20 December 2013


woodblock print (mokuhanga)
6" x 6" (152.4 x 152.4 mm)
8 layers of color plus blind emboss on Kochi Kozo paper
edition: 20

E is for evilolive. The word evilolive is a palindrome, which I think reveals just how clever the NSA really is. I didn't realize that evilolive is a palindrome (reads the same backward or forward) until I carved it, because relief printmaking requires the image to be rendered backwards. But now I'm wise to them.

I'm not the only one who's gotten wise to them. Glenn Greenwald wrote about the evilolive program in one of his post-Snowden revelation articles for the Guardian. Here's a excerpt:
The NSA … intended the program, codenamed EvilOlive, for "broadening the scope" of what it is able to collect. It relied, legally, on "FAA Authority," a reference to the 2008 Fisa Amendments Act that relaxed surveillance restrictions.

This new system, SSO [Special Source Operations] stated in December, enables vastly increased collection by the NSA of internet traffic. "The 1EF solution is allowing more than 75% of the traffic to pass through the filter," the SSO December document reads. "This milestone not only opened the aperture of the access but allowed the possibility for more traffic to be identified, selected and forwarded to NSA repositories."

It continued: "After the EvilOlive deployment, traffic has literally doubled." [emphasis mine]
For me, the NSA's palindrome brought to mind Popeye's girlfriend Olive Oyl. Google images delivered up a delicious picture of Olive Oyl stomping around like a big amazon bully, so I dressed her in red white and blue and put a cable in her hands.

Evilolive. You go, girl, but we're closing in on you.

17 December 2013


woodblock print (mokuhanga)
6" x 6" (152.4 x 152.4 mm) on Kochi Kozo paper
edition: 20

D is for ‘dishfire.’ Dishfire is an NSA database. One of my sources says it's a database for text messages, but I can't be sure. I decided to simply draw it the way it sounds. In my first sketch I had the dish horizontal, as if sitting on a table. It looked like a chef had just delivered crêpe suzette flambé, but tilting the whole thing gave it the suggestion of a satellite dish, which seemed appropriate enough.

13 December 2013

ACLU: NSA Christmas Video

This video is silly, but it speaks to something that I'm grappling with as I work on this “Codewords of the NSA Primer,” which is tone. I find myself vacillating between wanting to villify the NSA and alternately wanting to lampoon it. I think there are good reasons to do both.

Whatever you think about Edward Snowden and his motives, he has revealed to us a huge complex that involves the government, private intelligence contractors, digital firms and Wall Street. These revelations should shock us all, yet our shock is muted. Is that because we're already burdened with more than we can handle -- wars based on lies, powerlessness in the face of Wall Street's trickery, a political system that seems broken -- or is it that we really don't care?

So, the tone thing. As I develop these images, I find myself leaning more toward lampooning and ridiculing the agency than portraying it as evil. This isn't because I don't think it's evil for our own government to spy on us. I do. But consider if you will what a half-assed job they've been doing in their spying: the NSA estimates that Edward Snowden has as many as 1.5 million documents, yet nobody was on to him. The Washington Post reports that there are over 854,000 private employees with security clearances like Snowden's. I doubt that the NSA has firm control over any of them, so I think of the agency as inept. But maybe that makes them even more dangerous.

I think we care about this. I think we care deeply. But in addition to being burned out, I think it's also possible that we don't quite believe it yet. I read a news story today about a Scottish sci-fi author who had to scrap his latest book because he accidentally wrote about things that the NSA is actually doing. If this were a movie, we might laugh because of how far-fetched it is. But it's no movie.

The code words, at any rate, are pretty ridiculous in their own right, so I'll continue to let the words themselves be my muse and my guide.

Next up: dishfire. You can see that one already, right?

11 December 2013


woodblock print (mokuhanga)
6" x 6" (152.4 x 152.4 mm) on Kochi Kozo paper
edition: 20

C is for ‘cultweave.’ Cultweave is a small SIGINT database. SIGINT stands for signals intelligence, which is the gathering of information by intercepting signals. These signals can be communications signals, such as radio or internet, or electronic signals which are non-communications signals gathered by using electronic sensors.

