We sat down with Dianna to discuss print-making, gentrification, and the history of the Hi-Lo Press: print studio, art gallery, micro-cinema, dance hall.
Dianna Settles is a printmaker, a musician, and amateur tattooer in Atlanta, Georgia. She currently runs the Hi-Lo Press in Midtown, where she runs a small print-making operation and coordinates poetry readings, art openings, workshops, reading groups, and birthday parties. Spending her childhood in a small town in north Georgia, Dianna ventured into the city on weekends for punk shows until eventually moving to Atlanta in 2007. Aside from a two year stint in the San Francisco Bay Area from 2012-2014,where she went to school, she has been in Atlanta ever since. For the Dream Issue, we reached out to Dianna to get a closer look at her many joyful projects.
Since conducting the interview, Dianna and the Hi-Lo Press were notified by their landlord that he has sold the building, and that the future of the project is totally up in the air beginning August 5th. We reached out to Dianna again to talk about the situation and have included her thoughts at the end of the following interview.
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How did you come to start Hi-Lo Press?
When I moved back to Atlanta in 2014, I was trying to figure out how to do lithography. Outside of university settings, there are not many resources for printmaking in Atlanta. For a few months I was sneaking into print studios. But it’s such a labor intensive process, not something that feels good to rush through. So, I started looking for my own press and found one in Jersey City. I picked it up and moved it into my basement, where I did all of my printing for a while. Then I saw that there was a letter press for sale a couple miles away. It was too good a deal to pass up so I borrowed some money and bought it.
It was partly out of necessity that I started the press. The letterpress machine weighed 2000 lbs and I don’t own any property. I couldn’t ask my landlord to cut a hole in the wall. Eventually, a local gallery called Beep Beep announced they were closing after 10 years. I went to one of their last shows and asked what the plan was, then talked to landlord and told them I was interested.
What’s your day to day like?
I live with four cats so I wake up to feed them. They’re meowing constantly. They each have their own ways to tell me it’s time to be fed, it’s really difficult to ignore. Then I get back into bed for a bit. After I shower, I meet up with friends for coffee and a bagel before heading to the print shop. The studio is close to a shopping district so, especially on the weekends, people walking through the neighborhood will pop their head in. Half the time, they stand outside and try to figure out what the machines are.
I do a lot of sitting around. I don’t have internet in the space. I try to work on different design projects, I print things. Sometimes friends come in. We do a lot of meetings there for other projects. At some point I put a sign on the door to say I’m out and walk to the grocery store to get a snack. If it’s the first two weeks of the month, I try to avoid the landlord, or tell him I’ll pay the rent after he fixes something. Someone told me running a print shop is a dance and you have to learn it, and one of the dances is avoiding the landlord. I talk to the neighbors, who are Korean. Sometimes they bring me snacks and sometimes I bring them snacks. Then I go home.
How many people are involved?
I’m usually the only person there during the day. But more friends have been stopping in during the past few months. We’ve talked about running it more collectively. It’s been nice having the space as a resource for my friends and their projects – to screen films, run workshops, and so on.
Tell me more about the events you’ve hosted in the space?
We’ve had printmaking workshops in a handful of different mediums, such as relief woodcuts on the litho press. One person did an experimental perfumery workshop. We’ve also hosted poetry open mics and reading groups. A friend is hosting a release party for a book we printed together.
Are you able to support yourself through the press?
Yes and no. It’s always been a “feast or famine” situation. I quit my restaurant job two years ago and have been working exclusively out of the print shop since then. I know how much money I need to make to cover the rent, and if I the press doesn’t get enough jobs one month I’ll pick up other gigs—doing tattoos or I’ll babysit or help someone with something.
Are there other spaces or projects that have inspired Hi-Lo Press?
There’s a space called Atlanta Printmaking Studio where I did an internship after I first moved back. It’s nice, they let you trade intern hours for studio time. I’ve taught classes there.
I have relationships with a number of smaller DIY art spaces and professional art galleries in richer neighborhoods in the city.
What I appreciated about Beep Beep was that it doubled as a space to hang out in and talk to people. Also, it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility to purchase the artworks they were showing. Since this space has been part of the community for a while, when I took over I wanted to make sure it could be a place for people to continue to share art work and look at different things. Two other galleries lived here before Beep Beep, so it’s been established as an art space for nearly two decades.
Before I got started, I reached out to a bunch of people who had started art spaces to ask them logistical questions. The standard split for most art spaces is 50/50 – the gallery takes 50% and the artist gets 50%. It makes sense in terms of covering operating costs, but it felt bad to me to take so much from people who are selling art for the first time. The guys who ran Beep Beep kept 35%, so I decided to keep 30%. That way people can price things more fairly for the people who live here and interact with it, and still feel good about what they’re making from it.
When I was at SFAI, I did a study about starting a print space. At that point, it seemed far away – I didn’t think that I would do something like this until I was much much older.
Has the broader Atlanta art/print making world given you recognition?
Because there are so few printmaking resources in Atlanta, just having “press” in the title piqued people’s interest. Also, everyone wanted to know what was going on in the old Beep Beep space.
