College of Fine Arts

Printing a vision

Nancy Allison

David Conn wasnīt a troublesome boy. Thatīs why his behavior on a field trip years ago was so surprising. As the teacher led the way to the gear-turning, kid-friendly exhibits at the Newark Museum, David stopped short, clutching the hand of another sixth-grader, unable to move.

His teacher fussed; the waiting kids grumbled. But Conn’s feet wouldnīt budge. He was transfixed by two images on the wall.

A curator saw the commotion and drew Conn aside to tell him about the great 15th century printmaker, Albrecht Dürer. Conn just kept staring, all eyes and heart. Finally, Conn found his voice. "I donīt know what it is," he said. "But Iīm gonna do it."

"Those images of Dürer’s fascinated me," says Conn, who has been a master printmaker and art professor at TCU for 40 years. "They were unlike anything Iīd ever seen. The precision, the line work. I loved it. In that moment I knew what I wanted to do with my life."

In September, Conn will retire. The very first gig of his new life? Serving as resident artist at the Europäische Kunst Akademie in Trier, Germany, only 250 miles from Nuremberg, where Dürer was born.

Although heīs too modest to compare himself to one of the greatest printmakers of the Renaissance, Conn, like Dürer, pays breathless attention to the natural world. In Thicket, his series of woodland scenes that are rich with shadow and sunlight, you can almost hear a pheasant call from the underbrush.

The realism of the work is balanced by a sense of mystery, which he seems to take little credit for: "Thereīs something primal about the forest. It reminds us of all the legends or fairy tales weīve ever heard."

Many people comment that Thicket conjures up memories of woods of their own. Thatīs fine with Conn, who feels that his work becomes even more vivid “when seen and enjoyed by people through the field of their own memory."

Many of Connīs memories of woods and wild places originate with his father, who owned a hunting cabin in Sussex County, New Jersey. One of Connīs prints is of the view behind this cabin, a territory where his dad taught him how to hunt and fish.

Connīs father immigrated from Scotland with his own father as a boy. He was a practical man, who didnīt see the sense of sending his son to art school. "He said heīd help me if I wanted to be a draftsman, but he wasnīt real favorable toward my becoming an artist. He thought Iīd wind up starving to death."

Ironically, it was his father who gave Conn his first job as an artist. Conn senior, a fireman who was also a keen hunter and fly fisherman, tied and sold flies for extra cash.

"It was one of my jobs to go through the cans of feathers and sort them by color," says Conn.  "Another was to paint watercolors of brook or rainbow trout for the stamps that heīd use for displays."

A series of night jobs and scholarships allowed Conn to attend the Maryland Institute College of Art. For graduate school, he headed to Oklahoma.

As a kid, he had always been pulled westward. Once, as a young teen with three dollars in his pocket, he went to the train station and asked for a ticket as far west as his money would buy.

"I was in love with the idea of being a cowboy. That day, I only ended up in west Jersey with 50 cents left to my name."

Conn still has wanderlust and an occasional hankering to live rough on the range. One of his first forest prints was inspired by a trip into the Pecos Wilderness ten years ago. An earlier series, for which he won a Ford Fellowship in 1980, were relief etchings of the trail marks of the North American hobo.

In October, 2009, deputy director of Fort. Worthīs Kimbell Museum Malcolm Warner curated Connīs work for a solo show at TCU Gallery. He included several Hobo Signs prints with the Thicket series. In an introduction to the work, he spoke about the decision to show both series together: "They both tend toward blackness and abstraction. Both, in their own ways, are about journeys."  

Speaking of journeys, Conn has just returned from one: a duck hunting trip on the Brazos River. It was pitch dark when he walked into the woods at 4 a.m. He sat for hours in his camouflage in a portable blind, watching the widgeons and canvas backs and waiting on a mallard.

He didnīt get one, but he saw the eastern star rise, he says, as if that was more than worth it. The mysterious stillness that seems to reside in his prints may stem from this ability to sit contentedly in a dark wood covered in leaves, a waiting presence.

Connīs deep attention to the world demands that he cut his blocks under a magnifying glass. He uses linoleum as it is more forgiving, easier to cut than wood. "I like the exactness of linoleum. You carve away the block to make the light. You canīt add or go back, once youīve made the cut."

He decided 10 years ago to "return to the hand," in his work. He wanted to do more drawing, and limited himself to "one tool, one paper, one black ink, one image."

This sounds a bit Zen-like and philosophical, but Conn insists that he is not  a conceptual artist. "I donīt have big political or sociological ideas in my work. I am going more for sensory things. I donīt claim to have any big concept. My work is about how light filters and falls through the forest."

All artists have their muses, but Connīs is a bit different from the norm. Unlike the cliché, sheīs not a vamp or a slave driver — sheīs a girl of about 12 or 13.

"I think my muse came out at that moment I saw the Dürer," he says. "I recall having a death grip on someoneīs hand, but would a 12 year old boy have been holding hands with another kid? Maybe it was her."

For years, Connīs muse has come to him by simply extending her hand. She approaches with the lightness of childhood, communicating a feeling that says everything is possible, wondrous and uncomplicated.

"She smiles, gets close like a child gets close to your face and says, come dance with me."

And he does.

Contact Conn at d.conn@tcu.edu.

See Conn’s prints: http://personal.tcu.edu/~dconn/

David Conn was educated at the Maryland Institute College of Art and the University of Oklahoma. He teaches both undergraduate and graduate levels in a variety of studio disciplines, including drawing; color and design; printmaking; graduate and undergraduate seminars. Coordinator of the printmaking program at TCU for many years, he specializes in intaglio, relief, monoprinting, screen-printing and artist books.

Conn was awarded a Ford Fellowship as well as a National Endowment for the Arts Individual Fellowship for Printmaking, Drawing, and Artist Books. Professor Conn has taught printmaking and artist books at the Pontifica Universidad, Lima, Peru and the Europäische Kunst Akademie, Trier, Germany. His work has been shown in over 100 exhibitions in the U.S., Central and South America, Japan, England and Europe.

Conn’s work is in permanent collections of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth; The Modern Museum of Art, Campinas, Sau Paulo, Brazil; Bureau of Art Exhibitions, Lodz, Poland; Southwestern Bell; GTE Corporation; American Airlines; TCU; University of Texas at Austin, University of Dallas, University of Texas at Tyler and University of Wisconsin. He has taught at TCU since 1969.  

 

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