I decided to try for an image that would suggest various networks interacting and converging. I looked at different kinds of weaving images, and felt that strange sense of rightness when I came upon an old-school envelope security pattern called 'basket weave.' I deconstructed it a bit to come up with this design.

Wouldn't it be great if the word "security" simply meant that nobody could look through your envelope to see what's inside?

10 December 2013

Trevor Paglen Photographs Secrets

Artist Trevor Paglen takes photographs of secret military bases, spy satellites, and other classified and black sites in a systematic, patient and entirely legal way. His aim is not to confront these powers and get arrested. Rather, his aim as an artist is "to learn how to see it for myself and then try to show others how to see these things." Beautiful images.

02 December 2013


woodblock print (mokuhanga)
6" x 6" (152.4 x 152.4 mm) on Kochi Kozo paper
edition: 20

In my NSA primer, B is for ‘blackpearl.’ My references say that blackpearl is an “NSA tool or database.” Pretty vague, but the idea of a round black object made me think of those black dome-like covers for security cameras. Like this:

So I snuck a security camera into the pearl image.

The emboss was harder to do on this one than it was for the 'accordian' piece. Not sure if it's because the paper was not quite as wet when I did this emboss or if it's because this particular sheet of washi seemed a little bit thicker than the previous one. That will be an interesting question to track as I do more in this series.

22 November 2013

In Praise of Working Small

woodblock print (mokuhanga)
6" x 6" (152.4 x 152.4 mm) on Kochi Kozo paper
edition: 20

This print is small. The paper is 6 x 6 inches, the image area about 4 x 4. I haven't worked this small since... maybe since the very first print I made in 2005. Holy cow, everything is so easy at this size! Registration is a breeze, carving is fast, and printing can be done sitting instead of standing. (With big prints, I usually stand so I can leverage my meager weight over the baren more easily). You can also use thinner paper when working small, as it's easier to handle damp thin paper at small sizes. This kozo washi is from Hiromi Paper in California and they measure the thickness at 50 g/m. (For comparison, the thinnest paper I've used to date is Nishinouchi at 60 g/m.) I made this print in three days, not counting design time, and that kind of speed suits my recent mood very well. So there will be more little prints like this one.

I got going on this topic a couple of Sundays ago when I read an article in the NY Times that mentioned a number of code words that the NSA uses to identify various operations and information-gathering techniques. “Dishfire” was a codeword in the article that immediately captured my attention, a word just begging to be illustrated. So I did some internet sleuthing and discovered a treasure trove of over 100 NSA code words to work from. Initially I imagined doing a ‘One Hundred Views of the NSA’ kind of series, but I didn't feel like committing myself to that many prints, so I've decided to do 26 of them, one for each letter of the alphabet, and call it a ‘primer.’

A is for ‘accordian.’ I know that the musical instrument is spelled ‘accordion,’ not ‘accordian,’ but multiple lists I found spell the NSA code word with an ‘a.’ My references say that accordian is “a Type 1 Cryptographic algorithm used in a number of crypto products.” Whatever. I don't know what that means, really, and I don't care enough to go find out. But the word ‘crypto’ sent me hunting for hieroglyphics, which I copied, printed out on my laser printer, folded into an accordion, and photographed for reference.

I embossed the word rather than inking it. It's a secret, after all.

Next up: B is for blackpearl.

20 November 2013

Climbing Back On the Horse

The life of a fine artist is weird. The only experience I have to compare it with is the life of a commercial illustrator, which was my life for 20+ years until I started with the woodblock prints. There's a lot of clarity in illustration. Someone contacts you with a proposal, you talk about the details, the price, the schedule and then you say yes or no. The typical turnaround time for the type of work I did was one to two weeks, which included sketches, edits to sketches, final rendering, and often edits to the final rendering. I usually had between five and eight jobs on my desk at any given time. Hard work, but the deadlines kept everything moving and prevented anything from becoming too precious. And for the most part I got paid pretty well.

