Written in Fine Prints

The life’s work of master printmaker 
David Conn appears like a story foretold

David Conn’s artistic journey, which has spanned decades, has led him toward a mastery of his craft now apparent in every creation. Like all journeys, it began with a single step. In David’s case, the moment occurred while still a child, in the midst of a mundane event that would have momentous repercussions on the rest of his life.

“The moment came when I was very young,” says David of when he realized his future vocation. “It was a field trip to the children’s museum. I must have been 11 or 12 years old.”

David’s class visited the museum to view exhibits on science and history. The proto-artist became distracted, however, by something quite different: a display of engravings. The child’s attention drew the notice of the museum’s curator, and a teachable moment planted the seed for a lifelong pursuit.

“The two pictures turned out to be Durer, and the curator stopped to talk to me about them,” says David. “She told me they were engravings from the 1400s. I had no idea what they were or what art was, but I knew I wanted to do that. Ironically, graphics and prints are what I’ve been doing for the last 50 years.”

The qualities that make a good printmaker — patience, dedication and craftsmanship — had been instilled in David even earlier. His father, a fly fisherman, inculcated in David an appreciation for artistry and repetition.

“As a boy I would sit and watch my father makes flies for fly-fishing,” says David. “He would make the bodies, lacquer them, line them all up, then do the feathers. It’s the same repetition that I really enjoy about printmaking. It’s a process.”

The process and artistry behind printmaking is not commonly understood. Painstaking and exact, prints — and especially the linocuts made by David — punish mistakes, and necessitate a carefully maintained awareness of every step of the process. Linocuts, similar to woodcuts, begin with a sheet of blank material. The artist then carves an image in relief into the surface, which, once finished, gets inked and pressed onto another surface to create a print. David explains his own practice:

“You start with a concept and get the image going. You carve away, and that’s where the creation occurs, the little mistakes and corrections. Then you proof it, make a print and study it to see what you need to correct, or whether it’s good and ready to come into the world. At that point, you put on the horsehair shirt and become a machine. Everything has to be done in an orderly way, and there’s a mechanical nature to the printmaking process. It’s like cooking: you take a recipe, and once it’s the way you like, repeat it time and again.”

For David, whose work deals often with woodland scenes, inspiration comes from nature. Unlike traditional landscapes, which function through the interplay of foreground, middle and background, David’s pieces place the viewer directly into the action. The viewer’s eye drifts over and escapes into the piece, to create a personal impression that resonates deeply. David pursues this effect quite consciously, and credits other artists for his approach:

“The first time I saw Franz Kline, it was like entering an elevator and getting dropped to the basement,” says David. “That abstract power just resonated with something inside me.”

Shaw St. Studio, located at 1024 West Shaw Street, provides a home for both David and his work. A former pharmacy, this nearly century-old two-story building houses David’s gallery and studio on the first floor. Normally, visitors who wish to view his work must schedule an appointment; however, the MAIN ST Arts Festival on April 14-17 presents a special opportunity to both meet David and view his work, all while enjoying the additional bounty of art, music and food that the festival has to offer.

As the recipient of a Merit Award in 2015, David has a sterling history with the festival. This year, his exhibit will occur in booth #318, and will include a series of winter scenes for the enjoyment of buyers and browsers alike.

“The festival has benefited me greatly,” says David. “You put your work in a gallery, people come and drink wine, and it’s so social that people may not even look at the art. At the festival it’s different, it’s like a series of openings with a whole new group of people each day.”