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Susan Wheeler

The Oxford Printmakers

Printmaking is the process of creating original pieces of art using various hand-printing methods in which each image created is unique, even when a short ‘run’ of ‘limited edition’ prints are made
Morna Rhys

"Throughout April, as a celebration of their 40th birthday, the latest work created by the group is on show at The Oxfordshire Museum in Woodstock"

Esther Lafferty


There are a number of ways to create an artist print. The first is relief printing, the handcarving of blocks of wood or linoleum so that, in a fine art version of children’s potato printing, ‘non-image’ areas are cut away and the raised surfaces or the ‘relief’ is inked and pressed to paper. For different colours, different blocks are printed onto the same paper to create a final image. Alternatively, a single block may be used several times, each after additional carving has taken place.

Intaglio printing is the direct opposite – in that it is the ‘indentations’ between raised surfaces that hold and then transfer ink onto paper – whilst screenprinting is a stencil technique in which paint is applied through cut-outs in tightly-stretched material, and lithography is a chemical technique using an oily medium to repel water-based ink from certain parts of a stone or printing plate.

Christina Taylor Smith


The Oxford Printmakers Cooperative (OPC) was one of the first cooperative community printing organisations to set up in the UK, and was created by former Ruskin Fine Art students who wanted to continue printing after their studies were finished. As the equipment required is big, heavy and expensive, together they established an open access workshop in Oxford. 40 years later it has 100 members and is well equipped with a range of machines for many printing methods.

Catriona Brodribb, technician at Oxford Printmakers, says “printmaking has been a form of alchemy for me ever since I stepped into the basement printroom at the Ruskin in the late 1970s, and it still remains a form of fascination. You never know what you’re going to get when you peel the completed print off the press bed, or raise the silkscreen frame.”

Throughout April, as a celebration of their 40th birthday, the latest work created by the group is on show at The Oxfordshire Museum in Woodstock, and includes a wealth of topics produced with many printing techniques, the inspiration ranging from seedheads to the wide open sea.

Christina Taylor-Smith captures perfectly the movement of waves glinting under a moonlit sky. “I’m interested in the idea of line and texture being combined to evoke aspects and rhythms found in nature and man-made structures,” she explains. “I try to distil my response to the essence of things. I am always aware of the fragility and transient quality of a moment in time. I think of lines as pieces of thread interconnecting, flowing, easily broken, lost and found. The built-up consecutive lines have a density and rhythm which can be fragile, flowing or sometimes appear like layers or strata. At the moment I am experimenting with ways to combine print with folded paper in order to create a 3D effect which will add yet another dimension to the work, and hope to create an installation with it in the future.”

New OPC member Sarah Drake combines her passion for textile design and portrait painting in screen prints. “There are always certain portrait models I am drawn to because of their looks: perhaps they have a contemporary vibe or feel which resonates with me, or it may be the way they dress or hold themselves.” Placing her models on a highly textured, busy background, she ‘flattens’ the image as much as possible. “It appears I am always trying to make patterns!” she smiles.

Visit the Oxford Printmakers’ East Oxford space this month for patterns galore and an exhibition which zooms you right down to the molecular level, giving the aesthetics of genetics a fresh visual arts perspective and encouraging a better understanding of the human genome, its importance and its secrets.

The prints on show here are all created during a challenging project in which artists were paired with health scientists and produced art in response to the research taking place in Oxford’s Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics. Printmaker Margot Bell, for example, worked with scientist Yara Alanzi, whose work involved the analysis of the minute tick insect to extract a naturally produced anti-inflammatory substance that could have a long reaching benefit for medical research.

Jackie Conway describes her inspiration for an image of the West Wing at the John Radcliffe: “I wanted to bring together the place where science meets humanity. The helix swirls around the air obeying no law except that from chance and evolution. People in the picture are a result from the genetic inheritance and from the gene pool. We are a product of our genes but also more than our genes, we are alive.”

Other prints have been inspired by research into the statistical methods to identify genes involved in susceptibility to malaria, the genetic variants which influence the risk of developing diabetes through the reduced secretion of insulin from the pancreatic beta-cells, and the use of ‘molecular scissors’ to introduce them into stem cell DNA, and autoimmune disorders.

Oxford’s Rahima Kenner has always been interested in language and the features of the brain involved in cognitive and cultural evolution, and she worked with researchers on a dyslexia susceptibility candidate gene, visiting the lab to hear more. In response she used an intagio press (“the one that looks a bit like a mangle,” she smiles) and worked with acid to produce the printing plate, creating primarily painterly and colourist monoprints alongside more linear, drawing-led etchings on copper plates. “I used the letters and numbers of the Genome name K1AA0319,” she explains, “and rotated them at the bottom reflecting the visual disturbances often experienced by dyslexic readers.”

In contrast, Kat Luddecke chose to screenprint, using irregular squares of red, green, yellow and blue, and black, to give strikingly colourful representations of current research into the genetics of heart disease. As well as reproducing the colours so often used to represent DNA, Kat felt it was important to both show the common visuals of the heartbeat and shape, with all the connotations that come with them. She also included gaps in her print design to represent the gaps in medical knowledge and also those people in danger because of, or lost to, a genetic heart condition.

Radley’s Sue Wheeler also focused on the molecular level, collaborating with Marieke Oudelaar, a PhD student at Oxford’s Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine. “The laboratory where Marieke works has developed a technique that makes it possible to look more closely at the three-dimensional relationship between the genes in all of our cells, the strings of our DNA, and the way in which they affect each other. My work imagines this mysterious three-dimensional inner space and the long and tangled strands of DNA within. It refers to the recent discovery that these folding and loosening strings are able to communicate with the sometimes far distant genes found along these strands as they pass by.”

It’s an intriguing series of work, and to discover more about the genetics that underpin the exhibition, visit well.ox.ac.uk. For more on the printmaking processes and to see them in action you can visit the Oxford Printmakers (Mon 4-7.30pm; Tues 10.30-6pm; Sat 11-4.30pm; oxfordprintmakers.co.uk) at Christadelphian Hall, Tyndale Road, Oxford OX4 IJL in April and for Oxfordshire Artweeks in May when many OPC members will also be opening their individual studios. Visit artweeks.org for further information.


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