01 May 2016

Halftone Our Lady

Watercolor woodblock print
13 x 13 inch image (33 x 33 cm) on 17 x 19 inch (43 x 48 cm) Shioji washi
edition: 8

This is the fifth in a series of halftone prints called Relics which explore the often unacknowledged but inescapable religious past that underlies our 21st century secularity.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, has been venerated since early Christianity, although more so in Catholicism than Protestantism. In Catholic doctrine, Mary is considered pure, virginal, and without sin and is considered by millions of people to be the highest of all the saints. Protestants reject the veneration of saints, but consider Mary an exemplar of a holy life of devotion to God and most do believe in her purity if not her perpetual virginity. Mary also holds an exalted place in Islam and is the only woman named in the Quran.

This print is based on a photograph of an 18th century French plaster statue. http://www.fatiguedfrenchfinds.com/this-item-has-now-sold-french-19th-century-antique-polychrome-plaster-statue-of-the-virgin-mary--signed-728-p.asp

25 April 2016

Halftone Quran

Watercolor woodblock print
13 x 13 inch image (33 x 33 cm) on 17 x 19 inch (43 x 48 cm) Shioji washi
edition: 8

This is the fourth in a series of halftone prints called Relics which will explore the often unacknowledged but inescapable religious past that underlies our 21st century secularity.

The Quran is believed by Muslims to be a text revealed from God to Mohammad through the angel Gabriel. Respect for the written text and for the book itself is an important element of Islamic religious faith. The Koran is often decorated, but never with figurative imagery.

You can see that the circles I cut from the background were large and very little wood remained, so a number of the tiny pieces fell off as I worked. At first I tried to glue them back on, but then I just gave up and let it be how it was. The layer of wood under the top ply was kind of funky, which was part of the problem. It had a strong grain, which shina doesn't usually have. I took a photo before inking it, because the grain was attractive, even though difficult to work with.

10 April 2016

Halftone Kachina Doll

Watercolor woodblock print
13 x 13 inch image (33 x 33 cm) on  17 x 19 inch (43 x 48 cm) Shioji washi
edition: 8

Kachina are ancestral spirit messengers in the mythology of Pueblo Indians and there is a tradition of carving wooden kachina dolls as teaching tools. I first became acquainted with these figures when I lived in New Mexico in the mid-1990s. The kachina figure depicted here, from a photo I found on the internet, dates to the 1940s and was carved by an unknown artist.

01 April 2016

Interview: Printmaking Today Spring 2016

Slow road, deep waters

PROFILE: US artist Annie Bissett makes witty use of the elegant and beautiful Japanese watercolor technique mokuhanga to address political issues. Mike Sims interviewed her about her work


Tai Chi Attitudes-Position 3

MS: Do you use the word ‘waggish’? There are some excellent jokes in your work – I’m thinking of your Tai Chi surfer 
   AB: I don’t hear the word ‘waggish’ too often over here, but Dr. Google says it means humorous in a mischievous kind of way. I think my work could fairly be described as waggish. The very premise – making socio-political art about American issues using an ancient, stylized, and elegant Japanese art form – has an incongruity that perhaps makes it humorous and disarming. That's a good quality for art that approaches sensitive topics.

MS: In 2015, you were a Jay and Deborah Last fellow at American Antiquarian Society (AAS) in Worcester, Massachusetts – would you like to say something about your use of found material and especially historical images? You seem to be gently poking fun at decayed old certainties.
   AB: Initially my use of found material arose from the unfortunate fact that I never went to art school and I’m not a very good draughtsman. I love collage for the way one can juxtapose time periods, scale and styles, and I find that printmaking, with its layering capabilities, invites similar exploration. Historical images allow me to address contentious present-day issues like immigration, nationalism, income disparity or religion with a bit of much-needed distance. I do like to poke fun at old certainties, but I’m also poking fun at new certainties, pointing out that many of the things we think are fresh, modern problems have been with us for a long time, and many of the attitudes we believe we’ve shed still lurk within us.
     I’m drawn to imagery from the colonial period because there I find the seeds of American identity and the first appearance of many of Americans’ more problematic attitudes. It was a thrill to have the opportunity to pore over the AAS holdings for four weeks and I think in turn, the scholars enjoyed seeing the freedom I have as an artist to add imagination to historical narratives.

