Printing pleasure

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on November 21, 2020

Last week, at the gallery where I’m now a member, one of the other artists brings something to show me. “I found these years ago,” she says, “in a gift shop in Maine”. I glance at the four small wooden objects, stained dark, with a handle on one side, a pattern carved into the other side. I smile at once. “Oh! Printing blocks,” I say. “For making hand-printed textiles in India.”

Right then and there, the idea for having an informal printing workshop takes shape. We set it up for Gallery Night, on Thursday. It’s an evening on which, typically, galleries stay open for a couple of hours longer. It gives art lovers of the area a chance to sample the shows after office hours, perhaps staying for snacks and a glass of wine. The pandemic has severely curtailed all such activities, but we have art on the walls. We’ve got to stay open or face the certainty of eventual closure.

Emma (not her real name) brings all the materials for the project: Sheets of sturdy paper, tubes of water-based printing inks, sponge rollers, plastic plates, two work-aprons, and the blocks, of course. The gallery has two modest-sized rooms, a tiny kitchenette at the back and a washroom. We set up one long table in the smaller of the two rooms, spread a couple of plain paper tablecloths and — we’re ready to go!

The plan is to use the blocks to make sheets of gift-wrap paper. Emma squeezes out a fat worm of green printing ink onto a flat plastic plate. I do likewise with rich red ink. With the sponge rollers and a sprinkle of water, we load the rollers with colour, then in a couple of quick strokes, we roll the colour onto the raised surface of the carved block. There’s the instant thrill of seeing the swirling pattern suddenly lit up with the bright paint. In the next instant — TUP! — that paint is transferred to the paper. Yow! We both exclaim aloud like two kindergarteners, making their very first palm-prints.

The magic of printing is so simple: A single design, once inked, can be repeated on another surface with a satisfying predictability. Why is it satisfying? Are we seeing our own continuance in these repetitions? Are we enjoying the way that graceful patterns emerge out of the chaos of random marks, just from repetition? Are we recognising the power of the printed word in all our lives, that must have once started with applications as basic as what we’re doing?

We’re joined by a couple of the other artists who are also present for Gallery Night. We have the music on, playing Bob Marley and Santana. In our hands are wooden blocks chiselled by Indian craftsmen, in the Rajasthani desert, decades earlier and half a planet away. Yet here we are now, with the creative energy of those distant hands, revived through their designs. Outside, it’s dark, wet and cold. Inside, we’re bright with shared delight.

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

Published on November 21, 2020

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