It would be accurate to say that Austin-based Flatbed Center for Contemporary Printmaking is one of Texas’ most respected Fine Art Institutions. Its antecedent, Flatbed Press was founded in 1989 when artist/educators Katherine Brimberry and Mark Lesly Smith partnered to open a Fine Art Press in a small warehouse on West 3rd Street, just west of downtown. Following the model of the famed Dallas-based Peregrine Press, their dream was to make the printmaking arts available to emerging artists, especially those who lived/worked in Texas.
Katherine and Mark equipped their space with everything they needed to produce prints in the traditional relief, planographic, and intaglio techniques and provided a gallery space for exhibitions of prints. Since both had full-time teaching positions, they spent most of their spare time teaching interested artists the art of printmaking, and then editioned the works they produced. They also pursued publishing projects, did contract printing for those artists who were experienced, and allowed artists to rent the presses when available. They quickly became known for their collaborative skills and were sought out by those artists who seriously wanted to see how their vision would translate into the medium.
We need More Space: First Move
They realized that their West 3rd Street space did not allow for growth, so in 1999, they moved their operation to an 18,000+ square foot warehouse in East Austin on Martin Luther King Blvd. To commit fully to the project, both Katherine and Mark gave up their teaching positions to run Flatbed full time. They wanted to make their new home more than a press and gallery, so they subleased the space they did not need to artists and other creatives.
In the years that followed, Flatbed became the most highly respected press in Texas. A partial list of the Texas artist luminaries the press has either published or printed for includes: Terry Allen, Luis Jiménez, Mary McCleary, Melissa Miller, Andrea Rosenberg, John Alexander, Keith Carter, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Billy Hassell, Sharon Kopriva, Bert Long, Linda Ridgeway, Julie Speed, David Everett, and James Surls. In addition to their standing as a fine art press, their building became the epicenter of the burgeoning East Austin arts scene.
Co-founder Mark Smith left the business in 2012 to pursue his own art. However, because of his ongoing friendship with Katherine, Mark collaborated with her on an anniversary book about the press titled Flatbed Press at 25, published by the University of Texas Press in 2016.
Losing their lease: Second Move
As often happens when artists move into an area, it becomes gentrified, rents soar, and either the artist is hit with lease renewals they cannot afford or the landlord decides to not renew at all so they can repurpose their buildings. In this case, in 2019, Flatbed fell victim to the latter scenario.
At this point, most people who had reached a normal retirement age and were faced with losing their lease would have closed their business. But instead, Katherine decided that what she had built was more important and needed to continue. She moved the Press to a new 6,000 square foot space, renamed it Flatbed Center for Contemporary Printmaking.
In addition to what they have always been doing, Katherine made the business more community oriented with print making classes and 24-hour membership access. She also designed a new gallery into the space, so Flatbed is able to host both traditional and experimental print-based exhibitions.
Katherine the Great:
What has made Flatbed such a successful institution are the people who have managed it. In Katherine’s case, because of her teaching background, calm demeanor, and depth of knowledge, she excels at collaborating with artists. After working together on a project, artist Betty Ward called her an extreme facilitator, then added, Working with Kathy was almost like, working with yourself.
Regarding her role, Katherine says, The main objective of a publishing press is to help artists who may not be familiar with printmaking. Our role is to help them create work in the fine art print medium by being technical collaborators. All the mark-making and decision-making is their own, with our technical assistance. There is a long tradition of this type of collaboration in the printmaking world. If the artist approves and the type of technique allows it, we are able to create small editions of hand-printed multiples.
The prints she helps publish vary in style, technique, subject, and size, but are all the unique creations of the artists by their own hands. Some of the techniques derive from the 17th century, and some involve the latest digital resources. The artist’s experience in the shop is often an experimental blend of old and new printmaking processes. Each project is artist-driven; the shop’s motto is- What would happen if . . .?
FAE is pleased to be collaborating with Flatbed and now has prints available from the Flatbed Press collection. Check back regularly to see what new works have been posed by this Texas fine art institution.
Part II – Our Introduction to the Photographs of John Albok (1894-1982)
Our first introduction to the photography of John Albok was a life changing experience. It was an unforgettable day twenty-six years ago. A well-dressed woman walked into our gallery on Lovers Lane in Dallas with an acid-free box full of black and white photographs. She gave us the impression of a woman from another era, and definitely not a Texan.
That box contained thirty or forty Depression era 8×10 photographs, a mixture of Central Park scenes, children playing in the streets, storefronts and immigrant street vendors, political themes and more, all dating to the 1930’s and ‘40’s in New York, and all in excellent vintage condition. They were historical gems. I immediately recognized museum quality work.
