By Rada Nita | Christopher Nowicki is an American artist of Polish ancestry who has lived in Poland for over 20 years. He works primarily in mezzotint, and takes on the challenge of changing people’s preconceived ideas on what images should look like or represent. I met Professor Nowicki at the Wroclaw School of Printmaking in 2010, while on my first scholarship there. We have kept in touch since. In my opinion, he represents a perfect combination of an outstanding printmaker and an accomplished professor. I consider him a true master, in the classical sense of the term. It was a pleasure to talk about his journey, printmaking traditions, artistry and even magic in the course of our interview.
Image: Christopher Nowicki, Kazimierza Wlk, 1995, mezzotint, 7 1/2 x 14 1/8 inches (19 x 36 cm), edition of 45, photograph by the artist.
Rada Nita (RN): Could you tell me little bit about your artistic journey?
Christopher Nowicki (CN): I actually started my career in screen printing while in high school. I got a job after school helping the art teacher make signs for the City of Toledo. So my first commercial screen printing experience started in 1967. My first real printmaking experience was in 1970 when I was a student at the University of Toledo and luckily at that time the art classes were taught at the Toledo Museum of Art School of Design, which I had attended as a child. I was studying many different disciplines, like ceramics, drawing, painting, metal work and design, but when I tried printmaking it didn’t impress me. I really liked drawing the human figure. But as my schedule at the university evolved I took more printmaking courses and after the second semester I had a sort of epiphany and decided that I really liked printmaking. I was making etchings at the time but I became interested in everything about printmaking. We learned all the different printmaking techniques so I also learned woodcut, linocut, lithography and all the metal plate techniques. My professor Peter Elloian was very encouraging and during the next year I learned to make paper, printing ink and photo etchings. I also tried mezzotint for the first time and although it was a very appealing technique it took too much time so I only made one matrix.
RN: Did you have a mentor?
CN: Professor Peter Elloian was my mentor. He taught me all of the printmaking techniques except screen printing. Anyone can teach technique but what he taught me about attitude, discretion, expertise and honor has stayed with me throughout my printmaking career. I cannot thank him enough for this. After graduate school when all my friends were sacrificing their aesthetic values to try to make money having art shows etc., I focused on my work and how to make it better. I was not interested in creating works to sell but in creating art.
RN: You are an artist of Polish ancestry born in America. What influenced you to settle in Poland?
CN: When I first moved to Poland the people here thought I was coming to find my “roots.” I was able to do that but it came later. My Polish ancestry had nothing to do with my decision to live in Poland. I moved to Poland because of its long and distinguished reputation for excellent printmaking. I heard about this in all of the schools I attended in the United States, and after my first visit I was able to see why Polish printmaking deserved such high regard.
RN: Are there differences between European and American printmaking and, more specifically, Polish and American printmaking?
CN: In my opinion there is a significant difference between American printmaking and European printmaking. Personally I believe the academic structure is the reason for the difference, with some exceptions of course. When I studied in the U.S., there was an intense focus on technical issues: what type of paper to use, which printing ink was best for which technique, what press was the best. If you had an exhibition, many questions from the viewers would be about materials and technique. My experience with printmaking in Poland has taught me that it really doesn’t matter what paper or ink you use. If the image is weak, nothing will help. That is exactly why I decided to move to Poland to pursue my journey in printmaking.
RN: Do you consider yourself an American, Polish or a universal artist of the world?
CN: I have never really considered if I was a Polish or American artist. I don’t even know if I consider myself an artist; I just do what I do. I am a teacher and I make mezzotints. I don’t involve myself in many “artistic” activities. I seldom have solo exhibitions, my income from art is not even worth mentioning but I’m concerned with making mezzotints that are respected for being creative and of the highest quality technically and artistically.
RN: As a professor at the Eugenuiz Geppert Academy of Fine Arts in Wroclaw, what does your relationship with the students mean for you? Is it important to pass on your craft and art?
CN: My relationship with my students is extremely important to me. First of all, after my experience with Professor Elloian I’ve known that being an artist and printmaker does not involve just technique. I try to instill in my students a sense of honor and respect for their work, a desire to continually try to improve their imagery and philosophy. I believe this is more important than technique. But also technique is the tool that allows you freedom of expression. It is difficult to express yourself if you don’t know the proper language; if you are fluent it is no problem. It is essential that I pass on everything I know to students. The technique that I use personally and like to teach is mezzotint; this technique was almost lost once and I want to make sure it will survive. As far as teaching goes I believe that it gives you honor to have your students surpass you. I’m very happy when I hear of the success of my present and former students.
