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Lou Stovall’s Studio Assistants Share Fond Memories of Working With the Master Printer: ‘We Lost One of the Best Silkscreen Artists in the World’


Lou Stovall working at his drawing table at Workshop Inc., Dupont Center, 1969. | Courtesy Lou Stovall Workshop

 

 

LOU STOVALL’S WORKSHOP INC., was a thriving creative enterprise for half a century. Two years after he graduated from Howard University, Stovall established the silkscreen studio in Washington, D.C. The year was 1968. Initially, he produced community posters promoting political and social causes, cultural events and jazz concerts, often partnering with artist and musician Lloyd McNeill. Eventually, Stovall specialized in fine art prints, collaborating with Jacob Lawrence, Sam Gilliam, Washington Color School figures, and dozens of other artists.

Stovall made 21 prints with Gilliam, his good friend, and 22 with Lawrence, including his celebrated 15-part “Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture” series (1986–97), which captures the life of the leader of the Haitian Revolution. He collaborated on six prints with Gene Davis, three with David C. Driskell, and two each with Elizabeth Catlett and Lois Mailou Jones. Peter Blume’s “Autumn” (1988), a liminal image that bridges interior and exterior spaces with a large picture window, features 121 colors, each printed individually. He also printed his own work, a series of poetic landscapes, floral portraits, and dynamic abstractions. Stovall took on hundreds of projects over the years that he completed with support from a cast of assistants who helped produce artworks and manage the workshop.

After Stovall died on March 3, I reached out to several of his former assistants seeking brief remembrances and reflections of their time working with and learning from the master printer. Despite my request for brevity, to a person, they submitted essays of various lengths, rather than a few sentences. For each, the years spent working with Stovall were formative, all-consuming experiences, far too meaningful to collapse into a short paragraph.

They spoke of his love of color; his invention, experimentation, and technical precision; and his rigorous work ethic. They also recalled Stovall’s warmth and generosity, how giving he was of his time and knowledge, and his infectious sense of humor, connection to nature, and love of music, particularly jazz and opera.

“Lou was my mentor and also my friend. Because of Lou, I have a deep-seated love of process that finds its way into my work to this day,” Chris Hambrick said. “I will forever cherish the attention to detail that I learned at Lou’s hand.” John Jacobson, who described Stovall as “one of the best silkscreen artists in the world” said: “The rules of Workshop Inc., were that Lou would teach anyone who wanted to learn, as long as they agreed to stay around to teach someone else. I have taken that to heart and I am trying to stay around as long as I can to pass on his good, good help.”

The memories shared by Hambrick, Jacobsen, Dominique (Niki) Rockwell, Lisa Farrell, and Anne C. Smith span decades, documenting Stovall’s leadership and mentorship and the activities of a history-making silkscreen studio. Their thoughtful contributions are featured below, beginning with recollections from Rockwell who started working with Stovall in 1968, shortly after Workshop Inc., was founded:

 


Lou Stovall working on a screenprint at Workshop Inc. | Courtesy Lou Stovall Workshop

 

Dominique (Niki) Rockwell
Workshop Inc., 1968-71
Retired Public School Teacher, Boston, Mass.

I MET LLOYD MCNEILL IN 1968 when interning at The Washington Gallery of Modern Art under the direction of Walter Hopps. I was attending Bennington College at the time, and this was my Non Resident Term (NRT). The show “Intercourse 68” was in full swing, and I worked there through the transition to the Frank Stella show. When I returned to Bennington, Lloyd rode up on his motorcycle to give a presentation, and he mentioned my possibly working with Lou Stovall for my next NRT. I never had an interview. Not even a phone conversation. I just moved down to live in my aunt’s house in Northwest D.C., and walked down to the three-story building on M Street that housed a massive printing operation on two floors, I believe, with Lou’s silkscreen studio above.

I climbed the stairs and entered a large room with a desk, metal drying racks, and the largest silkscreen I’d ever seen. Lou was applying stencil gel to the screen. His neatly pressed, button up shirt was tucked into equally sharp pressed pants, always with a belt. His shoes were soft leather with a gum sole which helped when working on a cement floor for long hours.

