We Built This Space: An Interview with Meg Turner

October 19, 2011 · Print This Article

photo by Meredith Younger

AS220 is a special place. In last week’s conversation with the Dirt Palace, you can already get a sense for how it has influenced the culture of Providence. In the following interview, I talked to Meg Turner, a former RISD graduate, who helped build and share AS220’s print shop. Rather than focus on AS220, however, we spent most of our time talking about her life after Providence. About two years ago, she moved to New Orleans to start and run Art Works’ non-profit print shop. It didn’t work out and she has since embarked on another coop print shop project. To me, the whole story is valuable: what does it mean to think of an arts organization as an ethical parent?  What does it mean to keep the passion of your interest safe from the specifics of a bad experience? And, perhaps most of all, how do you balance one’s personal creativity with administrative, communal work? Meg Turner is also a print maker dedicated to crumbling, abandoned buildings. She’s just as handy with silk screens as she is employing (and teaching) older, photopolymer gravure, techniques. The second part of this interview will carry on here, where we talk more about her work and what was like to move her creative practice to New Orleans.

Caroline Picard: I’m curious about Noe, the print shop you’re running in New Orleans, and how you came to be there.

Meg Turner: Right now I don’t run the print shop. Right now I’m part of an amazing co-op that is totally existing because of every person putting in an insane amount of hours. I am the least part of running it because I left for 2 months.

But. I used to go on bike rides with my friend Morgan who ran the shop when we were at RISD and we would daydream about the print shops we would run someday — we would just think of the presses — we didn’t really think of the form, just “Someday I’m gonna have a letterpress, and an etching press: I’m gonna have this equipment and that space—” the same way people decorate their kitchens and future homes. We didn’t really think about structure or how it would work. When we heard AS220 was opening a print shop, we both called Susan to try to get a job. And she said, “No it’s not like that. Come to the meetings.” The first meeting took place in a bare room and we sat on the floor and there were 10-15 people there asking, “What do we want in this shop?” Once that question came up, then we started asking, “Who’s going to use it? How does it work?”

The whole co-op structure and the way that it would work with volunteering, that wasn’t instinctual for me, at least. It was an interesting—for a good 6 months to a year I definitely—coming out of RISD atmosphere of fine art editioning—I was thinking we would have to create the most beautiful print shop possible so fine artists could make beautiful work. Let’s keep it clean and maybe it shouldn’t be open to the public, maybe it should just be a small group of members that work together. But I got used to AS220’s approach. Because if someone asks, “Hey can I come to your shop and learn how to screen print?” and I have to say, “No, I’m sorry it’s only for these people—” it’s too bad. I don’t ever want to say, “This print shop is closed, you can’t come here and learn.” Because the whole point was create something that is as good as a university but open to absolutely anybody to come and use it  in whatever way they can.

But it was funny how long it took me to appreciate that. When I started working for my boss in New Orleans [at LA Art Works], I went to her shop and thought, “Oh my God it’s so clean! One person uses this space! There’s an endless supply of paper towels!”

 CP: Were you psyched at first?

MT: I was psyched—I thought this is the best thing I could ever imagine! And then after 3 days I thought that if I didn’t have open shop to go to and didn’t exist in the chaos of the ink and people showing up that were 50 and 16 years old my world would feel small because I wasn’t spreading the love of this medium. Part of it is just that I love analog mark making and want everybody to  learn it. I want to make it as accessible as possible.

"Beatrice Warde", Meg Turner. 2 color silkscreen. Illustrating the stirring declaration first composed by Beatrice Warde in 1932 to show off the font 'perpetua' (used in this design). 2010

CP: Maybe this is a stretch but I feel like the silkscreening ethos is centered around production and dissemination.

MT: Yeah, it’s totally about the democratization of art making and words and markmaking is the history of printmaking and I really love that. But you can also just make wedding invitations and other dumb things and you can make crazy political posters to wheat paste. It’s anti precious even when you’re making etches. And the art scene that I’m involved with is way more dirty and punk rock so we’ve created this really down and dirty silkscreen studio in a warehouse.

CP: Wait, you mean it’s more punk rock compared to Providence?

MT: Well it’s just a different scene down there. In Providence we’ve got an art school that pumps kids out, kids that come from the bubble of like, “I take my art really seriously,” and our music scene is small enough that it doesn’t divide itself. Providence is unique and that’s why I love it, because the art and the music scene are totally intermingled—whereas down in New Orleans there are more people who want to be in galleries or work in non-profits, people who are cleaner in some ways, and then there’s the punk scene that screen prints but printing is very much a hobby or in service of the music scene, and it’s a little separate. That’s where a lot of the constituents of the print shop are coming from. Having been familiar with the punk scene [in Providence], that’s the part I plugged into [in New Orleans]. But a lot of the people I’ve met are amazing educators and there’s beginning to be more of a mix.

The struggle down there now is how to not lose the feeling that anyone can walk in off the street at any time —which I felt like was lacking at AS220 — once a week, no appointment necessary. New Orleans isn’t like New England — people don’t have calendars, people don’t want to sign up for things. They just want certain days a week when they can walk in. That has been by far the most successful thing. But I also want it to be a place where someone who wants to get a beautiful edition done can go, and it can be clean and organized and professional. And we also have no money now, no money at all. But we’re going to do a kickstarter I think.