Mixed Feelings

MS: Your Mixed Feelings set deftly points up the close but diametrically opposed language we use to describe rich and poor but elsewhere in your work you show how clumsy an instrument politics can be in dealing with sensitive issues – I'm thinking of your print A real fake: this is not Muhammed.
   AB: There’s a place for political art that’s direct and in-your-face, but I don’t have the temperament for that kind of work. Much of what I do arises from current events and news reports, but I try to make work that can outlast and reach beyond the particular politics that sparked my initial interest. Politics is really just about people and how we relate to one another, which I think is an endlessly interesting topic for most people.


MS: You say of your print Earthquake that 'sometimes history rises up seeking justice.' Do you feel very out of step with contemporary US politics? What degree of satirical intent is in your work?
   AB: Satire is a tricky word for me. I think of satire as being aimed at ‘others’ with an intention to show their stupidity or misconduct. I would rather point my finger at ‘us.’ No artist – no person – can stand outside her own time and place and see clearly. We’re all wearing spectacles with prescriptions we ourselves didn’t write. So yes, I use humour, I use caricature, and I point out follies or inconsistencies, but I try to also maintain compassion for our humanity and for the great difficulty involved in becoming the people we so deeply want to believe ourselves to be.

MS: I see a little of Terry Gilliam in Earthquake too, do you?
   AB: I found a video of Terry Gilliam showing how he does his cutouts in which he says 'easy, no work' at least ten times. It made me chuckle, because he’s trying to show how very simple it all is and all I could see is how difficult it must be to make those incremental little moves with gazillions of tiny pieces of paper and get it to photograph right. In my case: cutouts, easy, no work, yes! Oh, except for the carving…

MS: I suspect one of the chief attractions for you of mokuhanga is all that carving though – the slow working and the slow thinking. Is that right and were these especially important to you after a career in commercial illustration?
American Bible Story
   AB: That’s right. I first gravitated to mokuhanga because I was trying to find an artistic medium that was neither toxic nor messy, and that would be easy and compact enough to do on the side in my small home-based studio while I continued to serve my commercial illustration clients. At the very beginning I had a love/hate thing with the slowness, but I’ve come to appreciate what slowness offers. Although I’m interested in process and in the physical properties of the materials I’m working with, my primary interest lies in the content of the work — narratives, images, ideas — and the slowness of mokuhanga allows me to do a lot of pondering. The slowness also helps me reach beyond simple politics to grasp at some of the underlying social and historical currents. In a culture so polarized, so reactive, so quick to accuse, it feels to me like a deeply countercultural and, well, political act to sit quietly and allow a topic to marinate in my thoughts for a very long time. It allows me to shift from a stance of reacting to one of responding.

MS: Yes, your blog is very revealing about how your thought process evolves through the work. So, your use of mokuhanga is another lens – amplifying your message by combining a familiar idiom with unexpected material?
   AB: Yes. Mokuhanga is an inherently elegant and beautiful technique, with its use of soft watercolour washes, bright colours and delicate carving. Using this technique to grapple with difficult topics is a little bit strange, even to me. Sometimes I make visual references to Japan – in American Bible Story or Mixed Feelings #8, for example – just because the Japanese-ness of mokuhanga is always a little bit present for me, in the carving tools and the brushes and the elegant simplicity of the materials. I can use the support of the beauty and history of the method without letting go of my own voice and allow my story to emerge within that blend.


MS: In your blog about your print Horizon, you question the moral of the old tale of The Fisherman and the Fish: ‘Never let go a Certainty for an Uncertainty.’ 'I'm sure this is good advice for someone,' you write, 'but not for an artist.' Why not?
   AB: Artists need to observe, and certainty has no doors or windows. Artists need to attempt things they haven’t done before, and certainty can’t allow failure. Artists need to be afraid or confused sometimes, and certainty cannot abide by doubt. And, in addition to the fact that it leads to fundamentalism, certainty is boring.

