29 December 2009

Smallpox In America

smallpox virus

The diseases that the Europeans brought to America -- syphilis, smallpox, measles, mumps, and bubonic plague -- caused greater mortality to the native Americans than to the Europeans because they were "virgin soil" diseases to which the Americans had no immunity. In trying to imagine the fear and devastation that a smallpox epidemic must have caused, I first thought of our recent panic over swine flu as a present-day comparison, but the horrifying symptoms of smallpox (high fever and vomiting followed by painful blistering rash and lesions in the nose and mouth) and mortality rate were far worse than anything we contemporary U.S. citizens have seen in our lifetimes except maybe for AIDS. I imagine that the dread that spread through native communities would be more akin to the dread that spread through the AIDS-stricken gay community in the 1980s.

my version of smallpox virus, second overprint

Obviously, these native American epidemics were unintentional consequences of the first contact between two previously isolated cultures, but by the 1700s some colonists began to use the diseases to their own advantage. There are several stories of smallpox being used as an early form of biological warfare. One of the best documented instances of the smallpox-on-blankets story is the case of Lord Jeffrey Amherst, commander of British forces in North America during the French and Indian War (1756-'63). In a letter to a military colleague, Amherst wrote, "You will Do well to try to Innoculate the Indians by means of Blanketts, as well as to try Every other method that can serve to Extirpate this Execrable Race."

Lord Jeff didn't like Indians very much.

my version of smallpox virus, third overprint

I "reduced" the red block twice to create this figure that suggests the shape of the smallpox virus with its outer tubules. Next up is some pretty intensive carving for two more elements for the print, so I probably won't blog again until 2010. Happy New Year!

23 December 2009

It's Coming On Christmas


I'm starting work on the central area now. This will be an enlarged view of a smallpox virus (variola). I'll be doing this area with the reduction method using a single block for three different impressions.

Smallpox is a highly contagious disease that killed an estimated 400,000 Europeans per year during the 18th century and an unknown number in the centuries before. Even as recently as the 20th century, it is estimated that smallpox was responsible for 300–500 million deaths worldwide. After successful vaccination campaigns throughout the 20th century, the WHO certified the eradication of smallpox in December 1979. To this day, smallpox is the only human infectious disease to have been completely eradicated.

In later posts I'll touch on the role smallpox played in the colonization of America. But for today, I'll simply note that this print continues to have a kind of Christmas-y feel to it. The latest additions make it look kind of like a scary wreath:


If you like Joni Mitchell, then you probably noticed that the title of this post is from her song "River." Here's a YouTube video of Joni singing "River" in a live performance at the Royal Albert Hall, nine years before the eradication of smallpox.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

21 December 2009

Happy Solstice


While I'm working on these prints about the native Americans, I've set up a little display in my studio of various made-for-tourists Indian souvenirs that have come to me over the years. The dolls on the left are Navajo and were purchased by my grandmother in the 1930s. The rest of the items were purchased by me. The pottery is all from various Pueblos in New Mexico where I lived for three years, as is the carved snake. The black pots are from Santa Clara Pueblo, the little hanging pot is from Taos Pueblo, and the beautiful reddish clay pot that you see a partial view of on the right is from Nambe. The basket with lid is from the Great Lakes based Ojibwe nation, and the small Thunderbird basket woven around a bottle (it's a nip-sized liquor bottle) is from the Makah of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state.

Happy Solstice, everyone.

20 December 2009



I started out this series of prints about the Pilgrims with the question "who were my ancestors and do their thoughts and actions matter anymore?" As I've studied them and read various accounts of their exploits, the question that is with me more often is "Why don't we know this?" The more I learn, the more amazement I feel at how much of the history of my own country is neither taught nor considered relevant. One of the words we use to describe the glossing over or covering up of uncomfortable truths is "whitewashing."

Which made today's printing session seem so appropriate. Because I wanted to "screen back" the background so that later on I can overprint something else, I decided to basically whitewash it. I cut some squiggly yersina pestis (plague bacteria) style shapes on the flat block that I started out with and then printed the whole background with a couple of layers of thin white paint.

Yep, it looks whitewashed.

16 December 2009

Adding Some Color


Today I added two more impressions on the Ten Little Nine Little print. These shapes are based on photographs of hepatitis virus particles. I found one photo in particular where the particles seemed to be dyed or colored red and green, so I went with that - a nod to the Christmas season.

