Cicada Press and the Annual Indigenous Print Workshop: Creating a New Movement

This article originally appeared in Vol. 51/No. 1 of Imprint Magazine, the Print Council of Australia Journal.  For more info on the Print Council of Australia, click here.

By Tahjee Moar

Sydney based curator and arts writer.

Each February, Cicada Press brings together Indigenous artists from diverse parts of the country to participate in the annual Indigenous print workshop. For two weeks, a small group of early and mid-career Indigenous artists share a studio at the University of New South Wales Art & Design to experiment and create through a new medium. Run by Tess Allas, Director of Indigenous Programs and Michael Kempson, Convenor of Printmaking Studies and Director of Cicada Press, the workshop is a space where stories are told by some of Australia’s most exciting Indigenous artists. The resulting works are bold and thought-provoking insights into contemporary voices in Australian art.

Historically, the study of Indigenous art practice has been through the lens of anthropology. As Indigenous Australian art historical discourses have slowly but increasingly become part of contemporary art discourses, so too has the diversity and plurality of their scope. This diversity was sought through Storylines, a large-scale research project undertaken by Allas, Professor Vivian Johnson and Laura Fisher in conjunction with Design & Art Australia Online, and a precursor to the annual Indigenous print workshop. Supported by a three year (2007-9) Australian Research Council Discovery grant supplemented by UNSW Art & Design, Storylines examined and documented Indigenous art making outside of ‘remote’ Aboriginal Australia. This covered regions in New South Wales, ACT, Victoria, Tasmania, the southern parts of Western Australia and South Australia as well as the eastern regions of Queensland, which lie south and east of the so-called Rowley Line; this referred to the invisible line existing across the map of Australia that was theorised by sociologist C. D. Rowley as dividing Aboriginal people into two distinct binary groups, ‘settled’ and ‘colonial’.

Wall of proofs

Wall of proofs

Of the Storylines research findings, Tess recounts, “we found that many artists from below the ‘Rowley Line’ were not seriously considered, written about, curated into shows or collected, nor did they seem to have the same access to art workshops, studios, equipment or the actual ‘artworld’ as those who are based in art centres above the Line.” With the aim of enabling Indigenous artists access to studio spaces within the University, Allas and Kempson, who Tess says “has been one of the very few people who have helped to address this imbalance by opening his studio to as many artists as possible,” formally established an annual residency program through Cicada Press in 2012. The result was a program that removed Indigenous printmaking from the confines of north Australia and allowed a diversity of Indigenous artists to test new ideas, participate in new conversations and produce new work in printmaking. To date, Cicada Press, through the programs organised by Allas and Kempson, has hosted residencies for such artists as Tony Albert, Fiona Foley, Vernon Ah Kee, Brenda Croft, Gordon Hookey, Reko Rennie, Dale Harding, Laurel Nannup, Brett Nannup, Ryan Presley, Jason Wing and Frances Belle Parker.

Brenda Croft discussing her work with master printer Michael Kempson. Ryan Presley looking on in the background

Brenda Croft discussing her work with master printer Michael Kempson. Ryan Presley looking on in the background

Brenda Croft happy with the finished work

Brenda Croft happy with a finished work











An educationally based custom printmaking workshop founded in 2004, Cicada Press functions as a space where professional artists are invited to produce a body of work with the support of Kempson and UNSW students. Often, the artists will be new to the medium as well as the experience of participating in a university residency. “As a rule we like to invite artists who generally have no experience with printmaking,” Kempson says. “We think it is important that residencies are offered to artists who might never get the opportunity to encounter art making in a university context.” Tess adds that what the workshop also seeks to nurture is “a space where [artists] can be artistically challenged and learn new skills.” The result is a space that combines traditional pedagogy and an academic studio setting with the teachings of those with personal and lived experiences

