Salt Lake City has such a wide selection of art to choose from, that some great artists can be lost in the mix. There's usually a contingent of "usual suspects" that you'll find at every group gallery showing, but after a while you start looking for artists through word-of-mouth. One of those word-of-mouth artists who was recently passed on to me was Justin Diggle, a University of Utah instructor and printmaker whose fantastic designs that are shown all over the U.S. and internationally. Today, we chat with Diggle about his artistic career and what he's been working on lately. (All pictures courtesy of Diggle.
Gavin: Hey Justin, first thing, tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am from the U.K. and first came to the states—initially Portland, Oregon in 1991—to see friends. I returned in 1994 to go to grad school at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, where I worked mainly in printmaking, and in 1999 I moved to Utah to take over the printmaking area at the University of Utah. I had initially done sculpture as an undergrad, and had then moved towards print.
Gavin: What first got you interested in art, and what were your earliest influences?
[There was] no real sudden move towards art; I always enjoyed it, and was able to do quite a bit at my high school in England, and did my first etching at 16. We were very lucky to have good facilities and encouraging teachers, and art became my primary focus.
Gavin: What specifically caught your eye with printmaking, and what was the appeal for you?
I started doing more etching as an undergrad in England. Although I was doing a lot of sculpture at Bristol Polytechnic, I was also allowed to use the print facilities. My sculpture was primarily constructed out wood and steel, and the tactile qualities of the material and how I manipulated them was important to me. I was attracted to etching very much for the same reasons. The metal plate copper can be heavily etched and then re-worked with scrapers and other hand-tools, and has a wonderful physical quality. Even before printing, the plate has a great feeling to it.
Gavin: You earned your MFA at Southern Illinois, but primarily studied in the UK. What was it like during your college years learning your craft and traveling around?
As I mentioned, I initially started with sculpture, but the faculty were very open to us trying different techniques in the realisation of our ideas, and I was drawn to printmaking. I could move freely between the two areas and take ideas from one back to the other. I was very lucky to have traveled around Europe when I was younger, primarily with family, and also "Inter-Railing" (month-long rail pass for Europe) a couple of times, and in college spent a short time in France as an exchange student. During the InterRail trips, I saw a lot of galleries and museums and traveled with a friend after we finished high school. They were great trips; we stayed in youth hostels and met a lot of people. A later trip involved hitchhiking through France and Italy and just into Yugoslavia, as it was at the time. Moving to the States for college was also certainly a new experience, and I was fortunate to have a great peer group of fellow students. For me, one of the more important elements of going to grad school is the interaction with other students. These are the people you will see most, work around and exchange ideas with in class, or in late night improvised critiques. Most of the students were from other parts of the country, or were international, and we naturally spent a lot of time in our studios, most of which were in the same building.
Gavin: What was it like for you to first set out on your own as a professional artist and doing exhibitions?
I started entering juried shows as soon as I finished as an undergrad, and tried to gain experience when I could, as you never know where this can take you. As a printmaker, it is particularly tricky, because you often need a range of equipment in order to make your work. I joined a cooperative Print Workshop in Bristol, and for a fee was able to use the print facilities 24/7. The workshop also organised its own exhibitions and was part of a larger complex of studies with painters and sculptors. A couple of years after joining this studio, I got a job as a print technician at Winchester School of Art, and stayed there until moving to the states for grad school. It was the experience gained working in the print workshop, and then the school, that helped in my applications to grad school.
Gavin: What eventually brought you to Utah and what made you decide to stay here?
The job came up, I applied for it and luckily I was offered the position. The Printshop has a good range of equipment for teaching a variety of different techniques and I have good colleagues, both good reasons to stay. I also certainly like the outdoors, like to hike and camp, and you obviously can't beat the area for that. I ski a bit, and enjoy it but I am not very good at it.
Gavin: How was it getting involved with the local art scene early on?
I entered a few exhibitions in Utah soon after arriving and had single pieces in a Utah Arts Council show, the Springville Salon and the State-Wide Show in Bountiful, and have also had work in some shows that Saltgrass Printmakers and Copper Palate Press have organised. Two shops that were started by ex-students who took classes in the printshop at the U. I have to say that most of the time I show work in other states and internationally.
