In 1989, Deborah Maris Lader had recently moved to Chicago and was looking for a studio where she could make prints and meet other artists. She couldn’t find a place like that, so she opened her own: the Chicago Printmakers Collaborative. Deborah also took the unconventional step of setting up the print shop and gallery as a business rather than a non-profit. She’s learned how to run a sustainable enterprise without grants or donations, which are the lifeblood of other arts organizations, and to balance her dual roles as business owner and artist.
WAILIN WONG: In printmaking, there’s a technique called linocut where you carve a design into a sheet of linoleum, roll ink over it, and then press a piece of paper on top, transferring ink from the raised parts of the design to the paper. I’m at a studio and gallery called the Chicago Printmakers Collaborative watching a French artist named Emilien make a linocut. There’s guest artists working here all the time, so you’ll hear sounds of Emilien making prints throughout this episode.
DEBORAH MARIS LADER: You’re going to watch Emilien pull a lino cut off the press while you’re looking at a lino cut on the wall, it’s kind of cool.
WAILIN: That’s Deborah Maris Lader, the founder and owner of the Chicago Printmakers Collaborative. She’s a printmaker herself, having fallen in love with the medium while she was in college.
DEBORAH: I always knew I was an artist. It was like breathing. It wasn’t something I chose; it chose me. I mean, I was always drawing and painting and doing whatever with my hands, even crafty things, it was just always part of who I was. I ended up going to Cornell for undergrad, and when I went there, I entered as a sculpture major. In high school, I was welding and I was working in wood and stone and all these other mediums and ceramics, and that’s where I thought I would focus my work. But when I got there, I took a printmaking class and that was it. I switched my major and ended up majoring in printmaking. I love the way prints work. I love making them, I love the technical part, I like the process orientation of it. And those of us who are really printmakers, who are really devoted to the medium and love the process, we’re just waiting for where we can go do that again, like getting our next fix, so it’s not like well I’ll just paint now. You really want to make prints.
WAILIN: After Deborah graduated with her printmaking degree, she started teaching.
DEBORAH: And then I got the job teaching printmaking, head of printmaking department at Indiana University at Fort Wayne. And so I taught. I was a professor. And my goal at the time was to be an educator of art. I met my husband, my fiance at the time, and he was living in Chicago, and then finally made the decision that as an artist, probably better for me to be in Chicago than Fort Wayne. So I made the move and then ended up liking for a place to print and realizing there was no place in Chicago to print.
WAILIN: Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. On today’s show, how Deborah Maris Lader, in her search for a place to make prints, took on the unglamorous work of running a business so that her customers could focus on their art. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. Basecamp is the better way to run your business. It’s an app for communicating with people and organizing projects and work. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by email, chat and meetings, give Basecamp a try. Sign up for a 30-day free trial at basecamp.com/thedistance.
DEBORAH: Printmakers tend to be fairly social animals in that they can work together. You know, you can be a painter and never see anyone for months. Printmakers tend to be fairly social and fairly generous. They like to support each other.
WAILIN: Deborah wanted a place to print that would serve as an artists community. She couldn’t find anything like that in Chicago. So in 1989, she took over a defunct print shop on the city’s west side and called it the Chicago Printmakers Collaborative.
DEBORAH: An ad in the Chicago Artists Coalition newsletter, when it was still a paper newsletter showed up, and there was a print shop for sale for $3,000, and that’s exactly the amount of money I had after saving from teaching. I ended up throwing away most of what was in there but salvaging what I could, and this was my only press.
WAILIN: Deborah’s talking about a machine that we happen to be sitting next to. It has a large roller on it and fits on a metal tabletop. It’s called the Dickerson combination press and can handle both etching, which uses acid on metal plates to create a design, and relief printing, which is when an image is carved into a surface like wood or linoleum. Deborah opened the workshop with just the Dickerson. She also needed a press for lithography, a process where ink is transferred from heavy stone to paper, but she didn’t have the money.
