UMaine is a leader in the development of non-toxic printmaking
About the Photo:
With training in non-toxic printmaking techniques, it is not only
possible to acheive comparable-quality prints, but to employ a much
wider range of visual options and possibilities in the artwork.
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Artist Susan Groce was a student when
she first learned about the beauty — and inherent dangers — of intaglio
"I was afraid to put the plates in the nitric acid for fear of losing my
fingers," Groce says. "But at the same time, the mystery of it was very,
In this form of intaglio, known as etching, metal plates are coated with
acid-resistant grounds (a varnish-like substance) and an image is
created using a variety of tools to expose the metal. An acid bath
creates grooves that carry ink (and image) to paper.
Concern about the chemicals used led Groce to include ways of developing
safer methods for handling toxic printmaking materials in her graduate
school research at the University of Michigan. "The problem was," she
says, "we were asking the wrong question. We were looking at goggles,
gloves and vent systems. But now there has been a paradigm shift, and we
are looking instead at safer materials."
Five years ago, The University of Maine Professor of Art joined The
Edinburgh Printmakers Workshop in Scotland, one of the few international
print studios dedicated to experimental intaglio printmaking using
non-toxic materials. Groce joined a growing number of artists throughout
the world who are substituting new methods and alternative materials,
such as common household products, for traditional etching processes
using acids and organic solvents.
Today at The University of Maine, Groce leads one of the few full-system
programs worldwide that offer high-quality intaglio printing that is
safe to health and environment.
With training in non-toxic printmaking methods, it is not only possible
to achieve comparable-quality prints, but to employ a much wider range
of visual options and possibilities in the artwork.
"This has put UMaine on the map internationally," says Groce, who has
been a printmaker for 25 years. "In the fine art print world, The
University of Maine is well regarded for innovative printmaking. We have
established international affiliations through projects and residencies
in Northern Ireland, England, Scotland, Canada and Australia, and we
have brought renowned printmakers to campus in an effort to draw
together global perspectives."
Safe intaglio printmaking got its start in the early 1990s, when
Canadian Keith Howard began experimenting with materials in etching,
replacing petroleum-based products with acrylics. Edinburgh Printmakers
took up the challenge of adapting Howard's methods using acrylic
products produced in the United Kingdom.
After her initial visit to Edinburgh Printmakers, Groce began to work
closely with Friedhard Kiekeben, who also was developing the innovative
Edinburgh Etch, in which nitric acid is replaced with ferric chloride
(corrosive salt) and citric acid (used in beverages). Together, the
artists worked to find alternatives for acid-resistant grounds in a
system referred to as acrylic-resist etching. They also experimented
with photo-polymer etching, which combines photo-polymer films used in
the electronics industry with traditional printmaking methods.
At UMaine, Groce adapted the Edinburgh techniques to an American
setting. She enlisted the help of her students in testing materials, and
Kiekeben traveled from Scotland to contribute to the research. They
succeeded in developing the Orono Ground, which is now recognized as one
of the most versatile and flexible multi-purpose acrylic-resist grounds
in the field.
In addition to teaching printmaking and drawing at UMaine, Groce has
given workshops in safer printmaking techniques throughout the United
States, UK, Canada, and Australia. In 2000, Groce was an artist-in-
residence at Edith Cowan University in Perth, where she worked with
students and faculty to adapt non-toxic intaglio techniques to
An exciting extension of this work involves bringing these materials and
techniques to some of Australia's renowned aboriginal artists through
Open Bite Australia print workshop at Edith Cowan University.
"Printmaking is evolving at a fast pace," says Groce, who uses non-toxic
printmaking in her award-winning art, which has been featured in nine
international and 12 national juried exhibitions in the past five years.
"It's important to encourage artists to be just as creative with
concepts, content and aesthetics as with materials and process. But most
artists are not trained as chemists and are less inclined to do
materials research. We are bringing a bit of the scientific method into
the print studio and encouraging students to be involved with invention.
"UMaine printmaking students have found it both exciting and empowering
to be integrally involved in revolutionizing the print process through
the materials research."
In 1998, UMaine began to invest in specialized equipment for safe
photo-etching processes in the Department of Art printmaking studio.
First was the acquisition of an integrated ultraviolet light unit for
exposing photo-polymer films. This academic year, Groce received a
University of Maine System Trustee Professorship that enabled
acquisition of state-of-the-art digital equipment for research in
integrating photographic, reprographic, handwork and digital imagery
with the new acrylic-resist intaglio, and photo-polymer printing
Groce believes that with the improving quality in digital technologies,
such as cameras and scanners, the hazards of using the darkroom to
create photo-positives can now also be bypassed. She is using these
high- quality digital positives to transfer imagery to the photo-polymer
light-sensitive films and into the intaglio printing process.
The crossover to the new photo-polymer films requires a fair amount of
testing to determine a variety of factors to produce positives for
"UMaine has been distinct because we are, and continue to be, committed
to research in new technologies, methods and equipment to develop safer
printmaking practices that also push the limits of our aesthetic and
conceptual possibilities," Groce says.
The projected construction of UMaine's new studio art building, to
include a customized print shop, will further enhance the University's
capabilities and leadership in the field.
"The printmaking processes we are currently developing are very much in
demand, and will be in sync with projected changes in the field
internationally. It's very exciting to explore the current technical and
aesthetic cross section of ideas about this medium. There is an
explosion of possibilities," Groce says.
by Gladys Ganiel
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.