Judith Solodkin's spring hats and a 1982 lithograph titled "Cachalot."

Judith Solodkin is enamored of technology. Her printshop in Chelsea is a vast loft filled with machines that she adapts and uses to translate the visions of artists into tangible realities. A master printer, she employs lithographic and offset printers, computerized sewing machines, inkjet printers, electronic embroidery machines, letterpress and woodcut. She creates traditional and innovative impressions on paper and fabric, using not just ink, but thread and yarn as well.

Since 1968, when she opened her first printshop, Solodkin has been customizing old and new presses and experimenting with the latest technology to develop innovative ways of printing. She teaches digital sewing and Photoshop as well as lithography to her students at the School of Visual Arts, and is conducting an intensive course in digital sewing in June at the Rhode Island School of Design. “I’m getting the young people into this,” she said, “so we’re going to see a lot more in the future using sewing in artwork.” She likes to work with younger artists. Learning new technology, she says, “keeps me young— when you’re curious, it really does keep you young.”

I spent an afternoon talking with her in her shop. “I’m always curious about how things are made. It fascinates me,” Solodkin told me. “I get into anything where I’m tinkering. I love to work with my hands, but I also love tools — I love all technology.” To demonstrate, Solodkin showed me her unusual wristwatch. “I love machines,” she said. “This is a Nano [iPod] and it’s a watch. How cool is that?”

To amuse herself on her long commute, Solodkin passes the time knitting and crocheting — her most recently acquired skills. But when she arrives home, she has “a wonderful hobby” she turns to — she makes hats.

In her print shop, Solodkin uses thread to print and embroider.

“At home I have another shop where I make my hats — a hat studio with a millinery corner” she said. Naturally, she has many millinery machines. “I can make a very professional hat,” she asserted. The studio also houses what has by now become a collection of more than 100 of her unusual and whimsical headgear. Unlike the works displayed in the printshop gallery, the hats are not for sale. “Everything else I work on here is a business, and that I sell. A lot of these works are in major museums. They are part of art history. But the hats — I just make them and wear them.”

I asked why she likes to make hats.

“I enjoy the theatrics of them, actually,” she said. “I go out into the street, and there’s always a bike messenger who stops and says, ‘I like your hat.’ I have a conversation, I’m social. I meet people, I talk to them. On the train — you, for example, are asking me about it. I have a phrase which is ‘low overhead.’ It’s overhead. It’s on my head. I can change a hat every day: new hat, new disposition, new interaction with the community.”

Asked whether she makes any other kind of clothing, Solodkin answered that she’s made handbags and accessories and shoes. “I’ve never made any garments,” she said. “But I like to buy garments.” She giggled. “I’m a good shopper.”

Handbags and shoes often require working with leather, so the master printer and teacher went back to school to learn new techniques. At New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, Solodkin took the classes she needed, in addition to her earlier ones in millinery. “I love working with leather and fur. I’ve made fur hats and bags, hats and shoes of leather.” She has various machines for sewing leather and fur.

As we toured the shop, Solodkin showed me the gearbox of one of her first presses. “I painted it pink as a feminist gesture,” she said proudly. At that time, she had just come from the Tamarind Institute in New Mexico. It was founded in 1960 by June Wayne, a famous feminist. Wayne hadn’t trained any women to be master printers — they collaborate with artists — before Solodkin arrived in 1972, but not because she didn’t want to. When Solodkin — who already had a master of fine arts degree from Columbia and a small printshop of her own — was recommended by her former roommate, Wayne was glad to take her on.

Solodkin's hat workshop in her home.

Back in Manhattan two years later, Solodkin worked at the Petersburg Press, a publisher of fine art, before reopening her own shop. She inaugurated Solo Press, specializing in lithography. She called it Solo, not only to reflect her name, but also because “you only have one chance to make a good impression.”

The master printer went through “several iterations,” as she added letterpress and woodcut. Moving to Soho, Solodkin “kept changing with the times, always adding new equipment, mostly for printing, although some of these machines are very old.” She explained that many companies discard older technology and replace it with newer versions. Artists take advantage by acquiring the antiquated machines and retooling them. Since no one does typesetting anymore, Solodkin said, she can get a $120,000 old typesetting machine for $20.

Over the years, Solodkin has worked with many artists, many of them women. Among these are Jean Shin, Nancy Spero, Françoise Gilot, R.M. Fisher and James Rosenquist.

Her interest in sewing and printing on fabric developed as she worked with artist Louise Bourgeois. Seeing Solodkin’s hats, Bourgeois realized that the printer could sew. The two women collaborated on a complicated and beautiful book, “Ode à L’Oubli,” that was printed on fabric and involved much sewing. The artist made the original book and the printer produced the 25 editions.

It was a very large, labor-intensive project, and Solodkin hired a huge staff to do different parts of the pages. “It was a little sweat shop here,” she said. “It was very sweet — the cat would sit on different people’s laps. We had a lot of input from the young women and men, too.”

I asked how she duplicated a book made of fabric.

Since I’m an edition printer, I figured out different ways to do it. I did lithography on fabric for some of the images; some of the fabrics we had manufactured to specification; some of the pages were printed on a fabric printer. Then I learned to do digital sewing. This was the critical thing. I learned software programs that are usually for the home sewer, but I learned to make art with them. Then I bought these computerized sewing machines. It’s like doing inkjet or computerized printing: it’s a file and a machine. But thread instead of ink. I learned as I went along, imitating the stitches that Louise did by hand.

Though Solodkin denies it, she is clearly an artist. She objects:

No, I’m not an artist. I’m a collaborator. I’m a printer. A facilitator. I was trained at Tamarind to collaborate with artists. I even had a show last summer at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. The title was “Collaborations.” Essentially, that’s what I’ve been doing my whole life. Collaborating with people. Giving them my expertise and direction and making projects with them, but it’s their work. … They’re the artists, it’s their name on it, but it’s with my help.

As Solodkin became immersed in digital printing, she began to invite artists who incorporate sewing into their work (like Ghada Amer and Elaine Reichek) to collaborate with her. It’s not unusual for Solodkin to present a project to an artist.

“It’s a give and take,” she said. “If I have some cool thing I’m working on, I’ll think of an artist who might want to work that way.” Solodkin often succeeds in interesting the artist. But, she said, “I’m not working for the artist; I’m working with the artist. It’s a collaboration. I present an idea or I’ll get an idea from what they’re doing. It’s a conversation. It goes back and forth.”

I myself experienced that collaboration when I had a problem shooting some video. We bounced ideas back and forth, each building on the other, until we found a solution together.

I had read that Solodkin likened her work to Talmudic reasoning. Curious, I asked her about it.

I was brought up in orthodox Judaism, and I also went to the Jewish Theological Seminary for a number of years. … So, there’s a certain logic: if this, then that; if not that, then this. But on the other hand … [she giggled].

So I’ve always approached whatever the problem is that I come up with in this sort of either or but what if situation and see if I can work out a solution.

There’s never a single solution or only one right way, she added. “Artistically, there are a number of solutions.” It depends, she said, on the artist and her mood and her interests at the time.

Solodkin plans to close her shop in three years, when her lease is up. She’ll be 69, but she’s ambivalent about retiring. “I’m grateful for the assistance [Social Security and Medicare], but I can’t imagine not working,” she said. “I work because I enjoy it. I have no concept of what it’s like to have a real job [as an employee]. Of course, I work much more than anybody else would work, because I’m working during the day and in the evenings too.”

I have no doubt she’ll figure out novel things to do with her life.

Start the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.