Late-life artist relishes challenge
For most of his life, Allan Akman has dabbled in art. The 77-year-old Rockville resident spent his 33-year career as a military consultant, but on nights and weekends, he painted using watercolors and oils.
When he retired in 2009, Akman had a long “bucket list” of things to do, books to read and places to visit. But he became captivated by one of the first items on the list: learning to make silkscreen prints.
Silkscreen printing is a multi-stepped painting process in which the artist squeegees paint through prepared fine-mesh screens using a rubber blade, gradually producing an image by printing one layer of color at a time.
Andy Warhol is perhaps the most famous screen printer, known for his pop images of Marilyn Monroe and Campbell’s soup cans.
Akman’s works were displayed last June at Pyramid Atlantic Art Center in Hyattsville, Maryland, in a solo exhibition called “Precision.” He recently sold a dozen prints to a corporate hospital, which plans to display them this spring.
“He really made up for lost time and is super prolific,” said Gretchen Schermerhorn, Pyramid’s artistic director, in an email.
“With this kind of validation,” Akman said, “I have no regrets that I haven’t gotten to other items on my list.”
Akman grew up in Washington, D.C., the son of a Polish immigrant who started a local grocery chain and hardware store.
He majored in mathematics at the University of Maryland and attended graduate school at Carnegie Mellon, where he received a master’s degree in business.
Then he returned to the area, settling with his wife in Glover Park. He taught at the University of Maryland for several years before starting his own consulting company in 1976.
Spark ignited full-time hobby
In his mid-60s, Akman glimpsed a cousin’s silkscreen print and became intrigued with the art form.
“I didn’t have any idea how to do it, so I went downtown to those galleries in Dupont Circle, looking for somebody who could help me,” Akman said in an interview with the Beacon.
Eventually he found Pyramid Atlantic Art Center, then located in Silver Spring, Maryland. He showed them a beloved family photo and said he wanted to turn it into a print.
“Here’s what I want to do,” he said. “Can you help me? Is it possible?”
Two of the art center’s associates agreed to teach Akman. “It took about nine months to [make the print], but it came out pretty well,” he said.
Akman never looked back. Now he creates images with as many as 41 colors — no small feat. He has created dozens of works, all from photographs of his family, nature or D.C. scenes.
Akman creates 10 to 15 original screened prints of each image, and each series takes him about three months to complete.
“I do it because it’s a challenge,” he said of his craft. “You have to come up with a scheme — what order are you going to print those layers…It feels like a puzzle.”
Patience, precision required
First Akman chooses a favorite photograph — a van beside a Yellowstone lake, his wife at a Nationals game, tulips at Brookside Gardens — and alters the digital photograph on his computer with Adobe Photoshop.
He crops the image, “corrects” imperfections such as crooked trees, and decides how many colors should comprise the image. In the case of the tulips, for instance, he chose no fewer than 10 shades of red and purple to produce the finished image.
Next, he prints out transparencies for each color element of the photograph and transfers them to individual silkscreens using a light-sensitive chemical called an emulsion. When the emulsion is exposed to UV light, it leaves a stencil on the screen to be used for that particular color.
He secures the screen to a wood frame and carefully lines up a piece of paper. Then it’s time to apply ink to the screen.
Akman spends hours mixing each color to his liking, carefully labeling plastic cups with the “recipe” — two tablespoons of red, half a tablespoon of white, etc.
Then he puts a dollop of custom-mixed paint on the screen and carefully draws the squeegee across the paper. Each color requires its own screen, all of which must be lined up perfectly or the image will blur. “You have to be precise; otherwise, it will turn out fuzzy,” he said.
It’s always a surprise to see the results, he said, and there is wisdom in “adjusting my dreams to the reality of the squeegee,” as Akman puts it on his website.
“Some days, I don’t know why, but it just goes perfectly,” he said. “Most days it doesn’t. Then you have to figure out why.”
Akman’s parents inspired him to pursue art: His mother enrolled him in fine arts classes, and his father creatively painted signs for his grocery store’s weekly sales. His father, who once advised Allan against art as a career, created intricate mosaics in his own retirement.
A community of artists
This winter, Akman is hard at work on his next project — an urban image he took of Hong Kong skyscrapers.
Twice a week, Akman drives to the Pyramid Atlantic studio, where he began, to work in its collaborative environment. During confounding moments, Akman can ask for help from fellow artists there.
“Everybody helps everybody,” he said of the studio. “There’s something special about being able to help people get to other places. The fact that I could do all this [art] is because other people helped me. I couldn’t do this on my own.”
Akman’s family admires his work; they even created T-shirts emblazoned with his tulip series for an annual reunion at Bethany Beach.
Although his grandson was “flattered” to be the subject of several prints, his wife was a reluctant subject, he said. He finally convinced her at a Nationals game, when he snapped her photo after she caught a foul ball.
He told her, “If you don’t like it, I’ll keep it down in the basement.” That’s where the print, titled “My Catch,” now hangs beside his desk.
His most recent work focuses on the current political climate. Akman describes them as “local scenes with a twist.”
One image of the Capitol dome, for instance, is titled “Dysfunction Junction,” a collage is dubbed “The Star Trumpled Banner,” and a pastoral scene of the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument is called “American Giants.”
Akman’s advice to retirees who might be curious about trying art: Push through your self-doubt.
“Do it. People shouldn’t be afraid of doing [art],” Akman said, “because everybody is an artist in their own way. You might not paint pictures, but you might bake cookies or make cakes. That’s artistic.”
To see all of Akman’s works, visit akman.us.
If you have artwork or photographs you’d like to enter in the Beacon’s Celebration of the Arts amateur art contest, visit thebeaconnewspapers.com/COTA2020. The contest closes on March 20. For more information, call (301) 949-9766.