Note: Printmaking Today does not post an online version of the magazine, so this is a transcription of an interview from the Spring 2016 issue - Vol 25 No. 1.

Printmaking Today website.

25 February 2016

Halftone Mezuzah

Watercolor woodblock print
13 x 13 inch image (33 x 33 cm) on  17 x 19 inch (43 x 48 cm) Shioji washi
edition: 8

This print, the second in a series of halftone woodcuts called Relics, is a mezuzah from the Jewish religion. A mezuzah is a piece of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah and placed inside a decorative case which is then mounted on a door frame. Often observant Jews will touch the mezuzah when they pass it as a remembrance of God.

Although no one in my household is Jewish, we have a mezuzah made by a local jeweler named Emily Rosenfeld on our door. We've put a Sanskrit verse inside, and I usually touch it as I leave the house as a way of reminding myself to bring my feeling of 'home' with me as I enter the world.

27 January 2016

Halftone Buddha

Watercolor woodblock print
13 x 13 inch image (33 x 33 cm) on  17 x 19 inch (43 x 48 cm) Shioji washi
edition: 8

I finished carving the halftone Buddha block a couple of days ago and today I finished printing a small two-color edition. I'm trying a new paper that I got from Woodlike Matsumura, an inexpensive handmade 100% kozo called Shioji.

I expected the printing to be fairly easy, since I'm just using two colors, but when it comes to moku hanga, "easy" isn't really a word that fits. Of course there were issues.

The first issue came up while I was putting down a base layer of pink with an uncarved block. To get full coverage i found that I had to print the pink four times, which was hard on the paper and caused it to wrinkle. Next time I'll try wetting the paper a little more from the beginning to see if I can get the color I want in fewer passes. You can also see in the photo above that there's a darker line on each of the prints. That's a spot where two sections of veneer (I'm using a plywood) are joined on the surface of the wood. They use some kind of thin white tape under the veneer where the joins are and in a wide expanse like this the tape changes the profile of the wood just enough that it prints. (Hat tip to Andrew Stone and Andrea Starkey for a long troubleshooting conversation on Facebook a few months ago that helped ferret out what causes this to happen with shina plywood.)

After the four layers of pink, I let the paper dry and then re-wet it for the purple halftone layer. It was tricky to find just the right amount of pigment, paste and moisture to print the halftone so there was enough ink for the impression to be dark and strong but not so much that any of the smaller holes would fill in. I'll admit that I lost a couple of sheets of paper in the process.

More to come in this series.

21 January 2016

A Sample Print for Students

I've been invited to be a visiting artist at Maine College of Art's printmaking department in February, and since our time is limited (basically 12 hours) I'm going to try bringing some sample blocks for students to print with before carving their own. I've never done it in that order before — print and then carve — but it makes sense for a short class. Trying out printing first could help them in working out the color separations on their own blocks, they can carve their blocks while I'm still there, and then they can do most of their printing on their own after I'm gone. We'll see how that works out. If it's successful, I may start doing it in my longer workshops too.

[A note to mokuhanga aficionados:  I tried a whole bunch of different papers from Awagami plus Rives Heavyweight (cotton) plus my beloved Echizen Kozo and I was stunned at the results. My #1 preference for each of the three versions you'll see below was Rives Heavyweight! Weird, as I assumed washi would be way better to print with. You never know until you experiment…]

Here are the blocks I carved for the class and a few test prints for demonstration.

The four blocks, carved and ready to start printing.

A quick test of the blocks using plain copy paper, checking registration and print behavior of each block, plus trying out a few colors.

Another batch of prints using similar colors but adding some bokashi (blends). I'm also testing different kinds of papers.

Another color palette and intentional use of goma-zuri (speckle) printing to show how texture can be used to add interest to very simple blocks.

One more variation showing more uses of bokashi, gomazuri, and white overprinting.