And that woman was John Albok’s sixty-five-year-old daughter, Ilona Albok Vitarius, who was in fact not a Texas native, but rather a transplant from New York City. Our photography gallery had been open for five years at that time and Ilona was looking for a local venue to exhibit her father’s work. Our reputation for photographic preservation and historical photography must have piqued her curiosity to pay us a visit.
Beckie and I immediately fell in love with the work and the opportunity to introduce Dallas to John Albok. That was the beginning of a beautiful friendship and working relationship for the next twenty years until Ilona’s death in 2013. Her passion for her father’s work and the desire to share his life and art with others never waned.
Ilona had so many stories to tell about her father. John Albok was a Hungarian immigrant who, in 1923, established himself on upper Madison Avenue as a master tailor. But his true passion and avocation was photographing his newly adopted city. Beckie remembers the countless evenings we spent in Ilona’s living room drinking Chambord or Tokaji and discussing her father’s photographs. She was extremely knowledgeable about the backstory of every image and she was very literate in photography. Every visit was different. She would surprise us with a new selection of prints that she wanted us to see. It ran the gamut from pictorial, soft focus work reminiscent of Alfred Steiglitz to gritty documentary scenes on the order of Farm Security Administration photography, and studio portraiture that her father turned to when the Depression struck.
According to Ilona, a day in the life of John Albok would start with an early morning of greeting customers in his one-man shop, taking measurements for gentlemen’s suits and sitting behind the sewing machine. Lunch was spent hunting the streets and parks with his Rolleiflex twin lens reflex camera, then back to tailoring. At the end of the day he would draw the curtains, climb the stairs for supper with his family, then back downstairs to convert his small tailor shop into a darkroom to develop the days’ film and print photographs. Other evenings Albok would invite musicians, artists and writers to gather and discuss art and culture, and on occasion to view his latest self-made 16mm film documentaries.
Albok rotated a photography display in his storefront window, and that is how he caught the attention of Grace Mayer who curated his first one-man exhibit of photographs at the Museum of the City of New York in 1938. Gordon Hyatt, a CBS television writer and producer, also discovered John Albok in the mid-1960’s after seeing his tailor shop photo gallery. That relationship turned into an hour-long Emmy nominated documentary film entitled ‘John Albok’s New York’, which essentially exposed the world to John Albok photography. Art galleries and museums took notice and began to collect and exhibit his work.
Highlights of working with the Albok collection were co-curating with Ilona two major exhibits for our gallery, John Albok, An American Legacy in 1994, and For The Children in 1995. American Legacy featured sixty-five photographs and four original artworks by Albok. We enlisted Tom Southall, Curator of Photographs of the Amon Carter Museum to deliver a gallery talk after the opening. And on a subsequent evening we converted the gallery into a theater for a screening of “John Albok’s New York”.
Working with Ilona on the exhibition catalogue ‘For the Children’ was a special treat. It took months of editing and re-design because she would continually surprise me with new items that I found irresistible to include in the catalogue. Items such as hand-written diary entries, a speech he made to the New York Camera Club at Rockefeller Center in 1939, letters from museum directors and curators as well as news clips and international reviews and publications of his photography which were all invaluable in assembling his curriculum vitae.
Over the years, we assembled a collection of John Albok photographs representing the major themes that concerned him. Our private collection includes 100 large scale, exhibition quality photographs taken between the years 1919-1977, plus an equal number of smaller uncatalogued prints; color photographs made in Albok’s later years; the twin lens reflex camera that he used during the New York World’s Fair in 1939-40; a pair of hand-made kid skin gloves; some of his sketches and artwork; and a small clutch of original negatives gifted to us by Ilona.
What was even more remarkable about the first encounter with John Albok photography, and his daughter Ilona, was the fact that we lived just three blocks away from her home in north Dallas for eight years and we never knew it! What a time we would have had if the introduction was made earlier. Had we been aware of such a vast historical treasure in the neighborhood we very well may have launched our gallery years earlier than we did.
AN INTERVIEW WITH LIFELONG COLLECTOR DOROTHY GARLAND
FineArtEstates.com is pleased to present artworks from the Dorothy and Mat Garland Collection. While Moving into a smaller space to enjoy retirement, Mrs. Garland realized she had reached the juncture faced by many a Collector: She now needed to de-access works from her collection. To accompany the 2015 exhibit of works from Garland’s collection at Valley House Gallery, Garland wrote the essay for the catalogue “A Collector’s Story of Collecting Early Texas Art,” in which she gave an account of her lifetime of art collecting and shared some lessons she learned along the way. With some of the remaining pieces now listed on FAE, Garland graciously expounded on her perspective on collecting in an interview.