DEBORAH: My grandmother passed away and she was my favorite person in the whole world. You know, the last thing you think about it when your favorite person in the world passes away is money she may have left you, I mean, it never occurred to me. And then my father called me. I had already budgeted what I needed to buy the lithography press, and that’s exactly the amount she left me in the will. So I called the lithography press Edith after my grandmother and I even have a stone named after her in the other room, it was my first big stone, and that was sort of how things got started. So I opened and I had no idea, I didn’t know anyone in Chicago so it was really just figuring, until anyone walks through my door, I will just make prints.
WAILIN: Deborah’s vision for the shop was to rent studio space to printmakers, with two tiers of membership, one for monthly members who get a key to the workshop plus a storage shelf, and one for artists who commit to longer leases for a private lockable studio. Deborah also planned to run a gallery and offer classes. It’s the way a lot of nonprofit artist coops operate too. But the late 80s were a fraught time for many American artists and nonprofits.
DEBORAH: That was the time of the incidents in Cincinnati —
WAILIN: Deborah’s referring to when Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center went on trial for obscenity charges over explicit photographs by the artist Robert Mapplethorpe.
DEBORAH: Andre Serrano and the Piss Christ —
WAILIN: In 1989, a photograph by Andre Serrano called “Piss Christ,” showing a plastic crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine, touched off a national debate about public funding for the arts.
DEBORAH: You know, the Harold Washington stuff and there were all these censorship things happening —
WAILIN: In 1988, a student at Chicago’s School of the Art Institute showed a painting of recently deceased mayor Harold Washington wearing lingerie. The work led to racial tensions and even a federal civil rights lawsuit.
DEBORAH: And I didn’t want to have a board of directors telling me you can’t show this, you can show this, blah blah blah. So I had some decisions to make. Most print shops like this are non profit. We run as a small business model. And over time, I realized that when you don’t have money sort of just coming in where you write your little grant and whatever, you get pretty creative on how you’re gonna survive and it’s not easy. But again, you come up with this is working, this isn’t working. Now if someone’s just throwing money at me, maybe I wouldn’t change anything. I don’t think people at the beginning took me seriously because I was not a nonprofit, but over time people were calling me, like how do you do that? How do you sustain yourself in the way you do without any kind of money? So the way I’ve sort of survived is you get something for everything you pay for. You are an artist, you need space, it’s very affordable but you still pay for it. We offer classes for the same competitive price as everyone else, so we’ve made it work.
WAILIN: As more artists and students came to the CPC, the business grew and Deborah was able to hire instructors instead of teaching all the classes herself. In 1999, a friend persuaded her to move the business further north, to a bigger space in a neighborhood that was filling up with independent restaurants and shops. The new building had a loading dock that Deborah made into a dedicated gallery space. But being in the new building wasn’t bringing in more revenue. In fact, it was the opposite.
DEBORAH: I was watching money hemorrhaging out of the business. It just wasn’t working. I was paying more to be there, everything cost more and I realized having a gallery that was its own thing, I could do other things maybe with the space up there to make more income and it was vital that I did that. Again, if I just had been getting a handout at the time, I might not have done anything, but because I knew, I mean, I’m looking at the bank account being drained, I knew I had to do something. So what I did was I completely filled the space with artists studios. Artists with lockable studios have a six month to twelve month lease so that’s a steady income and that’s where everything changed is I put four artists studios in that space and I could still have gallery because my workshop is the gallery too.
WAILIN: Even with all the improvements, the space was never exactly right for the print shop. So in 2014, Deborah started looking for a new home for the CPC and found a dark, decrepit antique store just four blocks north. It was called the Penn Dutchman, and it was in foreclosure.
DEBORAH: The guy who owned the Penn Dutchman just had so much stuff and because the ceiling was caving in, there were parts of the space that had lots of water damage, he had a room full of china tea cups and things like that, and when it rained it was literally like you were having a tea party, dirty water in all the teacups, it looked like you could just sit down and have a tea party. It was cold, all the pipes had burst and the upstairs had places you couldn’t walk because you’d fall through the roof into the main shop.
