By Tommy Black
She needed one more class to graduate, and time was running out.
“I was attending the College of Fine Arts at Howard University,” Debra Riffe remembers.
“It was my final semester, and I needed just one class to graduate – so at the last moment I signed up for relief printing. That’s how I discovered linoleum block printing. I took to it like a duck to water.”
Luckily for that duck, and for art lovers throughout the country, that last-minute class helped create some of the finest block prints ever made by an Alabama artist.
The road to Birmingham
Although she was born in Tupelo, Riffe spent much of her childhood traveling between her grandparents’ home in Mississippi and her family’s place in Washington, D.C.
“I grew up going back and forth. We always returned to Mississippi for holidays and I spent my last two years of high school in Tupelo,” she says.
After going to college at Howard University in Washington, she traveled extensively in the Caribbean basin and lived in Colombia for a while.
“While there, I noticed a lot of similarities between the farmers who worked on the fruit plantations and the mannerisms and habits of the folks I’d grown up with in Mississippi,” Riffe says. “Those experiences had a big influence on my choice of subjects when I started making prints.”
The artist was living in California with her two children, Shannon and Jason, when her mother became ill. She returned South when her mother came to the Kirklin Clinic at UAB Hospital for treatment. “I intended to live in Alabama for just a few months,” she says. “But we stayed, and now we’ve been here about 20 years.”
As she settled into her new home, Riffe continued to make art, creating needlework scenes of African-Americans in the rural South. “Doing needlework is very time consuming, and I was looking for a faster way to turn my sketches into something more permanent, when I remembered my relief printing class,” she says.
A methodical process used by printers for generations, linoleum block prints are created when a drawn image is transferred by using a sheet of carbon paper and then traced backward on a linoleum block. The parts of the image that are to remain white are then cut away from the surface of the block, and ink is rolled onto the rest of the block.
A sheet of paper is placed on the block and put through a hand-operated printing press, creating a striking black-and-white version of the drawing.
Riffe decided to do a series of prints based on people who had taken part in the Birmingham campaign of the civil rights movement in 1963. Since it was impossible to include everyone involved in the movement, Riffe chose 32 people representative of those who marched during the campaign and titled the series “Holding the Line.”
“They went through some pretty hard times and we don’t always like to dwell on that,” she says. “But you certainly don’t want to forget it, either.”
Awards and attention
In 2013, the artist got a call from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, saying the school wanted to exhibit the series. “I don’t know how they found out about me, but that was my first major exhibition,” Riffe says.
Since then, her works have been exhibited at universities, museums and historic buildings such as the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Wiregrass Museum of Art in Dothan and Dillard University in New Orleans. Riffe has won awards at juried shows across the state, including the Bluff Park Art Show in Hoover, Kentuck Festival of the Arts in Tuscaloosa, and the Panoply Arts Festival in Huntsville.
In between staging exhibits and going to art shows, Riffe works full time for the City of Birmingham, spending her nights and weekends sketching, carving and printing.
“Right now, I have two large printing presses in a spare bedroom, so the space gets pretty tight,” she says. “Recently, I told my son, who’s living in California after getting his master’s degree from Union Theological Seminary of Columbia University, that he has a year to clean out his bedroom – because I’m moving in there, too.”