26 April 2010

Print Failure

Here's what I said in my recent interview with McClain's:
"I don’t do much pre-proofing. I like the excitement of just doing it as I go along."
Ha! I meant every word of it. But there's a big downside to that approach. When a print fails, it fails in multiples. I now have 15 prints of John Alexander and Thomas Roberts that I hate. I'm not even going to show it to you, that's how much I don't like it. The blocks are good, but the printing has to be done again.

So what I'll show you instead is a picture of the little ranch house we're going to be moving into 11 days from now.

Which is why I won't be reprinting John Alexander and Thomas Roberts for several weeks.

We're excited to be moving, though. We've been in a beautiful turn-of-the-century Victorian condominium for the past 3 years, but it's a 3rd-floor walk-up which for a number of reasons doesn't work for us. Doesn't work for the dog, either, with his slipped disk problem. The new place has a detached one-car garage that we may eventually turn into a studio for me! Sweet.

My next few posts will be about stuff other than my own art making,but rest assured you'll see John Alexander and Thomas Roberts in a few weeks,  and at that point I'll probably even show you the version I hate.

22 April 2010

Words Can Never Hurt Me

Today I worked more on the background of the John Alexander & Thomas Roberts print. I began by adding another two overprintings of red from the same block I worked with yesterday, then I started working with a new block:


The words carved into this block are words that I found online. They are taken from letters and emails that were sent to the Episcopal Church Diocese of New Hampshire in 2003 when Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest, was elected bishop. Here is the block flipped so that you can read the words:


Gay people don't have a monopoly on being bullied. There's a lot of awareness of bullying in schools right now. The Phoebe Prince suicide, which is currently all over the news, actually took place about 10 miles from where I live. Bullying in the public sphere is rampant, with news analysts dissing each other from one network to another and politicians demonizing their opponents. A person can be bullied for practically anything -- being fat, being thin, being smart, being dumb.

But the righteous indignation and vitriol that gay people endure has a particular flavor, as it's often accompanied by references to religion, especially Christianity. Both historically and in present-day America, it is the church that has most loudly condemned homosexuality. And it was the church that officiated over the trial and punishment of John Alexander and Thomas Roberts.

Here's the result of today's printing session:


21 April 2010

The Cloud of Unknowing


Today I printed the first background layers for my print of Pilgrim lovers John Alexander and Thomas Roberts. Above is a closeup of the first carving stage for a cloud at the top of the print. I wanted to reproduce the crosshatching look of 17th century wood engraving without actually engraving, so I just criss-crossed freehand with a v-gouge. After I took the photo above I went back in and widened the cuts, leaving little diamond shapes that will print.


The cloud is on the same block as the full background, but I found that the cloud and the background required very different treatments to print the way I wanted them to print, so I printed just the cloud first. I bought a cool little bamboo burnisher at the SGC Philadelphia conference, and I found it was perfect for bringing out the details of the cloud.


The burnisher has a comfortable groove for the thumb -- I love it!


Above is the cloud printed in a deep red oxide.


Then I did a sloppy printing of the background with paler red oxide and some streaks of blue. I wanted some messy texture that I'll then overprint with some smoother layers. I got that sort of glow around the cloud by using a whole lot of water in that area.

19 April 2010

McClain's Interview

McClain's Printmaking Supplies is pretty much my favorite place to shop in the universe, so I was delighted that they interviewed me a few weeks ago for their online newsletter, Hanga News. You can read the interview by clicking here. Check out the back issues too, if you haven't seen the newsletter before. They always have a printmaker interview plus great tips and tricks.

13 April 2010

Sticks and Stones and Broken Bones

Thanks everyone for the thoughtful comments and input on my last post. Even though this entire series has come about through exploring my own family history, this particular print is the most personal and feels scary to blog about.

But I'll press on...

It's impossible to make any accurate comparisons between today's self-identified "gays" and the apparently homosexual people that history has recorded over the millenia, simply because the notion of "gay" or "homosexual" as we know it now didn't really exist. Yet we know that from Egypt to the Roman Empire to native America, men have loved men and women loved women as far back as historians can document. I think this fact makes it clear that, far from being "unnatural," homosexuality is a naturally-occurring human trait. Whether or not it's desirable is another matter and that is culturally defined. Many cultures, but not all, have defined homosexuality as undesirable.

