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Summer 2002

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Going Green

Going Green
UMaine is a leader in the development of non-toxic printmaking techniques

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 printmaking.

"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, very intriguing."

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 Australian products.

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 methods.

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 museum-quality prints.

"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
Summer 2002

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