This week in 'The Inkplate' newsletter we talk with Alexis Hugo Nutini, a Philadelphia-based printmaker, and he explains more about how he includes new technologies in his practice, and how to create a healthy practice that will propel an artistic career.
This interview has been edited and condensed for your understanding, this interview was translated from its Spanglish original. Interview was conducted on May 21st, 2022.
Photos: Gustavo Garcia @colibriworks
¿What techniques or mediums do you like to work with?
Well, woodcuts. That's more than anything else. Occasionally I use non-conventional materials like VHS tape, anything that can be printed that already has some texture. There are two things: Monoprint and Monotype. I don't do editions, I do one-off prints with wood, sometimes linoleum, or whatever I have. Sometimes even in MDF, for prints that are larger and it is much cheaper to work with that wood. I am a woodcut specialist, sometimes I use found materials.
I always like Christmas because there are always all those toy molds, when they send you a pear for example and they have that wrapper. I love to use everything that's left over, I have a whole archive of materials. I just made a piece yesterday, with a plate with yarn and VHS tape.
So you work with found object then?
Well on occasion I buy it because I need a lot. I usually want to do more upcycle. It could be that upcycle of materials. There are always some terms that are difficult to translate, you know how it is when you learned two languages, there is a better word in one language.
When my friends come over there's always that moment of 'Excuse me you are speaking Spanish now, we don't understand'. Because we change languages, my dad is from Chile, my mom grew up in Mexico, me so did I. So, we would just change without realizing it. 'Hello? We are here, we didn't get that'. My friends would say.
How long have you been working with this technique, when did you start your practice?
Well, my parents were academics. My dad went to Mexico because he spoke Spanish, he went to learn about the culture, and write about it. So, actually when I was in high school, I wasn't lost but I was more like meh. The idea was, or goal with my parents was to have good grades, so they would take me to Mexico. In those years my friends were in Mexico, because I arrived here (US) when I was twelve. I still wanted to be in Mexico. There was no other option but going to college. It was a great privilege, but I didn't realize back then.
So I got to college, and I said 'wait so you can study art and get your degree on it? So, there I am and that's it.
I didn't identify myself as an artist yet, I liked to draw, and I went to museums in Mexico because it was part of my parents' job. But I took that first class called Materials and Techniques and the teacher saw that I did a lot of sharpie drawings as well as tagging, that's what I liked most about street art. I saw all the signs in Mexico, I lived in Pittsburg where my dad worked at the university. I liked the street, my friends more than anything, my professor saw that I liked street art and introduced me to woodcuts in 1998. I grabbed a gouge and a piece of wood, and I've been squishing ink for 23 years now. Squishing ink on paper since '98.
You work with a lot of color, and all your pieces have a very nice harmony. How do you choose which colors to use or are they more happy accidents of the studio?
It's all of that! As you know color is not easy at all. I usually start with primary colors because I know it's going to work. From there I go to the others, but it's like a flow, a flow. I really like to see textiles, I think a lot about the places I used to visit with my father in Mexico, the colors of the little houses. I think about that, but not all the time it's not necessarily a harmony, it's a living color.
I don't have a method, but when I start a series and I have new blocks, I start to combine things, and take out the second or third, fourth or fifth layer of color from what I have previously built. If I don't know what to do with the blocks, I always start with the primary colors, and from there I move from one side to the other. Sometimes as I don't print the same thing twice, when I do my processes, which is something very important and difficult to explain, I change it.
I do one print, I don't like the color, and I put a little bit or I take the another roller and put another [color]. It's very organic, those colors that I didn't mix beforehand are not reproduced, they are mixed when I print. Which is a good tactic, but difficult because if you don't know about color, suddenly you spoil everything. I do it without pre-mixing the color, the advantage I have is that it's my studio and I don't have to clean up and because [the ink] is oil-based you can do that.
It's something organic, little sera this, and try everything. But with the primary colors you get the most dramatic changes, like process colors, and if they are working the blocks and your intuition go ahead. There's no plan, but I have my color books, and I still don't get it. Look I have all the goof books on color theory, I don't want to live an analytical mindset. Not like everyone who does printmaking, they take out a carving and they don't like it once they print and they're like naaaaah, I don't like it. It's an emotional roller coaster. I want to be in both places with the excitement of experimenting, but I also have a plan. A balance, and organically see what comes out.
You are a full time artist, do you have moments when you hit creative block, and if you do how do you get out of that space?
It's fatigue, not a mental block, because I'm here and I have so many projects!
