30 December 2015

Halftones and the Poignancy of Being Human

Carving underway on halftone Buddha image.

Sometime this fall I got captured by the idea of creating a semi-photographic woodblock image as a halftone (continuous tone image made of dots), and since I've been wanting to work with religious images lately I decided to try making halftones of photographs of icons and statues from various religious traditions. In October I started carving circles for the first of these images, a Buddha.

The photo above shows a 13 x 13 inch block of wood with a computer-generated image of a Buddha statue transferred onto it and carving underway. I wanted to work with the optical illusion that a dot pattern invites, where you only see the dots when you're up close, but the image reveals itself at a certain distance, so I chose the coarsest dot pattern I could use and still make out the image. This required the image transfer onto the block to be very precise, so rather than pasting down a laser printout as I often do I wanted to do a true toner transfer. I tried oil of wintergreen and also citrisolve, but I wasn't happy with either so I ended up using Chartpak blender markers which contain a toxic chemical called xylene. I did it outdoors so I wouldn't keel over from the fumes, but I wouldn't recommend xylene as a go-to transfer agent because of the toxicity.

Nevertheless, I got a great transfer and have been plodding along with the carving for about two months.

A close view of some circles of varying sizes.

I thought a drill would be ideal for this. I have a sweet little hand drill with 8 different bit sizes that my dad passed down to me, but after a few tests I realized that there were infinite small variations in the sizes of these dots, from less than 1/32 inch to around 3/8. I could never get exactly the right size bit for each hole. So I've been carving with knives: my two hangi-to and a #2 X-Axto blade.

Two different sized hangi-to and an X-Acto knife, with tiny circular wood chips.

When I posted about this on Facebook I got some great tips. Turns out there's a Japanese tool called a tama-to, available at McClain's, that's designed for cutting circles. One of these is on the way to me now, so I'll report back after I've tried it. Another printmaker friend told me about a drill bit that's cone-shaped so you can vary the width of the circles by how deeply you drive the bit. I'll probably give that a try at some point too, but as I was carving today with my knife I began to think about this whole imperfect process of re-creating a computer generated image by hand. The image is perfect when printed out on a digital printer. Why not just do a high-end inkjet print? Or why not use a photographic process like silkscreen or photo etching? What is this drive to do it by hand with a knife on a piece of wood?

As I pondered this, I realized that this arduous process — this attempt to make 6,000 perfect circles with my imperfect tools and my shaky hand and my farsighted middle-aged eyes —is precisely what religion at its best calls forth in a human being. It's this human striving for something perfect, beautiful and pure in the midst of the imperfection and hardship of life that I could feel being recapitulated in a small way for me in this process.

So maybe I'll stick with the knife.

Happy 2016, dear blog readers.

I use a portable easel with a couple of different bench hooks to keep the block upright and close to my eyes.

07 December 2015

Field Report from a Brief Social Media Fast

Image source unknown
This past weekend, after spending a tumultuous week following Facebook and Twitter posts about the San Bernardino shooting and feeling that I needed to settle my nerves, I decided to take a break from social media. For two days, whenever I felt the urge to log on to Facebook or Twitter, I wrote about it in a little notebook I carried around. I’m not sure yet how long my break will be but here are some of the notes I made on Saturday and Sunday.

Dog Whistles
For a long time I’ve been aware of the political "dog whistles" (coded words that appear to mean one thing but have an additional meaning for a targeted subgroup) that are used by conservatives. For example, I was horrified during the first GW Bush campaign when I noticed that the candidate often used language from Christian hymns and prayers and that the media completely missed it. But I’ve never fully examined the dog whistles that are aimed at me and my kind. Facebook and Twitter memes and links are full of dog whistles, and I jump when I hear them, just as most of us do. It's hard on the nerves.

Unusable Diary
I use both Facebook and Twitter as a kind of diary, noting my thoughts and feelings about the events in my world. Facebook knows this, as demonstrated by their rollout of a “Memories” feed to help us re-read our diaries. But that’s one of the problems: you can’t easily go back and read your own diary entries; they get buried under the ever-scrolling Now. Writing down my thoughts and feelings in diary form would be better done in… well, in a diary. Or even a blog!

Missing My People
There are some people who are very special to me who I only know because of social media. Actually, a lot of people fall into that category, particularly other artists. I’ve met quite a few of my online-only friends in person as years have gone by, and I’m always delighted to discover that they’re to a person even better in real life than online. My life would be poorer without those connections (as well as connections with friends I knew before social media). But logging on in search of connection also means scrolling through posts about violence, politics and outrage with no control over what I view. (I just read an article that talked about “visual terrorism” – an overstatement with a grain of truth.) How to have the connection without the emotional manipulation and disturbance of all that stuff?

All the Feelings
Mine is not a total media fast, just Facebook and Twitter. I’m still reading the news, and what I notice is that I can’t quickly scroll past things that upset me and scan for some new distraction. I’m feeling sadness more acutely. I’m also thinking about the role of outrage in our society and on social media. It’s so much easier, when confronted with the brutality of this world, to respond with outrage and anger than to experience the deeper sensations of fear, sadness, disappointment and helplessness. Outrage feels strong and energetic. It makes you feel like you’re doing something, even though you aren’t.

Extra Time
If you don’t check your Facebook while waiting in the checkout line, you have time to look at the people around you. New possibilities open up. I experimented this weekend with smiling, with saying hello, and with offering silent blessings to people who looked like they could use a silent blessing.

Oh Twitter
Even though I spend much more time on FB than Twitter, I really miss Twitter. Twitter is my secret escape. It’s kind of like going to a bar (which I gave up many years ago) because you never know who will be there at the same time you are, it’s fast (only 140 characters at a time), it’s punchy and a little raucous, it’s intense, and when something is happening, whether a planned event or a tragedy, Twitter is right there in real time. I love Twitter, and it’s terribly addictive.

Musings On my Social Media Future
Not sure yet how I’ll proceed, but I know I won’t swear off Facebook and Twitter. They’re too important for me as an artist, for one thing, not just in “getting my work out there,” but in forging relationships with artists and art lovers. I’m thinking about ways to limit the amount of time I spend on social media, but I don't want to stop reading other people's posts and that's what takes so much time. I don't like when people do hit-and-run posting, where they throw up posts without ever looking at or commenting on anyone else’s posts, and I don't want to do that. Reading every single thing in my timeline has always been impossible, but how to keep myself out of the time-suck? Use a timer? Create a small group of people whose posts I don’t want to miss? Not sure. But I’ll keep you posted.

Your thoughts are welcome.