Russ Spitkovsky: The Pigeon Has Landed

Rostislav “Russ” Spitkovsky by Kevin McCloskey 2012

Russ Spitkovsky makes things happen. He came to Kutztown as one of the 9 artists in the 2012 Print Invitational at the Miller Gallery.  The founder of the cutting edge art magazine Carrier Pigeon hung artwork from the latest issue at the Eckhaus Gallery on Main St. He circled back this week as a visiting artist to spend time with students.

oil monotype illustration by Russ Spitkovsky for “Hall of Mirrors”

Carrier Pigeon is an artist-driven publication. Russ and friends began it after grad school at SVA’s Illustration as Visual Essay MFA Program. Each issue has works by six fine artists, plus six writers, and six illustrators.

Carrier Pigeon cover by Cannonball Press, Martin Mazorra & Mike Houston

The magazine has included original etchings and woodcuts by Russ and guest artists including Marshall Arisman, Bruce Waldman and Frances Jetter. KU Prof. Evan Summer has contributed to several issues.

Russ speaking to overflow crowd in KU Print studio. Photo by Evan Summer

Russ shared some mind-boggling stories. Like the one about a meth addict who tells his wife he’s spending their life savings importing alpacas, but the alpacas are being held up in customs. There are no alpacas; he’s building a giant meth factory. The factory bursts into flames and meth maker gets encased in glass and, well, I don’t want to ruin the ending. The full story by Ryan Scamehorn called “Hall of Mirrors” can be found in Carrier Pigeon #3. It is fiction; I hope.

Illustration by Marshall Arisman for “Good Dog” by Erin Browne, Carrier Pigeon #7

Digression: Many years ago I sent a book idea to Lawrence Ferlenghetti’s City Lights Press. A few weeks later I got the best rejection letter ever. It said, ‘Your project is so interesting, you should publish it yourself. We are swamped publishing our own friends. Start your own press. Here are some resources…‘  Russ Spitkovsky never got that memo from City Lights, but certainly he embodies the D.I.Y. publishing spirit.

Kevin McCloskey, Moe Tierney, Russ Spitkovsky. Photo by Evan Summer

Russ was born in the Ukraine. Why do so many amazing printmakers come from Eastern Europe?  KU’s Print Invitational includes Michael Goro from Russia, Ivanco Talevski from Macedonia, Endi Poskovic from Sarajevo, and Russ. It occurred to me perhaps these artists find core concepts difficult to express in English and are therefore driven to excel at graphic communication. Russ provided a better insight into why so many extraordinary artists come from places once under the Soviet sphere of influence. Growing up in the Ukraine he showed a precocious talent for art. He was plucked from preschool and put in an art academy. He was drawing the human figure from plaster casts at the age of four.

Illustration by Russ Spitkovsky from Central Booking, his self-published visual essay.

On the night of January 3, 2009, Russ was walking down a Brooklyn street. The police stopped and searched him and found he was carrying a knife. It was an ordinary knife purchased at Home Depot. The NYPD decided it was a lethal weapon, “a gravity knife,” and threw him in jail. He spent the next 32 hours in an overcrowded holding cell at Brooklyn’s Central Booking. Charges were dropped, but Russ made art from the experience. Upon his release, drawing from memory, he transformed that grotesque night into a visual essay in book form. He published “Central Booking” via the print-on-demand publisher Blurb. The book was not a financial success, but led him to explore other self-publishing options.

Russ loves working with the likes of Martin Mazorra and Mike Houston of Brooklyn’s Cannonball Press. Russ calls Cannonball Press the pioneers of the indy press and affordable art movements. Russ advises art and illustration students not to hole up in their studios after graduation. “Find a co-op print shop; work among other artists.” He said the community of Robert Blackburn’s  NYC printmaking studio saved his sanity. He was able to get instant feedback on his art and stay in a creative loop.

Today, Russ works not only with graphic artists, but an ever-expanding community of playwrights, jugglers, Coney Island sideshow performers and puppeteers. Strange doors keep opening for Russ. Recently someone gifted Carrier Pigeon with a building in Gutenberg, NJ. To keep up with Carrier Pigeon news and events visit their Facebook page.

