Visual ArtsOctober 30, 2013


In 1973, when he was the chair of the art department at Drew University, Peter Chapin was approached by four fellow artists with an idea.

What if they started an organization that promoted and fostered the fine art of printmaking across New Jersey? Artists would have a place to work, display their projects, and offer support to each other while practicing an art form that is often painstaking and requires extensive equipment.

Such was the birth of the Printmaking Center of New Jersey.

“It was bringing art to a wider community, as well as bringing artists together,” Chapin recalls. “It was a good gathering place.”

Four decades later, the non-profit arts center in Branchburg is still one of the only organizations in the region devoted to printmaking— the process in which artists create pieces by transferring an image to paper, canvass, or glass using a block, plate, screen, or stone.

“Our center is the only place in New Jersey that has all the equipment, all the technology, and all the expertise,” says executive director Linda Helm Krapf.

And from Nov. 2 through Dec. 28, visitors can also take in the center’s 40th anniversary exhibit, featuring works from Chapin and Judith Brodsky — two artists who helped plant “the seeds of printmaking in the state,” Helm Krapf says.

For Chapin, of course, it’s a homecoming. He co-founded the organization with Lois Berghoff, Zelda Burdick, Florence Wender, and Carol Yudin, the four friends who presented him with the idea.

At first, it was called the Printmaking Council of New Jersey. They held exhibits in colleges and places like the headquarters of Nabisco and Squibb. In 1978, the organization moved into a two-story building provided by the Somerset County Parks Commission.

Today, the Printmaking Center houses studio space that artists can rent — stacked with presses, exposure units, washout sinks, and other equipment they might not have at home. Those looking to learn the process can take one of 30 or so classes at the center. Military veterans can participate in Combat Paper, a program in which they turn their uniforms into art to tell their stories.

And those who aren’t art connoisseurs can get an answer to a question they may have: What exactly is printmaking anyway?

“You look at a drawing or a painting, and most people know how it physically came to be,” Chapin explains. “Everyone knows what a paintbrush and paint does. But a lot of people look at a print have no idea what kind of physical process went on to make it. That’s something we try to educate people about. That’s part of the mission.”

There are actually multiple types of printmaking: etching, lithography, silkscreen, woodcut, linocut, handmade paper, letterpress.

“It feels so different from using a paintbrush or a pencil that you end up creating something quite different than you had before,” says Chapin, who received his degree in painting. “You see this in the work of Picasso and Rembrandt. They do some marvelous things in prints they couldn’t do in their paintings.”

“It’s not like a copy of a painting,” he adds. “It’s a totally new work with new material.”

And it can take up to five steps before you finish a piece. “It’s about the process,” Helm Krapf says. “It’s not about immediacy the way a painting is.”

Most importantly, though, the Printmaking Center continues to fulfill a key part of the original mission laid out by its founders: to provide a community for artists.

“You can sit at home and paint all day long and all year long and never engage with other people,” Helm Krapf says. “But because printmaking requires special equipment, it’s always been a communal discipline. We often have two to four artists in a studio at the same time, sharing ideas, tricks of the trade, and supporting one another. We’re the place that is the bridge between those artists and the rest of the world.”

“Roots and Rites: Recent Work by Judith Brodsky and Peter Chapin” on display November 2 – December 28, 2013. PCNJ’s 40th Anniversary Exhibition celebrates the incubators who put printmaking on the map in New Jersey. Opening/Pre-Benefit Reception on Saturday, November 2 from 5:30 – 7 p.m. For more information, visit http://www.printnj.org.

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Brent Johnson
Brent Johnson

Brent Johnson is a pop-culture-obsessed writer from East Brunswick, N.J. He's currently a reporter for The Star-Ledger of Newark. Before that, he was a longtime entertainment and music columnist for The Trenton Times. His work has also been published by Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated On Campus and Night & Day Magazine. His favorite musical artists: Elvis Costello, Billy Joel, The Smiths, Roxy Music, Dave Matthews Band, The Beatles, Blur, Squeeze, The Kinks. When he's not writing, Brent is the lead singer in alt-rock band The Clydes.