Navigating the Current

The husband and wife duo behind Tugboat Printshop talk open up about their process, collaboration, and inspiration

Paul Roden and Valerie Lueth, whose woodcut prints are featured in Creative Nonfiction #59: “Marriage,” are the husband-wife team at the helm of Pittsburgh’s Tugboat Printshop. The two have spent thousands of hours in artistic collaboration, creating dozens of paradisal scenes from the natural world. The work featured on the magazine’s cover, entitled “Overlook,” is the couple’s largest and most elaborate color woodcut to date.

CNF: You both graduated from the University of South Dakota in 2004 with degrees in Printmaking. Is that where you met? And is that when you first started collaborating?

RODEN & LUETH: We met in 2001 at the University of South Dakota. Valerie was halfway through a BFA in printmaking, and Paul had just arrived from Washington University in St. Louis to begin graduate studies in printmaking. We both worked with Professor Lloyd Menard, through whom we met countless actively practicing printmakers and got tremendous real world experience. We produced prints through the printmaking department’s visiting artist program, assisted with and attended a wide range of intensive summer printmaking workshops through Lloyd’s self-started Frogman’s Print Workshop, and attended trade conferences where we networked with printmakers from all over the country, making many friends. We talked together about how we wanted to apply ourselves after graduation, and we both wanted to prioritize making prints! Our first collaboration was the decision to buy a press after graduation, in 2004. We began our first artwork collaborations a couple years later in Pittsburgh, when we began operating as Tugboat Printshop.

CNF: How did each of you come to develop an interest in printmaking?

LUETH: Looking back, Lloyd was instrumental in guiding me towards printmaking. After taking his Drawing I course, I was offered a summer-long assistantship in the print department and at Frogman’s Print Workshop. I leapt at the opportunity, and began my first courses in woodcut and etching that July. The print shop community was lively and interesting, with a serious work ethic. I loved the range of possibilities within the medium and was able to watch all of these energized grad students printing all summer long. Those summer workshops rolled into five more years of continuous studio classes, assistantships, workshops, conferences; I immersed myself in making. My friends through my college years, especially Paul, were very inspiring. We fueled each other creatively, had little distraction from making art in the small town setting of Vermillion, SD, and made opportunities for ourselves from what was around us.

RODEN: My early professors also played a role in my pursuit of printmaking knowledge. Lisa Bulawsky from Washington University presented printmaking as a sort of means of problem solving, of creating a bridge between thought, idea, image, and meaning—not really how we appear to pursue our practice, but something that is actually quite integral to how we present our work to the public.

CNF: What does your collaborative creative process look like—from inspiration to print?

RODEN & LUETH: Our conversations about prints are ongoing; new ideas pop up all the time! We don’t really have any kind of precise strategy for how we get inspired or choose what to make. We talk to each other, and that leads to an idea, and then we work with each other’s strengths to make it happen. Making prints can be a long, slow process. We try to keep it lively!

We tend to have many projects going simultaneously, in different states of completion, and we trade drawing/carving/printing back and forth, allowing ideas to take shape organically and tasks to be delegated as we are faced with the work.

The first step in our process is drawing directly on blocks with pencil. Then, we pen the drawing in, carve it with hand-tools, transfer to color blocks, and carve up to five color blocks. Every step of our process is done completely by hand, using traditional methods, tools, and materials (no computers). We use multiple woodblocks (always 3/4” birch plywood) and make a block for each color.

Color palettes are usually pushed beyond our first concept plans in proofing. We trust each other’s reactions, we proof tests until we’re really excited, and then we mix big ink batches, tear paper, and move into the production of the edition.

CNF: You’re often collaborating on multiple projects at a time. How do you divide up the work? Who likes to do what?

RODEN & LUETH: As our collaboration has evolved, we have learned the language of each other’s marks and strengths. Valerie is often the one penning in pencil sketches for carving while Paul is carving (ultimately lending the final quality of mark making to the block). Paul is great with expressive, active drawing; Valerie is attuned to elaborate patterning and shaping.

CNF: What’s the key to balancing a bustling business and a marriage while also raising two kids together?

RODEN & LUETH: We haven’t stumbled upon a perfect formula, but we try to find balance between what we hope to accomplish as artists and creating a warm, connected home life. Our studio is located in our home, and we are currently building a studio outbuilding in our backyard to expand our production space. We live a life of drawing, carving, spinning the press wheel, and producing prints alongside cooking, gardening, walking in to our neighborhood parks, and enjoying time with friends. The collaboration on artwork extends to a collaboration in the homespace; it’s a delicate balance but one we pay great attention to maintaining.

CNF: How has your relationship influenced your art? And how has your art influenced your relationship?

RODEN & LUETH: We have supported each other through all variety of start-up bumps, and we’ve challenged each other creatively and technically on a daily basis. Through it all, we have developed a deep trust of each other’s abilities, thought processes, and intuitions. We aren’t always on the same page, but we air our grievances, listen to each other, and find solutions that ultimately satisfy us both.

CNF: When you’re not collaborating, what sort of individual projects do you dive into?

RODEN & LUETH: Oftentimes, our time spent away from making prints is reflective—sketchbook-based, drawing while reading, listening to records or music. But we also take time to be active—gardening, fishing, working on other creative home-building projects, taking road trips.

We’ve been working pretty exclusively as collaborators for the past nine or ten years now, but we anticipate that will change with the addition of new studio space in coming months. In the beginning, collaboration offered a lot of new freedoms and working together increased our output. Over time, our prints have become more involved, oftentimes taking months or years to complete. We foresee an increase in individualized projects alongside prints we make together. Tugboat Printshop will host both our personal artworks and collaborations in the future.

CNF: So many of your pieces are portraits of nature. Where do you find your inspiration?

RODEN & LUETH: Yes, we do look to the natural world for inspiration. It is difficult to pinpoint an exact moment in chronological time when you are looking at a natural scene. Many of our prints strive to convey moments of utopian daydreaminess—life alongside the abundance of nature, celebrating the natural world and our relationship to it.

CNF: What have been some of your favorite projects so far?

RODEN & LUETH: America the Beautiful, Forest, Bonfire, Homemade Boat, Golden Apple Tree, The Moon, Desert Island, Overlook

CNF: What’s next for Tugboat Printshop? Any exciting new projects on the horizon?

RODEN & LUETH: New space! We broke ground this week on a new studio outbuilding in our backyard, a space that will host our press and contribute some much-needed room for production at Tugboat.

Having new space will not only mean more ease and comfort for our practice, but should also translate to faster production, interns, employees, classes, lessons, little events, and generally a level of participation and openness we’ve felt a little distance from for the past few years.

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