This week we talked with Tres Gatos Press, a printmaking duo based in Guadalajara, Mexico. They tell us about alternative ways of working and how they have created a community of printmakers.
What are the techniques and mediums you like to work with?
Xavier: Relief engraving, because its 100% homemade can be worked at home. In fact, we have taken out a mini tortillera and walked in the streets and show how it's done. As long as there is pressure you can do relief printmaking. Regarding mediums: Linoleum, MDF and wood. The last two are less common but relief printing with linoleum is our forte.
Alejandra: Yes, as Xavier said, we don't have a press. So, we print with a tortilla machine that here in Mexico you find in every house. Well in my house yes, maybe now it's different but growing up everyone had one. As Xavier says, it's all about pressure, we've made editions by stepping on top of the piece, it's not easy to access a studio for us, so the tortilla machine has gotten us through, because you don't limit yourself. We have met so many people who take workshops, they like printmaking, but when they finish, they have nowhere to work or the tools. We have seen so much creativity, people who print with roll-on deodorants, already empty with the little ball. Or those little wheels from furniture, we tried it the other time and it worked. Of course, we like other techniques such as etching, drypoint, lithography, but for the moment we have our workshop at home, and relief printing makes it easier for us.
You are known everywhere for your alternative press. When you work with a tortillera, is it better to use a wooden or a metal one, which one works better for you? Is there a difference between them?
Alejandra: Yes, of course there are differences. Wood, definitely wood is better. Because the metal one comes from the factory, calibrated for tortilla dough. The wooden one allows you to modify it, to use it as a press.
Xavier: Yes, the tortilla press is an excellent machine for printmaking, but you have to adjust it a little bit. Because that machine is not intended for printing, but it is calibrated and made for a soft material and nothing to do with linoleum. The first thing that's going to happen if we use it incorrectly is that the hinges or the lever are going to snap. Always, the first thing we recommend is that you change the hinges so that you can figure out how to print everything right. That's when Joseph Velazque saw what we were doing, and he started making ready to print machines.
Alejandra: At the height of the pandemic, they brought these tortilla machines for their printmaking club. If Joseph's group was doing trips or print exchanges, I would help them pay the expenses for their students. This is also the cool thing when we started to work more online, is that people from different places would ask us how they could make their own machine. People from Canada, Brazil, the United States. They made their own machines and put their own elements that made their work easier. They found a way to solve problems, because it's trial and error with the machine, you don't just buy it and pull an edition of 100 immediately.
You have to get the hang of it.
Xavier: Yes, it all stems from your genuine interest in achieving and solving that problem. We have encountered many people who are interested in receiving a machine that is ready to print. We always tell them that they have to adapt to the machine and see what means work for you. At first someone said to us, why don't you patent it? Well, I can't patent a machine that has been in Mexico for so many years. But we have used it as a resource that we need to be able to make our prints. We have also taken it to the limit to produce editions on 300 grams cotton paper, and its great you can achieve this with this machine, to achieve a finish product that could go to museums or galleries. But everything has been printed with a tortilla machine.
Alejandra: It shouldn't be like "you don't have a press you can't be playing this game". Yes, you can [work with a tortilla machine]. A printmaker is not made by the press, it is also a way of making it accessible to the people, not making it so elitist and square. Why make people who make t-shirts, who make patches, all these punks, aside? Everything has its place, everyone belongs. There are artists who just do their museum and gallery work, that's fine too. If there's someone who just wants to make stickers that's fine. Nothing is wrong, because that's what you run into here at school. If they don't have press, they can't do anything. And what happens when you don't have the $100,000 pesos to buy the press? The students are left wondering what's going to happen to my existence. And that's when kids feel they wasted four years at university. If I don't have press, what do I do? You have to make your own way, maybe start small.
How long have you been printmaking?
Alejandra: We studied art at the University of Guadalajara. Originally, I was focused on painting, so in the career they give you [classes] in engraving, in relief, working with acids, and Screenprinting. We were focused on painting, but we left the career, and we had a banal life, I'm kidding that's not true!
Xavier: Well, I had my job. I worked in a newspaper and the schedules were very strange and very demanding. The truth is that I wasn't doing too bad, we had just gotten married, and we only thought about trivial things.
Alejandra: There was a time when we changed cities, we moved to León, Guanajuato. We lived there for eight years. One day out of the blue we went to the Museum of Art and History of Guanajuato, and they had free workshops for children. They had an exhibition on printmaking, from the Centro de las Artes de Salamanca and they had an exhibition of engraving along with a workshop. So, we asked the person in charge, if we could sign up because we are married but we don't have children. That's how we reconnected with printmaking and art and we haven't stopped.
That workshop for kids was like a reset, it made us ask what are we doing with our lives? In 2016 we reconnected with everything, and we haven't stopped.
Xavier: It is also appropriate to comment that we reconnected and returned to engraving, but I continued with my day job. We had the luxury of buying excess material, we looked for gouges, we bought pieces from other people. But it was when we started with the tortilla machine, we said we have to do something else together. And we started making the tortilla stamps with a guest artist. My salary allowed me to invite someone, even if they were not from the area, I paid their travel expenses, we partnered with a boutique hotel, and the hotel gave them lodging. In that same hotel we had the workshop open to all the people free of charge. First we would talk to the people, the artist would give his talk and then we went on to print. The artist had to bring, by force, a finished block. There were many painters, teachers, sculptors, photographers, so there were only two or three printmakers. We printed those pieces on inexpensive paper because everything was given away, but people still asked the artists to sign them. We ended up doing ten workshops, a whole year.
