Start the Presses: The hard-fought rebirth of the New Orleans Community Printshop

The New Orleans Community Print Shop by Jules Bentley
Published  November 2012

[Editor’s note: throughout their official literature and website, the New Orleans Community Printshop uses the single-word portmanteau “Printshop.” AG followed their lead.]

The November 10 grand reopening of the New Orleans Community Printshop and Darkroom is an occasion for celebration. The Hot 8 and Treme Brass Bands will be there! The flyer for the event calls out the Times-Picayune’s recent retreat from publication and promises “the greatest tribute to printing the city has ever seen.”

The Printshop’s survival and reopening is indeed a tribute to the ongoing vitality of printing, but it’s also a triumph of collective effort and the DIY ethos, a story of working New Orleans artists fighting back against the disappearance of space and resources.

I toured the Printshop’s new location two weeks before the grand opening and spoke with thePrintshop collective’s proud, exhausted members, all of whom were toiling around the clock in preparation for November 10. The Printshop’s new home is in a long-vacant former icehouse on Mazant and Marais, one block lakeside of St. Claude. There, the collective that runs the Printshop is renting 2100 square feet from the building’s owner, carpenter and filmmaker Tim Wolff. Neighbors in the building include a stained glass artist, a robot maker, and Alexander Santiago’s DNA Gallery.

“We’d like to be here at least forty years,” said Meg Turner, one of twelve members of the all-volunteer Printshop collective. Although the collective makes decisions through consensus and without hierarchy, Turner has clearly been key to the Community Printshop’s foundation and rebirth.

The seeds of the Community Printshop were sown in 2009 when Kyle Bravo– longtime New Orleans artist, DIY advocate and founding member of the Front gallery– gave Turner the heads-up on a gig managing the print shop of Louisiana Artworks, a troubled, high-concept visual arts center in the CBD. Turner, who’d been interning with Bravo’s Hot Iron Press, saw an opportunity to make the shop’s resources available to the wider community.

“At Artworks there was no funding for anything,” Turner said, “so all I could do was trade access to the equipment for teaching and volunteer time.” She brought aboard more local printers and with their collaboration began holding open shop days, time in which anyone could come and use or learn how to use the printmaking equipment. Word spread: more artists began making and selling prints. There was an increase in locally screenprinted ‘zines and record sleeves. Shows, DJ nights and community events that had once been publicized around town via laser-printed clipart and shoddy photocopies increasingly had beautiful multi-color posters. The change was remarkable. The rest of the Artworks building remained essentially unused, but the Printshop was becoming a powerhouse.

At a party in early 2011 I saw a friend who ‘d been involved in the Printshop. She seemed in a daze, as if concussed. When I asked her what was wrong, she told me the building the Printshop was in, Louisiana Artworks, had just been indefinitely padlocked with only four hours’ warning. The Printshopfolks weren’t even allowed  to retrieve their artwork or other personal belongings.

It seemed too bizarre to be true. “They just barred the doors,” my friend said. “We hadn’t done anything wrong. We all worked so hard to make the Printshop good, and the Artworks people just shut us down without notice. We’ve lost everything.” She began crying.

The Times-Picayune’s Doug MacCash wrote most of what I know about Louisiana Artworks, including that it somehow continues to cost the city $600,000 annually despite being closed and everyone in charge of it having abdicated responsibility. None of the high-end pedigreed non-profiteers who so loudly congratulated themselves on opening it back in ’08 will accept any blame for what a total clusterfuck it was. Just like Kirsha Kaechele or the more recent Parkette-pushers, all the artsy-fartsy grandstanding about the good they’d do New Orleans was merely careerist bullshit.

As ever, New Orleanians picked up the pieces. As ever, New Orleanians slogged through the consequences of some snake-oil  jet-setters’ selfishness.  “Looking back,” Turner said, “traumatic as the Artworks experience was, it did help incubate what the Printshop became. It showed us we needed a real artists’ space. The fact they mismanaged 25 million dollars ,with no artists involved– nobody running Artworks cared or was interested in what the city needed, what the community needed. They had no respect for dirty working artists like us. We needed to do things for ourselves.”

After the closing of Artworks, people donated equipment and money to help the Printshop get back on its feet. Following a brief stopover at longtime community arts space Nowe Miasto, the Printshopreopened in a building on Elysian Fields. “We were happy to get the place on Elysian,” Printshopmember Ethan Clark said, “but we knew the building was for sale and we could be kicked out any time, so it was hard to put down roots. It was more like a temporary clubhouse.”

It was at that space on Elysian that Clark had an epiphany. A printmaker since age 18, he had helped the Printshop out in the past, but “one night I was there at Elysian ’til 7am, making hundreds of posters for a commission project, and it dawned on me: my God, this is the closest I’ve ever been to making a living as a professional artist. I wrote Meg Turner a letter that was like, ‘You have created an amazing resource… I want this to continue to exist, for everyone. I want to help make this happen.'” He’s since been putting in 60-hour weeks fixing up the new space.

The Printshop’s new interior is gorgeous without being fussy, full of reclaimed wood and handcrafted details. “The buildout process has been immensely hard work,” Turner said, “but we’ve had so much help throughout–  friends donating equipment or just showing up with tools and expertise to do stuff like the plumbing.”

“We hired contractors for a few things,” Clark said, “but a lot of this has been us and our volunteers, building tables and sledgehammering concrete.”

