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Figge Art Museum to show works of master printmaker Robert Blackburn
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Figge Art Museum to show works of master printmaker Robert Blackburn

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An exhibit of the work of master printmaker Robert Blackburn is coming to the Figge Art Museum on Oct. 9.

Robert Blackburn spent his life as an artist, teacher and master printmaker striving to give everyone the opportunity to learn about creating art like he was able to. Over a career spanning 60 years, he influenced countless artists and changed how printmaking was done.

His work emphasizes the values of the Figge Art Museum, the museum's executive director Michelle Hargrave said, and now the two will come together with an exhibition.

"What he did is the same as the Figge's mission, to bring art and people together," Hargrave said. 

"Robert Blackburn & Modern American Printmaking" will show at the Figge Art Museum, 225 W 2nd St., Davenport, Oct. 9-Jan. 9. Blackburn was a Black artist, teacher and master printmaker who had a large influence on the development of printmaking.

Organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, the exhibition features 75 works, half made by Blackburn and half made by artists connected to him in some way.

"An important part of bringing the exhibition here is that we get to raise awareness of this really important artistic figure and how vital he was to printmaking in the 20th century," Figge Assistant Curator Vanessa Sage said, "and show his work and dialogue with artists who were his peers, his collaborators, his mentors and his students."

Born in 1920, Blackburn grew up in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance, an important movement of Black arts and culture stemming from the area. The exhibition spans his career from creating as a student to collaborating with artists as a master printer. He died in 2003.

Pieces range from figurative to abstract and are incredibly beautiful and powerful to see, Hargrave said. Much of the collection also touches on issues from the time. Parts of the exhibition will describe the printmaking process and how it developed over the years. 

The exhibition — split up into six different sections — is organized in chronological order, Sage said, to show how his worked changed throughout his career and the different artists who he influenced and influenced him at different times.

In addition to creating his own pieces, Blackburn also founded a workshop that provided space, equipment and learning opportunities for those interested in printmaking. It started with letting people come use his equipment, as the tools and space needed to make prints weren't accessible to everyone, and grew into a diverse community that touched many artists. 

Some of those whose work is shown alongside Blackburn's were connected with him through the workshop, whether they were peers or students. A piece by Riva Helfond, a mentor of Blackburn's who taught him how to use a press, is hung beside one of his early works.

The workshop was reopened two years after Blackburn's death by the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, carrying on his legacy. 

"(The workshop) grew into this really vibrant and vital space, as there were classes, there were instructors," Sage said. "They were experimenting and innovating with different printmaking mediums, and it really changed printmaking."

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