The following interview was conducted over the phone on March 13, 2022 between Jonathan Beaumont Thomas and Tessa Granowski (BCE).
BCE: So, Jonathan, how did you get into printmaking?
JBT: That's a good question for me, actually. Just in general, in my history with art.
BCE: I mean, you majored in Biology in undergrad.
JBT: Yeah. It's not crazy unusual, but I wasn't in art growing up. I went to college as a science major. But I developed a relationship with a printmaking professor at my undergraduate college. And I just felt like there was something there that got me interested in a way that other things didn't. So, I just kept kind of going down the printmaking pathway. And I found myself maybe ten years later finishing up grad school and doing some residencies and trying to be an artist. And really, I had learned about art only through a printmaking lens. Even when I was in grad school, I had almost no understanding of art history.
BCE: Oh, right. You had mentioned before that you didn't know who Robert Rauschenberg was in a grad school critique, right? *laughs*
JBT: Yeah. So, everything that I knew about artmaking was just tied to printmaking and that very kind of narrow realm of influence within the printmaking context that I was exposed to by this one particular teacher who was great. His name is David Faber.
BCE: One of those life-changer teachers.
JBT: Yeah. So, by the time that I had graduated, I was still working with this teacher, and I was interested in the printmaking, but I still was like, oh, maybe I'm going to go do this other thing.
BCE: You weren't totally sold on it.
JBT: Yeah, and I was young. At that age you're always kind of searching for something that's going to just tug at your mind and tug at your heart and make sense.
BCE: Try on all the hats and see which one gets stuck on your head?
JBT: Yeah. Or what pulls you the hardest.
BCE: And printmaking ended up being that for you. So, why is printmaking important?
JBT: Well, answering very broadly, prints have a unique aesthetic, and so a very powerful language. And then obviously the ability to reproduce something is extremely important.
And for me personally, I think it comes down to a real interest in what prints look like and what prints are capable of doing because it's an indirect process. I mean, there are other artistic processes that are indirect. You can make a mold to cast a sculpture. And that same indirectness is inherent to printmaking. When you're working indirectly, it offers up all sorts of different aesthetic and conceptual possibilities. It's a different way of creating something, and that's going to yield different results.
Jonathan Beaumont Thomas, Friendship, Intaglio, 2022
BCE: And the prints in the show at Brackett Creek are all aquatints. How did you find that process?
JBT: Yeah. Aquatinting is something that I love and that I've kind of, on some levels tried very hard to put my stamp on as a way of making an image. I was very interested in the surface of the aquatint plates and the indirectness of the process and this balance between working automatically and expressively and then working calculated and carefully. There are all these different techniques within printmaking and aquatint is just one way of applying a mark. And so in my earliest prints from grad school, when I began to define my process, I would just throw everything on a plate and all of those would come together and the prints looked a certain way because of it.
BCE: So you were testing out all of the techniques on one plate?
JBT: Not necessarily just to do it that way, but I was interested in that ability and exploring marks and building up a history. I was working additively and subtractive-ly a lot more than I am with the current work, which is mostly additive. And they were very sculptural, very aggressive on some levels. I was using a lot of different techniques. And I think I ultimately was most attracted to the way that I was using value and texture. And aquatint is how you achieve value in an etching.
BCE: What do you mean exactly by value in this sense?
JBT: With etching, you can break it down into techniques that allow you to create textures and techniques that allow you to create tonality or value.
BCE: Got it.
JBT: So light value to dark value with whatever color you're printing. And on some levels, they're kind of the basic art elements broken out into these different techniques and then you can mix them together through the aquatinting process. I think it was just something with the process that was effective for me. I really was interested in a certain type of evocation of drama in the work. And using light and dark, having a kind of atmosphere and a mood that's associated with a full value range, was something that I became more and more attracted to.
BCE: Almost like scenes from a noir film.
JBT: In some ways, some of that work for sure. The aesthetics of noir. Film noir.
BCE: Do you have a favorite noir film?
JBT: Not really, maybe noir as a literary genre. I think I'm interested in mystery, and I'm interested in light and dark. And so, from that standpoint, noir is of interest. And I'm interested in contemplation, and I think that's really depicted beautifully in noir.
BCE: Like contemplative mental spaces or physical spaces?
JBT: It can be just a facial expression or a subtlety of a scene that really uses light and dark to depict a certain kind of mood.
