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Time With the Plate: An Interview with Karina Simpson

Date: 06-01-2024


Karina is our manager at the Gordon Harris Newmarket flagship store. A long-time printmaker and graduate of Whanganui's famed Quay School of Arts, Karina is also the ex-owner of 'Fishprint' studios in Wellington. 


Tell us a bit about your background, how you started in art.

I remember making art way back when I was at school, spent a lot of time in the art room through intermediate and high school. At high school I also was responsible for school murals for plays and school balls. This all led to doing a 1-year Foundation Arts course in Whanganui. I wasn't quite sure about what I wanted to do at the end of that year, so I took a job and got trained as a Florist, where I worked for a couple of years. After that, I finally did my Bachelor of Fine Arts, where I ended up majoring in Printmaking.

Fantastic, it was at Whanganui Art School that you attended?

Yes, it was known as The Quay School of the Arts, part of Whanganui Regional Community Polytech. It was a great place to study, not much else to do in Whanganui at that time, and a close community across the art disciplines. It was one of the only tertiary institutes at the time. It was taken over by UCOL not long after I graduated, and I think is still operating at a smaller capacity.

Who did you study under at the Quay School of the Arts?

The two key tutors were Marty Vreede and was Faith McManus. Both wonderful printmakers and enthusiastic teachers. The printmaking department had pretty much everything you could want to try, woodblock, etching, lithography, silkscreen, letterpress. The incorporation of the press building into the 3rd year of the degree was the most invaluable opportunity. To this day I still remember using the gas axe to cut the steel of the uprights for the rollers! We got to make Harakeke paper (flax paper) which was a fantastic experience. With one visiting artist we were making sheets of paper that required a person on each corner to lift the mould out to make a sheet. I had two very good printmaking tutors while I was there.

Tell us a bit about your art practice and how you got to where you are now.

During my time at art school I changed directions quickly. I had gone there to do painting but after the first semester that become my 3rd option. I discovered printmaking and glass and that I am very much a process-orientated maker. After graduating I moved to Wellington, applied for a business grant and I set up Fishprint, Printmaking Studio. This was a space that had 3 printing presses, mine, Jay Bendikson and Craig Williams which we all used as a studio on Dixon St. As we had the printing presses, I ran evening and weekend courses teaching printmaking to the public. We offered etching, woodblock, bookbinding and at Wai-te-Ata Press in Victoria University we did letterpress. We also offered press hireage and short-term studio space for other printmakers. It was really a space that gave people an opportunity to do printmaking because it was very hard to find any facilities to do it and keep printmakers connected. During this time with my own work, I was doing a lot of etchings and collagraphs and looked at the concept of communication and definition, in particular the written work. I had done a series of work based on the Language of the Fan, where women held fans in different positions to communicate with would-be suitors discreetly. In working with the area of definitions I started working with dictionaries, taking a word and creating a drawn family tree of definitions from dictionaries. It was interesting to see different images emerge from the same word from different dictionaries. These works ended up being large-scale graphite and charcoal drawings.

About 11 years ago I moved to Auckland and moved onto our yacht and the printing press went into storage. I had to get creative about my creativity in such a confined space, where I needed to pack everything away every day. I started teaching myself watercolour – very fitting and I got a lot of inspiration from the water and the sky. I never get bored with that view.

I also have had an interest in the storytelling of movement being drawn. The other feature to sailing is wind, and I set out creating ways to suspend drawing tools over paper that would ‘draw’ the movement of the wind and the sea. After 9 years on the boat, I now live in a cute little 100-year-old cottage on a section with some old Pohutukawa and Kanuka trees. It is from these branches I now hang the drawing tools and get very different results from being on the water.

Now, my big press is still ‘in storage’  in the garden shed but I have got myself a small desktop press that I am using to get back into some printing.

While I was at Fishprint I started working at Gordon Harris in Wellington and worked there for 8 years until I moved to Auckland and have continued to for them, either casual, part-time and now managing the Newmarket store for the past 4 years.

Amazing. It sounds like Fishprint must have been a real cultural hub down there. Quite a unique thing to have at that time.

Yeah, it was. There weren’t many places that existed like that. Certainly, very few independent studios were offering classes. It was a great way of getting to know all sorts of people from the public. Because you're in Wellington, you’ve got a lot of government workers who are always looking for something interesting to do combined with the completely creative side that Wellington has to offer. I spent a lot of time introducing people to printmaking. I was also lucky enough to know Tony Mackle, who was at that time head of Prints and Paper at Te Papa. One of the things that we would do at the end of every course was go and spend an evening going to have a look at some of the prints out the back that they keep hidden away out there. There are thousands and thousands of prints that no one ever gets to see. So, yeah, it was a lot of fun.

Okay, so take us through your process. Where does the print begin for you?

Getting the plates ready, either cardboard, wood, or zinc plates. My favourite printmaking process is etching but it is a process. ‘The Language of the Fan’ was probably one of the biggest series that I have done, and it started with getting the plate cut to size and bevelled. Just very methodical and contemplative. This gives you the time to think about the ideas and images you will be working with. In the next stage you're putting the hard ground on, which is what you draw through to expose the plate, it's a very different way of drawing. When you draw with a pencil or pen, you’re normally applying a line down, whereas with etching you’re drawing to expose the plate where the ink is going to go.

Right so you’re drawing a negative, which must require a lot of imagination.

