On the fourth floor of the Staller Center is the lithograph studio. It’s a bright room filled with tables, rustic lithographic presses and the strong scent of chemicals.
Alexandra Iosub works at the second press. Wearing a denim apron over a black t-shirt and jeans with her brown hair tied back in a ponytail, she assembles a rectangular stone—a Bavarian limestone, to be exact—on the bed of the machine. On the smooth surface of the stone is a sketch of a woman cringing in pain, and floating beside her is a feathery object.
“Everything cycles in life,” the 25-year old says as she explains the meaning behind the image. “That’s the main idea.”
The image of the pained woman is part of a series Iosub is creating for her Advanced Theory and Practice of Printmaking lithography course. Called “Geometry of Life,” the project is a sequence of images that tells a story about the cyclical events that make up life—being born, experiencing pain, giving birth, death. This image falls in the middle of the series and portrays a woman losing her wings. In the next image or two, the woman will fall and crash, although Iosub says she doesn’t know what the scenes will look like just yet.
Lithography is the practice of drawing on a lithographic stone with an acid or grease-based pen, and the image on the stone is then printed onto paper using a specialized press. Iosub says it takes her about a week to create a print—one day to sketch the image and let it dry, the other five or six days to prep and eventually make the prints. “It’s a very meditative process,” she says.
As she continues prepping, Iosub rubs acid on the stone, desensitizing the white areas so they don’t print.
“This is my therapy,” she says. “This is my life.”
Iosub compares lithography to life quite often. The parallels in her approach to the printmaking art and the process by which it’s done come up frequently as she talks about it. First, before a stone is drawn on, the artist has to grind off the greasy layer of the previous image so that it doesn’t interfere with the new one—a procedure that can take up to four hours. “You have to grind the stone until the ghost dies,” Iosub says. “Or else the ghost will haunt your image.”
To Iosub, the stone is more than just a cold, hard object—it’s something that feels and learns. After she sponges off the acid with water, she applies lithotine, a grease-based solvent that takes off excess drawing material. “I’m applying more grease so the stone will learn a lesson,” she says, specifying that the lithotine helps the stone memorize the image so that it can grab the ink she will apply later.
Iosub says all of her work is biographical. The first two images in “Geometry of Life,” which are of an egg on a bed of rocks followed by a woman surrounded by them, reflects her immigration to America from Romania in 2005. The rocks symbolize the baggage she brought with her and how it was hard for her to shed her native roots. “Sometimes that’s a burden,” she says. “I had to change a lot about me to blend in.” The image she is currently pressing signifies a hard time she recently went through in her marriage. Iosub used a picture she took of herself cringing in pain after injuring her thumb to use as the subject for the image.
Iosub enrolled in Stony Brook University in 2008, and in her first semester here she took the introductory lithography course without any knowledge of the art. Because of the class’s difficulty, Iosub says she wanted to quit after a month. When the professor, Lorena Salcedo-Watson, simply said “Okay, quit,” Iosub says that convinced her to stay. “This is not a class where you can complain,” she says.
Iosub, however, does complain about the lack of interest Stony Brook has in keeping the lithography classes running. Last year none of the classes were offered because the university temporarily laid-off Salcedo-Watson, the only professor teaching those courses. Iosub says students fought back by holding bake sales and other forms of fundraising to get together the money to pay the professor’s salary. Now this semester is the first one in a year that the lithography courses have been offered again, but Stony Brook, which is the only institution on Long Island that offers such classes, is still not entirely funding the program. The lithographic presses cost about $10,000 and maintenance is required to keep them running properly. The Bavarian limestones are usually priced around $1,000, and other tools can be costly as well.
“It’s like they’re doing everything they can to stop us from taking this class,” Iosub says. “You have to buy your own paper, your own tools and, apparently, your own instructor.”
“I just want to make sure people don’t step all over my hero,” Iosub adds about Salcedo-Watson. “Sometimes heroes need help, too.”
The fine arts major takes other printmaking classes such as ones on intaglio and linocut, but lithography is what she hopes to make a career out of. Iosub, a senior, plans on furthering her studies in graduate school after she leaves Stony Brook.
Iosub continues to prep the stone for printing. After she applies the lithotine, she gets ready for one of the more physical parts of the process; applying ink onto the stone. She puts on a pair of fingerless baseball gloves and then smears a sticky, tacky ink onto a palette with a knife. She takes a large wooden rolling pin, which weighs about seven pounds, and begins to flatten out the ink. She wears the gloves so that she doesn’t get blisters from gripping the roller.
“It’s such hard work just rolling the ink on this palette,” she says as she moves the roller back and forth. The definition of her arm muscles shows with every push of the rolling pin.
Once enough ink is on the roller, Iosub rolls the black substance onto the stone. By doing so she is allowing the stone to grab the ink that will print onto the paper. She then sponges down the stone with water—a process called etching—to keep it moist. “The more etches a stone has, the more consistent it will print,” she says. She alternates between etching and rolling a few times.
Finally, Iosub lays the paper onto the stone. She places a plastic board on top and smears a mineral lubricant on it so that it runs smoothly under the press. She lowers the scraper bar holder—the part of the press that applies pressure so that the image will print—with a long lever, something that looks a lot easier than it actually is. “I think it’s going to be a very nice print,” she says to herself.
With a crank of a wheel, the press bed glides under the bar. Iosub lifts up the bar with the lever. “This is my ‘ta-da’ moment,” she says before she peels the paper from the stone.
The stone and the paper are like a mirror: the image on the paper is almost identical to the one on the limestone, but Iosub says the ink on the paper is not dark enough. She repeats the process with the rolling pin, first rolling the ink onto it and then the stone before she runs it through the press again. The process has to be repeated “until you get enough ink and enough pressure on the stone for a good print,” she says.
After running it through the press, she peels the paper off the stone again and admires the image. “My first baby,” she says with a smile.
“You work on one image so much that you need to be satisfied with it,” she says as she rolls more ink onto the stone for a second print. Iosub always prints more than one image. “I’m an artist and a printmaker,” she says. “Printmaking is all about multiples.”
But because of time constraints, Iosub decides to stop and put off the rest of her printing for another day. To preserve the ink on the stone she rubs tannic acid on it, which is used for short-term storage. She dusts on some chalk and rosin first and wipes them around the stone to harden the ink and then she uses a cheese cloth to apply the tannic acid, which will enhance the contrast of the ink on the stone. When she’s finished, Iosub carries the 170-pound stone over to a table where her other lithographic stones sit under cloths, their images waiting to be printed.
Iosub says there’s a fine balance between the amount of pressure, ink and water needed to make a lithographic print. And in that sense, humans are just like lithographs, she says—we are constantly under pressure and we require lots of water to stay alive, just like a stone needs water to print consistently. Iosub finds that these parallels in life and lithography are what make her love the art so much.
“The way you approach it makes you more involved,” she says. “Art is about having people look at the stuff and having people understand. I know I’m illustrious. I have a message I want to transmit to people.”