BCE: I can see that in your work. Like the woman smoking and gazing off into the distance in The Curtain.
Jonathan Beaumont Thomas, The Curtain, Intaglio, 2017
JBT: Yeah, absolutely.
BCE: The light and dark moodiness makes me think of some of the earliest figures who were doing aquatints, like Francisco Goya or Eugène Delacroix, who you have also mentioned as influences in your own work. Do you feel like the history of printmaking and kind of those bigger figures play a significant influence on you or on printmakers in general? I almost see those historical figures being more significant, as the processes within the medium doesn’t seem to have changed much, even with the scale, although I’m sure the techniques have advanced.
JBT: Certainly I'm influenced by the history of artists that have specifically worked with etching and aquatint, and I think you can marvel at the way that artists have used the medium to engage with people and subjects in completely new ways. And I don't necessarily know if I would say that that's always happening today. Maybe you would argue that it's happening today in the digital arts space or 3D art or video.
But where people are pushing into technology at the time period, prints were real invention. That's an important way to contextualize that work. So, artists were using it to do something very different. And printmaking always had that relationship or that kind of dual existence of being utilized by artists, but then also for commercial enterprises and then also for the creation of design and craft and popular images. It just had these different sides to it. All of which on some levels was really related to its reproducibility and the interest of a broader cross-section of people than who might have access or might be part of the part of the group that could experience something painted or sculpted.
When you link that also then to the subject matter, for sure, you have social and political commentary and criticism. You have images that are popular images. And I think that legacy still is strong today. And I do think on some levels, that's a part of my work as well, although it's not explicitly political, but it is reflective.
Eugène Delacroix, A Blacksmith, Aquatint, 1833 (image: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/337253)
BCE: Right. I think when I visited your studio, we had talked a little bit about Honoré Daumier. And his cartoons were also these incredible artistic prints. But then they're also serving another purpose of a political commentary. Which at the time didn’t seem to be happening as much in other kind of artistic mediums.
JBT: For sure. That's how it works. And of course, when you're making a lithograph at that time period, you may very well be making a lithograph to be printed in a paper. And nowadays, if you were going to make a stone lithograph with that type of drawn aesthetic, it would only be for the purpose of making art in a fine art context.
Honoré Daumier, Gargantua, Lithograph, 1831 (image: https://artgallery.yale.edu/collections/objects/218712)
BCE: Right. Because stone lithography is such a pain in the tuchus.
JBT: And with all the technology that's been developed for making prints, there is no need to go that route. But printmaking technology at the time of Daumier was just the ability to make these interesting graphic reproductions, and it continued to get better and better. Even aquatint was invented to expand the language of etching and mimic drawings or the expressiveness of paintings, but in a medium that you could share with more people by making copies.
BCE: Do you see ever think of yourself as exploring this medium with modern technology in mind?
JBT: Yeah, I don’t know. I think that on some levels for sure. I feel as if I'm working in an antiquated kind of craft. And we live in the digital world now that is transforming every aspect of our lives, including the way that images are made and consumed. I like to work in etching today because it's such a slow process. It forces me to spend a lot of time with a single image instead of the fraction of a second that I might spend with other images.
BCE: Do you often work from found images? And where do you find them?
JBT: I definitely collect and index images. And I'm also of the age where, within my adult life, I have lived through the analog to digital transformation. I had previously collected physical pictures, and still do to some extent, but did so exclusively in the ‘90s. Or I developed my own film and collected boxes of pictures, magazines, newspapers and whatever other kind of printed material I could get my hands on. And then that transitions into it existing all digitally.
BCE: It’s just never as fun to collect digital images.
JBT: Yeah. It's just such a different experience. There’s just something about the physical experience of collecting physical images. Do you know that Tacita Dean book called Floh?
BCE: I don’t actually.
JBT: It’s an amazing book. It was given to me as a gift. Floh is German word for flee. And it is a collection of photographs that were found at the flea market. That book was the first time that I started thinking about found imagery in the context of this transition. In finding these discarded images that can be either acquired for free or very cheaply and to some extent, live another life. In a digital world, those images don't exist because they get deleted off our computers or our cameras before they ever get printed. That book makes the case for this lost object. And that it's not just about the physicality, but there's also subject matter that's lost.
Maybe the awkward photo where the light is cast over your face so you can see your expression that gets thrown away is actually compelling, but we don't recognize it at the time, so we delete it. Well, if the printed object exists, you have to tear it up or burn it or really throw it away. It might be found and have a second life if it's a physical object.
