Scarred for Life – Printing People with Ted Meyer
“Scarred for Life” – Printing People
by Ted Meyer
I’m an artist, specifically a painter and a curator. I’m also a printer, but not in the way you would normally think of a printer. I don’t use a press or a plate or a stone. I print people, I print their scars and as a result, I print their stories.
I made traditional prints at Arizona State University. They had a very good print department and, although I was a design major, I was always in the print lab. I got to be a pretty good screen printer. I loved pulling prints and watching the smooth solid colors applied to the paper. I was a great ink mixer, one of those guys who would mix a color that looked good enough to eat.
I made a design work for a time but some years after college I started a T-shirt business. It did pretty well. I screen-printed my little scratchy drawings on shirts and they landed up in stores all over the place – proof that skills learned in college can actually pay off. It was a fun run, but after eight years of printings shirts in my garage/shop/showroom I was ready to trade in my squeegee for a paintbrush and I never looked back. Plus, my hip gave out from the repetitive movement of printing shirts and turning to my right to put them on a conveyor belt. I must have done that 100,000 times in those eight years. My new hip worked just fine for standing still in front of a canvas. For the next 15 years, I painted images of my illness. I have a rare and annoying blood disorder that caused a lot of pain and discomfort, but in a stroke of great luck, the National Institute of Heath came up with a treatment (your tax dollars at work). Suddenly my illness was no longer my muse and I started to think about other ways to do art about the human condition.
The people printing started about 20 years ago. One night I was at a gallery and a beautiful woman rolled in. She used a wheelchair and wore a backless dress that showed off a long scar along her spine. It was striking. Back then most people were still hiding their scars. They weren’t “cool,” or a show of bravery or military service at that point. There was still a lot of “ick factor” involved with scars, but she didn’t care. She showed it off proudly and was willing to talk about it.
After the opening, Joy, the woman using the wheelchair, and I had a long talk about our conditions and how they had affected our view on, and production of, art. During that conversation she was insistent I should keep doing work about movement and illness. She said that my new healthy reality should not keep me from doing art about mobility and health because it was still part of me. She made a great point, but I was at a loss as to what direction I should take. I thought about her and her scar, and scars in general. Maybe scars might be a good way to talk about the human condition. All scars have a story and each story is unique.
I considered methods to document her scar. I could shoot photos or draw it, but that had been done before. I thought of Man Ray’s “Ingre’s Violin,” such a beautiful and famous back image. Then I remembered taking a class on Japanese fish prints. I thought that if I could get details off a fish I should be able to get details off a human scar.
I called Joy and asked if I could try printing her scar and luckily she said, “Yes.”
It became instantly clear that rolling ink on a person and then making a series of contact prints directly off their bodies was the way to go to. There was something so personal and sensual about pulling a print off a person. There was a connection I never felt with painting or any other art form.
I normally chat with my scar models for an hour before we print. I learn about their lives and what brought them to my studio. After I pull my mono-prints, I paint into them with details about the scarring incident, so not only is each version of the print itself different but the details added vary. A series of prints might be recognizable as the same scar yet each print might look totally different.
The first time I exhibited Joy’s print I got a response unlike any I had ever had with my paintings. People at the opening lined up to talk about not just her scar but their own traumatic events. They unbuttoned shirts and pulled down pants to show me their scars. Everyone wanted to tell their survival story. This sort of thing never happened at my art shows before.
Over the last 20 years, people have contacted me from all over the world and requested prints. They plan vacations around visits to my Los Angeles studio. They seem to heal mentally, in a way, from making a print and seeing it as separate from their own body. Plus making something beautiful from something people might think of as ugly is up-lifting.
When someone has an operation or accident they remember the date forever, but healing is a slow process and has no actual end date. One day you are just better, or you just don’t think about your scar anymore. My prints are a celebration of the finality of the healing process, something that can hang on a wall that states “survived,” “healed,” and “finished.”
How do I get my images?
Just like any other print, printing off people has its technical challenges. I am lucky if I can get 6-8 good prints in a session. I use water based block print ink. I also use very smooth paper, normally vellum. Printing people is different from using a plate. Each print takes oil off the skin, so while some prints might have amazing detail, maybe you can even see individual skin cells, the next print might have a gap where the ink doesn’t stick any more or a big clump of ink. Body hair doesn’t print consistently and might produce thin lines, or might reject the ink completely and appear as negative shapes. Dark skin, new scars or sloppy medical work prints best. Old scars stretch out and get smoother so details need to be painted back in.
One of the great things is that these prints are actual size. For example, a lung removal scar is huge. Seeing it at size is a powerful reminder of how much the body can recover from trauma, and that is the point of the project. I’m printing scars but I am documenting survival and strength.
My scar prints are exhibited as part of a full documentation project titled, “Scarred for Life, Every Scar Tells a Story.” I pair the final detailed print with a photo of the scar model, still covered with ink, and the first person narrative of scarring event and recuperation.
“Scarred for Life” has been shown all over the world. Exhibits normally consist of 30 – 50 prints. Visitors tend to start at one end of the gallery and circle the entire space reading every story and studying each print. That is what you hope for as an artist—to do serious work that makes a statement about the human condition.
Get to know this project better at www.scarredforlifeproject.com
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This article was written by Ted Meyer all images copyright © tedmeyer 2019
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