Michael Kempson

By Anthony Springford

Surrounded by neat ranks of cast iron printing presses and the smell of resin, bitumen, grease and ink, Michael Kempson’s office reminds me of a Merzbau. I can’t see the walls for books and towers of steel drawers, and it takes Kempson a minute to clear me a seat wedged under an overhang of cardboard. I think there’s a desk in here somewhere, but the University of New South Wales Australia’s convenor of printmaking studies doesn’t strike me as man who sits still for very long. His father was an Anglican minister, and he is quick to suggest that he is something of an evangelist for the social and educational value of printmaking.

Michael Kempson working with Reg Mombassa

Michael Kempson working with Reg Mombassa

UNSW Art & Design teaches etching, relief and lithography; centuries-old techniques in which each print is handcrafted and unique. Editioned prints have been part of the vocabulary of Western art since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Goya, Toulouse-Lautrec, Matisse and Picasso used etching and lithography to produce works that could be seen and owned by a middleclass public. But since the second half of the 20th century, digital and photographic technologies offer increasingly easy ways to distribute images. Printmaking departments all over the world now have to fight for their place between one-off art objects and a global culture of digital media, photography and video.

Consultation with Pakistani artist Saeed Akhtar

Consultation with Pakistani artist Saeed Akhtar

Kempson draws a parallel between printmaking and jazz music; both are highly technical, experimental, open and collaborative, with a rich tradition of innovation. To the uninitiated at least, printmaking and jazz can also seem arcane, sustained by a core of devotees and a bit out of date. For Kempson though, it is because printmaking is difficult that it tends to be collaborative and workshop based, fostering connections between artists. Unlike the lonely studio, the print room is a space for political, social and artistic exchange.

Examining a proof

Examining a proof

In 2004 Kempson established Cicada Press with a mission to teach and promote printmaking through collaboration. Well-known artists from around the world are invited to UNSW to collaborate with students on an edition of prints. Cicada offers the artists an opportunity to expand their own practices by trying out new techniques, while students learn by being directly involved in a professional artist’s work.

In the ego-driven world of contemporary art it is rare to see artists of different generations sharing the creative process, but so far Cicada has worked with over 170 artists to produce over 1300 editions of prints. For Kempson; “openness with empathy towards the other is crucial in the collaborative projects at Cicada Press.” Some artists, such as Vernon Ah Kee or Fiona Hall, bring very conceptually rooted approaches to printmaking, while others, such as Elisabeth Cummings or Guy Warren, explore more direct and gestural uses of the medium.

(L to  R) Michael Kempson, Elisabeth Cummings and Sally Marks

(L to R) Michael Kempson, Elisabeth Cummings and Sally Marks


Representing in China

Representing in China

This philosophy of generosity and collaboration extends beyond the workshop. In 2006 Cicada Press worked with artists from the central desert community of Papunya, including Michael Nelson Jagamara, on an edition of prints. Artists came to Sydney and UNSW students visited Papunya to realise a unique exhibition of linocuts and etchings that helped to raise money and awareness for the new Papunya Tjupi art centre. More recently Cicada has participated in exchanges and residencies with institutions in Pakistan, Thailand, Taiwan, Canada, New Zealand, Korea, China and the USA, enabling students and staff to build enduring professional relationships across Asia. In 2010 Cicada took an exhibition of indigenous prints to Karachi, and in 2012 it sponsored a travelling exhibition of Chinese and Australian prints that included artists from Papunya.

Michael Kempson is taking his social and artistic ministry, and his students, around the globe. He is changing the way the visual arts are taught and practiced, and perhaps even fostering a more collaborative and generous world in the process.


Anthony Springford is a Sydney based artist and writer.





Interview : Elisabeth Cummings

Interview : Elisabeth Cummings

By Angela Butler

Sydney based printmaker and writer angebutler.tumblr.com

I recently went to the Cicada Press studios at COFA to talk with Elisabeth Cummings, an Australian artist who works predominantly in painting, but who also has a bit of a history with etching. Well, more than a bit. Elisabeth is currently working on several prints with Cicada Press Director, Michael Kempson, and the students of the Custom Printmaking class. The following is based on an interview given at the studio in Paddington.

Elisabeth first worked on etchings with Michael Kempson at Meadowbank TAFE several years ago. Prior to this, she had made prints at art school, and again some years later, however she says back then she hadn’t understood a lot. It was with Michael that she started to understand much more about etching: “He was very in tune with what I was trying to do, and then there was the delight of having them (the prints) editioned for me”.

For myself, as a student in the Custom Printmaking class, it has been great to witness that the skills we are acquiring really can translate into art that exists in the everyday world, beyond the walls of art school. It’s a wonderful opportunity to see the process from the very beginning, from making decisions about the size of an image, all the way through to editioning and exhibiting. Every step along the way presents its own challenges, which can be daunting (even overwhelming) but with practise become less so.  It gives context to the lecturers’ repeated cries during class of wipe your edges clean!

