Under the Midnight Sun
The prospect of teaching Native American artists how to screen print led Andy MacDougall to Canada's Yupon Territory, a place known for its hidden treasures. Find out how the workshop he conducted helped these craftsmen strike gold of their own.
There are strange things done
In the midnight sun
By the men who toil for gold;
The Arctic trails
Have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights Have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge
Of Lake Laberge
I cremated Sam McGee.
(from "The Cremation of Sam McGee," by Robert Service)
The great Klondike gold-rush poet Robert Service wrote epic poems about the Canadian Yukon, a place put on the map in the late 1800s as it lured men and women from around the world into the northern wilderness of Canada with tales of gold and fabulous adventure. I don't know about you readers, but I was raised on stories of Sgt. Preston of the Yukon and his dog King, Jack London and White Fang, and the notorious Snake Hips Lulu, a dancehall gal with a heart of gold. I always wanted to see the Aurora Borealis, ride a dogsled across a frozen landscape, and experience 40-below weather. Okay, I lied about that last part.
Now what has all this to do with screen printing, the aforementioned Sam McGee, and Lake Laberge? Well gather 'round the campfire boys and girls, and I'll tell you a little tale about screen printing in the far north. It all started with an e-mail, as most things these days do, asking me if I'd be interested in coming to the Yukon to teach a group of people how to pull a squeegee.
The message came from the Society of Yukon Artists of Native Ancestry (SYANA), who asked if I'd be interested in putting on a week-long screen-printing course for ten of their best artists. All wood carvers, they would be a mix of some of the Yukon's most senior and talented First Nations artists and a selection of promising younger people from across the vast territory. The aim of the course would be to teach them how to transform their three-dimensional art into two dimensions and then to screen print limited-edition art prints and T-shirts and put images and drawings on other materials using their own original designs. The territorial government was very interested in helping the project and recognized it as a great opportunity to improve the native artists' marketability in galleries and gift shops throughout the region and stimulate the economy at the same time.
The government identified a growing need to provide unique, locally made products at reasonable prices for the escalating tourism trade. The demand was there, but the products weren't. With their one-off masks and totem carvings retailing for $3000-$10,000, these carvers had only limited exposure to a small group of purchasers, and it often took months to finish a piece and complete a sale. Art prints and other screen-printed products would provide less expensive items to a wider group of people.
Helping people learn to make stuff with screen printing? I could get behind that, and I accepted the invitation as quickly as I could hit the reply button. The reality hit me later, when I started thinking about the logistics of actually doing it. Just like the prospectors of old, I would need to haul in all of the equipment and supplies to the far north. SYANA and the native artists who would be taking part showed a lot of enthusiasm, but there wasn't much in the way of a screen-printing studio or graphics supplies.
The organizers had found a great location. Sundog Retreat, about 30 miles outside the capital city of Whitehorse, was situated on 160 wooded acres surrounded by snowcapped mountains. It overlooked the Yukon River near the south end of Lake Laberge, where a certain Mr. McGee from Plumtree, Tennessee met his fate along the famous Klondike trail back in 1898. The place turned out to have first-class accommodations, a large work area, and a gourmet cook who stuffed us morning, noon, and night. But the area where I'd be holding class wasn't much of a screen-printing shop. Basically, it contained nothing but a laundry sink and some tables.
Sundog Retreat was about 1300 miles from the nearest screen-printing supplier. If we ended up being successful with the workshop, and the participants wanted to continue with screen printing, they would face the same problems. Most lived in small, remote villages, some without power. So whatever solutions we devised for the workshop, they would become solutions for the participants if they set up for printing in their home studios.
Luckily, there have been some improvements to the transportation systems serving the North since the days of the gold rush. Supplies and equipment used to go via steamer out of San Francisco or Seattle to Skagway, Alaska, then over the historic White Pass and Yukon narrow gauge railway, then on backpack, dogsled, or paddle wheeler on the river system. Today, goods move more quickly on trucks and highways. We just had to fit everything we needed into a big box.
