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A neatly trimmed building topped with green shingles sits just off the intersection of Columbia and Tecumseh. Inside what used to be a gas station, a private eye office and, most recently, a labor union headquarters is Hedgehog Press, home base for artistic printmaker Julie Wall Toles. Toles bought the building and ripped out its insides. “Everything needed to be redone,” she said. “If you can imagine, this small space was divided into four little rooms.” She opened up the walls, painted and made use of every inch with tidy efficiency. The charming and functional space serves as a workshop, classroom and a gallery that features her intricate, limited-edition prints that illustrate Tole’s high level of skill.
Beyond offering intimate-sized printmaking classes, Toles often runs prints for artists in town who prepare their own plates but don’t have the time or equipment to do the actual printing themselves. She also does custom wedding invitations and sometimes loads up her small, antique letterpress and hits the road to visit groups at area schools.
“I like to tell the kids that this machine is the first form of social media. They are amazed at the mechanics of the press,” said Toles, as she explained how she lets the kids set up the typeface and operate the machine.
Toles is just as fascinated by her equipment as are the students she visits. When she talks about the antique machines, a smile spreads across her face and she quickly jumps into action describing the functions of the press and how she uses each one to produce her own exquisite pieces of art.
“I like that you have to create an image then change that image to print it. When printing, you don’t know exactly what it will look like until you are finished. There is an element of control that you have to give up. Because I am kind of a control freak, that part of the process appeals to me,” Toles explained.
Toles integrates multiple printing techniques to create contemporary work that comments on the role of humanity in society. To execute the most basic form of printing, relief printing, Toles carves a design into a block of wood, linoleum or other hard surface. She adds a thin layer of ink to the block with a roller then runs it through a press.
Intaglio involves the chemical etching of a copper plate that is first covered with a layer of wax. Toles carefully scratches a design into the wax, which exposes the copper. The copper plate is dipped in a chloride solution and the acid dissolves, or bites, the exposed areas leaving a permanent image engraved in the copper. Ink is smeared into the tiny void spaces and the excess is removed. When run through the press, the paper pulls the ink out of the plate to transfer the image.
Toles often combines multiple techniques in her work. One specific piece titled, “An Observation,” unites both relief and intaglio processes. The work evolved from a trip the artist took to Egypt and includes iconic symbols such as the lotus flower, an Egyptian pyramid and a lace bra, an image that is repeated throughout Tole’s work.
One might assume the bra is a mere nod to female strength, but the image actually refers to who is now known as the “girl in the blue bra”. On December 11, 2011 a young female protestor was publicly beaten in Cairo. Her clothes ripped open to reveal her bright blue bra, a symbol that has swept the world as a reference to the young woman’s bravery.
The Egyptian pyramids Toles added to the same piece point to that nation’s civil unrest. According to Toles, many Egyptians resent the amount of money that is poured into the preservation of the ancient artifacts when the nation’s own people are left to starve and suffer. Toles is an artist who wants to give a voice to those who often go unheard.
“I wouldn’t say I’m political. What attracts me to political struggle is the human element,” she explains. “I want to talk about the horrible things that are happening in the world. I want my images to be beautiful, but at the same time I want people to be aware that there are terrible things happening all over the world.”
Another inspiration to Toles is Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei whose work exposes government corruption and gives voice to the common citizen. Wei Wei designed the incredible Bird’s Nest Stadium for the 2008 Olympic games but was later infuriated by the realization that his work had been used to promote Chinese propaganda. His public admonishment brought on a sentence of house arrest.
Toles visited China in April 2011 when one morning Wei Wei’s image flashed across the television. As she leaned in to listen to the coverage on the admired artist, the TV signal went dark. The clerk at the hotel explained that TV blackouts were common occurrences in China. The experience was eye-opening to Toles as she reflected on her own work and realized,.
“My art wasn’t saying anything. Ai Wei Wei says things that are meaningful to people and I really don’t have a voice.” She went on to create the piece “Silence is the Virtue of Fools” which illustrates the Birdnest Stadium trapped under a red birdcage, tagged with the phrase, “I will not be silenced.”
Toles travels as a tourist but learns about humanity along the way. She and her husband form relationships with the people they meet, and rather than let the memories fade, their long-distance friendships remain strong. The connections she makes keep Toles personally invested in places on the other side of the globe.
“My travels have made these places and people real, not just images that brush past on the evening news.” Travel also pushes Toles to reflect on the vastness of our world and the magnificence of the places she sees.
“I like how things make me feel insignificant. The pyramids have been here for so long, they remind me how short each human life span actually is.” Perhaps it is this realization that keeps Toles moving at a high-paced speed, using her art to share what she has learned along the way.
Toles is both finding her voice and gaining momentum in the local art scene. A recent show at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art featured her work along with a few other artists who printed images at Hedgehog Press. The printing process was detailed in a step-by-step display that showed the progression of an image moving from idea to plate to press to print.
In addition to the museum show, Toles recently participated in the Old School vs. New School exhibit at Wunderkammer Company and also has work hanging Wunderkammer’s current, On Paper show. Toles has been part of the Fort Wayne art scene for years, but she is certainly turning up the volume. Her shop is gaining popularity throughout the community and neighbors who welcome the new business often stop by with their dogs simply to take a peek at the artist’s current projects.
Toles says of her frequent visitors, “It motivates your work when you know people will be stopping by looking for signs of progress.”