29 April 2008

Back Saver


Hours and hours of carving lie ahead of me right now for this Lumbini (Buddha) print. To help my back stay pain free I've rigged up a little carving easel to hold the block more vertically, so I'm not bending over the block. My rig is not nearly as elegant as Graham Scholes' carving bench, but I don't have the woodworking skills to make a bench like his.

My setup is based on this adjustable tabletop easel from Dick Blick Art Supplies. I had to add a thin piece of plywood to the back of the easel to help it withstand the pressure of carving. Then I just drape a bench hook from McClain's Printmaking Supplies over the top of the easel and rest the block on the bench hook. I can't do heavy clearing this way -- for that I put the block down on the table -- but for detail carving like I'm doing, this is a back saver.

27 April 2008

Matt Brown Woodblock Workshop

Matt and student Sally H. talking about her print

Today I drove 10 miles up the road to see Matt Brown at Snow Farm in Williamsburg MA where he was teaching a 3-day workshop, the same workshop that three years ago introduced me to the moku hanga method. I'm always grateful to Matt for teaching me and I love seeing him and talking shop! Since today was day 3 of the workshop, I arrived just in time to see the students' prints coming together in the final stages of printing. It's amazing what people who have never done moku hanga before can do in just 3 days -- the prints were beautiful. Thanks for such a nice day, Matt and students!

Matt's cool portable printing stand

Students at the printing stations

22 April 2008

Blood, Sweat and Tears


Today I've been carving one of the blocks for the Lumbini (birthplace of Buddha) print. Unlike the other two prints in this triptych(Bethlehem and Mecca), I'm not doing this one as a reduction print, meaning that for this one I'll be carving separate blocks for each color.

Today's block literally involved blood, sweat and tears. Blood because I cut myself with a gouge. Not a very serious cut, but enough to get some blood on the block before I realized that I needed a bandaid. As for the sweat, it's finally spring in New England and although the weather is really quite lovely and temperate, I'm at a point in life where, um... let's say my own body thermostat runs a little hot and cold. When it's hot it's REALLY hot, so I was sweating under my desk lamp.

As for the tears, those fell onto the block while I was listening to a podcast from Speaking of Faith -- an interview with Mariane Pearl speaking about how her practice of Buddhism helped her when her husband, journalist Daniel Pearl, was murdered in Pakistan shortly after 9/11. It's a powerful interview with a woman who sounds like a remarkable person.

21 April 2008

Lumbini - The Easy Block


The first block for these "birthplaces" prints is the easy one. I just cut out my kento (registration guides) and margins, then leave the rest of the block smooth and virgin for the first few impressions. Here I've built up a gold color as the base. It took three impressions of color to arrive at this tone.

Now the intensive carving begins.

15 April 2008

Background for Lumbini (Buddha) Print

Mayadevi Temple, Lumbini, Nepal

A year ago when I first conceived of these prints about the birthplaces of three great religious prophets, I realized right away that I knew where both Jesus and Mohammed had been born, but I knew nothing about Buddha. After a bit of Google research, I found out that Buddha is said to have been born in Lumbini in present day Nepal.

Situated in the foothills of the Himalayas, Lumbini during the Buddha's time was a beautiful garden full of green and shady Sal trees. According to Buddhist tradition, Mayadevi gave birth to the Buddha on her way to her parent's home in Devadaha in the month of May in the year 642 BC. Feeling the onset of labor pains, she grabbed hold of the branches of a sal tree and gave birth to Siddharta Gautama, the future Buddha. The Buddha is said to have announced, "This is my final rebirth" as he entered the world. Buddhist tradition also has it that he walked immediately after his birth and took seven steps, under each of which a lotus flower bloomed.

Next I searched for Lumbini using Google's satellite imagery, and I was stunned at what I saw:


As you can see, to this day the site is a large rectangular garden that's visible by satellite from very far away. At the center of the large circular area that you can see in the satellite photographs is the Mayadevi Temple, which enshrines the traditional site of the Buddha's birth. Looking at the maps, I was delighted by the geometry and prominence of the garden and the pinkish color of the land. This view of Lumbini set the design for all three maps - tall and vertical.


08 April 2008

The Train to Lhasa


This is how the print ended up. At first I thought I wanted just one line of Chinese text:


but it wasn't strong enough, so I added several layers of text to show the slow steady influx of people and goods into Tibet.

My graphic design background is showing here, isn't it? I had tried to do something like this (typographical treatment with Chinese characters pushing Tibetan letters) about a year ago and I wasn't able to get a design I was happy with, so it feels good to finally get this print out of my system. It also feels good to do a fast print in the middle of all the slow ones I've been working on. I have a lot more to say and explore about the Tibet situation, so I'll most likely pick up this Wind Horse block again sometime and do more with it.

