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Teresa James boldly blurs the lines between printmaking and photography

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Teresa James, owner of White Wings Press in Logan Square, is a printmaker of 24 years and arguably the best in Chicago. She learned from the best, and true to her character, continues to learn new processes and experiment with her craft in order to reinvent the standards of printmaking.

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She and her husband Bill James fully rehabbed a 3-floor apartment on Logan Avenue and transformed it into a multi-faceted art studio and home. The main floor includes a room for each category of work. The sun room is covered with large cyanotype proofs, glowing bright blue against the natural light. Against the wall is a 50" portrait of a young altar boy with large wings, eyes shining with innocence, holding a gentle lamb. He is a real-life cherub, shaded in varying blues and moments of perfectly placed pure white space.

James, humbled by the compliments, continues to outline how she plans to improve upon the piece. It is that perfectionism that truly sets her apart. She will never admit to being a master printmaker, because she is constantly challenging herself to try new techniques, materials and methods. In her mind there is always another skill to perfect.

The cyanotypes are a mix of photographs she has taken over the past three years, combined with her sketches. She refers to the method as “old processes with new technology,” incorporating a large format printer into the etching process.

Each of her concepts is carefully posed and designed for a photoshoot. Her subjects are most frequently children and animals, because she considers them to be “the purest life forms on Earth.” She recently photographed a nun in a rural Michigan setting and visited an elk farm to capture the peaceful creatures on camera.

Her nephew and photography assistant, Jonathan Sherman, takes the photo, scans it to the computer, prints it, draws around it, then scans in her drawings and merges them together in Photoshop.

The large negative, approximately 42” X 68” in size, is placed onto paper that is coated with cyanotype (a mix of potassium ferricyanide and ferric ammonium citrate) and exposed to UV light for 40 minutes. In the past, James used natural light to expose the cyanotype and found that natural light produced inconsistent results with each trial. Sherman personally built an exposure unit for the studio to ensure controlled results. Being such a new process, James and Sherman tested cyanotypes for more than two years until they achieved their desired aesthetic.

James arranged for Sherman to attend a workshop with photographer Mark Nelson to learn how to create digital negatives. They continue to reach out to Nelson for expertise on ongoing photography projects.

Her collection of cyanotypes is titled, “Not All Angels Have Wings.” These large-scale portraits, James says, “focus on the battle between good and evil and the connection between the spiritual and physical world.”

She says that size is an important factor in the perception of the piece, “As a viewer, you have to feel in the presence of the figure.” And to stand in front of her cyanotypes is to surrender to absolute serenity.

James draws strong inspiration from Catholicism. Even as a young girl she gravitated toward religious art, like the Italian Renaissance and Mexican Ritablo. She spent hours studying the lives of the saints and painting church statues with her father.

She says, “I am a practicing Catholic. It is my life and I never want to lose that. It offers me never-ending inspiration for my work.” For this artist, her art is a unique way of serving God.

Her ultimate goal is to transport viewers to a place they have never been, “When people see my work, I want them to feel a connection to something not of this Earth -- an unseen world.”

She will be showing, “Not All Angels Have Wings” at Packer Schopf Gallery this fall. Visit whitewingspress.com for updates in exhibition dates.

To contrast, her upcoming exhibition unveils her etchings with photogravure, inspired by the heavenly hierarchy and the choir of angels. She interprets the different roles and levels of angels in heaven through her trademark image of hands with wings, which represent the angels. Starting with a photograph of her own hands or those of her daughter, she sketches and shades to seamlessly blend the mediums of printmaking and photography. See her etchings in person at Print Works Gallery at 5:30-7:30 p.m. on Friday, April 4.

When James is affected by another artist’s work, she will on occasion, extend an invitation to the artist to come to her studio to collaborate on a project. Among her guest printmakers are surreal painter Fred Stonehouse, illustrator/animator Gary Baseman and author of The Time Traveler's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger.

Her father was the first to introduce her to printmaking when she accompanied him to art exhibits in Toronto. Although she began her studies in fashion design, she soon succumbed to her love of print. She enrolled in printmaking courses at the Art Institute of Chicago under the instruction of her mentor Bill Cass.

While studying with Cass, she worked at the South Loop coffeeshop, Gourmand, and became acquainted with a customer that offered her an incredible opportunity. Tony Fitzpatrick told James about his newest business venture, a long-time dream of opening his own printshop. He needed an eager and skilled artist to assist with the technical work. In exchange, James would also be able to use the studio to create her own etchings, advance her career and expand her network.

When she was 23, she left the Art Institute to work full-time at the newly opened Big Cat Press. She put in long hours working with chemicals, etching the plates and proofing. She spent 13 years patiently pursuing perfection. She then took the risk of branching out and opened her first shop in Wicker Park and did what she needed to do to thrive as a budding artist and entrepreneur.

Now she works in the pursuit of a higher cause. She blurs the lines between art genres and exposes viewers to a spiritual unseen world. See more of James’ etchings in the slideshow to the left and visit whitewingspress.com for the full collections and exhibition information.

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