He was a bit shorter than me with a beard and mustache, and the most mischievous eyes. He loved a good prank and played many of them. An example was, when we’d moved close to Dupont Circle, he sent me to purchase an item at “Payopoleze” drug store as he pronounced it. When I returned, I questioned him, saying wasn’t it really called Peoples? He shook his head saying, “No, it’s owned by Greeks and it’s pronounced Payopoleze.” I believed him. He and Lloyd had many more laughs pulling my gullible leg over the years I worked with them.

Lou was a fun-loving man, but he was also such a hard worker, as close to a perfectionist as a human can be. We worked long hours when the weather was right, as the laying of one color next to or over another needed exactly the same weather conditions to work. We might work close to 24 hours, if the weather was predicted to change soon. Read More

“The screen was light due to weights that Lou designed.… He’d push the screen down and drag the squeegee across. Lifting the screen, one of us with a taped finger, would whip the sheet out and lay it on a drying rack. To assist, one had to be fast. Lou hated to break his rhythm.”
— Dominique (Niki) Rockwell

 


Lou and Di (Bagley) Stovall print posters promoting Robert Flack Day at Workshop Inc., Dupont Center, 1972. Washington, D.C.’s first annual Human Kindness Day (1972-75) paid tribute to Roberta Flack, a graduate of Howard University. | Courtesy Lou Stovall Workshop

 

John Jacobsen
Workshop Inc., 1980-84
Writer/Film and TV Director, Seattle, Wash.

WE LOST ONE OF THE BEST SILKSCREEN ARTISTS in the world in early March; but for me, I lost a great friend and a man who really worked hard at mentoring me for years. What does a great mentor do? The great mentor helps us see the hope within ourselves. Lou Stovall did that for me. Truthfully, my dad (who died two years ago, almost on the same day) did, too, showing me I could be anything I wanted to be, but sometimes it takes someone outside your immediate circle and outside your family to believe in you.

“If you have a good thing and keep it to yourself,” Lou has said, “You will have to live knowing that you purposely gave up the opportunity to help someone, and what else is life supposed to be but helping others?” That sentiment has defined everything I do.

He built a new studio full of glass in his beautiful forest of a backyard in Washington’s Cleveland Park neighborhood that housed multiple, eight-foot silkscreen beds with large racks next to them to dry the freshly printed art. He installed the best stereo system with the biggest speakers I had ever heard, which played Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Quartet and Dave Brubeck, and Roberta Flack, Lou’s friend who often visited while I was there.

He hung not only his inspirational art on all the walls, which also hangs in numerous public and private collections throughout the world, but also the prints of Jacob Lawrence, Joseph Albers, Sam Gilliam, Alexander Calder, Gene Davis, and Grandma Moses, all whom hired him to create prints from their original art.

Interspersed with those masterpieces of silk screening were the album covers of his favorite musicians, and there were so many they covered not only any open space on the walls, but also they completely covered the ceiling as well. Where the floor met the wall rested framed photographs of trees, or the roots of trees, which fascinated Lou, maybe because he gave so may young artists roots, and on the desks he’d sneak in poems and essays and books of his favorite writers. Read More

“In this spiritual space, this CASTLE of art, I learned to print.… Lou invited me to assist him as he printed for some of America’s great artists and of course his own brilliant art. Almost everyday for several years, I drew and painted and printed late into the night. And I watched and listened to Lou.” — John Jacobsen

 


Lou Stovall looks on as his mentor and former Howard University professor, artist James Lesesne Wells (1902-1993), signs a color screenprint Stovall produced of “Still Life with Violin” (1987) by Wells, an edition of 99. Studio assistant Lisa Farrell is in the foreground with her back to the camera, with unidentified woman between Wells and Stovall at Workshop Inc., in Cleveland Park, 1987. | Courtesy Lou Stovall Workshop

 

Lisa Farrell
Workshop Inc., 1985-89
Graphic Artist, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

IN 1984, I MOVED WITH MY BEST FRIEND to Washington, D.C. I was raised in New Jersey and after graduating from Carnegie-Mellon, I tried to start a career in New York City. Even with my father’s help—he was a stockbroker—it was hard. For me, D.C. was a smaller scaled New York City, just as vibrant, but leafier and greener—an international city with lots of museums, arts and culture, and a thriving visual arts community.

