Proximity is often the boon of creativity, which is to say, creative people seem to be at their best when working closely with other creative people. It’s this deceptively simple axiom that co-founder Michael Merry finds crucial to the success of PaperWorkers Local, a recently formed cooperative in Birmingham of artists primarily working in the field of printmaking.
“I’ve never done well outside the context you have in school,” explains 34-year-old Merry. “You’re around all these other creative people. There’s all these discussions going on you can get involved in.”
Hailing originally from Minnesota, Merry has lived off-and-on in Alabama since the age of 4, eventually attending the University of Alabama, where he realized the potential of artistic expression through his studies in philosophy, anthropology and art.
Merry knew even before he completed his graduate program in painting at the University of Delaware that when he returned to Birmingham, he was going to have to take matters into his own hands if he wanted an artist’s environment. Merry purchased two print presses and sought out interest from local artists on Facebook.
At first, Merry found a particular lack within the city; although there were various other collectives and galleries in Birmingham, none were focused on printmaking. Since July, Merry, along with 11 other members in the cooperative, has been hard at work in the print shop and exhibition space they created in Forest Park on Clairmont Avenue, between Naked Art Gallery and Silvertron Café.
“You see things other people are making, and you want to see them finish,” says Merry. “And you get excited about that, and that makes you want to go work.”
This sentiment is one shared by co-founder Cathy Wright. “It is really important to have presses available outside an academic setting. It gives an atmosphere for people to bounce ideas off each other and allows for people to be a little competitive.”
At a first glance, the art of printmaking may appear straightforward. The process can be honed down to a few steps: An image is carved into a plate; the plate is covered in ink; a piece of paper is placed atop the plate and then run through a press that acts like a steamroller, imprinting the image upon the paper. But such a simplification misses the multitude of nuances that goes into the potentially arduous procedure. The act of creating the plate itself can be a painstakingly slow series of trials and errors, and this doesn’t even factor in the various types of plates one can choose from, such as linoleum, copper and wood (to name a few) — each having its own unique effect on the eventual print. There are different types of prints, such as relief prints, screen prints and lithographs. More often than not, complications won’t arise until the plate is run through the press.
But it is the exact layering of complexity that intrigues Merry about printmaking. “It’s the indirectness of it. You are making this plate, and it has to be a certain way to get a certain result, you know that. But the resulting image looks nothing like the work you did on the plate.
“It adds a layer of complications,” Merry continues. “I’ve always wanted to over-think and over-intellectualize things. I think printmaking is a way to have that as part of my artistic practice in a way that is not overdoing and ruining things.”
Such an involved labor of love — as with any act of art — requires the space and time necessary for a person to fully invest themselves into their work. This is why PaperWorkers Local is such a crucial resource for local print-makers. The cooperative has various levels of membership, with each level assisting the other. Higher level members in the cooperative have keys to the print shop, giving them access to the tools they need whenever they are able to work within their own busy schedules. These members have the shop open at regular hours of the week so that lower level members have a consistent window of opportunity to come in and work on their own prints. Merry says the spirit of democracy is maintained throughout all levels, however, as monthly meetings are held in which the cooperative delegates business decisions, such as investing in supplies. Critique sessions are also organized so that members can compare and discuss their current work.
“It’s not going to last if everybody doesn’t feel like it’s theirs,” says Merry. He continually stresses this as he lists off the importance of other members’ diligence, such as the work Mimi Boston does as their treasurer and Cathy Wright does as their de facto paralegal, helping the group to secure their status as a nonprofit organization — a procedure that is a challenge for artists in Birmingham, since unlike many other major cities in the country, there are no lawyers on retainer by the city to assist local artists.
And the success of the cooperative is going to depend not only on the involvement of current and future members, but also the community, whose support of the arts is paramount. While PaperWorkers Local currently has a location in which to work, the cooperative is seeking out a space with more stable leasing agreement so that they can create a permanent space to facilitate even more types of print-working, such as photography.
The cooperative is also in the process of organizing more workshops so that people from the community who are not artists can come in and learn the techniques required to become print-makers. This, along with the gallery showings the cooperative holds every third Friday of the month, shows that while PaperWorkers Local is a fledgling organization, they are certainly digging their heels in for the long run.
Fortunately, Merry remains optimistic about the future of the cooperative, as well that of Birmingham’s artistic community. “It used to be you’d go to gallery openings and there would be nobody there, or the same people every time. Now you see all sorts of people who seem to be engaged and want to know what the work is about. I think people are learning art doesn’t have to be something you want to buy and live with. It can be a thing that brings up a discussion.”
Appreciative and bemused, Merry tries to sum up how this change has come about recently in Birmingham. “People have decided that they’re going to make Birmingham an interesting place. Once they decided that, they decided to be more interested in things.”