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Art People: Teresa Mucha prints her own ticket

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Twelve years ago Teresa Mucha was making ends meet slinging coffee at Gourmand cafe in Printers Row when she struck up an acquaintance with one of her regulars, artist Tony Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick had just bought an etching press and had plans to start up a fine-art print studio in the South Loop building that housed his World Tattoo Gallery. Impressed, Mucha, then a printmaking student at the School of the Art Institute, says she "pestered him" until he gave her a part-time job. "I thought, 'This guy is going places, and I'm going with him!'" A year or so later she dropped out of school and began working for Fitzpatrick full-time at the fledgling Big Cat Press. "I did just about everything, from cleaning the place to getting the coffee," she says, "but I was also immediately submerged in the technical aspect, etching plates right away. It was a lot of trial and error back then, but I learned quickly." Big Cat grew over the following decade, moving to its current Bucktown location in 1995, and soon Mucha was rubbing elbows with established artists like Ed Paschke, Gladys Nilsson, and Jim Nutt, all of whom printed at the studio.

Mucha can appear timid and soft-spoken, but her demeanor belies a steely work ethic--even when working full-time on other artists' prints, she kept at her own artwork, staying late nights and weekends at Big Cat when necessary. Fitzpatrick says that when he met Mucha she was "a quiet kid from Michigan," but still, "I could tell that she was dedicated to the idea of being an artist." In her haunting color etchings and graphite drawings on paper she creates ambiguous visions of womanhood--portraits of stoic women in prim period dress, for example, whose identities are obliterated by sensuous flowers and vines that spring from their heads and from fissures in their exposed necks or shoulders. In her more recent work, which is populated by disembodied hands equipped with tiny wings, the viewer is torn between seeing the flying hands as pretty little creatures in their own right and seeing them as severed remains of some unfortunate martyr. The 46 small "spirit hand" drawings on gessoed metal in the series, "Clipped Wings Can Grow Again," each have inspirational mottoes handwritten in neat script across the bottom: "Through Tenderness Fearlessness Is Born," "Bury All Bitterness," and "Against All Hope, Hope On."

Mucha admits her imagery can be viewed as eerie. "I know there's a dark side to it," she says, but that's part of her message. "I don't want people to be afraid, because fear makes the dark side grow--gives it life. Don't be afraid. Conquer it."

She's influenced by religious painting from the classics of the Italian High Renaissance to Mexican retablos, and not just aesthetically. Mucha is a practicing Catholic whose faith infuses both her art and her life. "Now, I let it control my art," she says, glancing skyward. "I ask, 'OK, what do you want me to do?'" The series of small etchings she's currently working on, "Weapons of Divine Power," depicts concepts such as peace, faith, and love as "spiritual armor."

Last fall the sale of about half the "spirit hand" drawings in her one-person show at Aron Packer Gallery enabled her to open her own printmaking studio, White Wings Press. "It was tough leaving [Big Cat], but I knew it was time to move on. I had been there so long; I had learned all that I could learn. I have bigger aspirations."

At present, White Wings is housed in the front room and basement of Mucha's Wicker Park apartment, but her plans for the future include buying a storefront. The upstairs printing room is white and inviting, with high ceilings and old-fashioned molding. Her framed prints are everywhere, and a shiny new etching press--"the biggest tabletop press they sell"--dominates the center of the room.

In the basement are the chemical baths, chosen for their lack of dangerous fumes and odor. "The nontoxic ferric chloride doesn't give off chlorine gas like a regular hydrochloric bath," she explains. Mucha is still experimenting with the "safe" chemicals to get the best results--they bite into the etching plate differently than the conventional products--but she feels the trade-off in health benefits warrants the period of adjustment. "Ultimately the prints will look just as good," she says. The basement also features a plush couch, a drawing area for visiting artists, and space for a used floor-model etching press she's buying from Big Cat.

Fitzpatrick, who intends to print an edition with Mucha later this year, says she was the "heart and soul" of Big Cat for 11 years, but he's thrilled that she's striking out on her own. "Here we are, both working on this old, arcane art form," he says, "and with all the new media around today, I think people would just as soon forget us. But it's great that we're not fading away."

For more information call White Wings Press at 773-489-5760 or E-mail teresamucha@whitewingspress.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Saverio Truglia.

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