Open Studio co-founder Alix (neé Barbara) Hall in front of Open Studio’s original location at 320 Queen Street West, Toronto, 1971. Photo: Vincent Sharp. Image courtesy of Open Studio.

An Exploration of Contemporary Printmaking From Letterpress to Lithography: A Review of Printopolis

While printmaking in Canada has a long history and a thriving contemporary culture, there has been a gap in critical thought on printmaking’s history, technologies and evolution.

The book Printopolis fills this gap.

Edited by Tara Cooper and Jenn Law, Printopolis grew out of conversations generated at an international symposium on printmaking held in Toronto in 2010 by Open Studio, a not-for-profit, artist-run print centre founded in 1970.


Readers with an interest in graphic design, printmaking or art history will find something that appeals to them in Printopolis. The essays in this collection examine print technologies, archiving and collecting, pedagogy, artist collaborations, case studies and lofty questions about why we make art and what counts as printmaking. The final chapter reflects on Open Studio’s forty-five year history of bringing artists together to share equipment, skills and ideas.

Contributing writers include artists, professors, curators and teachers, some of whom are Canadian expatriates living in Berlin, the United States and Barbados. Though the book centres on Canadian printmaking, the international perspectives of these writers contribute to a global conversation about the developments of printmaking.

Tim Pitsiulak, Polar Bear, 2016, screenprint, 30” x 44”. Photo: Sonia Quattro. Image Courtesy of Dorset Fine Arts and Open Studio.


In one noteworthy essay, “Northern Printmaking in Canada,” Michelle Lewin examines the rich culture of printmaking in Cape Dorset, Nunavut, a community of 1,400 people on Baffin Island. Lewin traces the history of Inuit people discovering — and mastering — printmaking as well as the annual launches of their celebrated works of art, which “cause a sort of mania among art collectors in Canada, the United States and Europe.”

A second essay of note, by Adam Welch, the National Gallery of Canada’s Associate Curator of Canadian Art, explores the founding, evolution and impact of General Idea, a group of artists active from 1969 to 1994. Their three members created print works in unconventional forms like wallpaper and balloons, using their art to comment on media and popular culture. The Gallery holds the Art Metropole Collection — more than 13,000 objects including artist books, multiples, videos and ephemera that serves as evidence of the unique network of artistic activity that General Idea began.

Shuvinai Ashoona and John Noestheden, Earth and Sky, 2008, detail of mixed media drawing (ink, coloured pencil, graphite, collage, and glass crystals on paper), 13.5” x 190”, collection of the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Image courtesy of John Noestheden.


A book about printmaking must be a piece of print art in itself, and Printopolis achieves this feat thanks to the more than one hundred colourful, thought-provoking images that grace the thick, matte pages, including eight original works of art that Open Studio commissioned for the book.

Considering a book like Printopolis to be a piece of print art raises questions about how to define this genre, a central question in the book. Is print media still considered art if it’s mass-produced? Is everything that is printed art?

Barbara Balfour explores these questions and more in her essay “The What and the Why of Print,” in which she examines the universal appeal of printmaking — what it is, why artists make it and why people appreciate it.

“Rationalizing why one would like print is like rationalizing an attraction to any number of things: soap operas, stand up paddle-boarding, champagne, or even falling in love,” Balfour explains.

In the end, Balfour attributes print’s allure to the only explanation that makes sense: a “printerly je ne sais quoi.”

Jon Sasaki, Napkins (Materials Safety Data Sheet), 2011, paper serviettes, printed multiple distributed for free at Art Toronto as part of the exhibition Place (curated by William Huffman), 5” x 5” (each). Image courtesy of Jon Sasaki.


Printopolis was published by Open Studio and is available at the NGC Boutique and from Open Studio. Work from the General Idea Collective is currently on view in the Gallery in Room B103. Objects from the Art Metropole Collection are on view in B108.  To share this article, please click on the arrow in the menu bar at the top right of the page.

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