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.

26 November 2018

Start Where You Are

I'm still poking around this topic of water, trying to find my way. I have friends who have been on top of the climate crisis for decades now, sounding the alarm to a mostly-indifferent world, and I don't know how I'll ever catch up with them. But I can start now and I can start where I am, knowing that I won't catch up but trusting that I'll find my way.

What I mostly do in my art practice when I begin a new topic is read. Often I simply read the news and begin from there. This month I started to notice articles about sewage and flooding and water treatment plants. From Austin, Texas, to Raleigh, North Carolina, to the Merrimac River valley in Massachusetts, cities and towns all over America are having to cope with new threats to clean water that are being caused by a combination of aging infrastructure and more frequent flooding. Obviously, coastal water treatment plants are at risk from sea level rise, but hundreds of inland water treatment plants are located in flood plains and are also at risk.

In this early portion of my series I'm looking for images that can stand in for a whole constellation of issues/problems and that also might be beautiful as prints. For the issue of water/sewer treatment, I'm going with an image that will call up the ubiquitous and rarely-discussed action that most westerners perform an average of five times per day: the toilet flush. Toilet flushing is the single highest use of water in the average home. Clean water, that is — water that must then be processed before it can go back out into the environment. People who know more than I do might have some ideas for better ways of treating human waste. I hope so.

This print will be a simple three-color print. Unlike the Fiji Water print I just completed, which required a lot of printing tricks (blends, wiping, etc.) this one will rely on very detailed carving. Here's the first impression, which is just a background color for the whole shape:

Then I traced outlines for the second color using carbon paper, and now I'll start carving:

17 November 2018

Water: A Tough Topic

So I'm on the theme of water and I thought at first that I would, you know, make pictures of water. But then I started thinking of artists I know who make gorgeous pictures of water (examples: Frances Ashforth and Michael Mazur) and I choked. What do I have to add to the canon of gorgeous water pictures? And what do I want to say about water anyhow?

I'm still sorting that out, but I can offer myself some partial answers. First is that I'm afraid of water. Every house I've lived in as an adult has leaked at one time or another. My house in Somerville MA leaked in a hurricane. Our roof in super-dry Taos New Mexico leaked in a rain storm. Each of the three houses we lived in in Northampton MA sprang a leak at one time or another, whether from ice dams or hurricanes or torrential rain. Water inside my house makes me exceedingly uncomfortable (said the woman who just moved to the Ocean State and found a leaky roof) and it seems to be my karma to get water inside my house. So there's that.

I also love water. I love the ocean, I love to body surf, I love lakes and streams, I love a hot bath, I like to fish, I love boats, and I love to drink a tall glass of cold water on a hot day. Large natural bodies of water relax us and offer a kind of mental balm and solace that can't be found anywhere else. Water is life. We all know that, but do we really? How for granted do we in the so-called western world take it that when we turn the faucet, the water that comes out is clean and plentiful? So now I'm back to my fear. I'm afraid of water not being clean, not being plentiful, afraid of local and state governments privatizing water which should belong to us all, afraid of more Flint Michigan type disasters, afraid of super-storms, and afraid of the water shortages that are already happening all over the globe.

It's hard to live in a place where the tap water is good and where the beaches are beautiful and to fully comprehend the tragedies that loom in our future: too much water, not enough water, and the extinctions and migrations (both human and animal) that will follow as our climate mutates. It's hard to even begin to understand how much our way of life impacts the water cycle. So maybe that's the essence of what I want to explore in this next series of prints — the notion that much of our relationship with water as human beings lies beneath our awareness.

So I'm starting another image and we'll see if it goes anywhere. I really don't have this planned out the way I planned the fire prints.

The photo at the beginning of this post shows a block ready to be cut for the first stage of the image. I jerry-rigged a funky cheap table-top easel that I got from Dick Blick (I don't think they sell this anymore) and a bench hook from McClain's to keep the block upright while I do the detail carving. Then I lay the block flat on the table for clearing.