But fine art is weird. The cycles are l-o-n-g. Crazy long. I've been spending an average of 18 months per print series. Since there are never clear deadlines, or for that matter clear parameters to the work (other than self-imposed), the only thing keeping me on track is my inner resolve to make the work and the dialog with the work itself. With no deadlines or external demands, there are dangers everywhere: the danger of losing interest, the danger of letting things get too precious, the struggles with inertia, the toggling between discouragement and delusions of grandeur. Then, in addition to making the work, there's a need to be persistent in keeping up with submissions to juried shows or applications for grants and residencies, and to devote continued attention to web sites and social media. And finally, there are the economics of the whole thing, which I'm discovering are absolutely absurd. The financial situation for artists in the U.S. is by and large abysmal. There have been a number of excellent articles about this recently, like here and here.

Two weeks ago I mounted a solo show at Historic Northampton. The opening was spectacular: well attended, exciting, a night full of great feedback, and a few sales. I couldn't have asked for a better experience. Yet still, I felt a kind of crash afterwards. Other artists tell me this is normal. It probably is -- I'm not yet an old hand at this. But compared to life as an illustrator, this strange cycle of being holed up in my studio for months at a time followed by big 'coming out' experiences at exhibitions followed by back to the studio for a bunch more months... it's just strange. When I decided to throw myself into the transition from illustration into fine art I really thought that my skills would be transferable. From a technical point of view, they are transferable. But the lifestyle is so different, the culture of the 'art world' so different... I had no idea.

So here I am, back in the studio after spending six solid weeks prepping for a four-week show, groping around for what to do next. Today I carved some hieroglyphics on a 4 by 6 inch block of shina plywood. I'm on the move again!

10 November 2013

Welcome to Nonotuck Opening

The opening for my "Welcome to Nonotuck" show this past Friday at Historic Northampton Museum was great! Attendance was beyond expectations (Historic Northampton said it was the largest opening they've had so far) and many dear friends and family came to show their support. I was so pleased.

The show is up until December 6, 2013, so if you're in the area during the Thanksgiving holidays I hope you'll stop in to see it! Also see fellow woodblock artist William Evertson's review of the show on his blog.

Here are some photos:

This map of the home lots of the first settlers greets visitors at the door to the gallery.

I also created five prints based on grave markers from Bridge Street Cemetery, Northampton's oldest burial ground.

A wall of prints about the Puritan settlers of Massachusetts.

And a wall of prints about the native Americans who lived in Massachusetts during the influx of colonial settlers from Europe in 17th century

I selected five native American artifacts from the museum's collection, stone tools that were found within the city limits, just to drive home the fact that these lands were inhabited for centuries before the Europeans arrived.

A few more Pilgrim prints on the back wall, plus the blocks that I used to create the print on the left, called "American Bible Story."

Another view of the blocks.

The opening was crowded all night. It was a little bit like hosting an open house at someone else's house. Very fun.

I was so happy that my sister could come. She brought my 87-year-old mom with her.

Up until now, my mother has considered the pinnacle of my career to be an illustration I did a number of years ago about 'staycations' that was published in Good Housekeeping, a magazine to which she subscribes. I think that this show might have become her new benchmark, though!

Thanks to everyone who came on opening night! And I hope you'll come and visit the museum this month if you couldn't make it on Friday.

31 October 2013

Woodblock In Toledo, Ohio

I just learned of an exhibition at Toledo Museum of Art called Ebb & Flow: Cross-Cultural Prints that explores the global influence of Japanese printmaking in the 20th century. The exhibit consists of approximately 100 prints from both Japan and the west and examines the relationships between them. The show is hanging from October 11 - January 5, 2014. Luckily, if you're not near Toledo, the museum has an online digital catalog you can look at. It requires some bandwidth to get going, but it's well worth the wait.

In addition to the exhibition itself, woodblock artist Paul Binnie will be in Toledo for a talk, demonstration, and workshop. His talk and demo will be on November 21, 2013 and the workshop will take place November 23-24. Scroll down on this page for details.

30 October 2013

Headstones on Halloween

In preparation for my upcoming show, Welcome to Nonotuck, I've developed five designs based on drawings I made of colonial-era headstones at Bridge Street Cemetery, the oldest burial ground in Northampton, Massachusetts. I'll fill in more information later about the individuals for whom these grave markers were created (I'm a little strapped for time, as I hang the show next week), but for now here are the prints. I used a sumi ink wash on gampi, making just one of each design. Once the show is hung, I plan to make larger editions of each.

