Posted 3:12 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024

Zachary Stensen, UWL assistant professor of art, teaches drawing and print media classes. He was the visionary behind renovations to UWL’s printmaking studio. “I always think of myself as a coach with a team of students who are competing with students at other schools. Your team is at a disadvantage if they don’t have access to modern ways of working.”

Renovated print studio grows as a vibrant hub for creativity and community post COVID 

Art doesn’t make itself. To develop as an artist, one needs to invest time and energy. 

For printmakers, that means showing up at the print shop, explains Zachary Stensen, UWL’s printmaking instructor. 

“You need to use the facilities to make the work. If you are not here, you’re not making the work,” he says as he looks around the recently renovated print studio on the third floor of UW-La Crosse’s Truman Lowe Center for the Arts. 

When he arrived on campus in fall 2020, Stensen did a great deal to make the studio a space students would want to come and create. Bright lights illuminate colorful prints decorating nearly every inch of wall space. New digital printmaking tools and lithographic presses allow students to experiment with blending traditional and modern printmaking techniques. 

But, as the pandemic shut down public gathering spaces in early 2020 as Stensen had just started his UWL teaching career, no one did much gathering. The printmaking classes, along with the rest of campus, moved to entirely remote instruction.  

Marlie Voigt is one of the printmaking students who has found a strong sense of community at the studio. Stensen is an “incredible professor who truly cares about his students," says Voigt.

“Finding a community was something I had been worried about coming in as an undergraduate because it's one of those concepts that's much easier said than done,” says Marlie Voigt, who was a UWL freshman in early 2020.

But as the pandemic subsided and in-person classes resumed, Voigt and other classmates have tried to put COVID’s isolating experience behind them. The print studio has played a big role in that.

“Last semester was the first time I felt truly a part of a community, and I recognized it through my intrinsic need to be in the studio,” explains Voigt, who is now an art education major. “I find that having that support system truly influenced my work because I was no longer afraid to come to the studio with an underdeveloped idea, because it means that I can talk among my peers and receive constructive feedback about the different paths I can take it.”  

Senior Art Major Ellen Cervantes concurs. Through the feedback from peers, friends, and instructors, she has been able to reevaluate and deepen her understanding of her own work. She describes the print studio community as a “small and close knit” community. 

“We spend a lot of time together and often discuss ideas for projects with a degree of candor I haven’t really seen in a studio course before,” she says. “As a handful of introverts, I think we’re still learning how to form and maintain strong connections with other art-makers, but there’s a tacit understanding that we’re all working toward similar goals.” 

About ten dedicated art students including Cervantes and Voigt consistently work in the print studio outside regular classes and over semester breaks. Stensen has fostered that kind of dedication to community and collaboration by referring students to ask each other for help when one has expertise in a particular area of printmaking, explains Voigt.  

“I wouldn’t have a fraction of the drive to integrate myself into this community if I hadn’t met such passionate and driven artists here,” adds Cervantes. 

Space blends modern and traditional 

The art on the walls of the printmaking studio represents a wide selection of prints produced using different media and technical processes such as wood cuts, screen prints, lithographs and etchings. Overall, the walls represent everything that can be made in the shop. This particular art is on the walls in a new merit studio, a special studio space where eight students get their own private printmaking studio space based on their seniority and time in the studio.

Students say they also feel supported through Stensen’s attention to renovating the print studio, which has allowed them to expand their perspective and practice. Removing old cupboards and wooden benches from the 1970s, he transformed the space into cutting-edge hub where traditional printmaking from the 1400s converges with more modern digital tools.  

The studio now houses a digital print lab where students experiment with modern printmaking techniques like laser cutting, which focuses a laser beam for a quick and precise cut of a design. The Laser cutting has allowed Cervantes to combine print and sculpture, inspiring plans for future 3D pieces. 

“By bringing in this new equipment, Zach is also bringing in the ability to experiment,” explains Voigt. “This allows us to find new ways to blend the gap between antiquity and modernity.” 

Stensen’s efforts to improve the printmaking space didn’t stop with the digital lab. When his alma mater, UW-Eau Claire, sought to donate two lithography presses, he successfully advocated for their relocation to UWL, a value of $40,000. 

 Voigt says Stensen’s passion for art, and specifically printmaking, is one that truly translates into the printmaking space he created.  

During the spring 2024 semester, students will have not only the tools but also the help of professional artists to refine their skills. Stensen’s printmaking students will assist six professional artists in producing their prints with help from a small grant from the College of Arts Social Sciences and Humanities. The idea came from a program he led at a previous position at Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Qatar (VCUarts Qatar).

"That program demystified the printmaking creation process for students and my goal is to create the same experience for UWL students,” he says. “I think it will be a good way for students to network and meet other artists and look at their work in a different way.”

Growing roots in a new community

Interim Chancellor Betsy Morgan purchased two of Stensen’s prints featuring nature scenes for her office in Graff Main Hall.

Stensen grew up on a dairy farm in the Eau Claire, Wisconsin area, attended UW-Eau Claire and then went on to graduate school for printmaking at the University of Iowa, one of the top programs in the U.S. for printmaking. He then taught printmaking for nine years at Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Qatar (VCUarts Qatar). 

“I always had an interest in getting out and seeing other things and traveling, but nine years is a long time to live away,” he says. “In Qatar, I craved living in a place where I could put down roots, creating a community and network.”  

Now, making a home in La Crosse, he is putting down those roots. Stensen is excited about the art community at UWL, encompassing not only his department colleagues but also a supportive administration. He has received funding from the dean’s office for various improvements to the studio space, a CASSH small grant to support his plans for a student collaboration with guest artists this spring, and even received support for his own artwork. 

Interim Chancellor Betsy Morgan was taken with two of Stensen’s prints featuring nature scenes at a UWL gallery show and recently decided to purchase them.  “After I was appointed as interim chancellor, I found it the perfect excuse to buy them and have them in the office while I served and then at home afterwards,” she says. “They are extraordinary pieces.”   

Beyond his UWL role, Stensen is deeply involved in promoting the arts in the La Crosse area as the Chair of the City of La Crosse Arts Board. His community connections have also led to different opportunities for students to get involved in the local community and beyond, notes Voigt. Stensen’s frequent encouragement for students to consider their career and lives as artists outside of academics and to participate in events both on and off campus has been indispensable to his students development, says Cervantes. 

“Having this amazing quality of guidance as a student artist is something truly remarkable,” says Voigt. “As an art educator myself, I have taken so much away from his teaching style that I hope to incorporate one day into my own practices.”