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BIG INK leaves a big impression on FSU

A large printing press titled "Big Tuna" in an empty room. A huge print is on the wall behind it.
Maddison Behringer / THE GATEPOST

By Liv Dunleavy

Staff Writer

Arts & Ideas made a splash on Tuesday and Wednesday March 5 and 6 with the invitation of BIG INK and their portable printing press “The Big Tuna” for a woodblock printmaking workshop titled Big Ink for Big Hearts.

The event was held in the McCarthy Forum and displayed artwork carved and printed by students from FSU and participants from off-campus locations.

Throughout both days BIG INK was continuously inking and printing 14 large blocks of wood carved with images representing this year's Arts & Ideas theme of Courage + Resilience. 

Marc Cote, a professor of studio art who specializes in printmaking, said he proposed this idea to the Arts & Ideas committee last year, and once it was approved he invited BIG INK to come assist in the woodblock printing.

“I knew about them from my experience in different printmaking conferences across the country. I’ve also seen Lyell [Castonguay]’s artwork up in Maine at art fairs,” he said.

Castonguay, one of the two founders of BIG INK, explained, “I ran into him when I was doing an art market one summer where I was just selling my own personal work, and that was when the conversation started about doing something here at Framingham State.

“It’s been two years or so since the genesis of this whole thing happened,” he added.

Cote said his next step after getting necessary funding was reaching out to faculty across campus to aid in finding classes to participate in the event.

He said, “I thought the RAMS seminar classes would be good groups to participate in this project because they’re coming into the University and getting acclimated to the school and working in group projects.

“It was a goal of mine to reach outside of the Art Department and to be very inclusive across the campus,” he added. “We also had my general education course, Introduction to Drawing … so there’s a good sampling of the disciplines across campus, and I was pleased to see they were energized and excited to do the work.”

One of the Introduction to Drawing course students, Bee Simmons, a senior math major, said she took Introduction to Drawing for fun this semester, as she has already fulfilled the general education requirement.

Simmons said the students of the Introduction to Drawing course were invited to the event to print their work during their normal class time.

She added the students were asked to create a wood piece that shows off Courage + Resilience.

“As a class we decided to submit some names of people we thought resembled that. For the people we did, we had MLK; Rosa Parks; Srinivasa Ramanujan, who is a famous mathematician from the 1920s; Marie Curie, who was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize; and then Katherine Johnson, one of the women behind the first NASA landing,” she said.

Simmons also explained she has worked in the past with rubber-block relief printing, and though she doesn’t have prior experience with woodblock printing, students in her Introduction to Drawing class were taught it recently. She added in the following class period, their piece for the event was completed.

“I highly recommend trying it out. It’s a lot of fun,” she said.

Carand Burnet, the other half of BIG INK’s founders, said she is not a printmaker but shares a deep appreciation for the craft. She and Castonguay decided over time that instead of making their large prints all by hand, they would need a large press to print their woodblocks more effectively, and this is what set the wheels of BIG INK’s one-of-a-kind mobile printing press, “The Big Tuna,” into motion.

“In 2016, we did a Kickstarter campaign, and we raised enough funds to have this press custom made for us, and we’ve done a bunch of modifications to make it really lightweight.

“There’s probably less than a dozen presses in the country that are this big and publicly accessible,” she said.

Burnet explained that usually a press the size of “The Big Tuna” would weigh around 2 tons, a hefty weight compared to the meager 700 pounds of “The Big Tuna.”

“We are trying to bring the printmaking studio to the artist or the people who want to learn how to do this process. So it’s really unusual and kind of like the big fish out in the ocean - it’s rare and unique, and a play on words, it prints big and it’s ‘The Big Tuna,’” she added.

Gabbi Prego, a senior, participated in carving a woodblock piece for the event through one of Cote’s classes this semester. She explained the piece she carved was based on the Martha’s Vineyard cliffs and their involvement in protecting the land of the Indigenous American tribes. 

Another local participant group involved in this event was The Learning Center for the Deaf in Framingham.

Rita Child, a high school senior at the institution, said that though she doesn’t plan on doing art full time and wants to become a lawyer, art is a hobby that allows her to express her creativity on the side.

Child said she had no prior experience with woodblock printing, but remembers carving rubber stamps as a child at The Learning Center for the Deaf in elementary school.

“It’s a smaller school. The community is very small. We are very connected and that has positives and negatives. We experience a lot of things together as a community as opposed to individually. We all use American Sign Language - I learned so much through my language, and collaboration is beneficial outside of school as well as in school,” she said.

“We just met Marc for the first time and it was like, ‘OK, we are so excited to be here and do this project. Let’s go!’ And then we didn’t hear anything for like three months. We waited and we waited, but it’s a fantastic experience, really just incredible,” she added.

Jennifer Mulkerrin and Julie Brigham, both art teachers from Northbridge High School, also participated in Big Ink for Big Hearts, as their students were invited to create woodblocks for the event. 

Mulkerrin said when Cote reached out to propose the idea, she was unsure of which class would be able to start the piece since they’d need to work on it all year and their classes are often semester based.

“I thought it’d be a great project for our National [Art] Honor Society. So this was done after school, all just volunteer hours from students,” she said.

She added they’re also both alumni of FSU from the Class of 2003, and Cote was their printmaking professor, so being at the event was something of a full circle moment. She said the students hadn’t seen their piece printed yet.

“I think this is going to be this great crescendo moment when they get to really see it. We’ve proofed it, so we’ve seen it a little bit, but to take that original drawing, the sketch, and to see it develop into a final print and to be displayed with others is really going to be amazing - a sense of fruition and completion,” she said.

Castonguay explained that relief printmaking, in his opinion, is the most approachable form of block printing, and it was great to involve many people who are non-artists or who don’t consider themselves visual artists.

“I think the idea of resilience, perseverance, seeing something through to the end - that is what this whole thing is about. It’s a lot of work, you know? Just finishing the project is huge,” he said.

“The way they have a montage of different images that have a political or social justice message really matches nicely with the theme of relief printmaking, because traditionally, relief printmaking was a mass-produced thing that was easily disseminated to just general people. You didn’t have to have wealth or privilege to be able to access it.”

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