Jonathan (Hunt)

Phebe (Pomeroy)

Ebenezer (Parsons)

Dorcas (daughter of Ebenezer and Jerusha Clark)

William (Lyman)

28 October 2013

Boston Printmakers 2013 Biennial

Here are a few photos from the opening of the Boston Printmakers 2013 Biennial yesterday. These are a tiny fraction of the pieces that are on display. You can see all the juried work in an online slideshow here. Please pardon all the glare in these photographs -- plexiglass plus huge windows made glare unavoidable in most cases.

I made the two-hour trek into Boston with three other Zea Mays affiliated artists and our conversations, stimulated by a New York Times opinion piece about the arts economy, were wonderful brackets on the day.

The Biennial juror was Dennis Michael Jon, an art historian and curator in the Department of Prints and Drawings at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Jon is a very approachable and warm person and he interacted easily with the artists at the brunch and opening.

The themes that I could make out were humor, art historical reference, technical innovation, mapping, and maybe the Blackwater Horizon disaster. My favorite Blackwater Horizon related print was this gorgeous reduction woodcut by Suzanne Chouteau.

This year's invited artist is Cuban artist Ibrahim Miranda. Here's a shot of Miranda talking about his large installation, called Mapas, with two visitors. The work is densely layered, with images printed on top of maps and other commercially printed ephemera.

I was pleased to meet and see the work of several artists I've known only online up until now. Elizabeth Busey was in town from Indiana and I enjoyed meeting her and her family. Above is Elizabeth's Breath Intertwined, a reduction linoprint.

Another online friend and mokuhanga artist, William Evertson, was at the show from Connecticut. Above is his Biennial print, Photobooth Kabuki 2. I was especially smitten with the embossed face in the background.

Charles Coates is another artist I've been acquainted with online who I was happy to meet in person. Charles came from Arizona for the opening. His large woodcut, which won the Boston Public Library Purchase Prize, was impossible to photograph in its entirety, but hopefully you can see the interesting and delicate effect he created by printing with white ink on top of sumi ink.

Boston-based artist Julia Talcott has a history similar to mine: she was a successful commercial illustrator who fell in love with printmaking. Her linocut monoprint, Portable Color Trap, won the Otis Philbrick Museum of Fine Arts Purchase Prize.

I've been a fan of Stella Ebner's work ever since I found her web site when I was first learning mokuhanga and looking for western artists using mokuhanga in new ways. Ebner seems to be working exclusively with screenprinting these days, but her prints still have a mokuhanga quality about them -- the inks look transparent like watercolor, and the color fields that make up her imagery still look to me like they could be cut from blocks. I also love her sense of humor (as did juror Dennis Jon, who mentioned it in his talk). This work is called Making Starry Night, a screenprint on two large pieces of Japanese paper.

Here are a few other artists whose work I particularly noticed but didn't photograph.

Diana Behl
Jenny Robinson
Renee Magnanti

There are a gajillion other great prints, too, so check out the slideshow.

22 October 2013

Working with Flea Market Frames

Framing for an exhibition of works on paper, as all my works are, is a time consuming and expensive proposition. My upcoming exhibit, Welcome to Nonotuck, includes 16 separate woodblock prints of varying and inconsistent sizes ranging from 4 x 7 inches to 21 x 29. To have them professionally framed would cost well upwards of $2000.

For obvious reasons, I decided to do my own framing. Because the prints I'll be showing are about early American history and because they're being presented at a history museum, I decided to use vintage/antique flea market frames as much as possible. I thought that doing so would evoke a sense of these prints having been collected over time and donated by different people, just as so many of the objects in the museum have been donated. I made a list of all my print sizes, grabbed a tape measure, and started scouring local flea markets and antique stores.

