Chemicals, Knowledge, Crazy Things: A Conversation with Kel Differ

If you’ve stopped by the Farnsworth recently, you may have noticed one of our new exhibitions, I Hold the Cracked Mirror Up to Man, featuring the monumental prints of Leonard Baskin. To coincide with that show, I spoke with local printmaker Kel Differ, to learn more about the technical side of printmaking. I sent Kel a few questions by email in advance of our meeting, and for about an hour, we spoke about trial-and-error, the skill of writing backwards, and the joy of printing.

Kel brought examples of their work to our meeting, along with an infectious energy for the subject of printmaking. Rather than sit down and talk, they preferred to stand, pointing out representative examples, a visual aid for which I was grateful. We met in the Victorian, one of the five buildings on the Farnsworth’s Rockland campus, in the late afternoon. The cool light of the old, bookish room where we met seemed a fitting space in which to view Kel’s work. A variety of prints—many of them black and white, all of them displaying a finite attention to detail—were laid out across a long, wooden table.

For those of us new to the form, I asked Kel if they could provide a general overview of the process of printmaking, and they explained there are four main ways to make a print: intaglio, lithography, silkscreen, and relief printing. Intaglio, they said, is typically done on copper plates and is linked to engraving, where ink is laid into an indented space, then wiped off the surface area, so you’re printing the indented lines. Lithography is about the interaction of water and oil on a stone, or on aluminum or Pronto plates. With silkscreen, they said, “You can do T-shirts; you can do layers upon layers; you can do really amazing vivid color.” And relief printing, which includes woodcuts and letterpress, is the inverse of intaglio in that the raised area is the print surface, and what you carve out will be the white space.  

They held up one of their plates, explaining how, if it were inked, the raised surface would be wiped clean and the etched lines would hold the ink; the paper would be pressed into the grooves. The paper, which is designed to take any ink possible, is soaked in water before it goes on the press.

“And then woodcut is the exact opposite. So if I did, like, a surface roll on this—just rolled it on top—everything that I’ve carved out would be white. But within that there’re a lot of different processes to make any type of art you really want. But it’s a lot of, like, chemicals and knowledge and crazy things.”

When I asked what drew them to printmaking, Kel said, “I like printmaking for the fact of printing well, and I like the process of it—I think it’s very meditative—and I like engraving because it’s very distinct and slow and methodical. If you do one thing wrong, it’s going to show up. It’s very make-it-or-break-it the whole time.”

“My work is kind of all over the place. I really like text, and I really like small little phrases. During my senior year, I got into this tree segments thing, which morphed into different meanings, and I kind of made my own symbology of it all. But it all came back to limbs and fragility, and I did this other work of plant life, putting them in various places with text on them, then watching them erode and decay. So, a lot of it’s about the fragility of being permanent, which is kind of why I like printmaking: because a lot of my work is about impermanence, and engraving is so permanent. So it’s kind of, like, that dichotomy.”

The fragility of the paper, coupled with Kel’s dark, distinct lines, is something I find really interesting about their work—that juxtaposition of fragility and hardness—along with the sense of detail and precision in all of their pieces. These qualities extend to the plates themselves, too: Kel values the plates just as much as the end product, and has shown the plates with their prints.

“It’s not just about the image for me. The image almost comes last. I love printing for the sake of printing and I like making it look good.”

Pointing to a body delicately incorporated onto handmade paper, Kel noted that the aesthetic of the paper goes well with that series. Gesturing to other pieces, they said, “you have the same vocabulary with all the dissected limbs and trees and trunks.”

There had been a model to make the plate.

“I didn’t do any preliminary drawings at all, I just started engraving.”

“Is that nerve-wracking?” I asked.

“Yeah!” they said. “That’s why I like these, because I was like, Wow, they actually look good.”

“They look amazing.”

“You can see with this one, the hand looks crazy, and this is obviously not proportional—”

“But it’s really interesting!”

“Yeah, because you’re like, is that a knee or is that a craggy boulder? I don’t know!”

Pointing to another, Kel said, “I think one of my teachers called this a hermit crab, which I loved. I was like, okay, great!”

Lately, Kel said, “I find myself just wanting to print anything. Like, I don’t want to draw anymore. I don’t like drawing. I like these for what they were because I was in that headspace, but I’m not that sad anymore. It was a lot of therapy for me at the time. And yeah, I don’t know what to draw. So, I’d rather someone else draw and I just print it really well.”

Eventually, the conversation meandered back to Kel’s interest in incorporating language  into their work. When printing text, they explained, the letters have to be backwards.

“I got really good at writing backwards all the time. I also did a bunch of these poems. I modified a typewriter and did a bunch of these poems on handmade paper. You oil them up so they become really translucent and skin-like, and they’re so fragile. They’re so, like, Oh, I just found a little secret of your soul.”

On revisiting their old poems, they said, “I just reread one and I was like, Wow, man. Was I just really sad or really good? I don’t know!”

“I did a lot of letterpress, too, because it was related to text.”

Kel had recently found another older project that had involved letter-press: tulips. They had letter-pressed onto the petals.

“I kept them in tulip form and then just put them in, like, mason jars filled with water. I just found them in my mom’s house and it’s been, like, ten years! Some of them are pristine and they’re just floating in the water, and what’s really cool is that some of them aren’t, but since the ink is oil-based, it’s just the letters floating around in, like, this weird gelatinous mush.”

The light was beginning to get low in the Victorian, leaning through the stained glass window onto their work. I would have liked to keep talking, but I had to go.

Sometimes, even now, I think about tulips and letters floating in water, and weird gelatinous mush.

Kel Differ has a BFA in Printmaking from Massachusetts College of Art and Design. They specialize in hand engraving and etching, but also have extensive knowledge of silkscreen and lithography. At MassArt, Kel monitored the printshop and the letterpress studio. They were also a teaching assistant for etching, lithography, and letterpress. Kel is now living and working in Rockland, ME, with their wife Emily and two wonderful cats, Dana Scully and Fox Mulder.

Hannah Jansen serves as Grants Manager of the Farnsworth Art Museum.

All photos by David Troup, the Farnsworth’s Communications and Marketing Manager.

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