Story by Lynn Cook
Photo by Olivier Koning
When Alfred Retuta piloted his five-ton steamroller into the driveway last August, he knew this would be no ordinary job. Four-by-eight-foot sheets of plywood, carved with images and saturated with black ink, waited on the lawn of the Honolulu Museum of Art School. Blankets were spread on the pavement. Rather than smoothing out asphalt, Retuta would be making art.
Steamroller printing—that is, making giant prints using a steamroller as a press —is a fairly new phenomenon on the Mainland, and it was brought to Honolulu by printmaker Sergio Garzo. “When Sergio rolled into town,” quips Laura Smith, executive director of the Honolulu Printmakers organization, “he told us about steamroller printing he had done in Atlanta.” The idea of making a print larger than any press could handle proved irresistible to local printmakers like Alan Levy. Levy, who also happens to be a manager at Nordic Construction Company in Honolulu, offered the company steamroller.
Steamroller printing isn’t all that different from traditional printing; you carve a template, ink it and press it. But when your template’s a huge sheet of plywood and your press requires a license to operate, the stakes are a little higher. Still, following Garzon’s instructions, the printmakers— doctors, lawyers, teachers, designers— turned out to be fast learners. They moved easily from fine etching tools to half-inch motorized chisels.
For some of the printmakers, who typically work small, the sheer size of the canvas was overwhelming, so interior designer Gina Bacon Kerr “took one look at eight feet of plywood, handed out tools to seven artist pals and said, 'Cut!'" Public school art teacher Devin Oishi's team of Japanese manga-loving students carved what might be the world's largest comic page. "It's a wild and crazy time when artists go way out of their comfort zone," says Garzon.
Once the etching was finished and the ink spread, Retuta rolled his beast over the plywood. The outcome: Twenty huge, near-perfect prints of fruit, fish, bees and native plants, currently on rotating display December through January at the Louis Pohl Gallery in Honolulu's Chinatown.