Any profile of Lisa Kesler is inherently a portrait of the artist as a very busy woman. Multi-hyphenated, multi-talented, and on the move, Kesler has attained something many artists only dream of—the opportunity to work as a full-time artist (painter/printmaker/illustrator/educator) inside a spacious, lightfilled studio space that hums with creative energy.
Just before we met in her Tolono space, which she shares with Uptown Concrete's Douglas Kistler (more about him in a future studio visit, I promise), Kesler had been teaching linoblock cutting techniques to a group of local high school students as a part of a recently awarded Urbana Arts Grant.
Many of you may know Kesler from paintings, some of which grace the walls of Lodgic, inspired us during traffic stops as part of the 40 North Sky Gallery series, and most notably, as the signature image of the 2018 Boneyard Arts Festival.
As we walked around I was stopped in my tracks by one photo opp after another. I barely put my camera down. Stacks of lino blocks lovingly carved with exquisite attention to detail. Paintings of various sizes, prints and posters boasting rich color and whimsical illustrations, and, bestill my heart, drawers and drawers of glorious wood type. This is an analog artist's paradise.
I had been to the studio before, but much has changed since then—namely, the arrival of the Vandercook Press, which Kesler purchased last January with the help of crowdfunding and patronage.
The Vandercook SP25 cylinder press was made in 1963 (which makes it a fairly new press) and proudly hails from Chicago, Illinois. It can produce prints from small lino blocks size to full newspaper size. It is a piece of design history and thing of beauty. If you're lucky enough to attend one of Kesler's workshops, you will see the Vandercook in action.
The Vandercook joins Kesler's C&P (Chandler and Price) press which she purchased from the Living Letter Press abut three years ago. The C&P dates back to the 1920s. Kesler is part historian, part curator. She has also learned (and continues to learn) how to maintain these magnificent machines. When you're working with technologly like this, there's no app you can launch to schedule a service call. You talk to the other experts, get advice, and then get in there and get your hands dirty. That's the nature of this medium.
And while we were here primarily to talk about printmaking, I couldn't resist the opportunity to explore possible connections between both bodies of work. Here's what Kesler had to say.
Even though they are two distinct bodies of work and might not seem connected in any way, I go back and forth between painting and printing, spending a month or two on one and then a month or two on the other. I began as a painter and that was my primary focus for over ten years, until I added printmaking to the mix. My paintings are usually abstract but my prints focus on simple imagery. But in both, I use colors and patterns in the same way. Many of my recent paintings include areas of linoleum block prints that I collage onto the surface. I like it when I can combine both techniques in the same piece of work.
When I asked her how she first came to printmaking, Kesler shared this story.
I took my first printmaking class, an etching course, during my last semester at the U of I. That piqued my interest, but I graduated and didn't have an opportunity to take another class. Several years later I started experimenting with linoleum block printing because I knew it was a type of printmaking that didn't require a press (and I didn't have a press at the time). That was over twenty years ago. I continued printing by hand and usually painted my prints with watercolors. When the Living LetterPress opened about eight years ago I developed an interest in letterpress printing as well, especially as a way to print larger editions of my linoleum blocks.
For this writer and artist, processes like a linoblock and wood type printing offer a much needed tactile, Zen-like antedote to our digital culture. Its that same feeling you get from digging your hands into the garden or kneading dough. You are in there, body and mindy, making something unique and of-the-moment. There is no undo button, there are only happy accidents.
Kesler enjoys the community aspect of these workshops, especially the range from curious newbies to linocut enthusiasts. No previous experience is required. You don't need to be a professional illustrator. And while sharp tools and large pieces of machinery are required, have no fear, Kesler will walk you through every step and treat you to the tips and tricks she's learned along the way. In her mission to spread the Letterpress gospel, Kesler believes that linoblock work and wood type design can be learned and enjoyed by everyone. Linoblock work, in particular, is something best learned with an expert by your side. You'll want your first time to be safe, so you can get on with fun of it.
After these May workshops, Kesler will be traveling, and teaching, and taking some workshops herself. We bonded over our shared belief in the power of continued learning. "You have to try everything," Kesler urges. "You never know where you'll find it—the thing that will take you in a whole new direction."
So if I didn't sell you on the idea of studying with Kesler in my recent list of don't-miss art events in May, this glimpse into her studio and her process should whet your creative appetite. If you can't make these, stay tuned to Kesler's website and social media (see below) for details about additional workshops later this summer.
Lisa Kesler Studio is located at 117 E Main St, Tolono
All additional photos by Debra Domal, except for photo of Kesler's 2018 Boneyard Arts Festival billboard, which comes from her website.