Inking up the greats: A conversation with Former Gemini Master Printer Jonathan Cross

While briefly working with a Master Printer during grad school, I learned that you have to care about about the artist’s work that you’re printing like it’s your own. Shoot, sometimes more than your own. It’s fussy, often thankless work, and it takes a generous and patient soul to make another artist’s wish your command.  I shared a studio with such a soul in undergrad: Jonathan Cross. While I was grappling with the whole life-defining question of whether I was a printmaker or not, Jonathan was pulling minimalist prints to  the tunes of Gorillaz. He’d announce his freshest print calling us to “check it”– it being the way the ink sat on top of the paper. He had an uncomplicated love for the materiality and physicality of the printmaking process. So, when I heard he was making prints for one of the titans of Minimalist scultpure, Richard Serra, it came as no surprise.

Jonathan spent five years at Gemini Graphic Editions Limited (G.E.L.) from 2004-2009 bringing to life prints by renowned artists  including  Joel Shapiro, Cecily Brown, Ann Hamilton, and predominantly Richard Serra. FYI, Gemini is where Robert Rauschenberg printed all of his works currently on view at the Grand Rapids Art Museum.

H.A.CK.: How did you decide to pursue being a master printer? Is that technically correct? Was that your title?

Jonathan Cross: Technically I was given the title of master printer after working at Gemini for 4 years, although I would never admit that to anyone.  If anything, I am a master Richard Serra printer but my experience in the other types of printing is limited.  I got the job when I was just stopping by to get a tour of the shop and to see some prints. The manager of the shop at the time, James Reid asked me if I was looking for a job. I thought it would be better than coffee shop barista.

H.A.CK.: What distinguishes Gemini from other printshops? 

JC: Size is one thing—Gemini has the ability to print really large prints.

H.A.CK.:  Whose artwork did you most enjoy printing? And least?

JC: I really enjoyed printing the Richard Serra prints.  It was great to see large scale prints develop before my eyes.  Even though they are prints they have a strong object presence.  On the other hand, they were also my least favorite works to print because of the physical exhaustion of moving 4’ x 8’ sheets of copper around all day, day after day.  A typical edition of Serra’s would take anywhere from 1-3 months to edition.

Serra handling his prints at Gemini G.E.L. studios
Photo by Sidney B. Felsen. © Gemini G.E.L., Los Angeles, California, 2001

H.A.CK.:  Describe a typical day at Gemini.   

JC: I would mix and clean about 10-15 pounds of Daniel Smith #7 etching ink and start slathering it on the large copper plate.  Using a combination of intaglio processes I would get the ink layer to evenly cover the copper plate.  Next you spend a few minutes cleaning up the edges and pulling the plate over to the press to print.  The day before, paper was usually soaked in water and then stored in a large damp pack covered in plastic to make the paper evenly moist and soft so that it was more receptive to picking up the ink from the plate.  Run this all through the press and pull the paper off the plate.  This paper was often stapled on to a drying board to dry flat for a few days.  Everything from the inking to the moving of plates and paper was often a two person job requiring a bit of simpatico with the person you worked with.  I mostly worked with Xavier Fumat who has been the collaborative printer for Richard Serra at Gemini for over a decade.

H.A.CK.: If we were to walk in to Gemini while you were working there, what would be our impression?

JC: It was slow going, with an overwhelming chemical odor of solvents and print ink, the hiss of ink rollers on plates, lots of NPR and our favorite show, Jonesey’s Jute Box (Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols was the DJ).

H.A.CK.:  Did you ever feel that the final work was somehow shared between you and the artist?

JC:  I tried to distance myself from the idea of having anything to do with the art, and focused on being a facilitator for the artists to make their art.

H.A.CK.: What was most satisfying about your experience at Gemini?

JC: The most satisfying thing I received from Gemini was seeing one of my favorite artists- Richard Serra at work.  I was in my mid twenties, and Richard was in his mid sixties.  When he came to Gemini his energy was almost overwhelming and I started thinking to myself this is what it takes to be a great artist- work, work, think, work, work, think….  Seeing Serra at work was also a driving force and inspiration for me to pursue my own art.

H.A.CK.: When you were at Gemini facilitating other artists’ work, did you find that your work there detracted from or fed your studio practice?

JC: Ha ha, what studio practice?  I was on hiatus until I picked up ceramics in the last few years of working at Gemini.

H.A.CK.: What led you end your time at Gemini?

JC: I had been a printmaker before but I was developing a new direction with my work in ceramics.  I decided that I wanted to focus on that full time instead of working and making other peoples art, so I went to Graduate school.

H.A.CK.: You went from printing to pursuing another medium that traditionally embraces the multiple, ceramics. Except you seem to really focus decisively on the singular form in hand-built vessels. Can you talk about this transition?

One of Jonathan's hand-formed ceramic vessels

 JC: Though my work doesn’t focus on making multiples of the same object, I am interested in similar forms, line, shapes etc., These formal elements are explored as I work on each subsequent piece letting the previous work inform current work.

H.A.CK.: What are you doing now, and how, if at all, does your experience at Gemini affect your current creative practice?

JC: I am currently a graduate student at Arizona State University pursuing a MFA with a concentration in ceramics.  Part of my time is being spent with a well known American artist/ceramicist, Don Reitz.  My time spent at Gemini working with high caliber artists has certainly helped me with my relationship with Reitz.  Working with Don, continues to be a highlight of my graduate experience at ASU.

You can see Jonathan’s ceramic work here and for sale here.

submitted by Tori Pelz

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