Alejandra: It was really cool. Later we were invited, and we took the tortilla press to Querétaro, Zacatecas, Tijuana. The activity was called Estampas Tortilleras para Llevar. Then it became a small party every Saturday of the month, you could talk with the artist, if the artist brought pieces they could sell them. We met people that we only knew online, we connected, they liked the project and were encouraged to go and participate.
What a spectacular initiative, how nice, how nice indeed. It has happened to me that I make friends online, and until recently I connected with a friend who works in comics. It's great to connect with people like that and have that community!
Xavier: Something good and something bad that Mexican graphics has brought is that it has become established, many people who are not Mexican or who don't live here have an idea of classic Mexican printmaking. We are not that at all, we do like and admire Posada but we do not try to imitate his work. Sometimes we do a tribute, and we warn that it is a tribute and not a skull that I invented. It's not that we don't like it, we love it, but ours is contemporary engraving. We as Mexicans, not just for the simple fact that we were born in Mexico and have certain qualities or tastes. It's great that you are doing this because sometimes we are the ones who don't do the classic Mexican prints, there are definitely tastes for everyone.
Yes, it is very true, I have had people ask me where my Mexican work is because I work more with landscapes. But I do have a set of engravings that pay homage to our culture, but at the same time when I did them I received a lot of criticism because I was told that they looked like someone else's work. So you can never find something that pleases everyone, but the important thing is to do work that you like and enjoy.
Before I get too far off topic, the next question is: Do you have a favorite tool and if so, what is it?
Xavier: Son of a bitch! Well, you see, when you start engraving, the weapon of choice are the Speedball gouges. They are cool.
Alejandra: They are the ones found here in Guadalajara. In Mexico City it's something else.
Xavier: Yes, here in Guadalajara, Speedball is the brand of choice, even the teachers recommend it. It is the most used and the easiest to get. Also, when we give a workshop, we tell our participants that this tool is expensive, but it will last them a long time, to see it as an investment. Speedball is to get started, cut yourself and find out if printmaking is for you or not. And when you are advancing then you will acquire more equipment.
They are our weapon of war, plus they are cool because inside you keep the gouge. They're so sweet man, unlike the others that you have to keep them in a bag or something so they don't get screwed up, and these ones don't.
Xavier: We also have the Flexcut gouges, which are cool but expensive and hard to get for us.
Alejandra: Then there are the tools that we buy in Mexico City, which are made by this guy. This person makes his own tools, he was a great discovery for us. He is also an engraver, and the tools are really cool and relatively accessible, so when found him, we ordered one to see how they were.
Xavier: The guy's name is Cromo, if you ask him for them he can send them to you. It is high speed steel, a steel that is used to cut other steels. I've never sharpened them for the same reason.
Alejandra: My favorite tool is the tortillera, because it has opened so many doors for us. It has become a banner of alternative graphics, but it has connected us with cool people. We have made connections with artists, and I think it is our passport.
Xavier: One of the reasons we've stayed in printmaking is the community, the technique is really cool, the materials and the graphic reach you can get through pure relief printmaking. Something that is so easy, so simple, something that has been used for so many years. You can still combine it with contemporary techniques but it's still embossing, it's something very interesting for us. But we've been sustained by the printmaking community, because if we've had a great community. Of course, in printmaking there can be those intimate workshop moments, but there is also a very important moment of public expression, public relations between printmakers, passing on tips, passing on techniques.
If you pull an edition, maybe someone will pass you some paper so as not mess up the good one. Someone may be a much better printer than you and give you tips. So, it becomes a community netwrok, much more than in painting.
Xavier: Also the people at Speedball have been very helpful. Thank you very much to them, they just sent us a cajota! A box full of product, and I think we are the only ones in Guadalajara that have this.
Alejandra: If here in Guadalajara it is very difficult to find inks, let alone silkscreen or calligraphy materials! That is non-existent! Only the rollers and the gouges arrive here. It is very difficult, we bought them when we went to the United States, we came back loaded with materials. Pavel Acevedo brought us closer to Speedball, and we have since done a takeover. We are very grateful to SpeedballLATAM, they want to focus on artist and creatives from Mexico to the southern [part of the continent. We have had a very good relationship with them, after a long time a package of ink arrived. Sometimes we have problems with customs in Mexico because they think we are a store, and we are going to sell. Speedball also allowed us to give away kits in Zacatecas where we had a workshop. In Zacatecas there is only one art materials store, and everything is very expensive, so we are very grateful to Speedball.
Xavier: In many of the posts we do we mention Speedball, because we are grateful and enjoy the materials. We don't say that this product is better than the other, but we do say that this product allows you to do this.
When we worked with the tortilla stamps with Joy, I was already losing my job. When the second person left Mexico City, a lot of my savings went with her. That's when engraving went from being a pleasure to make graphics, to share and became our main engine. We began to live 100% or at least 80% from engraving for a while, then COVID arrived. It was a very difficult time, in which we had to get into engraving full time and I think that was when 3 Gatos Press had a great start because we were 100% carving, printing, doing live. With COVID a lot of people were at home, we were very present in social networks.
Alejandra: And we met many artists! The community started to grow. We started to collaborate with other artists, and the community grew even more, since we were all locked up, with that uncertainty, with that depression! It was quite tense worldwide!
Xavier: As we were locked up, we ran out of a lot of the material we had in stock, and that's how we found a way to continue working without cash. That's where the idea to use coffee filters to print came about and how to make a gouge with the umbrella. Several things came out that allowed us to create an alternative printmaking scene. We want to continue innovating, coming up with fresh ideas, that's what we are focused on right now.
Before COVID I started painting and doing portraits, but now I'm here with engraving. It's a whole new and different world. Thank you both so much for your time and for sharing so much with all of us.
Where can people connect with you?
Alejandra & Xavier: On Instagram at @tresgatospress