Rubber City Prints opens doors in Akron Nov. 1
— What happened to Pamela Testa back in 2012 would make just about any start-up business owner giddy.
The Akron native applied for a business grant through a partnership between Charter One Bank and a local community development nonprofit.
“Basically, I entered the competition just for the experience, because I’m afraid of doing that kind of thing,” Testa recalls. “And I ended up winning.”
The check took two years to arrive. When it did, Testa had $17,500 in seed money to start her fine art print shop, Rubber City Prints (RCP), located in Summit Artspace on East Market Street. The 950-square-foot space comprises two adjoining rooms, one of which is anchored by an 800-pound etching press.
“I feel like the print shop can be built around it,” says Testa of the press. “And with everything else that needs to be built, we are going to work our way up, floor to ceiling, to utilize all this space.”
Growing up as an artist
Hanging in the studio is a cloth print made by Testa, who inked an American elm tree on her property, wrapped it with cloth then burnished it with a spoon.
“When we burnish something by hand for wood cut printing, we’re doing a relief print — just printing the surface,” says Testa. “It’s like the ghost of the tree, a thumbprint.”
Testa was an artsy kid and had a penchant for viewing the world tucked inside foliage.
“I was either drawing, coloring or hanging out in trees,” she recalls. “If my family couldn’t find me, they’d go out looking in trees.”
After high school, Testa took a traditional career route.
“My mom and dad were like, ‘No, you can’t go to art school, you’ll never make a living at it,’” she remembers. “So I went to business school for a little bit. Wasn’t for me. Hated it.”
She then married, had her first child at 21 and became a stay-at-home mom.
“By the time my youngest was two years old…watching Barney and all that stuff, I felt like my brain was melting,” she says. “So I took night classes at Kent.”
Testa received her master’s degree in printmaking from Kent State University, where she worked as a graduate teaching assistant. She studied under the tutelage of Noel Reifel, who schooled at the prestigious Pratt Institute in New York and who “basically brought printmaking to Northeast Ohio,” she notes.
Reifel worked with Robert Blackburn, who was inspired by Stanley William Hayter, an English printmaker and painter who founded in Paris, Atelier 17, considered to be the most influential print workshop in the 20th Century.
Blackburn was a key player in bringing printmaking as an art form to the United States, and Reifel has helped further that community of printmakers and in fact helped establish Zygote press in Cleveland.
Testa and her husband Todd have two sons, 18-year-old Anthony and 16-year-old Dominic. The artist and her engineer husband make for quite a pair.
“We’re complete opposites in that way, but it’s nice,” Testa says. “He thinks what I do makes me a genius, and I think what he does makes him a genius, so we balance each other.”
When Testa is working on a sculpture (she also likes welding with steel), she’ll form an idea, but her husband “will make a suggestion based on physics to make my idea stronger.”
Bringing printmaking to NE Ohio
Some may define fine art exclusively as painting and sculpture. But “since the ’90s, printmaking, which is a fine art, has been pretty strong,” Testa says. “Counting us, there are only five fine art print shops in Ohio right now — Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus and Dayton.”
Testa says RCP is in a prime location.
“We’re centrally located with all of the universities around here, and they all have printmaking in their curriculum,” she says. “But nobody really ever continues in printmaking because they have to have a place to do it, or they move away like my friends did to continue printmaking.”
To continue the tradition in Northeast Ohio, Testa continues to surround herself with other printmaking professionals.
Bridget O’Donnell, who received her master’s degree in printmaking with Testa, is RCP’s associate director. O’Donnell also was a graduate teaching assistant and still teaches printmaking at Kent State’s Stark Campus.
Krista Rickert, RCP’s administrator, initially studied printmaking but switched to psychology for her bachelor’s degree. Testa says Rickert’s “printmaking skills are fantastic.”
“It’s been great to get this up and running,” Rickert says. “It will be a huge relief to have a place to work. As an alumni, you’re always welcomed back to your school, but [it’s good] to have a place to go after graduation and be able to work.”
Founding RCP has been quite an undertaking, Testa acknowledges, but she has had a lot of support — and crucial business-related help.
“I have an aunt who works as a tax accountant for a nonprofit, and a family friend who’s a grant writer,” she says. “I have a good group of people behind me.”
Nov. 1 opening
Plans are to open RCP Nov. 1, during that month’s Akron Artwalk, but for now, Testa says she’s “all over the place, meeting with people, planning.”
A collaborative studio and gallery, RCP’s offerings will include relief, intaglio (in TAL e o), screen-printing, letterpress capabilities, educational workshops and internships. Screen-printing will happen as soon as the equipment is built and installed. Letterpress will be offered in the future, and a darkroom is eventually planned.
Services will be provided for students, artists of all mediums and career levels and community members. The following classes will be offered upon opening — mono-print, wood-cut relief, chine colle (a loose translation of this French term is paper attached with glue) and etching.
Testa and her staff just moved in this past June. The studio walls were formerly bright, but Testa went with a stark white, “like a lab and to give people the sense they’re working with paper.”
RCP’s green approach will use non-toxic methods for etching, inking and cleaning. Typically, nitric acid is used for an etching solution, but a copper sulfate solution will be used instead and is trash disposable. Mineral spirits are traditionally used for cleaning ink, but vinegar and vegetable oil will take its place.
For now, RCP is operating solely with the $17,500 grant, so there’s been bartering along the way, and Testa plans carefully. She says she’s currently filing for 501(c)3 nonprofit status and feels this is the only viable option to offer free or cheaper classes to community members who may be struggling financially.
“And we need to be a nonprofit to apply for grants that would fund some of the educational programs we would like to offer, for example, to high school students,” Testa says. “Most families in the area cannot afford these kinds of extracurricular activities, and I feel art is just as important to development as sports can be.”
For Testa, RCP will have a must broader reach than just printmakers and clients.
“Any kind of artist would really benefit from a place like this,” Testa says. “When I’d go to a print shop I’d ask, ‘When you work with artists who aren’t printmakers, what is their experience when they come away from that?’ And it’s always, ‘It was one of the best experiences for my life and for my art.’”
She explains that the experience allows other artists to work their ideas within the different layers of printmaking then translate them to their painting or sculpture.
“A lot of times,” she adds, “printmaking will influence your work somehow in a major way.”