10 September 2009

The Labor of Art

Progress as of yesterday

What a ridiculous amount of work to carve all these letters just to make a few prints that look like John Eliot's Bible. Why not use a photographic process like screen print or solarplate and get on with it? I guess it's because I want to "own" the work, I want to make it mine. I want to experience in some small way the hardship that John Eliot endured to make this translation of the Bible into the native language.

Philosopher John Locke talked about this transformative power of work in the late 17th century when he put forward his labor theory of property. Simply stated the theory says that when a person works, their labor enters into the object and so the object becomes their property. I'm not sure about the property part of the argument, but I do have the experience that when I work on a woodblock print my labor enters into the artwork.

This is a sensation I've always enjoyed and valued. When I was a child, I used to love to copy artwork or photographs that pleased me. As I became a young adult, I vowed to purchase only items whose origin I could identify, a vow I of course couldn't keep, but that I hold as a kind of touchstone still when I evaluate the value of an object.

Work by Molly Springfield

There are other artists who seem to feel this same way about deeply laboring. I recently became aware (via curator Elizabeth Schlatter) of an artist named Molly Springfield whose project Drawings of Photocopies of Books seems to embody this same spirit of obsessively recreating texts. In her project, completed over three years, Springfield meticulously recreates xeroxed texts in graphite, including all of the strange shadows and lines and artifacts of the xerox process itself. A woman after my own heart.

The question is, does that labor -- the hundreds of hours, the thoughts and feelings experienced while working, the music the artist listened to -- does any of that actually get communicated by the work? Can a viewer perceive it?

The rational answer is no. But my heart says yes. My heart says that it matters what I'm doing when I'm making art, what I'm thinking, what I'm feeling, and that that "investment" in the work is perceivable.


Bette Norcross Wappner -- said...

I do so appreciate your labour in this and imho the block itself would be my prize because your energies are and will remain within it. Simply superb.

Sue said...

Ah...I see! I was wondering how you transferred the letters to the block, and I see now that you paste a copy to it. So interesting! It would be tough enough for me to cut out those little letters with my small engraving burins let alone the chisels that you use. Great work!

Anita Thomhave Simonsen said...

Hi Annie !

I do think that the labour do get into the artwork......the time occupied with the artwork can be seen in the finale work, I think.....and many thoughts do occur to me....I think that there is some correpondence between the artists intentions...the way the work has been done...and the way the viewer do percieve the work....maybe not so clearly seen...maybe more felt....I think about painting in a similar way and even if i think it can be a great painting when done in a very short time...I actually prefer and enjoy much more some paintings done over some time...and I like seeing and feeling that there has been some thinking and some considerations and changes of how the work should be.....
so I do think it matters how the labour of the work has been done...

Chris Kearin said...

We have grown so accustomed to a surfeit of images -- many of which are now in electronic form and can be reproduced on demand in an instant -- that I think there is great value in occasionally slowing down the process and taking a fresh look at how images are put together, how letter forms are shaped. None of these elements sprang from nothing; they all had to be invented, laboriously, by human hands.

The irony is, of course, that we see your artwork (so far, at least) in electronic form!

Diane Cutter said...

Wow... I just did a relief with some words on it... I admire you for taking on this bohemoth project!!!

Oscar said...

I want to experience in some small way the hardship that John Eliot endured to make this translation of the Bible

this transformative power of work

these are two quotes from your blog yesterday. Annie.
for me, this work is proof that the artist is a phenomenologist! (someone who derives meaning from their own sensory experiences)

both of these statements are surely true about what you will gain from this awesome work.

in addition to your wonderful (parallel) work of writing about what you are doing in this blog (which is powerful to many of us), your own being as an artist is widened through this work (ie transformative), and what you do in the future will be deeper because of what you are doing in the present.

it is for me to honour you, Annie, and your project and your projective being.

thank you.


Kris Wiltse said...

I really enjoy your blog, Annie. Thoughtful, educational and inspiring.
I do think our labour, thoughts and emotions are imbued into the things we make. Usually I can tell what's a labour of love. How is that?

Thanks for the great post! Can't wait to see the final print.


Oscar said...

Alas, technology being what it is (Heidegger) my server will not allow me to contact your server (comcast) so I apologise for posting a second time here.

However I have to thank you for your response today. You and your work mean a lot to me!!

Indeed, your kindred spirit,

PS Since this is the only way I can contact you at the moment, send me your postal address again and I will post you a letter. Thanks. (You had my email correct)

Leslie Moore said...

These words will be carved into your soul by the time you complete this project. Kudos!

Eraethil said...

The rational answer isn't no. It is that viewers will see what they want to see in it, and some will relate to the effort involved. That will greatly enhance their experience of your work.

And the other rational answer is that it doesn't matter. Your transformation through the process is going to infuse your future work too.

I so like reading your blog and am very inspired by your works and words. Thank you.

Ellen Shipley said...

Anyone who knows anything of the artform certainly knows the work that goes into it. But beauty can be appreciated in any form by anyone. They may not know the depth of the effort that went into making it, but they do feel its power.

Annie B said...

Thanks so much for your very thoughtful comments and contributions to this conversation. Wonderful.
Eraethil, thanks especially for the reminder that it's my own journey and transformation that I can be sure of and that's what matters most.

Nicole Raisin Stern said...

Wow, Annie! I am moved by the depth of your thought process and feeling of the work (and play) you do. I am always glad i stop by woodblock dreams, I always leave feeling enriched and kinder somehow for knowing what you do and knowing you. It's been a while since I've come... thank you. I love your work. And, yes, I feel that all we breathe and think and do while we create our art is carried within the piece. Inspirited?

Katka said...

I wholly agree with you. There's no doubt in my mind that the "spirit" that goes into the making of a print (or any artwork) is what marks it in some subtle way and gives it resonance.

But is this irrational?
Science has shown that everything in the universe is kinetic and emits energy in some way. On the basis of this, surely, how can the energy we expend into a piece of art not affect it before it flows back out again?

Kit said...

I'm finally starting to catch up with some of my blog reading. I find your thoughts, and the quotation, about labor so fitting and something I can relate to with my (also) very labor-intensive process. Yes, there is always a quicker way, but I like to think that all of the moments that go into a piece, layered with thought and emotion, somehow leave their trail.