A recent participant in the workshop is Sydney-based artist Tony Albert, who is of Girramay, Yidinji and Kuku-Yalanji descent. Following the year in which he was a recipient of the National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award and the Basil Sellers Art Prize, Albert was invited to participate in the 2015 workshop. For Albert, it was an opportunity to explore a new medium and develop his artistic practice. “The idea of not being stagnant and continuing to challenge your own technical practice is important,” he says, “how I think and feel is to push my practice.” Albert, whose body of work has included working in mixed media installations and photography, often uses his work to interrogate the legacies of colonial histories, focusing on representations of Aboriginality. A distinct characteristic of his practice involves recycling what he calls “Aboriginalia”, kitsch objects that naively depict Aboriginal people. Translating his aesthetic and conceptual concerns to a two-dimensional medium, Albert produced the Ashtray series, a series of etchings based on the vintage ashtrays depicting Aboriginal people, which today can be seen as powerfully symbolic objects. The resulting works are challenging reminders of the ways in which Aboriginal people have been historically portrayed in Australian society, evoking inquiry around prevailing racist attitudes in contemporary Australia.


Tony Albert signing his series

One of Tony Albert's ashtrays

One of Tony Albert’s ashtrays

The 2015 Indigenous print workshop saw the Adelaide-based early-career artist Raymond Zada, who is of Barkindji descent, create a series of prints using digitally derived motifs. One of these was the work, Rowley’s Line, which borrowed from the text in C. D. Rowley’s, ‘The Destruction of Aboriginal Society’ (1970) – the story that influenced the workshop. A work consisting of text and dotted lines over a strategically made black and white background, Zada’s work explores Rowley’s seemingly outdated logic and its applicability to existing paradigms surrounding Indigenous cultural identity. Zada’s practice has involved using mediums such as new media, photography, video and digital design to express the stories of displaced Aboriginal people. In 2012, he won the work-on-paper prize at the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award. For the artist, participating in a collaborative studio environment was a new experience, “I had never produced art in the presence of anyone else,” recalls Zada, “[m]y practice always involved me working alone and nobody would see works in progress; so it was daunting having people see me work through ideas, which often just involves me staring at a computer screen.” He concluded, however, that the workshop was important, as it provided a “safe and supportive space for artists to step out of their comfort zone and try new things.”

Proofs of Raymond Zada's etchings

Proofs of Raymond Zada’s etchings

Another artist who has participated in the workshop is Dale Harding, a Brisbane-based artist of Bidjara, Ghungalu and Garingbal descent. Harding’s practice often involves investigating the social and political realities experienced by members of his family who lived under government control in Queensland. Re-telling the stories of his family, Harding’s prints Bright Eyed Little Dormatory Girls, Sack 1, 2 & 3 are a reminder of Australia’s untold histories from a perspective of lived experience. For the artist, participating in the workshop to realise the works was experience built on exchange and understanding. He says, “collaborating with Michael and Tess to translate some of my works into etchings was entirely like a great conversation between friends in a mutual second language.” Since participating in the workshop, Harding’s prints, like those of Albert’s and Zada’s, have featured in Cicada Press’ international and national touring exhibitions.

Dale Harding working on some etchings

Dale Harding working on some etchings

Dale Harding's proofs on the wall

Dale Harding’s proofs on the wall

In an artistic climate where printmaking continues to be an underrepresented medium in contexts for contemporary art, Cicada Press’ Aboriginal print workshop offers a positive story; one in which contemporary artists are engaging and experimenting with the formal and conceptual potential of printmaking practices. In the context of tertiary institutions, in which a significant portion of research and activity takes place for professional and practicing artists, Cicada Press’ residency program gives way to a thriving university-based printmaking community. This could be seen as offering something of a contrast to the decreasing interest and demand for printmaking programs elsewhere that have seen entire printmaking programs removed from the curriculums of several significant universities throughout Australia. Cicada Press succeeds in rupturing the insularity of an academic environment, bringing in new voices and perspectives and presenting them to international and national audiences through its touring exhibition. For its Indigenous artists, this is an important aspect of what it does, as Albert says, “the workshops are important . . . we now have these previously untold stories traveling around the world.”

Damien Shen, Ryan Presley, Tahjee Moar and Michael Kempson examining a proof of Damien's etching

Damien Shen, Ryan Presley and Tahjee Moar examining a proof of Damien’s etching

Since their establishment, the workshop has produced something of a development in Indigenous art. It has seen a variety of Indigenous artists inject new voices and perspectives into an often-unexplored medium, becoming part of the ongoing history of printmaking in Australia. Most importantly, it offers an active space for the development of diverse and new voices in Indigenous art practice, as Allas says, “it is providing an opportunity for people to see there are stories to tell below the Rowley Line.”




