I’m Not Trying to Change Anything, I’m Just Changing
Public Works Gallery, Chicago, IL
Saugatuck Center for the Arts, Saugatuck, MI
A PROJECT PAGE
Process shot by Ben Blount.
[ ID: A photograph of a light-filled studio. In the foreground, a portion of the unfinished Pop It print is visible. Wooden letterpress type is sitting on top of it, spelling the word "Pop". In the background, a printing press is visible along with a collection of tools and paper. ]
Process shots from the artists
[ ID: Two photographs documenting the making of Pop It!. The first shows an unfinished version of the print with several wooden letters arranged on top of it. The letters "I" and "C" are repeated several times. The second is a close crop of an unfinished version of the print. A hand holding a black marker is shown above an unfinished print. Geometric marks can be seen on top of the print in black.
Pop It! is the spiritual and material manifestation of a serial collaboration with artist Ben Blount. Ben is an Evanston, IL-based letterpress printer with an acumen for messaging. His work aims at building community and questioning the status quo, powered by the multiplicity inherent to hand-set type and hand-printing. His powerful messages grace shop windows, front lawns, and museum walls. They ring true in any setting. They speak truth to power.
Our collaboration formalized while developing the catalog design for the exhibition Chicago Avant-Garde: Five Women Ahead of Their Time at The Newberry Library. We worked with Ben extensively creating the cover design for the book by passing press sheets between our respective studios. Together, we developed a lexicon of experiments, from which the cover and interior of the catalog were derived.
Pop It! mirrors the nature of the collaborative press work of our initial exchanges but cranks up the experimentation. This print edition differs in that it was made for sake of itself, for the sake of conversation, and for finding a common edge of our mediums and messages. Pop It! emerged over the course of many exchanges, some verbal, some material. It straddles abstraction and compression, emitting something only possible in the marriage of word and image, a direct hit to the synapses, a charged space to inhabit and exchange.
On a pragmatic level, our goal was to challenge the myth of the Avant-Garde—the narrative of a select few individuals shaping and sharpening the edge of culture. Instead, with Pop It!, we explore collectivity, the power of exchange, and the poetry of shared experience.
Process shots from the artists
[ ID: Three photographs documenting the making of Pop It!. The first shows copies of the unfinished print on a drying rack. The second shows the unfinished print with wooden letterpress type laying on top spelling out the words "It Might". ]
Pop It!, Ben Blount & Sonnenzimmer, 2021, 4-color letterpress and 8-color screen printed + blind-embossed, 12.5 x 19 inches edition of 163, printed by Ben Blount (letterpress) and Sonnenzimmer (screen-printing)
[ ID: Photo documentation of a graphic work. The print prominently features the text "It Might Blow Up." This phrase overlays a photograph of drops of water and other graphic elements including shapes that resembled the letters "I" and "C". A three-dimensional graphic effect is achieved with elongated planes of deep blues stemming from the "I" letterforms. These elements all stretch to the print's focal point, an inset image of an abstracted bubble and a pointed shape which appears as if it will pop the bubble. ]
Ben Blount is a Detroit-born artist, designer, and letterpress printer that loves books, type, and putting ink on paper. His work often explores questions of race and identity and the stories we tell ourselves about living in America. Ben is a believer in the power of the printed word and shares his passion for print and design speaking to students and educators around the country and as a board member of Artists Book House and Fine Press Book Association. His artists books and prints are included in numerous collections including the Joan Flasch Collection at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, The Newberry Library and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ben prints out of MAKE, his storefront studio in Evanston’s West Village neighborhood.
Sonnenzimmer is the collaborative practice of artists Nick Butcher and Nadine Nakanishi. Our work investigates and challenges the preconceived notions of the graphic arts. Our experimental studio was established in 2006 in Chicago. Together, we explore the physical and psycho-physical nature of visualization through image-making, sculpture, writing, publishing, exhibitions, design, music, and performance. While we move through an array of media, our focus is on triangulating a deeper understanding of graphic expression at large.
From left to right: Nadine Nakanishi, Nick Butcher, Ben Blount, and Liesl Olson presenting at Designing Chicago Avant-Garde at the Newberry Library. Photograph by Pawinski Photography.
[ ID: Four individuals sitting in chairs on a stage. Each is smiling. Projected behind them is a slide from their group presentation about their collaborative work. ]
Pop It! was initially produced as a “takeaway” for audience members at the event Designing Chicago Avant-Garde held at the Newberry Library in November of 2021 where we engaged in a public presentation and conversation about collaborative work for Chicago Avant-Garde: Five Woman Ahead of Their Time. Hosted by the exhibition’s curator, Liesl Olson, the exchange offered the opportunity to propel and project a way of working where artists and institutions work in tandem towards a shared goal. Pop It! is a symbolic gesture of that synergy.
