Just a Kiss Away From the Greats
James Reid, of Gemini G.E.L., collaborates with PNCA students in an intensive printmaking workshop.
Master Printer James Reid is a man in constant motion. “As far as I’m concerned,” he’ll tell you, “there’s no room in a studio for a chair.” So you’d best believe his students spent most of their time on their feet during Reid’s recent two-week intensive workshop with advanced printmaking students from PNCA. This is the third workshop he has led at PNCA.
“Today I’m going to do a quick presentation of working with Mylar onto a positive photo plate,” he tells the seven students now huddled around him. “I’ll show you how to set it up, shoot it, process it, then roll out a few prints. And away we go.”
And off they went, crowding into a small room with a standing freezer-sized machine. Reid opens its lid and lays down a sketch of a vase with flowers drawn on Mylar (“OK, so I’m facing it down this way”). He closes the machine’s lid and sets the timer (“Here’s hoping I push the right buttons at the right time”) as UV rays burn the vase sketch onto a prepared photo plate. Reid and the students now trundle off to develop it (“Can you hand me the white bottle over there?”) and the plate is soon ready for inking. He demonstrates with a repeated flick of the wrist action. (“It’s just like rolling out pastry”).
And now to print, as a paper-on-plate sandwich is run through the manual press (“I’m assuming I’ve got enough pressure because my back hurts cranking!”). The printing wheel turns, the ink hits the paper, and behold! A vase with flowers.
That’s it. Just draw, shoot, process, ink, and roll your own art. Repeat at least five days a week for most of the year, stick with it for three more decades, and when Ellsworth Kelly asks you to print his latest ten-color drawing, you can say, “Sure, EK, love to!” Let’s just hope you’re as good as James Reid.
Since 1988, Reid has been the studio manager at Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles, which is among the most prestigious print shops in the world. He was 31 years old when he first walked in as a graduate of the Emily Carr College of Art in Vancouver, Canada. Now almost sixty-four, Reid has inked and rolled an incalculable opus of work by an array of the 20th and 21st century’s most admired print artists.
Not only is the man a Master Printer, however. Turns out he’s a heck of a raconteur.
“We ran a tight stone lithography shop at Gemini in the mid-80’s,” recalls Reid, launching into one of his deliciously star-studded stories. This was before Gemini did any Mylar and positive plate printing, but Reid had been doing his own research into it. He continues, “Roy Lichtenstein comes in to do a project and asks for some Mylar so he can do some drawings. The printer he was working with didn’t know what he was talking about. And I overheard him and said, ‘OH! I can help you!’”
The artists he’s worked with roll like lithos off the press: Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, Jasper John. Oldenburg, Diebenkorn, Kelly. Rosenquist, Serra, you getting the picture? When you’re in Jim Reid’s orbit, you’re just a kiss away from the greats.
“While Jim was here with our students,” says Matthew Letzelter, chair of the PNCA Printmaking Department, “he received calls from Ellsworth Kelly to discuss a print project at Gemini. He would then would turn around and continue working with our students as if they were on the same level.”
This is Reid’s third consecutive year visiting the school. Letzelter says Reid’s effect on the students is amazing. “Every summer now I’ve seen these huge leaps with the students studying with him. And I see them transferring that to other students. So it’s not just two weeks, it carries on.”
Reid thrives on collaboration. All comers are welcome. Whatever his students’ level of knowledge, he engages them with gentleness and respect. That’s no small thing when you’ve spent your career cheek-to-cheek with the greats, but Reid is a modest, hardworking man with a lifelong reverence for his craft. He calls himself a “thinking machine,” a phrase he picked up from a teacher. He follows steps, encounters problems, innovates solutions. He’ll allow that there is artistry in what he does, but he will not call himself an artist.
“I am a collaborator, a facilitator, I assist artists in creating their art. I work for them. Yes, I’m doing something that only a small group of people can now do. But an artist is someone who makes art.”
Case in point, a telling thing happened during Reid’s PNCA workshop that speaks to this difference between the printer and the artist. All eyes are on him as he rolls out a print by one of the students. All bodies follow him as he lays the freshly-inked work on a table nearby. But only Reid rushes back to the just-used plate; the students are preoccupied examining the art. It’s the ultimate teaching moment.
“The plate is far more important than the print!” he tells them. “Just as in screenprinting, you don’t want to pull a print and go admire your work and see if anything’s a problem. You need to attend to your plate.”
In addition to the innumerable how-tos of printing lies the real stuff of champions: Problem-solving. Few printmakers on the planet can rival Reid’s inventive skills, honed over decades at Gemini G.E.L. where the client rules. “Whatever the artist wants,” he says, “we’ll find a way to do it.”
And that, says PNCA’s printmaking technician, Palmarin Merges, makes him an invaluable teacher:
“His anecdotal stories about working with big name artists and what he’s had to do to get their projects done, it tells students that even if they thought their ideas were crazy, Jim’s probably already done it. There’s no crazy secret, it’s about finding things out. Make those calls! Ask those questions! Get that information!”
“And that’s the biggest part of the job that I enjoy,” says James Reid, now forty years into his career. “The troubleshooting. Finding solutions can be completely off the wall. You may be looking at a menu in a restaurant and something just occurs to you and you say, ‘Ah! Maybe I can do that!’”
The laid-back, pony-tailed printer is reading an awful lot of menus, tea leaves, and cloud formations these days. Whatever it will take to tackle a particularly challenging work: a 77” x 27” ten-color lithograph with five black bases topped by saturated blocks of yellow, green, blue, red and orange. Maintaining perfect registration through that 10th color is proving daunting. Good thing Ellsworth Kelly’s latest opus is in the hands of James Reid.