I found it was a good fit for me and I had a few college friends working here already. I was a young artist eager to make connections in the art community in D.C. I was not exactly sure what career opportunities were available for artists other than commercial work in an ad agency or what was then called mechanical paste-up for a publication (replaced later by desktop publishing). Everything fell into place after I met Mr. Washington, D.C., himself, the artist Lou Stovall.

I found a part-time job at the Art Barn, a public gallery run by the National Park Service in Rock Creek Park. The Art Barn supported many local artists by employing them to teach art, with kids assisting who had been hired through a grant program of Mayor Marion Barry’s Youth Summer Jobs Program. I was a gallery sitter and artist assistant, and then an art installer and helper with the monthly poetry-reading series.

One day an art consultant stopped by asking if anyone was interested in managing/gallery sitting the entire run of an exhibition downtown at the old Foundry Gallery on Indiana Avenue, NW, organized by Lou Stovall. I jumped at the opportunity. I learned from day one that Lou was the most important, influential, and well-respected artist in D.C. Lou was the granddaddy and the biggest blessing to everything happening in the D.C. arts and culture scene, social justice causes, and politics.

Lou, the “Boss of D.C.,” visited the exhibit many times during its run, wearing his signature Stetson hat, often with the artist Nathaniel Miller. Lou brought with him just about the entire D.C. community of artists, collectors, and influential people. He talked to me about collecting art and I bought my first piece, a pencil drawing by Nate from his exhibit. At the end of the exhibit Lou urged me to keep in touch, and I knew he meant it, so I did. Read More

“I learned from day one that Lou was the most important, influential, and well-respected artist in D.C. Lou was the granddaddy and the biggest blessing to everything happening in the D.C. arts and culture scene, social justice causes, and politics.” — Lisa Farrell

 


Chris Hambrick with Lou Stovall, Cleveland Park, Nov. 4, 2016. | Courtesy Chris Hembrick

 

Chris Hambrick
Workshop Inc., 1996-2005
Editor, Podcasts, KQED Radio, San Francisco, Calif.

I MET LOU STOVALL WHEN I WALKED INTO WORKSHOP INC., to interview for a job as his studio assistant. It was 1996 and I was fresh out of art school at Howard University, but had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. He gave me a brief tour, told me “I don’t judge you by how you’ve worked for other people, I judge you by how you work for me,” and we were off.

I worked at the Workshop for the next 10 or so years: full time initially, from 1996 to 1999, and after that part-time on and off between other jobs and opportunities. Do you ever really stop working for Lou? I was in a deep dive on the wonders of process. Every tool had a specific place. Every assistant had a particular part to play in the printing. Every method had specific steps, and for anything we did often, Lou had created a jig to make that work quick and exact. I learned so much, and bathed in the beauty that only with tight controls could we create wonderful art that was identical, each time.

A key part of the printing process was the rhythm. Most days it came through the music in the rack of CDs, cassettes, and LPs that lined one whole wall of the studio. Anyone could play what they wanted, but we all had veto power over the music. If one person had an objection, it had to come off immediately. Everything fell under that rule except Al Green. Lou may have loved classical music, but Al Green was the soundtrack of choice for printing. Green’s Love and Happiness album seemed to be set at the perfect BPM we needed for a studio team of four people to print one color on about 250 prints with clock-like precision.

Lou was my mentor and also my friend. Because of Lou, I have a deep-seated love of process that finds its way into my work to this day. While I miss the music, the laughter (jokes and sarcasm were king), and the food (Lou kept a running mental tally of the best new recipes and restaurants), I will forever cherish the attention to detail that I learned at Lou’s hand. — C.H.

“Every assistant had a particular part to play in the printing. Every method had specific steps, and for anything we did often, Lou had created a jig to make that work quick and exact. I learned so much, and bathed in the beauty that only with tight controls could we create wonderful art that was identical, each time.” — Chris Hambrick

 


Di and Lou Stovall and David Bronson at Workshop Inc., in Dupont Center in 1970. | Courtesy Lou Stovall Workshop

 

Anne C. Smith
Workshop Inc., 2010-12
Artist, Washington, D.C.