To keep that momentum flowing, we are passing all proceeds from the sales of this work (after shipping and shipping materials) to our equity initiative Ideas Beyond Formats, a BIPOC+ publishing grant we launched in 2021. Purchases will help us reach our goal of $7,000.00 to fund the 2022 grant cycle. We've raised $4,827.00 as of February 25th. Help us close the gap with your purchase.
SZ: Hi Ben, can you share what’s on your mind currently?
BB: I’ve been thinking about abundance lately. There are a lot of people struggling during the pandemic. And we’re seeing how so many of the structures and institutions we interact with on a daily basis are not built for our best outcomes. So thinking about abundance in many ways—our opportunities, resources (money), and our visions for ourselves.
SZ: You have collaborated with many people, but curious if you ever had done a collaborative print with another printmaker?
BB: Our piece was the first fully collaborative piece I’ve done. I’ve had discussions and made plans for collaborations, but nothing that was really 50/50 in this way. I’m in the middle of a back and forth collaboration with another letterpress printer, but it’s long-distance, and at this point over a long period of time. It’s my turn to print and so far the best part has been opening that package from her and seeing what she added. There is no theme or overarching idea guiding this piece, so it's fun to see how it slowly builds.
SZ: Your work is often language-based. You are so good with succinct and meaningful text-based graphics. The collaborative print passed through all of our hands a few times before words were introduced. I’m curious what that creative space was like for you, the non-textual and how you were responding to the print in those terms in those early stages, what guided your decisions, etc. I’m also curious when you did decide to bring in words, how that suspended time of ambiguous abstraction might have influenced your choice.
Process shot of Pop It! in the making at Ben Blount's studio.
[ ID: Photograph of two versions of the print, Pop It, in an unfinished state. The prints are side by side. One features the words "It Might" in bright orange. The other features the same words but in a deep red and also repeats the word "Might". ]
BB: I was a little nervous, to be honest—and excited to see what we would build together. Usually, when working with text, I have something specific I’m trying to say. In these early stages I wanted to use text in a way that moved the idea and composition forward, but with plenty of room for you to possibly push it in a whole new direction. I love typography, so finding ways to use letterforms more as shape and a way to move the eye across the page was a lot of fun. I also responded to your encouragement to not play small on the page and made sure that every element of my first layer interacted with something that you had put down. So a literal connection was made with those first two layers and it built a foundation of sorts for everything we did after.
When I did bring words in, I still wanted to bring them in fragments to leave a space open for multiple (and possibly unintended) meanings. I had an idea guiding the introduction of the text though I didn't want it to necessarily be obvious to the viewer. It was fun trying to walk that line.
SZ: On a strictly material level, I’m curious of any ruminations on the mixing of letterpress and screen printing that might have come to you as a result of this collaboration.
BB: It would be interesting to know how the two inks would interact with each other on the page. I found out how the colors would lay on top of each other by trial and error. It would be interesting to know some of those things beforehand to be able to leverage certain effects. I also wonder about the idea of using the same image sources—turning it into a screen and also a plate that then could be letterpress printed. What would we do with the same image printed in two different processes?
SZ: Working in screen printing and letterpress, there is often a limit to scale, based on the size of your press, or the strength of your arms. I love how you’ve conquered scale with multiplicity and iteration in your White Supremacy Is… installation. That said, I wonder what you might do with no size restraints for your particular approach to messaging and image-making. Curious if you’d share perhaps an unrealized dream project with no size limitations?
BB: When I was in grad school one of my professors said that they’d like to see my work on a billboard. I think work at that scale, but in an unexpected location would be powerful—maybe in a library or a grocery store. I also think of the text you see on exterior home insulation. There is the repeated text on the boards or the Tyvek wrapping. What if that text was one huge statement? I think wrapping a house or a city block with text would be pretty powerful.
SZ: What’s on the horizon, what next? Any shout-outs?
BB: Next is finishing a book on the 1619 Project that I started with some students a few years ago. After that, it's coming up with another print or book project. I don’t have anything lined up right now, which is rare for me, but also exciting. Then there is a podcast project that I’ve been thinking about for years that I’d like to put out in the world. Shout-outs to April, Daniel, Craig, and Judy—Chicagoland printers that helped me through some mechanical difficulties I had in the printing of this piece. Printers are the best!
Give Ben a follow @blountben and also check out his website at www.benblount.com.