Ian Kochberg at work. (photo from Ian Kochberg)
Next week, at the Circle Craft Winter Market, local community members will have a rare opportunity to meet Ontario artist Ian Kochberg and buy some of his work.
Kochberg has been a professional printmaker for 39 years. His studio is located in Richmond Hill, part of the Greater Toronto area. As a child, he didn’t dream of being a printmaker. In fact, he has a degree in animated film, but “to the chagrin” of his professors at the time, said Kochberg in an email interview with the Independent, “I had decided during my final year that film was not something I could pursue.”
He cited several reasons for his decision. One of them was his aversion to computers. “Although computer animation was in its infancy,” he said, “I knew that, in due course, computers would take over the animation industry. I have always had little interest in computers. Both professors and fellow students thought me insane.”
Another reason to opt out of a film career was his realization that he didn’t compromise easily. “I never worked well with others,” he said. “In college, the final year’s work was a group film. I was the only one who decided to go solo. I went in the first day to get the assignment parameters and came back the last with a finished film. Later, the college entered my film in numerous film festivals. It won a number of awards, but that was not how the industry works. Film requires a collaborative effort – printmaking does not.”
Fortunately, he stumbled into printmaking while still in college, and it was love at first sight. “I worked my way through college and university, hiring out as a freelance artist for ad agencies. I did everything: from illustration, to fabric design, to designing seat covers and bulkheads for a new fleet of Air Canada jets,” he said.
Among those agencies was a company that sold framed art to people in the legal profession. “They hired me to create a set of legal-themed illustrations, which they printed and framed,” explained Kochberg. “I received payment for each drawing, along with royalties on each sale. Life was good! The owner of the company, in an attempt to maintain control, told me ‘how expensive’ it was to print up those reproductions. Shortly thereafter, I discovered his lie. It was actually cheap to make copies of art.”
He decided to strike out on his own. His first foray into the life of an independent artist was a set of three drawings of old Ontario houses. “I had them printed up on a very high-quality paper, meticulously hand-painted each copy and then signed and numbered each as a limited edition. Being young, naïve, and not knowing any better, I brought these pieces into a real art gallery. The owner was highly knowledgeable and very gracious. He unashamedly heaped praise upon my work and my talent, employing an imaginative mélange of artsy adjectives.”
But, when Kochberg attempted to close the sale, the gallery owner gave him a lecture on the difference between original prints and reproductions. “I felt the proverbial light bulb go on over my head,” Kochberg recalled.
The gallery owner did purchase the prints that day, however. “He didn’t sell copies in his gallery, but he told me they were going to hang in his own house,” said Kochberg. “Whatever his motives, whether he actually liked them that much or it was simply a ‘pity sale’ matters not. Unbeknownst to him, he had forever altered the course of my life. The very next day found me in the library, where I researched printmaking techniques. Before I had even set foot into a printmaking studio, I had taught myself everything I needed to know to get started.”
He also got some exciting ideas of his own and took a 10-week course to get access to printmaking equipment. “When I finished the course, I purchased my first etching press,” he said.
Once he became involved in printmaking, Kochberg never looked back. For him, printmaking is a fascinating combination of research and intuition, design and fine art, creativity and technology.
“It is a cerebral, controlled process,” he said. “It is also unforgiving. Sometimes, I’ve spent up to 180 hours working on a single screen for a single color, with no way to make a correction if I made a mistake…. At one point, I actually counted how many times I had to pick up each and every piece of paper in an edition, do something to it, and put it down. As I recall, the number was around 120.”
According to his records, large pieces typically take him six to eight months, working full-time, to complete an edition. “The longest I’ve spent creating an edition has been 13 months,” he said.
Kochberg’s limited editions usually range from 100 to 300 original prints, all signed and numbered, and the source plates and screens are always destroyed after the edition is finished.
Despite the demanding, labor-intensive technical process, every stage of printmaking still makes him feel “like a child in a toy store,” he said. “When these things no longer generate that kind of wonder and awe, it will be time to move on to something else.”
So far, after four decades of printmaking, it hasn’t happened yet. New ideas still swirl in the artist’s head, and his fans continue to admire his imagination and work. Some of his fans are celebrities. One of his prints even hangs in the Vatican. “I don’t recall the details – I have a horrible memory – but it was purchased for some special occasion involving the last pope. It was interesting shipping out a package to the Vatican,” he said.
“There have been countless warm stories and anecdotes about where my work hangs, for whom it was purchased and what individual pieces have meant to patrons,” he continued. “These are humbling and keep me grounded. The incident that stands out most clearly in my mind is that of a young lady who came to us at a show some years back, along with her baby daughter in a stroller. She told us that, when she was her daughter’s age, her mother similarly brought her to us in a stroller and purchased one of my works for her – to start her daughter’s collection. Now, all grown up, the young lady was doing the same for her own daughter – buying her child’s first ‘Kochberg.’ I felt quite honored, but it did make me feel old.”
Many of his pieces sport his signature combination of funky drawings, music notation, Judaic themes and a Celtic pattern. “Aside from my name, Ian, I have no Celtic or Irish connections,” he admitted. “One of my earlier Judaic pieces had an interlaced border. I copied the structure of the design from a Havdalah candle. People assumed it was a Celtic design. I don’t like arguing.”
The infusion of musical notes echoes his love of music, though he downplays his own talent in this realm. “I have no formal music training,” he explained. “I have played piano, but am not a pianist. I enjoy playing guitar and have written a number of songs, but am not a guitarist. I sing and, if you heard me sing, you’d know I am not a vocalist. I also play recorder, banjo and upright bass. In any event, I definitely do not consider myself a real musician.”
His family is musical though. His wife and children have all had formal musical training, and musical activities often feature as their family pastime. “About a year ago,” he said, “I started playing upright bass and joined the nonprofit community orchestra in which my wife, Arlene, plays a violin and our daughter, Toni, plays cello and bass.”
He finds both inspiration for his work and a relief from it in his family and in his various recreational pursuits. For many years, one of those was ballroom dancing, a hobby and part-time job.
“My wife and I taught social ballroom dancing for the local continuing board of education,” he explained. “This was not so much for extra income but to get us out of the studio and away from our work. When you have your own business, it never ends. We enjoyed our teaching very much. We taught for a full 20 years, until we realized that we just weren’t enjoying our classes as much. It was time to move on.”
Another of his lifelong interests is dogs. “We’ve had dogs for about 40 years,” he said. “Currently, we have a 10-year-old Black Russian terrier. I’m actually the ‘go-to dog guy’ in the neighborhood. Whenever people have questions or problems about their pooches or need information on specific breeds, they come to me. Friends of ours know that I enjoy talking dogs much more than art. Art is usually about me, while dogs are ‘just’ dogs.”
His affection for dogs in general, and his terrier in particular, has spilled into his writing. Kochberg’s hilarious true story about his dog was published in one of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, The Dog Did What?: 101 Amazing Stories of Magical Moments, Miracles and … Mayhem (2014).
The Circle Craft market runs Nov. 9-13, and Kochberg will be located in booth #318.
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].