Photograph of Rhea Fontaine (left) and Pam Paulson (right) by Taliesin Gilkes-Bower, Courtesy of Paulson Fontaine Press
Though we are unable to share this exhibition with you in person at this time, the Museum is pleased to be able to provide a first look at Personal to Political: Celebrating the African American Artists of Paulson Fontaine Press. Organized by Carrie Lederer, Curator of Exhibitions, Bedford Gallery, Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek, California, the exhibition features works by African American artists who have helped to shape the contemporary art conversation. Presenting a wide range of prints, paintings, quilts, and sculptures, the works on view include an array of abstract and formal imagery depicting narratives that speak to personal experiences and political perspectives.
All the prints were created at Paulson Fontaine Press (PFP), which is run by two extraordinary women. Pam Paulson received a BFA in Painting from the University of Texas Arlington in 1979, and an MFA in Painting from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1982. Paulson then worked as a Master Printer at Crown Point Press in San Francisco for several years. There she found her calling; working with artists to create prints. She began Paulson Press in 1993 and began publishing prints with former partner Renee Bott in 1996.
Rhea Fontaine received a BA in Fine Art from the University of California, Berkeley in 1998, and a Post-Baccalaureate Diploma in Museum Studies from Studio Art Centers International in Florence, Italy in 2000. Fontaine joined the press in 2002 and along with Paulson helped mold a publishing program from their shared interest in promoting diversity. The press has published numerous projects with artists of color and women artists. In 2016, Fontaine became a partner and the press was renamed Paulson Fontaine Press.
MMFA Curator Jennifer Jankauskas caught up with both partners to learn more about the Press, their dedication to working with African American artists, and some of the works featured in the exhibition.
I know that PFP works with many contemporary artists at various stages in their careers, but the press has a special commitment to working with African American artists. Why is that important to PFP?
We have a strong shared interest in the history of American civil rights, which has influenced our publishing decisions. As a woman and minority-owned business, we are very mindful of equality and representation in the art world. We are proud to use our platform to promote diversity. It is exciting to see that the art world has recently begun to focus on this trove of underrepresented talent, and we are pleased to see a shift in the canon.
What is the process for starting a project? Do you reach out to the artist or vice versa? Can you elaborate on how this works?
We follow the careers of many artists with great interest. When we feel that an artist is a good fit for our program, we reach out and invite them. We work with four to five artists per year. Ideally, we visit an artists’ studio before their residency at the press. This allows us to observe how they make work and it helps us navigate translation into the print medium. Artists are busy people, so we often schedule projects years in advance.
Do most of the artists you work with have prior printmaking experience, or is it new to them?
Most artists are not fluid in printmaking. If they have had prior experience, they have usually forgotten the specifics, or it was in a different style of printmaking than what we typically do, intaglio. When an artist is in the studio, our goal is to aid them in the creation of unique editions. The artist has control over all artistic decisions, and we support them by providing tools and technical know-how. It can be difficult for an artist to adjust to working backward and in layers. Our job as printers is to help them push past the learning curve of printmaking and enable them to make the marks they want to make.
I know that printmaking is a very collaborative endeavor between the artists and the master printmakers. PFP seems to take an approach that allows for a lot of involvement and experimentation on the part of the artist to achieve what they want. I imagine this is incredibly fulfilling for the artists. Can you describe how the process works?
We try to avoid saying no. When an artist poses a question in the studio, we do our best to allow that line of thinking to unfold. Sometimes this means that the prints will be more labor-intensive and difficult to produce. We do our best to embrace the challenge. For example, when we worked with Samuel Levi Jones, we could feel that the compositions need to be larger. So, we set up a sewing machine and stitched multiple prints together to create bigger prints. Sam instructed us with the sewing, and we zig-zag stitched our way into prints as large as 65″ x 65″.
Can you discuss a few other memorable experiences with some of the artists featured in the exhibition Personal to Political?
Kerry James Marshall does things his own way. While making the plates for the print Vignette (Wishing Well), Kerry revealed the intricacies of his studio practice. Our interest was piqued when he walked into the studio with a handful of black Barbie dolls. It turns out that Kerry fashions the clothes that are worn by his figures. He wants the style to be timeless and ambiguous; he made the top from a tube sock, and the skirts’ oversized buttons are from a coat and loom large in proportion to the doll who wore it. This methodical approach and attention to detail anchor his paintings and prints with totally believable worlds.
Critics recognize Martin Puryear as a figure of undeniable importance in American sculpture, and we’ve been making prints with him since 2001. It was during our very first project together that the Twin Towers fell on September 11th, 2001. It is said that adversity doesn’t build character, it reveals it. Martin’s focused and thoughtful presence helped guide us through that difficult time. We all continued to work, concentrating on our purpose, watching Martin build steady lines, one upon the next; each work revealing new possibilities.
Born in Alabama, Lonnie Holley is a self-taught artist who creates his work from the things he collects everywhere he goes. There is not a random piece of wire or a colorful plastic bag he wouldn’t like to meet. As the seventh of 27 children, Lonnie grew up fast, making his own way in the world by pulling a wagon and collecting other men’s trash to re-sell or repurpose. Lonnie’s practice and purpose is to show people that their wasteful ways are hurting the planet and the humans who live on it. Noticing a piece of old plywood in the studio last time he was at PFP, Lonnie grabbed our jigsaw and started cutting out figures, which became the matrices we used for woodblock prints. These woodblocks expose his predilection for nested and overlapping human presences, ancestries and communities, and the promises of a future within the past.
What themes emerge in the exhibition that really speak to you and why?
Overall, what speaks to us is the richness of each individual artist’s path. The uniqueness of each exploration and its power to speak truth.
What has Paulson Fontaine Press been doing during the pandemic?
The gallery has been closed to the public and we have been working a reduced schedule, rotating shifts one person at a time. We were able to start a new print with Mary Lee Bendolph, one of the Gee’s Bend quilters, which we are proofing through the mail. We hope to release it this summer.
Any other thoughts you would like to add?
We are thrilled that the exhibition traveled to Montgomery! Montgomery is so historically significant to the American civil rights movement, and the work in the show draws so much from that shared history. We had planned to see the show at the Montgomery Museum of Art and to attend Mayday in Gee’s Bend this year. We hope we and the public will be able to see it at some point.