Kalli Rolfe Contemporary Art

A Dazzling Legacy: The Larry Rawling Print Workshop

JE: How important is the artisan part of the ‘we’?
ALJ: It’s absolutely crucial. It’s a marriage of the two talents. It is the genius of the printer, the skills of the artisan…

Larry Rawling was born in Melbourne in 1938. He started at Bookra Display Service in Little Collins Street as a sixteen year-old trainee in 1955, printing show cards for shop window displays. In 1957, while Larry was browsing in the Morrie Slade tennis shop, he saw someone pegging brightly coloured prints to a line in an adjoining upstairs building. Curious, he went to investigate, and subsequently landed a job at Mal Studios commercial screenprinting company, located above a house paint shop on the corner of King and Bourke streets, next to the Wool Exchange Hotel.

MAL STUDIOS

Rawling’s first exposure to limited edition prints came about through his association with one of the apprentices, Ted Cross and his friend Jan Senbergs. While Cross and Senbergs were attending the School of Printing and Graphic Arts in North Melbourne together, Larry supplied some off-cut film images for Senberg’s Artificial Garden screenprint.

When Alun Leach-Jones walked into Mal Studios in 1966 looking for a printer, Rawling had some understanding of what an art print was, but little did he realise that he would later become the Australian equivalent of the master screenprinter, Chris Prater, who established his world renowned Kelpra Studio in London in 1957. The Kelpra limited edition images by leading Pop Artists Howard Hodgkin, Richard Hamilton, Patrick Caulfield and others had left a lasting impression on Leach-Jones when he saw them in England during 1964-65. He realised that instead of the artist making the work, a drawing or design could be given to a printer to produce the matrices and edition the images.

Returning to Australia in 1966, Leach-Jones was determined to work in this new way and to find similar printing expertise in the commercial industry. Roger Butler commented that “his meeting in 1966 with Melbourne screenprinting technician Larry Rawling was fortunate for Australian Printmaking.” By now an accomplished craftsman with nine year’s experience, Larry was intrigued by what he knew about fine art prints and pleased by the prospect of assisting a professional artist who had worked overseas. Ben Benjafield, the owner of Mal Studios, understood the printer’s desire to extend his expertise and generously allowed him to use the studio at night and weekends to print Leach-Jones’ work. The Rawling/ Leach-Jones union went on to last four decades, and together they produced over seventy editions, many of which reside in collections worldwide.

In 1968, at the age of thirty, Larry became owner of Mal Studios Pty.Ltd. Over time, he made it one of the leading commercial screenprinting studios in Melbourne, finally winning a PICA Gold Trophy Award from the Print Industry Craft Association in 1982. The workshop also became a very popular studio space for artist/printer collaborations. There was no doubt that Rawling was in the right place at the right time as the silkscreen technique suited the needs of Australian artists of the 1960s and 1970s. It could successfully emulate the painting styles of Hard-edged Abstraction, Painterly Abstraction and Pop Art, and importantly, it could open up new visual possibilities for composite photographic images. Even artists trained as printmakers sought his technical excellence.

424 NICHOLSON STREET, FITZROY

Larry became increasingly committed to the idea of working exclusively with artists. Because the combination of commercial printing deadlines and print projects was not always ideal, he sold Mal Studios in 1984 and set up a workshop entirely devoted to the production of artist’s work in Nicholson St, Fitzroy. Here, he established a workshop upstairs (with two printing tables and a section devoted to photo screens) and a gallery and archival space below.

By April 1985, the Larry Rawling Print Workshop was open for business. Alun Leach-Jones, Robert Grieve and Mike Green continued their association, and artists Bruno Leti, William Kelly, Tim Storrier, Charles Blackman, Greg Moncrieff, Danny McDonald, Imants Tillers, Jan Senbergs, Juan Davila, Colin Lanceley, Johnny Bulun Bulun, Lisa Roet, David Milaybuma, Wili and Charlie Tarawa Tjugurrayi, amongst others, worked with Larry in a number of ways: some artists sent finished images to be interpreted; others wanted text printed for artist’s book pages; many chose to work alongside the printer, confirming the fine-tuning of colour and trialling of techniques (which were sometimes on polycarbonate, glass or wood substrates) and assisting in the preparation and reworking of stencils.

