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Demanding professors don’t grow old and soften with time. They grow old and get more demanding.
“Will this be more green along here?” asks former Howard University professor Lois Mailou Jones. The 91-year-old painter sits at the dining-room table in her Crestwood homeâ€”overflowing with paintings, prints, sculptures, and photographsâ€”and gently pokes at a silk-screen reproduction of one of her works, VÃ©vÃ© Voudou III.
“Accent the eyes,” she says, pointing to another part of the print, an elaborate collection of motifs drawn from Haitian culture and beliefs. Then, looking up, she adds, “It looks wonderful.”
She aims her gracious comment at the half-dozen Howard representatives trading “excuse me”s and “pardon me”s around the table last week. They are already giddy, because Jones will donate the proceeds from high-quality reproductions of VÃ©vÃ© Voudouâ€”selling at $1,000 per copyâ€”to the university hospital.
But she aims her pointers at someone else: Silk-screen artist Lou Stovall, who will hand-print the 150 reproductions, knows quite well that Jones’ peppered suggestions are not trifling. Armed only with his holstered weapon of choice, a tape measure, Stovall quietly borrows a sheet of paper to jot down his former professor’s deceptively small cues.
Stovall is no stranger to Jones’ demands. He met her in 1962, when he was a young student from Springfield, Mass., starting his first semester at Howard. He has since built his career and life in Washington. He and his wife, Di, a respected local artist in her own right, are fixtures of the D.C. art scene, as is their Cleveland Park house, which doubles as a bustling workshop.
Stovall’s rise is all the more impressive given that some treat his chosen medium, silk-screening, as a stepchild of the arts. He attributes his success in part to his determination to cultivate respect for the medium. But he also credits the gauntlet that challenging professors like Jones threw down.
“You know the ones who just really take you on?” Stovall asks. “She was after me from the very first day.”
Jones isn’t letting up now. Even as she compliments him before the Howard admirers, she is upping the pressure.
“I’m not worried about Lou,” she says, patting him on the cheek. “He knows what to do.”
By now, however, Stovall not only knows how to respond to tall orders, he knows how to give them, too.
It did not take long for Chris Hambrick to learn that Stovall likes things done a certain way. She figured it out in the kitchen.
“It must have been the first or second day that I worked here,” says Hambrick, who graduated from Howard last year with a degree in fine arts. “I was sitting right over there on the bench, and I watched Lou butter his bread. He cut the stick carefully into these one-eighth inch thick pattiesâ€”I don’t know if he actually measures themâ€”and then he lined them up evenly on the edge of the plate. Then he took them one by one and spread them onto the bread. He’s very exacting.”
It was a fitting introduction to the way Stovall runs his shop, says Hambrick, who works with many different mediums but specializes in jewelry design.
“You come into this situation kind of laid back,” she says. “Then you find out Lou has this system that’s been in place 30 years.”
The system does not grow out of manuals or feed from corporate principles. It doesn’t involve fancy processes or high-tech equipment, either. More than anything, it runs on Stovall’s vision.
“In this amount of time that I’ve been in business, I could have set up a larger, sleeker operation and could have kept some folks over the years and had more printmakers,” says Stovall. “But there are large print houses that do that anyway. I think there’s more of a need to turn out good, careful art than faster art.”
The workshop embodies his thinking. A small but complete framing operationâ€”stocked with woodworking equipment and materialsâ€”occupies the house’s basement. The printing occurs in what was once a garage, a lively and cluttered space with cans of ink, frames, mats, assorted tools, print drying racks, work tables, tins of chemical solvents, an entire wall of records and CDs, years of ink stains, and a multitude of works in progress. A 4-by-8-foot wooden frame atop a white formica base is at the heart of the workshop.
“I made this screen in 1968, and I’ve been using it ever since,” Stovall says, lifting the frame of his venerable screen table. “The only thing I change is the silk, twice a year.”
Stovall’s model is a standard screen tableâ€”a frame holding a membrane of silk. He uses a purified lacquer thinner, and split-second precision, to “adhere” an image cut into a stencil onto the silk. To make a print, he pours colored ink on the screen, puts a sheet of paper underneath, and spreads the ink over the image with a squeegee. The paper grabs the image from the screen.
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Given that his primary tool is what any silk-screen artist uses, Stovall has defined for himself a niche in “fine-art silk-screen reproduction”â€”a specialty shared by few others. It’s his attention to detail that has led fellow artists to entrust him with the representation of their work. He carefully schedules the application of colors to a printâ€”each color requires its own round of adhering, printing, and dryingâ€”moving from lighter shades to darker. He mixes colors by eye.
“You mix for what the color looks like, not the color that was used in the original,” he says. “It’s not a chemical transfer. It’s a visual transfer.”
