Conversations about Creativity
An Interview with Master Printmaker
Fulfilling Your Creative Yearnings
March 7, 2017
In February 2017, I had the opportunity to spend time at South African born and educated Professor Maurice Kahn’s studio in Jerusalem.
Kahn has devoted his life to painting, drawing and printmaking. As an art student in the 1960s, he was hailed as the most promising student of printmaking at the University of the Witwatersrand Department of Fine Arts in Johannesburg and by the time he was in his thirties, he had held ten one man exhibitions in Durban, Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town and also exhibited abroad, including in South African touring exhibitions of graphic art in Belgium, Holland, West Germany, the 1V Encontro Judiaiense de Arte in Sao Paulo, Brazil, the V International Biennale of Graphic Art in Florence, Italy, and Canberra, Australia. Maurice Kahn’s art was paired with the likes of Walter Battiss, Cecily Sash, Bettie-Celliers Barnard, Cecil Skotnes, Andrew Verster, Lionel Abrams, Dirk Meerkotter, Sydney Kumalo and other leading artists of the time. His work was acquired by all the major public art galleries in South Africa, most notably, the South African National Gallery in Cape Town and the collections of the University of South Africa – UNISA – University of the Witwatersrand and the University of Durban-Westville.
The following is an insight from Larry Scully in the Johannesburg Sunday Express, May 11, 1975, just prior to Kahn’s one-man exhibitions held simultaneously in the Bank Gallery of the South African Association of Arts in Pretoria and Gallery International in Cape Town:
Young as he is – in his early thirties – Maurice Kahn may be regarded as a pioneer of the new wave of graphics as Walter Battiss was the pioneer of the old wave. Kahn is renowned for his superb craftmanship but is the first to agree that this is not enough saying that while he strives for technical perfection and purity at all times, it does not mean he regards perfect technique as an end in itself.
With over thirty-years of printmaking at Bezalel Art Academy in Jerusalem and numerous printing editions for Osvaldo Romberg, Hava Mehutan and others, Kahn’s contribution to international art, teaching, and his years of advocacy for safety in printmaking studios, has been enormously impressive. His artistic production and advocacy of safe practices in printmaking studios continues today. What an honor it was to interview him!
Ellen: You mastered so many forms of art, Maurice, yet printmaking became increasingly your passion and your domain. What drew you to printmaking?
Maurice: I was born with printing in my blood. I cannot for the life of me remember English, arithmetic or history lessons at primary school but art classes, yes. Cutting a potato in half, then printing an irregular, oval shape over and over again was sheer heaven, even more so when I applied a second color and over-stamped it upon the first. I discovered that a yellow potato oval printed half upon a blue one, resulted in a green shape, a blue and yellow one.
Ellen: How old were you when you first experimented with printmaking?
Maurice: I was hooked at the age of five or six. I cannot remember any gift I received during the first decade of my life except for a box of rubber letters that had to be inserted into a frame of sorts then pressed onto an ink pad and in turn printed on paper. My name, mirror image Leonardo da Vinci style, printed MAURICE KAHN. I think I printed my name so often that the letters eventually wore out.
Ellen: And that printed image continues to be part of your life. Why the longevity of the form for you?
Maurice: This love of the printed image has been part of my life forever. I could not understand why the Fine Arts Department of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg had a dusty old etching press half hidden in a dusty storeroom, a dusty antique bottle of concentrated nitric acid on an adjacent, equally dusty shelf but no one to teach etching, not even a dusty old professor.
Ellen: So you taught yourself the technique of printmaking – how did you undertake that?
Maurice: In 1961, I was a first student raring to go. There was no Google then, only Encyclopaedia Brittanica. I read that an etching is printed from a copper plate. This plate is coated with wax, drawn into and then immersed in acid to incise or bite lines into the metal. These acid-bitten lines hold etching ink which is printed under pressure onto damp paper.
Ellen: Did mastering printing seem foreboding to you at first?
Maurice: Easy as falling off a log, or so I thought. I bought a ten-inch square copper plate, covered one side only with a thick layer of candle wax, scratched a beautiful drawing through the wax exposing the copper below, then gently immersed this into a bath of nitric acid – concentrated nitric acid. No gloves even – burnt fingers to start.
Ellen: Did it work?