Larry continued to be happily challenged by artists’ technical requests at Nicholson Street and experimentation often led to new and successful outcomes. For example, a toothed acetate sourced from Japan and drawn on with varying pressure using a greasy pencil, allowed William Kelly to achieve screened tonal effects more nuanced than a lithograph for his Cologne Cathedral Series of 1987-88.

The gigantic scale of many of Juan Davila’s prints brought exceptional challenges. Since 1998, the artist and the printer have created thirty-four editions—some of the most significant screenprints ever produced in Australia. Larry particularly admires Davila’s The Liberator Simon Bolivar (1994) and is in awe of his inventive working method. When preparing his huge stencils, the artist often utilises things of the moment, such as scraps of discarded material, and when he makes boundary-breaking requests, Larry’s standard reply is “All we can do is try, Juan.”

Whatever the activity at Fitzroy, it always took place within the immaculate order of the workshop and was preceded by freshly brewed coffee and pleasant conversation. On April 21 1987, Chris Prater visited Larry’s workshop. The two printers had much to discuss as they had both made a transition from commercial to fine art screenprinting. On a Kelpra Studio catalogue, Prater wrote: For Larry. In remembrance of the meeting of two Napoleons. In the same year, a tribute exhibition ‘Larry Rawling Printmaker’ was held at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in Melbourne. In the leaflet introduction, Alun Leach-Jones described Larry’s attributes:

“What is extraordinary about this great artist’s printer is that there seems nothing in the medium that he cannot do. Whatever an artist requires, whatever the creative imagination demands, he is capable of achieving what seems impossible. In this he challenges and simultaneously serve’s the artist’s imagination. I sometimes feel I have failed in not always having been as ambitious and daring as he would have liked, The greater the challenge, the more difficult the problem, the happier he always seems to be. Without him, I am certain, many of us would never have achieved the graphic works for which we, as artists, are admired and acclaimed. Half our achievement is deservedly his.”

On July 25 1991, five years after opening the Fitzroy workshop, Larry Rawling held a 25th anniversary exhibition, selecting thirty-one prints from his archive for display in the downstairs workshop gallery. As well, a Print Portfolio, on 65 x 45 cm BFK Rives, with designs donated by Juan Davila, Robert Grieve, Mike Green, William Kelly, Alun Leach-Jones, Bruno Leti and Greg Moncrieff was printed to commemorate the anniversary. The folio highlighted the diversity of work made at the workshop and the artists’ strong association with it. A further celebration exhibition was sponsored by The Essiogn Club Limited, and held at the Owen Dixon Chambers, Melbourne on December 3 1991.

KINGLAKE WEST

In 1998, Larry Rawling moved his workshop to his property at Kinglake West, near Melbourne, thus eliminating the long drive to and from Fitzroy. Set on a high ridge, the print studio has commanding views of the surrounding countryside. Brent Harris, David Band, Juan Davila, Gabriella Possum Nungurray, Andrew Taylor, Robert Jacks, Brook Andrew and Mike Parr have all made important prints here.

The preference for unique state prints by an increasing number of artists during the 1990s and up to the present has changed the rhythm of Larry’s working method and accustomed way of working at Kinglake. David Band’s 2003 Spirograph series, characterised by screened black and white motifs over individual hand worked and etched backgrounds on differently sized papers, typified a now common disregard for traditional printmaking conventions, and interdisciplinary artist Brook Andrew, who created unique state prints with Larry over a three-month period in 2005, especially challenged the experienced printer with his exploratory way of working.

To date, eighty-seven artists have made screenprints with Rawling over a forty-year period. Looking through the substantial two-volume document that chronicles activity at the workshop over that time, we see reproductions of over five hundred editions. One is simply astounded by the depth and breadth of the work, and humbled by the sheer physical achievement of it all. Most Australian art periods of the last four decades are represented here in serigraph form, and within this broader framework one may also trace other aspects from the point of view of passing decades—the fluctuation of interest in the medium, the changed nature of printmaking conventions and especially the stylistic development of some of Australia’s finest artists. Most significantly, one realises that without Larry Rawling, who has single-handedly made all of these works, the history of limited edition screenprinting in Australia would be all the poorer. It is indeed a dazzling legacy.

© Katherine McDonald, Melbourne, July 2006

Larry Rawling would like to thank his wife Terri, daughter Karen Evans and Kalli Rolfe. Without their help this project would never have happened.