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Work's rebirth; Decades after first and only exhibit, prints find new life

Late last year at an art opening in the Western New York Book Arts Center, a man approached print shop manager Chris Fritton and asked him to take a look at a collection of screen prints he had produced in the late 1970s.

Fritton, who fields his share of requests to view work for potential shows, told the man to bring the prints by the WNYBAC. Two or three months passed with no word from the man, until one day he stopped by with a 16-by-20-inch portfolio.

"He opens it up and immediately I was just like, 'This can't be a screen print.' The thing he's showing me has like 40 colors in it," said Fritton, an experienced printer who teaches workshops at the WNYBAC and creates posters for Mohawk Press. "I've never seen anyone do work like this. It's inconceivable to me. You can't even tell for the most part a lot of times that they're screen prints. It's mind-blowing."

The man, Ed Ott, worked as a technician for an artist named Sandra Hall in the early 1980s on an ambitious art project that depicts "the gentle flow from dawn to day to dusk to dark in a mysterious, color-infused, Southwest-inspired landscape." The end product, after 2 1/2 years of grueling work and 20-hour days spent perfecting the printing technique, ink colors and bleeds, was only exhibited once in a university gallery in Ohio in the mid-'80s.

After that, the project sat dormant for nearly 30 years. But today, the entire series, presented in the round and supplemented with material about the work's fascinating creation in a studio in the Arizona desert, goes on view in WNYBAC.

"The Journey of the Sprit," which runs through June 9, is the product of an intense obsession, an outgrowth of the psychedelic art movement that grew out of '60s counterculture and a record of at least one man's fervent and perhaps even self-destructive commitment to getting it right. It's part of WNYBAC's "Serigraphy: The Art of Screenprinting," which also includes prints by U.K. artist Jim Butler and Anne Muntges.

Ott, a Western New Yorker who worked as a technician for photographer Milton Rogovin until his death in 2011, began his work on the project as a kind of intern for Hall and quickly became integral to its completion.

"I think it became something that was a really great idea to do, and then when the logistics of it began to play themselves out, it became insurmountable. But then neither of them really wanted to quit," Fritton said. The story behind the work's creation, Fritton said, provides "intrigue for anyone, and it also colors the artwork for me in a fantastic way, an unusual way."

The show, Fritton hopes, will provide a springboard for Ott and Hall's work and their story -- which speaks to the fascinating and sometimes dark nature of artistic obsession. In addition to which, Fritton added, the work holds some clear contemporary relevance.

"The best thing about this is that this looks like something that someone could have made yesterday in Brooklyn. Some kid, in some studio right now, is using this drawing technique and would also be using this color palette," Fritton said. "Its period of dormancy was perfect for its rerelease."