I didn't take photos of the process, but here's a list I generated of the pros and cons of using flea market frames:

  1. It's definitely cheaper than hiring a professional framer. I ended up spending a little over $600 instead of the $2000+ I would have paid a pro.
  2. The variety and patina of the vintage frames works well for certain kinds of artwork.
  3. It's fun going to flea markets.
  1. No custom sizes, so you have to take what you can find. I had to order custom frames for four prints that are very long and narrow. 
  2. Sometimes you find the perfect frame but it has a picture in it that a seller feels is valuable so they've priced it higher than you want to pay just for a frame.
  3. It takes a long time to collect all the frames.
  4. Every found frame has its own set of issues and problems to solve: some need repairs, some have no glass, some are not deep enough to accommodate glass plus mat plus foam core backing.
  5. All flea market frames need a good cleaning.
Then there's just the whole ordeal of framing 17 pieces. I'm not crazy about framing, nor do I have good equipment. I use a simple pull-style mat cutter with a straight edge (a real workout at large sizes) and I cut mat board and foam core with an X-Acto knife. I almost always ruin a mat or two, although amazingly I didn't ruin a single piece this time.

Do I have cuts on my hands from handling glass? Yes. Did I curse a lot as I discovered the quirks of each frame? Yes. Did I spill some wood stain? Yes. But I saved over a thousand dollars! So yes, I would do it again.

17 October 2013

Can You Paint on Fabric With Woodblock Pigments?

Guerra pigment suspensions, to be precise. I needed to make a banner/painting for my November show and I didn't know if I could paint on raw canvas with the Guerra pigment suspensions that I use for mokuhanga. So I tried it.

Here's the banner lying on my kitchen floor. It's about 5 feet x 5 feet, so in my 1200 square foot house, the kitchen was the best place to work on it. I had the drawing all done in pencil and was ready to try the pigments.

I used very watered-down colors, as I wanted the banner to appear old and somewhat faded. I fully expected that there would be some bleed, and I just hoped it wouldn't be too much. But as you can see, the bleed was very minimal. So this is an entirely new trick to do with Guerra pigments!

I was even able to paint lines. The canvas, by the way, was just fabric store canvas that I washed first before working with.

I'm going to hold back on showing you the design for now, but I can tell you that it's a map. Here's a shot of me putting in a hem this afternoon in the autumn sunshine on my back deck. (Sometimes the life of an artist is very very good.)

10 October 2013

November Exhibit at Historic Northampton

About a month ago I got an email about a sudden opening in the Contemporary Art at Historic Northampton program for the month of November. The organizers were looking for an artist with an already-made body of work who could tie the work in to the collection at the Historic Northampton Museum. I thought immediately of my Pilgrim series, so I fired off an email and within a couple of days I was selected to fill the opening.

Thus began a frenzy of activity in the midst of which I now stand firmly.

Speaking of standing in the midst, I'm calling the show 'Welcome to Nonotuck.' Nonotuck is a native American word that means "the midst of the river" and Nonotuck is the name of the place that became Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1654.

Below is an e-card with all of the information about the show. If you're in the area, I hope you'll stop in to see the show!

27 September 2013

LAPS 21st National Exhibition

Hello, dear readers. I just noticed that it's been 22 days since my last post, which is unacceptable, but that's how busy I've been. Unfortunately, most of my busy has nothing to do with woodblock prints.

Here's a little piece of news, though. I have a print in the Los Angeles Printmaking Society's 21st National Exhibition, which opens Saturday, October 26, at California State University Northridge Art Galleries. I hope if you're in the area you'll stop by and see the show, which runs through December 14.

05 September 2013

Honey Bee Visions - Frutilaria


White line reduction woodblock print
5" x 7" (12.7 x 17.8 cm) image on Echizen Kozo paper
edition: 15

This is the second white line grid print I’ve made (see the first one here) and I think I’m getting better at it. I’m calling these “Honey Bee Visions” because this is somewhat the way that a bee, with its compound eyes, would see a flower. Artist/scientist Andy Giger has a page on his web site called B-EYE that shows more accurately how a honey bee sees (more elongated than the prints I'm making).

Here are a few more photos taken at various stages:




15 August 2013

Sometimes I'm Married 2013

2-color Japanese-method woodblock (moku hanga)
6" x 8" (15 x 20 cm)
edition: an ongoing series

On August 15, 2004, my partner Lynn and I, who had already been together for 13 years, were married in our home in Massachusetts in the the company of 60 friends and family. This was three months after our right to marry had been affirmed by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, which found that there was no “constitutionally adequate reason” for denying marriage to same-sex couples. For the next four years, I was only married in Massachusetts, which made for some interesting (and confusing) situations. Finally, in 2008, California (for a brief time) joined Massachusetts in allowing gay marriage, so that year I began making a yearly map of where I am and am not legally married. The series is titled “Sometimes I'm Married” and I've typically made a new version of the map each year on my August 15 anniversary.