Gavin: What's the process for you when creating a new piece, and what do you usually work with?
Although I do use sketches, most of my work starts with small collages that are all made by hand with a knife and a glue stick. The imagery is often from my own photographs and includes collections of photocopied textures, architectural features, electronics, images of birds, planes and recently drones and the odd dinosaur. All this is cut up and re-formed. At this point the image is generally not finished but can be transferred to an etching plate and then reworked with a variety of more traditional techniques.
Gavin: How would you say your technique has developed over the years?
When I etch I use similar techniques to the ones I used 25 years ago. Some materials have changed, but the main evolution has been in the ideas I use as a starting point for the work. One of the main differences, though, is how I cut my etching plates. Over the past few years most of the plates are shaped, i.e. cut to the shape of the main image with no background. This was something I touched on briefly when [I was] an undergraduate, and it has now resurfaced in a different form.
Gavin: Your art seems to bounce between screenprinting and etchings with photos. Do you prefer one over the other, or do they kind of balance out equally for you creatively?
I am primarily an etcher and no doubt always will be. When I screenprint, I often approach the technique in the same way I might an etching. I often scratch or sand the surface of the screen prints as part of the process, as I would an etching plate, and continue printing further layers. The screenprints often use a collage as an element within the print, and in the past I have also taken impressions off etching plates that can be transferred to a screen and then printed. Sometimes an initial collage has been made using cut out images from past test copies of etchings. The main difference between the two is the use of color; the screenprints have definitely been more colorful. Ultimately each feeds the other as to how an idea might be approached and resolved.
Gavin: The past few years you've been displaying around the U.S. and Canada, only a few shows in Utah. How has it been for you touring around and getting your work out in a national eye?
Most of the work is shown outside the state or internationally. I recently had a piece bought by the Fort Wayne Museum of Art in Indiana, which was the result of showing my work in an exhibition at Artlink Gallery (Fort Wayne), where I also won a juror's award. Last year I was invited to do a Printmaking Residency at a studio in China. I was able to work on new images and work in a studio with Chinese artists as well as artists from several other countries. The exhibition in Canada was a large Biennial show that included work from around the world and I was very pleased to be chosen to participate; there were some great pieces. Earlier this year I also had works in a Biennial Print Exhibition in Bulgaria where I received a joint-third place award. I do have a two-person exhibition coming up at the main library in Salt Lake City and this will be early next year.
Gavin: What are some projects and exhibitions you're currently working on?
I am working on a series of large-shaped etching plates similar in technique to the above, and I am also working on a series on laser-engraved screenprints. This is quite a recent project and involves building up different layers of color and imagery that is then laser engraved with several different designs, that are themselves based collages that have been scanned and manipulated digitally. The engraver cuts only through the varying layers of ink, not the paper it is printed on, to reveal the layers underneath. This is a project that hopefully will develop over the next few months. Apart from the Library show mentioned above, I have a two-person show at the Rogue Gallery & Art Center in Medford, Oregon in late 2016. I just sent a piece to an exhibition in Atlanta and have several other upcoming opportunities to apply for.
Gavin: Right now you're also an Associate Professor at the University of Utah in Art & Art History. How's life at the U and how is it for you working with new talent every year?
It is always interesting to work with new students; everyone is different and has unique ideas they want to visualize and my job is to help facilitate that and to give them a good grounding in print techniques. Right now we are well into the semester and all the students are pretty busy working in a variety of techniques. We are also getting ready for the annual Holiday sale in December, our main are fundraiser. I am also currently installing a Works on Paper Exhibition that opens Nov. 2 (reception Nov. 5 from 6-8 p.m.) in the Gittins Gallery here at the U. So I am busy painting walls and unpacking the artwork that has been sent in for the show.
Gavin: What can we expect from you going into the next year?
I will be focusing my energies on preparing work the library exhibition and the show in Oregon. Both will include a range of work and I want to include as much of my more recent work as possible.