Since 2014 PrintAustin has filled Austin art galleries every January with all things fine art printmaking. The artist-run festival never fails to reinvigorate interest and appreciation for traditional and new modes of printmaking. Everything from drypoint to digital and lithography to linocut can be found. Experts willing to discuss the materials themselves (various specialized papers and inks), the historical and social function of the graphic arts, successful collaborative projects and innovative ways of installing printed material are on hand.
This year PrintAustin brought me to the Elisabet Ney Museum for an exhibition, “Women of Flatbed,” and panel discussion, followed by a one-on-one with Katherine Brimberry, co-founder and director of Flatbed Press and Gallery.
At the Ney, Brimberry introduced eight women artists who discussed their practice, and how their printmaking collaborations at Flatbed contributed to their practice. Veronica Ceci, Sandra C. Fernández, Annalise Gratovich, Melissa Miller, Cecilia Muñoz, Beverly Penn, Bettie Ward and Sydney Yeager — many of whom are not normally printmakers, but are painters, sculptors or installation artists — reflected on their individual experiences with Flatbed, while strong sentiments of admiration for Brimberry’s abilities were expressed.
Ward called her an “extreme facilitator.” Penn said Brimberry “opened up a whole new world” to her. Fernández said “Working with Kathy was almost like, working with yourself.” And Yeager said of Brimberry “she can suggest things without ever imposing her will. She put ideas in your head, and you think they’re your own!”
Penn, a sculptor, explained just how Brimberry’s encouragement stretched her ideas. “I didn’t realize my sculpture practice could intersect with printmaking until Kathy said, ‘we should make a series of monoprints about that.’ I was working with pieces of copper to make stacks that look like notebook pages and she said those would make really good plates and I never thought of extending a three-dimensional object into two dimensions… layering color and extending the form onto a surface and seeing dimension secondarily into that surface.”
Of the importance of those associations, Brimberry says, “The main idea from a publishing press, is to help people who have other practices, who are not printmakers, and to help them create work in the fine art print medium. They wouldn’t technically know how to do it, but all the mark-making is theirs and decision making is theirs. There’s a long tradition of that in the printmaking world.”
Flatbed collaborations happen rather organically, after dialogue and Brimberry’s determination that an artist’s work shows promise, and would benefit from a printmaking project.
About two years ago, for example, Long Island-based artist, Margaret Garrett, contacted Brimberry concerning her collages. Brimberry says, “I could see from correspondence that she could do some wonderful woodcuts, but she would have to come here to see what we had and what we could do with her designs, to experience it.” Garrett was in Austin for a week and together they came up with more than one “b.a.t” or bon a tirer (print lingo for ‘okay-to-print’ proof). Brimberry adds “That was contract, she paid for it, and we sell her work on consignment, but now that I have worked with her, if she came back, we could do a co-publication and split it.”
While Brimberry doesn’t reveal a lot personally, her commitment to the medium and confidence in her role as collaborator come through loud and clear. As a daughter of a cotton farmer born near in the small West Texas town of Brownfield, she learned to work hard and wait to see what labor yields. As a teen, she won an art scholarship at a two-year college in Lubbock, then attended New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas and did graduate work at New Mexico State University. It wasn’t until the early 1980s, that she along with her husband Mike, now an integral part of the operation, and children moved to Austin. “It was good to be back in Texas and we liked the art scene,” she says.
In 1989, Brimberry and then business partner, Mark Smith, incorporated Flatbed and by January 1990 they opened a studio on West Third Street, then a forgotten corner of downtown Austin. They started with three presses (now it’s closer to ten). “People could come use the equipment and we did publishing and had workshops too,” recalls Brimberry
Always interested in education (Brimberry also taught at the college level) and making the medium accessible, the pair opened a gallery in 1994. By 1999, they relocated to a warehouse on Martin Luther King, Jr., Blvd., establishing one of the first gallery and studio complexes in East Austin.
Smith left in 2012, but over the years the 18,400-square-foot space has cultivated a community of arts minded people and projects and garnered an international reputation. Yet, being a landlord to multiple tenants at the Flatbed property demanded a lot and Brimberry had to prioritize her collaborative activities and creative time. Her own art-making often took a back seat. As an artist Brimberry specializies in intaglio techniques, combining copper etching and polymer gravure plates — sometimes known as solar plates — to, as she says, “explore private and universal metaphors.”
Later this spring she will be doing a residency in Serbia and this summer she will again teach an immersive printmaking workshop at La Romita School of Art in Terni, Italy with artist, Susan (Suzi) Davidoff.
Still the biggest thing on Brimberry’s horizon is Flatbed’s impending move. After 20 years, Flatbed is leaving its East Austin home for a new warehouse space at 3701 Drossett Drive, in near Southeast Austin.
Last year owners of the building on E. MLK, Jr. Blvd., a Dallas based real estate group, decided not to renew Flatbed’s lease and instead develop the property.
Brimberry and her husband Mike have been packing up everything with a bit of nostalgia. During our conversation, Mike steps in at one point to ask whether “all of the ink in the black cabinet” is theirs.
They will miss their neighbors, but understandably look forward to focusing less on landlord duties and more on executing plans to expand their role as a center for works on paper in their new 6,020-square-foot space.
Not only will Flatbed continue to operate a professional press for collaborations with artists, but it will also house a “community press” where artists use their studio 24/7, on a membership basis. The facility will also have a more self-contained gallery with opportunities to showcase more artists working in a variety of prints- and-multiple media, including print-based installation.
Excitedly Brimberry mentions the new kitchen, nice bathrooms, and a side yard with trees, event-friendly elements missing from the East Austin building. She predicts it will take roughly a year to get organized.
Importantly, Flatbed is not a non-profit organization. Through the years Brimberry says, “We realized that with any business you have to diversify to get the amount of money that you need to make it work and everything we did seemed to make sense and they all fed each other.” Maybe it was her farming roots that taught her “if we kept at it, and got good at it, it would reap its rewards.”
At 71, retiring certainly would have been a reasonable option for Brimberry. But she didn’t opt for that.
“Before I die, I would love for (Flatbed) to be carried on by somebody else,” she says. “I know the only way to do that is to make it profitable, at least enough that someone would see a future in doing it. That is my mission. That, and the educational part, the professional part, the open studio and the gallery.”