Listening to the earth

In October 2019, Professor Ellen Sturm-Loeding from the HAW Hamburg Department of Design left for a four-month research stay in Mexico, with support from the International Office, to collect endangered specialist knowledge on printmaking and traditional printmaking techniques with the aim of producing an artist’s book. To do this, she accepted invitations from two graphics centres, La Ceiba Grafica in Coatepec/Veracruz and the Secretario de Cultura in Querétaro. We spoke with Prof. Sturm-Loeding and captured her experiences in an interview.

Ellen Sturm-Loeding doing relief printing on textile at La Ceiba Grafica in La Urduñ, Coatepec, Veracruz.

How did the idea for the project come about and how did you get in touch with the people in Mexico?

If there’s one thing I’ve noticed over the years, it’s that the practice of printmaking is accompanied by communication on the subject, which effortlessly transcends geographical borders and is evident in the strong network at the international level. During my own studies I had the opportunity to visit the Lithography Academy in Tidaholm, Sweden. The good experiences I had and the artistic contacts I made there stayed with me, so that a long-standing connection developed. In 1993 I attended the international Lithography Symposium, which takes place every four years in Tidaholm. It is impressive how the diverse printmaking scene of lithography comes together from around the world for two weeks. In a relatively nondescript place, it becomes clear how printmaking provides a basis for artistic communication in the international context.

When I was appointed professor in the Department of Design in 2007, I was immediately convinced that I wanted to pass this experience on to my students, like a relay baton. Each year during the summer break I travel with students to the tranquil Västgötaland region to try out lithography together in the most professional of settings. There new discoveries and experiences from the local workshop flow into our work, and we bring these with us back to Hamburg, to the printing workshop at Finkenau. HAW Hamburg graduates can now complete a residency on scholarship at the Lithography Academy in Tidaholm and expand their international contacts.

It was there that I met artists who had travelled from Mexico. We talked about printmaking, series work and artists’ books. They were really enthusiastic about our compact seminar and invited me to come to Mexico. The fact that I was actually able to travel to the Secretario de Cultura in Querétaro for my research semester was a very valuable experience that I would like to share out of gratitude.

What exactly is an artist’s book?

Interestingly, it was the Mexican artist Ulises Carrión who published Other Books and So Archive in 1975 in Amsterdam and with it created an early definition of an artist’s book.

An artist’s book is an original piece of work by an artist. Because it is produced as a series and authorised by the artist, it consists of multiple copies and can be published as an edition. This means that artists’ books are individual pieces of art. The artistic concept becomes visible in the form of a book. From the time of the Dada movement up to contemporary art, such books have transcended the formal parameters of a book.

Mexico’s printmaking tradition, which was shaped by the propaganda of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 to 1916, understood printmaking as a means of protest. Political content took on a visual form. Formally, the printmaking of the earlier narrative representationalism has expanded to include contemporary forms of expression. It is remarkable how national identity and an understanding of origin are implicit in this.

What did a typical daily routine at the graphics centres look like?

My day started out like this: The colleague for Japanese woodblock printing (he lived in Japan for a long time) led a morning tai chi lesson from 7 to 8 o’clock. This is a healing exercise in pausing and concentration – something which I brought back to Hamburg with me.

This was followed by the necessary and integrated stages of work which structured my day. From the peeling of the kozo stems and the beating of the kozo fibres to the process of scooping, drying and calibrating, my days were filled with physical labour. I investigated how to produce paints from plants in steps of several days. All of this was preparatory work for the artist’s book, which I wanted to produce from local materials. I prepared different types of wood as printing blocks, so that I could work on these artistically.

Working with my own two hands was the focus of each day. Only then did I come to the actual focus of my preparations: to printing. Unlike the case in my previous creative practice, the preparation of the materials myself was an indispensable and significant part of the creative process. This approach is enormously different from the usual practice in Germany, which draws on the abundance of materials and is based on a product orientation. This was a lived realisation that will stay with me.

How are you integrating the knowledge you’ve gained into your teaching at HAW Hamburg?

The holistic way of working, from producing the materials to processing them artistically as a concept, stimulates creative thinking that goes beyond the printing block. This kind of thinking becomes expansive and incorporates the surroundings, which can become both the source of and a part of the artistic work at any time.

In these times of media image overload, this type of work and the corresponding development of images entails a slowing down that is worth giving in to. I see this need among my students – who today find themselves in a predominantly digital environment – when they dedicate themselves to a printmaking process through direct hands-on work. This shows me how important it is to have spaces that enable the development of an individual vocabulary of form through a decelerated encounter with the material as the counterpart in the dialogue that takes place in the process. Such spaces are essential for a learning environment like our university, where individual ways of thinking and acting should be explored as part of artisanal-design techniques such as printmaking. Only by working with what I call ‘material resistance’ does the unplannable happen, which for students can become a point of departure for their own artistic pursuits. The unpredictable requires a response and opens up new paths, which is why artisanal-design work is indispensable in stimulating and making visible educationally relevant experiences in creative courses of study.

My research project is also dedicated to this topic and looks at artistic work carried out by hand. My goal is to initiate and research aesthetic experiential processes in the creative approach to artistic practices in order to reflect on and further develop didactic-methodical approaches in artistic courses of study. With increasing digitalisation, the performative need to research and understand materials, substances and their world is growing.

Have follow-up projects developed out of your stay, and are you planning to host guests from Mexico in Hamburg?

Three concrete follow-up projects are already being prepared and three others are being planned. And then there’s another dream: I’ve been invited to give a workshop on lithography in Querétaro in January/February next year. There are plans for an exhibit of my printmaking work at the Secretario de Cultura in February 2021. The Goethe Institute would like to hold an exhibit of my work and an artist’s talk in Mexico City, and a subsequent travelling exhibition across Latin America in cooperation with the Goethe Institute is being talked about. An intercultural artists’ book with artists (students and graduates) from Hamburg and Mexico is being planned for 2021, as well as corresponding exchange visits of students and instructors.

The sharing of knowledge that takes place as part of these projects flows directly into the teaching. The practice of printmaking brings together communication on the subject and the international network. I want to bring this network to life for students and instructors through research trips and joint projects. Despite the coronavirus, my long-term vision is to visit Mexico with students.

Marc Götting: Thank you very much for the interview and your time. We wish you all the best and hope your projects can take shape soon and that on-campus work incorporating your newly gained experiences and techniques can start up again.


Marc Götting
International Office