If you’ve never heard of the Artist Proof Studio (APS), which is celebrating its coming of age with a 21st birthday exhibition at the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG), this is a good time to check out the artists’ work and the way art is used not only to teach but also to develop a specific ethos, all nurtured by the teachers, established artists of William Kentridge’s ilk as well as the students who are selected because of a certain ethic.

Two exhibitions, one at JAG and one at the studio in Newtown at the Bus Factory (President Street just behind the Dance Factory and in the vicinity of The Market and Museum Africa), as well as many different projects are being held this month and next, not only to review what it has achieved but also to experience print-making at its best.

The studio’s two-decade history dates from 1983, when an idea was born in Boston by a young Tufts/Museum School graduate and now renowned SA artist Kim Berman. It was established in Joburg in 1991 with talented fellow artist Nhlanhla Xaba.

APS was formed with the intention of training potentially talented, up-and-coming artists from economically disadvantaged backgrounds to become professionals.

In 1995, APS was registered as a non-profit section 21 company. The studio focuses on intaglio and relief printmaking processes, including lithography and silk-screening, plus other mixed media printing techniques, and now trains between 80 and 100 potential artists each year.

Ultimately, these amateur artists become professionals and are able to make a difference in their communities, an ideal that drives and motivates APS.

With this current coming of age, they’re also hoping to generate more business with their artmaking, says business manager Janet Watts.

“We have an incredible collection of works,” she explains, and many have been donated by artists such as Kentridge, who gives some of the sale proceeds (in his case a high percentage) to the APS. These artists also give their time as they help teach students and guide them in their printmaking work.

“We want this to be a world-class centre of excellence,” says Watts.

This would include both the educational as well as the professional printmaking side. Their printmakers in fact are former students who spend their time refining their printing and techniques. Not only have they grown in their expertise, but they’re also there to teach and guide the students. And lead by example.

“It’s all about creating a space where budding artists have a place to learn and practice,” she explains.

But they are especially focused on creating artists who will pass on their knowledge and skills to their community.

“We select those kinds of human beings as students,” notes Watts, who underlines that printmaking has always been seen as the voice of the people.

“You can spread the word,” she emphasises.

She explains that for the students, this is a journey.

“It’s about changing people’s lives and producing independent artists.”

Six international artists mentored three groups of student artists from the APS in a sequence of workshops before and as part of the current exhibitions.

Three generations of artists associated with the APS collaborated and exchanged art portfolios with their internationally renowned, Boston-based mentors.

This process will end in the ultimate exhibition next month, The Boston-Joburg Connection: Collaboration and Exchange at Artist Proof Studio, 1983-2012, which will be hosted at the Tufts University Art Gallery in Boston where founding member Berman studied.

This collaborative event will be curated by art historian Professor Pamela Allara, who also guest-curated the international section of the local Coming of Age exhibition – one of the highlights of the commemorative process – at JAG.

The JAG exhibition highlights the history of the APS, displays the work of students and staff through the years as well as contributions by other renowned artists who have supported the studio over the past 21 years.

The exhibition includes names like Phillemon Hlungwani, Nelson Makamo, Lehlogonolo Mashaba, Lucas Nkgweng, Berman and many emerging talents. New releases of editions from collaborating artists such as Kentridge, Diane Victor, Wim Botha, Norman Catherine, Paul Edmunds, Gerhard Marx, Colbert Mashile, Chris Diedericks, Kudzanai Chiurai and more are included.

As part of the Coming of Age exhibition, there is also a student exhibition of the Boston-Joburg Connection, at APS, which shows third-year art and features the prints chosen at the initial workshop to become star attractions in Boston.

For more information about APS go to artistproofstudio.co.za and check out these events hosted during the JAG exhibition which closes on July 6:

• International Museum Day: Friday, May 18: Demo from 10-11am; Demo from 2-3pm.

• Panel discussion on Saturday, May 26 from 11am-1pm.

• Demos for schools by the students, Tuesdays and Thursdays, 10-11am.

• Daily walkabouts to be booked through JAG via Tiny and Musha, call 011 725 3130.