Yes, there is definitely a way to draw to build up areas that will print in black which is different from just drawing. You also must remember that whatever you do will print in reverse. I got very good at writing in reverse! I also love creating textures and accidental marks on the etching plates. It’s kind of a balance between not removing too much of the ground so you end up with an open bite and getting some lovely accidental marks. I do remember there was one time when I was studying, I made a whole lot of little plates, and I rolled them down the stairs in the print studio to see what marks would come up. I got some very interesting ones, though I had to cover over some that would have eaten too much acid, but they were quite nice accidental marks.

Amazing. So, it's quite experimental as well as methodical. At the same time, it's technical, its process based.

Yes, I do love the contrast between the control and process required mixed with things that happen by accident.

Amazing, it sounds fantastic. What are your must-have artist tools and why?

Everything… pencil and paper absolutely. I probably have about four or five different notebooks on the go that I’ll carry with me anywhere. Pencil, kneadable eraser, blending stump, and a little pencil case is always nearby. For print etching definitely a printing press.

Are there any things at Gordon Harris that you love to use?

Possibly everything – it is hard to not get distracted by all the creative processes and results with all the materials and equipment we sell.  But some of my regulars, the Cretacolor kneadable erasers, the Tombow 0.3 mechanical pencils, and the Faber Castell matt graphite pencils at the moment are really lovely. I love the Lana drawing paper. I also love the Fabriano Bristol drawing pads. And then you can get into all the Fabriano printmaking papers. And just recently, all the Awagami papers are just stunning. They’re beautiful. I love it.

I love that! Okay. Do you want to describe your studio for me? Some favourite things that you love and can't live without in the studio and how it's set up?

Well at the moment, it's set up in our sunroom looking out over the garden. So, it's got a lot of sun, looking out to the plants. Got to have a desk, a good chair and lots of drawers and storage. I usually have multiple projects on the go. Books, lots of books. I always have lots of books around as well for reference, either for technical or colour theory or other artists that you make reference to. I think books would be a key thing that's in my studio.

Okay. So, I wanted to talk a little bit more about Awagami. We did the shoot recently showing you in a studio using the Awagami paper. Was that your first time using it?

Yes, it was.

What were your thoughts on sampling the paper were and how did you find it to work with?

As a printmaker, I've always worked with a nice 300 GSM paper. The Fabriano Artistico hot press has always been a favourite. So I naturally go for something that's heavy and can handle being wet without tearing. So, I was a bit dubious about using the Awagami paper. I think the one that we trialled on was about 68 GSM as opposed to 300 GSM. I was really unsure of how well that would take with being wet before doing the print and actually going through the press and how well it was going to handle it going up against the zinc plate. And it is absolutely stunning. It gives you the most beautiful print. It picks up the lines of your image very well, even the very fine lines. It's just amazing how such a seemingly delicate piece of paper can be so robust and beautiful.

Amazing. I love that. Is it particularly flat or does it have textures as well?

It does tend to have a very flat side and then a slightly textured side. I find with the Fabriano, I can kind of get away with using either side of the paper, with Awagami you have to use the right side. They're very distinctly different on either side of them, there’s a very, very fine texture to it. It doesn't compare to the definitions of hot press, cold press and rough that you'd get from your traditional printmaking papers.

That's interesting. And have you worked with a lot of the kozo, bamboo and Japanese material before?

When I had Fishprint I had some Japanese papers then, very limited experience and used for bookbinding not printing, but I have not had any other experience with printing with them so it's been a really nice thing to discover.

So, they really are quite a different offering for the market by the sound of it.

Definitely. I think there are a lot of people who have been hanging out for this paper to come into the market. It gives you a very different alternative to both the look and the outcome and even just how you feel about the plate you're working with. A nice addition to have to the papers we've got available. It was just beautiful. It was just a beautiful paper.

Fantastic. Who are your art influences? Can be historical or contemporary.

I have recently rediscovered Georgia O'Keefe. When I was in high school, one of the things I did was paint very bold, big close-ups of flowers with her as a reference and sort of had gone away from it. With going into printing, I didn’t use colour in the same way and was very limited. You do a lot of black and white, especially with etching. And so, I didn't really work that much with colour doing the etchings. But after I've been working with watercolour, I discovered George O’Keefe again and have been reading quite a few biographies and books on her about how she worked at a studio. One of the books I'm reading now actually has a whole lot of the letters that she would write in correspondence. It's lovely, actually. Just sort of coming back to someone who I really loved quite a few years ago now and just finding some comfort in it and really enjoying her work and getting to know her processes and her headspace and what motivated her.

Amazing. And can you tell us where people can find your work at the moment?

Limited at the moment, on Instagram, karinajsimpson.

What have you got planned for the future?

I have been talking about it for a while now but a joint show with Hannah Bremner. While learning to paint with watercolour I have painted a lot of clouds, mixing lots of greys (quite fixated on this at the moment) Hannah is doing some work with rocks and there's something about the imagery. Our sketches were very similar, but it is a very hard, heavy earthy object being cast in glass and these very ethereal, light clouds that just seem to go well together. So we're working on doing a joint show, hopefully, get to exhibit here in Waiheke where I live, down in Wellington where she lives, and do a show in Whanganui where we both studied.

That's very exciting. I would love to come and have a look at that. Thank you so much for lending your time for this piece.


Check out the full range of our new Awagami papers here

Awagami Japanese washi paper