High Touch Art in a Time of High Tech

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We live in a world of instant gratification.  Our phones can quickly capture special moments in our lives.  The answer to almost any question can be found by just a few taps on our laptops.  What’s not to like?  Well, it turns out that some area art spaces are pushing back against the high-tech tide.  For this emerging trend, the emphasis is more on high touch.

Life in Cleveland can be pretty fast-paced and stressful. But, throughout the city, some former storefronts and factories are a refuge from the frantic life outside.  One is housed in the shell of an old machine shop, on the near eastside --- a rust belt cast-off that’s been re-purposed for some truly old school manufacturing.  It's presided over by Tom Balbo, dressed in a light jacket and knit hat, to guard against the chill of a building that's hard to heat.

"My intent was to conserve the craft of papermaking, by hand," he says, as he uses a couple of worn wooden sticks to methodically knead a clump of mashed plant fibers.

Balbo is part of a group of artists who founded the Morgan Conservatory, in 2007.  For the past ten years, the Morgan has hosted thousands of students from Northeast Ohio and across North America.  They come to learn a process that dates back 2000 years.  It involves working those plant fibers into a pulp, and then soaking it into a pasty liquid that is pressed into sheets of paper. 

"It was a gamble," to start such an operation, he admits. "Who knew in Cleveland there would be enough interest?  We seem to have generated interest, and we’re looking for more interest." 

The facility includes traditional printing presses and handset type for the creation of anything from posters to wedding invitations.  And, if you’re ambitious, you can even bind a book --- with your own hands.

"Touch is such an important thing for people," Balbo reflects.  "It is one of your senses.  Not only touch in the craft of papermaking or pottery or printmaking, but you touch a person.  And it’s part of our humanity.   It’s not something that you can just get rid of and digitize or anything like that." 

Another craft is being preserved on the first floor of an old warehouse, a few blocks away.  Behind a nondescript, industrial door is a studio that features a community darkroom.   Founded four years ago, the Cleveland Print Room is the brainchild of Shari Wilkins.  She's part a family of photographers, and she grew concerned when she realized that some of the tools of her trade were starting to disappear.

"I noticed a lot of community centers were decommissioning their darkrooms," Wilkins recalls.  "And some of the universities had been shutting those down since 2010."

She started networking with local friends in the graphic arts business and gathering a collection of enlargers and other darkroom equipment.  Like the Morgan, the Cleveland Print Room features a gallery space and rents facilities to a growing number of artists who prefer developing pictures with chemicals and photo paper over rearranging pixels on an SD card.

The Print Room also reacheds out to area schools.  Educational Coordinator Julie Brannigan likes turning young people on to the magic, the pleasures and the comfort of photography.

"It’s very meditative," she muses, "because the steps are the same every single time.  It’s that repetitiveness and the slowness that I really like."

Shari Wilkins says she's sensing a resurgence of interest in the non-digital side of picture-making.  She compares it to the recent rebirth of vinyl records. 

"I think it’s more than a retro, cool hip thing," Wilkins says.  "I think that people are doing it because they want to work with their hands more.  It’s so easy to do these things on computers, but you can experiment better using your hands in the darkroom.  I think it’s that kind of that trend where people are sick of the mechanization of things." 

But, she notes, it’s not about abandoning digital technology.  It’s about preserving a legacy.

"We show digital here.  We welcome digital.  I mean, part of our mission is to welcome all photography, which I think is really important.  It’s just that our focus is to keep the traditional film alive and alternative processes alive.

Akron native Jessica Pinsky focuses on a different sort of traditional process that she’s known since childhood.

"My mom was a big sewer and knitter," she says,  "so she got me into it when I was really young.  It was always my pastime; when I’d come home from school I would sew."

That early training --- coupled with an art education in New York and Boston --- landed Pinsky a job at the Cleveland Institute of Art, where she was hired as a technical specialist to look after the school’s collection of looms, and teach a few classes in how to use them.  When the Cleveland Institute of Art moved into a new facility, last year, there was no space for the old weaving machines.  That sparked a flame in Pinsky’s entrepreneurial spirit.

"People my age were opening galleries, buying buildings, starting businesses in a way that wasn’t possible in New York and Boston.  And I was like, 'I want to do that.'"

A year-and-a-half ago, Pinsky --- and the looms --- moved into an empty storefront in the Waterloo Arts District, on the city’s eastside.  Her Praxis Fiber Workshop serves as a place where the Institute of Art’s fiber students can work on class assignments, and anyone else can sign-up for a membership or rent time on the equipment for personal projects.  

"We’re starting a year-long program that provides weaving workshops for survivors of domestic violence," she says.  "We work with an organization for people undergoing treatment for cancer.  Believing in weaving as a therapeutic process, also.  The tactility and the repetition can be really profound for healing."             

In addition to learning the mechanics of using --- and sometimes repairing --- looms, Pinsky has studied the physiology of creating hand-made fabrics.

"You have five nerve endings in your fingertips; that’s more nerve endings than anywhere else in your body.  So, that’s why you always want to touch things.  So, it makes sense that when you have a tactile experience, your senses are more alert and alive.  That’s why tactility excites your brain." 

At a Praxis workshop, Marie Westmeyer of Akron says the D.I.Y. quality of weaving is also exciting.

"There’s something more special about something that you make yourself, compared to something that comes out of a mill."  Holding up some strands of hand-dyed fabric, she adds: "And I know someone is not exploited for this."

"The fact that it can take a long time to create a piece of fabric doesn’t bother Rebecca Cross of Oberlin.  She says: that’s the point.

"I think we live in a world where we’re barraged by sound and news," she says.  "Everything in the technological world, in my estimation, is about abbreviating time and reducing time into these sound bites.  If you think about that, in a metaphorical sense, how much information can you really get from an instant piece of information?  So, I think there’s a level of thoughtfulness and care and commitment that go into these time-intensive labors."

Labors that, perhaps, can boost one’s ability to face the fast-paced world outside.

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