Maurice: It worked – for about two seconds. The lines turned blue as they were being bitten as was explained in Britannica. Then catastrophe! The acid attacked the unprotected underside of the plate. The acid became boiling hot causing the wax to melt and all of a sudden, the studio was engulfed in brown toxic fumes, so much so that the fire department had to be called.
Ellen: But that did not deter you from further experimentation – your own self-education?
Maurice: In the years that followed, I taught myself all there is to know about hard ground and soft ground etching and aquatint, engraving, viscosity printing, dry-point, mezzotint, screen printing and stone lithography. I went on to teach at Forest High School, then in quick succession, was seconded to the prestigious Parktown Boys High School and then following the Johannesburg College of Art, I accepted an appointment as a senior lecturer at the University of Durban-Westville, moved to Durban, taught part-time at the University of Natal’s Fine Arts and Architecture Departments.
Ellen: And there was also the collaborative work you did?
Maurice: I set up a printmaking studios in Johannesburg and then in Morningside, Durban, which, incidentally, had an area of 50 square meters with separate studios for lithography and screen printing, and another one for etching. There was ensuite guest accommodation and even a small kitchen. Outside, a splendid pool. So it is understandable that for a while, after emigrating to Israel, I missed my studio in Durbs. Fortunately, the Mayor of Beersheba, Eliahu Nawi, provided me with all I needed in the Old Turkish Train Station. I was fortunate. I continued printing editions for established Israeli artists in Beersheva and when we moved to Jerusalem, I had an enormous basement studio in my home, Now I am quite happy with my small studio in our present home, which, as you well see, is on every level of our apartment. In my Morningside studio, Durban, I printed limited editions of etchings, serigraphs, linocuts, woodcuts and lithographs for leading South African artists of the time including Patrick O’Connor, Cecil Skotnes, Cecily Sash, Neels Coetzee, Andy Adamos, Andrew Verster, Christ Coetzee and others.
Ellen: It takes enormous patience and discipline to master and continue to innovate your printing techniques.
Maurice: Indeed it takes tremendous powers of concentration to observe, accurately, for example the slow unfurling of leaves as they develop and then wither. I spend days watching this process. I exercise the same patient scrutiny before and as I try to capture the Negev landscape. I draw the jagged rocky outcrops and crevices in the early morning, at noon and at night. In this way, I capture with precision, the changes wrought by the different light. I am both disciplined and intellectual in my approach.
Ellen: How do you begin your work? What is your starting point?
Maurice: I arrive at what I have to say through a series of sequential processes. I begin with a number of detailed on the spot studies and then continue in the studio. I process these into tracings, overlays, perhaps fusing one drawing with another, adding color, simplifying detail, refining forms until the final statement is reached. My method ensures that in the end, nothing is out of place. Every fraction of the surface has been calculated. I strive for a faultless performance – total mastery of what I do.
Ellen: How did you deal artistically with the changes of your environment when you immigrated from South Africa to Israel?
Maurice: A change of environment can be traumatic as new information needs a period of gestation before it is turned into art. But I would say that my vision has not only undergone a transformation but a rebirth. And a reinforcement of three dimensional sculptural shapes that I had previously fashioned into abstract landscapes – foundations already established which helped me get to grips with the new situation in which I now found myself.
Ellen: What attracted you to capturing the Negev Desert?
Maurice: The stark simplicities of it. In the Negev Desert, I found a range of forms that echoed the old ones plus additional expressive possibilities.
Ellen: What were some of the expressive possibilities you found?
Maurice: The early morning light throws up harsh delineations of sunlight and shadow. Shapes are prominent, given an identity by low-flung rays. By noon, colors and contours have faded, forced into insignificance by glare. By moonlight, the physical forms have become more ghostly outlines, barely discernible.
Ellen: So the landscape changes throughout the day. How do you capture these transformations?
Maurice: These transformations are dramatic. Yet I capture them with only a pencil and paper. This is how I share my feelings of wonder for the bleak deserts. I hope to expand other people’s vision too, by doing so.
Ellen: It would appear that there are many possibilities that you could capture. How do you decide on which one – or ones – and how do you begin an art work?
Maurice: I begin with some strong visual impulse – the light on a rock formation, the shadow cast by the sun at a particular moment – and then I reform this information, whittling away the incidentals of surface and getting down to the essentials below. This process of abstraction, turns the temporary experience into permanent form. I avoid literalness and naturalism. Yet the specific shapes are important. The forms of trees are recognizable and they give clues to scale and orientation.
