolwich Contemporary Print Fair – Q&A with shortlisted artist Karen Cunningham

We are delighted to have been advising and supporting Woolwich Contemporary Print Fair for a number of years. At the 2019 edition of the Fair, the Boodle Hatfield Printmaking Prize was launched, followed by a prize giving evening in late February 2020 at which the shortlisted prints were displayed and the winner announced. At the 2020 edition of Woolwich Contemporary Print Fair, members of the Art Law & More team selected their ten shortlisted prints for the 2021 Boodle Hatfield Printmaking Prize. Over the coming weeks we are getting to know some of our ten shortlisted artists through a series of Q&As. We are continuing our Q&A series with Karen Cunningham, a printer from New York, who is shortlisted for her series of prints, Chroma Gnomes.

What is the inspiration behind your shortlisted print?

My Chroma Gnomes series is a rift on the garden gnome meme. Having travelled extensively for my professional photography career and for pleasure, I have often joked that I am like the famous garden gnome that shows up in locations around the world. I replaced the garden gnome with classic geometric plaster casts, similar to the ones I used to draw in art school, carrying them with me to these barren landscapes I was drawn to visit and document. My still life interlopers are arranged to mimic details found in the landscape, such as the salt pyramids of the Bolivian Salt Flats and the angular cliff ridges of California’s San Bernardino Mountains.

What methods of printing do you use?

I incorporate photography, intaglio, and silkscreen printing techniques to make my monoprints. All of my prints begin as an original photograph taken with the intention of making a multi-plate monoprint that is hand-pulled. I digitally manipulate the photographic images, reducing the subject down to the essential graphic shapes and colors that evoke the essence of the scene I photographed.

There is a visual tension in combining the graphic mediums of photography and silkscreen with that of hand-worked plates, creating a unique work on paper. Perhaps the prints are most successful when the viewer isn’t quite sure if the print is a digital photograph, a painting, or a monoprint.

I feel the graphic component of my prints make the subjects clear and recognizable, while the hand worked portions transforms the image into a unique object. This is why I do not usually frame my prints behind glass. They are mounted to wood panels which are framed without glass. The print surface is protected with a thin coat of acrylic medium. I love having the texture of my print within the touch of the viewer, much like the experience of viewing a painting.

How did you get into printing?

I originally trained as a fine art photographer and subsequently worked as a photojournalist for over 20 years. In art school, I was attracted to the early photo processes of platinum and gum bichromate printing. These are photomechanical printing processes where the emulsion is hand applied to watercolor paper to make it light sensitive. While in school, I took a printmaking class in intaglio and then over the years gained more printmaking skills through various workshops. I think of myself as a photographer who makes prints. Sometimes these prints are conventional digital photographs and in the case of the work presented here for the Boodle Hatfield prize they are photographic images printed as monoprints.

How has the pandemic affected your work – on a practical level and in terms of inspiration?

Ten years ago, I left commercial photography to become a critical care nurse. Coming from a medical family, I always had an interest in health-related issues. I believed nursing would provide a solid income, allow me to work part-time, and to use the remainder of my time to pursue my art, which is what I have been fortunate to be able to do for the past seven years.

When the pandemic hit home in New York City, I was assigned to the hospital’s Covid Intensive Care Unit, where I have worked since last March. It has been an arduous experience as a nurse, but an extremely satisfying time where I felt useful helping patients and their families through the crisis.

With my hospital’s permission, I have photographed the medical staff and patients on the Covid ward. As an artist, I felt a responsibility to create work about the pandemic and uniquely able to translate the complicated and stark scenes of illness and vulnerability and the perseverance of the patients and staff of the Covid ward. This work was subsequently published in The Economist and The New Yorker magazines.

The pandemic has affirmed my belief in the power art has to heal, transport, and unite people. My hospital received and posted thousands of images donated by artists around the world, who made these works to thank the nurses and doctors for their service. I can tell you these images and the spirit behind them provided strong bursts of comfort and inspiration to my colleagues at the hospital.

Chroma Gnomes

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