RN: What do you think characterizes intaglio printmaking in Wroclaw?
CN: Intaglio printmaking in Wroclaw is characterized by expertise and creativity. The traditional methods play a huge part in its character but other, more contemporary techniques also contribute to the reputation of Wroclaw printmaking. Wroclaw’s printmakers are experts in their fields. They take their art very seriously and don’t compromise just to sell work.
RN: Since you moved to Poland, you have worked almost exclusively in mezzotint (although I know that during your time spent in Alaska you used screen printing). Where does this special affinity for mezzotint come from? Are your students interested in learning this technique?
CN: When I moved to Poland I didn’t have a studio. I had an apartment that was 23 square meters and had no room for anything. I decided to focus on mezzotint because you only need three tools to make a matrix. You can do it almost anywhere. It is not as difficult a technique as many people think. It is different in that it is similar to linocut. It is a reductive method, the scraping and burnishing you do creates light areas so you are, in a sense, working backward. But, in my opinion this aspect makes it more interesting. Because of the time involved it is not an attractive technique for students. It takes a specific type of person to want to make mezzotints. Students that are focused on the image they are creating and not time are the best for learning the mezzotint method. Unfortunately, in our world of media overload, finding such students is getting more difficult. But this time-consuming nature is what sustains mezzotint as one of the most appreciated and elite techniques.
"I try to instill in my students a sense of honor and respect for their work, a desire to continually try to improve their imagery and philosophy." -- professor Christopher Nowicki
RN: Although you do not include the common elements of fantasy in your printmaking (such as characters, animals, fantastical happenings), some of your works depict a strange atmosphere that appears fantastical or magical. It seems that you invite the viewer to face an enigma, a magical act. Could your art be categorized into the genres of fantastic art or magical realism?
CN: In my imagery I attempt to change one’s sense of reality. My favorite artistic movements are Dadaism and Surrealism, and this interest began when I was a student. I think it is a huge challenge to use realistic imagery. People have preconceived ideas of what everything is, what images are, and changing this perception is difficult but I find it an attractive challenge.
Usually I try to show people something of themselves with my work. I would like my work to be some sort of mental mirror. The combination of perspective, the images and objects I use and the symbolism all help me build an idea or emotion that I want people to think about. I often use a raven as a symbol. I learned about the raven from friends that I worked with in Alaska. They are Native Americans and the raven is their symbol of the creator, trickster and destroyer. For me all of these characteristics, plus many more, make the raven the perfect observer for what I want to say. This is an example of how I use images that have preconceived meanings (maybe incorrect ones) to help create atmosphere. Many people think of the raven as a symbol of evil or death but I know better; he is much more than that.
In some ways I think my mezzotints are surreal, not in the traditional sense but more in a philosophical sense. I don’t care about creating fantastic creatures and scenarios. My focus is on how to show people something that they aren’t able to imagine for themselves.
RN: A work that caught my attention in this regard is Decisions (2011). We see a shadow that is not a person’s reflection, projected onto a gate that is also a clock. Does this shadow have its own destiny, or is fate itself merely just a shadow? What metaphor do you, the creator, suggest for this work?
CN: The title of the print Decisions is the clue to its meaning. The door is a symbol of a two-way portal. Doors can open into a new and different space or they can act as a barrier. It is similar to the dilemma, “is a glass of water half full or half empty?” A door can be open or closed, allowing one to pass through to a different space or blocking one from this same space.
In life there are many doors in the sense of challenges that one must deal with. A hypothetical situation can explain a little further. Suppose you have a good job but are offered a new job in a distant location. There is a choice you have to make. Do you want to stay where you are in a secure and known place or do you want to risk the challenge and go to a new unknown place that could be better or worse? My symbolic use of a door is an illustration of this dilemma. Do I want to stay here, where it’s nice and comfortable, or do I want to take a risk and see what is on the “other side?” These challenges in life are fraught with consequences that we must consider. Our personal solutions to these challenges define who we are as artists and as people.
The shadow in this print represents “man.” It connects the idea about portals to the human situation. Without the shadow this print would just be a technical mezzotint of a door. But I hope the shadow of a man who in fact doesn’t exist brings a philosophical and surreal aspect to this image.
RN: To what extent does artistry still matter nowadays?
