Pressing Matters: Art and Activism at Zygote Press

The last thing artist, activist, and creative director Antwoine Washington expected at the end of the fall semester of Pressing Matters—an afterschool art program at Zygote Press—was to give financial management advice to a group of eager teenagers. And yet, it is precisely this sort of real-life problem-solving that is at the core of this unusual youth program. Pressing Matters facilitates participatory printmaking, visual literacy, and self-advocacy for a range of participants in Cleveland. Teens in the program meet weekly at Zygote Press—Cleveland’s oldest community printmaking studio—to make prints, discuss critical social issues, and to engage with visiting activists, artists, and scholars. Pressing Matters, Antwoine told me in a recent conversation, is not just about artmaking. It is “about who you are in the world and how you show up. It is about finding your voice.”

Teens learn the letterpress technique. Letterpress uses movable type to create printed words. The earliest forms of moveable type were invented in China around 1040 CE. During the fifteenth century, Johannes Gutenberg created the first moveable-type printing press, facilitating the advent of the printed book.

Inexpensive and easy to disseminate, prints have been made on paper and other materials for over 1000 years. The invention of the printing press around 1440 arguably marked the start of modern mechanical reproduction, and initiated what is often regarded as the Printing Revolution.  Since that time, prints have occupied a crucial place in visual and material culture—serving as entertainment, as propaganda, as provocation, and as inspiration. Printmaking can be a creative mode of political and social expression, and also has been instrumental in implicitly and explicitly shaping public discourses around race and identity. When I founded Pressing Matters in 2022, my aim was to bring that history to life for young Clevelanders through the experiential practice of printmaking. In turn, I joined with Jackie Feldman, executive director, and Brittany Hudak, senior program manager, at Zygote Press. With the generous support of an Expanding Horizons Initiative Grant from Case Western Reserve University (CWRU), we began to envision a teen program to be launched during summer 2022. Under my supervision, art history students at CWRU worked collaboratively with Feldman and Hudak to build a curriculum that would at once teach basic principles of humanistic inquiry—critical thinking and looking skills, for example—and would harness the potential of art as a means of self-advocacy. An MA student in the course, Sarah Lavin, remarked that “I was not only able to learn about the history of printmaking and its societal importance, but had the opportunity to put what I learned into practice in the real world. I was able to see how art history can be used in a public, community-driven way and maintain its relevance to non-art historians.”

Students in the 2022 iteration of Pressing Matters sold their prints to benefit social and environmental causes and donated their profits to area nonprofits. Friends and family were invited to participate and teens shared some of the techniques that they had learned throughout the program. Participants in the current session of Pressing Matters will exhibit and sell their prints at Zygote Press from 11 am to 5 pm on May 25.

Building on the work done by CWRU students, Pressing Matters was piloted with a small group of teens in the predominantly Latinx community of Clark-Fulton. The teens simultaneously learned how to operate the presses, how to carve and make relief prints, and how art can catalyze change in their own communities. To further demonstrate to students the relationship between printmaking and social activism, and to root this connection in the contemporary moment, the workshop also included visiting guest artists who spoke about how they use art in their own social practices. One visiting artist, CWRU law school alumna and recent Front Futures Fellow, Amanda King, explained how her work as a photographer, printmaker, and director of the nonprofit Shooting without Bullets melds her interests in social justice and art. King and graphic artist James Quarels talked with the kids in relatable terms about how their art, personal, and community identities relate to one another.

After its successful pilot, Pressing Matters partnered with Antwoine Washington and Michael Russell, directors of the Museum of Creative Human Art, to “further inspire creativity in underserved communities.” As Russell told me, “Pressing Matters offers our young people the opportunity to know that they’re human beings, and that they’re being heard.” Now funded by an Ohio Humanities Ignite grant, Pressing Matters provides student participants with a stipend. When the teen participants received their first checks, they turned to Washington and Russell for advice about how to save their money and how to open bank accounts. “It was clear,” said Washington, “that for the kids, Pressing Matters wasn’t just about making art or learning about printmaking. One student confided that he had never really learned to read and asked me where he could find a tutor. I wasn’t expecting that.” Guest visits from Amber Ford, artist and photographer; Sequoia Bostick, illustrator and freelance designer; Gillian Johns, professor of English and Africana Studies at Oberlin College; and Walter Patton, founder of Ghetto Therapy, an organization that connects residents of the central Cleveland area with licensed therapists, ensured that teens in Pressing Matters regularly heard from members of the community about the role of art in their own lives and careers, exemplifying some of the possibilities that arise at the intersection of arts and humanities.

Relief printing with students of Pressing Matters.

Printmaking opens possibilities for teens to express their unique understanding of the world and to share it in ways they had not previously imagined. “I think having that kind of voice is particularly important to today’s youth, who are ultra-aware of daily events and who know the importance of being heard,” said Feldman. “This is why I am so proud of the groundbreaking work we are doing in Pressing Matters. I see our students’ faces light up as they come through the doors every Monday, ready for a break from academics and adolescent anxieties.” Through the unification of artmaking and humanistic discourse, Pressing Matters creates dialogues with and opens communicative pathways for under-resourced teens in greater Cleveland, proving that prints certainly do matter.

Participants in the current session of Pressing Matters will exhibit and sell their prints at Zygote Press from 11 am to 5 pm on May 25.

Erin Benay is Associate Professor of Art History and Distinguished Scholar in the Public Humanities at Case Western Reserve University, and a member of the Board of Directors at Zygote Press.

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