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It Takes Two Hands to Print: Collaborative Printmaking with Chen Shitong at Pulp Editions

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In the process of creating a print, there are many elements to consider: what order should the layers be in? How do the colours interact with each other? Which techniques should be used to achieve the right effect? If you ask printmaker and educator Chen Shitong, he’d tell you that it helps to work with someone with a pool of knowledge to tap into, to streamline the technical processes and free up headspace for the creative juices to flow.

This is why he decided to set up his collaborative printmaking studio, Pulp Editions, in 2017, to provide resources and his own expertise as a printmaker to work with professional artists in creating printed works. Since then, eight different artists have come to work with him at the studio, each leaving with their own series of limited editioned prints.

We chat with him about the studio, collaborating with artists, and his own personal practice.

Pulp Editions moved to a larger studio space during the Circuit Breaker last year, which is currently in the process of being furnished. Pictured here is Chen’s vision for the new printmaking workshop.

How did you discover printmaking?

I originally graduated as a painter, not a printmaker. But I’ve always had an interest in knowing more about printmaking through books. So after my National Service, I applied for a few short courses on printmaking at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. I was very fortunate to be taught by April Ng Kiow Ngor, a notable local printmaker. I haven’t looked back since. 

How do you feel printmaking compares to painting?

I think the skills that I learnt in painting were very useful for printmaking. If you have a basis in painting, you definitely have a bit of advantage in printmaking. Painting revolves more around the elements of art such as colours, lines, shapes, forms and texture, which I feel I can apply and integrate into my printmaking works.

I also really like the experimental approach of printmaking – I find that printmaking makes you feel more like a scientist. It’s very process-based, and I just love knowing how to do it. I also enjoy collecting materials that are needed for printmaking – all these printing presses, all these inks, they’re very unique.

Chen’s favourite printmaking material: the lithographic press. He finds that it opens up more possibilities when collaborating with an artist, and provides a more consistent print.

Where do you find these materials?

All of the materials are actually shipped from overseas. Apart from basic materials such as linocut inks, it’s hard to find specialised printmaking materials in Singapore. For tools such as lithographic stones, acids and drawing materials, you either have to get them from the States or find a way to have it specially fabricated here. However, the amazing thing about printmaking is how the community finds ways to use unconventional materials as substitutes.

What, to you, is a good print?

I was just talking to a friend about this! I came up with three words, which was that it has to it has to be effortless, it has to be delicate and it has to be delicious. I think these three are the most important things that I look for when I make my artworks.

What do you mean by delicious?

In terms of colours, something about it should make you feel like you just want to touch them. It’s also in the way the colours react to each other – it should look like it cannot be achieved by painting, yet you also do not know how it is done by printmaking. To me, these are some of the things that I look for in a print.

Chen Shitong, Interstellar 0.1, 2021.

Why and how did you go about establishing your printmaking studio?

I had a basic knowledge of most of the printmaking techniques except for lithograph, so I decided to undertake the Printer Training Program at Tamarind Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico to learn it. It was an intense one-year programme that taught me how to collaborate with students and artists who had no background in printmaking. These collaborators were sculptors, painters, conceptual artists, but they all brought their own talent and their own ideas. We would introduce them to different lithographic techniques to incorporate into their work. Going through this programme made me think about how we don’t have such a thing in Singapore.

Through this experience, I got really interested in this mode of working with people. It’s a bit like teaching, working with students, except that you’re working with someone who is even more experienced in their own areas of expertise, and you get to understand how they work.

So when I came back, I set up this printmaking studio where I invited artists to come and make prints with me. In the beginning it was quite tough. I came back and I had no job, and I wanted to do this. So I approached artists and gave them a free trial to come and make works with me. As it went along, artists would introduce other artists to come and make more and more works.

A snapshot of Pulp Editions’ original studio space at Kallang Way during a busy time. They have since moved to a larger studio.

What is the process like in working with the artists that you invite?

All artists are different, just like all students are different. Some will come with an idea in mind. Others will come with no idea in mind. Some are very spontaneous – just give them something, and they will work with it. It really depends on the artist.

When the artist starts making something, that’s when I can suggest the best approach for them to make the print that they envision. Usually I will be the one printing, while the artists will be the one directing or deciding the colours. My job is more like technical support. But some artists will not be sure about how print works, how colours overlap one other, and that’s where we work with each other.

There is a lot of problem solving involved. At the same time, I realised that I learn a lot from these artists because they all work very differently. Some artists don’t see mistakes as mistakes; everything can be a potential piece of art. Of course, there are also some artists who are more afraid to make mistakes, and they constantly need you to reassure them that they are on the right track.

At the end of each artist’s residency, they would lay out all the printed pieces and decide which prints will be made into editions. Here, guest artist Chiew Sien Kuan (left) is deciding which type of paper to use for the woodcut print with Chen’s (right) help.

Do you invite artists who have no knowledge or very little knowledge of printing? How do you decide which artists to invite?

Yeah, actually, it’s more fun to invite people who are not very well versed in printmaking (laughs). Because then they will not try to fight with you about how they want something done. I think the best kind of artists to work with are those who are very open to suggestion. Because these are the ones who are a bit more open to whatever you want them to do, and will try to work with you.

Before I approach an artist, I would visit their exhibitions and studios, and ask around to find out what their personality is like. I need to be a bit more selective, because I’m mostly doing this as a passion project that’s not really for income.

Chen (second from left) introducing printmaking materials to artists Chua Chon Hee (leftmost), Oh Chai Hoo (second from right) and Boo Sze Yang (rightmost). He usually visits the artist’s studio and leaves a set of materials for the artist to test out before their residency at his studio begins.

 Is it a challenge to get people to come?

Yeah. You want to get someone who can communicate with you, who’s on the right frequency with you. That’s the challenge. If you just tell anyone to come and make prints, I’m sure there will be a long queue. But the idea is to find someone who’s a good fit, who understands what I’m trying to do with the studio, and can work creatively with me.

So the collaborative part of the process is very important to you.

It’s very important. I guess the reason why I like this job is because when I make works, there’s another person around and we can share the space and bounce ideas off of each other. I mean, that’s the fun part.

Discussing trial proofs with Nhawfal Juma’at.

How has this project impacted your personal practice?

I’ve become more open-minded about what I make, yet at the same time I think I’m also more certain about what I want. The three things that I told you I think make a good print – I don’t think I could have told you that two years ago if I had not started this studio.

Also, I used to throw away a lot of my prints if they didn’t go well. Nowadays I try to put them aside and come back to them later. I think that’s one of the studio’s big impacts on how I make my art now.

Chen Shitong, Morning Conversation, 2021.

What are your hopes for the studio?

What’s the future going to be like? I hope in the long run, we can start to hire people to come and work for me, so that I don’t have to do this alone. Actually, right now, I’m trying to find someone to start to train. I also hope that in the future, we can actually open this up not just to artists, but also younger people, so that students can come to collaborate too.

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Works by Chen Shitong are on view at Moving Plates at Mulan Gallery from 16 Oct to 13 Nov 2021. For more information about this exhibition, click here: http://mulangallery.com.sg/

To find out more about Chen Shitong, click here: https://www.chenshitong.com/ 

To find out more about Pulp Editions, click here: https://www.pulpeditions.com/

All images are courtesy of Chen Shitong.

Chen Shitong during his time at Tamarind Institute.
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