“Precision,” says Anna Meyer Zachurski, is what keeps her interested in the rarefied art of intaglio printmaking. “It’s not like anything else in the world.”
Lugging 200-pound litho stones and inscribing hair- thin scores on zinc plates are the everyday extremes of the medium. In Meyer Zachurski’s basement print shop, a sturdy Rembrandt press occupies what might have once been a laundry room. The monolith, which she sympathetically calls “the Cadillac of presses,” is on indefinite loan from a former student. “It doesn’t have any gear shifts or anything,” she explains, pumping her arms in front of her to illustrate the elaborate motion it takes to operate the machine.
“Printing tends to be more about manipulating machines,” she says. “I sometimes wonder why I go to all this trouble when basically I’m just painting anyway.” Treating her prints as foundations, Meyer Zachurski uses colored ink, oil, pencil, and gouache to draw and paint directly onto her images. She often cuts out shapes in Plexiglas, paints them, and applies them directly to her prints. Many printmaking purists consider Meyer Zachurski’s methods unorthodox: Some fellow members of the Washington Printmakers, she confides, “have a really hard time with my prints.”
Yet Meyer Zachurski’s artistry is rooted firmly in tradition: Had she not been accused of arson, she would be one of the few American art students to have completed a graduate degree in painting and intaglio printmaking at the prestigious Akademia Sztuk Pieknych (Academy of Fine Arts) in Kraków, Poland. “It was a funny mix-up,” she laughs now, almost 15 years after communist officials refused to renew her annual student visa, forcing her to leave the country.
Born and raised in Boston, Meyer Zachurski familiarized herself with the history of graphic arts in Poland while earning an undergraduate degree in Slavic languages and literature at Harvard. Though not of Polish extraction, she was enticed by the academy’s reputation and endured a strenuous enrollment process to study there. “Polish work tends to be more advanced,” she says, as well as “very dark and macabre. That’s what attracted me to it.” But the first year of what should have been a rigorous five-year program of classical study was also Meyer Zachurski’s last. “I went away for Passover with some friends of mine and when I came back my whole dorm was burned down, and they said I had done it.” In retrospect, the artist calls herself naive: “Of course they accused me,” she says, “I was the only American there.”
Despite this disheartening setback, Meyer Zachurski relocated herself and the belongings she’d packed for a prolonged stay in Kraków to New York City. As she tells it, Manhattan just happened to be “where the plane landed” on the way back to the States. Ensconced in Manhattan, she taught English to Russian- and Polish- speaking immigrants and in turn perfected her command of Polish (she had spent the year in Kraków communicating largely in Russian without realizing that it was “absolutely the faux pas”). All the while she continued to elaborate on her printmaking, drawing, and painting skills through classes at the Parsons School of Design and with artist Robert Blackburn. Meyer Zachurski also worked sporadically for the Polish Institute for Arts and Sciences before relocating to Silver Spring with her Polish husband, Tadeusz Zachurski, in 1988.
Meyer Zachurski has been exhibiting her prints at various galleries since then, but it’s her notecards and bookmarks that have done the most to enhance her visibility. “It’s a public-relations thing,” Meyer Zachurski acknowledges. She began selling her cards and laminated bookmarks to area gift shops and at the occasional arts-and-crafts fair in 1993. Since then, they’ve proved a surprisingly effective way of familiarizing people with her work: As exchange products that are made to travel (through the post and tucked into books), they function neatly as a kind of miniature exhibition as well as business cards. And, she notes, they “tend to appear in all these places you never expected.” Such appearances run the gamut: Local band Kowtow Popof recently asked Meyer Zachurski to design its CD packaging, while the Newcastle, England-based literary magazine Writing Women has adopted one of her images as its logo.
Debate over the artist’s methods hasn’t stopped galleries from showing her work. “Yestertech,” an exhibition last year at Washington Printmakers, highlighted Meyer Zachurski’s photo-etchings of outdated machines, modes of transport, and communication that were once symbols of human progress. The artist used photo-lithography and collage to produce her pieces, choosing typewriters, telephones, chariots, and Victrolas as her subjects (ironically, the printing press didn’t feature prominently). The show led to others—at New York’s Kosciuszko Foundation, at the Polish Embassy, and at a gallery in Warsaw. “It’s been busy…tiring,” she confesses, “but I should have such problems!”
Meyer Zachurski’s current exhibition at Capitol Hill’s intimate Newman Gallery, “The Somnambulist Series,” includes about 30 hand-painted prints hung in a mosaic formation. Almost all are of human forms and faces—distorted and penetrating. “I’ve always liked these particular kinds of faces,” she explains, “they’re not realistic but they send off a certain soul.” Yet when the show closes at the end of this month, Meyer Zachurski intends to put the somnambulists to rest for a while: “They actually spooked me,” she admits. Many of the plates in this series were actually etched in New York City during 1982-83. Resurrecting and “finishing them off” with ink, oil, gouache, crayon, pastel, and graphite provided a means for the artist to “go back and see what life was like” then. And, perhaps, a way to reconcile herself to her past and look ahead.
Anna Meyer Zachurski’s work is on view at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington’s Goldman Art Gallery to March 12 and at the Newman Gallery to April 1.