Excerpt from Tacita Dean: Floh. Image: https://www.photoeye.com/bookstore/citation.cfm?catalog=PK768&i=&i2=
BCE: Right! Maybe my favorite collected discarded images were from a flea market in Joshua Tree. They were three photos, each shot on a staircase in front of a building somewhere, with a girl of in her early twenties, maybe late teens. And there was one photo of a girl in two separate outfits. And then when I was flipping through the stacks, I ended up finding a photo of what ended up being the two twin girls together. It was this really strange realization as I was looking at the photos that this wasn't a girl who had just changed outfits, but it was two separate people. And then you see them next to each other. I ended up living with those strange images for a bit.
JBT: Yeah. That's the kind of experience that is also explored in this Tacita Dean book. There are different versions of images. There are images that are related to one another by certain subjects or themes. So as that relates to A Sign of the Times series, as all of the different little cells of images are unique, but some of them are related and some of them are versions of one another. And it goes back to that concept of these kind of versions of information that has value to someone somewhere in a particular context.
Excerpt from Tacita Dean: Floh. Image: https://www.photoeye.com/bookstore/citation.cfm?catalog=PK768&i=&i2=
BCE: And we're able to kind of invent or impose these histories of like what may have happened before or after the photos were taken. Or in looking at your own images in A Sign of the Times.
JBT: Yeah, absolutely. And I'm very interested in working from found images, not seeking them out preferentially, but just the images that are a part of my life. I feel like as soon as I start to search for images, it becomes a forced operation.
And some of that imagery in my work is just fully imagined, based on memory, or maybe even based on a false memory. Some of it is a little bit more explicitly from an image that I might have saved from a particular source. But it all kind of gets mashed together so that I'm searching for relationships, and I'm trying to kind of level the field so that it all has equal weight within that space. It kind of unfolds very openly because of that attitude towards images. And then I just draw once I’m at that point.
BCE: And tell me more about your drawings.
JBT: I just divide up the page into a grid, and draw very freely. And quickly. That quickness is important because it prevents me from thinking too much about what I'm drawing or why I'm drawing it. And it's just like one image to the next very quickly.
So when I was making the works in A Sign of the Times portfolio, I could look back to the drawings and extract images that start to make sense together, in order to build a story through that process. You start to impose your will a little bit more after a certain amount of just putting it all out there.
Jonathan Beaumont Thomas, Drawing
BCE: How did you end up losing that cell division in the newest series of prints? Sounds like we're talking about biology. *laughs*
JBT: Well, the newer images are still in development and the truthfully, they're not all that different. I think that they don't have that explicit quadrant structure, although I don't necessarily think that I would not continue to work with that structure as it is. I think I was explicitly trying to work in and out of the picture plane a little bit more with the images. The biggest difference to me with these is that I am really pushing the light and the dark of the pieces.
BCE: Yeah. They're much richer in their saturation, it seems. Or maybe that's the value, yes?
JBT: That's exactly right. That's the value. So, at least in terms of the aesthetic transition, it has been more closely tied to the deepening of the value and the saturation of the colors. There is a cartoon quality to a lot of the works in A Sign of the Times series and certainly to the coloration of them. The newer works kind of pull out of that a little bit. I mean, they still have that saturated yellow, red and blue, and I'm still making them the same way. But they do pull out of that cartoon space a little bit, and not just because of the division but because of the integration of the colors and the saturation. And that just heightens the emotional heft that comes with that deep saturation of light and dark.
BCE: Right. Like, how do we make the image even moodier?
JBT: That does seem to be the goal. I really love to depict light and that is something that has not come easily. It's not like, oh, I'm going to work with aquatint because it's good at depicting light. It's something I've really had to work on for how I can use this process to depict light.
BCE: And is that more part of the removal process, like going back to the additive and subtractive processes of printmaking?
JBT: It certainly can be, but not necessarily. I'm always interested in a light source.
BCE: Right, the lit end of a cigarette or the fire on the beach.
JBT: Exactly. Whether it's a candle or the sun or the fire on the beach or whatever, or even a light source that's not visible, I'm very interested in that light source and how it illuminates the subjects in the scene. And I think in the newer works, that's one of the things that I'm focused on even more is latching on to that, the source of the light and playing with that as I developed a piece.
