Printmaker interprets American story with Penn College exhibition

The Gallery at Penn College is presenting an exhibition by Tennessee printmaker Jesse Shaw titled “Jesse Shaw: American Epic,” running from today through Dec. 12, at the Pennsylvania College of Technology, Madigan Library, 3rd Floor, One College Avenue.

A “Meet the Artist” reception will be held tonight from 4:30-6:30 p.m. with a gallery talk at 5:30 p.m.

Working primarily in relief prints carved from linoleum blocks, Shaw bases his work in the narrative, satirical, political, and social commentary tradition of the graphic print.

In 2008, a monumental mural at Dartmouth College by Jose Clemente Orozco, titled the “Epic of American Civilization,” inspired Shaw’s body of work. His version of this story is simply titled “American Epic.” Shaw has been working on the print series for 10 years.

“There will be 50 prints that will ultimately make up the complete series,” Shaw said. “I have completed 29 prints so far, so this is a long-term project that I show as it is in progress.”

His interest in Orozco’s work led him to Mexico to study the works of other Mexican muralists including Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Mexican printmaking. The intensity and sincerity in the murals, along with the history of the political and social purpose of printmaking in Mexico, inform his printmaking work.

He had always been interested in comics as a kid, but it wasn’t until he took his first printmaking class that he discovered his interest was in graphic art.

“I have been studying printmaking ever since,” he said. “I would say Mexican muralists and printmakers influence my work the most, like Orozco and Posada; but my interests bounce around quite a bit.”

Shaw graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee in 2007 and earned his MFA in Printmaking from Rhode Island School of Design in 2009.

“My father was in the military, so I grew up all over — from Hawaii to Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee,” he said. “I call Clarksville, TN my home.”

Shaw currently lives in Laredo, Texas, where he teaches drawing and printmaking courses at Texas A&M International University.

He has shown this print series in many places, including the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Vanderbilt Divinity at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN, the 2016 Art on Paper Fair in New York City, IS Projects in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Paradigm Gallery in Philadelphia, and Parlor Gallery in Asbury Park, New Jersey.

Each image takes about 6-10 months for Shaw to complete and is carved out of a single piece of linoleum, 24 x 36 inches. The content of each print is both self-contained and part of a broader context within the entire body of work.

“I do not have all the image figured out when I start — I gradually build the image as I carve the block over months and create the narrative,” Shaw said. “It is then printed by inking the block, laying paper over the inked block, and using a wooden spoon or a press to stamp the image onto the paper. I make 15 copies of each image as an edition.”

In studying Orozco’s mural, Shaw was struck by the power of the work and was inspired to begin his own interpretation of the American story. Technology, American rituals, consumerism, allegory, printmaking, history, and religion are some of the topics Shaw articulates in his series. Each print starts with Shaw wanting to explore an interest of his.

“In ‘American Animals II,’ I wanted to tell allegories from first hand personal accounts taking inspiration from Aesop’s fables and Disney, but with content that stems from my perspective like experiencing shark fishing as a kid in Hawaii,” he said. “In ‘American Flowers,’ I challenged myself to depict a society using all 50 state flowers — creating different narratives with many of the themes that run through my work such as duality and hierarchy.”

What inspires Shaw the most is the rich and diverse history of printmaking and being within a network of amazing contemporary printmakers.

“There is just so much awesome and amazing work to discover both past and present in printmaking,” he said. “There is limitless inspiration.”

Shaw said he likes working in print because it is the most accessible of the mediums, both in making and collecting. Owning a collection of prints by many artists, Shaw believes that collection tells a story of who he is.

“Knowing that my work is being enjoyed and a part of someone else’s collection and is a part of who they are, is very humbling,” he said. “I hope my work, ‘American Epic,’ achieves a place in the ongoing narrative, political and satirical tradition of the graphic print within printmaking history.”