Ellen: What is it that attracts you to drawing?
Maurice: Drawing is such a direct process. It allows for more flexibility and for me, it is a quicker method of showing what I want to absorb, explore and digest. Drawing is a way of capturing a great amount very quickly.
Ellen: How do you relate to the desert landscape?
Maurice: I have found at last in the desert landscape, the subject matter which actually fits precisely into the language I have been refining for years. What went before now seems merely a long apprenticeship. I love observing the desert in the pristine early morning sun, in the bleached light of midday, in the still dusk when forms take on the disguise of similar colors and tones, in dry summer and almost dry winter.
Ellen: So the changing colors of the landscape have an enormous impact on you?
Maurice: Yes. In this stylized world, light and color are used symbolically. In the muted context of washed-out ochres, khaki, white and off-white, the new reds, browns, oranges and green glow, I use color as accent and counterpoint. These I see as the single most positive new development.
Ellen: What about form?
Maurice: When it comes to forms, there are two kinds that interact. There are organic shapes with clearly demarcated planes like crystals that have been pulled, squashed and dented – the natural elements of mountain and rock. Then there is the intrusion of man seen in a series of simpler geometric forms – orderly fields, a ribbon and a road and so on.
Ellen: Do you ever feel you are simply playing?
Maurice: I do feel like a child at times as I juggle the pieces in this table-top world. I love the variety of viewpoints . One moment, I can be high up looking across a craggy succession of peaks, intercut by flat planes, then I draw twisted lumps which I crowd-in. This reduces my view to a series of peepholes through which I glimpse a jigsaw of sky between high gullies of rock.
Ellen: You have done a good deal of teaching. Did you find it satisfying?
Maurice: I adore teaching from which I have always drawn inspiration. Way back in 1965, when I was just twenty-two years old, E. B. Parker, a senior inspector of art education, graded my color linocut practice lesson to matriculation pupils “A+”. Mrs Parker wrote the following document that I’ve treasured ever since: “I have taken this whole project into consideration in assessing your symbol for this practice lesson. I consider the work you are doing comes into the “brilliant memorable” category. You should make a tremendous success of your art-teaching career. I have seldom seen such conscientious and thorough work done by a student. Good luck for the future.” I treasured those words and feel that through my teaching, I have honored the words she prophesied for me. Thank you, Mrs. Parker!
Ellen: Tell me about Bezalel Art Academy, Maurice.
Maurice: Well, I taught there for over thirty years. The institution itself was founded in 1906 by Boris Schatz, making it 111 years old. The student body, staff and visitors come from all over the world. I will arrange a visit for you. The Bachelor and Master Degree Programs range from Fine Arts, Photography, Visual Communications, Architecture, Industrial Design, Jewelry and Fashion Design, Ceramics, Glass Design, Screen-Based Arts, Animation, Video and New Media. Quite the experience for any student!
Ellen: Now for another part of your contribution: your advocacy for Safe Printmaking Methods. You became increasingly aware of the danger of chemicals. Could you pinpoint just when you realized the immensity of the problem and decided to find an alternate method for printmaking?
Maurice: It took two more decades to realize just how dangerous all the chemicals and print inks used in printmaking happen to be. So I suffered from allergies, loss of smell, coughed a lot, felt light-headed when using nitro thinners but never dreamt of ascribing this to printmaking in poorly ventilated studios.
Ellen: Will you describe your journey from Toxic to Non Toxic Printmaking, that is Starch-based Serigraphy – Safe Painting and Printed Art.
Maurice: My research into “safe” serigraphy began in April 2001. Nine months later, I formally announced the establishment of the sadna yeruka (green studio) at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, having developed a workable, though less than perfect, starch-based screen printing technology. At least, I had managed to eliminate all toxic, mutagenic and carcinogenic materials from my studio at that time.
Ellen: Yet there was resistance to change in the department. Were you eventually able to overcome that?
Maurice: It took a long time. Not only was my research costly and time-consuming, but I had to cope with negative, skeptical responses from my colleagues who considered such research irrelevant. However good my starch-based screen printing technology was – or would become – there were those incapable of perceiving it to be valid. Could it be their fear of change? Quoting my friend and colleague Professor Keith Howard, in response to my telling him about the difficulties I was experiencing in trying to get my fellow lecturers to cease using nitric acid and Kodak Printed Circuit Resist in the intaglio studio, he wrote: Our toxic colleagues are so stuck in the mud that they do not realize that their resistance to change is not only contributing to the demise of their health, but also to the eradication of printmaking from their curriculum, and more importantly, from the arts. These toxic printmakers live in an environment of abject denial and ignorance which is academically not only unprofessional, but downright irresponsible.