In 1636 when John Alexander and Thomas Roberts appeared before the Puritan New England court, homosexual acts were called sodomy and were punishable by death. It's interesting to note, however, that the court record does not use the word sodomy in regard to these two. In their book "The Times of Their Lives," James and Patrica Deetz note that the governing officials of Plymouth rarely implemented the death penalty, which the authors attribute to their fear of overstepping their authority with England given that they had no charter.

John Alexander's punishment -- being whipped, branded with a hot iron and banished -- was severe enough. Branding was a fairly common punishment used for thieves (branded with a "T"), killers ("M" for manslaughter), and rogues ("R" for, well... rogue). I've sketched out a branding iron with an "S" for "Sodomite."


Thomas Roberts received the lighter sentence of being whipped and returned to his "master." This indicates that Roberts was an indentured servant, under contract to an employer for a fixed period of time in exchange for transportation, food, lodging etc. Since Roberts "belonged" to someone, the court was probably unwilling to interfere with his master's property rights.

Sodomy was illegal in most U.S. states until the 1960s when some states began to decriminalize it. Yet it was only 7 years ago that a Supreme Court ruling called Lawrence v. Texas struck down sodomy laws nationwide, ruling that private sexual conduct is protected by the liberty rights implicit in the due process clause of the United States Constitution.

The 2003 Lawrence v. Texas decision is what prompted Lynn and me to get engaged 12 years into our relationship. She got me a ring with a tiny diamond. We wanted to declare our intention to be married.

I didn't think it would happen in our lifetime.

My gay engagement ring

12 April 2010

Gay in America, 1636

Sketch for new print

I'm starting a new print that will be the last one (at least for now) in the Pilgrim series. It's a portrait of John Alexander and Thomas Roberts, two men who were lovers in Plymouth Colony in the 1630s.

We know about John and Thomas only because of court records from their prosecution. Here's the account in full:
John Alexander & Thomas Roberts were both examined and found guilty of lewd behavior and unclean carriage one with another, by often spending their seed one upon another which was proved both by witnesses & their own confession; the said Alexander found to have been formerly notoriously guilty that way, and seeking to allure others thereunto. The said John Alexander was therefore censured by the Court to be severely whipped, and burnt in the shoulder with a hot iron, and to be perpetually banished from the government of New Plymouth, and if he be at any time found within the same, to be whipped out again by the appointment of the next justice, &c, and so oft as he shall be found within this government. Which penalty was accordingly inflicted.

Thomas Roberts was censured to be severely whipped and to return to his master, Mr. Atwood, and serve out his time with him, but to be disabled hereby to enjoy any lands within this government.

That's all we know. But what it says to me, a homosexual 21st century American, is that we've been here since the first boats arrived. That makes me proud. It also says to me that even the harsh Puritan penalties against homosexual activity weren't enough to stop these men from being lovers.


I used a photograph (above) from an exhibit called Dear Friends: American Photographs of Men Together, 1840-1918 for my initial sketch. The photo is obviously from a much later time period, but I like the posture very much. In my redraw I blended the clothing of the two men into a single shape to accentuate their hands. It will change more as I render it in wood.

07 April 2010

Looking at Other People's Work

Do you ever get discouraged when you see so much talent and such a huge body of work? Or is it always inspiring? Sometimes I think, why bother, there is no way my work can ever have an impact amid so much and so much more established talents.
This question was posed recently in a comment by a reader as she looked through my reviews of the exhibits I saw last month at SGC in Philadelphia. It's a great question and it's something we all grapple with, whatever our field of endeavor. Fortunately the work I saw while I was in Philly was more inspiring than anything for me, but boy, do I ever get discouraged sometimes!

We all have handicaps we work with. The handicap I feel most is my age, as I didn't start making fine art prints until I was in my late 40s. There are so many young artists who are more talented than I am and who already have more experience and exposure than I do. If I think about that too much I can pretty quickly plunge into "why bother" territory.

Then there are the general difficulties of the field itself: the difficulty of getting noticed, the feeling that there are more artists than there are buyers or opportunities, the expense and time required for making good art.