So that’s been really interesting and the amount of enthusiasm out there — because there’s not a printing or poster scene down there like there is in Providence. The poster scene is photocopies, still amazing photocopies, amazing drawings for shows.

"Builtacity", drawn and printed by Meg Turner and Andrew Oesch. 3 color screen print And We Built A city Together, an interactive installation facilitated by Andrew Oesch and Meg Turner, at the RISD Museum. 2009

CP: Do you have a sense as to why there wouldn’t have been a poster scene down there?

MT: Well — I mean it’s not that there completely wasn’t — people have posters on the walls — but just not in the same way that I grew up seeing in Providence. I think a big part of it is RISD. New Orleans doesn’t have an art school; there are art programs but kids don’t settle in town to keep doing what they’re doing. So it’s not to say that there’s no poster scene down there, because there is a huge flyer practice — the amount of time and effort that people put into making photocopied flyers down there is insane, and gorgeous and amazing — but the tools are different, you know?

What’s been really exciting is how many people have been psyched about what we’re doing.

CP: It’s pretty awesome that you could even have walk in hours that people would use. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case in every city. There’s also the whole thing of how you get people who would be interested to learn you exist —

MT: Yeah, and it’s been funny how, even when we left Art Works and went to Noe — and Art Works was gorgeous— then to go to this amazing but totally chaotic, dirty warehouse and have people follow us from one to the other, people who had never been in a place that weird and, say, punk; it was cool. We’ve had some amazing middle-aged people, some high school students have been coming, and small business owners who want to make t-shirts. It’s slow. It’s definitely small, we get maybe five walk-ins at a time.

CP: You’ve told me a little bit about Art Works; it sounds like in that initial situation you had a budget and  a brand new facility but in that instance you had to work within a power structure that wasn’t the best—

MT: Yeah it was a strange experience. There was definitely a power struggle going on between the CEO and the Director. When I moved there [for the job] they had very different ideas, so I was kind of caught in between. And there was no budget at all, actually, so the whole challenge was balancing the fact that the facilities were amazing but half-built there was like a hundred thousand dollars worth of tackage presses but there was no budget for anything, paper towels, screens, emulsion, not a cent.  So we had to create every dollar we could to spend on materials. When it started, we had a big meeting. “Does anyone want to do this? Who wants this? Who wants to get involved?” All these people came and our budget the first week came from the ten dollars we made at the first open shop. People donated equipment. People started paying dues immediately, it was 35 dollars a month and that let us buy our first bucket of emulsion. We could offer this amazing space, but the facility wasn’t what it needed to be. The organization wanted a gorgeous, functioning edition studio to attract artists from around the country. It seemed like they were not as interested in a local community. There was definitely tension there. And then the place was just crumbling, They had no money. When they hired me I said I could make it financially independent in two years, if they paid my salary and gave a small budget to finish outfitting the shop — originally 6,000 dollars would be made available to finish the shop, but I got there and they were just like, “Sorry, no.”

CP: Do you feel like it’s easier now that you’re sort of working on your own terms

MT: I think, it’s gonna be a lot easier except that we don’t have the same kind of facilities to offer the world, we don’t have tackage presses. We don’t have this like gorgeous room with 30 foot ceilings and glass windows, so, there are some there are some people who just won’t even pay attention to what we’re doing now, but I think in terms of the people who really respected what we were doing, they’re psyched, everyone is really supportive.

CP: I remember you mentioned procuring a lot of equipment for Art Works. Once a space like that sort of folds, you can’t take that equipment because it was donated specifically to the non-profit. How did you negotiate those issues of ownership?

MT: Because we all knew it was a bit of a sinking ship, I drafted things for people to sign when they donated equipment.  I made it very clear to my organization and the people that they were loaning the equipment and they could take it back at any moment. When we got kicked out, I said, “Everyone is taking back their equipment,” and then I talked to the people who had donated that stuff and said, “We’re gonna open again in a couple months if you feel like donating it again, that would be great.” But what we didn’t get to keep were the things that we built ourselves. That was the really tragic because it was like our blood, you know. For instance there’s this rosin box that I got two local carpenters to build. It’s not to code, and they couldn’t use if they open again…Things were ugly when they fell apart. What we took with us was the energy of these ten people and we met in coffee shops for months, asking ourselves, “How can we do this again by ourselves no board, no money, no bullshit?”

"Carrie", (Carrie Furnace) Meg Turner. Photopolymer Gravure, 2011.

CP: There must’ve been an important period of time where you were meeting without a facility, where your relationships were gestating, and you could figure out how you wanted to work together without the pressure of immediate, practical demands.

MT: Right, right. Some people that are there now have been there from the very beginning and people took different roles — that was the most exciting thing. A couple of people teach high school and middle school and have been teaching screen printing in those places. They were like really excited about being able to bring their kids to this facility and show them like you can work in amazing spaces. Then other people were more psyched about having a place to print, which the amazing thing about printmaking. It forces you to be communal (unless you’re loaded) because you have to share equipment. What’s hard has been how much administration needs to happen now that no one person is the manager. The last month has been all about insurance, bank account, bylaws; we became a nonprofit. I think like any place, if we all knew how much work it was going to be we probably would’ve been like, “Whatever!”  But so we’ll see, we’ll see how it goes, see like what role everybody wants.

Read more about Meg’s visual work and abandoned building by going here.

Special thanks for transcribing help from Mallory Gevaert and Daryl Meador!