I took over the space in January 2016. We had our first opening in February that year. About 300 people came through the space that first night. It’s been received pretty well since then. I’m always surprised at how excited people are about the things we do.
What is the surrounding neighborhood like?
Atlanta has been rapidly gentrifying, there are luxury apartments going up everywhere. It’s kind of wild to think about how spread out everything feels now. I remember when I first moved here, I would think, “Ugh I don’t want to go to so-and-so’s house, that’s so far,” and now that’s right in the middle of a gentrified area. It’s unthinkable to imagine my broke friends being able to afford living where they used to, so everyone is spread out across town.
The neighborhood Hi-Lo Press is in flipped a long time ago. The block it exists on doesn’t seem like it should be there. There are two antique stores, a barber shop, and Hi-Lo is wedged in between an alteration shop and a shoe repair store. Everything is super dingy. The roof of the building has been leaking for 30 years. A lot of anxiety comes with being in the space. Project apartments right across the street are slowly getting torn down, replaced with condos and lofts.
There are definitely still pockets of people holding out and doing interesting things. It’s very dispersed, which is understandable with so much sprawl and so much development. There’s a bike co-op nearby, South Bend Commons a few miles away and then just different houses where friends live and do cool things out of.
To what extent is your interest in printmaking tied to your politics?
When I make a piece of art, half of me wants to hold onto it and half of me wants to give it away. That’s the main reason I became interested in printmaking. With printing, I can keep one and give twenty away to friends or whatever. It’s definitely an interesting and somewhat silly practice, given that the technology exists for making really rich, beautiful images with so little human effort. I’m reminded of this every time I do a commercial job for someone. People tell me, “Did you know I can get 1000 of these for $10?” It’s true. So why do you come to me? Because you want a flawed item that went through human hands.
I do love being so connected to all the pieces. Especially lithography stones that you draw on to make the prints. They are massive, physically and historically heavy objects. After each image you grind off a thin layer. The stones have already outlived several artists and will outlive me. Just think about a stone having this memory of every image that’s been printed on it, and indirectly collaborating with people you’ve never known or could never meet in person.
Who are some of your favorite artists?
Yoon Nam, a DJ who also does painting and illustration. She writes and is a phenomenal cook. When you first look at her illustrations, they look light and bizarre and childish. But if you take one breath while looking at one you see there’s so much more to it, so much weight. The titles she gives her pieces kick you in the chest.
Next steps for Hi-Lo?
Hopefully we can find a loophole that allows us to stay on the block for another five years, to be able to do more events, and to create a more interesting utilization of the space.
On July 26, Dianna received bad news from her landlord. From the Hi-Lo Press Instagram:
Yesterday Joe Williams,the landlord for hi-lo (and all of the other businesses on the corner of Ponce de Leon and Charles Allen Dr), informed me that he has sold the block and that the new owners will have control over the rent and addresses from August 5 (as in two weeks from now) onward. It came to all of the tenants attention that the block was listed last November from patrons and friends, not from Joe himself. Since confronting him last winter and asking for him to take accountability and to open up dialogue with the renters concerning our futures here he has remained consistently opaque. While I’ve occupied this address for nearly 4 years the other renters have all been tenants for between 18 and 40 years. Since January of 2016 we’ve hosted many art shows, workshops, poetry readings, book clubs, punk shows, screenings, and fundraisers. We’ve learned how to chock up our presses in order to protect them from the water that comes in with every heavy rain, how to wear enough layers to keep warm in a completely uninsulated building, how to laugh when there’s an event happening and there’s a small waterfall pouring through the back doorframe. We’ve forayed into diy electrical work, roof repair, carpentry, plumbing and landscaping with deep frustration and joy out of necessity and excitement. None of the tenants currently know how exactly we will be effected by this. The current destruction and transformation of Atlanta doesn’t give us much hope and, while we would hate to see this block torn down and replaced with another set of luxury apartments or a cocktail bar or a phone repair shop, it’s highly likely. Joe himself plans on going out of business between now and the beginning of September and is through his plan once again showing how totally unconcerned he is with the fate of the folks here. When asked why he didn’t want to carry on with running The Fainting Couch (since his comfort has consisted entirely of saying “maybe nothing will change besides your landlord”) he responded “I’m not going to pay rent”.
We are really sorry to hear about this situation. What is your next move?
I’m trying to figure out what my plan is. It feels mostly contingent upon finding out what happens after August 5, in terms of what the new property owners are going to ask of the tenants — especially since I’m the only one who has a lease. On a more concrete timeline, I would like to utilize the current address as much as possible, so, like, trying to materialize a lot of ideas for different happenings or experiments that can take place there. [That would include] some sort of... totalizing party to say "goodbye" to that address, assuming we have to leave; but, also, organizing with the other tenants and trying to figure out what it is we can do from here, whether that takes shape as a rent strike or something else. I don’t know. That’s kind of where I’m at right now.
The Hi-Lo Press is located at 696 Charles Allen Dr NE, Atlanta, GA 30308
For updates, follow Hi-Lo Press on Instagram @Hilopress or visit the website.