The printmaking process itself is relatively quick in Stovall’s shopâ€”usually three weeks from first color to final touchesâ€”but that turnaround belies the amount of attention Stovall and his crew of four employees and one intern invest in a piece. Work officially began on the Jones print two weeks ago, but Kim LeDee says Stovall got her started days earlier getting the hang of the Ulano swivel knife. With it she cuts the image to be printed into a stencil, which Stovall will later apply to the silk screen.
“One of the main things that I’m working on is not cutting too hard,” says LeDee, who recently finished a graduate degree in fine arts at Howard. If she cuts too deeply into the stencil, she says, air pockets can form later on, when the stencil adheres to the silk.
“I’m glad that he asked me to do the stencil cutting, because it’s teaching me a lotâ€”not just about the art but also about myself, my whole approach to painting,” LeDee says. “Sometimes I’m all over the place creatively. But this forces me to concentrate on very small detail. That kind of gives me a balance.”
Stovall’s strict standards apply to every part of the job. Katie Lewis, who began working with Stovall earlier this year, says she already sees the point of one of her tasksâ€”studying a framed and matted piece with excruciating care to make sure not even a speck of dust will detract from the artwork.
“He’s a craftsman,” Lewis says. “His work complements the art. You can see how sharp it isâ€”he makes everything look beautiful. There are times when you say, ‘Oh God, do I have to redo it?’ But whether or not you like it, he’s right.”
Stovall admits he places numbing demands on his crew, but says that he hires people who can handle it.
“The entry here is pretty quick and painless,” he says. “I only take people who want to be here. If you’re not willing to make it as an artist, your tenure here will be about two weeks.”
He does not hesitate to take chances on people, however. He took one on Deyanira Brown-Barrios, an 18-year-old freshman studying at the Corcoran School of Art, by inviting her to be an intern. She has not disappointed him, he says.
“It’s not some altruistic thing that I’m doing,” Stovall says about having employed hundreds of young artists in his shop since the late 1960s. “I work their butts off. They do learn somethingâ€”get some benefit from it. For them, it’s the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do the best they can doâ€”not how long it takes them to do it, but how well they do it.”
Stovall and his crew take their battle stations. They are ready to apply the 26th color to the Jones print. LeDee stands at the right edge of the screen table ready to hand off the prints. Hambrick stands at the left corner ready to catch them after the new color is applied. She will set the prints down for Dale Blackwood to pick up carefullyâ€”but quicklyâ€”and slip onto the drying rack. Stovall stands in the middle, facing the screen table with a 2-foot squeegee in his hands and a puddle of home-brewed orange-colored ink on the silk screen before him.
“When I was younger I used to do it allâ€”push the print into place, print the color, lift the screen, put it on the table, and place it in the rack,” Stovall says, just before they begin. There is a quiet moment while his helpers chew on the thought.
Hambrick breaks the silence: “Noooo you didn’t.”
“No, but it makes for a good story,” says Stovall. “I’d have dropped dead after the second print.”
The screen lowers on the first print, and Stovall pulls the squeegee across with a clean, even stroke. He lifts the screen and spends a good minute simply staring at the print. Seeing something that bugs him, he cuts a little piece of tape and looks for the offending spot on the silk screen. A second test print gets the thumbs up, and the four-person team begins.
In a fluid motion, they print 195 copies, nine a minute, knowing that any slip will slow them down. If LeDee hands the print off just a bit too far to the right, for instance, Stovall can’t grab it in time, and the rhythm cracks.
It’s a serious effort, but they do their best to keep things light.
“I’d be printing a little bit faster if we had some Al Green or Marvin Gaye on,” Stovall jokes, ribbing Blackwood over his choice of a Tracy Chapman CD. The process is interrupted on several occasions by Blackwood cracking up with laughter, or Hambrick and LeDee giggling at Stovall’s quips. The workshop always echoes with either music or laughter, and it’s usually bothâ€”unless everyone has trooped off to lunch, which they share in the kitchen each day, family-style.
The Jones print will soon run its course. Stovall expects to deliver the finished reproductions to his old professor next week for her to sign and number. In the meantime, there are other jobs pendingâ€”the final touches on the 150 copies of another recently finished reproduction of a Jacob Lawrence print, the planning for a new Stovall original, and the placing and framing of a new multimedia series that Sam Gilliam has sent over.
Working on the Gilliam piece after lunch one afternoon in the basement half of the workshop, Lewis madly scrutinizes the frame to make sure there is not even one tiny scratch.
“It’s a lot of work,” she says. “But then you turn something around and look, and you’re, like, ‘Wow. I helped make something look beautiful.’ How many people can say they do that when they go to work?”CP