On Teaching, Traveling and Nature: A Candid Conversation with Printmaker Selma Bromberg

Hostas. Image courtesy of the artist.Hostas. Image courtesy of the artist.

I met artist and printmaker Selma Bromberg while I was Program Director of the visual arts and crafts classes at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. In my position, I worked closely with Selma to make the printmaking program at CCAE one of the best programs in the greater Boston-area. An accomplished printmaker, Selma attended Smith College and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. At Smith, she studied with both Leonard Baskin and Elliot Offner. As a printmaker, Selma has left her mark on the Boston printmaking world, joining the Experimental Etching Studio in Boston at a very young age and lecturing on etching and woodcuts throughout the New England region. Her work is found in many collections, including the Harvard Art Museums (Fogg Museum), Worcester Art Museum, Boston Public Library, Smith College Library and in other numerous public and private art collections throughout the country. Her work has been exhibited both nationally and internationally including at the Boston Public Library, Bromfield Gallery, the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, Danforth Museum, Fuller Art Museum, the New York Society of Etchers and many other venues. I sat down with Selma in November to candidly talk about her work, teaching and her travels—which are central to her practice. This interview was conducted on Friday November 6, in the Vogt Studio at the Cambridge Center, where Selma has been teaching printmaking since 1969. Selma’s work will be in the exhibition I am organizing for the Cambridge Center titled “Push/Pull: Recent Work from CCAE’s Printmaking Faculty” which opens in January 2016.



Selma Bromberg in her studio. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Anulfo Baez: You attended Smith College in the 1960s and studied under Leonard Baskin and Elliot Offner, both artists with very long and well-known careers at Smith College. At what point did you realize that printmaking was something you wanted to do for the rest of your life?

Selma Bromberg: I was living in a student house and on Thursdays we would invite faculty for dinner as guests, and I was sitting in the living room before dinner talking to Elliot Offner’s wife and she said to me, “you know, I hear that you’re very good.”

We both laugh

AB: Was that the point you realize you wanted to do printmaking?

SB: So, that was the point I realized they respected me. You didn’t hear this in class. I knew I wanted to be a printmaker, when I started studying with Leonard Baskin. I admired the power and the technique of his etchings and woodcuts. He was an inspiring teacher.  We learned to really look at an object such as a conch shell and draw it several times until we completely understood the form. We learned how to design and cut a wood block with precision.

AB: You’ve been teaching at the Cambridge Center since 1969—an impressive tenure heading the Cambridge Center’s printmaking program for adults learners. The Blacksmith House Printmakers is a group of printers that you often talk about. Did you found the Blacksmith Printmakers or was the group already established when you started teaching at the Cambridge Center?

SB: I founded that. It probably started maybe ten years later because there was a group of students that kept returning and we wanted to have a show and that was when we called ourselves “The Blacksmith House Printmakers”

AB: I know that the group has had a long history with putting exhibitions at the Cambridge Center, including an exhibition where prints were exchanged with artists from Vancouver.

SB: I had a student from Vancouver who had a good friend who ran a gallery also in Vancouver. There’s a whole section of artists and artists’ studios and they had miniature shows where they send out a whole show in just a manila envelope and we did this print exchange. We got out our little manila packet, we sent it out to them. We sent out our miniature prints and they gave us a show and then they sent all their prints to Cambridge and we put them in little frames.

AB: Traveling is central to your practice as an artist. Much of your body of work is made around residencies you’ve been a part of or trips you’ve taken on your own. You’re currently working on a series of prints from your trip to Taiwan. Can you tell me more about this trip and your new body of work?

SB: Yes. The trip to Taiwan came about, it was actually my son’s wedding and this is very exciting because I’ve always loved looking at Asian art—Chinese art, Japanese art, and suddenly this was happening for me. And I was going to see a lot of things. And the family is a creative, artistic family. One of the first things we did, we went to a museum of woodcuts and saw early woodcuts from the 10th century up to very contemporary woodcuts.

AB: Was that your first trip to Asia?

SB: Yeah. The other part that was exciting was that with the family we traveled around the island. Traveling through the mountains and my daughter-in-law’s brothers were asking “why are you excited about the mountains? You’ve got mountains” and I said “yeah, but I don’t see mountains with tropical vegetation.” The most exciting part was the national park at Taroko. It was very different from the Grand Canyon. The light is different. The rock is different. The vegetation was different. Walking through there was very exciting.

AB: What are the prints you’re working on now from this trip to Taiwan?

SB: The prints I am working on now are from the visit to Taroko National Park. I took a lot of photographs and I would sit in the van we were in and I would draw from memory as we were driving through the mountains. I would always draw and when I would get back to my room, I would always draw from memory of walking through the gorge.

AB: Your trip was a year ago and you’re still making work from that trip?

SB: I’m still making work.

AB: How many prints have you made so far?

SB: I did a whole series of pronto plates based on Taroko. I did about ten of those. I don’t know which ones are finished and which ones I’ll use. I just started another series on the rocks of Taroko-another pronto plate series, very dramatic, spare black and white lines. I did an edition of six of those. And I have small monotypes I am working on that are flower prints.

AB: Prints of flowers from Taiwan?

SB: Right. At one point, we were near the ocean and there was a whole field of lotus flowers. Big green leaves and pink flowers and I took a lot of photographs of those. We were near the ocean and it was pretty dramatic. The rock was dark, it was a different beach than what I had ever seen. Before you got to the beaches there were these fields filled with lotus flowers.

AB: Do most of your prints get started by drawing from memory?