Here are the two blocks before I printed:


Just in case you're interested in any of the materials I'm immersing myself in as I work on this series about 17th century New England native Americans, here are a few sources:

- The Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center - A tribally owned-and-operated museum complex located in southeastern Connecticut. Lots to explore on the web site as well.

- Indigenous Politics: From Native New England and Beyond - radio show and archived podcasts since 2007

- Indians and English: Facing Off in Early America, a book by Karen Ordahl Kupperman

- As the Wetu Turns - blog of Plimoth Plantation's Wampanoag Indigenous Program

I've been making good progress on this print, which makes me happy. Tomorrow may slow me down a little, as I'm going to the dentist for a root canal. I don't like the sound of that one bit...

15 December 2009

The "10" Portfolio

The print I'm currently working on, Ten Little Nine Little, will be an edition of 25 prints plus 5 artist's proofs. Those of you who know my work know that I don't often do editions of more than 15 or so, but this print run is larger because the print will be part of a portfolio called "10." Here's the description from the Zea Mays Printmaking December newsletter:
To celebrate our ten-year anniversary, we're publishing our third print portfolio, aptly titled "10". This portfolio is limited in edition to 25 and will include prints by invited artist faculty members... It will feature an introductory essay by art historian, Craig Harbison, which will be letterpress printed by Michael Russem of Kat Ran Press. He'll also be printing the title page, colophon and individual artist folios. The container will be designed and built by Sarah Creighton, Bookbinder. We'll be premiering it at the Southern Graphics Council Conference in Philadelphia in March. We'll also be showing it in the Spring at A.P.E. gallery in Northampton.
I'm delighted to be a participant in this folio. Here's a list of the other ten artists:

Liz Chalfin
Meredith Broberg
Nancy Diessner
Anita S. Hunt
Louise Kohrman
Barry Moser
Lynn Peterfreund
Joyce Silverstone
Carol Wax
Mark Zunino

13 December 2009

Five Impressions From Two Plates

This weekend I printed the two plates I showed you two posts ago. I started by using the plain block to lay in some color just to make a "dirty-looking" under-layer for the background.


Ultimately I want this background to be a dull bluish-gray, so what you see in the photo above is a goma-zuri (speckled) sumi ink gray plus a wash of pale yellow to dull things down.

Next I added a layer of blue:


Things got a little tricky for me at this stage, because I loved the wood grain that came through. I had no idea that this would happen. I knew that I would lose the grain by overprinting with a different block, and I could have re-carved the "wormy" pattern into the flat block so that I could overprint the same grain, but I'll need this flat block again later, so I decided to continue with my plan.

Next I added gray blue on top of the plain layers using the "wormy" block. The photo below shows a double hit of the blue:


There's still more to be done with the background, but I need to carve a couple of new blocks in order to proceed, so for now I'll let the prints dry out and moisten them again when I have the new blocks ready.

10 December 2009

John Buck in Washington


In the category of Exhibits I Would Go To If I Lived There, the woodcuts of John Buck are currently showing at Belleview Arts Museum in Washington state. I've seen a few examples of Buck's work in New York and they're large, complex and impressive. There's a nice review of the show on Seattle art critic Regina Hackett's blog Another Bouncing Ball.

I read somewhere that Buck eschews traditional woodblock carving tools in favor of ballpoint pens, nails, or even his own fingernails for his complex backgrounds. A man after my own heart -- whatever works.

Pacific Northwesters, you have until February 28 to see this show. Please report back if you go!

09 December 2009



I've got two plates ready to print. The way I was taught to do woodblock was to carve all the blocks I think I'll need, do a few test prints, and make adjustments before printing the edition. I've found that I have more fun if I make it up as I go, though. So even though I usually have a tight sketch and a plan, I prefer to carve, then print, then carve some more and print some more. I like to make changes as I go and leave some room to respond to the way a particular block prints.


That shape in the middle is going to be a large small pox virus. They're sort of lozenge-shaped with wormy bumps on the outside:

07 December 2009

New Print - Ten Little Nine Little

SmallPox ..small pox virus

Before the arrival of the Europeans to coastal Massachusetts, Cape Cod and the southeastern portion of the state was occupied by people called the Wampanoag. Wampanoag means "People of the First Light." Unfortunately for them, they were also the "People of the First Contact." In 1617-1619 an epidemic, or perhaps a series of diseases, thought to have been brought by early European explorers spread through coastal Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and southern Maine. Local mortality ranged close to 90%, causing dramatic social change.