Ellen: Did your Starch-based Serigraphy have an impact on other art institutions?
Maurice: Visitors from abroad were fascinated with my groundbreaking technology and methodology that I had implemented at Bezalel Academy of Arts. They loved the unique, safe studio environment I had created, the “mini-exhibitions” and demonstration prints hanging on the “washing line”. Dozens of art schools, art academies and printmaking studios visited by me during the past several years and recently, but sadly, there are still many who persist in using nitric acid to etch plates. They also use solvent-based screen printing inks and toxic solvents to clean up. There are one hundred or so toxic materials that are used in traditional printmaking. One academy in Central Europe did not even want to let me into their screen printing studio last year – they knew of my background and reason for visiting. Good sense prevailed and my wife Isa and I got in. I informed those present of my opinion, all were unknowingly committing collective suicide by working in a studio lacking air extraction, no cross ventilation. That is what comes from using solvent-based screen printing inks, mineral turpentine and nitro thinners. An hour in such a studio can make you feel light headed from the toxic effects. Just imagine spending hours in such a studio or days or years!
Ellen: How would you describe the historic evolution of the non toxic screen printing inks.
Maurice: In the early 90s, many researchers tried to formulate starch-based screen printing inks. Some used cooked corn-starch and liquid universal pigments. These formulations did not keep in a wet state. Researchers tried using wallpaper glue – but this was too easily invaded by bacteria and decomposed over time at room temperature. Other problems surfaced – “bubbles” appeared on the printed surface with a resultant “orange peel” effect, paper buckled and retarders, when used, failed to slow down the drying process. About this time, plastisol screen printing inks became increasingly popular and much of the research into starch-based printing ink was sidelined.
Ellen: What was your experience with plastisol screen printing inks?
Maurice: My experience with these plastic emulsion printing inks when used by students in particular, was that they printed fine detail poorly and drying-in was a problem for slow working students. Still, art schools and printmaking studios demanded a ready-made printing ink and the acrylic product fitted the bill, despite being pretty expensive. Few are aware that these plastisol screen-printing inks are in fact, liquefied PVC (polyvinyl chloride) – an environmentally damaging plastic. PVC is known to be ecologically problematic, so much so that manufacturers data sheets indicate that it is essential to prevent seepage of their products into the sewage system and must not be allowed to reach ground water. Another warning reads that such printing inks must not be disposed of together with household rubbish.
Ellen: So was the toxic potential the main trigger for your research?
Maurice: Knowing then that starch-based printing ink had to be better than solvent-based and PVC formulated screen printing inks, I began my research. My first water-based printing inks were made from cooked bread flour and ground pigments; both unsophisticated and unsuccessful. My printing ink dried too quickly on the screen. Prints stuck to the underside of the screen. The paper warped due to the effects of the water. Mould appeared in the printing ink after a day or so…., then lost viscosity, turning into a smelly, watery mess! All this gave me a clear indication of the challenges that lay ahead.
Ellen: From what background could you draw to solve these problems?
Maurice: My background in chemistry which I taught at school, proved helpful. I started with the belief that I could formulate a starch-based, non toxic and environmentally-friendly screen printing transparent base with all the following properties:
Easy to make and correct consistency (viscosity).
Slow drying on the screen, quick drying on the printed sheet.
Would not cockle the paper after printing.
Extended shelf-life preferably without refrigeration.
Easy to print and clean up.
Possibility of achieving both transparent wash-like and opaque effects.
Permanent and waterproof.
It took years to develop and perfect. Helped by my wife Isa, the research involved much trial and error, meetings with mass food production chemists, doctors, toxicologists, and paint manufacturing company researchers and a share of good luck. This eventually enabled us to invent a transparent base and printing ink with nearly all the properties we required: a thick, cream-like textured paste with the pleasant smell of honey. If and when required, finished prints are over-printed with a layer of transparent varnish through an open screen. Hopefully, this will be improved upon, and varnish will become an integral part of the printing paste. Research into this is ongoing.
Ellen: It would appear that today, there is a lot of specificity involved in the method you devised, even though it started with a whole lot of what-ifs?
