In a 19th-century brick school where little fingers once squeaked chalk across slate blackboards, exquisite fine art prints explode with color against stark white gallery walls.
Internationally acclaimed artists now work in the abandoned classrooms that house Durham Press. They come to Durham Township to collaborate with master printmaker John-Paul Russell who once made prints for pop artist Andy Warhol. Russell makes and publishes limited edition and multiple prints of the artists’ works, many of which sell for thousands of dollars.
In a process as painstaking as his printmaking Russell and his wife and business partner, Ann Marshall, have turned the old Durham School into a first-class workshop and gallery, with Russell doing much of the renovation work himself. He shows a justifiable pride in his huge basement workshop where he designs and builds what he needs to produce his experimental work.
As he has developed his business, he has given, literally, a new dimension to prints, translating art not just to paper but to metal and even rocks, collaborating on giant prints with artists whose tools are not just paints and brushes and rollers, but also heavy construction equipment and road-striping machines.
In the studios, Russell, an affable but intense craftsman, and a team of apprentices cut and arrange woodblocks and do whatever else it takes to help the artists turn their visions into completion.
Russell’s work has not escaped the notice of the Allentown Art Museum where about 200 prints made at Durham Press are now on display in a retrospective exhibit titled “Color & Complexity: 30 Years at Durham Press,” beautifully curated by Elaine Mehalakes. The exhibit opened Jan. 19 and will continue through May 3.
The curator says Russell saw “the creative potential of printmaking as distinct from its reproductive capacity.” She credits Russell and Marshall with the willingness “to assume the risk of making experimental work with artists in whom they believe.”
She calls Durham Press “a singular retreat for artists who often spend two to three weeks working in an intense and focused way.” In addition to the exhibit, the museum owns two Durham Press prints.
The exhibit fills three enormous rooms at the museum and spill over into a stairway where recorded poetry greets visitors. The prints cover an astonishing range from Michael Heizer’s “Offering 1” somber images of prehistoric stone tools to Hurvin Anderson’s futuristic and contained “Barbershop Print” to Jacob Hashimoto’s “The Hashimoto Index 1” with its orderly rows of complex circles.
Russell founded Durham Press in 1988. After the Palisades School District closed the school in 1981 it sold the property to a sculptor and Russell later bought the building from him. Generations of local children had passed through its four classrooms.
“We would have liked to have kept some of the old touches, like the original blackboards, but the previous owner had basically gutted the place,” Marshall said. Nevertheless, Russell has turned the building into handsome studios with paints blooming with every color of the rainbow and tools impeccably organized.
It’s the result of decades of work, a little bit at a time, Marshall said, as she recalled the days when the family lived in one room at the school because it was all they could afford to heat. She and Russell and their two daughters now have a home nearby. “Just four minutes away,’ she said. “He couldn’t be further way from his work than that.”
The once-upon-a-time classrooms now house a gallery, a number of studios and a small apartment for visiting artists. Russell and Marshall also maintain a small loft in Chelsea, an artsy neighborhood on Manhattan’s West Side.
Russell was collaborating with artists even before he resurrected the 19th-century brick school.. The printmaker said, “Growing up in New Hope, I guess I kind of absorbed art.” After he graduated from New Hope-Solebury High School, he went directly to work for Rupert Jasen Smith, printmaker for pop artist Andy Warhol.
“I didn’t work on Warhol’s prints of Campbell’s soup cans, but I did later ones of the soup boxes,” Russell said. He thrived and gained prominence in this rarified atmosphere of experimental art as he and Marshall mingled with the art world’s elite. Her background as a television producer and in advertising made her the perfect partner for the business they now operate. She travels to the city three times a week to show works and meet with artists in the Chelsea studio. “Sooner or later that’s where all the artists go,” she said.
Once the artists escape the intensity of the New York City art scene and begin work with Durham Press, though, they find inspiration in the rolling hills and sprawling farm fields. “They really enjoy being here,” Marshall said.
Abington-born Polly Apfelbaum, known for her wildly colorful prints such as “Love Park,” was busy with a team of apprentices last week in one of Durham Press’s studios.
She is one of the women artists Marshall has brought to Durham Press. Another is Brazilian artist Beatriz Milhazes, who is known for her screenprints combining floral and geometric elements. She made her first prints at Durham Press.
A third is Chitra Ganesh, whose portfolio of linocuts is based on “Sultana’s Dream,” a feminist utopian story written in 1905 by a Bengali author and political activist. An American-born Indian, Ganesh considers her portfolio a graphic novel.
Their work is part of the Allentown Art Museum exhibit. Other artists represented are Ray Charles White, John Giorno, Roland Fischer, James Nares, Emil Lukas and Mickalene Thomas.
Durham Press also displays prints at major art fairs throughout the world. The next one is the Armory Show in New York City. Marshall pointed to a small model they had to build of their space at the show to indicate to those setting it up exactly what prints were to be placed on the walls and where. The show is scheduled for March 5-8 at Pier 94.
The Allentown Art Museum is open Wednesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. until 4 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m.
Admission is free on Sundays and third Thursdays from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Visits to Durham Press can be arranged by appointment only.