The population of Plymouth, known to the native Americans as Patuxet, was reduced from over 2000 to almost zero. By the time the Mayflower arrived the village had been completely abandoned. The Mayflower passengers felt that God had prepared this place for them, with its decent harbor, high ground, cleared land and fresh water.

YersinaPestis ..yersinia pestis (plague)

No one is sure what the diseases were that raged through the population. Some assume it was small pox, which struck the New England natives again in the 1630s. Others suspect bubonic plague, as there are descriptions of sores on some of the affected individuals. And some even suspect a hepatitis virus. Whatever it was, it was a virgin soil disease to which the Americans had no immunity.

hepc ..hepatitis C

I've been listening to an audio version of Sarah Vowell's book The Wordy Shipmates as I work on this series of prints. Early in the book, Vowell describes a moment when she is standing in a museum in front of a map about these waves of epidemics that says "From 1492 to 1650, contagions claimed as many as nine [native] lives out of ten." Vowell writes:
Standing in front of that map I let those numbers sink in. Nine out of ten. I learned to count by singing that old minstrel song turned nursery rhyme,  "Ten Little Indians." Now I have that melody stuck in my head and I'm picturing seven little, eight little, nine little Indians struck dead by smallpox.
This next print I'll be working on is Called Ten Little Nine Little. Counting down.

Comment Moderation

Dear beloved blog readers,

My blog is getting spammed in a big way. Auto-spamming used to be a big problem on Blogger.com, but they figured out how to stop it, much to their credit. This latest spam, however, appears to be "hand made." That is, I suspect that individuals are actually being paid to visit blogs and spam them one by one.

I've always liked to keep this blog very open, allowing people to comment anonymously, but I can't stand this spam mucking up my blog so I've turned on "comment moderation" for a while. All this means is that if you comment, your comment won't immediately appear. I'll read it first and then I'll manually allow it to be posted. That way I can weed out my friendly spammers.

Thanks for your understanding.

love,  Annie

04 December 2009

A Few Woodblock Links

I've seen some interesting articles and links this week. First, an exhibit that came down last week in Boston but can still be seen online, Making connections:Contemporary Cuban Printmaking featured work by 93 artists living in Cuba. Much of that work has been collected by Florence, MA, based studio Red Trillium Press. You can see samples, many of them woodcuts, here.

Another interesting article that popped up on my Google alerts was this one on a blog called "Curator" about a German woodcut artist named HAP Grieshaber (1909-1981). From the blog:

A woodcut artist who opposed militarism and war, [Grieshaber] spent years silenced for his pacifism. He lived and worked in England, France, and Greece before the war, but got deported back to Germany because of his pacifism. In Germany, after 1933, he was only able to create art in secret. Grieshaber did manual labor and delivered newspapers to earn a living during WWII, but still continued to work on his woodcuts. It wasn’t until after the war and after Grieshaber was released from an American internment camp, when the country was desolate of artists and in desperate need of art, that anyone was interested in the work he was doing.

Grieshaber's works are powerful meditations on death and culpability.

01 December 2009

There's a Book In My Future

Lately I've been reading Ehon: The Artist And the Book in Japan by Roger Keyes, a book that takes a deep look at the New York Public Library's Spencer Collection. This gorgeous book was recommended to me by gallery owner Beth Cullom during a discussion about artist's books and I'm so glad she turned me on to it. Check out the spread above. That's a woodblock print based on an ink drawing. I find it so beautiful.

In spite of the fact that I'll never be able to measure up to that degree of beauty and simplicity, I'm beginning to plan for a possible artist's book. It will be a while before I get to it, as I have several more prints to make in the Pilgrim Series, but true to form I already have a working title: Love Letters From Home.

23 November 2009

Vast Unpeopled Lands Final Print

click image for larger view


Japanese woodblock (moku hanga)
Paper size: 21" x 29" (53.3 x 73.7 cm)
Image size: 17.5" x 26" (44.5 x 66 cm)
5 shina plywood blocks
29 hand-rubbed impressions
Paper: Nishinouchi
Edition: 9

I used these 4 carved blocks plus one uncarved board

It feels fitting to me that I finished this print now, just in time for the harvest festival of Thanksgiving. In this invented landscape I've imagined autumn 1620 in the Connecticut River valley, just a few months before the arrival of the Mayflower some 135 miles away. The Connecticut River valley is where I live, in the city now called Northampton. In 1620 both the people and the town here were called Norwottuck, which means "in the midst of the river."

