The call usually came a day in advance with the message: “He’s in town!”
“He” is Li Songsong, a painter who lives in Beijing and works in an extremely thick impasto style, combining historic imagery and narrative on massive canvases. During our four years of collaboration, I never knew if our calls or emails got through to him in China; my only certainty was when he landed in New York City. Immediately, the rushed preparations would begin for intense sessions of two days to three weeks, producing what would become some of the most complex monoprints I have ever collaborated on.
In January 2014, Songsong spent two days developing collagraph prints with Justin Israels at the Pace Prints workshop in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. Although the prints were promising, Songsong wanted to incorporate dimensionality. The decision was made to develop future projects at Pace Paper in Brooklyn, using handmade paper as the vehicle to create the desired depth.
In November, 2014, Songsong returned for two days to visit the papermill and make preparatory sketches and decisions for Hang On with its image of a mother and child. When he left, he told us he would return soon. Akemi Martin (fellow master papermaker) and I began to develop specific papermaking techniques, while Justin worked with Songsong’s sketches to create a low-relief rubber printing ‘plate’ with the image in quarter-inch raised lines. These lines were painted with oil-based printing ink to combine with our paper techniques for our first proof. We mailed the proof to China for Songsong to consider and we felt ready for his next visit.
This was not to happen until January 2016, and he had exactly eight days to work. The first day we prepared his new idea: combining various sizes of pigmented handmade paper, overlapped, and couched together onto the painted, dimensional rubber ‘plate.’ The line was now painted with three to five shades of transparent color (rather than black) that correlated to the tints of handmade paper, as well as five to seven colors of tone inside the figures. We quickly got into a rhythm. Songsong arrived each morning with color swatches and a detailed drawing for the day’s print. He mixed tint colors to glaze small sheets before couching. Justin mixed printing ink and began painting the lines on the plate. Akemi and I mixed colored pulps and pulled between eleven and thirteen various sized sheets of paper. We couched each sheet to align specifically with the plate—a deceptively finicky step. We pressed the sheet using our 100-ton hydraulic press, flipped everything over, and peeled the plate away to reveal the print…very exciting! After pressing, we cleaned up while Songsong worked out the color changes for the next day. About five days into our schedule, Songsong asked if we could make a section of the image really dimensional, so we prepared 3-inch slabs of clay for him to manipulate. He used tools in the studio to carve beautiful, expressive, deep lines in the clay, which we cast and ultimately incorporated into two of the final prints. By the end of his visit, we had made six monoprints, 52.5 x 38.5 inches each, and he signed four of them. We celebrated!
Songsong returned two years later in January 2018. Through prior communication, we understood he wanted to go bigger and much more dimensional. Upon his arrival, we learned each print would be made in three sections: a large center with seven different depths, and two smaller sections that, when installed directly on a wall, would hang tightly against the center to create the final size of 84 x 64 inches. Along with his diagrammatic drawings, he brought tools he created specifically for carving the deep lines of the image into clay, as well as incising various linear textures. Over the next three days, we worked together to create a beautiful clay matrix, between one and four inches high, to be cast into a rubber mold. After the mold was complete, we made an ‘insert,’ cast from the interior of the finished mold. This allowed us to compress pulp firmly into place (similar to a male/female die). We spent our last three days making a first proof by meticulously applying ten colors of printing ink and twelve colors of paper pulp into the mold. We wanted Songsong to see it before he left for China, so even though the proof was still wet and would not release from the mold, we replaced the ‘insert,’ clamped everything together with plywood and flipped over this very heavy, floppy object. We peeled the mold back from the wet piece and saw the amazing complexity and dimension of the piece for the first time!
Songsong returned in June 2018 for three weeks with the goal of making six more prints. I was dubious but we immediately began mixing color: complex muted colors with no less than seven pigments in each pulp color. The oil-based ink colors were equally complex and also varied in transparency. Songsong often mixed the colors himself; we were amazed by his uncanny ability to foresee the combination of all 25 colors. For each print, we spent two days preparing. On the third, very long day, we pulled one-inch thick sheets of paper to their nine specific sizes and colors. We also made matching strips of paper to become the ‘walls’ for each section with its own depth. Simultaneously, we tweezed into the mold three accent colors of pigmented pulp while beginning the time-consuming painting of twelve to fourteen colors of oil-based printing ink onto the lines and forms of the image. I recruited extra help from other printers (Sarah Carpenter, Emily Chaplain, and Katsumi Suzuki) and interns (Clare Altman, Shemuel Phillip-Peters, and Isabel Rower). All of us consulted the complex drawing (with notes in Chinese) to paint and position everything correctly.
Usually four people painted the lines before the colored sheets were very carefully couched into the mold. And we learned, oil and water can indeed mix! If the newly formed sheets of paper were not carefully couched on top of the inked-up sections, we could end up slurring the line. Once all nine sheets were in the mold, covering the printing ink, we added in the insert, and gave it a first light pressing using foam. Then we removed the insert and added the paper walls into the mold, which connected the nine sheets together into the final configuration. We put the insert back in and did another light pressing with foam. Afterwards, we did a final pressing with felt, which removed more residual water and gave us extraordinary detail of the original clay. We dried the print in the mold with fans placed directly above it for two days, while we prepared new combinations of colored pulp and ink for the next print.
After three weeks, we reached our goal of six handmade paper monoprints showcasing Songsong’s subtle yet specific color palette, his customary large scale, and his bas-relief structural painting style. Songsong signed the prints, and while we celebrated, we all felt an immense sense of accomplishment.