21 February 2019

The Ace of Air

Aces in the tarot represent stirrings and new beginnings, so in the suit of Air we’re talking about a fresh new idea, a tender new belief, an inspiration. The energy of the Aces tends to be a little sparky—kind of sudden and fairly strong, but not necessarily an energy that will last. I thought of a hummingbird to represent this kind of delicate and sparky thought-energy.

I made the bird as a watercolor woodblock monoprint, using some of the methods of white line woodblock and adding some reduction carving. I could do this because I’m not making multiples. All I needed was one good bird to scan. I also did a “rainbow roll” (3-color bokashi) to use for the hand shape and made some swirly shapes with a brush for the cloud. I scanned the various elements and combined them digitally along with the wind map from the previous post to make the card. Working digitally will allow me to make changes easily and will simplify the process of getting the cards produced commercially as actual playing cards.

Starting With Air

The Rider Waite suit of swords and some study materials

The tarot is divided into two sections, the 22 cards of the Major Arcana (macrocosmic archetypal images) and the Minor Arcana (four “suits” that describe more everyday situations and energies). I asked my Rider Waite cards which of the four suits I should tackle first for my tarot deck and the cards told me “swords.” Rather than using the traditional suit names—swords, cups, wands and pentacles—I plan to use the four elements for my deck’s suit names. Swords are associated with the element Air, so I’ll be starting with 14 cards in the suit of Air. The Air cards represent the mind, including thoughts, beliefs, ideas, and communication. That seems like a fitting place to begin.

This will likely be the slowest suit to produce simply because I’m doing it first. Most of the design decisions for the entire deck will be made as I work on this suit.

Something that has bothered me about my Rider Waite deck is that there can be a lack of coherence as one goes through the suits. The Major Arcana tells a story as you go from one card to the next, and there’s no reason why the smaller suits couldn’t do that as well. So my first design decision is to make borderless cards with a background for each suit that travels lengthwise through all 14 cards to help unify them. I only know of one deck that does this— the Prisma Visions tarot. Pictured below is a woodblock print of a wind map that I’ll be using to pull together the Suit of Air. I’m planning to create all of the artwork for this deck by hand and then scan the pieces and assemble each card digitally for production purposes.

14 February 2019

Tarot Mea Culpa

A few randomly chosen depictions of one tarot card, the Ace of Swords

Tarot is an odd mishmash of symbols, numbers, traditions and ideas. As I previously mentioned, the Rider Waite deck (upper left) is the classic standard, but every deck-maker puts their own spin on it, as you can see in the random samples above.

There are a lot of tarot aficionados who know way more than I do about it, so this is my mea culpa post — I’m not a tarot expert, just a tarot admirer and on-and-off user since the 1980s. I don’t do readings for other people and I don’t use the cards to tell fortunes or predict the future. Mainly I use the cards as prompts to help me focus on questions and worries I have about my own life and to help me externalize my own answers. The cards work remarkably well for that purpose.

Why make my own deck? Mostly because I’m an artist and image making is what artists do. I also like the huge challenge of making 78 cards and deepening my understanding of the cards through this project. And of course, I’ll be adjusting some of the traditional imagery, adding my own spin to suit my understandings of the various systems embedded in the tarot. For instance, I’d like my deck to be more gender neutral and universal, with less Camelot-Victorian imagery, approachable and intuitive, and beautiful. Most importantly, though, a deck needs to feel “alive,” and that’s something that can’t be planned, only intended. I want my deck to feel alive. Of course, what feels alive to one tarot reader may not feel alive to another. One of the wonderful things about the explosion of available tarot decks is that almost every reader can find cards that speak to them. I hope that my deck will have a unique voice that will speak to others.

As of now I’m hoping to produce a small run of 500 decks if my design project is successful. I’ll keep you posted on that—it’s early still and my risk of failure is high!

12 February 2019

Conjuring Up a Tarot Deck

It's been five months since I moved to Providence, Rhode Island, after 23 years in Northampton, Massachusetts. I have to admit that I've been a little adrift here in the Ocean State. This is especially true as far as my work as an artist is concerned. I've been having a tough time, both before and after the move, finding a project that I can really connect with and sink into the way I like. It's hard for me to be patient, hard for me to keep coming to the studio without any notion of what I'll do there, hard for me to wait for myself to feel comfortable in my new surroundings.

My work in the past has generally been topic-driven — about money or politics or history, rather than being about place or landscape — so I've been surprised to see how this change in my surroundings is challenging me. Even though it's less than 100 miles away, my new home in tiny little Rhode Island is most definitely not the same as my town in the Connecticut River Valley of western Massachusetts. The weather is different, the air is different, the light is different, the people are different, and the whole feeling is different. It's like how Vermont and New Hampshire feel totally different even though they're right next to each other, separated only by the Connecticut River.

One of the first things I bought for myself when I first moved to Providence was a book from Tashen Publishing called The Book of Symbols. I saw it in the window of a neighborhood store while I was walking my dog Zuzu, and I kept walking but the book haunted me. For three or four weeks I couldn't stop thinking about it, so I finally just walked up the street and bought it. I wasn’t quite sure what it meant to me, but the book has been moving around the house with me, on my desk or next to my bed or in the living room by the fireplace. And now I think I finally know where it’s leading me. There seems to be a tarot deck inside me, waiting to be born.