Justin Sanz, Eckhaus workers Nicole and Megan, Russ. Photo from

If you are fortunate enough to be in Kutztown, PA, get to Eckhaus to see the original art from Carrier Pigeon. There are copies of the latest issues for sale. Each issue costs $25. Twenty-five bucks is a lot of money for a magazine, but not a lot for a work of art.

St. Patrick & His Miracles & Me

Patrick McCloskey was born in Killycolman, County Donegal, Ireland. He was my grandfather. He immigrated to the US around 1915. His family in Ireland called him “Paddy the Yank.” He celebrated his birthday on St. Patrick’s Day. My middle name is Patrick, after him. There are many Pat McCloskeys. I’ve got a wife named Patt, an Uncle Pat, and cousins Pat.

St Patrick Driving the Elephants from Ireland ©2010 Kevin McCloskey

My parents were born in the USA, but St. Patrick’s Day was a big deal growing up in our Irish-American household in Elizabeth, NJ. Each spring, the family would fast for the 40 days of Lent. We didn’t stop eating, but we ate less. One pious year, maybe 1961, I went to Lenten mass every morning, meaning nothing but water for breakfast. We’d have a very small lunch. I remember my Dad eating dry saltines. At dinner there was no meat, not even hot dogs, as the days stretched toward Easter. There was no dessert, either.

The Miracle of St. Patrick’s Socks. linoleum print ©2011 KMc

March 17th, St. Patrick’s Day, generally falls in the middle of Lent. In early March the parish priests at St. Gen’s would announce that Archbishop Boland was prepared to bless us with a dispensation from Lenten observances for St. Patrick’s Day. There was a catch. First, there would be an extra collection for a very worthy project, and if the collection was robust we got a one-day free pass. We always won the St. Patrick’s Day pass!

After three weeks of fasting, we had a smashing big dinner of beef brisket and boiled potatoes with baby pearl onions in the peas. There was butter on everything. We had Irish soda bread made from cousin Kitty Gallagher’s recipe. Dessert was Mom’s Dundee pound cake filled with walnuts and cherries. Dad would have a Scotch, Mom sipped a Rye and Ginger. The four kids got a dash of ginger ale to toast the glory of St. Patrick.

The Last Platypus in Ireland © Kevin McCloskey 2012

Years later, a priest told me my memory of this dispensation proclamation was “absolute rubbish.” Archbishop Boland wouldn’t do such a thing. Next, some theologians decreed that St. Patrick never existed, or, at best, he’s an amalgam of Gaelic-speaking missionaries. The heck with them. In my mind, St. Patrick will always be a beloved symbol of my heritage. I see him as a canny and powerful man who out-wizarded the druids at their own game.

My St. Patrick print series started in 2010 in St. Louis, Mo. I went to study woodblock printing with the great artist Tom Huck at Evil Prints. Huck has a diabolical persona. His printing press is named for the British Satanist Aleister Crowley. My fellow students were carving Huckish prints of devils and demons, fiends and phalluses. Being a contrarian by nature, I decided to make my print about my favorite saint, blessed St. Patrick.

“Sit, Stay!” © 2012 Kevin McCloskey

Now I have these six St. Patrick prints done. I’ve got ideas for many more. Folks seems to like them. These will be on exhibit at Firefly Books, 230 W. Main St, Kutztown, PA. Show runs Sept. 6 to Sept.30. The prices range from $50 to $150. I hope to make enough to cover my frames and paper. My definition of an artist is simple. An artist is anyone who can increase the value of art supplies. After the Firefly exhibition I will print proper editions of 30 or 40. I will put them up for sale on my Moonpenny Press website when they are ready.

St. Patrick Skipping Rope © Kevin McCloskey 2012

Once and Future Prints

“4 a.m” linocut print © 2008 Frances Jetter

Illustrators rejoice over the resurgence of interest in prints. Some illustrators are also fine printmakers. Some printmakers are illustrators. Above is a print by an artist who manages to live in both worlds, Frances Jetter. We will see her artwork in Kutztown soon.

Portrait, etching ©2009, Ivanco Talevski

Kutztown University’s Invitational Print Exhibition opens Thurs., Sept. 6. Professor Evan Summer is curator. He told me he had space for eight to ten exceptional contemporary printmakers and so made a list of 30 great artists to invite.

