Date September 12, 2023
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Watson Institute art exhibition mixes old and new printmaking techniques

A series of detailed landscapes and other nature-inspired prints by regional artist and educator Andrew Nixon, on display at Brown’s Watson Institute, merges the worlds of old-world etching, contemporary digital image-making and traditional printmaking technology.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — This fall, the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University is exhibiting a series of nature-inspired prints by Rhode Island native Andrew Nixon, an artist and educator. 

The exhibition, “Andrew Nixon: Inventions and Discoveries,” showcases 23 extraordinarily detailed natural landscapes, lively renderings of swimmers and fish and more. To make the prints, Nixon found creative ways to combine old and new artistic modes — using an iPad drawing application, an old-world etching technique and a printmaking practice that dates back to the 15th century. 

Nixon’s prints are on display now through January on the first floor of Stephen Robert ’62 Hall at 280 Brook St. The Watson Institute will also host a talk and reception with Nixon on Tuesday, Sept. 26 at 5 p.m. in the True North Room inside Stephen Robert ’62 Hall. The exhibition is part of the Art at Watson initiative, which for a decade has integrated art into the fabric of the Watson Institute.

“These new works on paper were made using an innovative blend of old and new technologies,” Nixon said. “My images are initially generated through an iPad using a popular software program.” Then, he said, “the printing process I employ is the age-old traditional intaglio form, which requires the individual hand-inking of the plates. These are then covered with a dampened sheet of paper and run through a heavy steel press.”

From his studio in Massachusetts, Nixon is duplicating a process that was first established in Europe in the early 1400s. Historically used to make everything from playing cards to large-scale landscapes, intaglio printing is a slow, meticulous process in which an image is directly engraved onto a sheet of metal, covered in ink and a sheet of paper, and pressed. The United States Treasury still uses a dry intaglio technique to print paper money, because intaglio produces a level of fine detail that’s difficult to counterfeit.

Nixon said intaglio fell somewhat out of fashion when new technologies like photography surpassed the technique’s detailed image-making capabilities. 

“Essentially, this limit was on the amount of data, specifically lines, that could be used to make an image,” he said. “Adding an iPad to the process rectifies this problem. By marrying the two technologies, I've found a way to think on a larger scale than was possible with traditional printmaking.”

Using modern technology, Nixon has found a way to achieve the artistic equivalent of sampling bits of old music in a new hip-hop song: He used high-resolution scanning technology to replicate the markings of one of his favorite 17th-century artists, Wenceslaus Hollar.

“He was masterful at creating marks,” Nixon said of Hollar. “Using the iPad, I was able to replicate his markings by loading them as brush marks into the drawing program I used.”

Finding peace in a difficult world

At first blush, “Inventions and Discoveries” may not seem like an obvious match for the Watson Institute, a center of rigorous scholarship on international relations, security and policy. 

But Nixon said he feels deep resonance with the institute’s mission to promote a more just and peaceful world, and he believes that comes through in his art.

“The scholar William Ivins once said that ‘all civilization grew out of written language pointing to a picture,’” Nixon said. “He also believed that some ideas can only be conveyed through pictorial means. The Watson Institute’s mission is to promote peace in a difficult world. If Ivins is right, pictures can play a vital role in this enterprise.”

Nixon said that for him, artmaking isn’t a way to engage directly in social and political issues. Rather, it’s a method of coping with current events — a way to find some tranquility amid disaster and loss. 

Nixon said he hopes the sense of peace he feels in the studio can be extended to the exhibition space at the Watson Institute, bringing some temporary repose to students and faculty who confront complex, pressing global problems in their scholarship. 

“I like what Henri Matisse said about his paintings,” Nixon said. “He wanted them to be ‘rather like a good armchair,’ and a ‘soothing calming influence on the mind.’ I hope that people who see this exhibition can share some of my experience in the studio when looking at my work.

"I want people to know,” Nixon continued, “that political art is not the sole response to an exhausting and worrisome world.”

Andrew Nixon: Inventions and Discoveries” is on display now through Jan. 12, 2024, inside Stephen Robert '62 Hall at 280 Brook St. There will be an artist talk featuring Nixon and an opening reception on September 26, 2023, at 5 p.m. in room 101 (True North Room) of Stephen Robert ’62 Hall. The exhibition and the talk are both free and open to the public.

Also on display at the Watson Institute through Friday, Dec. 15 is “Endangered Animals and Their Ghosts: The Wish to Move Backward,” a series of mosaics exploring the issue of extinction. The mosaics were created by Pawtucket artist Jess Regelson in partnership with schoolchildren across Rhode Island.

This story was adapted from a story by Pete Bilderback, a communications and outreach specialist at the Watson Institute.