WAILIN: The process of buying a foreclosed property took the better part of a year and a lot of lawyers. But Deborah was in a fortunate position. Her husband is a developer and architect with experience navigating the Kafka-esque Chicago bureaucracy of building permits and inspections. She successfully applied for small business improvement funds from the city to help pay for the buildout. Deborah had always been kind of an incidental business owner, preferring to focus on her art. But as she dove into the building process, she was spending a lot more time in business mode.
DEBORAH: Literally when I wasn’t here working I was dreaming about it. I redesigned the space a hundred times or more. To be able to put so much sweat and hard work into this space that I own, is really just the best feeling because I did that at the old space and I didn’t own it, and so all the improvements we made were just left behind and that always felt a little icky. There is more room in between things to navigate a big stone lift for carrying our big stones around. We tore the roof off this place and replaced it and put a skylight in. You know, we’re doing everything right and to code for the first time ever! We have a handicapped bathroom. We have a drinking fountain, which you know, what print shop has a drinking fountain?
WAILIN: Designing the new space to be functional and welcoming was the fun part. But there were points during the building of the new space when it seemed ridiculous that Deborah was going through so much hassle just for a print shop. After all, she had started the Chicago Printmakers Collaborative so she’d have a space to make her art. Dealing with stuff like building codes was light years away from printmaking.
DEBORAH: One day I was told I needed to put a tree out front of my shop even though there’s a light pole in the way. I called the alderman and his right hand gal was awesome. She ran down to landscaping and said, “Did you actually look at this plan? This makes no sense.” And they were like oh you’re right, but they would have made me do it otherwise, and I would have been out another three grand or five grand.
I had one room that was a storage room but it got mislabeled on the plans and it said bedroom. Didn’t have a window, so they said you gotta punch a hole in the wall and I was like, yeah but it’s not actually a bedroom, and they said, I’m sorry, it says on the plan. I said, what are my options and they said you could go back to zoning, which who would do that? That’ll take three months! So we’re like, okay we’ll punch a hole, so I gotta pay a guy a thousand bucks to punch a hole in and put metal bars up for no reason. So I can’t tell you how many things like that had to be dealt with on a daily basis.
Some days it was really just easy to go home and cry or say I just don’t want to do this, it’s not worth it. There were times where I thought, I should just give up. There were times I thought I should just close. Even my husband said you know, you can just put your press somewhere and just print, and don’t worry about all these people that you take care of all the time. And so I really sat down and I thought, Icould do that, and I looked at all the pros and cons, and I realized I like what I do. Having the community of artists around me really feeds my soul and I think you can’t have any kind of small business unless you have a ton of passion because it takes way more than just having a sustained model or whatever you want to call it. You have to love what you do.
I feel like the set builder sometimes or sometimes I just feel like the janitorial staff and that’s it. You know, and other times, it’s just so great and I don’t think about any of that. But I’ve done all the handholding, all the, you know, talking people off ledges, so yeah that’s what I do. But I like it. You know, on some kind of masochistic level.
WAILIN: Deborah wanted the Chicago Printmakers Collaborative to provide community, and she set it up as a business so that her artists could work without the pressures that can come with public funding. Twenty-six years and two locations later, Deborah’s found that community and embraced her dual roles as artist and small business owner. Amid reports that President Donald Trump could defund the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the CPC and Deborah’s commitment to keeping it going are as vital as ever.
DEBORAH: If we have extra cash in the pot, we can do things for the community. We just had a free printmaking event on Sunday, cost me a lot of money to do it, it was awesome, everyone could walk in and bring a t-shirt and print images of hope and sometimes protest, sometimes, you know, in response to the electoral situation and the politics going on. I can’t say enough about how that feeds me, that someone would be willing to donate time or help out or contribute a design to something. And I think for me, that’s why I keep doing it.
The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are by Nate Otto. Special thanks to Bruce Roper of the Chicago Luthiers Workshop, who introduced me to Deborah. We featured Bruce and his guitar repair business in the previous episode of The Distance, so go back and listen to that one if you haven’t already. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the app for helping small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Try Basecamp free for 30 days at basecamp.com/thedistance.