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The Big Tuna makes a lasting impression at new Firefly location

Business by: Joanne Kountourakis, August 21, 2022

An ink-coated woodblock after going through The Big Tuna, a large-scale press taking center stage at the BIG INK event at The Firefly Artists’ new location in Northport Village this weekend. Pictured, from left, are BIG INK founder Lyell Castonguay with artists Constance Sloggatt Wolf and Troy Hahn.

Talk about a grand entrance.

Shortly after announcing an unanticipated move down the street in Northport Village, and in the midst of a fundraising effort to support that transition, The Firefly Artists are showcasing their new space at 90 Main Street with a two-day, all-day large-scale woodblock printmaking event sure to turn heads.

Last week, managing partners at the Firefly announced the group would be leaving its space at 162 Main Street, where the artists have been for the past three years, and moving to the space most recently occupied by Haven Gallery, and before that, Northport Hardware Company. This weekend, the artists are welcoming into that new space The Big Tuna, a custom-designed, giant press made especially for large-scale woodblock printmaking. The event is open to the public.

In 2016, BIG INK – a community of like-minded artists who share an interest in large-scale woodblock printmaking founded in 2012 by Lyell Castonguay and Carand Burnet – raised $13,000 through public support to build The Big Tuna, a press designed for routine travel. What started as a small-town project has grown into a national program, with The Big Tuna making a lasting impression at museums, universities, art centers and galleries across the country.

A specialized press weighing over a ton is normally required to make large-scale prints; there are less than six of these large-format presses in the United States available for public use, according to BIG INK. Given its modular construction, The Big Tuna is transportable just about anywhere. Lyell and Carand traveled from Maine to bring the press – its lower body bedazzled with purple and blue scale-like sequins – to Northport.

This is the third year The Firefly Artists have hosted the BIG INK for a printmaking event, and it is a sight to see. Yesterday, setup of the print began at about 9am and printing continued until about 4pm. BIG INK transformed the space into a print studio; The Big Tuna surrounded by artists and their woodblocks, a large table beside them where Lyell applied ink to each woodblock before printing. The event runs like a demonstration and workshop, with Firefly friends, fans, and curious passersby welcome to stop in and witness the process all weekend long.

BIG INK founder Lyell Castonguay coats a woodblock with ink at yesterday’s portion of the weekend event.

So what is a woodblock?
As described on the BIG INK website, a woodblock is essentially a hand-carved stamp. Woodblock prints, or woodcuts, are made through a process of elimination. First, an artist draws a design onto a piece of wood. Areas artists want to appear white on their print are cut away with a chisel. Characters or images to show in black are kept at the original surface level. The stamp is coated with ink and pressed onto paper by hand. Large woodblocks require a specialized machine, either an etching or platen press, to exert enough force to produce a quality impression.

Eighteen artists were selected to have their woodblocks made into prints; some of the participants have been carving for weeks. The smallest size block being printed is 24” x 36”. The largest block BIG INK prints is 40” x 96”. Artists participating in the BIG INK event include established artist and educator Constance Sloggatt Wolf, who returned to The Big Tuna in her first non-collaboration, Brooklyn-based artist and first timer Troy Hahn, who carved an image of Buster Keaton for the event, and 16-year-old Firefly intern Maddie Woodard, whose efforts were supported and funded by The Firefly Artists.

Other artists having prints of their work made are Tina Nadeem, Leni Paquet-Morante, Kim Sheridan, Daniel van Benthuysen, Maureen Palmeri, Lisa Federici and Carol Procopio, Troy Hahn, Jim Darcy, Jen Lau, Jen LaCava, Kirk Larsen, Beth Atkinson, Mary Brodersen, Anthony Lombardo, and Margaret Minardi.

The Firefly Artists was established in 2011 by local artists Cathy Nichols and Kate Sydney to create a space where fellow artists could meet and support one another while displaying and selling their work. They began their Main Street presence in a small corner of LaMantia Gallery, before moving to a fully independent location, further east on Main Street in 2014, then to 162 Main Street. The BIG INK event serves as a preview of sorts to what will soon become Firefly's new space at the old hardware store (the group is officially moving into 90 Main in October).

Day two of the BIG INK event is today, Sunday, August 21; visitors are welcome to spectate and speak with the artists anytime between 9am and 4pm. There are raffles with dozens of prizes to help support Firefly as well. Many of the prints made this weekend will be on display for the next few weeks at The Firefly Artists Gallery at 162 Main Street.

To learn more about the BIG INK, visit the website here. To support The Firefly Artists in the move to their new space, check out this GoFundMe.

Lyell Castonguay feeds a woodblock into The Big Tuna as participating artists look on.

A closeup of artist Daniel van Benthuysen’s woodblock self portrait.

Artist Tina Nadeem adds some finishing touches to her woodblock before printing.

BIG INK founder Carand Burnet displays the work of Brooklyn-based artist Troy Hahn.