Rebecca Gilbert is a printmaker and installation artist living and working in Philadelphia PA. She teaches at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, and just started teaching at the Maryland Institute College of Art this fall. I had the pleasure of taking her Book Arts class here at MICA.
Rebecca works primarily in woodcut and intaglio, and creates print installations. Her work explores the natural world, and the human nature of searching, finding, and assigning value to our treasures.
Rebecca’s studio is right above the Da Vinci Art Alliance, a cooperative art gallery in South Philly. As the only studio in the building, it is her little piece of solitude.
What led you to working with non-toxic etching in Spain?
I found this place called the Grafisk Eksperimentarium in Capeliera, Spain. It’s in a very remote mountain village in Spain. I should also say that I do not speak Spanish –– I speak a little more now since I’ve studied it since I went. You didn’t have to apply to go, you just had to sign up and pay and go. I got a new credit card, got my ticket, paid for my workshop, for everything, and went. Like two weeks later.
Do you still use water-based inks?
No, I use oil-based. But, every now and then, they come out with a new water based ink. As an educator, I feel the responsibility to be familiar with the latest products and try to be as non-toxic as possible. But, I just don’t see the same lusciousness, the same pigmentation. It doesn’t smell the same, frankly. I know oil-based inks, I’m experienced, I know what modifiers to mix and what and how exactly it’s going to behave. I like oil-based ink.
Have you always worked in a studio like you are in now?
I just moved my studio a year and a half ago to a studio that’s half the size of my old one. For eight years I rented an entire building in the Italian market in Philly, and I had a pretty spectacular studio, It was a storefront with high ceilings, track lighting, tons of built in shelving. But, the only way I could afford to have it, is that there were apartments upstairs. So I had to sublet apartments and I was constantly playing landlord to keep people up there. It was really stressful.
What is your studio like?
Having a smaller studio forces me to be a little more organized, which I think is really important as a printmaker that works in process, that creates images that are also kind of clean and organized, and having sometimes limited time in the studio, it’s really helpful. If you only have an hour, you can’t spend 30 minutes looking for your blade.
My studio is small, white, bright. I have an etching press in there. It’s a pretty functional shop. It’s mostly set up for woodcut. Some intaglio, some bookbinding. A separate area for drawing and carving, separate area for inking and printing. My newest addition is that I finally broke down and bought a drying rack. It’s improved my life by 100%. Because before that, editioning, I’d just cover every flat surface in my studio. So, while I was working on an edition, I could only work on one at a time, which isn’t how I like to work. And, I couldn’t draw or do anything until my prints dried.
How much time do you spend in your studio?
It’s really important to me that I get into the studio almost every day. And, some days that means going to the studio for 6 to 8, to 10 hours. Focussed, working, producing. Some days It means stopping by for 15 minutes and just spacing out. And I feel like that time is also very important. So, I could have gotten a much bigger studio for the same price in a different part of town, but if you only have 15 minutes, you can’t spend a half hour getting to the studio. So, my studio is one block from my house.
Do you like to have multiple things going at the same time?
Definitely. More often than not, If I’m working on a body of work that will end up being 10 pieces, I work on 5-10 pieces at the same time. A little on each of them, until they’re all almost finished. And then I’ll finish one of them at a time. Sometimes I work on something completely different on the side if a piece is causing me stress.
Is there a typical process or daily structure you follow when you go into your studio?
I go in, usually I have either a coffee or a water, usually I have a snack. And I usually spend the first few minutes kind of spacing out. And then i organize my workspace, make sure my immediate workspace is clean. It depends what stage I’m at. For example, right now I’m working on a diptych. It’s two reduction and multiple block wood cuts. It’s 4 blocks all together. So basically, both prints are up to the same speed. One has about 5 layers on it right now, one has six. Mostly I carve all four. That could take, depending on the detail of the layer, that could take 2 nights, or like a week. I’ll go in one day and mix all the colors for all four blocks, but then maybe just print one that night, because it takes hours. My cycles are bigger than day to day. Because I work on several pieces at the same time, My whole process from beginning to end is very methodical.
Do you have a favorite part of your process?
