A passionately committed couple apply their do-it-yourself skills to build Highpoint Center for Printmaking a bigger, better home.
Strolling through the skylit studio at Highpoint Center for Printmaking's new Lake Street quarters on a recent morning, master printer Cole Rogers and executive director Carla McGrath reveled in the momentary calm. After years of planning -- and in defiance of the Great Recession -- they bought the former bookstore in November, gutted it in December, renovated it over the winter and are launching summer programs this month.
"It's a fantastic space with an amazing program, like something you'd find in Paris," marveled Walker Art Center's new chief curator, Darsie Alexander.
Except here, there's an auto parts store next door, a tattoo establishment and a hardware store across the street.
The down-home setting reflects a commitment to taking an often rarefied art form back to its roots. Rogers and McGrath, who are also married to each other, are passionate about demystifying printmaking and introducing ordinary people, especially kids, to art and artists.
While giving a tour of the new quarters, Rogers suddenly disappeared, then returned with a poster on which internationally renowned artist Julie Mehretu is seen examining an image fresh from a Highpoint press. In the background, busy grade-schoolers are making etchings of their own.
"If you want people to appreciate art, you need to have an opportunity for them to see it being made," said Rogers, whose slight Southern accent holds a trace of his native Birmingham, Ala. "They can't even aspire to be an artist if they've never met one and art is just something that appears on a wall somewhere."
That proximity between kids and pros wouldn't happen elsewhere, said architect James Dayton, whose firm did the project.
"Carla and Cole's approach to printmaking as a very democratic art form is built into the space," he said. "Luckily, the professional artists who are drawn to Highpoint are very much open to that, as well, because someone who was really secretive or ornery wouldn't like Highpoint."
Prints for the people
Originally prints -- etchings, lithographs, woodcuts, silk screens -- were a cheap means of getting original art into the hands and homes of ordinary people. In recent decades, however, prices have risen to five and six figures, reflecting the costs of hand-making art on expensive equipment.
Highpoint takes a populist tack that may be unique in the country. While maintaining a professional studio that attracts national talent for special projects, it offers "free ink" days when anyone can come in and make prints at no cost, conducts inexpensive classes for school groups and runs a co-op where artists can rent access to top-notch equipment. Spacious galleries house ever-changing shows of work from Highpoint and elsewhere.
"Running a professional press and having this fantastic outreach program, that dual mission, is very unusual," said Paula Panczenko, executive director of Tandem Press at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. "They have a great relationship with the Walker and have collaborated very cleverly with the museum on artists they've been able to attract."
Inside the new space
From the front entrance, visitors go up several steps to a suite of galleries on the right or to an alcove of small offices on the left. A translucent, diagonal wall cuts through the boxy building, its shimmering acrylic panels more commonly used as greenhouse roofing. A studio for visiting artists is behind the wall on the left. A spacious room for local artists is at right, illuminated by a massive skylight.
In the back is a classroom for school groups, with direct access to a parking lot that can accommodate school buses. Minnesota artist Kinji Akagawa is building a "rain garden" in a bay adjacent to the parking lot to catch runoff from the building's roof that would otherwise run into storm sewers.
While the building's design seems simple and obvious now, it is the result of 10 months of weekly meetings and 30 or more trial configurations.
It also displays Rogers' do-it-yourself skills in myriad ways. To help trim construction costs, he built three of the massive sliding doors, invented an inking stand that's heated by electric-blanket wiring and converted a 9-foot slab of granite, salvaged from the couple's kitchen, into a table.
"I really admire Cole and Carla's pragmatism and realized early on that if they could do it all, it could be the perfect arts organization," said Highpoint board president David Moore Jr.
Although the building is done, Highpoint is still $1.1 million short of its $3.5 million goal for the project. "The good news is that we have a lot of positively inclined fence-sitters," joked board vice chairman Tom Owens, who predicts they'll have the money in hand by December.
Some joke that Highpoint is a "mom 'n' pop" art shop, but Rogers and McGrath play down their personal lives.
"We don't want that to be the first thing people think of when they come here," she said. Both were previously married, and she has a son, Ryan, 20, who has just finished his sophomore year at DePaul University in Chicago.
"Living and working together as a married couple is pretty challenging, but they have great aplomb," said architect Dayton. "I often say good clients make good architecture, and Carla and Cole were perfect clients. They respected design, wanted something distinctive, had a great sensibility and detailed focus on their organization."
A self-described "late bloomer" who preferred working with his hands, Rogers was an unlikely candidate to become an artist. At the University of Alabama, from which he earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1986, he took "eight years to get through a five-year program," he said. "I worked part time repairing bicycles to put myself through school."
He found his calling after finishing an MFA at Ohio State University in 1990. When one of his professors moved to the prestigious Tamarind Institute, a top printmaking facility at the University of New Mexico, he urged Rogers to apply for its professional training program. Rogers was dubious.
"I felt people who went to Tamarind didn't put their pants on the same way I did," he said. "They were like gods."
But he was one of eight accepted worldwide, and one of three chosen to complete the master printer certification program the following year.
A complementary couple
Rogers worked at a Twin Cities print studio for a few years before heading the print department at Minneapolis College of Art and Design. There he met McGrath, a lawyer turned art educator who was running Walker Art Center's art lab for kids. She sought his advice when buying a small press for use in the Walker's classrooms. A few years later, when he was thinking of starting a professional print shop, he tried the idea out on her.
"What about kids?" she asked, immediately sensing that the best way to expand audiences for prints was to engage people when they're young.
When Highpoint opened in 2001 in a Lyndale Avenue storefront one-third the size of the new space, its multi-pronged program grew from such early conversations. But ideas came from many other places, too: artists who wanted a community to share ideas; young artists who couldn't afford presses and studios after graduating; faculty members at Carleton, Hamline, Macalester and other colleges who felt they were turning out graduates whose careers were stymied because they had no place to work.
"People talked for years about doing something like this, but Cole and Carla were the ones who followed through," said Meg Bussey, a longtime member of Highpoint's co-op. "When they got married, that really helped, because they really complement each other -- she's an excellent grant writer and he's the artistic one. They're very attractive as a couple, and it's unusual to see people who can work together and have a home life, too."
Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431