LOU STOVALL WAS SO MANY THINGS TO ME: mentor, teacher, friend, and family. I started working for him as a studio assistant in 2010. I was full time until 2012, and then gradually part time after that until our working relationship evolved into a deep friendship. He, Di, and Will became like family to me, and because of their generous hearts, that love extended to my family—my husband and two young kids—as well. Lou taught me silkscreen printmaking; he taught me about exactitude and craftsmanship in the studio. There was nothing that he couldn’t do or figure out how to do—both in relation to making exquisite work and in relation to cultivating relationships, as he took great kindness and care with friends, acquaintances, and anyone we encountered in our day.

Lou loved color and was in love with the richness of oil-based silkscreen inks. I think that the beauty, ferocity, and intensity that he found in music, especially opera, he also found in the way that he could wield silkscreen colors to interact in thrilling ways on paper. Silkscreen prints are usually made by printing one color at a time (although Lou certainly flaunted that rule in his monoprints to stunning effect). When he taught me silkscreen printmaking and I was struggling to mix the next right color, he advised me that “each color must move the print forward.” It wasn’t enough to choose a color randomly or on a whim, but instead he placed such great weight on creating color that would really say something and do something in the print. Color was paramount, as were paying attention to the edges in a print. And he did after all title one print series, Color Regit, meaning “color rules.”

“Lou loved color and was in love with the richness of oil-based silkscreen inks. I think that the beauty, ferocity, and intensity that he found in music, especially opera, he also found in the way that he could wield silkscreen colors to interact in thrilling ways on paper.” — Anne C. Smith

Lou once described something that he learned from his teacher and mentor James Lesesne Wells at Howard University. It was “the possibility of participation.” I didn’t understand at first. I never thought of “participation” as a very inspiring word. But this was not the first time that I experienced a total shift of perspective and understanding as a result of something Lou said or did. I came to see that “participation” was fundamental to how Lou moved about the world, in his relationships and in his studio. Lou was there for people. He always would go the extra length to do a kindness for a friend or neighbor, or help another artist with a project or supplies. Of course, he participated in big ways, too, through his posters and collaborations, for example. Read More

 


Lou Stovall talks about the artistry of his methods and demonstrates his silkscreen printing process with help from assistants Allison Sheehy and Leah Gilliam, an artist in their own right and Sam Gilliam’s daughter. The short documentary was made on the occasion of “Through Their Eyes: The Art of Lou and Di Stovall” at the Anacostia Community Museum. (Sept. 18, 1983-March 4, 1984). | Video by Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum

 

FIND MORE about Lou Stovall on his website

FIND MORE Culture Type also gathered memories of Stovall from artists, curators, and friends

 

FIND MORE about Lou Stovall’s exhibitions. His work was recently on view at the Phillips Collection, Kreeger Museum (On Inventions and Color and Of the Land), Georgia Museum of Art, The Columbus Museum, and Hemphill Fine Art

 

FIND MORE Eight artists including Lou Stovall, Sam Gilliam, David Driskell, and Sylvia Snowden were in conversation about African American art in 20th century Washington during a two-day symposium at the National Gallery of Art hosted by The Center in 2017

 

BOOKSHELF
Recently published, “Of the Land: The Art and Poetry of Lou Stovall” includes the artist’s art, poetry, and a personal narrative about his life and work titled My Story. “Of the Land” is edited by Will Stovall and includes a foreword by National Gallery of Art curator Harry Cooper.An digital exhibition brochure accompanied “Lou Stovall: Of Land and Origins,” the artist’s exhibition at the Georgia Museum of Art. “Beauty Born of Struggle: The Art of Black Washington” is new volume that documents and expands upon a two-day symposium titled “The African American Art World in Twentieth Century Washington, D.C.” that was organized by the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art on March 16-17, 2017. Edited by Jeffrey C. Stewart, the book features a transcript of an historic artist panel with Lou Stovall (1937-2023), Sam Gilliam (1933-2022), David Driskell (1931-2020), Sylvia Snowden, Keith Morrison, Floyd Coleman, Lilian Thomas Burwell, and Martin Puryear that was moderated by Ruth Fine, along with 15 essays by Richard J. Powell, Gwendolyn H. Everett, Lauren Haynes, Elsa Smithgall, Steven Nelson, Jacqueline Serwer, Michael D. Harris (1948-2022), Adrienne Edwards, Robert G. O’Meally, Rhea L. Combs with Paul Gardullo and others that were presented at the symposium.

 

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