The fine art produced over the past three decades by Bloomfield Township screenprinters Norman and Susan Stewart has been featured in the Detroit Institute of Art and other galleries around the country, but the beginnings of their craft may be attributed to the luck of the draw.
Married for nearly 50 years, the former high school sweethearts both studied design at the University of Michigan. When Norman returned to the school to earn his masters degree, most of the classes he wanted to take were already full.
"I asked, 'what is open,'" Norman said, recalling the conversation with the school's registrar's office. "She said, 'well, I think there's an opening in screenprinting.' So I did that."
Screenprinting is one of five basic printmaking techniques. Made popular by artist Andy Warhol through his silkscreening of pop culture icons, the process involves using fine fabric as an ink screen and stenciling part of that fabric to create an image. While the process dates to ancient times, Norman and Susan work with select artists to help them create unique and innovative work by blending the ancient practices with modern technology.
"We are using very transparent inks, which is different than most screenprinting. We can achieve much more, and there are extra colors," Norman said, explaining the process of layering different screens to produce many colors out of a few. "If you print two colors, you can get three because of the overlays. If you print three, you get seven colors. There are over a million permutations printing with 20 colors. We have done 32, and for each one, the artist does a separate stencil. It's a pretty labor intensive process."
Artists from around the country often spend weeks working with them at their Bloomfield Township studio, collaborating to produce unique works of art. "We started with Michigan artists in the beginning," Susan Stewart said, who previously worked as a graphic designer. "Then, through word of mouth it happened with more nationally esteemed artists, and that snowballed into working with even more artists."
The couple's work is particularly unique for its use of computer technology in the printmaking process.
"We wanted that to be a signature for us," Norman said. "There are a few (fine art screenprinters) that are left, and they would recoil when you mention anything with computers. We are just using it as another tool."
In 1991, "Collaboration in Print – Stewart & Stewart Prints: 1980-1990," became a national touring exhibit that debuted at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The exhibition and catalog documented the first decade of work by Stewart and Stewart, and was accepted into the prestigious International Fine Print Dealers Association. In 2005, "The Art of Screenprint," another exhibit at the DIA, celebrated their 25th anniversary.
Working with artists during each step of the process – often at their home studio on Wing Lake Road that they bought as their first home, the couple has collaborated to help produce hundreds of one-of-a-kind works.
"We are there to support them 100 percent," Norman said about the collaborative work with artists. "They are focused on doing their best work. They are like a performer, but in our situation, the artist comes in, and the audience is the print."
"It's the basic difference between collaborative printmaking and contract print making," Susan said. "You pretty much cherry pick who you work with because you have to be able to work with them."
Photo: Laurie Tennent