The most painstaking part to me is doing my drawings, and developing my ideas. That can take weeks to months to fully develop an idea and have the sketches ready. Once I get to that point, it’s just a matter of doing the work, the carving, the printing. Of course every step of the way offers room for the creative process, for evolution, to change it and make decisions. I think the carving and printing goes faster. For 2 months I might just be going into my studio and working on drawings and ideas and research. Those days are totally different. Printing is like taking care of business. The music is different, when I’m drawing, no words in my music. Probably like Philip Glass, or something mellow. When I’m printing, something heavy and rockin’. It’s different –– and I’d say that’s a reflection on the process.
What’s your background with conservation?
When I was in grad school I studied Printmaking and Book arts and in undergrad I studied Printmaking. I knew I wanted to go to grad school immediately. I knew I loved printmaking, I knew I wanted to continue it, but I wanted something else. So, I found the book arts program at UArts. And the city had a lot to do with it too. Philadelphia, I had stopped by a couple times traveling and I felt really drawn to it.
As a graduate student I had to have a job. Luckily I got all really cool jobs the whole time I was in grad school. First I got a work study to work in the library. And then since I was doing that, I was offered a paid internship at the Free Library of Philadelphia to work in the conservation department. I should say that, two of my book arts faculty worked as head and second conservator at the American Philosophical Society.
So that influenced, really, their approach to teaching book arts as well. I did that for a year and a half. It was great. And then, I got to do an internship at the American Philosophical Society, which was, If working at the Free Library was kind of amazing, working at the American Philosophical Society was just like, Hollywood. Their collection is amazing. And just thinking about history, the history of objects, the people that handled them before me, the people that created them...the people that sewed that thread before I cut the thread off and replaced it. It felt very rich. And it taught me a lot about attention to detail, hand skills, construction, building.
I never thought of myself as one of those people in the right place at the right time, with any kind of luck. But these conservation jobs just kept happening to me, where I needed them to be, at the right time. Because, after that, I was offered a position at the Wagner Free Institute of Science, where I did book conservation in their special collections library for 11 years, which was also amazing. And there was no conservator over me either, so I really got to make my own choices and kind of find my own way. Oh, while I was there though, I did also do an internship at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, just to learn more about flat objects and paper. And I worked with Dawn Rash who is a leather binder.
All these rich experiences, they are more intertwined in there: It all started with bookbinding, turned to book conservation, turned to paper.
My experiences with conservation just kind of flowed into each other. It’s something that I really love a lot. I see the value in, one, I feel really fortunate to handle these rare, historic materials with my own two hands. Most people don’t even know they exist. And the other thing is to preserve it for the future so a hundred years from now, someone else can have that same experience.
Is conservation something that translates back to your work at all?
Definitely, in a few ways. To categorize myself as a visual artist, I call myself a printmaker/ installation artist. And I work in mostly woodcut and intaligo, but, the installation aspect definitely comes form the time that I spent in graduate school, learning these book structures, thinking about materials, about building. Thinking about all the things you think about using the book format, which is sequence, storytelling, your message, tone. Those play into my two-dimensional work, but it’s thinking about, studying those things, and teaching those things, definitely has a lot to do with pushes my two-dimensional work into sculpture, or installation. My sculpture installations still starts as a two dimensional print. The multiple, or the use of prints, altering as materials, breaks away from that. So, I do definitely credit working with books for part of that.
But the conservation influence has a lot to do with the way that I draw my imagery. For all these years I’ve been looking very very closely at illustrations in these books, and the way that they’re laid out and the way ideas are presented. More specifically, natural history books. They’re scientific illustrations, trying to educate the viewer, or push the imagery in a way that’s easy to understand. So, I think that formal influence definitely comes to play in the way I compose my drawings, absolutely. And also, probably somewhat in the style of my drawings. I’ve been really interested in wood engravings. It’s a different kind of attention to detail, a different kind of line. I’m really interested in historic printing processes. And I really think that, staring into these wood engravings and these historic books for all these years, has given me the ability to be able to translate texture and shadow into line. Because I don’t think it’s intuitive––that way of drawing.