Trenton Doyle Hancock will speak with Ann Shafer Thursday, April 26 at 7 P.M. at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
The Baltimore Contemporary print fair takes place 11 a.m.-6 p.m. April 28 and noon-6 P.M. April 29.
For more information, visit artbma.org/printfair.
Fifty thousand years ago, an apeman masturbated on a field of flowers. So begins artist Trenton Doyle Hancock’s creation myth, the story behind many of his prints, drawings, and collaged-felt paintings. His cartoonish, multilayered pieces often chronicle the mutant race of half-human, half-plant creatures called the Mounds that were born of this generative moment. With its vibrant colors and frequent use of text, his work immediately calls to mind comic books, a major influence. Baltimore’s own Globe Poster is another, though Hancock himself didn’t realize it until recently. For 80 years—until it closed in 2010 (“Pressed for Time,” Feature, Jan. 26, 2011)—Globe churned out splashy, iconic posters for carnivals, auto races, and R&B stars, including many of the most famous: James Brown, Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight.
“I think everyone’s seen this style of poster, but I never thought about where they came from,” says Hancock, 38. “It’s just one of those things you take for granted. But these kinds of fonts and the colors . . . I remember when I was in undergrad [school] in the ’90s, this kind of thing came back into style. There were a lot of younger artists co-opting that into their paintings and such. They weren’t quoting any kind of source, they were just going, Oh, this is some old-timey cool stuff. And I was part of that.”
In late February, during a three-day artist residency at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Hancock became the first visual artist to work with Globe’s massive collection of wood type and wood and metal cuts since MICA acquired it last year. Hancock, who has twice been featured in the renowned Whitney Biennial exhibition, was asked to use the collection to create both a poster advertising the Baltimore Museum of Art’s biennial Baltimore Contemporary Print Fair—on tap this weekend—and a limited-edition benefit print, with proceeds to go toward the BMA’s acquisition funds and MICA’s artist residency programs. Prior to the residency, Hancock—who often employs etching, lithography, and silkscreen processes in his work—had no experience with letterpress printing. The Houston-based artist thus spent most of his time here with Bob Cicero, whose family ran Globe Poster for decades. Cicero now teaches letterpress at MICA, on the very equipment he used at Globe. “It’s great to get to actually learn the history of where the aesthetic came from,” Hancock says. “It’s like going to work with an old master in their shop.”
During the residency, letterpress instructor Mary Mashburn, who was instrumental in MICA’s acquisition of the Globe collection, led a City Paper reporter through the collection in MICA’s Dolphin Building, while Hancock feverishly worked on his designs nearby. “The first couple of hours when Trenton arrived it was, ‘Here’s the candy store. What do you think?’” Mashburn says. The Globe collection includes hundreds of drawers of wood type, more than 10,000 photo cuts of musicians, and thousands of illustration cuts, ranging from hand-lettered band names to circus images. Four printing presses—smaller, simpler versions of the 18-foot-long cast-iron presses Cicero once used—sit along one wall, across from cabinets with drawers labeled with words that would commonly appear on a poster: the, thru, orchestra, show. Each word comes in dozens of sizes and fonts, from cursive to block print. “The reason we would cut a lot of these is you just take it and slap it in a form,” Cicero says. “Most of this stuff was hand-cut in the ’40s and ’50s.” At one time Globe was producing 15 to 20 posters a day, in average runs of 100. Cicero was thus the ideal companion for Hancock’s lightning-fast residency.
“Bob’s teaching letterpress, soup to nuts,” Mashburn says. “He’s trying to impart to Trenton in three days all of the knowledge he imparts over a semester to his students.” Hancock says he didn’t do much planning ahead prior to arriving at MICA, in part because he couldn’t visualize the breadth of the Globe collection. (Mashburn says MICA is slowly digitizing the collection so future artists-in-residence will be able to preview what awaits them.) But because he so often uses text in his own work, Hancock was excited about the possibilities. “I thought, OK, this is going to provide a great opportunity to get to see this more traditional usage of type and text and see if I can incorporate that, or kind of merge my relatively short history with this longstanding history,” he says.
Hancock seems to have succeeded. The benefit print, “Yu, MICA, Me,” is a self-portrait, with a multicolored spectacle-like series of ovals obscuring the eyes. (Hancock is a fan of colorful glasses; he wore an oversized orange plastic pair with snazzy silver temples the day he spoke with City Paper.) To one side appears a paragraph-long palindrome about Baltimore that Hancock wrote. The letters are in a variety of fonts, all from the Globe collection. (Only 100 impressions of the print will be made; each will cost $200. Prints can be reserved at dolphinpressandprint.com.)
For the poster advertising the print fair, Hancock was forced to be more practical, because of the information it had to convey. He thus decided to emulate Globe itself. “It became an homage,” he says. The completed poster is eye-catching and funny. It features two angry, facing heads—Hancock’s and Ann Shafer’s, the BMA’s assistant curator of prints, drawings, and photographs. They are disembodied, as is characteristic of a typical Globe poster. (The images advertise a “Knock-down Drag-Out Conversation” Shafer and Hancock will engage in just before the opening of the print fair. Doyle sports a goofy beanie while Shafer wears a graduation cap.) The fonts are a mix of hand-lettering and Globe type, and famous faces appear throughout. The bubbly, iconic jackson 5 logo sits atop a small note reading prior engagement, and a classic image of Mahalia Jackson is accompanied by the line not coming anytime soon.
Hancock’s residency was so short that he had to work on both the poster and the print simultaneously, with MICA students assisting him in making his designs come to life. “It’s been like Ringling Brothers around here!” Gail Deery, chair of MICA’s printmaking department, said during the February flurry of printmaking. “But Trenton stays even and calm and changes his eyeglasses every day to keep us entertained.”