Woodblock print © 2012 Endi Poskovic

Nearly everyone said yes, so he didn’t even get halfway through his list. He’s hoping to do it again. Exhibiting artists: Michael Goro, Richard Hricko, Frances Jetter, Endi Poskovic, Rosalyn Richards, Rostislav Spitkovsky, Ivanco Talevski, Rochelle Toner, and Bruce Waldman.

A Fish Rots from the Head Down, etching © Michael Goro

ARTWALK,  Sept 6, Kutztown, PA

In conjunction with the Print Invitational at KU’s Miller Gallery there will be a printmaking themed Art Walk on campus and along Main Street in Kutztown. On campus there will be artwork by KU alums in the SUB. There will be a display of new prints from Oaxaca, Mexico on the 2nd floor of Rohrbach Library.

Silkscreen by ASARO, Rohrbach Library

Main Street venues include: Uptown Expresso, The Independent Space, New Arts Program, Firefly Books, Kutztown’s Main St. Bed & Breakfast, Dunkleberger’s Jewelers, Paisley & Co, Global Libations and more.

Art by Russ Spitkovsky for Carrier Pigeon Magazine

Carrier Pigeon Magazine Volume 7 will have its launch party and contributor’s exhibition at Eckhaus. I’ve only managed to peek through the windows so far, but it looks brilliant.

An Art Walk map with times and addresses can be downloaded here.  Maps will be available at the Miller Gallery’s opening reception, 4pm, 9/6/12. With apologies to the map designer, Wyatt Glennon, I have truncated his lovely map to make the version below:

As a pedestrian and a printmaker, I am really looking forward to this. It is wonderful that the town of Kutztown and campus can partner on such a fantastic project. Miller Gallery Director Karen Stanford should be applauded for this town-gown interaction. The opening begins at 4 pm 8/6/12 in the Miller Gallery in Sharadin Art Building. Most of the Art Walk spaces are open 5-9pm.

I am showing prints from my new series, The Lesser-Known Miracles of St. Patrick, at Firefly Books, conveniently located at 230 W. Main St.

Woodcuts by Kevin McCloskey. Sept 6-30, Firelfly Books, Kutztown

KU Print Show travels to Oaxaca, Mexico

Good news from Mexico! Our shipment of 28 prints arrived safely in Oaxaca, Mexico from Kutztown, PA. The self-portraits in a wide variety of media (including woodblock, etching, serigraphy, and lithography) will be exhibited at Benito Juarez University in the month of July. The prints are by Kutztown University faculty, students, alumni, and friends.

Self-portrait, a Lithograph, by Prof. James Rose

Sending prints to Oaxaca seems odd, like sending flowers to Longwood Gardens. Oaxaca has a great tradition of printmakers from Rufino Tamayo to Rodolfo Morales. Living artists Damian Flores, Shinzaburo Takeda and the ASARO collective continue the tradition. Oaxaca’s best known printmaker is Francisco Toledo. His IAGO, Institute of Graphic Arts of Oaxaca, is the largest public print collection in all Latin America, and a mecca for printmakers.

The Resurgence of Printmaking in the U.S.

Kutztown’s printmaking studio is part of a bigger picture. In recent years many U.S. universities tossed their printing presses to make way for computer labs. Today there is growing interest in traditional printmaking. Young artists are rediscovering the pride and joy of working with their hands. By the way, for dispatches from the trenches of contemporary printmaking there is no better source than Printeresting, and a Kutztown grad, Jason Urban, is one of the creators of that site.

Fortunately, Kutztown University’s printmaking studio thrives under the leadership of Prof. Evan Summer. Evan has won international acclaim for his etchings. The studio is also equipped for lithography taught by Prof. James Rose. Evan opens the studio to visiting artists whenever he can. In 2011, Cesar Chavez of Oaxaca came to demonstrate Oaxaca-style woodblock printing. Cesar was impressed by the artwork he saw and suggested this exhibition to continue the artistic exchange.

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There are prints by KU Professors Evan Summer, James Rose, Miles DeCoster, Kevin McCloskey, and Elaine Cunfer. More are by grads and current students. Pennsylvania is not that different from Oaxaca in one respect. Rare is the artist fortunate enough to make a living from her art. Some KU printmakers are teachers. Others work in shops or offices. Our most recent grads may still be looking for meaningful work. However, all maintain a passion for self-expression through the enduring medium of printmaking. And we are grateful to Cesar Chavez and the Escuela de Bellas Artes, UABJO, for this opportunity to share our art with the people of Oaxaca.