I started by designing and building two tabletop vacuum print tables, one jig table for three-dimensional objects, and a simple, one-color T-shirt press. Each participant also got a set of plans for constructing these tables from easily found materials. Our hosts volunteered the use of a vacuum cleaner to provide suction for the tables. Working with Willox Graphics, a supplier in Vancouver, we also got water-resistant photoemulsion, a scoop coater, squeegees, inks, properly stretched screens, reclaiming materials, Rubylith, tech and opaquing pens, and an X-Acto knife for each participant. I gathered paper and print samples at my end, plus 10 instruction manuals. Everything was strapped to a pallet and shipped by truck two weeks before my arrival.
The only part of the puzzle missing was an exposing system. Working from the premise it needed to be something available locally, we scrounged up a 1000-watt metal-halide flood lamp courtesy of the electrician husband of the head of the Yukon Art Society. With a two-inch foam pad cut to fit inside the frames and a piece of glass, we had our exposing unit. We now had a complete screen-printing shop with four printing stations and the ability to make photostencils. All we had to do was set it up. The day before I left home, I rode my motorcycle in a T-shirt. When I landed, it was -25 with snow--a nice, warm day in Whitehorse. Welcome to the Klondike!
Setting up shop
One thing I’ve noticed about places with cold climates is that the people are really warm. The first day at Sundog I met the owners, Heather and Andrew Finton, and the head of SYANA, Linda Polyk, who had helped coordinate and set up the workshop. We got to work unpacking and doing final assembly on the presses, testing out the exposure unit, and generally getting ready for the first day, when all the participants would arrive and get together for the first time. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting by way of a facility, but it was better than anything I had imagined. The spacious and well-lit studio contained everything we needed to set up the press stations and exposure unit, and it provided a seating area for short lectures and demos, working on art, and cutting Rubylith.
I was given a nicely finished apartment over the studio, and the various artists in attendance shared three larger cabins a short distance through the woods from the workspace. The participants started to trickle in the evening before day one. Some had come long distances from remote villages; others lived nearby. All were native artists from different tribal groups throughout the region. These included Tlingit, Tagish, Tahltan, Northern Tuchone, and Kaska, and their traditional lands stretched from coastal Alaska (Tlingit) into the remote northeast interior (Kaska). A complete tenderfoot to the region, I had never met any of them, but over the next week I would get to know them a bit better, learn some of their backgrounds, and marvel at the artistic talent and work ethic they all demonstrated. Once we got going, shared meals, and began to relax, the stories started flowing. The perception that I was dealing with some back-country carvers was dispelled quickly.
Among the students was Eugene Alfred, from the small village of Pelly Crossing, who had been to Europe on cultural exchanges, brought over by universities and museums, to give lectures about his heritage and demonstrations of his carving abilities. His wit was as sharp as his carving knife, and he kept everyone in stitches with his great one-liners. Vernon Asp had left his reserve and home, got a university education in eastern Canada, and returned as a high-school teacher. He was also a contemporary of many of the others in the group as a carver, having apprenticed as a teenager at
a specialized native-arts school named Ksan under a few of the older masters who are credited with saving and then reviving the art styles native to the west coast. He was sent by his principal to learn the basics of printmaking so the high school could set up a course.
Teaching the process
We started with an overview of the process and how it worked. I brought an assortment of screen-printed products to give them an idea of the range of things in everyday life that are made using the process. As their focus was more on making art than stereo faceplates, we looked at some progressive proofs of art prints to demonstrate the separation of colors and the ways of producing such graphics. Almost all of the older artists had some understanding of the process, as their original designs had been printed in limited-edition runs and on T-shirts. However, none had ever done it, because the work was always sent away and usually handled by a gallery.
For those readers who are not familiar with northwest native prints, the bold, colored shapes and sweeping curves are typically cut from Rubylith by hand. So converting carvers to ruby cutters wasn’t too much of a leap. The artists had come prepared with drawings (Figure 1) and sketches, and with fresh X-Acto blades substituted for the knives, chisels, and adzes they normally used on wood, they set to work turning their visions into some film positives (Figure 2) for their first attempts at creating a screen print.
