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Walter Jule in the studio.
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Walter Jule at work.
WALTER JULE: Visual Jazz
BY Monique Westra
Walter Jule was born in Seattle and has lived in Alberta since 1970. He is the recipient of 10 national awards and seven international awards for his outstanding work. His contribution to printmaking extends well beyond his own art. As an educator, Jule has taught and lectured widely, in the US, Japan and Brazil. For the past 30 years, he has been a professor of fine art at the University of Alberta, where he is currently head of the Printmaking Division, one of the most dynamic research and studio facilities in the country. Jule has also organized international conferences, curated major exhibitions and edited several books about contemporary printmaking. He is represented by Image 54 in Calgary and Gallery Jin in Tokyo.
What attracted you to printmaking?
Well, looking back, I can see that printmaking allowed me to utilize the conceptual thinking I'd explored in my undergraduate degree, which was in architecture and interior design. There was a teacher at university who introduced me to certain ideas and attitudes that were influencing artists in the early 1960s. I loved the fact that in printmaking disparate elements could be brought together through a technical process - a weaving together of the spontaneous and deliberate. It's like jazz: each has an element of craft and improvisation.
In your writing, you used the analogy of music to describe printmaking. In Sightlines: Printmaking and Image Culture, 1997, you wrote, "Listen carefully to music and you will hear the individual notes build together until the whole no longer resembles the parts. Sometimes I like to think that the art of making prints is not unlike that of making music. There is an artist, an engraving plate and tools. The finished product - the print - is the result of how those elements are brought together." Can you say more about this idea?
I was thinking about how discipline, technical skill and spontaneity all come together in printmaking. The best jazz musicians have a command of their instruments, but technique isn't the point, it's the confidence that allows dexterity, spontaneity and freedom. Visual artists can learn a lot from musicians and actors, who are very aware of the need to integrate the head, heart and hands.
There is a difference between printmakers who create multiples of a single image with fairly predictable outcomes and artists like yourself whose prints are the final outcome of a complex process of layering and synthesis, which incorporates many steps, combines different print techniques, and adds an element of chance. This creates strikingly original images that could not be achieved in any other medium. Can you share with us your creative process as a printmaker?
Recently I've been making paper collages and wetting the paper that has been attached at points to my studio wall. When the paper dries it shrinks, and slowly all these tensioned structures begin to emerge. I manipulate the wet paper by hand while it's drying and can influence the configuration of the wrinkles to a certain degree. While this is going on, I'm watching for something unexpected and taking photographs, changing the lights around madly. It's kind of passive and frantic at the same time.
I select photographs to enlarge and transfer to copper etching plates, which I then work by hand, adding and subtracting until I find a kind of open-ended quality. Then I edition the etching on Japanese Gampi Washi (paper) and paste each impression to a backing sheet. At this point additional images, stones, balloons and various stains and drips are added with lithography to punctuate or "riff" off the structures formed by the image of stretched paper.
All this technical process is a way for me to become more intimate with ideas about light, transience, cause and effect, what is predicted and what is recognized and, hopefully, through the invention of symbolic structures, produce work that encourages specific psychological states.
Can you discuss some of the ideas that you express metaphorically in your art?
Well, I am not so much interested in illustrating an idea than I am in the ability of art to resolve what the mind cannot resolve. I mean that art can make me aware of an ever-present stillness underneath the activity of my life. I would like the somewhat dramatic forms in my work to be seen as essentially empty - a zone where there is no activity of the mind. I also address notions of memory, loss, and erosion, but most importantly I'd like my work to be an example of a kind of breakdown of sequential time, concentrated into the present moment.
Your life is certainly very busy. How do you balance your role as teacher with your own art practice?
I find creative exchange, working with others toward the goal of improvement of both individuals and the group, exhilarating. I've had a bunch of absolutely brilliant graduate students over the years and observing an artist develop, easily or at times with great difficulty, is the best seat in town. When I'm in my studio, I'm in my studio and when I'm teaching there is just that. Maybe it's a kind of cross training and sometimes one tugs while the other pulls, but that's the exercise.
The Printmaking Division at U of A is very highly regarded nationally and internationally. What is it about this program that sets it apart from other similar programs in Canada?
I believe it is because of a large group of exceptional teachers and technicians that has been able to work together as a team, and an administration that has provided ongoing support on many fronts. Paradoxically, I think our geographical and cultural isolation has served to prod us into looking seriously at the printmaking traditions of Europe and Asia and we've developed an active artists-residency program, enriching our situation immeasurably.
You mention Asia and Europe. How is printmaking regarded in the world today?
Printmaking is experiencing a worldwide explosion of interest. There are over 40 international print biennials or triennials scattered around the world drawing audiences in the tens of thousands. Canada has two, in Trois Rivieres and Edmonton. Printmaking is both highly successful and under-appreciated.
So how do you feel about printmaking as a collectible medium?
There is such a diversity of prints now and Canadian artists are having a real impact on the international stage. It seems to be that collectors should be rushing to take advantage of the relatively low prices. We have a very short print tradition in this country though, compared to Europe or a country like Japan, and I hope critics will continue to write about good and interesting work and galleries will help the public understand the vitality of printmaking now.
What do you see in the immediate future for printmaking?
The immediate future of printmaking on a technological level will be the exploration of the integration of digital technology with the complex vocabularies and processes already at hand.
Writer and lecturer Monique Westra is an art curator at the Glenbow Museum and a former art history teacher at the Alberta College of Art and Design.