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 device 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.”
Artist profile for The Studio Visit by Molly Springfield.