The Early Texas Art Collector’s Organization
Dorothy Garland has been a member of the Dallas based Texas Art Collector’s Organization (TACO), since 1990 and most recently a board member. She described the sense of community that is fostered by members’ shared love of Early Texas Art. The board meets twice a year to plan their Spring and Fall schedule. They arrange viewings of Early Texas Art in a fellow collectors’ home, museums, galleries, or artists’ studios.
As she described the organization, she remarked on the kind of kinship that occurs between members. During one TACO visit to a collector’s home, the man showed her where he had displayed two paintings purchased from her collection. He kindly offered that she could come visit the paintings whenever she wanted. This is the bond that can form over a shared love for art.
That enthusiasm and open exchange of ideas between TACO members is not dissimilar to the setting which fostered the very artistic movement they study. She described the artist meetups that would take place in a Dallas couple’s home during the Great Depression. “They hosted weekly meetups for artists to enjoy a homecooked meal and engage in discourse.” She said Speakers such as Herbert Marcus (of Nieman Marcus) and O’Neil Ford were invited, and any information that could help these artists was shared. With no jobs to be had, any money earned from selling an artwork could go a long way. “They were able to pursue what they loved, and although they may have been competitors they gathered as friends in their shared passion.”
One of these artists was Jerry Bywaters, who went on to become the Director of the Dallas Museum of Art. The watercolor “White Cliffs,” was created by a friend of Bywaters from the same circle, Charles T. Bowling. Created in 1964, this piece beautifully exemplifies Bowling’s preferred palette of grey, ochre, rust, and cool blue-green. It was likely inspired by one of his lithographs from the 1930s. Twenty-six of Bowling’s lithographs were donated by his family to the Jerry Bywaters Collection of Art of the Southwest at Southern Methodist University. An exhibition of his work, The Lithographs of Charles T. Bowling (1891–1985), was organized in 1991 at the Meadows Museum in Dallas.
Bowling also studied with Olin Herman Travis at the Dallas Art Institute, who frequently lead painting trips to the Ozarks in the 1920s. The plein air painting “Red Barn with Wagon” is a rare example of a rural Texas subject, a departure from the Ozarks landscapes that Travis tended toward.
Art is Personal
Perhaps the most important lesson expressed in her essay and in her interview, is finding out as much as possible about the artists. Her belief is that “personal details can only enhance the enjoyment of an artwork.”
Whenever she acquires a new artwork, Garland makes a practice of contacting the artist if possible, or their remaining family. She explained that to learn more about the artist’s life, she will ask the spouse or children about their experience of living with an artist. She recalled a visit with the daughter of Texas artist Everett Spruce, who shared an intimate memory of her father’s habits in the studio. She said that he would always paint with classical music playing. “When he was working in the studio with the door closed and the music playing, the children knew that they were not to disturb him under any circumstance.” To Garland, these kinds of stories about the artist as a spouse or parent make the painting more personal and valuable.
It was during a visit to Paris with her husband Mat, that Garland said she first got the idea to visit artists in their homes. She recalled visiting Sacre-Coeur and purchasing a painting from one of the artists there. The artist offered to pack up the piece for shipment, and so they followed him to his apartment. She found it fascinating to see where he worked and lived, and now advises any collector to make a home visit if ever possible.
Another painting acquired in France, “Waterlilies, Giverny,” involves a personal interaction with the artist Claude Cambour. Garland and her husband encountered the artist while exploring Giverny, the gardens made immortalized by Cambour’s favorite painter Monet. Cambour started giving workshops in Giverny in 1985, and at the time of this encounter was preparing for an exhibition of his paintings in California. Needing American dollars to take with him to California, the Garlands worked out a cash deal for the painting. It hung over their fireplace for many years. To Garland, this kind of participation in an artist’s career enhances her enjoyment of the artwork.
Decisions of a Collector
The Garlands’ entry into art collecting started out of necessity, as she described their home with “a large wall that needed a large painting to fill it.” She explained that there really is no guiding theme to the collection, simply artworks that she and her husband liked.
The decision to purchase an artwork is fairly simple, by Garland’s metric. She has found that like herself, many collectors’ deciding factor in acquiring an artwork is purely that they like it and can afford it. Once the purchase has been made, she advises, “forget what you paid and just enjoy the artwork.” She explained that while an investment in the stock market could leave you with nothing, a piece of art that you love will always provide enjoyment. “There will be a market if the time comes to sell the piece,” she remarked, “and FAE is way to make that possible.”
Garland gave her thoughts on the scarcity of Early Texas Art in the current art market, noting that most of it is currently in the hands of collectors. The decision to part with some pieces is a bittersweet one, but she looks forward to the next chapter of these artworks’ stories in the homes of other collectors at heart. Garland hopes that her story will inspire new collectors to continue in this shared love of art.