And now we've got the internet. With a few Google searches we can get an overview of an entire field. This can be useful -- we can get ideas, be inspired, discover new techniques, make new friends. Nevertheless, on the internet we can also see the true breadth and depth of our "competition." Looking at other people's work can send one into a downward spiral of envy and/or discouragement.

Over time I've developed a few DOs and DON'Ts guidelines for myself when it comes to trawling the internet for art. I'll be interested to hear if you have other tips from your own experience.


Don't look at other people's work when you're in a funk.
If you're already down and discouraged, looking at other people's work is like picking a scab. It's not what you need, so walk away before you send yourself down the cliff into despair.

Don't compare apples to oranges.
You are not Picasso. Enjoy Picasso, study Picasso, learn from Picasso, but don't hold your work up next to his and bemoan the fact that yours isn't his. It isn't, and it shouldn't be.

Don't be a stalker.
There's always that one person whose work and success hits a nerve. Maybe it's someone whose work is similar to yours, but they're getting all the attention. Or maybe it's someone whose work you absolutely hate and you can't understand why they're getting noticed. You're disgusted, yet you can't stop looking at their web site. This is a situation that calls for drastic measures. Plain and simple, you've got to stop looking. After you calm down you may want to look more closely at why you feel the way you do (it can reveal important facts about yourself) but first you've got to stop focusing on them.


Do set clear intentions.
Knowing why you do what you do helps you to achieve excellence and it also helps you not be so swayed by what other people are doing. Books like Jackie Battenfield's The Artist's Guide can help you formulate goals and make plans for achieving them. A lament like "why did she get into that show?" is easily defused if you know that getting into a certain show is not really as important to you as earning a living or engaging a particular audience. Don't let other people define success for you.

Do communicate with artists whose work you admire.
If you admire someone else's work, why not tell them? Sure, sometimes you'll get no response, but I've met some awesome artists this way. Other artists can be a wonderful source of support and information and also can open doors to future opportunities.

Do cultivate your fans.
I'm not talking about starting a "Fan Page" on Facebook, I'm talking about knowing who your friends are and knowing who you can rely on to help you when you get discouraged. This might be Facebook or blog fans, and it might be other artists, but just as often it's family and it's friends who simply like you because you're you. Keep those people close and turn to them when you need a boost.

Thanks for the question, dear reader. It felt good to me to put this all down in writing. And again, please let me know if you have other tips for dealing with discouragement or envy when you see other people's good work.

01 April 2010

SGC Philadelphia Trip - Demos

There were a gajillion demonstrations at SGC, but I only went to two of them.

Spooning Large Format Woodcuts with Dan Miller, PAFA Printmaking Dept.

There was nothing at all high tech about this one, which was what made it so great. Miller uses the same tools he used in college to carve (plus a straight-edge razor blade) and he prints with a bamboo rice paddle. Nothing fancy going on at all, so it's all about the carving, the wood, the ink and the paper. As it should be.

The most technical thing he had was his handmade registration jig (photo at right), which works much like the Japanese kento system, registering both the block and two edges of the paper. I was amused that he seems to register the upper left corner of the paper, which is the exact opposite of the lower right position that I base my registration on.

The print below is one of two that he worked on during the demo.

Drum Leaf Binding with Joseph Lappie, St. Ambrose Univ.

I've been wanting to start work on an artist's book but the whole binding thing has scared the heck out of me, with that learning curve that looks so incredibly steep. This demo was really exciting because presenter Joseph Lappie made it seem so easy that a monkey could do it. I walked away feeling like even I could bind a book -- no stitching, just a little glue and some careful measuring. Measuring I can do. And most awesome of all, every page opens to a full spread so facing pages can be printed as one sheet. This method would also hide the bleed-through verso that's characteristic of moku hanga printing. I can't wait to try it.

If you google "drum leaf binding" you'll come up with a number of sites that explain it better than I can do here, including an article by book artist Tim Ely who developed the method. Basically, each two-page spread is attached to the next along the front edges and the spine edges are glued and wrapped in a paper liner. I'm sure once I get going with it I'll run into problems and there will be a learning curve, but I'm so happy just to have that "yes I can" feeling (which I haven't really had since November '08).

Look, here's a drumleaf book by Lappie where he even added a pop-up!


For more reporting on SGC demos, and a photo of the very cute and engaging Joseph Lappie, see printmaker Wendy Willis' blog by clicking here.