People: Susan Oehme
By Christina Freeman
Susam Oehme reveals a print coming off the press at Anderson Ranch, where she taught a workshop last summer. Courtesy Susan Oehme
By Deborah Olsen
The eye of an artist, the logic of an engineer and the insight of an interpreter combine to create a gifted fine art printer. The fact that Susan Oehme, a prominent and well-known member of this uncommon profession, has her studio in Colorado, let alone in a small town like Steamboat Springs, is remarkable.
“Sue is one of the best printmakers around, a rare gem,” says Jason Karolak, an abstract painter who traveled from New York City to work at Oehme Graphics in Steamboat. “She has a wealth of knowledge coupled with a down-to-earth sense of humor. It was a true pleasure to work with her.”
Oehme invites artists to the gallery whose work she admires and thinks would be suitable for printmaking. They usually visit for one to two weeks, creating original pieces to be published as fine art prints. “Coming out from New York, the environment in Steamboat felt open and relaxed,” Karolak explains. “For the first three days, I made ink on vellum drawings and reread Emerson.”Visiting artists create new work at Oehme’s studio, then meet with her to determine which are most suitable for the printmaking process. “That’s when you have to start thinking in reverse,” Oehme says. “The artist is always working with the plate.”
The studio has full etching capabilities, including photo/solar-etching processes, to produce intaglio prints and monotypes. One of Oehme’s specialties is carborundum aquatint, a classic printmaking process that utilizes nontoxic powdered steel to create marks on a plate.
The outcome of the process is a series of prints, each considered an original because of variables that occur naturally during printmaking. Sometimes, the prints are sold as a portfolio, or boxed set, from one artist, or as a suite from a group of artists.
While artists are in Steamboat, they reside above the studio in comfortable quarters adjacent to a kitchen and dining area. Not only is the workspace open and inviting, but the food is memorable. “We’re known for wonderful lunches,” Oehme says.
At the end of their tenure, the artists return home, but their work remains with Oehme. “I’m the luckyone. I stay with the art,” she says.She often travels to print shows, where she markets prints. “The biggest learning curve is to figure out my balance between studio time and sales time,” she says.
Recently, Oehme has developed an alternate model, by which artists contract with her to work for aset period at the studio. Under those terms, the resulting art isthe property of the artist, although Oehme usually selects pieces to retain and sell on behalf of the artist.
In addition to hosting individualartists, Oehme Graphics also presents workshops throughout the year,when as many as five artists may be working at the same time. “It’s a very eclectic mix, and the challenge is to determine what each artist needs. It’s like running five projects simultaneously,” she says.
From printmaker to president
Oehme began her career at the University of Michigan, where she studied painting and printmaking. As a senior, she won best in show honors, earning a $900 Michigan Foundation for the Arts Grant. “It was more money than I’d ever seen in one place,” she recalls.
Her first internship was in Maine with painters Leon Golub and Nancy Spero. “Oh my God, I love it!” she recalls thinking. She went on to work in New York with Ken Tyler, who was instrumental in the rise of printmaking as its own art form in the 1970s and ’80s, with his world-renowned print studio, Tyler Graphics. “The work was large scale, complicated, time-consuming. He was a total problem-solver. That’s what I do too,” she says.
After a few years, Oehme came to Riverhouse Editions as the Steamboat-based company’s master printmaker. After 14 years, Riverhouse Editions closed its doors, and its owners relocated. In 2010, she founded Oehme Graphics.
Alongside growing her business, Oehme is president of the Steamboat Springs Arts Council, the umbrella organization that represents visual and performing artists. Since she took office in 2013, the arts council has reemerged from rough economic times. “I believe very strongly in it. We’re really dedicated as a board,” Oehme says. “We’re undergoing a procedural audit, and we’ve been fine-tuning the organization. It’s been lots of work, but members have come back. We’ve seen increased membership, more affiliates: it’s bigger than ever.”
Oehme is also an instructor in the arts council’s Young at Art program, which presents full-day classes each summer for 8- to 15- year olds. “The students are amazing,” Oehme says.
“The hardest thing about being a business owner is you get sucked into the vortex,” Oehme says. For her, the solution is to step back and enjoy her family and her surroundings. As much as she takes pleasure in her community, Steamboat benefits from having this talented and generous person in its midst.