Near Oaxaca?  Visit the exhibition at UABJO, University of Benito Juarez Centro Cultural on Avenida Universidad. Opening Reception: Friday July 6, 7pm. Free and open to the public. The exhibition runs to the 19th of July. If you are not in Oaxaca, you can get an idea of the variety and quality of KU prints from the slide show above.

Elizabeth Catlett 1915-2012

Mother and child, terra-cotta, approx. 14 inch tall. Elizabeth Catlett

Elizabeth Catlett died last week. She was an African-American artist and member of the Taller Grafica Popular, the famed Mexico City printmaking collective. Her Mexico City friends included Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. The U.S. obituaries generally referred to Ms. Catlett as a sculptor. In fact, the NY Times headline is Elizabeth Catlett, Sculptor With Eye on Social Issues, Is Dead at 96.

I was familiar with Catlett’s graphic work, but I’d never seen her sculpture. Oddly enough, I came across this one, above, when I went to MOMA to see the Diego Rivera show. The terra-cotta Mother and Child is small but has a monumental feel.

MOMA museum label for the print below.

I’ve written about my  2009 pilgrimage to the Taller Grafica Popular. I was struck then by how many international artists had produced work there, Elizabeth Catlett included. Art Historian Melanie Herzog wrote the book about Catlett, and a fine essay by Herzog on Catlett’s TGP work that can be found here.  This is a brief excerpt in which Catlett talks about her TGP experience:

“The criticism in the Taller was always positive, like somebody would say, “I think that you have a very good design, and it’s very clear, but why did you hide the hands?” And so they would say, “I can’t draw hands.” “Well, I’ll help you, or I’ll draw the hands.” Or they would say, “This symbolism has been used over and over, it’s time we had something new,” and so then they would have a general discussion of what you could use. . . . And it didn’t matter how many people worked on something, as long as it came out the best we could make it.”

Sharecropper, Elizabeth Catlett, printed with Jose Sanchez, TGP, Mexico City.

Sharecropper is one of Catlett’s master works. The safety-pin holding the coat together is a nice detail; I only noticed it now. Every deliberate mark Catlett made on this print adds up to a portrait of dignity.

Update: View a larger sampling of Catlett’s artistic output in all its diversity at Ourstorian.

The two Elizabeth Catlett works on view at the MOMA.

Best Camera for Illustrators?

Q. What is the best camera for an illustrator?

A. The one you will carry with you at all times.

Pumpkin head and iPhone photo by John Fronza © 2011

If that has to be your phone, fine, get good at taking pictures with your phone. Here are some amazing shots taken on the iPhone by John Fronza, an artist and the bass player in the Voyage of Slaves. (Click the band’s name only if you like death metal and you are not in the library!) He always has phone handy, so he has this camera with him.

Cat © 2011 John Fronza

Fronza uses his iPhone’s $1.99 hipstamatic app for memorable images like these. He makes it look easy. Love the retro feel, it is as if they were taken by a Kodak Brownie, or a Holga, that old Eastern European plastic camera. Nice format, too. Like the song says: It’s hip to be square.

Bananas © 2011 John Fronza

Some say the iPhone will be the death of the digital camera. Maybe, but meanwhile the picture-taking ability of the iPhone is driving the point and shoot camera makers to add features and innovate. They are adding better image stabilization, Hi-def video, and some wild special effects, including miniature and toy camera modes. Next post we will take a look at the spectacular effects you can get with the Canon Elph.

Tom Huck in his office at Evil Prints @2010 John Fronza

Generally, I use the term illustration for non-photographic artwork used in the service of a story or concept.  In my work, I only use photos for reference. The fact is, creative photographers capture images that if paired with the right text make for splendid conceptual illustrations. Fronza’s work could illustrate some weird and spooky stories.

That last image reminds me: Evil Prints Woodcut Boot Camp 2012 is open for registration. Want learn how to make woodcuts? This is the place to go. It’s where I met Fronza. Talk about weird stories!