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.




Charlie Schneider : The Practice of Memory

Charlie Schneider : The Practice of Memory

By Angela Butler

Sydney based printmaker and writer

Charlie, busy working on his plates

Charlie, busy working on his plates

“The fundamental idea with these pieces is:

there is a square that you can see, but you also can’t see, so it’s coming and going at the same time.  A lot of my work has been about that presence and non-presence over time…”

How does performative and installation art translate into etching? How could an artform that is lived and breathed still have meaning when pressed onto a page?

I interviewed Californian artist Charlie Schneider at the close of a residency with Cicada Press in March 2013. He had come to Sydney to work on collaborative projects, and to give a talk at one of the COFA public lectures[1]. Once here, he was invited to join a workshop with a select group of indigenous artists, which had been organised by Director of Cicada Press and Head of Printmaking at COFA, Michael Kempson, and Associate Lecturer at COFA, Tess Allas.

Schneider was making prints based on his performative installation titled: “The Divided Line in the Form of a Square (the practice of memory)”, exhibited at Sculpture by the Sea, Sydney, in 2011. It included ten attempts, over the course of the 18-day exhibition, to sail a perfect square in the ocean off the coast of the Bondi to Tamarama walk.  Images of these mapped squares can be found here:

The Practice of Memory - Solid Shapes

The Practice of Memory – Solid Shapes

“I wonder if that shape, if those ten shapes, will be… keep reoccurring in my work over time. I wouldn’t be surprised. Or maybe I’ll make a new suite of shapes. It would be hard because those shapes are so tied in conceptually with this project, this very personal loss.”

Schneider began this work while in an ocean of grief, soon after the loss of his mother. The title of the 2011 project references Plato’s hierarchical device, the Divided Line.  Plato presents a line divided into four unequal parts. These divisions gave rise to the four sides of the squares that Schneider was attempting to sail. The square, among other functions, symbolizes the great equalizer that is death.  For his Sculpture by the Sea installation, Schneider’s struggle to sail a perfect square was a feat of perseverance against ever-changing conditions on the ocean[2]. This work is a performative and lived expression of daily life after loss: it is an experience of the human capacity to go on living.


The work had begun at the commencement of his MFA studies. Committing to show up to the studio every day despite being in the midst of his grief was how he stayed afloat: to be present even in his mother’s absence.

This absence is the essence held within the etchings. The process of grief – the memory of the sailing attempts, the memory of his mother and of his grief – can be held in the hand, seen and felt long after the boat has moored and time has changed the site of the installation.

At Cicada Press, the marks he made on ten small plates represent the reflective and dynamic nature of water as a metaphor for memory. The shapes were not drawn per se, but were formed by the absence of the line.


Schneider explains:

“… I’m not making the line obvious, so, in the same way that the line in the water disappears, it happens in a way that it’s always there, or I like to think of it as always there. Implying the presence of the line mirrors what happened in the project originally, with the original installation and sailing.”

So why a performative installation, at this place and time? He talked about death and grief, and why the scale of the exhibition was important:

“It’s kind of hidden from society, it’s pushed to the margins, and showing this work at a huge public art event felt significant to me. And it tied in also, to the site itself:  with the ocean and the horizon, the Waverly Cemetery across the way, and that distance to California where my mom was, when I was living here, so I like that distance. I love the idea of the horizon line as a symbol of the infinite.”

Given the artist’s background is in other forms of art, an opportunity to make prints at this workshop was something that he was keen on. As with all projects undertaken at Cicada Press, the collaborative relationship between artist and master printer is fundamental to the direction of the process and the outcome. Each person brings something to the table, for example: the artist brings the idea or intention and the marks, and the printer brings the technique and a great expanse of possibilities. And vice versa.

Schneider reflected on the dynamic and the dialogue that occurred between he and Michael Kempson during the process of working up the images:

“I guess we’re looking at what the final outcome is, and he, I think, was feeling like it’s not quite apparent enough. It takes a lot of effort on the viewer’s part to see the square, if it’s even possible, which is what he’s saying. He just bet me that 90% of the class wouldn’t see the square… But that’s beside the point.”

