First Impressions of "Proofs of Life"

Show at Meridian Gallery Show Illustrates Group's Influence on San Francisco Design Styles and Political Impact

By Mari Eliza

I am a career graphic artist who has gone from etching classes in college to the boom and bust. I am intrigued by a show that documents fifty years of graphic design history in San Francisco. Where did the San Francisco style come from and where is it going? I'm looking for answers at the Graphic Arts Workshop's 50-year retrospective at the Meridian Gallery.


Graphic Arts Worksshop Historic Posters

The gallery is on the second floor at 545 Sutter. I take the stairs and find myself facing a wall of politically correct flyers and posters from the socially conscious 60''s and 70's. It's a mixed bag of silk screens, old-fashioned Xerox copies, and hand-drawn originals. All are to the point All are either unsigned, or signed, "labor donated". Headlines reading "Black Panthers", "Picket Safeway", and "No Wars for Big Oil" seem dated but relevant, like stock art that is waiting to be dusted off, tweaked, and sent back into the media stream. Down the hall, I see evidence of frivolity and decadence. Flyers and posters announce concerts and benefits in that familiar hippie style that is making a comeback. Some sport a little Peter Max pop influence.A sign reading "Proofs of Life Documenting 50 Years of Printmaking at the Graphic Arts Workshop 1952-2002" draws me into a sun-filled room. Posters, flyers, proofs and books from the 50's are displayed under, and on top of, a large glass-topped table in the middle of the room. A red-bound (leather?) edition of A Passionate Journey Through Art and the Red Press, written and illustrated by Pele deLappe, is available for purchase. Hand drawn erotic party poster designs are displayed next to an early edition of Frank Rowe's The Enemy Among Us. The walls are filled with framed prints signed by Richard Correll, Victor Arrantoff (painted the City Life mural in Coit Tower) William Wolf, Byron Randol, Emmy Lou Packard, and Louise Gilbert. Their favorite themes of world peace, civil rights, and the labor movement are passionately and painfully depicted in intricate block prints, etchings, and lithographs. Ironically, these once-forbidden socialist expressions are rare treasures now.This is where the graphic arts movement in San Francisco started. It was born in the 50's during the repression of McCarthyism, grew up on the civil and social issues of the 60's and 70's matured, absorbed, upgraded and digitized itself into the media madness of the 80's and 90'. Now it's catching its breath, getting ready to re-invent itself. I take a deep breath and proceed to the newer work.Like their founders, today's workshop members mix the old with the new. They use computers to market and sell their etchings, lithographs, engravings, woodblock prints, and monoprints. The work and content is more diverse and less political, although there is a spark of discontent with the displacement of artists during the high rent 90's. And who knows what goes unsigned these days.The Graphic Arts Workshop is one of San Francisco's oldest non-profit professional organizations with a colorful past. If you find the history of the workshop intriguing, imagine working on the presses that spit out the first political posters that ultimately determined the political destiny of this city long before you were born.Twenty-four hour access to any printing equipment and workspace is rare, but that's what the Workshop offers. They offer more than just equipment. They sponsor annual art shows and events, and, for those that like to collaborate and learn by observing, there is an opportunity to share experiences and inspirations.


Graphic Arts Workshop Offers More than Just Space and Equipment

To get a personal picture of the Graphic Arts Workshop today, I spoke to Leslie Lowinger, an enthusiastic member since moving to San Francisco.

Mari: What has been your biggest inspiration as an artist?

Leslie: I have mainly been inspired by cities.  In New York, in the 1980’s, I made drawings and paintings of the South Bronx, which was very pastoral landscape at that time. Everything was very overgrown. When I lived in Hamburg, I made etchings based on the Jewish Cemetery there, which also, at that time, was also a sort of leftover place. I am very interested in places as dramatic settings. In San Francisco, I have been making drawings in hotels.

Mari: I know you are involved in several arts groups in San Francisco. Which of the groups have helped the most to further your career as a printmaker?

Leslie: The equipment and camaraderie at the Graphic Arts Center are essential for my work as a printmaker. Artspan, producers of Open Studios, has been very effective for selling my work in San Francisco.

Mari: Was there one moment when you knew printmaking was your passion?

Leslie: When I printed my first etching I was surprised to see all these unexpected marks on the print, I've always loved that element of uncertainty, and have felt relief, not knowing entirely, what the image will look like, until it is printed. A friend said, "It's almost like collaborating with another artist” and I agree.

Mari: Which other disciplines prepared you the most for your current endeavors?

Leslie: I guess painting and drawing prepared me since that is what I was doing.

Mari: As an art teacher, what do you tell your students?

Leslie: I think young people should try everything.

Mari: How did you become involved with the Graphic Arts Workshop?

Leslie: I had just moved to San Francisco.  Another artist told me about it because he could see I was trying to work with inferior equipment.

Mari: How has the workshop changed since you joined?

Leslie: Well the Workshop goes through periods of enthusiasm and periods of lethargy. And by that, I mean lethargic feelings about group activities such as putting together shows or fixing up the Shop. I think group activities are hard for artists, after all, if we wanted to do group activities we won’t have become artists in the first place. Right now, we are in an enthusiastic period. Also, I think we have more young artists in the shop than when I first joined. One of the great things about the Workshop is the age-span. Some members are just out of school and some are in their 60s. I love the idea that I am in-touch with views on art from people educated during different decades, from different countries and so on. But in reality, we spend a lot more time gossiping about galleries than discussing philosophies of art.

Mari: How did the Proofs of Life Show come about and how are you involved?

Leslie: We wanted a party to celebrate the 50th anniversary. I sent a proposal to Ann Brodsky at the Meridian Gallery. She loved the idea of a historical show that included work of group members from the 50's to the present.  The show was the result of a lot of work on the part of Anne and also most of our members.  Anthony Ryan, our president, was able to  galvanize us (the Workshop members) into action, thank god.

Mari: How does the workshop attract new members?

Leslie: Advertising, open studios, word of mouth - I’m afraid it’s not that easy for people to find us.


"No Wars for Big Oil"
labor donated, original art.

Graphic Arts Workshop is a Professional Association that provides equipment and workspace for serous printmakers.

Graphic Arts Workshop
2365 3rd Street #305
San Francisco, CA 94107

Graphic Arts Workshop Folio

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