Interested in starting your own entrepreneurial journey but unsure what to expect? Then read up on our interview with Deborah Maris Lader, Owner of Chicago Printmakers Collaborative, located in Chicago, IL, USA.

What's your business, and who are your customers?

Founded in 1989, The Chicago Printmakers Collaborative provides a studio for artists, printmakers, students, and the public to get excited about everything inky. Experienced printmakers further their practice with 24/7 keyed access to the workshop, while students learn and broaden their knowledge of printmaking media from CPC’s stellar roster of professional faculty. With facilities for intaglio, screen printing, lithography, relief, monotype, photo processes, and other traditional print media, the CPC offers a valuable resource in the Midwest and is known worldwide.

CPC provides classes, workshops, exhibitions, tours, internships, apprenticeships, open houses, residencies, demonstrations, and other special programming. It supports visiting artists and artists-in-residence and has participated in exchange collaborations with similar institutions worldwide. The studio promotes social justice initiatives and provides Chicago with an artistic and cultural community in which all are welcome.

Tell us about yourself

Making stuff has been my passion from day 1. As an undergraduate sculpture major, welding giant pieces of metal, carving wood, and grinding stone, I loved the materials but missed the act of drawing. I took a class in printmaking, which involves incising imagery onto etched metal plates, drawing onto lithography stones, and carving wood relief blocks, and I was immediately hooked.

Printmakers tend to be socially comfortable creatures because they need to share equipment and resources and cluster around whoever has a press. Because teaching has also always been an essential part of my career, nurturing others to pursue their artistic goals, it was only a matter of time before I opened my print shop. Creating a community around the medium of fine, handmade printmaking has been my focus for over 33 years.

I was a printmaking professor at Indiana University/Fort Wayne before moving to Chicago in 1989. I initially sought a teaching position. The stars aligned at that moment, and an old, defunct print shop became available for sale. I jumped on it and sunk all my cash into birthing the Chicago Printmakers Collaborative.

I didn't know anyone in Chicago besides my architect husband (a good sport, if ever there was one). I wondered if this crazy thing I was pouring my heart and sweat into would happen and if anyone would ever walk through the door of a 2nd story walkup warehouse in Ukrainian Village, where the only retailer in the neighborhood was a Cut Rate Liquor and a Wendy's (along with the occasional late-afternoon chorus of gunshots). We had a couple of ancient presses plus a new lithography press and stone purchased with the money left to me by my beautiful grandmother in her will. The name of the litho press is Edith, in case you were wondering

The printmakers who did finally walk through the CPC's doors have been the lifeblood of the studio ever since. I love printmaking and its array of stones, plates, tools, and presses, but what makes the CPC special are all of the printmakers, interns, printmaking students, and visitors who walk through the CPC door every day. The artists draw, etch, carve, print, and haul enormously heavy objects around the studio. The work is physically demanding and exacting and requires much technical skill. The work that has come out of the CPC print shop during the past 33 years is astonishing. Success means seeing these artists make their mark in printmaking studios, University print shops, and exhibitions worldwide.

As mentioned, the CPC was set up to foster dialogue, collaboration, and community among Chicago’s printmakers and educate and share the beauty of the medium with the broader public. Working alongside these artists has been an honor and an inspiration. The city and community where we make art have been tremendously supportive, and gallery visitors can see us at work as the printed image comes off the press. These are the things that motivate me.

What's your biggest accomplishment as a business owner?

Interestingly, the CPC is known worldwide even though we employ the same etching techniques used by Rembrandt. This is because of the wonders of social media. Printmaking communities around the globe can now come together on Instagram, Facebook, and Google Groups. They can share dialogue, technical information, and images in a global arena. CPC has almost 30k followers on Instagram. We regularly post videos of our members and students inking up plates, pulling screen prints, and graining stones. When print enthusiasts from Asia or Europe visit Chicago, they know where to go to find their people.

So yes, we are specialists in our little corner of the world. The studio is proud to provide a home for people who enjoy etching copper plates in acid, printing band posters and t-shirts by hand, drawing gorgeous images on big, heavy hunks of limestone, and carving relief images into linoleum tile or wood. The CPC continues to renew its commitment to serving local and international artists, underserved populations, and artists of color.

What's one of the hardest things that come with being a business owner?

The success (or failure) of a business comes down to the decisions made by the owner and whether the consequences of those decisions serve the industry. All decisions have to make financial sense, but they also must feed the moral core and mission of why the business exists in the first place.

Aside from the initial scariness of starting a small business dealing in the lucrative (NOT!) field of art making, I've moved the studio several times and finally bought a building to house it. That was one of the most challenging and exciting developments in the CPC's history.

Moving ginormous, heavy presses is complex, and finding the right location was daunting. By some miracle, and some very complicated legal maneuvering involving a foreclosure, a bankruptcy, and a bank in California, I bought probably the least expensive building in the same neighborhood where the studio had been for 15 years prior. Did I mention that the roof was caving in, and there was no plumbing? I applied for and received some hefty SBIF funding from the city. Because my husband is an architect, the architectural fees were affordable. Together, we built the print shop that dreams are made of.

BUT... the challenges of dealing with city codes, zoning, inspectors, permits... well, if you have gone through it, then you know. NOT FUN. OR EASY. And very often defying the laws of common sense. And sometimes people are not nice. But here we are. Running this business has had its annoyances, and it often feels like a 24/7 job. Still, there's all the good stuff I already mentioned that keeps me going. (probably way more than you wanted to hear about, haha!).

What are the top tips you'd give to anyone looking to start, run and grow a business today?

  1. Get to know and network with your fellow business owners and the local Chamber of Commerce and Alderman or other city officials. Collaborate and cross-promote. It's how I started the workshop and how we still stay connected.
  2. Take care of your business's social media content and email marketing. It's accessible and far-reaching and engages like-minded folks far and wide. Make sure your website is fabulous and up-to-date with relevant and exciting content, and drive all social media to it.
  3. Start small and develop gradually... a business will inevitably weather a roller coaster of hard and easy times. It is best to learn progressively and take baby steps to test the effectiveness of new initiatives. Most of all, have a passion for what you are doing so that there is motivation to problem solve and move forward when the hard times hit. At some point, you might wake up and realize that it's been 33 years!

Where can people find you and your business?


*Featured photo by Monica Kass Rogers

If you like what you've read here and have your own story as a solo or small business entrepreneur that you'd like to share, then please answer these interview questions. We'd love to feature your journey on these pages.

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