Text by Abigail Romanchak and Charles Cohan Images courtesy of the artists
Charles Cohan: In 1952, Carl Jung published “Synchronizität als ein Prinzip akausaler Zusammenhänge,” or “Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle,” which states that events are “meaningful coincidences” if they occur with no causal logic, yet are meaningfully related. A favorite and enduring example of this phenomenon in the arts refers to the invention of photography in the 1830s, when unbeknownst to each other, Louis Daguerre was doing research in France that coincided with the experiments of Henry Fox Talbot in England.
The most profound example of this occurrence in my personal experience took place at noon on May 3, 2017, when Abigail Romanchak sent me a set of images that were eerily simultaneous to a body of work that I was developing. Through immediate phone calls, texts, and emails, it became clear that we were traveling a common path in our creative directions. Thus, the 9-foot by 20-foot print installation Converge, our collaboration for Ground, my solo exhibition at the Honolulu Museum of Art, was born.
Abigail Romanchak: Reflecting on these collaborations with Charles Cohan, my former printmaking professor, brings to mind an interview I heard on Krista Tippett’s podcast, “On Being.” The guest was author Elizabeth Gilbert. At one point, Gilbert recounted a time she and another writer, Ann Patchett, had the exact same idea for a novel without even knowing it. Gilbert then described how she believes ideas are conscious, living things, which possess a great desire to be manifested, and that they spin through the cosmos looking for human collaborators.
At the time, I thought this sounded wonky. But then, I had a very similar experience. In April 2017 I was invited to be part of a Smithsonian-sponsored pop-up culture lab in Honolulu. For it, artists were asked to respond to the concept of ‘ae kai, or convergence of land and water. I interpreted this theme quite literally, and decided to work with seismograph readings and harmonic tremor printouts from Kīlauea volcano on Hawai‘i Island. I wanted to explore how the origins of new land converge with existing coastal landscapes. But as I began to carve, I realized that these intricate, large-scale woodcuts would pose too great a technical challenge for me to tackle on my own. So I emailed Charlie images of the carvings I had worked on, and asked if he would assist me. To my surprise, I received a call from him within 10 minutes of hitting the send button. “Abbey! You’re not going to believe how similar my new body of work is to the seismograph images you just emailed me,” he said. He agreed to help print the woodcuts, and asked to talk soon about a future collaboration.
On each other: Cohan: Since my arrival at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa in August of 1994, I have worked with more than 1,000 undergraduate and 25 MFA students in the printmaking studios of the department of art and art history. Abigail Romanchak is one of a few of my former students who have provided the most significant contributions to the identity and culture of the printmaking program. Abbey and I have shared four stages in our artistic relationship. First, I was her professor as she earned her BFA and MFA degrees. We were then fellow printmakers, before working together as collaborators. Now, Abbey has transcended the student-teacher duality, overturning this paradigm into the full cycle of teacher as student, student as teacher, exposing the power of this dichotomy and its inversion. Qualities of weight, density, texture, and the indelibility of the printed mark remain a shared aspect of our work. The visceral approach that we take, conveyed through the transfer of ink from plate to paper via sheer pressure, is a thread that ties together our collective graphic sense.
Romanchak: Charlie remains youthfully enthusiastic and open despite his high level of success and sophistication. He is a world-renowned artist—idolized by his students and highly respected by his colleagues—who enjoys skateboarding with his son. I was grateful for his help, and humbled by the invitation to collaborate. Yet, I was also ambivalent. Creating as a team would be difficult with anyone, let alone my mentor. Could we really work on equal terms? What could I contribute to the process when he was used to hand-carving his own door-size wood cuts, perfectly registering a 20-color screen print, and building his own custom frames?
On process: Cohan: My prints in the Converge and Ground series are carborundum and glue collagraphs. The collagraph process was mutually invented by a few printmakers during the 1970s print culture in the United States, including Edward Stasack and Lee Chesney, who were UH Mānoa printmaking professors at the time. Collagraphs are prints made using a collage-based process of attaching physical textures in a range of materials to the printing plate with various varnishes and adhesives.
Romanchak: To make my Converge prints, I traced images of seismograph readings onto five different sheets of 30-inch by 30-inch birch plywood. Then, using a variety of tools, I carved away the negative space. In June 2017, Charlie flew from O‘ahu to the Hui No‘eau Visual Art Center printmaking studio on Maui to help me print my work for ‘Ae Kai, the exhibition put on in July by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, and Ground, Charlie’s solo exhibition at the Honolulu Museum of Art, for which we are collaborating on the Converge installation. Due to the size and intricacy of my carved woodcuts, it was most helpful to have an extra set of hands applying ink, wiping, and printing the woodcuts.
While in the studio together, we pinned up our finished prints, imagining how they might look tiled next to each other in ‘Ae Kai. A month later, I flew from Maui to O‘ahu with 20 different 30-inch by 30-inch prints. The day before the opening of the ‘Ae Kai exhibit, Charlie and I spent an afternoon together in an empty art studio at UH Mānoa rearranging our prints on the ground, until we were satisfied with a final composition for our 9-foot by 20-foot installation.
On inspiration: Cohan: Twenty years into our relationship, I am increasingly inspired by Abbey’s commitment to the issues particular to Hawai‘i, the relevance her work has acquired in the Hawaiian cultural community, and her evolving recognition as one of Hawai‘i’s most important visual artists. We celebrate our mutual connection to volcanic formation, earth movement, the creation of landmass, and the existence of islands and mountains in general. For Abbey, this is the Hawaiian island chain. For me, it is the Cascade mountains of the Pacific Northwest. Inspired by these two locations, the collaborations presented in ‘Ae Kai and Ground attempt to graphically translate the forces of geophysical change, including sedimentary compression, geologic weight, and the occurrences of seepage, fracturing, slippage, failure, and layering: the geothermal and hydraulic meeting of rock and water; fluid or frozen, hot or cold.
Romanchak: Our collaboration for ‘Ae Kai was influenced by the continuous breathing of a volcano. My prints drew from the sustained release of seismic energy typically associated with the underground movement of magma, while Charlie’s prints referenced a graphic reverb of the movement of ground. I am still awed that Charlie and I had such similar concepts at the same time, and that our prints came together so seamlessly. I like to think our ideas weren’t really ours, after all, but had been spinning through the cosmos, looking for someone to express them, when they found us.