Arts in Depth: Interview with Magnolia Editions Co-Founder and Director Donald Farnsworth

by admin on April 29, 2014

Since settling in to a West Oakland warehouse over 30 years ago Magnolia Editions in a signature experimental style has worked with many of the most accomplished and highly-regarded local, national and international contemporary artists, museums, and curators: from Rupert Garcia, de Young Museum and Hung Liu to Barbaro Martinez-Ruiz, Chuck Close and Kiki Smith. This local fine art print studio provides artists the wide breadth of technical expertise by its knowledgeable staff alongside access to a handmade paper-making facility including etching presses and large pigment-based electronic printing processes employing traditional and advanced digital printing methods to print multiples, unique artist prints, works on paper and textiles, as well as innovative Jacquard weaving techniques — perhaps only three facilities in the world exist. Director Donald Farnsworth generously guided Oakland Art Enthusiast on a personal tour of the space, and related Magnolia Editions’ fascinating history as well as its present state of affairs including current artist projects, exhibitions, and community outreach programs.

OAE: Tell us about the beginnings of Magnolia Editions. What previous experiences lead you to founding this business? 

Farnsworth: I’ve been making handmade paper in the Bay Area since 1973: first in West Oakland at the Prieto Glass Studio and later in San Francisco, followed by a short stint in Kensington. Simultaneously, I had set up a flatbed transfer lithography press at Peter Voulkos’s “Dome” studio on the Oakland/Berkeley border, printing with artists such as Voulkos, Wayne Thiebaud, and Judy Chicago. In 1981 we (North Face co-founder Arne Hiersoux, David Kimball and myself) combined the paper mill and the print workshop into a single entity here on Magnolia Street in West Oakland. My wife, artist Era Hamaji Farnsworth, has also been an essential presence in the studio; in addition to supervising daily operations at Magnolia, Era and I frequently collaborate on prints, tapestries, and mixed-media works.


Tapestries by Kiki Smith at Magnolia Editions, Oakland

OAE: How and why did you decide to run Magnolia Editions in Oakland? What was special, technically or otherwise about this city that drew you here?

Farnsworth: In 1981 our small group of printers and paper makers/artists was drawn to Magnolia street in West Oakland for a few reasons: the affordable rents; a few like-minded creative neighbors; and the street’s beautiful ancient magnolia tree (which was unfortunately later bulldozed to make a parking lot for Comp USA – now Office Depot). The relatively undeveloped and industrial nature of the area also provided the opportunity to customize a building to fit our needs. We found a warehouse with a long term lease, one we could modify to accommodate floor drains for paper-making, large storage areas for artwork and equipment, and so on. These days, we’re looking forward to incorporating greater use of solar energy.

Other areas of Oakland attracted us early on because of their beauty and climate: the Oakland hills had fresh air and affordable housing (at the time) and they still have the best weather in the Bay Area, if not the world. And whether in the hills or the flatlands, Oakland continues to offer a wonderfully diverse, multicultural scene.

The unsung hero of the Oakland art world in my eyes would have to be the restaurant scene, which has always been fantastic both in its culinary offerings and its extraordinary commitment to the arts. Chez Panisse and Bay Wolf in particular have been cornerstones of the art community in the East Bay, consistently supporting the arts and hanging work by Oakland-based greats like Rupert Garcia and Hung Liu. More recently Brown Sugar Kitchen and B-Side have emerged as wonderful additions to the roster of outstanding restaurants in Oakland that are visibly and mutually supportive of the art scene.


Artworks by Chuck Close at Magnolia Editions, Oakland

OAE: There’s quite an impressive list of artist clients who have used your services. Can you discuss how these relationships have been developed over the years? What are your particular philosophies or manner of working with artists, and what does that process generally entail? I’m curious to know your thoughts and point of view, and how Magnolia Editions sees itself in a role within that process.

Farnsworth: We work shoulder to shoulder with the artist at Magnolia; we’ve always been collaborators in the process of developing the artwork, and we’ve never modeled our business as a service bureau or drop-off shop. The goal instead is to see an idea through, from an initial notion or sketch to the physical object itself, under the guidance of the artist. My staff and I are always striving to give the artist complete control while at the same time expanding and even challenging their existing capabilities. Technology has modified the landscape of image-making: the ability to preview ideas rapidly with an artist’s participation means that a host of good and bad ideas can be quickly reviewed, in order to direct the work toward a style and a medium that fits the content.

I want to emphasize that Magnolia’s embrace of ‘technology’ as a means to advance mark-making is in no way limited to electronic or even modern technology, but encompasses all of the incredible human ingenuity over the last 20,000 years. The few examples of that ingenuity with which we at Magnolia have been able to gain some modest measure of experience — the paint brush, thread, weaving, papermaking, woodcut, etching, ceramics — these are all, in my mind, incredible technologies.