Maurice: There is a very specific methodology involved in this technology – from the construction of and use of home-made vacuum-printing units, screens and equipment, the need to use suitable nylon and squeegees to the actual printing technique. We have also been helped enormously by the feedback we have received from printmakers and students at the workshops and demonstrations we have conducted. In the interest of safety and health, and in an effort to make a contribution, however small, towards a better environment, we intend to continue sharing information and working together.
Ellen: In terms of your own health, did you see an improvement once you implemented a non toxic environment in your studio?
Maurice: Incredibly, my health took a change for the better after I began using less hazardous materials. Allergies disappeared overnight, my sense of smell returned after a couple of months and I no longer coughed incessantly. I discussed this with Doctor Rani Sapoznik, then the Director of the Bezalel Academy. Summoning the entire staff of the printmaking studios, Sapoznik outlined his concerns regarding the use of toxic materials at the Academy and requested we at least tried to come up with viable alternatives. Of the six present at the meeting, I was the only one who took Rani’s request seriously. I devoted the next ten years to research, finally solving all problems relating to starch-based serigraphy. My colleagues continued to use nitric acid, aspaltum grounds, oil-based printing inks and solvents including turpentine, thinners and even highly carcinogenic benzene, printed circuit resist liquid for photo-etching and many of the other toxic materials used in traditional printmaking. All too many toxins were still in use when I retired from Bezalel.
Ellen: It must have been extremely difficult to counter the negative reception to your recommendations of eliminating toxins from art institutions. Why the resistance?
Maurice: Fear of the new and skepticism, I suppose. Even though I managed to eliminate all toxic, mutagenic and carcinogenic materials from my studio and had established the sadna yeruda (green studio) at Bezalel, as a result of my self-financed, costly and time-consuming research, the resistance remained.
Ellen: Have art institutions altered their thinking about the toxicity in printmaking
Maurice: In recent years, art school administrators have simply closed down their printmaking departments altogether or have dropped courses in lithography and intaglio, even screen printing, fearing liability claims from students and faculty as a result of studio-generated illness or worse. It’s a fact that traditional printmaking studios are declining in greater and greater numbers despite the Head of Printmaking at the Royal College of Art in London, Professor Chris Orr, saying to me while waving his hand gesturally, pointing in the direction of his presses: “Maurice, this is here forever.” Wendy Collin Soren who teaches lithography at Kent State University emailed me saying, “Maurice, I still believe there will always be a need for the hand pulled print.”
Ellen: Do you think there will ever be widely-used solutions to the problem of toxicity in printmaking?
Maurice: Solutions to the problem are at hand. There’s safe, waterless lithography, acrylic resist etching and now starch-based screen printing. We stand at the crossroads. Like Keith Howard, Chris Orr and Wendy Collin Sorin, I believe there is a future for printmaking but only if practiced in a friendly environment using safe, non-toxic matreials. Then, if art school administrators choose to close down their printmaking studios, it will be about the high cost of running a print studio, but the toxic issue will no longer be valid.
Ellen: So it’s not all bad news?
Maurice: It is not all bad news. There are those who are working on it. Copper sulphate, a salt, can replace nitric acid, in fact, it MUST replace nitric acid. Vegetable cleaning agent (VCA) can replace hydrocarbon solvents, acrylic materials can replace asphalt, photfilm can replace printed circuit resist liquids and now, there’s newly invented starch-based screen printing inks. For more information contact: [email protected] and check out http://www.nontoxicprint.com/starchbasedserigraphy.htm
Ellen: Your artistic output, Maurice, continues to be awe-inspiring. Tell me about your latest body of work.
Maurice: I just completed a body of work that took two years to do titled METAMORPHOSIS: AN ANTHOLOGY. From plant forms to the mythological and imaginary – unique adventures into my dream world – a myriad of idiosyncratic images. There are thirty works for this series with titles ranging from KISS IN A PRIMEVAL FOREST to HAS ANYBODY SEEN MY PET CHAMELEON?
Ellen: What comes next?
Maurice: Studies in water color.
Contact Maurice Kahn: [email protected]
Read all Ellen’s interviews in one place in the Conversations About Creativity Book.
Her conversations with diverse creators give readers fascinating insights into the commonalities, the differences, the passions, the persistence and the joyful engagement found in the innovative process. There is no ownership of creativity which exists in many disciplines. These interviews are inspirational and catalysts for self-reflection and creative engagement.