More soon…

13 November 2018

Fiji Water (1.5)

Watercolor woodblock print (moku hanga)
11 x 17 inches (28 x 43 cm)
Made from 1 block, 15 hand-rubbed applications of color
Edition of 8 on Yukimi paper

After completing my "Fire" series I found myself wanting to go on and do some water prints. At the time (last winter) I thought of calling a series about water "Blue Wave," but I was afraid that the title would be too situational with regard to the 2016 US midterm election. And then it was spring and my partner and I started talking about moving, so I dropped everything.

But the topic stayed with me. Water. I read a book called Rising by a Rhode Island writer named Elizabeth Rush (recommended) and I'm now reading Cynthia Barnett's book Rain. The devastating report on climate change that was just released in October by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, plus the fact that the roof in my new house is leaking, have kept me on the topic of water, so I'm taking a poke at it here.

The first time I ever saw Fiji Water was in the 1990s. I remember my first thought was "it can't really be from Fiji." But it really was from Fiji, and I always saw it as a kind of awful commentary on the whole bottled water business—1990s yuppies "hydrating" themselves with (magical?) water from an exotic tropical island, transported thousands of miles in an ocean-contaminating plastic-is-forever bottle. Ugh.

Turns out that Fiji is one of the Pacific Island nations that won't survive warming greater than 1.5°C, which is the warming target that the cheery new report from the IPCC says would require humanity to abandon coal and other fossil fuels in the next decade or two in an economic transition so abrupt that it “has no documented historic precedents.

Island nations across the world, in the Caribbean and in the Pacific, have adopted a slogan, "1.5 to stay alive," to reflect the grim reality they face. I included that slogan on the label.

As usual, here are some process shots. I started simply with the yellows. Printing with a lot of white space is difficult, because of the care you need to take to keep the paper clean:

Next I worked on the plastic bottle. I did it reduction-style, where you print a color, then carve a bit and print again, then carve more, etc. :

I developed the flower the same way, by printing a layer of light pink, carving a bit and printing a darker pink, carving again and overprinting a darker magenta:

Next I added a simple bottle cap:

And then I had to face the scary part: a large bokashi (color blend) with white text carved out. Making a bokashi can be kind of messy because it involves water and paste and wide sweeps of the brush. I often do bokashi in several steps, but with white text I didn't want to be double-registering if I could help it. I resolved to do this bokashi in one pass. Because I needed to use a large brush for the blend, I decided to make a mask to protect the white paper around the bottle. I used a heavy drawing paper taped to the top of the block:

Here's a shot of the brush I used (purchased from Kremer Pigment). The tape at one end reminds me that that's the side where the lighter color is. You can see how far from the raised area the ink travels and why the mask is helpful:

All of this was done on one block, using a floating kento (registration board). Here's the block after I was finished with it:

17 October 2018

Making Art After a Long Pause

It's been nine months since I finished Playing With Fire, and since then I haven't made much art to speak of. I've been mostly consumed with everything that was required for our move to Rhode Island, including making some extra money via my freelance illustration day job. So how to get started again after such a long down time?

Fortunately, I have a 20-year freelance career to draw from. A few tricks and techniques I know about for revving up the creativity engines:

Dress for It
Pajamas or sweat pants or sometimes even blue jeans can make me feel schlumpy and lazy. Getting dressed for work, putting on some clothes that make me feel attractive and sharp and powerful, can really help raise the energy.

Keep to a Schedule
Having a dog who loves her schedule helps keep me on schedule too. We take a long walk in early morning, I do some errands if needed, and then I try to be in the studio by 9:30 or 10:00. Once I get started the flow is easier, but getting started can be hard for me so I focus on the morning.

Make a List
Juggling house tasks, dog needs, and freelance jobs can feel overwhelming. I make a proioritized list at the end of each day so that it's on my desk when I arrive in the morning. Turns out that making a list at the end of the day also helps me sleep better.

Studio Time Is Sacred
Other tasks will almost always win out over studio time unless I make an effort to carve out specific art-making time, so that's part of my scheduling and, once scheduled, my studio time is sacred.

Don't Wait for the Muse
Once in the studio it doesn't matter if I "feel like it" or not. Working only when inspiration hits is a recipe for not working. Inspiration and light-bulb moments more often than not come from trying and failing and trying again.

