A very special abstract artist, Frank Mikuska, died recently. He is significant to me because I had the privilege and good fortune to work alongside him at Martha Street Studio in Winnipeg. I was in awe of him; he was decades older than me, retired from his professional career and respected by established artists at the studio and in Winnipeg.
In our days in the studio, Frank taught me an important lesson. One morning in particular, when I was expressing some doubt about making art (the why am I doing this? what’s the point? kind of moaning) Frank matter-of-factly said to me Just do the work. He didn’t wait for a response, or further discussion. He immediately turned back to his inking table and continued working. Problem solved.
So it was no surprise to read Frank’s response to questions about his time making monoprints at Martha Street Studio. This is what he said in a detailed interview with Gallery One One One at the University of Manitoba:
All of the material was there; it was just a matter of doing the work. This is a carryover from what I was already doing, while I was working for the Corporation because I had to learn back there how to do things quickly, choice of image, and also the ability to say stop, stop the work, make a decision that the work is complete. That’s always come with me and I still think in those terms. I never sketch, so when I start working with these prints, it was a question of “here is a palette, start doing it.” It just kind of fell into place. The images came very intuitively.
Frank’s studio workspace was always organized, compact and clean – no small feat for a printmaker working with multiple colours of oil-based inks. I recall how he carefully wiped every tube of oil after use. He worked quickly, efficiently, and thoughtfully. Powerful abstract images emerged from his methodical process.
Frank treated me as an equal in the studio. It was a tremendous gift to me – an emerging artist – but, I think, an integral aspect of his genuine respect for others and the creative process. In the interview he also describes the atmosphere in the studio:
Working at the print shop was just phenomenal. I was captured by the number of people who were working there and they were working in a traditional sense. After a while, they were looking over my shoulder, they were looking over each other’s shoulders, and as a result, there was a terrific exuberance, people making art; printmaking. I was really happy then, no doubt about that.
Working at Martha Street Studio was a happy time for me, too. Frank became an unofficial mentor. He encouraged me, provided feedback, and even shared end-of-the-day ink with me. Working with his palette for fun eventually influenced a whole series of my own work.
In reading Frank’s obituary, and the UM interview, I discovered how little I really knew about him. We briefly discussed our shared Slovak ethnic heritage, but I wasn’t aware that English was not his first language. I remember hearing he had a career at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation but I didn’t know that when he started, in 1955, he was one of the very first graphic designers at the newly launched CBC Television (Winnipeg.)
Frank’s contributions to the art world were significant. In one of his collaborative projects, he won the Prix Anik Award for Graphic Design of Soundscapes for Trenody – Music of R. Murray Schafer. He exhibited in several significant group shows of Modernist art in Canada. Frank also never mentioned that his work is in major collections, like the Museum of Fine Arts in Montréal and the Winnipeg Art Gallery.
The brief video Mikuska: Original Monoprints by Frank Mikuska by Ron Sloan provides a very good survey of Frank’s monoprints as well as biographical information, including rare examples of his fabulous work at the CBC.
I am happy to have one of Frank’s monoprints in my home. An acquaintance once asked How long did it take him to make that? The question was posed with a wry smile and my kid could do that attitude. I was very happy with my calm response. A lifetime, I said.
Dear Frank, thank you. You did the work, and you shared it with us.