The reopening party is co-sponsored by Dirty Coast and the Jazz Foundation of America, an odd pair of entities reflecting the breadth of support the Printshop has earned. The new space has been paid for via hundreds of small individual donations raised over years– benefit punk shows, art sales, a Kickstarter campaign–  but there’s no mistaking how much time and sheer hard work the Printshopcollective’s members have sunk into it. Worn out as they might have been when I spoke to them, there was also no mistaking how thrilled they were about the Hot 8 and Treme Brass Bands playing at the opening. To me, it seemed fitting that two such beloved New Orleans musical institutions would be on hand to celebrate the achievements of this newer but similarly beloved New Orleans institution.

As the Printshop has grown, they’ve gotten grants from the New Orleans Arts Council for their ongoing outreach and youth programs. When I visited the Printshop’s new home, it was clear some neighborhood kids had already adopted the place. Having variously helped and hung around the  volunteers fixing the space up, the kids felt personally invested in the Printshop and proud of its upcoming reopening.

For now, the Printshop will offer access to screenprinting and a black-and-white photography darkroom. In the near future it will expand to include letterpress and etching equipment as well as private cubicles that artists can rent longer-term– paying memberships that will subsidize thePrintshop’s open shop days and publicly available resources.

According to Turner, the Printshop’s darkroom will be the first community-accessible darkroom in the city since a rentable one on Magazine St. closed down five years ago. “Photography is a fine-art medium,” Turner said. “Like letterpress and screen printing, it’ll be around a long time. Universities will regret dismantling their darkrooms. People will continue to be drawn to photography– but the resources it requires can be hideously expensive.” The new darkroom’s ventilation system alone cost $1500.

Autumn Kane, a photographer who’s help drive the development of the darkroom, is an example of the extraordinary level of personal commitment reopening the Printshop has required. She’s been with the collective for two years, and during that time has only been able to develop one-and-a-half rolls of film. “Well, I could have saved and saved and tried to build myself a little personal darkroom,” Kane said. “Everyone here could have put the effort into building their own private studios, and we’d all probably still be struggling. Instead, we combined our efforts.”

“We all need this to exist. We all believe in affordability and access,” Turner said. “Those are the principles we operate on.”

The years since the levees failed have been tough ones for affordability and access, artistic or otherwise. The culture of New Orleans is changing: she was once a city of informality and understandings, of casual resource-sharing, full of grey areas free from bureaucratic scrutiny. Many traditions of creative expression existed not so much in  defiance of law and regulation but simply outside relation to them.

That was then. Under our more recent city government, and due in part to waves of newcomers and skyrocketing real estate values, it seems we’re finally modernizing, catching up with the sanitized, heavily regulated Chili’s-and-Best-Buy standards of 21st-century life. We’re becoming more like the rest of America. The New Orleans Bookfair has been chased indoors and away from Frenchmen St. by wave after wave of punitive new fees. Freshly-arrived neighbors complain about music, emboldening and reinvigorating older music-haters. NOPD shuts down street musicians. Second-line vendors must apply for permits. Speakeasies are shuttered. Only venues who can summon and maintain a groundswell of well-connected white support can continue hosting live bands.

In November 2011, the owner of the warehouse at 511 Marigny kicked out the last of the artists, writers and printmakers who had lived and worked in its upper floors for almost two decades, most of whom had paid a token $100 monthly for vast studio areas that doubled– informally, extra-legally– as living spaces. The community volunteer groups on the ground floor had been evicted back in March. The building will be condos.

A few months later and two blocks away, St Bernard trash magnate Sidney Torres IV bought the cavernous but low-profile warehouse behind Frenchmen and Chartres, and the artists and craftspeople who’d lived and worked there were evicted. As of December 2012, all residents and their belongings must be out of Nowe Miasto, the Mid-City warehouse that’s been a DIY community space and all-ages show venue since the 1990s. It’s being sold to a non-profit.

The beat goes on. This brutal backdrop is what makes The New Orleans Community Printshop’s reopening such a particularly welcome piece of good news.

Clark, who formerly rented space at 511 Marigny, has a long history with local collective projects. “We aren’t leaving,” he said. “That’s part of what this is. As rents go up, we’ve had to step our game up. Yes, something like this is a lot harder than it once was. You can’t just go out and do it. That scrappy side is going away, but there are resources available now that didn’t used to be available– grants, stuff like Kickstarter, networks of people who want to help. Of course there’s big downsides, too: outside people looking to hawk in on the work others have been doing for years, trying to claim credit.”

“You find out what’s real,” Turner said. “St. Claude Main Street, from whom we’ve seen exactly zero, keeps on contacting us, asking us to give them ideas for projects they can fund. Meanwhile, we keep teaching kids to silkscreen.”

“It’s a different world now,” Clark said. “Could we have pulled off what we’ve done here five years ago? Would we have been able to raise the money we have, and build out this extensively? Honestly, we probably would have just moved into the space as it was, opened the doors and started printing. Now we’ve got occupancy permits, a board of directors. We adapt.”

“You have to believe in what you’re doing,” Turner said, “or at least suspend your disbelief, and surround yourself with people who share your commitment. That’s what it takes. We all believe in this.”

“I remember when someone first showed me how to screenprint,” Clark said. “I suddenly discovered that I could make anything. Shirts, ‘zines, posters– and anyone can do it. It’s one of the most empowering things in the world.”

 The New Orleans Community Printshop and Darkroom ( nolacommunityprintshop.wordpress.com ) is located at 1201 Mazant Street. Their Grand Reopening is November 10th, beginning at 5pm with music, a raffle, and live printings of a special “SomeTimes-Picayune.”

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