The push and pull of collaboration made for some deep discussions and open-minded thinking on the part of both Schneider and Kempson:

“Michael really wants to make it work for me in what I want, and I think he’s very good at that. And I think a sense of humour helps. Michael understands what I’m doing it for, he’s just trying to push it to where he thinks it’s more effective, and I’m trying to push it to where I think it’s more effective and … I like that. I like that tension. I mean, I’m right, of course.”


Schneider’s etchings were made to be given as souvenirs: tangible memories of the experience of his performative work. Imbued with a deep sense of isolation and determination, as well as connection to others, the practice of memory is a journey that need not be taken alone. He will be giving the prints to the family members and friends who joined him along the way.

For more info about the artist, go to

Cicada Press is currently printing the editions of the squares. To stay in touch about exhibitions of Cicada prints, you can follow the blog and facebook page for regular updates.

[1] “International Collaborative Problem Solving for the Artistically Engaged” podcast link: scroll down to March 12, 2013.

[2] For a video summary of this work, see

A student’s experience : Liz Macdonald

A student’s experience at Cicada Press

By Liz Macdonald, Student in the M.Art program at COFA UNSW



Custom Printing students work on their group project - artist book

Custom Printing students work on their group project – artist book

Custom Printmaking was recommended by every student I spoke to who had done it, as you have the opportunity to work with highly respected practicing artists making editions at Cicada Press – in the COFA printmaking rooms.

The experience has provided insights that will permanently affect my work – Elizabeth Cummings, whose work I greatly admire, and who is an eminent and expressive artist, came in to share the studio.  Her use of separate plates for different parts within the overall image is fascinating. The seemingly disparate elements become united in the prints – adventurous and assured work the is result.

The student, the artist and the master printer

The student, the artist and the master printer


Euan Macleod was also working there this semester. His paintings have a sense of mystery that I have found compelling. To be able to watch him work at Cicada Press with no references – drawing from memory – was energising. His technique allowed great fluidity and expressiveness and is completely consistent with his painting.

Both these artists – confident and expert in their practice –  were willing for us the students, to learn from them directly.

The print studios were a big attraction for me enrolling at COFA –  the facilities as well as the tangible energy and quality of work on the walls.  I have not been disappointed. The tutors have been outstanding in both their knowledge of the medium and the application of it – they encourage diligence in pursuing better technical results and the realisation of your intention.

I am gaining tremendous insight under Michael Kempson’s direction.  His feedback at each stage of my work and of work we have helped process as a group has given me a much deeper understanding both of professional printing techniques –  and of how to teach.

It can be hard work taking the Custom Printing class - full days of printing

It can be hard work taking the Custom Printing class – full days of printing

The atmosphere in the print rooms is very welcoming and inclusive.  Bound by a shared experience and difficulties as well as triumphs – students exchange ideas, ask questions and support each other. The whole experience is enlivened by shared information and empathy both between the students and between the staff and students.

Further to this the relationships with aboriginal artists both from remote communities and distant townships and the relationships with institutions and artists from overseas that Michael Kempson has initiated, radiate inclusiveness and build broader experience.


Guangzhou & Xi’an

By Angela Butler

Sydney based printmaker and writer

China. In my imagination it had been, for some time, the Ultimate Printmakers’ Paradise. A place where tradition allowed for the depth of experience needed for exquisite execution of print in a contemporary context.

Have you seen the work coming out of this place? I had to get there.

So when I was invited by Michael Kempson to exhibit as part of COFA’s contribution to the 11th Annual Print Works Exhibition of Institutions of Higher Education, I jumped at the chance to go along. We would also be travelling to Xi’an for the opening of the Australia/China “Personal Space” exhibition. Teho Ropeyarn, a graduate of COFA and current exhibitor in the MCA’s Primavera, also had a print in the show and made the trip along with Michael and myself. The 2012 exhibition and symposium was held in Guangzhou, China, and it was the first year that international Fine Arts institutions had been invited to participate.

Teho Ange MK Guangzhou

Angela Butler standing by her work with Teyo Ropeyarn and Michael Kempson

It was called “Begin with Printmaking: the Practice of Mixmedia and Transboundary”. The two day event started with an opening of the exhibition, which was held in a huge gallery on the grounds of Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, and featured over 800 works by students, graduates, lecturers and professors of the major Fine Arts Academies in China, as well as University of the Arts, London (Camberwell), and UNSW College of Fine Arts, Sydney.