I asked Elisabeth whether she worries about students working with her plates: “It is a collaboration in a lot of ways. I’ve been lucky enough to have students who’ve got stronger wrists than I have to scrape. They might scrape where I wouldn’t scrape but that doesn’t matter at all, I like the chance of what might be, because my work is like that. It isn’t absolutely precise and I’m open to all sorts of things happening.” Elisabeth finds that she learns a lot too from seeing what students are doing. “It’s a very rich experience.”


Cummings was born in Brisbane in 1934. She studied in Sydney at the National Art School from 1953 to 1957. Her early work, in painting and print, was more abstract than her present practice. The paintings she makes today are imbued with a complexity of colour and such a range of marks that they are at once aloof and inviting; layered, concealed and emotive. I wanted to find out about how the important elements of her painting translate into etchings.

“With painting, the change is totally immediate, and with etching it’s not”, which can be frustrating for Elisabeth because of her working method. “With painting, I’m changing things all the time, it’s moveable… it’s all in a state of flux and change. I eliminate all the time and re-paint… adding, subtracting, adding, subtracting.”

However she really enjoys how the result is unlike a painting, which she says is the interesting part. “An etching is an etching, it has quite a different quality to a painting”.

With one of her earlier prints, she had planned out very carefully how the plates would go together and she didn’t like the result at all – she had to go back and change each plate to get what she wanted. She likes what happens when she scrapes, and the adding and subtracting on plates which “can make the process very labour intensive”. This is where students, mindful of the opportunity before them and with strong forelimbs, can come in handy.

The Yard – Etching 2010


When it comes to colour, it feels like it is both a carefully considered decision as well as an intuitive response in Cummings’ work. “It’s a bit of both. You start the painting and then there is that dialogue with the painting, and what the painting dictates… it’s a process of feeling one’s way” .

I wondered how this translates into the process of printmaking, where the physical matrix of the plate holds the composition and mark-making, and colour is only visible when it is printed. “With printmaking, of course, with a three-plate print, the colour is limited. Working out what to do with colour when you’re used to having a huge range, and having to work out how to get what you can out of that limitation is quite a good challenge. But there are ways … of allowing other colour in, doing a la poupee in certain areas – I love to bring in other bits of colour. It enriches things. You might think ‘Oh, I’d love a bit of yellow in this corner, and blue just here, nowhere else on the plane’ which is when Michael will bring in the a la poupee. It’s wonderful, but it makes more work for the printers!” Elisabeth chuckles at this.

Elisabeth CUMMINGSMichael KEMPSONCICADA PRESS, The red table.

The Red Table – Multi-plate etching.  2001


 As a student, my interest in the work of other printmakers is growing in terms of the rhyme and reason for print beyond my own obsession. I asked Elisabeth about other printmakers whose works contained what interested her or revealed something which she enjoyed. Her comments remark on how one marries influence with output: “I really like what Fred Williams did with landscape, with etching. Euan (Macleod) does very interesting things that relate to his painting. That’s always exciting to see, some process that I wouldn’t have thought of using. It’s sometimes interesting to explore that when you see somebody else doing it and you think you’ll explore it yourself. But the thing is, you always make your own mark. The way you scrape through the ground, or what you do with the sugarlift, you’re making your own mark. Of course, one’s influenced by things one sees other printmakers doing, but it becomes changed.”

Elisabeth recently saw Goya’s ‘Los Caprichos’ etchings currently touring in regional Queensland, and described her experience of being in awe:

“They’re amazing, he is such a brilliant draughtsman, he draws like a dream. You can’t believe the brilliance of the drawing. And the control of the medium, he probably did all of that himself. The control of the aquatints, the brilliance of the drawing, and then of course the imagery which is so compelling. You’re absolutely knocked out by it… and that’s hard to emulate! One’s impressed.”

Elisabeth CUMMINGSMichael KEMPSONCICADA PRESS, Arkaroola landscape.

Arkaroola Landscape – Multi-plate etching. 2005



A major subject throughout Elisabeth’s career has been the Australian landscape. I wanted to know about this, her experience in country which is familiar but unknown to me. “They’re all based on landscapes I’ve seen and experienced. Sometimes drawings can stimulate the memory, but then the etching, like a painting, takes its own course.”

When I asked where I could go to experience Australia’s landscape, Elisabeth’s response was enthusiastic: “Just go to Alice Springs and go out from there! The East MacDonnells, the West MacDonnells, it’s fantastic. The Flinders. Anywhere! Just go out to western NSW, Broken Hill. You know COFA has a place out there at Fowler’s Gap. That’s all arid zone, it’s pretty amazing, that country.  It’s the desert, and it’s fascinating to be in.”

I told her that I had never been out there. “You will one day. I always wanted to get to Europe when I was younger and I did, but that’s what I missed, the Australian bush and the Australian land. So I’ve been exploring Australia these last few years, and there’s a lot to see, there’s so much to see.”

Termite Mounds – Multi-plate etching.  2010



Some recent prints by Elisabeth Cummings will be shown in an upcoming exhibition of artists who have worked and printed with Cicada Press: “Master Prints” opening 6 December, 6pm, at MLC School, Burwood.

To see Cicada Press printers inking up a Euan Macleod plate “a la poupee”, watch this youtube clip: