John Warner Smith is the second University of Louisiana at Lafayette graduate in a row designated Louisiana Poet Laureate.
UL Lafayette’s Marais Press is a vast room in Fletcher Hall filled with antiquated presses, printmaking equipment and an adjoining computer lab.
It’s the sort of place that has drawn more than 200 visiting artists from around the world. About six to nine come to campus each year for about a week to work on their projects at Marais Press, a teaching and research hub.
They help train and mentor students, who get hands-on experience making lithographs, woodcuts, silkscreen etchings or chapbooks.
“The artists collaborate with students, who actually mix ink, print paper, the whole deal,” said Brian Kelly, an artist, a professor and head of the Department of Visual Arts.
Collaboration like that requires everything from digital pens, for drawing images on specialized computer monitors, to lithographic stones, which are huge, smooth slabs of limestone used in a process hundreds of years old.
Traditional processes are enjoying a resurgence in popularity that can be traced to a renewed interest in craftsmanship, and because they are a less toxic alternative to some modern printmaking practices.
“Artists today need to be versatile in their ability, to use all the tools at their disposal. Plus, it’s fun. Technology opens up all sorts of possibilities, but students still like to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty,” said Kelly, grinning.
That’s why Kelly will utilize a $60,000 Equipment Enhancement Grant recently awarded by the Louisiana Board of Regents to add more elements of the old and the new to Marais Press.
He’ll add equipment for lithography, where an image is hand-drawn or painted onto the limestone slab, and silkscreen, where an image is stenciled on a screen of silk or fine mesh. But he’ll also add interactive monitors for use with those digital pens.
“All of these things will allow students to work faster, to experiment in greater ways. It will help us increase faculty and student research. It will allow our curriculum to expand. And for Marias Press, it expands the ability to do bigger and better projects,” Kelly said.
The work at Marais Press began in the early 1990’s. The first project was a book featuring the work of the late Elemore Morgan Jr., a Louisiana artist who taught at the University. Morgan received international acclaim for his work as a painter and photographer.
By the time Kelly joined the University in 1999, “things had kind of stopped,” said the Chicago native, whose own work has been exhibited in 49 states and about a dozen countries.
He made resuscitating the fledgling press a top priority.
One way Kelly, a BORSF Endowed Professor who in 2010 was named a Distinguished Professor by the UL Lafayette Foundation, has done that is by bringing in the visiting artists.
They literally keep the press humming, he said.
“The purpose originally was to give students a collaborative experience, but we sell the stuff to keep it running.”
The artist visits are funded by the Department of Visual Arts, which provides travel expenses such as airfare; materials, such as paper and ink; access to Marais Press; and student and faculty assistance.
The artist keeps half of any prints, collections, portfolios, books, or other printed material produced. Marais Press gets the other half, which is sold in a variety of ways.
“It’s usually formal exhibits, but I’ve literally set up tables in hotel lobbies.
It’s all pretty reasonable. I think the most expensive thing ever has been $500, but most go for between $75 to $125,” Kelly said.
“Last year, we had enough left over to contribute to the Pat Terry Visual Arts Endowed Scholarship,” Kelly said.
Marais Press is a separate entity from the UL Press, the publishing arm of UL Lafayette’s Center for Louisiana Studies. The center publishes books that make significant contributions to the study of Louisiana history and culture.
Professor Brian Kelly (left) working with Professor John
Handcock from the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor on a Marais Press
printmaking project in the Department of Visual Arts.