I made these blocks about eight years ago and I found another block that was the same size, that I never cut and I ended up cutting it with the CNC machine I have. Then I combined that graphic with the more organic stuff. I can always do something because I have a system in which if I have an old block I can combine it with a new one. I already have almost a thousand blocks or more from other projects in my studio. I also have a lot of other people's projects, because I also work as a master printer with several artists.
I could go solo and I teach classes and everything, but I choose not to. I have everything here to work on my woodcuts, and if I don't have one, or I'm tired or I have no new ideas. I print something from someone else and I charge them per hour.
But the truth is that I have never felt like a block, I have so much, and invested so much in ideas, drawings, digital things, that I have images, a reserve of ideas, that more than anything it is not having enough money, energy, materials, and there is never enough time.
There is no mental blocks, because I like it so much, that I don't care if it's not the best print in the world.
If I cant find something to do. I can learn about color, as they say spend 10,000 hours and learn something. Also if at that moment I'm not creative, I go out to the street to look for materials that I could use. I am not trying to be rude, but I have digital files that I can put in the CNC, and I can always be doing something, what happens is that I don't have time. I don't have enough time to do what I want to do. It's just that you can learn something else, when you don't feel creative, you don't have to do something amazing, you can learn color theory. You have to learn to walk before you run, even then I don't know everything, but I have a lot of experience.
Do you have a favorite tool and if so what is it?
Well, right now it's the CNC machine. Computer Numerical Control. Instead of doing things by hand, I make a digital file and go to the wood shop and get it carved. I do a lot of hand engraving, but while I'm carving one block and the CNC can carve another. So instead of having two or three carvings in a day, I can finish up to twenty. I can work faster, and I can bring more ideas to life.
This is my favorite tool, because translating is a process, everything is a process.
Sometimes there are people who say 'no a CNC machine is cheating' but Vermeer, the great master, he cheated by using a camera obscura, and he is still an incredible painter. Even other printmakers are very traditionalist and think a lot about tradition, but not they don't think about significance of using, and pushing their ideas through new technologies. Its not just about being within the printmaker's colony, all using the same tools, you cant always be just being focused on tradition, but use a medium to do what you're interested in. Who cares if a machine did it!
One of the projects the CNC allowed me to do was an ofrenda, in which I invited other artist to participate. We invited about 40 artists, mostly from Philly, artist friends from Mexico and others from California. Everyone gave me an image, and all those blocks were carved with the CNC. Then we did workshops and combined our images, and we came together to make the altar. Besides, I wasn't going to have people carve their own blocks, because they don't carve and I wasn't going to make forty carvings. In fact, that grant, for that workshop, paid for that tool. It's definitely my favorite tool, because that way I can collaborate with other people.
We come to the last question, what would you recommend to a beginner who is just starting out in printmaking?
Just do it! You have to know that you're never going to be in the same space, and you're not always going to be in the background. Do it because you love it.
Another very important thing is to have a community. It's not just about doing your work, people aren't going to find you.
That means putting it in whatever medium you have (online, galleries, internet, etc). Make a group, for me I had a period where my friends didn't understand what I was doing. They had other ways of having funs and didn't go to exhibitions with me. I took me a while to find my tribe, who like to go to galleries. For me that would be part of my recommendation, to make a critique group. Just like come to my group, we'll take turns, and that's how we grow our work.
Another thing that is very simple is to send emails, have professionalism, be professional. In case you get turned down for something, just send a thank you email. That's just as important, you can be the best [printmaker] but if nobody knows you, if you don't have a reputation, or if your reputation is bad, if you misbehave, you're an ass. No one will like you. There are between 5-6 million people in Philadelphia, but the arts groups are small and everybody knows each other.
Because if you pursue (this career) it's going to be ten or fifteen years of give me this, I want this, or hello I'm a printmaker check out my work. If you survive that stage, and keep working, that's when people arrive. Everything is based on what you have built with your community. And it's not only with printmakers, it's about everything, whether it's painting or sculpture.
Sometimes interesting projects come out when you mix with other people, it's not just being in that colony of printmakers, it's about being in something bigger.
Not being afraid to go out of the comfort zone?
Yes, because I might not be able to do something, but I can meet someone who can. Someone who can do CNC work, or letterpress. I won't be able to do wedding invitations, but I know someone who can do them with letterpress for you. It's very important to have that community, going out to see exhibitions, meeting people is just as important as your work.
A lot of us are shy, so find a group so you don't feel alone, that you can go out to shows with. Even you with this newsletter its a community. It's your career, you go at your own pace, whether it's bunny or turtle speed. If you are being comparing yourself to people, who have money, or who already did what you wanted to do. If you get stuck, with the idea of comparing yourself to others and having to measure you, you are not going to be happy like that.
Thank you very much for your time Mr. Nutini, where can people reach you?