Let's roll 

Printmakers squeeze ghosts from the machine

The University of Montana maintenance equipment yard seems an unlikely place to begin a tale of fine art and the Missoula Festival of the Dead. Located east of Grizzly Stadium, the compound stores backhoes, dump trucks, and lengths of pipe. If you strolled through you’d probably never notice the old Austin-Western asphalt roller parked above a piece of oily plywood. The yellow, Volkswagen-sized machine is scraped and scarred. One broken headlight stares at the ground with the look of infrequent use. But on the morning of November 1, facilities worker Diana Joy will bring the three-ton beast to life, and with the slow turn of its 40-inch drums, begin a bone-rattling crawl across campus. Her destination will be the Fine Arts building’s parking lot, but on this day her work will have nothing to do with asphalt repair. Instead, Joy and her Austin-Western will once again become the essential heavy in a process called steamroller printing.

Think back to last year’s Festival of the Dead parade, November 2, dusk. Halfwa through the Higgins Avenue procession, among the masks, costumes and towering puppets, large banners are floating in the twilight, stark black-on-white images: skeletons and twisting cadaverous shapes. A printwheel clanging ¡Viva la Print! Skulls in riot—¡Un revumbio de calaveras! American Gothic x-rayed to the bone, black raven cawing, “Nevermore. Nevermore.”

But the bird was wrong. Students and faculty of the University of Montana’s printmaking department, the creators of these extraordinary banners, will be back for this year’s pageant. What’s more, the printing process itself is open to the public, with the lumbering asphalt roller in the starring role.

Pre-rolling, through most of October, UM printmakers wield routers, drills and power chisels to cut and gouge ghostly scenes into the surface of four-by-eight-foot, 60-pound sheets of medium density fiberboard. They’re creating negative space; the remaining surface transfers the paint during the print process. The technique is called “relief printing,” and the woodcuts are, by printmaking standards, huge.

It takes tons of pressure to produce quality prints of uniform color. A conventional press, with a stationary roller positioned above a sliding bed, can exert up to 8,000 pounds per square inch. It’s unclear who first thought of substituting heavy equipment in its place, but we can imagine a print artist stuck in construction traffic, cussing his bad luck, when the steel drums of an asphalt roller rumbled past.

Here in Missoula it was Jim Bailey, a professor of printmaking in the UM art department, who first proposed a steamroller project. Bailey saw the process demonstrated in a University of Texas parking lot during a workshop in December of 2000 and knew at once he wanted to give his own students a chance to try the technique. He mentioned the idea to colleague Elizabeth Dove, also a UM printmaking professor. Dove had once attended a steamroller printing workshop in Washington, DC, and came away equally enthused. The two agreed that Bailey’s fall semester Advanced Relief and Lithography class was the place to begin. The class’s timing coincided with Missoula’s Festival of the Dead, in which the art department regularly participated after Rafael Chacon, a professor of art history and criticism, began assigning festival- related projects to his fall art history class. With this in mind, Bailey envisioned printing large parade banners done in Festival of the Dead motifs.

“I wanted to make a reason for doing these prints,” Bailey says, “and imagery like skeletons looks really bold in woodcuts.” The festival provided a perfect tie-in, and by mid-October, twenty art students, assisted by Bailey and Dove, were at work raising dust. But why bother with construction equipment and parking lots in the first place? Scale, for one thing—conventional printing techniques are limited by the width and length of the press bed. The largest at UM measures 40 by 60 inches, considerably less than a full sheet of fiberboard.

“A four-by-eight-foot press is very unusual,” says Dove. “A steamroller breaks the boundary of press size.” It affects the process in other ways, too. By its very nature, Dove says, “A steamroller doesn’t allow you to be so esoteric.”

Steamroller printing’s pedestrian materials and parking-lot visibility are in keeping with traditional El Diá de los Muertos events. “Art is everywhere in Latin America,” says historian Chacon. “It’s one of the distinguishing features of the culture.” And art by the people has always been central to the Day of the Dead, contributing to both ceremony and festivity. “It’s a real populist celebration,” he says. “The masses have always enjoyed themselves.”

And ultimately, enjoyment is what steamroller printing is all about. When Diana Joy, steering the Austin-Western, rolls up to the Fine Arts building, she’ll find the parking lot covered with layered sandwiches of fiberboard, house paint, bed sheets, plastic and carpet pad. And Joy will drive over them. Then the first print will be peeled off to reveal an image of bones and reveling skeletons. Print after print will follow. Crowds will gather. Paint will fly.

“It’ll be different than you think,” thinks Dove, “The quality, the size, the enthusiasm. Expect the unexpected.”

And if you don’t want to become a banner yourself, give that steamroller a wide berth.

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