28 June 2009

A Retreat

Hamilton Falls, Jamaica Vermont

Lynn and I just returned from a wonderful four-day stay at a cabin by a rushing river not far from Brattleboro Vermont. We always have great vacations together, but this one was especially unusual because we were completely media-free. We had no television, no radio, no computer. I wrote the following paragraphs while we were there:

I'm writing this by hand, on lined 8 1/2 x 11 notebook paper with a ballpoint pen. I'm off the grid for four days, a bit challenging for a workaholic like me, but I'm looking forward to feeling what that feels like. Maybe it won't even be difficult.

I've been thinking a lot about my career lately, as an illustrator and more broadly as an artist. Last week I put together a package of the new Pilgrim prints for my
gallery in Seattle, which pushed me to do a more organized and thorough inventory of all my prints, which got me to thinking about the fact that I really have 4 or 5 distinct jobs. My friend Orville Pierson, career coach and author of the book Highly Effective Networking calls this balancing of a number of different jobs or careers a "portfolio career," a double-entendre that I especially love as an artist. So here's my "portfolio:"
  1. I create illustrations commissioned for books, magazines, corporate clients and web sites. I used to also work for newspapers, although that work has almost completely dried up. Much of the other work has begun to dry up as well in this recent global recession.
  2. I do advertising, promotion, contract negotiation, billing and bookkeeping for my illustration work.
  3. I make woodblock prints about topics of my own choosing.
  4. I do marketing and promotion for the prints I create, including documenting the work and running my studio.
  5. I occasionally teach woodblock printmaking.
No wonder I feel like I'm working all the time!

Most artists I know have a similar portfolio career made up of art-making, self-promotion, teaching and often some sort of "day job." I'd be curious to hear from any readers, especially if you're in the arts, about how you manage to make art, support yourself and your loved ones, plus have time to manage a household, a family, and relationships.

22 June 2009

American Bible Story - Final Print

click image for larger view


Japanese woodblock (moku hanga)
Paper size: 14.75" x 16" (37.5 x 40.6 cm)
Image size: 11.625" x 13.75" (29.5 x 34.9 cm)
5 shina plywood blocks
14 hand-rubbed impressions
Paper: Nishinouchi
Edition: 21

I've been thinking for a long time about the way that present-day Americans of every political persuasion call upon "the founding fathers" to justify all sorts of theories about what America is and how Americans should behave. This quoting of early colonists has always reminded me of the practice of quoting the Bible to add legitimacy and authority to one's own ideas and feelings. Then, reading Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's narrative poem about John and Priscilla Alden, The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858), I noticed that Longfellow alluded to Bible love stories -- Ruth and Boaz, Rebecca and Isaac -- so I started to work with the idea that the early European settlers of America have become a kind of American Bible story.

The stories I included are pretty obvious -- Noah's ark, Adam and Eve, the pillar of clouds, the city on a hill. I also threw in a nod to Utamaro and his shunga prints. I had very much wanted the serpent to be saying "join or die" as it says in the original woodcut by Benjamin Franklin, but in my research I discovered that there's an artist named Justine Lai who is making extensive use of that phrase in her work. Lai is making a series of paintings that depict her having sex with each of the 44 presidents of the United States. I decided to omit the "join or die" text in my piece so as not to jump on that bandwagon.

Here's how the print looked before I added the keyblock:


And here are the color blocks as they appear after printing:


18 June 2009

Small Experiment with White Line Method


Got a little more printed today. I printed the rainbow using the white line method -- cut thin lines to separate the 3 colors, then painted them on with small brushes and took the impression all at once.

I like the registration board so far. This is the second block and it's lining up very well with the first block. No slippage to contend with either. The blocks are staying nice and snug.

17 June 2009

A Day's Work


Here's the result of today's printing session. This is all from one block (the block in the upper left corner in the photo from yesterday) using four separate impressions. I'm aiming for an edition of 24.

