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Trinity Magazine 2008 | Thora Jacobson ’70

Q: What do tattoos, The Declaration of Independence, and TRINITY magazine all have in common?

A: They are all forms of print.

by Sarah Godwin

Jacobson (far left) and the Philagrafika staff at their headquarters

Jacobson (far left) and the Philagrafika staff at their headquarters

The historical and modern art form involves the reproduction of surfaces coming in contact with other surfaces to create an image. If you find this listing of print items to be broad, all encompassing, and perhaps even brash – that is the point. Trinity alumna Thora Jacobson ’70 has been challenging and celebrating the printed form for nearly a decade. Jacobson is chief operating officer of Philagrafika (www.philagrafika.org), the Philadelphia-based organization that seeks to elevate the art of printmaking while defining Philadelphia as the print capital of the world.

A walk through Philadelphia’s “Avenue of the Arts,” past the newly renovated opera house, leads to Philagrafika’s headquarters. The modern loft style building that houses the organization shares space with computer programmers and other arts groups. Creativity and purpose ooze from the brightly colored rafters. Every inch of wall is covered in…prints. As we are led through a sea of boxes, Jacobson explains the recent move, “We’ve been so busy writing grants, we haven’t had time to unpack.” It is certainly understandable: In the eight years since its inception as The Philadelphia Print Collaborative, Philagrafika has made outstanding progress with Jacobson at the helm.

Tattoo is a form of print

Tattoo is a form of print

In 2000, Philadelphia businessman and print collector Bob Brand had a vision to bring printmakers of all kinds together in the “City of Creative Imagination,” Philadelphia. Even beyond the Declaration of Independence which was signed here, Philadelphia has a rich tradition of print. As early as 1710, the first paper mill in the U.S. was in Germantown, Pennsylvania. Beginning in 1821, Philadelphia was home to Curtis Publishing, producer of the Saturday Evening Post and Ladies’ Home Journal.

Jacobson explains that as her colleagues began to consider print not just as an art form but more broadly, they were on to something unique to their home town of Philadelphia. “It [initially] didn’t occur to us quite what we had. We were thinking about print and picture collections.” Everywhere she and her colleagues looked, they found more examples of printing, in nearly every form. “We had not taken into consideration the collection of maps that are in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the collection of commercial prints and photographs that are in the collection of the Library Company of Pennsylvania, the clamshell press that is aboard the ship Olympia as part of the Independence Seaport Museum.” The examples seem endless. Shortly after founding the Collaborative, Jacobson and her colleagues discovered that the Pennsylvania Museum houses hundreds of wax cylinder seals which record the language of native American people. “Guess what?” Jacobson says, her eyes lit with excitement, “They’re print!” Print was everywhere in Philadelphia, and the newly formed Philadelphia Print Collaborative wanted the world to know.

In 2001, just a year after their first meeting, with no money and no budget, the Philadelphia Print Collaborative put on a city-wide festival. At the time, The Philadelphia Museum of Art was hosting an exhibition of the famous print maker, Dox Thrash. Using this popular event as the nucleus, the first festival incorporated no less than 53 venues, each highlighting an aspect of print. Jacobson explains that despite the interest among various venues, there wasn’t enough critical mass to sustain the focus. Lack of funding meant the Collaborative couldn’t market the festival the way they wanted and community participation was not as they had hoped. Many thought that perhaps Brand’s vision was too bold.

Trinity women are rarely daunted by such setbacks. Jacobson credits her Trinity art professor, Dr. Liliana Gramberg, for providing her with some sage advice as a student. Gramberg had suggested Jacobson apply to Yale University for graduate school in art history, a notion Jacobson quickly dismissed. Gramberg told her (Jacobson invokes a strong Northern Italian accent for authenticity), “You know Ms. Jacobson, if you do not ask, the no you have already.”

In addition to serving as an advisor, Gramberg opened up the world of art to Jacobson, and brought the world of art into Trinity. It was Gramberg who orchestrated a showing of the works of Martin Puryear (brother of Trinity alumna, Rachelle, featured in this issue) and Sam Gilliam, both of whom were major Washington artists at the time. Jacobson remembers with excitement the small exhibition of these two artists Gramberg staged in the hallway. “It was my first introduction to young, professional artists who were doing really exciting work,” recalls Jacobson. Gilliam and Puryear both went on to earn international acclaim.

The Philographika officeFast forwarding several decades past the small exhibition in Main Hall, and past the first citywide print festival in Philadelphia, Jacobson’s passion for art is still evident. The Philadelphia Print Collaborative became a formal, independent organization and changed its name to Philagrafika in 2006. Through grant writing, private philanthropy, and a sharper focus on its mission, Philagrafika became financially solvent and Jacobson was named chief operating officer. Under Jacobson’s direction, and with the expertise of an internationally renowned artistic director, José Roca, Philadelphia will host the world’s largest city-wide print festival in 2010. From January to April, Philagrafika 2010 will celebrate all forms of printmaking, the values of printmaking, and seek to further establish Philadelphia as the international city of printmaking.

An example of printJacobson and her small team (pictured above) have secured the collaborative support of all five major art schools in Philadelphia. Collaborative educational and artistic partners for Philagrafika 2010 include Moore College of Art and Design, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Temple Gallery, and Temple University. In addition to local participation from various institutions, more than one hundred international printmakers will be invited to show their work either independently or as a response to other works within the festival. Jacobson is thoughtful and insistent that local artists and organizations don’t just produce prints for the sake of participation. Instead, Jacobson and her staff challenge everyone to expand their notion of printmaking to celebrate and tell stories of the art form that is ancient, modern and constantly evolving: the print.

Jacobson explains the values of the printmaking process:

• The generosity implied in creating multiples.
• Prints are frequently more accessible economically than other art forms.
• Prints can be (and often are) produced in a communal way.
• Print has always existed as a communication tool.
• The work exists to be reached, understood, and in some cases, challenged.

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