Perhaps it’s just me, but once in a while I fantasize about leading a life that is different from my own. I find myself lamenting a lack of creative flair or artistic talent. Other times, I wish I had a little more nerve and took a few more risks. And since moving back to Paducah I have found a number of opportunities to turn these daydreams into realities.
I recently had the opportunity to walk in the shoes of a local artist and printmaker, Freda Fairchild. During a visit to Studio Miska in Paducah’s LowerTown Arts District, I asked Freda to take me under her wing for an afternoon and teach me how she creates art. Freda enthusiastically accepted my request and so our story unfolds.
Freda is a LowerTown resident and artist who, in a single conversation, will make you fall in love with the artist and her art. Her experiences alone, including time spent working as a costume designer for an Opera company in California, as well as working as a painter and teacher, will entice you to learn more about how and why she became a printmaker.
“It’s extraordinary being who I am. I am so happy being me,” Freda says.
Freda’s love affair with printmaking began as a young woman after viewing an exhibit of Eastern European prints, many of which were viscosity prints. Freda described the process to me.
“That is a process which allows you to layer three separate colors on the plate before printing. The result is very rich with as many as six different resulting colors and tones.”
It was this show that ignited a passion for printmaking that led Freda down a new path in creating art.
Printmaking did not keep Freda from other creative pursuits, but rather allowed her to employ a variety of skills and techniques she developed as a painter and costume designer. She is constantly evolving as an artist as she learns from other artists through leading and teaching workshops. She opened Studio Miska in 2005 and is open to the public Thursdays through Saturdays from noon to 5 pm
Before my lesson could begin, Freda instructed me to find a photograph that had significance to me. I chose a black-and-white photo taken in 1955 at my grandparents’ wedding. I chose the photo because it showcased the playfulness of the relationship my grandparents continue to share over 50 years later.
After examining the photo and talking with Freda about what made the photo interesting to me, we focused attention on the bride and groom. My grandmother, being a small-framed woman of 5’6” had to stand on her tip toes to kiss my 6’1” grandfather. The couple was 17 and 18 years old when the photo was taken.
The photographer caught a moment when my grandmother’s veil was about to topple off. My grandmother’s sister is seen juggling the bouquet, while at the same time, trying to keep my grandmother’s veil in place on her head. It’s a candid shot which captures the essence of my grandparents’ relationship.
The process Freda taught me is called polyester lithography. Simplified, it is a method in which an artist uses a polyester plate, which basically looks like a thin sheet of plastic, to produce multiple copies of the same image. As the artist builds the piece, the process becomes more complex, as image after image is layered upon layer, creating an extraordinary visual effect.
Printmaking brings depth to an image. What I love so much about Freda’s work is how she applies a layer of dimensions to one piece of work to tell the story of her subjects, which in some cases evokes an emotional response to the piece.
My project was only an introduction to the process of printmaking and therefore, much more simple than anything a professional printmaker would produce. Choosing the image was only the first step. After this Freda showed me how to produce a polyester plate. This allowed me to preserve the original photo, as the next step was to immerse the image into a solution of water and vinegar.
Soaking it in this solution prepared the plate to hold ink in the places I wanted to reproduce in my lithograph. It also treated the plate in such a way that would repel ink in the places I did not want ink to absorb. It was certainly a lesson in chemistry for me, applying science to art.
After the image was soaked, we applied ink with a roller, called a brayer. Freda checked the image thoroughly to make sure the ink was evenly dispersed and to ensure that there was no excess ink.
Placing the inked plate on the printing press between a thick sheet of plastic and a piece of acid-free paper, printing blankets were laid on top and the image was rolled through the press. When the image came through, and the blankets were lifted, the lithograph was produced!
It took several attempts to get the image just right, as the photo I had chosen lacked sufficient contrast. Sometimes ink was too thick on a subject’s face, making it appear too dark. Other times items in the background may have had too much shadow. By the fifth round Freda gave her seal of approval. In this final attempt, the ink produced an unexpected outline around the skirt of my grandmother’s wedding dress, creating a nice visual effect.
The process seemed so simple and yet it took Freda’s skilled eye to determine if the ink was properly applied. Apart from her direction, the image would have turned out black and splotchy.
Freda and I flipped through other prints she has produced — some on paper, others on cloth. Freda completed a series of work in which she created the appearance of the bone structure within a woman’s body. It’s as if you can see right through this woman into the complexity that defines who she is.
What I found so interesting about printmaking was that a print appears one dimensional at first glance. However, as the layers are peeled back and you see the building blocks that developed the print, a story unfolds using images, texture and color.
Paducah’s Renaissance Area is filled with interesting people including shopkeepers, restaurateurs, entrepreneurs and, of course, artists. Each seems eager to share their knowledge and their lives with their patrons.
This is what makes Paducah feel like home to so many of us. Spend an afternoon perusing through a gallery, talk to an artist about their work and what brought them to Paducah’s LowerTown Arts District, enjoy fine foods and wine at one of the many downtown restaurants, and you will find that there is nothing dull about this funky little town we live in.
By Jessica Perkins