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Exhibits show strength of NPA

"It's like bones to the body for a printmaker, because every printmaker started out with black and white," says Cecilia Lieder, who runs the Northern Prints Gallery. But that doesn't mean it's common to see a whole show of it, and her gallery, fo...

"It's like bones to the body for a printmaker, because every printmaker started out with black and white," says Cecilia Lieder, who runs the Northern Prints Gallery. But that doesn't mean it's common to see a whole show of it, and her gallery, focused on the printmaking world, has a show up right now, called, simply, "Black & White."

All of the artists on display are member of the Northern Printmaker's Alliance.

In press material, Lieder expanded on what she means about the role of black and white. "The print medium attracts artists with great strengths of form, who have the ability to distill the essence of what they see or feel," she wrote. "And their black and white images often reveal the inner structure of their thinking and process."

Thus, while it is unusual to have a show of black and white prints, Lieder says it is an excellent thing for beginning printmakers to see.

And it's not nearly as, well, black and white as one might gather. The black and white form always emphasizes contrast and form, but it boasts a wider variety of tones than first thought, with a variety of styles of printmaking yielding "the many colors of black," as Lieder puts it.

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She contrasts the work of two well-known printmakers in the show, Betsy Bowen and Jauneth Skinner, as one example. Both use the stark black of wood cut prints, but Bowen's lines show how much can be made of a few elegant strokes. Skinner, on the other hand, does self-portraits that seem carved out, with hundreds of tiny cuts and lines giving a texture just short of a drawing.

Still more contrast is available in lithography, which more closely resembles what happens in a drawing. An incredible level of shading is possible. Robb Quisling and particularly Gendron Jensen, famous for work depicting bone structures, are example of the form in the show. Lieder herself has an example in black and white lithography in the show, as all, called "Cave."

"People who like to draw are drawn to lithography," she said.

And finally, there's the intaglio processes, where a surface is etched through laborious processes yielding many different shades of black, Lieder says. Included in those tones, she says, is the blackest black in all of art.

Because the show is so special, it has been extended until March 11.

But that's not the only exciting thing going on at the gallery and at the Northern Printmaker's Alliance.

The Alliance also has two portfolio shows.

The perhaps unfamiliar term refers to the history of printmaking. In the past, there were no framed prints, only boxed sets of them carefully protected from the light. With obvious glee, Lieder points out one of the boxed portfolios, demonstrating how much more clearly the embossing shows up and how artistic details, like key marks and the traces of hand pressing show up on back sides.

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"It is a sensuous medium, and it's wonderful to handle the prints," she said.

The group started the first portfolio, "Elements," comprised of works by 16 NPA artists, in 1999, with funding from the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council. The funding helped produce not only the boxed sets but a traveling, framed show that has already been to Aitkin, St. Peter, Hudson, Wis., and Duluth and is scheduled for Bemidji, Grand Rapids and several other destinations.

"The whole idea is to do outreach," Lieder said.

One happy result of the portfolio is that it drew the attention of another arts organization, the Amity Art Foundation, dedicated specifically to prints. It inspired a second portfolio, this time in collaboration with the Women Printmakers of Austin, Texas.

All of the prints in "Woman, Water, Sheep," the second portfolio, are printed on paper from the nation of Bhutan. In fact, the name is derived from the theme in that country for 2003.

The collaborative portfolio will be shown in New York City, and each participating artist will get a box set.

"That's why (the organization) wanted it to be an exchange portfolio, so two groups could benefit from it," Lieder said.

She says every printmaking medium is represented in the portfolios, with a wide range of works in different styles.

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The two portfolios signify growth that is taking place in the NPA.

"The Northern Printmakers is going to go places," Lieder said, noting that membership is now up to 25 with more on tap.

In addition to a group that gets along, the medium itself provides an advantage -- the detail work and patience required to run an arts organization comes naturally to the printmakers. Organization isn't a problem.

An exhibit of the two portfolios opens at the Northern Prints Gallery on March 19 and runs through April 18. And both will be available to the public in boxed sets, as well as possibly a few "breakup" sets.

The boxed sets seem pricey at the start: $1,500 for "Elements" and "at least" $2,500 (the price isn't set yet) for "Woman, Water, Sheep."

But Lieder said that's a bargain for the number of top prints available in each. And the proceeds from elements go to support the growing Northern Printmaker's Alliance.

The Northern Prints Gallery is open from noon to 4 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. For more information, call 724-5212.

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