The Art and Craft of Printmaking

Specially-designed posters for the Renwick highlight exhibitions and the iconic building's architecture

Purple poster showing an illustrated print of the Renwick Gallery's facade
Renwick 50th Anniversary poster created for the exhibition This Present Moment: Crafting a Better World. All illustrations by The Little Friends of Printmaking.

The Little Friends of Printmaking—husband and wife team JW and Melissa Buchanan—have created three posters for the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The third print was designed in honor of the 50th anniversary of SAAM’s Renwick Gallery, the nation’s premier museum dedicated to American craft, and its exhibition, This Present Moment: Crafting a Better World.

SAAM: This is our third print collaboration with The Little Friends of Printmaking. Tell us about how this print fits in or stands out from the others.

LFoP: The Renwick staff wanted a sense of continuity between the three posters, so for each of the designs, we made variations on the concept of a cross-section building. The first design took the form of an artists’ studio building that bore a minor resemblance (in some respects) to the Renwick during the exhibition 40 under 40: Craft Futures. The second imagined a dollhouse where each room was one of Frances Glessner Lee’s murder dioramas from the exhibition Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. This year’s poster refers directly to the Renwick’s facade and galleries, with artwork from This Present Moment depicted inside. It’s a much more direct interpretation of the art and the exhibition than in our first design, and is as much a celebration of the Renwick itself as it is a tribute to the exhibition.

Two posters side by side, teal on the left and a brick red on the right. They show the facades of buildings and scenes within
Poster one created in honor of 40 under 40: Craft Futures, poster two created for Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

Tell us how you came up with this current design and your decision-making process when conceptualizing the design of a new print.

Obviously, everything starts with feedback from the SAAM staff. They wanted us to explore another cross-section design, and we were up for the challenge. The question then becomes, “In which ways should this design be different from the original, and why?” Because of the Renwick’s important anniversary and its renovation in 2015, we intended to do something that referred directly to the building itself. It’s a building that was simply too beautiful to be demolished, which ultimately led to the creation of a truly unique institution. We came up with an idea of splitting the poster along its vertical axis, with a cross-section on one side, and the facade on the other, with all of its beautiful terra cotta decorations. We were lucky enough to have found a set of architectural elevations from the renovation project, so that our cross-section could feel somewhat true to the real building.

Were there any particular challenges to portraying the Renwick facade and This Present Moment?

Working in our illustration style requires a high degree of stylization, and those terra cotta bas reliefs on the building’s exterior presented quite a challenge. Some elements lent themselves to our aesthetic, and others were a real challenge to interpret. The artwork in the exhibition, however, was a joy to interpret. Reducing these artworks to just a few lines and shapes felt like a fun game. We were very touched to have been contacted by a few of the artists whose work we interpreted for the poster; they were all very nice!

How did you come up with the name The Little Friends of Printmaking?

It’s an old, long, improbable story. As students at the University of Wisconsin, we had a friend involved in student government who had discovered that all student organizations, no matter how frivolous, had access to UW fleet vehicles (cars, trucks, and vans). His grand scheme was to create a fake organization and then use it to borrow a university truck in order to pick up some Ikea furniture. So, one day, he came over and announced, “Congratulations! You’re now the president and vice president of the UW Art Club,” an organization that had previously not existed. We all found it very funny, until strangers started calling our phone and arriving at our door looking for the UW Art Club, hoping we would evaluate their portfolio of watercolors. We then resolved to change the name of his fake club to something so unappealing, so pitiful, it would inspire absolutely zero interest from the public: The Little Friends of Printmaking. We never received another call.

How do you two work as a team for the design and printing process?

We’ve been working together for over twenty years, so the process feels very streamlined at this point. Whoever takes the reins of the design, that person is working in a house style that we’ve developed together over the decades. We always make sure to develop our concepts and finish every project as a team, so nothing goes out that we’re not both proud of. Printmaking requires a buddy, and we’re very grateful to have each other to assist (especially when things are going wrong). We design and print together as much as we can, but we also trust each other when we have to work independently. It’s all second nature at this point.

 

You share such fun process videos every week on your Instagram account. Walk us through how you make the process videos, pick the music, etc.

I just spoke about second nature and ease in our workflow, but the process videos (while we love them—they've transformed our art practice and we’re so very grateful) are hilariously unnatural and difficult. Documenting yourself while also creating something is a special challenge. Pulling a print feels so easy. Pulling a print while James stands on a ladder above my head holding a big camera—it’s all a bit weird. (And I’m not the one hanging off of a ladder!) The music is just the music we listen to at home, and James has gotten pretty good at cutting the videos into a nice, finished product. We’re pleased people like them so much, and it helps with our educational mission to have a tool like that.

The Renwick is dedicated to American craft. As printmakers, how do you feel that craft is relevant in the world today?

As printmakers, we’re completely preoccupied with craft and process and materials. We may be outside of American craft, but what we do feels very closely related. (Perhaps we’re first cousins.) Craft is especially relevant in our current pandemic era, when everyone is rediscovering handcrafts just to stay busy and occupy their time.

This Present Moment limited edition screen prints can be purchased in all four colors in the Renwick Gallery store or online. While supplies last.