The Brilliant Stirchley Printworks

You don’t expect to find your next creative outlet tucked in beside a car salesroom, a getir and a gym, but that’s exactly where Stirchley Printworks resides, comfortably located in Clonmel Business Park, camouflaged by rows of terraces. Stirchley’s commercial success lies in the community's ability to adapt to its existing buildings, units and surroundings and this new venture is no exception, with founder James Turner shaping the 24 hour unit to become a site for workshops, courses and jobbing printmakers.

The studio is a real hidden gym – mainly due to its discreet location – and, open for just over two months, has already got a set of workshops under its belt, upcoming Christmas classes, and a successfully raised Kickstarter fund of £2730.

Not originally from ‘round these parts, James is as enthusiastic about the city as any born and bred Brummie, with an effusive love for Bathams and ale trails alongside his print. He began where many do, coming to Birmingham for university, and stayed. Still teaching in Leamington alongside running this passion project, he realised long ago he had a knack for conveying the techniques, creativity and exploration of print. Toying with the idea of the studio for two years, the timeline moved quickly from February this year. James knew the Clonmel space was exactly what he needed, and with a toilet – hard to come by in studio searches, apparently – so acted fast and put the deposit down “to make it all real”, recruiting his band of merry men and women to assist with installation, painting, preparing, then celebrating, its opening.

Why print?  I ask: “It’s for everyone, it’s inclusive of all backgrounds, and has so many types to explore,’ James smiles. Through his teaching, he’s learned how to step back, allow people to discover it for themselves and, importantly, play. Print is, undeniably, fun, with its tools, inks and mess, but James confirms that people often think it’s a bit stuffy, requiring a certain level of ability and quality. Here, he aims to “break the normality”.

Discussing the lack of a strong print community, accessible equipment and workshops in Birmingham – the familiar ‘how did Brum get missed out?’ question arising again – in Stirchley he has devised something that sets a template for what he hopes could grow and replicate elsewhere across the city.

Offering studio membership – from budding newbies to seasoned printmakers — through a key-holder subscription, the space is compact but open, airy and incredibly welcoming; mostly built by hand by James and his team of willing, wine-bribed helpers. Intentionally creating a social ‘breakout’ area, he hopes the space becomes more than just a place to create and work, but somewhere to socialise with other members, share ideas, techniques and enjoy the design process.

The courses follow the same ethos, ranging from focused day classes such as lino and screen (£90), eight-series workshops (£320) and one-off themes, including card making for Christmas. James is also the ‘everyman’ of print, sharing hacks on how to avoid paying hefty pricetags for print equipment and repurposing existing tools for the job, recently offering a lego print course to stretch the ‘play’ ethos.

Elbowing my way onto one of the sessions from the Beginner’s Print course, I enjoyed three hours with a lovely assortment of Brummies. The course introduces students to a range of print processes and methods – exploring intaglio versus relief, in screen print, dry point etching and lino, allowing ‘freestyle’ sessions at the end to explore your own path. Week three was dry point etching and chine coll'e (try that in a Brum twang): etching into plastic, smothering it with ink and sending it through what can only be described as a modern mangle. An accompanying tour of the open plan studio introduced me to the equipment you sort of know, but not really. The aforementioned ‘mangle’ is, in fact, an etching press. In pride of place, sits the Albion press, an original 1887 restored beauty. Alongside the old sits new; screen print beds, and the etching press sourced from just up the road in Ironbridge. Reader, I was hooked; I’m going back.

Stirchley Printworks’ success and longevity will be helped by the additional funding from the Kickstarter, which will receive matched Arts Council funding and support running costs of the studio in its first year, enabling James to focus on supporting artists and beginners with equipment and courses, and ultimately grow the print community. The raised funds show the demand is there for more of the same. If you admire the amazing prints that are produced but often think it’s beyond your grasp, think again: James insists everyone is a potential printer, they just don’t know it yet. And he hopes his courses uncover that desire in lots more Brummies. “Passion is more important than practice”, he insists.

This studio is, by James’s reckoning, “exactly what’s needed for the print community”. In his charmingly modest way, he’s undersold the studio: this is for the whole community, Stirchley and beyond.

Stirchley Printworks courses and workshops
(Words: Claire Hawkins)