Guangzhou AFA Art Museum

Gallery shot at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Art Museum

My excitement at the prospect of finally seeing all this quality work was high, yet my excitement for seeing student works and meeting other printmakers overtook this long-standing expectation and I found myself engaged beyond my wildest dreams. These printmakers were just like us. The works were diverse, used a range of mediums along with printmaking, and were essentially dealing with the same concerns. Life, the universe and everything.

Guangzhou Academy Art Museum

Outside the museum

I interviewed a couple of students to find out about their lives as art students in China, and found that they have very similar challenges and opportunities as I do. I asked one student if she thought it was going to be difficult to find work after graduation. It was going to be no problem, she said, “…people who are smart and can work will always find work, but it won’t be doing something they like.”

I laughed at this, empathising with the realities of slim pickings for future gainful employment in art.

Xian art museum

The Cicada Press envoy outside the Xi’an Art Museum


After two days in Guangzhou, we headed north to Xi’an, where the latest exhibition of “Personal Space” was opening at the Xi’an Art Museum. This exhibition was curated by Michael Kempson, Director of Cicada Press, and features print works by 25 Australian artists and 25 Chinese artists. It has been touring Australia since 2011 and recently arrived in China where it will tour over the coming months.

MK and Jasmine

Michael Kempson about to give a speech at the opening of Personal Space at the Xi’an Art Museum

The Xi’an Art Museum was a colossal space which had threatened to be too big for the works that were on show, but which turned out to be perfect. There was a quality of space, light and sound which allowed us to properly spend time with each work without disruption. Furthermore, the exhibition was opened by way of several formal speeches, including two vice presidents of Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts, COFA’s Head of the School of Art, Sylvia Ross, and the exhibition curator, Michael Kempson. A fitting venue and opening for works which so expertly exemplify the heart and the skill of printmaking.


Gallery shot of Personal Space exhibition at the Xi’an Art Museum

I had seen this show when it opened at Manly Art Gallery and Museum in 2011. At that time, I had been studying printmaking for about five minutes and felt every bit the novice – in the art world, in printmaking, in being a student again. My experiences since then, and particularly since having time in Guangzhou and Xi’an, the works in the Personal Space show have peeled back some of their delicate layers of meaning. It was a meaningful and inspiring experience to see this work in a new context: talking with fellow students from China about Chinese and Australian prints in a Chinese art museum. All of a sudden, the whole thing was very real. And I loved it.

I think meeting students and artists in China and getting a glimpse of how everyone works has opened a new door. The feeling of belonging to this community, this community of Australian and Chinese printmakers –  students, teachers and artists alike – has strengthened my passion and dedication to taking part in the discourse.

For me, this was the greatest opportunity possible to learn more about the practice that has begun to fire my heart. Printmaking in China was everything I thought it would be, and so very much more. I look forward to exchanging prints with the students I met there, and creating our own community of transnational student printmakers! I am already incredibly proud to be a part of what is to come.

Interview : Elisabeth Cummings

Interview : Elisabeth Cummings

By Angela Butler

Sydney based printmaker and writer

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:

Cicada Press in Imprint Magazine

The recent issue of Imprint magazine featured 2 full page articles about projects we’ve been involved in.

The first article, written by Gregory O’Brien and Michael Kempson, describe a project which saw a group of NZ artists head over to the Kermadec Islands where they went about working on their etching plates.

‘The Well Travelled Etching Plate’ From Imprint Magazine

Click to read ‘The well-travelled etching plate’ from Imprint Magazine

The second article, written by Tess Allas and Michael Kempson, is about the Aboriginal printmaking workshops we’ve been having at Cicada Press over the past years – including artists such as Vernon Ah-Kee, Gordon Hookey, Fiona Foley, Reko Rennie and many more.

‘Aboriginal Printmaking Workshops’ – Imprint Magazine 2012

Click to read ‘Aboriginal Printmaking Workshops’ article from Imprint Magazine

For those of you who don’t know, Imprint Magazine is the official magazine of the Print Council of Australia.  For only $50 a year you can become a member, receive the magazine and support the Australian printmaking community.  Highly recommended, Join NOW!