A couple of weeks ago I ordered paper and wood. The wood came yesterday and the paper is en route. Today I got out my calendar and blocked out my studio time for the rest of the week. Engines ready!

Do you have any tips to share?

04 October 2018

I Am Here

Hello blog readers. Greetings from Providence, Rhode Island! My family and I arrived here three and a half weeks ago, and just today I finished unpacking my studio space. I thought I'd give you a look around.

Here's my new house. The little upstairs balcony is accessible from my studio, a nice feature.
The door, which goes out to the balcony, plus the large window let in a lot of northern and eastern light. After living in a ranch house for the past eight years, it feels good to be up high again in my studio. I'm also happy that the room is big enough for a tall book shelf. The blue ring on the floor belongs to my dog Zuzu.
As in my previous studio, inks and brushes hang on the wall above my work tables. Flat files and a light box continue to the corner of the room. That blue paper on the wall is a map of the East Side of Providence where I live.
On the opposite side of the room is my computer station where I do my illustration work. That little door behind the printer goes to a small room which probably was designed to be a nursery back in the 1930s when the house was built. We're going to remove the door and have it drywalled over.
A deep closet lets me keep art supplies tucked away.

So I'm ready to get to work again! Today I ordered some paper and wood. I'll keep you posted.

11 July 2018

Back to Almanack

Remember the series of prints posted below, called Almanack? I started them three years ago, shortly after a month-long residency at American Antiquarian Society, where I studied 18th- and 19th-century printed images. The three prints I've completed so far haven't been very well received (translation: many rejection letters plus lack of enthusiasm from family members) but I still like them, dammit. So I'm starting another.

One of the things that really stood out during my research at American Antiquarian Society was, well, the whiteness of it all. Colonial history was documented and told by the colonists, and they were pretty darn Euro-white up here in new England. When I started these prints I began by reproducing colonial images and putting them together with invented environments and text from 18th century "science" books and almanacs. I didn't entirely know what they were about when I started them, but when I look at them now they sure look to me like a depiction of white status anxiety.

Here's a recap of the three Almanack prints from 2015-16.

(above) WIND – An anthropomorphized sun based on an 18th century almanac illustration and a little city taken from a 1762 woodcut whose original context I can't locate are superimposed on a wind map found online. The quote comes from "The New Book of Knowledge" (1767):
Wind is an Exhalation hot and dry, drawn up into the Air by the Power of the Sun, and by the weight thereof driven down.
This is an example of the science of America's founders, based on Aristotle's natural philosophy and the Aristotelian concept of "exhalations," which are ill-defined but seem to be a way of describing the invisible flow of things such as wind and water.
The 2014 death of Eric Garner and his awful last words "I can't breathe" were very much part of the air in 2015.

(above) EARTHQUAKE –
An earthquake is caused by means of wind that be enclosed within the caves of the earth and can find no passage to break forth.
– The New Book of Knowledge (1767)
A woodcut said to be an illustration of the Boston earthquake of 1727 is combined with petroglyphs from Utah and hand prints such as are found in caves all over the world. History lives in layers under our feet, it courses through our blood, and it is present in our thoughts and conceptions of the world. Sometimes history haunts us. Sometimes history rises up seeking justice. These little Puritans can feel the quake, but seem unaware of exactly what it is that's shaking their world so.

(above) HORIZON –
The horizon is a circle that divideth part of the world seen from the part that cannot be seen.
– The New Book of Knowledge (1767)
The image of the fisherman comes from a grammar book called A New Guide to the English Tongue, published in Philadelphia in 1770. This picture was used to illustrate a fable called "The Fisherman and the Fish" in which a captured fish asks to be released, promising that she will come back and allow herself to be caught when she's grown larger. The fisherman says no, and the moral of the fable is "Never let go a Certainty for an Uncertainty."
The sea monster is a European image, from the mid-1600s.
We tend to believe that every generation expands its horizon line of knowing a little more, when in fact the unknown remains always on the horizon. Hopefully, as Rilke said, "everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love." Or at least it wants our attention.

