The stories in Topic’s November 2018 issue, “Us & Them,” revolve around difference and the tension between competing narratives. In politically charged times like these, it would be easy to interpret the theme as being only about conflict. But when we approached the Berlin-based illustrator and graphic designer Daniel Greenfeld to do this month’s cover image, he initially tried to look for the theme’s upside. “I thought how it could be ‘us understanding them,’” he explains. “But with the state of things now, it’s particularly hard to envision that rosier outcome or hopeful tone.”
Greenfeld constructed the cover art using hand-cut relief printing—a favorite technique of the German Expressionist artists of the early 20th century, and the aesthetic inspiration behind countless American and European protest posters since. Greenfeld, who studied at the Art Institute of Chicago for only a year before quitting to pursue freelance work, says he fell into printmaking by “happy accident” after hearing the cartoonist Art Spiegelman (of the graphic novel series Maus) deliver a lecture. Greenfeld has since published illustrations in The Intercept and the Village Voice, among other publications.
Below, the artist talks to Topic about how analog techniques can serve as powerful forms of artistic resistance, even in the digital age, and why a lecture inspired him to take up printmaking in the first place.
You were in the middle of moving from Brooklyn to Berlin when you got this assignment. What was your process behind the cover?
I took my notebook, sat in the airport bar, and did a really rough sketch. My usual process is that I first write down words, then draw up a vocabulary list of things. Then, I fill a couple of sketchbook pages with just the most scribbly-scrawly things that I can refer back to and understand. Finally, I’ll put together a collection of five, six, or seven sketches that other people can understand.
How did you make your message universal in this image?
I spent a lot of time sort of trying to create figures that could be both men and women. I was constantly googling different human profiles. I spent a lot of time drawing the face, then adding different types of hair to see if it would still translate. I also wanted to create a connection between how you decide who is “us” and who is “them,” and how that is partly based on your environment and your surroundings. In this sort of graphic language, it was easiest to create an urban and a rural environment.
Printmakers have a history of addressing social and political issues. Do you draw inspiration from any of these elements?
Yeah, I definitely do. It’s amazing, and one of the things that is so great about being in Berlin. The history of determined political art in the German Expressionist movement, and those artists’ work in printmaking—that’s a really a big inspiration for me.
How did you get into illustration and graphic art?
I’ve been doing graphic design for years, sort of since I dropped out of art school. Over the years I just started incorporating more and more illustration into the design work. Then, about four or five years ago, I discovered printmaking, which I’d never used or experimented with before. That helped me make the full switch from digital design stuff into completely handmade print techniques.
I went to a lecture by Art Spiegelman about wordless graphic novels and their history. He started talking about this group of German artists who were doing these spectacular woodcuts, and I was blown away. After the lecture, I went home and started doing research. I hopped on YouTube and looked at a few tutorials for printmaking, then just went to the art store and bought a bunch of supplies and started experimenting.
What kind of tools did you use for this piece?
For this, a mixture of linoleum and this sort of thin foam sheet that is designed for children, so they can learn printmaking without slicing themselves up. The foam is actually an incredible material that I love working with. For the ink, I used a water-soluble relief ink. I decided to go with just black. I think that’s something I love about the printmaking process; obviously I could have added color, but I think the high-contrast look of black and white really does have that traditional feeling of poster and protest art.
What else inspires your work?
I think that if I’m not specifically thinking about an issue that the piece requires, I look at how individuals interpret the information we get. The languages and transmission of information between people are sort of the essence of what makes us function as a society—and what disintegrates society. I always find myself playing around with ideas like that.
Are there any other projects of yours that you are particularly proud of?
I did a series of covers for reports done by the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic, where professors and grad students build cases against violators of human rights around the world. It was great to be a very small part of such an important and worthy project.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.