The hills I've depicted are imaginary, in the sense that no such view of the Connecticut River exists, but the yellow hills in the distance roughly outline three of the seven peaks that make up the Holyoke Range of central Massachusetts and the large orange hill in the center of the print is based on the shape of Mount Sugarloaf just up the river in Deerfield. Deerfield is where the last Indian war in Massachusetts occurred in 1704.

Photo of Mt. Sugarloaf, from TripAdvisor.com

As I described in an earlier post, the patterns on the hills are based on surviving patterns from the neighboring Iroquois and Mohawk nations (originally from upstate New York) and the constellations are imaginary, just me trying to imagine how a culture that subsisted off the land in a migratory way, both hunting and fishing and planting crops seasonally, might see the stars.

Working on this print made me feel sad and tender. I love this valley, this river, this land. The Connecticut River has sustained my family for many generations. And this same land sustained many generations of people before my ancestors ever saw it. Those native people are invisible to me in my everyday life. I felt myself calling them forth as I worked on this print.

This "We Are Pilgrims" series of prints began as an exploration of my own ancestral roots, but my European ancestors would never have survived without the assistance of the Americans who knew this land, these seasons, these animals and plants. For those native Americans I am thankful. Happy Thanksgiving.

17 November 2009

Teaching What I Want to Learn


Way back two months ago I taught a workshop at Zea Mays Printmaking that we named "Experiments In Woodblock Printing." It was a short two-day workshop, way too short to create an edition of multi-block prints, so I decided to focus on printing techniques. I asked participants to bring a very simple design or two designs that could interact because we were only going to carve two blocks. We spent only the first 4 or 5 hours on carving. The rest of the workshop was about printing, and each participant worked with two carved blocks plus an uncarved block.

I didn't file a report about this workshop as I usually do because I didn't take any photos, but I recently got some pictures that the Zea Mays staff took, so here are some for you to see.

I demonstrated five or six basic techniques at a time, and did three series of demos during the weekend.

I wanted to share all the ways that an uncarved block can be used -- to make a solid background, to create bokashi blends, to add texture across the print, to use a stencil

In this photo you can see the two simple blocks I had carved to demonstrate with

Demonstrating a simple bokashi

I suggested that participants start by working with just one color until they began to get the feel for moku hanga

Trying out some moku hanga "wiping"

It worked! I was winging it in these demos, which I wanted to do so that participants would feel free to wing it too.

Franklin of Artblog.net posted some of his prints from the workshop on his blog

Another reason I'm posting about this workshop now is because this latest print I'm working on takes a similar tack as the workshop in that unlike many of the prints I've done in the past that relied heavily on detailed carving, Vast Unpeopled Lands uses only four blocks. Most of the heavy lifting has been accomplished through the process of printing (25 impressions and counting).

I learned a lot and loosened up too at this last Zea Mays workshop. Thanks to all the participants who experimented with me. It was a much more playful workshop than usual and I enjoyed watching your prints develop and change.

16 November 2009

Working Some Greens


More studio time this morning. It feels so great to be making progress on this print. Today I worked with the greens. Actually, I got these deep greens by printing blue on top of that yellowish azo green. I still want to develop these front elements a little more. I want them to be very dark so that the hills seem to glow in contrast.

In a few spots the wood grain is coming through in an appealing way:


15 November 2009

Eastern Woodland Indian Patterns


This weekend I added a few more impressions to Vast Unpeopled Lands. The photo you see above represents 18 distinct impressions (that is, I've printed 18 times so far from the 5 blocks I've carved).


Unfortunately I couldn't find any design sources for native Massachusetts tribal patterns, but I did locate these designs, based on surviving patterns from the neighboring Iroquois and Mohawk nations (originally from upstate New York).

The native Americans of New England had very different beliefs and ways of interacting with the environment than the English who arrived in the 17th century. The Americans subsisted off the land in a migratory fashion, both hunting and fishing and planting crops seasonally. Through the use of small controlled forest burnings, movement between different areas of food sources through the year, low population densities, and the use of multicrop agriculture, the impact of the native population on local ecosystems was fairly small and consistent.