30 May 2018

And Now, Stencils

I'm still working on my "palm-leaf" style book, and in the process I had an idea, which lead to another idea, and the next thing I knew I was making stencils to use on my book pages. The designs above are all adapted from Japanese katazome stencils. Katazome is a process for printing designs on fabric where a rice paste resist is applied through stencils and then the fabric is dyed with indigo. I cut my stencils with an X-Acto knife, except for the one with circles which I made using a Japanese screw punch, and I used a kind of paper called oil board that I got from Dick Blick.

I have to admit that I'm intending these stencils for a dual purpose. I'm going to take a workshop with Judith Kruger in June in basic nihonga, traditional Japanese mineral pigment painting. Seeing that I'm in no way a painter, I thought that having a few stencils to play with would help me if I need some structure in the face of blank paper or canvas. I'm hoping to learn how to make mineral pigments that might work for woodblock printing, but I'm also open to learning something I don't even know I need to learn. I'm very willing to be surprised.

15 May 2018

A Book of Awe

Ancient Indian palm leaf manuscript
I've been making some pages for my "palm leaf" style book and I thought I'd start showing them to you now that I've completed four.

The topic is the emotion we call awe, which has recently become an object of study for psychologists and brain scientists, most notably Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt, who wrote a 2003 paper on the subject and who define awe as "a feeling induced by vastness that requires some sort of mental accommodation to overwhelming new information." Further studies have found connections between the experience of awe and enhanced creativity, improved health, a sense of belonging, and an increase in pro-social behaviours such as kindness, self-sacrifice, co-operation and resource-sharing. According to a 2017 article in Psychology Today, awe is also one of the few emotions that can reconfigure our sense of time and immerse us in the present moment.

Palm leaf books were one of the earliest formats for Buddhist texts, so I decided to begin my book with the Sanskrit word kathamcid, which means "somehow or other." This may become the title of the book, I'm not sure yet. The pages are 6 x 15 inches. On a desktop, you can click on the images below to enlarge them.

I don't know right now if this is the order of the pages or not. Things are very fluid at the moment (not usually how I work!). I'm using old woodblocks, pochoir (stenciling), and rubber stamping to make these. More to come…

13 May 2018

Pressing Matters Magazine

There are two printmaking magazines that I've been devoted to ever since I started making prints: Printmaking Today out of the UK and Art In Print from the US. I love both of these magazines and have always felt that between the two of them I was staying closely informed about this field. Both are somewhat academic, especially Art In Print which often takes a historical view as well as focusing on contemporary art and collecting. Printmaking Today has a bit more emphasis on print process than Art In Print, which I've always appreciated.

 But there's a new printmaking magazine on the scene and it's filling a gap that I didn't even realize existed. Pressing Matters, now on its third issue, is all about contemporary print artists, both well-known and lesser-known, and it's a beautiful publication.

The first thing I notice about Issue 3 (my first time seeing the magazine) is the paper stock — it's not shiny. It's uncoated and fairly heavy and it feels like… well, like paper. Like the kind of paper we printmakers might want to print on. Clocking in at almost 100 pages, the magazine is well designed and feature articles are given generous space, running from four to eight pages, interspersed with large well-printed illustrations. Artists and art lovers are clearly the intended audience and, let's face it, we're in it for the pictures.

There's a strong craft, DIY, and interdisciplinary focus in Pressing Matters. Graphic design, fabric prints, ceramic screenprinting, letterpress, relief printing, intaglio, some registration tips, work spaces — all of these topics plus four or five lengthy artist profiles appear in issue 3. Below are a few spreads so you can see more. I'm definitely in for a subscription to round out my printmaking library.

Opener from a feature on the oversized photo-realistic reduction linocuts of Dave Lefner.
Opening spread from an interview with Houston-based printmaker Delita Martin.
Tips and tidbits like this are interspersed.
Oh, and maybe the best thing of all? This magazine smells like real ink.

08 April 2018

Thinking About a Book

Now that the Fire Series has gotten me through Year One of Trump, I'm feeling a strong need to re-evaluate some things for Year Two.

