"What color?" Jessica Pepper asks, standing over dozens of large sheets of paper glowing with texture, pattern and color.
"White," Sam Gilliam says.
The recent graduate of University of Tampa's art program flinches slightly at his request.
Then she takes a roller and coats everything in glossy white oil paint.
She is not alone in her surprise here in STUDIO-f, the university's printmaking shop.
Master printer Carl Cowden III is taken aback when he arrives, seeing five days' work seemingly obliterated. But he doesn't question Gilliam, an internationally respected artist whose trademark has always been his genius for colors. Cowden prepares the press for applications of more color over the freshly monochromic works, now so thick with paint, tinted gels and dripped concrete they feel like tanned leather.
"Reduction, clarity, closure," Gilliam says.
Gilliam was recently at the University of Tampa, creating a series of prints to benefit the print studio. Given the complex process he uses, they are more aptly described as paintings that happen to employ some printing techniques. The crew assisting him includes Cowden's assistant, Mike Massaro; Gilliam's longtime friend, professor emeritus Gil DeMeza; associate art professor Kendra Frorup; and a passel of art students.
Even though printmaking is a collaborative art, Gilliam, 75, doesn't need such a crowded field of helpers. But he is also a teacher, and the door to STUDIO-f has remained open during his nearly weeklong stay, an invitation for anyone to enter, observe and ask questions, even to participate. He frequently stops to chat with students and visitors.
A conversation with Gilliam would be helped by having at hand an art history book and recent issues of learned and popular art publications. His mind ranges from one reference to the next in subtle shifts that can leave the listener behind.
"Titian took pride in being a discoverer, a colorist. But he worried about a lack of money. Today people know more about being billionaires than about living a real life. I know how to go broke. I'm successful because I work with what I can do, what I can see."
"Artists used to be like plumbers. We can't lose that sense. We pour through a sieve, or pull it off like E.E. Cummings' acrobat. Art is always trying to solve some problem, something that is unclear even when it appears common."
"New York, Paris, Chicago. You have to be there. You want to see Monet, Picasso, Velazquez, Pollock, the National Gallery (in Washington), the Tate (Museum in London). It's the water for the bucket you're carrying. It's what doesn't make you a cheap champion. You put it all together and then you have the right to grow."
Gilliam and company have spent 18-hour days in the studio. The drying racks are stacked with paper bearing as many as 30 coats of paint. They began with several images Cowden made by enlarging photos of perforations in a rubber mat and the rounded bars of a fan cover, things Gilliam found in the studio that now look like abstractions when translated to the silk screen. Gilliam has also printed and painted on nylon and felt. At his suggestion, Cowden pulls out sheets of translucent plastic he starts printing for Gilliam to use as overlays.
Gilliam studies each iteration, sorting them into different piles. Before the white-out, he directed students to cut squares, rectangles and trapezoids out of the paintings and for Frorup, a sculptor, to recombine some of the new shapes using a sewing machine, the stitches and hanging threads creating another kind of texture.
"It's fun to work with Sam," she says. "He gives you some freedom, but he knows what he wants."
Cowden takes various shapes of paper, the white paint now dry, and arranges them on his printing press, then inks the screen with black and turquoise.
"He'd rather have me put them together," Cowden says. "He'd rather have that spontaneity. He's an amazing teacher. 'Don't think about it. Just do it.' "
"We're fishing," Gilliam says smiling, surveying the progress.
He would probably keep "fishing" for days if he could. But Gilliam has a deadline, 6 p.m. Tuesday, when the series was unveiled at an open house. Half will go to Gilliam, who lives in Washington. Half will go to the university and some will be for sale at the reception for about $3,000, a bargain considering his prints often sell for $8,000. This is his fourth visit to University of Tampa and it has always been a critical and financial success.
"Sam comes down and gets us out of the hole," says DeMeza, who cofounded the program in the 1990s with a $1,500 budget that bought a drying rack. Dorothy Cowden, who has had her own print atelier and directs the university art gallery (and is Carl Cowden's mother), took over STUDIO-f. It has grown in large part through sales of work by visiting artists. Gilliam, because of his reputation, has always been one of the biggest draws.
Three days later and one day before the show, calm has replaced the frenetic pace of Gilliam's assistants. The white has been repainted; it served its purpose as a bridge between the early colors, lurking beneath the surface, and new ones.
What seemed like a random enterprise is now focused as the artist takes over, arranging shapes, asking for a cut here, an overlay there. The collaged felt, paper and board flow in currents of color that draw the eye up, down and around, a visual feast. Some have been grounded by washes of meditative black. The nylon has been gathered onto backgrounds reminiscent of his seminal drape paintings from the 1960s when he was the first artist to use unsupported, loose canvases pinned to gallery walls.
The emerging works are hardly reductive, but clarity is a common denominator in all of them and they seem to be approaching closure. How much more Gilliam wants to add, can add, is a continuing mystery.
"You think it's done," Massaro says. "But then he wants another color, another layer."
He sees what others do not. And he'll never be finished. He will just have to walk away.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.