Caledonia Curry’s introduction to printmaking was less than auspicious. Having taken classical painting lessons from the age of 12, she had long been delighted by her ability to render the world around her in subtle shifts of color and exacting shading. In a high school art class, when handed a lino block and gouge, Curry balked. Hard-lined, single-color forms? This must be the worst way to make art ever invented.
Growing up a pre-Internet teen under the influence of classical traditions, Curry arrived in Brooklyn in 1999 to attend Pratt Institute with a relatively narrow conception of what art could be. Seeing the plethora and diversity of art on offer in New York, particularly the groundbreaking exhibitions at PS1, blew the doors of artistic possibility open for her. No longer tethered to her identity as a classical painter, she was captivated with the graffiti decorating the alleys, phone poles and storefronts. With her background and training, however, she knew she was never going to pick up a spray can. She remained at heart a portrait artist: someone who gets lost in the details of a human face.
Relief printmaking, with its intrinsic, formal elements, offered an answer to Curry’s conundrum. Her search to marry the graffiti artist and the classical painter inside her brought her back to printmaking. A single block relief printing offers only two colors with which to form a composition: the color of the ink and the color of the paper, typically black and white, respectively. These simple marks produce near infinite variations of texture, form, and emotion. Curry was drawn to relief printing’s vibrant legibility. It is a medium which can be read clearly from a distance or even, as street art is often viewed, while in motion—walking, riding, biking, or driving by.
During this period of the late nineties/early naughts, something transformational was happening in her practice. Up until this point, Curry had always been aware of who or what she was referencing. In discovering portraiture and street art, she entered new territory. “The lights were out. I just had to walk,” she recalled of the time when we spoke via Skype last May. Soon, the bold, binary lines of relief printing became part and parcel of Curry’s artistic voice. This new high-contrast visual vocabulary appeared not only in her prints, but also her sculptural installation work, such as the 20-feet-tall Thalassa.
The repeatability of printmaking allowed Curry to balance her need to be ultra-precise with her desire to be highly experimental. It might take her a month or more to create a large-scale prints, with several days dedicated to the face of her subject alone. Shutting out the world and turning off her phone, Curry immersed herself entirely in her subject’s facial features, affording herself no mistakes. In printmaking she could lock in these exacting efforts, securing them in the highs and lows of the carved surface of the block. From there, she could create prints imbued with that labor’s hours, and yet she did not need to be precious with her outcomes. With prints, she had the freedom to experiment: ripping them in half, or trying different color variations. This is a process far from the meticulous rendering of her early art training and afforded her a completely different relationship to the end product.
Curry likens her process to biological evolution. The prints she makes in their many iterations are akin to hundreds of sea turtles born of one mother, each with slightly different features, or a virus cloning itself until mutation. With each printing, Curry makes small changes to the image, searching for her own survival of the fittest. The first prints from a block are straight forward, even rudimentary in comparison to their final form—which could take years to manifest. She once created a huge, round sculptural box using a print that was first pulled six years earlier. This became the arch of her relationship with each print. In this way, the image was the material in and of itself. “The material I can work with, it can deform and shift,” she says of the process. “Through this I figure out the best, most precise way to honor the forms.”
Themes of trauma and healing, both on the individual and community level, run throughout Curry’s practice. She regularly speaks publicly about her experiences growing up in a home fraught with opioid addiction and mental illness. She describes running from the resulting feelings, until discovering in her 30s that she needed to face both her fears and her subconscious. During her formative years as an artist, working on a large scale became its own form of therapy. “I had a lot of anger. I had all these forces in me I didn’t understand,” Curry says. “Either they were going to push on me or I was going to push them out. I could take this driving force and drive it back into the block.” She created portraits of friends, vulnerable people, addicts, and, in later years, of her own mother toward the end of her life. Printmaking became an avenue not just for artistic and personal growth, but also an invitation for interpersonal connection and healing.
For now, though, Curry has put a pause on her printmaking practice to answer a different calling, one she’s felt for some time: to create animation. Having recently pasted up her last printmaking permutations, she’s now shifted her energies into time-based work and filmmaking. Yet, like all great ghosts, printmaking leaves its impression on her current practice. Portraits that first came into being through the manic carving of a young woman navigating her painful past are now brought to life on the silver screen as Curry continues to explore themes of healing and confrontation of the subconscious in this new medium. So despite the unpropitious introduction, printmaking became a powerful vehicle Curry wielded to navigate the first decades of her artistic journey and personal healing.