But now I need to start my print of Lumbini, Buddha's birthplace. I'd like to finish it in time for his birthday on May 12.

07 April 2008

No Woodblocks Will Be Harmed

Acetate masking (and glare from lamp)

To make this print I want to deconstruct the Tibetan design without actually deconstructing the woodblock itself. To accomplish this I've been using acetate to block out and print one section at a time. Since there are no registration marks on the block I'm printing free-form, just eyeballing where I want the paper to go.

The top portion of the block

Smooshing letters together

Another line of text

As you can see, this print will not be particularly subtle.

Now to carve the Chinese lettering.


06 April 2008

Tibet Woodblock - Research

photo from Getty Images

In July of 2006, the Qinghai-Tibet railway, which connects Lhasa to the existing China rail network, opened to great fanfare. Hailed by Chinese official media as an engineering wonder, the 710-mile line is the world's highest railway (16,600 feet above sea level at its highest) and boasts high-tech engineering to stabilize tracks over permafrost and to pump oxygen into cabins to help passengers cope with the high altitude.

Before the railway, there were only two ways into Lhasa: an expensive plane ride or three days and nights on a bus along treacherous mountain roads. China's rulers have said that the rail line is opening up Tibet and bringing greater prosperity for all its people, but Tibetans say that the rail is accelerating the demise of Tibet's unique culture and way of life. From all accounts, Lhasa has become something of a boomtown in recent years, filled with malls and construction sites and populated more and more by Chinese immigrants from poor rural provinces who are attracted by the pull of jobs and money.

Sadly, the situation is similar in many ways to what happened in the U.S. in the 19th century, when railroads opened the west to a huge influx of new population and native peoples were pushed to the margins.

Shortly after I first heard about the Qinghai-Tibet railway I wanted to make a print about it and I thought of doing a typographical treatment, using Chinese characters and Tibetan script somehow. When I found the Tibetan woodblock a couple of weeks ago I realized that I had the Tibetan script I needed to make the print I envisioned.

For the Chinese characters, I researched 20th century Chinese propaganda posters. The one I decided to use comes from Mao's "Down to the Countryside Movement." During this movement, which lasted from around 1968-1978, young intellectuals living in cities were ordered to go to mountainous areas or farming villages ostensibly so that they could learn from the workers and farmers there. The policy also was intended to redistribute excess urban population as well as to quell unrest among the Red Guard and remove the embarrassment of the early Cultural Revolution from sight.


This propaganda poster, from 1972, says "Take root in the countryside while keeping the world in your heart." I like this phrase for its evocation of the great movement of population to Tibet via the the Qinghai-Tibet railway.

03 April 2008

Tibetan Woodblock Proof


I couldn't resist taking a proof from the Tibetan woodblock I bought a couple of weeks ago. The block has ink residue on it, or perhaps has been treated, so that there's a waxy quality that repelled my water-based ink a bit, but I love how it looks. I found an internet site that describes the method of woodblock printing used in Tibet and it says that, like the Japanese and Chinese, Tibetans traditionally have used water-based inks.

In Tibetan language the woodblock is called parshing. Par means print and shing means wood. I believe that this design is called "The Wind Horse," although there seem to be two types of Wind Horse flags. One type has a horse in the middle and in the 4 corners are the four majestic mystical animals: the snow-lion, garuda, dragon and tiger. The other type has only prayers or mantras on it without the animals. This block seems to be a blend of the two, as it has both the 4 animals and some mantras, but no wind horse.

I have an idea for working with this block that I'll be starting tonight...

02 April 2008

SGC - Open Portfolio

Photo by Peter Baldes

The Southern Graphics Council conference ends with what can only be called a bang. Over 500 printmakers show their work in three hour-and-a-half-long sessions at 180 tables while hundreds of people mill around looking at prints. I was assigned to the first session and I spent the whole 90 minutes talking, which is quite a feat for an introvert. I was very surprised to discover that a LOT of printmakers and printmaking students don't really know what moku hanga is. Whenever someone approached my table I would say "These are Japanese style woodblock prints" and then watch the person's face. If there was no look of recognition I'd start adding info: "water-based inks, multiple blocks, hand printed with a baren..." One of the most common questions I was asked was "Do you teach?" so I guess there are a lot of people who would like to learn the technique.

Photo by Peter Baldes

That's me, sitting on the right side of the table across from the man in the white t-shirt. His name is Paul Weissman, a member of Honolulu Printmakers. I met a lot of people during my portfolio session and gave out about half of my business cards. By the end I was totally exhausted, but it was great fun.

This wraps up my report from the SGC conference, but please note that there were many many events, artist talks, panels and demonstrations that I missed. (I heard that a talk by Leslie Dill was fantastic.) There was definitely something for everyone and too much for anyone! Next year the conference will be in Chicago in late March, so save the date!