Fine art printing a passion at Straw Hat

It’s not unusual in our hyper-paced world of instant gratification for people to lose their cool when a computer printer takes more than a couple minutes to get a job done. But the founders of Atlanta’s Straw Hat Press take a radically different approach to print-making.

Possibly the only shops of its kind in the Southeast, Straw Hat creates fine art prints using old-fashioned, time-intensive methods in which patience and a steady hand are a requirement: Getting an image just right can easily take several weeks. The business, located in a studio at the Goat Farm Arts Center on Atlanta’s Westside, was established by three recent graduates of SCAD-Atlanta’s MFA Print-making program: Laura Cleary, Shaun McCallum, and Ashley Schick.

“You’ve got to be a little masochistic to work these old manual processes,” said McCallum of the exacting and often physically demanding work. He joked that a typical day, spent wiping down plates, heating ink to get the viscosity just right, cranking down the cylinder on the press and manually running an image through four times per print — can make a gym membership unnecessary.

The heart and soul of their shop is a Charles Brand Cylinder Etching Press, a large steel table with a hand-powered, crank-operated cylinder. It looks something like a cross between a massive pasta machine and a medieval torture rack. The press dates from the 1970s, but it replicates print-making processes that are much older.

“It’s kind of a workhorse etching press,” said Cleary. “There are finer ones that put down a little more pressure, but this is a very good strong one. It’s kind of like the Honda of etching presses.” Weighing in at a ton, the press exerts several tons of pressure to push ink from plates onto paper as it’s passed beneath the cylinder.

Straw Hat is equipped to do several kinds of print-making, but it specializes in etching-based prints and a 19th-century technique called photogravure, in which a photographic image is etched onto a copper plate coated with a light-sensitive material. The process was once the preferred method of reproducing photographic images in the mid-19th century. Straw Hat is one of a handful of shops in existence that still employs the technique.

The shop mostly works with local artists to make limited edition prints of their work, but it also takes on contract projects such as artists’ books, one-of-a-kind wedding invitations and CD covers. The printers offer workshops to the general public on metal drawing, etching and Coptic stitch book binding, and occasional demonstrations at special events, including the upcoming AJC Decatur Book Festival.

The three printers first immersed themselves in the intricacies of the processes at SCAD, while working with visiting artists Kiki Smith and Valerie Hammond. The internationally renowned artists were precise and exacting about their prints, and the three students often put in 12-hour days to produce satisfactory results. “That was really the inception point,” said McCallum, “when we realized how much we enjoy working with artists that have that drive.”

They opened their own shop in October 2012, stocking it with used equipment and things they made themselves. “The only sink we could find big enough to make giant plates and develop them was an old cadaver sink,” McCallum said, though he was quick to point out they inherited it from another print shop, so technically it never was used to wash cadavers.

The shop replicates a model set by other print shops in New York, San Francisco and L.A., but Straw Hat is one-of-a-kind in Atlanta and likely singular in the Southeast. “It’s something that exists elsewhere, but not something that’s existed in this particular art market,” McCallum said. Previously, Atlanta artists interested in creating such work with a master printer had to go to New York.

The name “Straw Hat” was derived from the name of an etching chemical used in the shop. The acrylic and linseed oil mix is the same chemical once used to coat straw hats to make them water resistant, hence the name. The name fit because the printers they wanted something that invoked their Southern roots: Cleary is from Chattanooga, McCallum comes from South Carolina, and Schick grew up in Florida.

So why put in 12-hour days muscling an old-fashioned press when a computer can print an image in just a few seconds?

“If you feel the texture of the surface of a copper plate, all those little pockmarks and ridges and occasional imperfections come through on every single print,” said McCallum. “It makes it something else entirely.”

“A plate can change from day to day and printer to printer,” said Cleary. “If you think back on an artist like Rembrandt, that’s part of why his editions were so interesting. Not only was he playing with the plate, playing with the copper over and over again, he was actually playing with how it was inked … There’s a physicality and a touch to it. The computer is basically still trying to replicate that physical process.”