Talking with Mike Hudson & Jadwiga Jarvis is interesting, especially when you get away from the topic of the Wayzgoose Press. It is at that point you find the answers to the questions you really want to ask. It is useful to understand what drives them to create such elegant print work. There is also the question of how the work maintains its integrity as fine art in the face of the stigmatic craft label that is frequently levelled at those who exhibit technical prowess within their art practice.
Hudson & Jarvis also provide valuable insight into how a press which operates in the rarefied air of the fine arts can actually survive in a country and climate which is arguably hostile to art and artists. As any cursory study of the Myer report will divulge, artists in Australia are the least likely to fiscally benefit from their art practice, and as those of us who have studied in an Australian arts institution know, there are very few professional paths proposed from within the curriculum of art schools that extend outside of subservience to the gallery system and the arts education cliques. Undeniably the work produced by the Wayzgoose Press is stunning for a number of technical, aesthetic and intellectual reasons. It has a richness to the printing and a consistency of quality which commands serious regard.
The quality of their work is only negated by their relative obscurity within Australia, an obscurity which has denied their work the influence it merits. That obscurity is currently of little financial hindrance to them, as their work is primarily sold overseas, by a small number of high profile dealers. Wayzgoose has found their own path and bypassed the parochial Australian art market and the institutionalised arts sector. I suspect that this fact is more significant to artist printmakers and private presses than the actual works because so few printmakers or members of the public in this country have been privileged to see their print work.
Mike Hudson and Jadwiga Jarvis have been printing as The Wayzgoose Press since 1985, producing books, broadsheets and ephemera. They have also produced a biography of the press called "The Wayzgoose Affair", a 180 page full colour offset-printed limited edition folio book of 500 copies which is essential to the serious scholar of Australian printmaking and private presses. The book covers ground which this article will not attempt to touch upon. Sadly it does not provide any technical tips for the mechanically fetishist printmakers amongst us; I would like to see that book come from them.
The Wayzgoose Press has flown under the radar of Australian arts institutions and Galleries. This has been necessitated in part by their sense of integrity. It has been also to ensure that they achieved financial independence for their work. They have avoided the status quo methods employed by Australian artists for income and notoriety. This last point alone ought to make them of inestimable value to the current crop of budding artists in Australia and New Zealand as a lesson in not following conventional wisdom and still managing to succeed.
The anomaly of the Wayzgoose Press's successes within the Australian private press field is hard to understand but gains additional context when you learn that Mike and John Lennon hung out and drank together. Mike also photographed notable musicians like the Kinks and Eric Burden (and was responsible for the photo of Eric wearing a hand grenade, used for ‘War’). He also drank with the notable war photographer Donald McCullum and hit on Ursula Andress (unsuccessfully). He met Jan Tschichold (who he describes as a mincer) and taught art as a senior lecturer in Photography at the Hornsey College of arts for a number of years. Mike is one of those Londoners who likes to chat with his boots on. He doesn't suffer rip off merchants, art wankers, assorted fools or nitwits. He is also remarkably warm and forthright in conversation, and when taken by his passions he will happily reveal amazing things to you about the world of the printed forme, the engraved block and the bound book. He is the sort of person that when you go to the bar, you buy as many rounds as you can afford, just to keep him talking.
His teaching was during a period of social disquiet and intellectual agitation if not actual revolution. Mike hung out with people who were, contextually, creators of work that exhibited extremely high standards and who reaped the benefits of their staggeringly successful careers. It is no wonder that he would seek to make his own way through the world and define his engagement with the art world in those same terms.
Jadwiga was raised under a communist regime during the height of the cold war. She emigrated to Israel and chose marriage to escape from a morally and personally insufferable compulsory military service. Working as an animator in the film industry clearly honed her hand skills (Jadwiga mostly does the typesetting, Mike the wood engraving and lino cuts and they both conceptualise and design the works). They first met when Mike lectured and Jadwiga studied at the Hornsey. Although they met and knew each other socially at that time, their relationship only came to fruition years later. Watching them together is like observing two people who are as close to each other as it is possible to be. They are a team and describing one as a leader and one as a follower, one as a typesetter and one as an illustrator provides no insight into the richness and complexity of their collaboration. For a sense of that richness you need to look at their works and listen to them talk over a wine or a cup of tea.
Chatting with Jadwiga, there is an unmistakable distaste for social injustices as well as an empathy for those who are victims of Governments and society at large. I suspect that growing up within the communist social system has given her an appreciation for the dissenting opinion. Jadwiga makes sharp, concise observations of the world, which can be extremely sharp, and concise. Her analysis of the abuses and pitfalls of power envelops her personality and clearly shapes the way that she engages. I suspect that many people in Australia and elsewhere might misinterpret this as some form of distemper, but it would be more accurate to see her as a woman who has never given up fighting against wrongs and who has never embraced the easy comforts of the middle class status quo.
There are many people who engage with society’s less appealing aspects: some choose economics, commerce or arms; some choose the gentle persuasion of the arts. All are searching for kindred minds, hoping to plant seeds in fecund soil. The printed sheet is the weapon of choice for Mike and Jadwiga in their offensive against what they describe as an unjust, unintelligent, consumerist corporate society.
Mike refers to their work as a form of time capsule and neither of them carry any illusions about the effect that their work might have upon Australia or the world. Instead they seem quite resigned to their local obscurity, which I feel is a shame. Here we have a private press that has produced many works of merit that actually relate to Australia. They don't play esoteric philosophical games to appeal to the European and American pseudo- intellectual art markets. Instead of toadying to philosophical games like bored teenagers looking for a gimmick to make them the next big thing, they have quietly engaged with what they see occurring around them. They have refused to play the game and they are at least, at this point in time, in possession of the ball. They have based their lives in creating what they love most, engaging in the battles they enjoy fighting and they have navigated very rocky shores to make that a self sustaining project.
They envision that their works might one day provide inspiration to a future generation of artists who are more concerned with what is tangible and are less ego-bound. Mike and Jadwiga argue convincingly that we are living in a period of extreme political opportunism and cynicism and that from within Australia they offer a dissenting voice regarding Australia and the fine arts. Although they work from within the privileged enclosure and hermetically sealed environs of the fine arts, they clearly are not subservient to it. They get great pleasure from occasionally heckling as the labourers of the arts go off to tend the garden for their masters.
I am sure that there will be critics who will try to contextualise the Wayzgoose as a regional extension of the arts and crafts movement (or even as an extension of the more locally orientated Mechanics Institutes of the Arts). This represents a shallow understanding of the Arts and Crafts movement and an even shallower understanding of the imported Mechanics Institutes and their efforts to civilise the convicts and the under privileged. Unfashionably polemical as this seems I would argue that the Wayzgoose Press is a unique response to the nepotistic nature of the fine arts in Australia. They are a uniquely industrial-era response to the Australian condition.
It's 2011 and the Wayzgoose press is still making art. They have stepped back a little, selling the bulk of their presses and equipment (although they still have the Western press which allows them to produce such large and perfect impressions for their spectacular output). The lesson of the Wayzgoose press is that you can do more than survive if you recognise that the Gallery system and the teaching and lecture circuits are not there for the benefit of artists and that they can and must be bypassed to make room for artists and the arts. It is a case of bypass or forever produce work which is subservient to that system.
The question that ought to be asked about the Wayzgoose press ( not just to question why they are an isolated press producing print work of such exquisite standards) is: why they are currently such a solitary voice? Why are they alone in engaging politically and aesthetically within the private 'press' movement and the fine arts? Implicit in these questions must be an examination of Australian fine arts institutions and the methods and institutional models which we currently employ to "produce" artists.