Got some bad news this afternoon. An art director I've been working with for quite a while got laid off. She's the only client I have now that uses my illustrations consistently on a monthly basis. Unfortunately, we don't know if the magazine will keep using me or not. Ouch. The publishing industry is in deep trouble, or at least in deep transformation.

16 June 2009

Color Plates Carved


I've carved four plates for the colors, so I'm ready to start printing "American Bible Story" tomorrow. I've been alternating between Nishinouchi paper and Echizen Kozo for this series depending on what effect I'm looking for. I like the rich off-white tone of the Nishinouchi and it makes these Pilgrim prints look "old," but I don't think it holds up as well under many many impressions. I did the Dorothy May Bradford print on Echizen Kozo because I thought it would take the overprinting inks better, but I think I'll use Nishinouchi for this print.

I'm also thinking about printing the keyblock differently. When I printed the proofs I liked the effect made by printing with etching ink and I may try doing this keyblock with Akua etching ink on top of the moku hanga style color blocks. The advantage I see to this is that the keyblock would stay dry, so the thin lines wouldn't swell as they do with the hanga method.

My trip to Plymouth last weekend was pretty interesting. Lynn and I weren't too enamored of the town itself and our hotel was...hmmm, how shall I say this...not too pleasant, but we spent a lot of time at Plimoth Plantation and learned a lot. I've been imagining the "curtain" in my new print as a kind of cranberry red color so I was amused to see this interpretation of John Alden's bed at Plimoth Plantation:


And another view of the one-room dwelling:


Just to be clear, Plimoth Plantation is not on the site of the original plantation, and all of the structures are recreations based on the latest scholarship. This is NOT John Alden's actual house. Still, I felt a little chill as I imagined the two of them walking through the door and talking with us. Which they did not.

11 June 2009

Research Trip to Plymouth


Tomorrow morning Lynn & I are heading off to Plymouth, MA, to see Plimoth Plantation, a recreation of the early Puritan settlement peopled with period actors who, I am told, never go out of character. I haven't been to Plymouth since I was a child, and Lynn has never been, so we're looking forward to a sort-of vacation. There are beaches nearby, too, so hoping for good weather. See you next week!

09 June 2009

Pasting Proofs with New Registration Board


Making color separations with the keyblock and the registration board was easy. I simply cooked up some wheat paste (1 T flour plus 1/3 cup water, heated until thick), lightly brushed paste onto a fresh shina block, placed the block into the registration jig and then used the kento to guide the printed keyblock proof onto the paste-covered surface so it would land in just the right spot. Then I lightly patted the thin paper into full contact with the paste and set it aside to dry.

It looks good to my eye, so I'll trust that I can safely carve these new blocks. The real test of the registration will be once I start printing.

08 June 2009

Testing New Registration Board

One of the things that's annoying about the otherwise brilliant Japanese kento method of registration, is that you have to allow an extra 1/2 inch or more of height and width for the kento cuts on every block, so you can't use the entire block for image area. I've decided to try the new registration boards from McClain's so that the kento is separate from my blocks and I can use the entire board for image only.

For this first experiment I've used artist's tape for a kento rather than permanently cutting into the wood. Here's the block nestled into the registration jig.


I took a few proofs of the keyblock on some very thin Japanese paper, which I'll then paste onto fresh blocks to make color separations. Because the paper is so thin, I printed by rolling on waterbased Akua intaglio ink rather than using sumi ink the moku hanga style. That way I could print dry to avoid distortion of the delicate paper.


Before I paste the prints onto the new blocks I'll be refining some of the lines on the keyblock.


04 June 2009

American Shunga


Today I finished carving the keyblock for my latest print, American Bible Story (John & Priscilla). Above is a shot of the whole 12" x 14" block. I was originally going to call this print "American Adam & Eve" but then a host of other Bible stories wandered into the scene. Keep in mind that this is a mirror image of the final print.