20 January 2019


Watercolor woodblock print (moku hanga)
17 x 11 inches (43 x 28 cm)
Made from 1 block, 5 hand-rubbed applications of color
Edition of 8 on Yukimi paper

A recent study of 40,000 farms in over 100 countries concludes that of all the individual acts a person can do to try to reduce their impact on the environment, giving up meat in one's diet is the biggest way to help the planet. In addition to deforestation, extinction of wild animal species, and greenhouse gas emissions, meat farming, especially farming of beef and pork, is lousy for water. Animal wastes pollute streams, rivers, and ultimately oceans, and large amounts of water are required to make a pound of beef, although there seems to be wide disagreement over exactly how much water — claims range from 450 gallons to 250 gallons of water per pound of beef depending on the farming methods used.

“A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use,” said Joseph Poore, at the University of Oxford, UK, who led the research. “It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car,” he said, as these only cut greenhouse gas emissions.

To be clear, I myself am not a vegan eater. I rarely eat red meat, but I do eat fish and sometimes poultry. I also eat dairy, cheese, and eggs.  I could picture myself giving up meat altogether, but I'm very attached to cheese and eggs. I'm not sure what, if anything, would convince me to stop eating those things.

This print is a reduction print (carve, print a color, carve some more, print another color…). I'm trying to loosen up my process a bit by utilizing only one block, a limited palette, working in small editions, and not doing so much pre-planning. It's fun.

30 December 2018

Living Coral

Watercolor woodblock print (moku hanga)
17 x 11 inches (43 x 28 cm)
Made from 1 block, 4 hand-rubbed applications of color
Edition of 8 on Yukimi paper

I could barely believe my good fortune when, just as I began researching images of coral for my next print, Pantone Inc. announced their new color for 2019: "Living Coral." The Pantone web site describes Living Coral as "sociable and spirited," encouraging "lighthearted activity, symbolizing our innate need for optimism and joyful pursuits" and a "source of emotional nourishment." Oy. Maybe it's just me, but the name Living Coral instantly conjures up the opposite in my mind—dead and bleached coral. In the Great Barrier Reef alone, one 2016 bleaching event killed almost 30 percent of shallow-water corals such as the brush coral I've depicted here. How could Pantone think that invoking the living variety of a thing that could be entirely dead within this century due to our own greed and stubbornness would be a good thing? Well, anyway, I obviously had to add a little Pantone chip to my picture of a sample of (dead) brush coral.

This all is sad, and it makes me sad at a personal level, too, because most of my adult money-earning career has been in graphic design, so I've been in a relationship with Pantone Inc. for many years. My career has also ridden the waves of several boom and bust cycles. In the late 90s and early 00s I was drawing diagrams for tech startups, then just as the tech bubble burst I started making infographics for the financial industry and when the bottom fell out of that one in 2008 I began making maps for high-end tour companies, which visit many fragile and threatened places across this beautiful planet. So as much as I want to make fun of Pantone for being out of touch, I know that I can't stand outside of their milieu. None of us can, really. We're all complicit in the lifestyle that now threatens our very existence.

May this new year, 2019, bring out the best in us. May our relationships to each other, to all the beings we share this world with, and to the planet itself come into some kind of balance and alignment. Happy new year.

08 December 2018

Flush It

Watercolor woodblock print (moku hanga)
11 x 17 inches (28 x 43 cm)
Made from 2 blocks, 3 hand-rubbed applications of color
Edition of 8 on Yukimi paper

Not that they actually hide anything (we all know what's under there) but toilet paper covers are a kitschy quirky way to cover up a spare toilet roll and also a fun project for people who crochet. They can be made to resemble animals or can have doll parts attached or… well, whatever you can imagine. I'm not sure the real purpose of toilet paper covers — maybe to keep dust from getting on the extra roll of paper?

I made a woodblock print of a beige crocheted toilet paper cover to conjure up all of the myriad issues around human waste, toilets, and water use. A study conducted in 2016 found that household water use via toilets has fallen from 18.5 gallons per person per day in 1999 to 14.2 gallons in 2016 but, that improvement notwithstanding, treatment of waste water remains challenging. Although I've known that flushing wipes or tampons will clog sewer systems, I learned while working on this print that even flushing kleenex challenges water treatment systems because kleenex is treated with a chemical binder to prevent it from breaking down easily (article here). I was also taken aback to learn that low levels of organic wastewater compounds, including prescription and nonprescription drugs and hormones, have been found in streams across the US and that some pharmaceuticals persist in drinking-water despite water treatment processes. Yikes, does this mean that I'm drinking your antidepressants? Also, apparently human beings now poop plastic.

At any rate, my mokuhanga toilet paper cover is not very kitschy. I wanted to challenge myself to represent realistic stitching, so this print relies on what I call "virtuoso carving" in order to achieve that goal. I have a love/hate relationship with virtuoso carving. I like it when it's finished, but the doing of it is pretty strenuous and it hurts my back and neck. It's worth the pain, though. Pictures below show the two blocks that define the two color levels needed to define the stitches as well as the intermediate stage of printing.

With two prints now completed (this one and "Fiji Water 1.5") I now have a direction for these water prints: realistic objects that succinctly represent the environmental issues humans face regarding water.