Jonathan Beaumont Thomas, An Unsatisfactory Ending, Intaglio, 2019
BCE: Do you want to talk about your role as an educator? You've been a Professor at MICA for the past eleven years? Ten years?
JBT: Yeah, I think it's been eleven years now. Over a decade. And then for some time before that down in Miami. I started teaching right when I got out of school, and I've always thought of my life as being tied to teaching. I've been fortunate enough to be able to do it consistently.
Printmaking is very also connected to schools, to universities. And a part of that is the shared print shop environment. The equipment is very expensive and one of the places that would have the resources to be able to acquire the space and equipment necessary would be a university. With printmaking specifically, there was this influx of artists after World War II that came in and settled into the Midwest and started working at and developing these big print shops in the States. And there's just this natural, strong connectivity between printmaking and teaching and education and being involved at a university. So, yeah, I quite like it. Print is a lot of process. And you can just go in there and show people how to do things and encourage them to use whatever you're showing them in their own way.
BCE: Teaching the students to mimic the practice of the process of mimicry.
JBT: Yeah. I do think printmaking right now is in an interesting space. It's becoming a very interdisciplinary medium.
BCE: In what way?
JBT: Well, I think the artists that are coming through school nowadays are more commonly thinking of themselves in an interdisciplinary spirit. I think there are less and less artists that are coming through only to make etchings. Or only interested in photography. So whether they’re interested the aesthetics of printmaking or issues associated with value or authenticity or multiplicity, a lot of students are utilizing it in a way that's not explicitly craft-oriented.
One of the things I really like about MICA, where I'm teaching now, is we have these extraordinary facilities, and we still really have this great ability to teach a high-level, nuanced craft of printmaking across all media, while simultaneously we have tons of students that are working in an interdisciplinary way. So, I think we successfully navigate that kind of difficult space.
BCE: It seems like at this point, a lot of printmaking has remained in universities instead of maybe participating in the “Art World”. You don't see that many printmaking shows happening in galleries. Do you think that kind of cross-contamination is going to help change that? Would you want that to be changed?
JBT: This is part of why I think that print is an interesting spot. Artists are as interested now in making prints as they've ever been. I really think that's true. And for lots of different reasons. I mean, one of them is certainly that the aesthetics of printmaking are unique. I don't know many people that have had experience with prints that don't love it and want to do more of it.
BCE: Right. Well, the artist human people are who you're talking about in this instance, right?
JBT: Yeah. That's what I mean. I do think the interest of making prints as a part of an artist's creative output is still very strong. There are very few people that exist in the world that can engrave or make aquatints like they did historically. And so, the relationship between the artist and the master printer is really important. But when an artist who doesn't have the technical printmaking skills collaborates with the master printer, some of those works are incredible, and some of the best-known prints of contemporary times have been made that way.
But you can really see when an artist understands the medium, and how that changes the way that their ideas unfold through the medium. And that just takes time. I mean, there's a lot of artists that make prints simply by handing in a drawing to the studio and saying, okay, reproduce this.
BCE: Right. It would almost seem like those would be flatter pieces, whether intentionally or not.
JBT: They're probably not going to do certain things with the medium and are only going to be able to adapt through the process in a certain way because of the distance that they have. It's not necessarily a good or bad thing, but I do think it's an interesting part of the contemporary print landscape.
BCE: So how do we save the future of printmaking? Is YouTube the answer? [jokingly]
JBT: I don't know about necessarily saving it per se, because things are always just going to change the way they're going to change. Bu I think about why I work with aquatint or why I work with etching. I think I'm interested in the intimacy with the medium that I have, and I do think that's special. And so, it's just something that I want to continue doing.
BCE: So, you cannot save it, but just grow it in your own, in your own way.
JBT: Yeah, to bring it back to the education standpoint... I think about students that are learning the craft of printmaking and what are they going to do with that medium when they graduate? Are they going to be master printers? Are they going to utilize it in their own artwork? Is it going to tap into something else? Is it going to lead them down a pathway which maybe isn't print-specific, but they were kind of led in a direction because of it? It's really hard to say. But I do think that if you're young and you're an artist and you're interested in printing, you have to go really deep and you have to be really interested in that kind of commitment.
BCE: And if it is your calling, you must answer it. You must pick up that phone that says printmaking and answer that call.
BCE: That’s nice. I think that could be where we end the interview. Thank you, Jonathan.