We got an assembly line going to process the screens and started with screen reclamation and degreasing. The screens dried quickly in the dry, arctic air, and then everybody got a chance to coat a screen or two with emulsion. A bank of cupboards served as a drying box, and once the doors were closed and a heater turned on, the waiting game that drives all new screen printers crazy started: “Hey, I’m done with my art. When are we going to make the screens? Are they dry yet? Can I turn that lamp on?”
Luckily, the day had gone by quickly. With assurances that we would start exposing screens first thing next morning--and the promise of some actual printing happening shortly afterwards--we all trekked over to the dining area. Our cook, Donna, who we had met briefly earlier in the day, surprised us with the first of many gourmet meals. Talk around the table drifted from screen printing to international travel to an account of a moose-hunting expedition the previous week.
We covered a lot of topics, including some hilarious tales about Yukon characters like the Teslin Elvis, a guy who had spent the last 20 years hitchhiking around the Yukon, apparently in the same stinky glitter outfit. He was supposedly visited by The King himself, who came via spaceship to see him in his cabin in the wilderness. It was hard sometimes to tell whether the guys were just spinning stories at my expense, but at least the Teslin Elvis story was true--I saw him the day I went to fly out.
Preparing to print
We fired up the exposure lamp the next day and exposed some screens. Again, everybody got a chance to set up the art, time the exposure, then wash out the screens. Our simple vacuum setup gave us nice, sharp stencils with the ruby positives, and after the first step-wedge test to determine the correct exposure time, it worked flawlessly. The first round of prints we did were all single color, just so everyone could go through the steps and get the relationship between the positive, the stencil, and the print. Everybody printed in pairs, one person acting as racker and gofer while the artist printed, then switched roles.
Once the class got a taste of how easy it was and the clarity of the result, the next few days turned into a blur as the artists started working on more complicated two- and three-color designs, learning about trapping, print order, and mixing colors (Figure 3). Dennis Shorty, a quiet fellow with probably the most distinct and realistic graphic style of the group, was quite taken with some split-fountain blends he had seen on a few samples I brought. Next thing we knew, he had designed a four-color image that depicted an intricately detailed moose silhouetted against a lake and sky, cut the rubies, and proceeded to run some almost flawless blends on two of the colors. He produced one of the better pieces to come out of the week’s printmaking sessions. As the days passed, the printing and production pace increased to the point we ran out of Rubylith and had to send into Whitehorse to scrounge up some more sheets of art paper. I could hear the sounds of the vacuum going long after I went to bed on Wednesday and Thursday. The Yukon now had its own chapter of Squeegeeholics Anonymous.
In addition to art prints, everyone was curious about T-shirts and fabrics, so we set up a simple jig and printed water-based textile inks on a few shirts I had brought along. Jared Lutchman, one of the younger members of the group, showed up with a stack of shirts and proceeded to complete a run of his own design for distribution to family and friends (Figure 4). Dwayne Johnson, a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair, literally ran circles around everyone else, excited to find he could perform every process step from coating to reclaiming to printing his own screens (Figure 5).
After finishing two prints with intricate knife-cut artwork, he got curious and picked up the tech pens and produced some pen-and-ink sketches directly on clear film. These were exposed and ended up screened on some animal hides and wood. Once the group saw this result, you could almost see the room get brighter as light bulbs started going off. The screen-printing process had just developed legs and walked off the art paper and into their imaginations. Talk turned to future designs on carved wood paddles, moccasin patterns printed on hide, decorative glass and mirror, printed fabrics, and T-shirts. These artists had just discovered something better than gold in the Yukon: the power of the squeegee and the knowledge and ability to use it!
Well the knives all flew, as they cut that film
And we burned screens all day long
Then the ink got mixed and the screens got fixed
Soon the squeegees were singing their song
And the prints that day, blew us all away
They were beautiful, colorful, bright
With an inner glow that could warm your toes
In the cold of the Yukon night
-- with apologies to Sam McGee and Robert Service