Gretchen Schermerhorn

Silver Spring, MD | by December 3, 2010

Gretchen Scher­mer­horn loves sur­prises. It’s for­tu­nate then, that both her work as a print­maker and hand paper­maker and her job as the Artis­tic Direc­tor at Pyra­mid Atlantic Art Center—a non-​​profit hand paper­mak­ing and print­mak­ing cen­ter in Sil­ver Spring, Maryland—provide her with the unex­pected on a daily basis. Over the past five months, I’ve got­ten to know Gretchen and shared some of those unex­pected moments with her as she taught me how to make and cast hand­made paper for an ongo­ing sculp­tural project, which I would not have been able to real­ize with­out her tech­ni­cal knowl­edge and cre­ative trouble-​​shooting abilities.

I spoke with Gretchen in her stu­dio at Pyra­mid Atlantic, which she shares with Sabeth Jack­son, who teaches relief print­ing there. That her job comes with an on-​​site stu­dio, with easy access to the large, expen­sive equip­ment her own work requires, is cer­tainly a perk, but it can some­times be hard to main­tain bound­aries between her pro­fes­sional duties and her per­sonal stu­dio time.

“Some­times when I’m going to press or going to print, some­one may stop me [to ask a tech­ni­cal ques­tion] and it’s hard to say, ‘I’m not work­ing right now.’ And my hours aren’t always nine to five, Mon­day through Fri­day. So how do peo­ple know when I’m on or off? There’s been a joke that I need an apron that says, ‘Don’t talk to me.’”

Despite the blurred lines, Gretchen says she still prefers hav­ing her stu­dio at Pyra­mid, “I really enjoy it because there’s usu­ally always other artists work­ing here and that sym­bio­sis is great. Being able to go back and forth and see what [other artists] are doing is great. … I do enjoy being able to run some­thing by my stu­dio mate, Sabeth, or some­body else out there working.”

When she talks about her work Gretchen can some­times sound more like a sci­en­tist than an artist. From an early age, she wanted to be a doc­tor. She spent time exam­in­ing anatomy and phys­i­ol­ogy texts, admir­ing the visual qual­i­ties of body and plant parts, but also becom­ing fas­ci­nated by the mys­ter­ies of cel­lu­lar biol­ogy. Gretchen cites Eng­lish sci­en­tist and nov­el­ist, C.P. Snow’s famous “The Two Cul­tures” lec­ture as a key to under­stand­ing her work. Snow wor­ried that the increas­ing divide between the sci­ences and human­i­ties would be an insur­mount­able bar­rier to solv­ing the world’s prob­lems. He advo­cated a “third cul­ture,” one in which sci­en­tists read Dick­ens and Shake­speare and artists under­stand the Sec­ond Law of Thermodynamics.

Gretchen’s prac­tice as a print­maker and hand paper­maker is well sit­u­ated within Snow’s third cul­ture. The pre­cise tech­ni­cal pro­ce­dures both dis­ci­plines require can some­times feel more like sci­en­tific exper­i­men­ta­tion than intu­itive cre­ation. Like a sci­en­tist, Gretchen begins with a hypoth­e­sis, but the result­ing art­work is not always what she pre­dicts. “From a very basic stand­point, I love chal­lenge and I love sur­prise,” she says. “And even if I think some­thing is going to hap­pen, there are other tiny fac­tors that play into it. … [There] are tiny cal­cu­la­tions that may give you an idea of what’s going to hap­pen but once you pull those felts off the press bed and lift up and see your print it might be some­thing different.”

Gretchen fell in love with printmaking’s unpre­dictable nature as an under­grad at the Uni­ver­sity of North Texas and went on to get her M.F.A. in print­mak­ing at Ari­zona State Uni­ver­sity in 2004. It was there that she began to incor­po­rate sculp­tural paper into her prac­tice, though she says it wasn’t a con­scious deci­sion. “As I was work­ing toward my the­sis show I started get­ting really intrigued with the idea of a dimen­sional print, or a print that had a sculp­tural aspect to it, but I wasn’t quite sure what that looked like. Was it a box that folded out that was printed? Was it some­thing that was printed flat and then made into a sculpture?”

Her first solu­tion was printed-​​paper cloth­ing that explored iden­tity. Gretchen says she was inter­ested in how “what we wear relays data about our age, and our sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion, and our socio-​​economic sta­tus. What we choose to wear can … com­mu­ni­cate dif­fer­ent things to the world.” While devel­op­ing her the­sis work, Gretchen became more aware of and fas­ci­nated with paper’s muta­bil­ity. “I love … how [paper] can start as one thing but then it may get nudged, or influ­enced, or pushed by another and then change into some­thing else.”

Gretchen’s cur­rent work involves both two-​​dimensional prints and paper sculp­ture. She casts hand­made paper into var­i­ous forms by mak­ing a mold from an organic object, or by using bal­loons or pack­ing mate­ri­als as a sur­face to lay freshly made paper on. When the paper dries, it’s removed from the mold or object. The result­ing forms, removed from the con­text of the orig­i­nal objects they were cast from and com­bined with other ele­ments, look like strange bio­log­i­cal struc­tures. Some of her most recent sculp­tures incor­po­rate found objects, such as vin­tage IBM punch cards, with hand­made paper and other ele­ments. I tell Gretchen I think they resem­ble some kind of hand-​​held devise whose pur­pose is unknown. Gretchen says she thinks of them more like maps, but not in a lit­eral sense. “I’ve often thought that what I want to say can hap­pen in any [form]. Whether it’s a tat­too on my body, or a col­lab­o­ra­tion with another artist, or in the form of a print or paper sculp­ture. … I’m more excited in vari­a­tion. … I’m try­ing to be hon­est with what I like and what I make and use the best media to carry out what I want to say—whatever it is.”

For more about Gretchen’s work, visit her web­site.

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  • We just brought home the piece we bought from Cal Poly’s Clay and Ink exhibit.
    Love it! We haven’t decided yet where to hang it, but wher­ever it is it’ll be perfect!


    PS. What’s the title? Can you tell me a lit­tle about it?

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