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Introducing new member J. Yuen Ling Chiu

Ling's work explores themes including migration, memory and the printmaking process itself. Her beautifully observed prints of pigeons living on the Royal Iris, an abandoned ferry moored by Thames-Side Studios in Woolwich, serve as a metaphor for people and how we see ourselves and others, while her commitment to sustainability has earned her a grant from Arts Council England to research and develop new ways to work.

Etching print of pigeon looking left
"Pigeon, Looking Left", 4-plate steel etching on paper

How did you get into printmaking?

Printmaker Ling Chiu at Thames-side Print Studio
Ling at Thames-Side Print Studio

I started learning about printmaking and graphic arts when I was in secondary school. I was in a programme called CyberArts, and I remember making stencil prints one day, and working in Adobe and RIP softwares the next. It was wild, really experimental.

I got properly hooked in university. I studied at Queen’s University for my BFAH, and had the most inspiring professors: Sylvat, Otis, and Carl. I studied printmaking as my ‘major’, with a focus on stone lithography, but I loved all of it.

When I arrived in the UK to attend my MFA at the Slade, the print rooms were under construction, so they sent me to London Print Studio to make work. While I was there, I got a job as a technician, so I got to make my own prints, and help other people make theirs. I’ve never looked back.

Colourful handmade print of shapes and blossoms
"Study No. 3 (Sanguine)", etching and screenprint on paper

What do you love about printmaking?

My relationship with printmaking is deep and complex, and imperfect, but there is a lot to love. Surface, materiality, how it bends and flexes to meet different practices. It is a fine art, a craft, a skill. It can help explore ideas, but it can also trap you in technique. A failed stone or plate can be a really emotional experience.

I love the idea that multiples mean more people can access art more readily, more affordably. You don’t need to turn it on, update the OS, plug it in – prints are for anyone and everyone.

Green print of pigeon and blossoms
"Snacking on What's Left (Green)", linocut on paper

You work across a variety of printmaking techniques. Do you have any particular favourites, or does it change depending on what you’re working on?

I think about printmaking like music. Each technique, surface, ink, tool, is a voice or instrument, part of a choir or ensemble, so it depends on what idea I’m exploring, what question I’m trying to answer, the pitch or tone I’m trying to achieve.

Sometimes there is nothing more satisfying than a beautiful line cut across a copper plate, like a virtuoso soloist. Other times it’s an ensemble piece, combining etching plates, or overlaying with screenprinting.

I don’t have a favourite, but stone lithography is the best. That’s just a fact.

Etching of pigeons on the Royal Iris, Woolwich
"Residents of the Royal Iris II", steel etching on paper

The pigeons on the Royal Iris, a dilapidated ferry near your studio in Woolwich, feature in quite a few of your prints. What is it about them that interests you? Is it that particular colony or pigeons in general? Although birds tend to be much-loved, pigeons in particular seem to provoke strong feelings in people.

I remember when the studios opened, over ten years ago, and the ship was there. There were only a few birds then. The studios have grown in number, and so has the population of pigeons on the ship. It occurred to me that pigeons are analogous to people, in so many ways, and I am exploring this idea in my prints.

Handmade print of pigeons on the Royal Iris, Woolwich
"Morning Gathering", steel etching on paper

They live and work where we live and work, and there is no biological difference between a pigeon and a dove, an expat, a migrant, a citizen. It’s a difficult relationship, a mirror to our own existence. Somewhere, some time ago, pigeons became villains – unwanted, disgusting, foreign, disease-ridden – and then our own built environment crippled them, forced them into a more tenuous existence, and that somehow made them more disgusting still.

I visit the pigeon colony on the Royal Iris every day I go to the studio. I watch them on the break wall, in sunshine and rain. Some of the birds are individuals to me now, because I’ve spent time observing them. It’s amazing how different they all are – their colours, markings, personalities. They’re just trying to live.

Composition C20210421_2

Experimentation with colour seems to be an important part of your work, and you also did a lockdown sketchbook of patterns printed with lino and ink pads. What can you tell me about that? How is that playing into the work you’re doing now?

Sketchbook printing practice
Ling's sketchbook

During lockdown, motivation was difficult; I was teaching online, and in lots of health and safety meetings, and I needed something else. I had lino off-cuts and ink pads in my home, and it just gave me a place to have a wander with marks, colours, patterns, ideas.

I’ve since left a full-time university job to pursue my practice. There are days when I’m not sure where or how to start, or maybe I’m overwhelmed by my to-do list, but I know that printing something, anything, will get me on my way, so I return to my ink pads and tiny blocks for inspiration. I give myself a time limit, no more than 10 minutes, and it just reframes my thinking.

I’m not sure if it has directly influenced my other work, except that it forms a part of the practice, like warming up or stretching.

Work in progress

What are you working on at the moment? You’re known for exploring new methods, especially with your recent move towards more sustainable printmaking. What drives you to take on this challenge? Is it difficult to let go of some of the traditional techniques and materials?

I received an Arts Council grant this year to transition some of my processes to more sustainable, lower toxicity methods. A lot of my prints are now part visual research, part materials research.

I’ve just returned from a residency at AGALAB, a studio in Amsterdam that strives to be solvent and acid-free. They even have a dye garden to produce their own inks and dyes.

Stone lithograph of a pigeon skeleton
"Columba livia (Y1576)", stone lithograph on paper

Printmaking is part of a bigger conversation to have in art, about sustainability, inclusivity, accessibility. Choosing materials, methods, procurement and disposal processes that are more inclusive and sustainable is an important part of my practice. I love printmaking, and I want to break down barriers that prevent others from engaging with it. This means sharing information freely, about successes, and also failures. I want to do this for another 50 years, and that means looking after myself, and the environment in which I and others work.

In terms of letting go of traditional techniques and materials, I like to think that carrots will never be chicken wings. Vegetarians and vegans work with what they have to make delicious, beautiful food, and I’ve never heard one lament the lack of crackling, bone and flesh. I’m not vegetarian, but maybe my print practice is like that? I don’t miss the marks I don’t have, I embrace the ones I do.

Ling's beautiful prints are available at Greenwich Printmakers, both in our gallery in Greenwich Market and via our online shop. To find out more about Ling's work, visit her artist's page and her website.


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