Interview with Debra Riffe

Neoteric Art: Give us some history on yourself.

Debra Riffe: I’m a southern girl. A native Mississippian. I received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Howard University, College of Fine Arts, Washington, DC and majored in Illustration/Publications Design. I’ve probably lived in more places than I want to admit: Tupelo, MS, St. Paul, MN, DC, Maryland, Burlingame and LaJolla, CA. Also, I lived abroad for five years in Barranquilla, Colombia, South America. I now reside in Alabama. I’ve called Birmingham “home” for almost 15 years. I suppose that I’ve come full circle because I’ve returned to the south; to my roots. I love that folks still say “please” and “thank you” and are genuinely polite in the south.

NA: You seem to be all about linoleum block relief prints. How did you get involved in this process?

DR: I was introduced to various forms of relief printmaking as an undergrad student. After I received my degree, I pretty much abandoned the fine arts and settled into a career as a graphic designer. Marriage and a family followed. I became a soccer mom and realized that I didn’t sit well through long practice sessions, so I decided to teach myself how to stitch and design needlepoint canvases; a portable art form that I could easily tuck into a backpack. A few years after we settled in Birmingham, I became interested in participating in local and regional art festivals. I loved the idea of showing and selling my needlepoint. However, I quickly discovered that it was virtually impossible to stitch canvases fast enough to build inventory for the festival circuit. I decided to convert my needlepoint images/sketches into block prints. I’ve been carving linoleum blocks weekly, if not daily, ever since.

NA: Discuss your thought/work process when starting a new piece and elaborate more on your imagery/subject matter.

DR: My thought/work process is relatively simple: I create what I know. Although my family (mother, father and three brothers) has always lived in DC, I spent my teen years living with my maternal grandparents in Tupelo, MS. I jokingly tell people that I “served time” in Tupelo but the reality is that living in the south (rather than visiting every holiday and during the summer months) was a turning point in my life. My grandparents, the close-knit community where I lived and the sights and sounds of the southern landscape shaped my sensibilities. I’ve always had an eye for detail and those details and my observations of living a southern life have influenced my compositions. I create what I know: African-American imagery of the rural south.

I illustrate activities and settings that I feel connected to. My work process is uncomplicated and basic. There are no tricks or secrets. I’ll rework a sketch or a doodle from my sketchbook, one that I’ve kept since my freshman year in college! Sometimes I’ll work from a photo that I’ve staged. Or, I’ll piece together an image from various references. I begin with a very tight pencil illustration on tracing paper and will work through several value studies and compositions. Once I finalize the details I’m ready to transfer the drawing onto the block and I retrace convex and contoured lines only, eliminating all shading. It’s important that I convey shape, gesture, attitude, movement and emotion on the surface of the linoleum at this point, with as few lines as possible. Although this is my template, I enjoy making my cuts spontaneously.

I consider myself a figurative and a narrative artist. My compositions are, exclusively, images of African Americans placed in rural southern surroundings, performing routine tasks in timeless solitary reflective moments. These tasks speak of social status and identity, intimacy and a sense of place. I appreciate the ordinary and try to record details, within each print, that will stir an emotion the viewer might respond to.

My early efforts were small prints -5 x 7inches or 8 x 10 inches- on mounted blocks. In hindsight, I think that I worked small because I had been away from relief printing for so long I needed time to regain my confidence in controlling the gouges and rethinking and finding balance in the subtractive process. Two years ago, I began purchasing unmounted battleship linoleum on a roll that, of course, gives me the flexibility of working any size I please. My images are becoming progressively larger. To date, the largest that I’ve printed is 18 x 24 inches. I love the challenge of working large, complex pieces. I enjoy the versatility and the immediacy of drawing with a pencil and the physicality of turning the wheel of a printing press. I own two Conrad etching presses and I, rarely, hand burnish my prints. The richness of Daniel Smith Traditional Relief Black #79 oil based ink pressed onto white BFK Rives printmaking paper is magical. The contrast of opaque black marks combined with sharp modulating lines gives each print an infinite range of tonal variation and texture. When I began showing my work in art festivals I was intimidated by all of the color artwork surrounding my booth. Color! Color! Everywhere! But I learned that my black and white images were a welcome addition to the circuit, a fresh approach. Black is a color!

I’ve been directly influenced by my friend, Amos Kennedy, whose mantra is to bring affordable art to the masses. One way of doing that is to get back to basics, in this case, printing onto chipboard or kraft cardstock. I don’t have access to letterpress equipment so I, literally, hand cut all of my letters whenever I have a message to share. Last year, I introduced several images printed onto chipboard, promoting sustainable living and healthy food choices. I try to maintain the same level of craftsmanship when carving and printing onto chipboard or a fine printmaking paper. All of my chipboard prints are “open edition” prints. Signed, but not numbered.

NA: Who have been some of your artistic influences?

DR: I’m drawn to the work of Charles White, Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Catlett, John Biggers, Aaron Douglas, Palmer Hayden, William H. Johnson, Horace Pippin, James L. Wells, Benny Andrews, Lynn Ward, Clare Leighton, Barry Moser, Kreg Yingst, Amos Kennedy, Stephen Alcorn, José Orozco, Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros and any number of German Expressionists. Each of these artists and others, past and present, inspire and influence my work. I should add that I’m especially enamored with the African-American artists who thrived during the years of the WPA.

NA: You live and work in Birmingham, Alabama. Discuss the local art scene there.

DR: There is a vibrant arts community in Birmingham with a number of galleries showing excellent folk art and contemporary art by local, national and international artists. I must admit, tho, that I feel that I’m a bit on the outer edges of the gallery scene. Other than sharing notes and ideas with a few locally talented printmakers, I don’t consider myself an artist in-the-know. Having said that, there are indeed a number of wonderful local artists who are constantly working on new projects and I follow them extensively.

NA: Regarding your art career, what are some of your future goals?

DR: By day I am a graphic designer. I learned to draw on a drafting table with a pencil and technical pens. I’m a purist. I’m old school. I want to draw every day and cut blocks every night. I resent having to sit in front of a computer eight hours a day to make a living. Okay, now that I’ve vented . . . future plans include working MUCH larger, exploring woodcuts and collaborating with a “humble negro printer” this year on a book.

NA: You’re a graphic designer by day…do you keep your day job and your fine art career separate or are there overlaps…is there a connection between the two?

DR: No, it’s not difficult for me to separate my day job, as a graphic designer, from my fine art career. Not at all!!!!

My APPLE computer is loaded with the latest software and maximum RAM. A mouse, keyboard and monitor are my tools.  99.9% of my daily tasks involves measuring components to the nth degree. To achieve a good end result on any design I’m problem-solving, selecting color combinations, structuring and arranging type and images and following the principles of page layout and/or the fundamentals of logo design. I’m producing because I have to.

Printmaking is therapeutic for me. I live for the meditative, solitary aspect of the experience. It’s intuitive, tactile, messy and physical. The process allows you –actually it forces you –to THINK. Mistakes become an integral part of my design(s) and I never have to justify or defend them.  I have no one to answer to or to please but myself and I NEVER have deadlines to meet unless they are self-imposed. Measuring is arbitrary. I’m happiest when I’m carving a block or printing. I can be creative, inventive.  I’m producing because I want to not because I have to. And . . . what printer doesn’t enjoy the smell of oil-based ink?

The two disciplines meet, in the middle, ONLY when I’m photographing, scanning and creating brochures or publications for my festival venues.

All images © 2011 Debra Riffe