Over 40 Years of Fine Printmaking at UC Santa Cruz Celebrated in Exhibit

A new exhibit highlights more than 40 years of letterpress and other arts at Cowell Press in Santa Cruz. (Courtesy: Carolyn Lagattuta)

Back in the early 1970s, a couple of UC Santa Cruz students wanted to take a class in letterpress book printing. There being no such class, SB Masters and Tom Whitridge lined up a potential teacher, respected San Francisco typographer Jack Stauffacher, and then a grant to cover his pay. Soon after that, poet and printer William Everson began teaching at UCSC, too. Over time, the program grew to offer UCSC students all sorts of classes, in typography, design, printmaking and book making.

A new exhibit at the Eloise Pickard Smith Gallery that opens this weekend called Pressing On: Selected Works from the Cowell Press explores the legacy of the UCSC program. On Saturday, there will be a panel discussion at the Page Smith Library that features the current head of the program, Gary Young, and a couple of star alums, including Felicia Rice and Tom Killion.

"That was a wonderful moment in time at UC Santa Cruz," says Killion, whose work has been exhibited in California, New York and Europe. "There were all these wonderful professors who had come to participate in a world-class experiment."

Killion hails from Marin County and currently lives near Point Reyes. But for many decades, he lived in Santa Cruz County, starting with a stint at UC Santa Cruz in the early 1970s. That's where his career started -- "inadvertently," he says.

“Santa Cruz from the Pogonip,” more or less the view from Cowell College, UCSC, a multi-block woodcut print from 2002 by Tom Killion.
“Santa Cruz from the Pogonip,” more or less the view from Cowell College, UCSC, a multi-block woodcut print from 2002 by Tom Killion. (Courtesy: Tom Killion)

He was a history major making a book of linoleum prints of Mt. Tamalpais in his spare time when a friend told him about a class taught by Stauffacher. "He had a Zen way of teaching. He didn't show us how to print. So the students showed each other the technical aspects. He'd be talking about the great European type designers of the 20th century - which was way over our heads - but it got us inspired," Killion says.

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Killion was hooked. He went on to spend the summer after he graduated making his book, 28 views of Mount Tamalpais, inspired by Hokusai's 36 Views of Mount Fuji. Thus began Killion's long career celebrating the coastal landscape of California in a style adapted from the traditional Japanese aesthetic of Ukiyo-ë.

Rice arrived in 1974. "When I came to Santa Cruz, it was because of the Press. I found exactly what I needed," Rice says, whose work has been exhibited all over the world.

Felicia Rice has done a lot of work with Chicano/a artists, including Codex Espangliensis, including performance texts and poems by Guillermo Gómez-Peña with collage imagery by Enrique Chagoya.
Felicia Rice has done a lot of work with Chicano/a artists, including Codex Espangliensis, including performance texts and poems by Guillermo Gómez-Peña with collage imagery by Enrique Chagoya. (Courtesy Felicia Rice)

Santa Cruz developed a book arts community, Rice says, that soon became a well-regarded hub nationally and internationally. Many students went on to work in book design in New York, and digital design in Silicon Valley.

"It was a very tight group of people who were anxious to teach and learn from each other," Rice says.

Thanks to Silicon Valley, she says, fine-art printing has been revolutionized. "We were practicing an archaic craft, and over the years, as digital tools made more things possible to more people, everybody got involved." She adds the craft has gone from being dominated by men to being dominated by women. "I was one of the few women doing it, and now that is not the case!"

Who's coming up now through Cowell Press? Judge for yourself. Pressing On features work from current students, as well as from the archives, and will be up at the Eloise Pickard Smith Gallery through March 4.

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