The John and Priscilla figures are based on a shunga print by Utamaro. Shunga, which translates literally as "spring picture," is a Japanese euphemism for erotic art. Shunga is very sexually explicit, both homo- and heterosexual, and often shows exaggerated genitalia. Westerners would classify much of shunga as pornographic. Most of the classical ukiyo-e artists produced shunga in addition to their other work, as it was very profitable.

As soon as I started planning this print, I knew that I wanted to depict John and Priscilla having sex. I wanted to challenge the modern belief that the Puritans were… well, "puritanical." Sexually prudish. While it's true that the Puritans punished sex outside of marriage as well as sexual activities that did not promote conception, like homosexuality and masturbation, they were very enthusiastic about marital sex. Frequent and mutually satisfying sexual activity was not just a right but a duty for both partners in a marriage. Puritans believed that the only legitimate object of sexual activity was procreation, but they also believed that conception required a mutual orgasm and medical texts recommended good food, wine, a relaxed atmosphere and foreplay -- hardly the puritanical attitudes we so blithely accuse our founding fathers and mothers of possessing. (ref. "Sex and Sexuality in Early America" by Merril D. Smith)

The quilt I carved to cover my hunky Puritan ancestor's butt is a pattern called "wedding ring." Another misconception we have is that Colonial American women were all sitting around quilting. Quilting is in fact a very time- and labor-intensive activity and only became an American pastime in the 19th century as leisure time became more abundant.

Next I'll print some proofs of this block, refine the carving where needed, and then use proofs of this keyblock to create a few color blocks.

Here are some links to shunga for those of you who are curious to know more.

Polly Apfelbaum on Printmaking

Artist Polly Apfelbaum selected prints for IPCNY's "New Prints 2009/Spring" and in place of a curator's statement, IPCNY has posted an interview with Apfelbaum.

Quoting from the interview:
It’s a very different world, and. I think many dealers still consider it a secondary art form... Photography and drawing have entered the "real art world," but for some reason, prints are still separate. People like to put things in categories. One of the things I like about prints is that more people can have them, and it’s a long history. However there is still a sort of ghetto for prints, which is good and bad.

This notion of printmaking as a secondary art form comes up again and again in discussions about the place of printmaking in the larger world of art. Perhaps printmaking is placed in the margins because the processes derive from commercial printing processes. Perhaps it's because the arcane details of technique tend to overwhelm the process of art making. Or perhaps it's because printmakers tend to work within the intersection of commercial imagery / pop culture and more formal fine art concerns.

I personally love printmaking for its accessibility to people who aren't necessarily literate in art-reading but who understand the nuances of contemporary commercial imagery. I like that my non-artist friends feel comfortable interpreting and commenting on my print work. I like that my non-artist friends feel comfortable purchasing my work, perhaps investing in original art for the first time in their lives.

NOTE: Great comment from Tibi about the role of the computers in changing the meaning of the word "print." I always forget about that...

02 June 2009

Pillar of Clouds


Still carving the keyblock for American Bible Stories. Today I carved an area that includes a rainbow and some linework meant to represent the "pillar of clouds" from the Book of Exodus. As Moses and his people left Egypt and headed for the Promised Land, God led them by day as a pillar of clouds and by night by a pillar of fire. My John and Priscilla will be shown beneath this receding cloud formation.

01 June 2009

An American Serpent



For my American Garden of Eden and apple tree, I chose a uniquely American serpent, a famous political cartoon created and published by Benjamin Franklin in 1754. Join, or Die is a woodcut showing a snake severed into eighths, with each segment labeled with the initial of a British American colony or region. During Franklin's time, there was a superstition that a snake which had been cut into pieces would come back to life if the pieces were put together before sunset, so the cartoon helped make his point about the importance of colonial unity. The pieces were labeled with the names of the colonies, although New England was represented as one colony, rather than the four colonies it was at that time. I kept the New England label on my serpent, since this series explores the early settling of New England.