First of all, I've made some personal resolutions for 2018 with the hope of improving my mental state. I developed some bad habits in Year One, including a propensity to utter, either mentally or aloud, the word “f-k” way too many times per day. This might make you chuckle, and maybe you can identify with it, but I've found it to be a very unhealthy habit, like a bad mantra. I'm resolving to replace it with a better, more uplifting mantra. The things that slide off my tongue that have just the double meaning I'm looking for are “lord have mercy,” "bless your heart" and “heaven help us,” so I'm starting there. I'm also looking to rein in my media/news habits a little more. This is something I've already been working on, but there's more to do.

On the art front, I'm still not 100% sure what my next project will be, but I want it to be similarly uplifting. It's probably not possible for me to do work that's free from political content, but as I clean up my mind and my media habits, perhaps the focus and clarity of my work will follow a similar track.

Right now the idea that has the most traction for me is making a book. Except for an excellent workshop I took at Anderson Ranch a few years ago with the wonderful printmaking artist Karen Kunc, I've never made a book. Nevertheless, many of the print series I've done end up being narrative, at least in my own mind, so I feel confident that I can do a book. And if I can't figure out binding, there are an abundance of bookbinders in my area. I'll keep you posted.

22 February 2018

Mokuhanga on Evolon

While I was working on the Fire series, I ran across a reference to a new synthetic paper called Evolon that sounded interesting. Evolon is a non-woven nylon/polyester microfiber "paper" (you could also categorize it as a fabric) that is being touted for all sorts of uses, from industrial to packaging to conservation. Another of the areas being explored is using Evolon as a printing paper, and apparently Atlantic Papers will be the main U.S. distributor of the paper form of Evolon.

I purchased a couple of sheets of 98gsm Evolon from Dick Blick a few weeks ago. It's an odd substance if you're used to real paper — it's soft and very fluid-feeling. It has "drape," like fabric, so it's a little hard to handle. But it has some intriguing qualities for art: never stretches, always dries flat, can be wrapped like canvas, dampens well, comes in huge sizes, archival, and UV resistant. You can also launder it or wring it when wet and it will become a soft fabric that you can sew. What's not to like? So today I used an old set of four blocks to test Evolon AP for mokuhanga. I printed them consecutively, one color on top of the other with no waiting in between. Here are my results.

One interesting feature of Evolon is that you can launder it or wet and crumple it and it will become fabric-like. The upper left image was printed dry on a piece of Evolon that was previously crumpled. The image on the upper right was printed on dry Evolon, and the bottom image was printed on Evolon that had been damp packed in the standard way for mokuhanga.
Here's a close view of the print made on damp Evolon. The color is a little richer than in the other prints, but there was some bleeding, especially around thinner lines. I don't think I would use this paper for very fine ukiyo-e style work.
Here's one of the prints that I made on dry Evolon. The tooth of the paper shows more, but lines are fairly crisp and it picked up both brush strokes and wood grain quite easily. If you've ever tried printing mokuhanga on dry Japanese washi, you'll know that it never comes out this well!
Here's a sheet that I wrung out wet and then dried, to see how it would behave in "fabric" mode. Here you can see some creases and fabric texture under the ink, and the paper dipped into uncarved areas more easily so there are more stray marks. But still, it's not half bad and a more forgiving design would print just fine. I think there are a lot of possibilities here!

19 January 2018


Watercolor woodblock (moku hanga)
11 x 17 inches (28 x 43 cm)
Made from 1 block, 7 hand-rubbed applications of color
Edition of 10 on Yukimi paper

This is the last print in this series about fire. Today is day #365 of Trump and it's been a hell of a year. It's become a truism to say that the USA is a divided country, and it is, but one thing that brought Americans together in 2017 was the American Solar Eclipse. People from all different places and backgrounds and races and political orientations — all of us were riveted on the total eclipse of 2017. It wasn't political, it was just the awesomeness of nature and science and being a human on this beautiful blue planet. So I wanted to end things here, on this note.

As usual, here are the steps I took to make this print.

This board has been used for the first (yellow) layer on every one of the previous 11 prints. I created the entire eclipse print using just this one block.
I scribed a circle using a compass and carved the circumference with a narrow v-gouge. The small dots are guides I made for the "Vigil" print so I would know where to wipe for the white spots of each flame.

First color, as usual, was yellow.
Then I carved the sun's corona, which is visible during an eclipse.
That was the only carving. The rest of the corona was built up with brushes only.

One year down.