Ideally, we arrive at a work where the artist is taking a new approach to mark-making, one they may not have previously explored. We have the experience and the technology now to make a convincing Rembrandt etching. We can produce a Rembrandt mark with an artist, and that may be the goal for some pieces; but in general we’re trying to make marks that show the thinking of the artist, the soul of the artist in the mark, in a fresh way: simple, direct, and insightful. Admittedly it’s a lofty goal and we may not always succeed!

Simply making do with a medium because that’s how the artist usually works doesn’t always benefit the final piece: maybe it’s better to translate a painting into ceramics, because the work will ultimately be installed outdoors. The best artists never stop working and are always pushing their work in new directions. Mildred Howard, for example, is a conceptual/installation/public artist — so we work on ideas with 40 ft ceilings and 100 ft walls, but at the same time we work on 22×30 in. prints on paper. It’s a challenge to come up with an appropriate approach to two such diverse, contrasting scales; one is going to fill up 50 windows at an airport, another is going to speak to scale in a different way by incorporating maps or using buttons to lend topography to the surface of a print. 

When we make a new mistake or a new discovery — and often the mistakes are the most exciting — we can get swept away and stay there for weeks at a time: one wave catches the next, inspires the next; the influences of one artist spill over to another, to visitors on a tour, to a student that comes in to try something out. There is a creative riptide that gets sent out from a new work and it often ends up influencing subsequent work by other artists at the studio, regardless of age or genre. It can happen during a casual conversation when two artists happen to be at Magnolia at the same moment — or more gradually, as creative minds see and react to the evolution of each other’s work over time. So many artists, living and otherwise, have had a hand in the development of our techniques, and have thereby introduced new mark-making possibilities for everyone.


Magnolia Editions, Oakland

OAE: What are some current projects you are working on?

Farnsworth: We have several projects with Chuck Close in the works, including an upcoming tapestry edition based on Big Self-Portrait, the iconic 1968 black-and-white painting of a scruffy young Close smoking a cigarette. Other current projects include an ongoing series of more than a dozen tapestry editions by Kiki Smith, each woven from a unique collage of printed, painted and drawn elements; a pair of woodcuts by Mel Ramos, revisiting some of his very first Pop Art superhero imagery in a print medium rarely explored by the artist; and new etchings by Guy Diehl. 

In addition we remain committed to keeping handmade paper alive in the Bay Area: our paper mill was recently renovated and we have had several successful paper workshops this year. If your readership is interested in such workshops, they’re encouraged to sign up for our email list or bookmark our blog. We recently collaborated with Awagami Factory in Japan, who sent us some of the latest in washi paper, which we used for some terrific prints and unique work by Mildred Howard, Hung Liu, Mary Webster, and Bob Nugent.

OAE: Are there particular projects you are especially proud of being a part? Any particular artist with whom you have worked that is particularly meaningful? 

Farnsworth: What is more important to me than any one particular artist, and what is ultimately the foremost reason for Magnolia’s existence and continued survival, is the community we have built here. Without the brilliance of local artists like Squeak Carnwath, Rupert Garcia, Hung Liu, Lewis deSoto, Guy Diehl, Mel Ramos, Mildred Howard, Mark Stock, Enrique Chagoya and George Miyasaki, we would not have the studio we have today. Without the support of museums like the de Young, where curator Karin Breuer honored the studio and Rupert Garcia in 2011 with the show Rupert Garcia: The Magnolia Editions Projects 1991-2011, surveying our twenty years of collaboration with Rupert, and without the continued support of friends like the Bay Wolf restaurant and Brown Sugar Kitchen we would not have the opportunities to do what we do. Magnolia sometimes serves as a de facto think tank, where a master bookbinder like John DeMerritt may drop in at the same time as an expert glass artist like Dorothy Lenehan or a brilliant curator and scholar like Barbaro Martinez-Ruiz. Ideas and enthusiasm are constantly being exchanged between people from various creative disciplines: that’s the heart and soul of the studio.

For example, right now, we are trying to make 14th/15th-century style handmade paper which requires making custom felts from donkey hair, permed horse hair, wool and other fibers. The project has taken us all over the Bay Area, visiting everyone from experts in various animal hairs to woolen felters, papermakers, and chemists. Our community is always growing, as each new project leads us to new resources and individuals we can learn from, who then in turn visit Magnolia and get excited about an idea that may be new to them. 

We are also currently working with Barbaro Martinez-Ruiz — of the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town and Harvard University, who has introduced us to several fantastic artists from around the world — to develop an exhibition highlighting experimental and innovative projects from Magnolia, tentatively scheduled for late 2015 at the Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno in the Canary Islands.


Artworks by Chuck Close at Magnolia Editions, Oakland

OAE: Is there an award or achievement in Magnolia Editions’ history that is particularly noteworthy, either personally or professionally?