The Europeans, however, relied on livestock which had a huge impact on the local ecosystems. Europeans cleared vast amounts of land, relied on settled rather than migratory agriculture, introduced fences and notions of individual ownership, and viewed the products of the land as commodities to be claimed.

These differences in understanding about ownership and use of land led many of the newly arrived Europeans to believe that the land they saw stretching out before them was uninhabited, virgin, and there for the taking. In many ways they were literally unable to see the marks of the cultures that already lived there.

12 November 2009

Modeling the Hills


Back in the studio again today -- yay! I added some burnt umber here and there on the hills to give them some shape. Might have to do it again in some spots; we'll see as I deepen some of the other colors.

11 November 2009

More Printing Progress


Not much to say, but I'm very happy that I got some time to print this morning. Added some red oxide and some green. Lots more still to come, these are just the base colors.

08 November 2009

New York Print Fair 2009

Wow, I've made two trips to New York in 9 days. Not bad for a woman who used to be terrified of the place. Maybe it was my trip to Tokyo in 2005 that cured me of my city phobia. Whatever the cure, I'm becoming quite enamored of the Big Apple.

On Saturday I took the annual Smith College Museum of Art members' bus trip to NY for the IFPDA Print Fair for the third year in a row. It was well attended and I saw a lot of interesting and inspiring work.

One of the first booths I stopped at was The Art of Japan. This duo from Washington specializes in Japanese woodblock prints and they had a mind-boggling collection of my favorite genre, sosaku hanga (the self-carved and self-printed work created in early 20th century Japan). Handling works by the likes of Masao Maeda (above), Koshiro Onchi, and Umetaro Azechi literally brought tears to my eyes, as I've studied their work online and in books ever since I started making prints. I was amazed at how sloppy the great Onchi's prints appeared, with so much ink in the margins. I sat with the prints for a long time, and I'm sure I wore out my welcome, as I couldn't afford to buy any of the pieces I really wanted.

There are a few big contract printer/ publishers that I always visit, and one of them is San Francisco based Crown Point Press. This year the Crown Point piece that stood out to me was Back to the Land by Swedish artist Jockum Nordström, best known for his collage work. The primitive, mysterious and vaguely historic feeling in his prints appeals to me. I found a YouTube video interview with Nordström about his work at Crown Point here.

One artist whose work always stops me in my tracks is Chinese artist Hung Liu. A painter, Liu has also worked extensively making prints with both Paulson Press and Shark's Ink. The piece above is a piece she made at Paulson Press called Stove.

Hirschl & Adler Galleries always has work by Arthur Wesley Dow (left), Blanche Lazzell and Gustave Bauman.  I spent a long time standing in their booth mentally spending several tens of thousands of US dollars.

Another really standout display was a group of maybe 8 or 10 color woodcuts by Wassily Kandinsky shown by Chicago's Worthington Gallery. I had no idea that Kandinsky had done so many woodcuts. The piece to the right, called Three Riders in Red, Blue and Black, was my favorite.

And maybe the most fantastic thing I saw at the Fair was a woodblock print scroll by Chinese artist Yun-Fei Ji called Three Gorges Dam Migration at Carolina Nitsch Contemporary Art. This ten-foot-long horizontal image, hand-printed in China from over 500 hand-carved blocks of pearwood, depicts the flooding and social upheaval caused by the construction of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River. It's almost impossible to fathom how this work -- a collaboration between MOMA, the artist, and a Beijing woodblock printing workshop called Rongbaozhai -- was printed. It's stunning to behold.

Detail from Three Gorges Dam Migration.

It was a great Fair, and I've only scratched the surface of what I saw. It was crowded the whole time I was there, and there appeared to be a lot of money changing hands, so based on this one experience I'd have to speculate that reports about the death of the art market are overblown, at least for the print market. Yay prints!

06 November 2009

What you see is what you get

OutStudioWindowWhen this is what you see out your window, it's hard not to use yellow in your artwork. So I've been using some yellow and orange today.

Printing with paper this large is truly difficult. But by taking my time and walking away periodically for a breather, I've manged to not ruin any prints yet. Here's documentation of today's printing session:


In native American news, President Obama met yesterday with leaders from all 564 federally recognized tribes at a Tribal Nations Conference. According to the NY Times "He vowed that there would be no more 'going through the motions' and that his administration would finally face the severe economic and social problems that are the result of centuries of federal abuse and neglect."