SB: Yes. I’ve always liked looking at mountains, landscapes and when I would ski when I my kids were little, we would go up to New Hampshire, past Franconia Notch and right there, there’s this incredible view of the mountains and the snow, which looks like a Japanese landscape and it would stay in my memory until I got to the hotel. I would take my sketchbook out and draw. I did an artist residency—I did four of them—at the Vermont Studio School and I was looking at waterfalls the entire time, making drawings and woodcuts of waterfalls. I did another artist residency in Virginia—the western part of Virginia—and the landscape there was this kudzu—this vine that chokes all of the landscape. All the trees and bushes are covered with this kudzu and it looks like a giant topiary. Again, I was out there drawing the kudzu.

Betty. Image courtesy of the artist.

Betty. Image courtesy of the artist.

AB: From a very early point in your career you started with drawing and making prints of zoo animals and then you went on to making work about nature and all these epic mountainous landscapes. You’ve developed a lot of work from being in nature and looking at nature. Did you always know that you wanted to make work about nature?

SB: Well, maybe the earliest…rocks. My art teacher would take me to Rockport and I would draw the rocks. I was around 12 or 13 and I remember just sitting out on Bearskin Neck doing a watercolor of the rocks and something just happened. It was very exciting, I just felt something. So it started then.

AB: Who have been some of your influences as a printmaker?

SB: Traditionally, I look at Rembrandt for etching and Kathe Kollwitz for woodcut and I look at Goya for etching. Probably the most intellectual part was when I was in college and I was studying with Leonard Baskin and he said, “there are three artists you have to look at: Durer, Rembrandt and Goya,” so that was my training. Later, when I graduated college and I went to work at what was then the Experimental Etching Studio and met other artists either from New England or from other places and learned other techniques with that body of artists. That was probably over 40 years ago and I’m still working with that group. I mean, it went on from being called the Experimental Etching Studio to EES Arts to Full Tilt Studio so there is a lot of influences and different techniques and I have very good friends from that group and we critique each other’s works.

AB: You’ve built a fully equipped studio in Weston, Mass. Has your practice changed over time with new developments in printmaking or has it always pretty much remained the same?

SB: It has changed. Maybe 30 or 40 years ago, we were all doing traditional etching and they were doing the same thing in the art schools. We no longer do that because we don’t use solvents anymore and some of the materials used in order to do traditional printmaking. We began doing collagraphs and all that is pretty much non-toxic. We’ve changed the kinds of inks we use, change the kind of cleanup. And now we’re doing pronto plates which are a simplified form of lithography.

AB: Do your students inform your practice as an artist?

SB: Oh, there’s a definite exchange. Students come into class having lived in other areas. I have a student now who studied in Canada and England, but she’s learning some new techniques here. I have another student in the same class who prints in the winter in Paris and we talk about the kinds of inks they’re using and the kinds of inks we’re using here, so there’s a constant exchange.

AB: What was the last printmaking or non-printmaking show you saw and what surprised you the most about it?

SB: I have to go back to talking about Taiwan and the experiences there and not so much the show, but being in  these ancient temples with these Buddhas and all kinds of woodcarvings, stone carvings and paintings. As far as visual experience that was one of the most intense visual experiences. I remember being in a little town and there was a temple dedicated to fishing, so the Buddha was dedicated to fishing. It was small and very manageable, you could climb up the three flights and see painted dragons and green jade Buddhas and all the walls were all carved wood. I think that for me was an intense visual experience, they weren’t prints, but these were all works of art.

AB: Do you as a printmaker tend to gravitate toward one technique over the others?

SB: I have about four or five different techniques and I just work on different things at different times. I really like solar etching. I just did a print today that’s a solar etching trying out a new kind of plate that we have and I really enjoyed that. I really like cutting woodblocks.

AB: Any other techniques you really enjoy working in?

SB: I really like monotype. I find pronto plates challenging and I was really pleased I’ve gotten very good results with it, but it is very challenging. It is challenging to teach as well.

AB: You are in the Harvard Art Museums collections, the Boston Public Library, the Worcester Art Museum, as well as in many other private and public collections. You are one of the most humble people I know and have worked with. Can you tell me how all these organizations started acquiring your work?

SB: It was pretty exciting when the Fogg acquired one of my prints and the way that happened, I think it was around 1998 there was a big print symposium in Boston and it was organized by all the universities and colleges in the area. Artists were invited from all over the world. My group was invited for a talk at the Fogg and at the end of the talk, the curator invited us all to bring our work in. I brought my work in and I thought it would go into the collection for students to rent, but she [curator] wrote “No, it’s going into the private collection.” There was another similar situation with the Boston Public Library. We were having that big show “Working Proof: The Experimental Etching Studio” and we were in there hanging it and so I went up to the Keeper of Prints. I was very shy and said, “Would you like to look at my work?” and he said, “of course, I would.”

AB: Was that Sinclair Hitchings?

SB: Yes. Sinclair Hitchings. And when I got in there, he brought out his folder on me. [We both laugh simultaneously]. Because, whenever you had a show, you sent cards to everyone. At that time, the internet wasn’t around and he had a folder on me. I mean, not just me, he had a folder on everybody. His whole approach was to encourage Boston artists and he collected my friends too. So when you say, I’m humble, I mean, I know he was collecting all of us, but we were a strong group from EES. He did a lot for Boston artists and Boston printmakers.

AB: Selma, anything you else you want me to include in this interview?

SB: Well, I think we’ve covered everything. Some things I brought in as a joke [Selma picks up the photo of her grandson she brought in to show me and which she had been looking at for some time while we were talking about her trip to Taiwan], but I did a whole series, that was the print that was in the Boston Public Library exhibition, that was the beginning of that kind of series.*

*The series Selma is referring to was a series which explored the nature of being a recent mother. An image of one of the prints in the series can be found in the Working Proof exhibition catalogue.

AB, November 6, 2015