Farnsworth: As mentioned earlier, we were delighted when the de Young Museum devoted an exhibit to Rupert Garcia’s experiments with Magnolia. It has also been both a privilege and an honor to work with Chuck Close on the Obama fundraising pieces. Many of the techniques we were working with, including the watercolor print process itself, were still in their infancy, but the election wasn’t going to wait for us; we didn’t have the luxury to experiment for even another month or two. At the time we were doing the Obama tapestries, the Italian thread suppliers were going bankrupt — but any minor shift in thread color or thickness changes the whole tapestry. We rewove the tapestries with three different thread suppliers, re-calibrating the colors of the weft each time. As the deadline drew near, I basically moved into Chuck’s painting studio for over a week, setting up a computer ten feet away from his easel so that we could look over each other’s shoulder as we worked. Together we were able to hone in on what would become one of the early watercolor prints, comprised of 10,000 of Chuck’s watercolor marks rearranged into his image of Obama. Later, my wife and collaborator Era and I were invited to the White House to help Chuck and the President sign some of the editions, which was of course noteworthy both personally and professionally.

I think my greatest achievement, though, and the thing that makes me feel the best, is seeing the sparkle in the eye and the excitement of a Rupert Garcia, a Chuck Close, a Squeak Carnwath — when we hit a home run and make the artist’s day, week, month, or year, that’s the thrill. My happiness in life is from making something fresh with an artist. To do that requires experimentation and great collaborators on the team at Magnolia in studio manager and master printer Tallulah Terryll and master printer Nicholas Price — and an openness, an ability to embrace the thrill of making a mistake. It is absolutely exciting every time something goes wrong. We look at it, dissect it, and often it takes us in a whole new direction. 

OAE: We’d love to hear more about your unique Tapestry services, and the particularly innovative process that Magnolia Editions has created in this medium. How does it compare to other organizations who also provide this service?

Farnsworth: In 1999, I was introduced to the custom loom at the mill in Belgium that we still use to weave our tapestry editions. I was working with the artist John Nava, who had a commission from the Catholic Church to decorate a new cathedral; because of the prestige of the client, the weavers taught me how to interface directly with the electronic loom. As far as I know, only myself, Nava, and the weavers at the mill currently have the ability to create textiles like this. There are no other looms like this, with a double Jacquard head; rather than creating a reflection or double weaving, it just makes one large weaving using 17,800 “ends” (warp threads). Standard 7ft. looms have 8,000 threads across the warp and make a much thinner textile with fewer colors. I have expanded and complicated the weave files to allow for a palette of 500 colors in a single tapestry. In fact, I’m the only nut who is willing to do 500 colors in an 8-bit system; as far as I know, the weavers themselves don’t do it. I make weave files in pairs: the 8-bit system can only accept 256 weave structure inputs at a time, so I “double up,” sending two 8 bit files for each tapestry which, when combined, create 500 colors per tapestry. 

We have so many other ways of making marks on fabric — printing on silk or raw canvas, coarse linen for example — and the woven palette of 500 colors is actually very limited for artists who are used to printing or painting innumerable millions of colors. These days, we typically weave tapestries for specific situations: commissions, sound-dampening installations, and projects that are uniquely suited to the medium.


Artworks by Mel Ramos at Magnolia Editions, Oakland

OAE: Tell us about Magnolia Editions’ exhibitions program, and how that folds into the general mission of the organization. How are artists chosen, and how are exhibitions curated?

Farnsworth: Fourteen years ago, we annexed our gallery area, replacing it with the wide, oversized tables and industrial sewing machines necessary to hem and finish the tapestries as they return from Belgium, leaving us without an in-house exhibition space. However, last year we remodeled Magnolia to include a showroom space for current projects. So, our current “exhibitions program” is more of an open well-lit space where we can hang current projects: we find that putting something up and living with it day in and in day out helps to refine the direction of a work in progress. We don’t have a formal schedule of exhibitions. Sadly, with the recent passing of George Miyasaki and Mark Stock we’ve been using the space for memorials: we created a shrine for George and held a gathering to remember his life and work.

OAE: There are also some exciting public programs involving a variety of topics and interests, including workshops coming up in April and May. What other ways have you reached out into the Oakland/Bay Area community?

Farnsworth: Magnolia is surrounded now, some 35 years later, by everyone from a samurai sword maker to cabinet makers, foundries, blacksmiths, architectural glass blowers; from printmakers, papermakers, book binders, and box makers to master chefs and coffee roasters. We exchange ideas and services with this community of talented artists and craftspeople on a daily basis. In addition, we loan our space and equipment, hold workshops, and we’re always inviting people in for tours: it can be exciting for someone contemplating a career in the arts to see how much energy and enthusiasm there is here. Many faculty members keep bringing a new crop of students back each semester — hopefully to inspire them. I also give talks from time to time at various organizations and panels, and we extend student discounts to anyone currently enrolled at an institution. 

The next workshop we’re considering is a class with Guy Diehl that will cover the tools of painting: brush making, paper-making, watercolor pigment grinding/mixing, and possibly even making our own ceramic watercolor palettes. The idea is to avoid the trap of buying all one’s materials at the art store, because the latter approach means you may never make a mistake. The corporate manufacturers have designed their paints and products not to fail, and that’s problematic for anyone trying to make a fresh mark.