Big Ink Brings It

By Peter Sloggatt

Lyell Castonguay likes to call himself the Johnny Appleseed of large-format printmaking.

Johnny Appleseed came to Northport last week.

Castonguay is co-founder of Big Ink, a mobile printmaking operation that’s keeping alive the art of woodblock printing in a big way.

Castonguay and his partner Carand Burnett travel the country with a large size printing press they call “the Big Tuna,” and everything needed to produce fine art woodblock prints. Printmakers themselves, they are well aware that access to large size presses is rare. In order to encourage artists to produce large-scale works and to push their creative boundaries they started Big Ink with a Kickstarter campaign.

Now off and running – and poised for a west coast expansion – Big Ink landed at Northport’s Firefly Artists gallery this past weekend. A roomful of artists were ready, having prepared their woodblocks in advance.

Woodblock printing is basically the 14th-century technology that produced the Gutenberg Bible and other printed books until the advent of movable type centuries later. If you remember carving potatoes to stamp out designs as a child, this is pretty much the same thing. In this case, the artist is starting with a large block of wood and transfers a design onto it as a guide for carving away what ultimately will be the white parts of a design. The wood left in place is coated with  ink and then run through the press with a sheet of paper on top. The ink is transferred to the paper is it rolls through the press under pressure from a steel roller.

That’s the easy part. The tough part is the carving. Artists who brought their blocks to Big Ink to be printed last weekend had been carving for weeks, sometimes months, in anticipation of the press’ arrival.

Firefly Gallery hosted the project in the back of its new space on Main Street and helped helped spread the word to get artists involved.

“The space here is great for it,” one of Firefly’s directors Drigo Morim said. The gallery has a studio in the back that opens to a small yard. It gave the pressman room to work and the artists room to get involved.

“We always wanted a place where artists could get together and work,” co-director Katie Laible added.

The studio space was crowded with artists excited to finally see the results of their months of work. Castonguay kept the process moving efficiently and gave artists plenty of opportunity to help.

A team of artists from Northport High School was among them. Emma Halperin, Kat Schorn, Eli Dalton, Olivia deFeo and Elle Vezzi, students of art teacher Constance Wolf, collaborated to produce a scene of trees. Each contributed to the design as well as the carving. They were excited to lift the paper as it rolled from the press and reveal the print.

It was a moment repeated over and over all day as each artist saw their print come off the press.

Many are already thinking about what to carve for next year.