This year, by virtue of several legislative actions plus a court ruling, California, Minnesota, Delaware and Rhode Island have been added to the ‘I am married’ category. It will be interesting to see what happens from here on, as various states react and respond to the recent Supreme Court ruling striking down DOMA.

Welcome back, California! Thank you, Minnesota, Delaware and Rhode Island. And happy anniversary, dear Lynn.

13 August 2013

Cherry Blossom


White line reduction woodblock print
5" x 7" (12.7 x 17.8 cm) image on Echizen Kozo paper
edition: 15

This is the final state of the reduction white line grid print I worked on last week. It’s not what I envisioned or expected, but there are a lot of things I really like about it.

I like the intense emboss.
I like the colors.
I thoroughly enjoyed the process, from start to finish.
I like that it looks like cross stitch.
I like that you can’t quite tell what it is.
I like that it looks different at various sizes (or offline, from various distances).

This whole thing started as a sort of a joke. I was visiting my mother a couple of weeks ago and we were talking about how difficult it is to sell my art. My mother is convinced that it's because of my subject matter, which is probably true. So I quipped, “Yeah, you're right. I should probably make some prints of flowers.” My mom, needless to say, thought it was a great idea and that I would sell a lot of them.

Later that day I got an email from Zea Mays Print Studio about their annual ‘Print Fair North’ and on the heels of that conversation with my mother I had a little light bulb moment. Last year at the Print Fair it was my smaller one-off prints that sold well. Why not make small prints specifically for the Print Fair? And why not test my mom’s theory and make prints of flowers?

So I looked at all the photos I’ve taken of flowers over the years to see if I had any material to work with. I have to admit I’m not a very good photographer, but I do have a lot of flower photos. Then I became daunted. I thought about all of the great woodblock artists who do or have done flowers. The Print Fair is in November, just three months away. I don't have time to become a great printer of florals. Maybe stylized floral patterns would be a good approach for me? I needed to find some approach to working with my photos that felt like it was do-able and would hold my interest. I'm not quite sure how it came to me, but I picked one of the photos, cropped it, played with the colors a little in Photoshop, blurred the heck out of it and put a grid over it.

Here's what I was working from:

I enjoyed the process, so I plan to do a few more of these and see if I can get something happening. Or not. We'll see. Learning new things is never a waste of time.

08 August 2013

More White Line Grid Printing


Here’s where things stand after another day of printing. The source for this is a photograph over which I placed a grid in Photoshop, and I’m trying to roughly match the color of each square. Which, of course, is impossible. I’m flying by the seat of my pants, as they say. It’s an experiment, and there’s no doing it over again because I’m ‘reducing’ the block — carving away parts of it prior to each new color application. The color balance is not much like the photo any more, but like I said, there’s no going back in this process.

So it’s full of surprises and not at all how I thought it would look, but it’s definitely fun. I’ll be back at it again tomorrow, and I’ll show you what happens.

White Line Print, Sort Of

I've been wanting to try white line printing for a long time now, but I've never quite found the right project. A white line print is a print made with a single block, where the outlines of the drawing are carved with a knife or narrow chisel and then watercolors are applied and printed one by one. The method was developed in Provincetown Mass during the early 20th century and is best exemplified by the artist Blanche Lazzell.

My white line print is not quite like Blanche Lazelle's work, I'm afraid. Rather than beginning with a drawing, I've begun with a grid. Just a personality thing, I guess. I work best with structure.


Once I had my grid, I carved away all of the squares that I wanted to remain white and I printed with the palest of blues. On the soft damp Echizen Kozo paper that I'm using, the grid made a beautiful emboss. I almost wanted to stop right there.


But I continued. I carved away a few squares and printed again, and did the same thing a third time. Then some selective inking with some pink.


I'll tell you next time where I think I'm going with this.