ASARO’s Revolutionary Art @ Princeton

ASARO Prints in the Street, Oaxaca ©2007 KMcCloskey

ASARO: “The Assembly of Revolutionary Artists of Oaxaca”

ASARO is a collective of radical young Mexican artists. I met them in 2007.  ASARO’s woodblock prints were laying in the street near Oaxaca’s cathedral. The artists were sitting on the curb. Some looked to be fifteen years old. Broom handles and chunks of stone kept the artwork from blowing away. Kneeling to look closer, I was stunned by the raw power of the images: revolutionary heroes, marching skeletons, striking farm-workers, open coffins, screaming widows. Black ink on ragged gray paper. It was as if the ink was shouting. I was mesmerized.

I found ASARO’s prints astonishing, not only for their political content, but also for their artistic excellence. It was exhilarating to see a centuries-old medium, woodblock printing, applied to the revolutionary issues of the 21st century. For one hundred pesos (roughly 10 U.S. dollars) ASARO sold prints by day. At night they poured their energy into street art, or interventions, as they call them. If a fellow activist was arrested or “disappeared” ASARO commemorated the event immediately with prints and stencils. They pasted tissue paper prints on the city’s ancient walls, or used pre-cut stencils to create complex murals in a matter of minutes.

Oaxaca’s most dramatic times occurred in 2006 after the annual teachers’ strike spun out of control. Teachers and their supporters protested to oust Governor Ulises Ruiz. APPO, the self-described “people’s assembly” occupied the city  for  months until Mexican Federal Police brutally removed them. Amnesty International documented the killings of at least 18 demonstrators; the full report is available as a pdf. Into 2007 there were still sporadic demonstrations, arrests, and disappearances.

Stencil mural by ASARO photo ©2007 K.McCloskey

There were other talented art collectives in Oaxaca, (notably Arte Jaguar) but ASARO’s daily gallery in the street made them the most accessible. I learned that some of the crew had studied art at the university with the Japanese-born printmaker, Maestro Takeda. The trained artists taught printmaking to anyone who wanted to join. Many had led hard lives. One ASARO artist told me he was abducted by thugs and questioned for 72 hours. I believe him. In 2007, their studio’s location was secret. The police would beat graffiti artists on sight. I remember being very nervous the rainy night I carried a portfolio of 20 political prints from that studio.

'We Defend What is Ours' from ASARO's petroleum portfolio.

Since ASARO formed in 2006, they have produced close to 200 different prints. They have also done canvas paintings, murals, folk art, and performances. Yet I remain enthralled by their woodblocks. They have created print portfolios focusing on issues that transcend their original concerns including: The Murdered Women of Juarez; The Future of Mexican Agriculture; Migration; and Petroleum. They have come up from the underground in the years since printmaker Lester Dore showed their work in Madison. Kutztown Univertity’s ASARO print collection  has toured the country.  Chicago Art Magazine’s Robin Dluzen noted,It is as if the ASARO has now occupied the art world.” 


Last month the NY Times rediscovered Oaxaca. “With the city’s street art scene, a mescal-fueled night life and one of Mexico’s most exciting regional cuisines, Oaxaca is as cosmopolitan as it is architecturally stunning.” The article points out Espacio Zapata, ASARO’s workshop at Porfirio Diaz #509. This new location is in the historic district. ASARO has also been featured in the official Oaxaca State Tourist Office’s guide to the city. Now ASARO has a blog. Recently ASARO offered a free course in printmaking at  Espacio Zapata. One of the course’s sponsors is Conaculta, Mexico’s National Council for Art and Culture.

Espacio Zapata poster for free course in woodblock printing, 2011.

There is another change. A new governor, Governor Gabino Cue, replaced the polarizing figure of Ulises Ruiz. The New York Times is right; this is a good time to visit Oaxaca.

ASARO in Princeton, New Jersey

Princeton University is exhibiting a portion of their splendid ASARO print collection. Alas, none of the artists will be able to attend the Feb. 9 reception, but I will be there. The public is invited. I am honored that Princeton asked me to write about ASARO for the gallery walls. I’m taking part in a panel discussion “Born in the Zocalo: Art and Protest in Oaxaca, Mexico” at 4:30 on 2/9/2012. Reception to follow.

ASARO: Art and Activism in Oaxaca, Mexico
Protest prints from a collective of Mexican artists
Jan 16 to March 8: Bernstein Gallery, Princeton University

Sponsored by Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, exhibition designed by Kate Somers. With special thanks to Karin Trainer and Princeton U. Library for the loan of artwork. For directions & gallery hours, ph. 609-497-2441.

-Kevin McCloskey