CN: I am not sure how you are referring to artistry—artistry of technique or artistry meaning creativity. Of course artistry of technique is extremely important. How can you possibly express yourself accurately if you don’t know technique and are relying on accidental effects to create your image? Many artists would call the accidental effects of printmaking “spontaneity.” But these “spontaneous” people have no control over their results and consequently must rely on accidents to convey an idea. I believe a philosophical statement is crucial to art. All great artists had something to say that defined them and raised them to a high level. They had feelings, emotions and ideas that they wanted to express. They did not rely on accidents to express their ideas; they took control and expressed exactly what they wanted. Technique allowed them to do this.
Artistry in the sense of creativity is more difficult to discuss. It is very subjective and has different definitions for everyone. The artist has ideas (I hope) that he wants to portray which by definition are subjective and the viewer too sees a creation subjectively. This is a very interesting dilemma that would take many meetings and much time to discuss. But as I mentioned earlier, technical skills which allow you to communicate are extremely important and a philosophical idea that you want to communicate is essential. Artistry is the creative combination of these elements. In today’s world anyone can call themselves an artist but true artistry is difficult to find. It matters because it gives art its foundation.
RN: How do you see the role of traditional printmaking in a world that rather encourages artistic experimentation and digital art?
CN: Traditional printmaking plays an extremely important role in this age of digital everything. It really gives a base for all new digital techniques. And all of the traditional techniques cannot be duplicated with digital procedures. The image can be copied but the impression in the paper, the texture of the ink or the pure blackness of the metal plate-based techniques cannot be made with computers.
Then there is the question of creativity again. Digital printmakers are limited to the programs they use for their creations. No matter how creative you can be with Photoshop, you are still using Photoshop. These programs, while having millions of options, still have a finite limit. A pencil can do things that are impossible with a computer. One can get a close facsimile and can make a high-resolution scan but then whatever is made is produced on a digital printer which also has its limitations. Often of course you have to examine something very closely to see a difference, and maybe this just doesn’t matter to most people but it matters to me.
From what I see, digital printmaking is pushing more attention to the traditional techniques. Traditional techniques need hand skills that aren’t necessary for computer work. It’s a lot more difficult to draw a picture than to cut and paste a photo. And not everyone has the talent to draw or paint well while almost anyone can use a computer when they learn the program. But what I mean by traditional techniques getting attention is that now people are more impressed to see something that is made totally by hand. The hours it takes to make a drawing, etching or even engraving or mezzotint surprises most people. The more we are bombarded with media, the less people want to spend hours and hours making art that is facsimile—and this is exactly why artists with traditional skills are gaining more respect. The traditional methods are extremely important as a basis for all printmaking techniques.
RN: Do you think there is a connection between magic and printmaking?
CN: With mezzotint you spend so much time with a copper plate that by the time you start scraping and burnishing you feel that you really know the plate. In fact you do because you have very personally changed the entire surface. And then you begin. After spending five to six hours on each square inch of the plate you start to feel that you know it very well.
There is really no magic involved. Maybe to other people what you do seems magical and with years of practice there are certainly things that you can do that are impossible for people with less experience. Through practice, work and experience you gain a complete knowledge of your technique and it becomes a tool that allows you to express exactly what you want to say. When you demonstrate to other people, you can easily do things that they find extremely difficult. But magic? I don’t think so.
There certainly are moments when working on an image that can seem spiritual. The moment when you have a flash of insight to solve a compositional or technical problem, the moment when you are working on your plate and you feel that this is really what I want and like to do, and when your image finally comes together and it expresses exactly what you want to say, these are times when you really feel this connection and it can certainly feel spiritual. I think these are the moments that all true artists seek.
Image: Christopher Nowicki, Entropy Locomotive, 2001, mezzotint, 45 x 61cm, edition of 60, photograph by the artist.
The interview Christopher Nowicki's Take on Mezzotint, Teaching, and the Raven by Rada Nita appeared in print edition of Celebrating Print, Vol. 1 No. 1, published in October 2015. It also appeared in an online magazine Samizdat Online as "Interview with Prof. Christopher Nowicki," published by Visual Kontakt on June 2, 2015. It has been edited for Celebrating Print Magazine.
RADA NITA is a printmaker and a PhD student at the University of Art and Design in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. She received a Master’s Degree (2013) in printmaking from the same university. She was awarded scholarships at the the Eugeniusz Geppert Academy of Art and Design in Wroclaw, Poland (2010, 2012–2013, 2014–2015), where she participated in printmaking workshops. Her prints have been presented at several international print group exhibitions in Romania, Poland, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Portugal and Italy. Topics of Nita’s research and personal interest include the intaglio technique, particularly the phenomenon of ex libris, and the relation between mythology and printmaking in contemporary Eastern European countries.