Sunday, February 18, 2018

100% Artist



1. to withdraw to a quiet or secluded place.

I have gone "on retreat" twice in my life. Once in 2009ish, when I was working through some personal history, trying to reconcile that with the adult I was becoming. My counselor suggested it, and so I went.

I stayed with some nuns at a nearby abbey, who prepared meals for us retreaters and otherwise left us alone. It was quiet, it lacked distraction and there was no to-do list. 

I was astonished at how productive it was just to be with myself. Just to have the space to intentionally think about certain topics. It was wonderful to be removed from everyday life, just for a couple of days.

The second time I went on retreat was in 2012ish, this time solo, at Christmas. For three days, I kept myself company in a cabin in the mountains. 

decked the place with Christmas decor, listened to music (or not), discovered Brené Brown, read, wrote long hand-written letters, crafted a little, cooked, and just stared out the window.

There wasn't much intention besides wanting to think quietly, wanting to strip my world of its noise, wanting to care for myself as I usually care for everyone else. It was extremely restorative.

This year, I took my third retreat. Again, a cabin in the woods, solo. 5 days. But this time, the intention was art.

I prepared by bringing about half my art studio with me.

I'll admit that I was nervous. Yes, nervous. I was worried that I wouldn't be able to be focused for so long. Nervous that I'd get lonely. Nervous that I might not like what I made, or that I might not make anything at all. Nervous that I'd lose my inspiration, or want to go hang out in the wilderness, or spend too much time online or on the phone with my family.

I rearranged the furniture in the place I was staying, to better serve my needs and help keep the place from getting trashed. This is the before photo:

In many ways, it was like the other retreats had been: quiet, away from my life and all the to-dos and caring for others. But there was no staring out the window this time, no whiling away. 

Turns out that I worked my butt off. I had so much creative energy flowing that I hardly slept, and when I was awake, I hardly noticed my tiredness. I had THE. BEST. time.

I resolved to do at least a page in my sketch book each day. The first photo, above, was my "intro" to that project.

I reveled in the time I could take to actually LOOK and SPEND TIME with the art books I brought with me...

I wanted to really look at some figurative work--who in the past had done it, and how? I found myself completely inspired by Josef Albers, who was not at all famous for his figures. Surprisingly, a book of his drawings included many figures, which is what moved me. Egon Schiele is a famous artist who drew men in vulnerable poses, and Gustav Klimt loved to draw figures. In a NYC exhibit the Neue Galerie did in fall 2016, it was noted that he would take breaks from painting his subjects just so he could go in the room next door to draw figures.

To focus my creative energy, I decided to focus on a self-portrait from life, something I had never done, and also to make something for the upcoming Fort Collins Open Hang show.

I spent about 5-6 hours in this position. Drawing from life is much harder than drawing from a photograph, but this is how the artists-of-yore did it. I wanted to see what it was like to focus on the details of myself so intently. It was pretty fun. Challenging but fun.
Something that never occurred to me before doing this exercise was that actually, I drew a mirror image of myself! Before artists could take photos of themselves, when they only had mirrors to utilize, they painted the mirror images of themselves. Every self-portrait ever made is actually a mirror image of the artist. That seemed particularly mind-boggling in the moment.

Work-in-progress photo (using editing to flip it), for comparison:

Here's how she's ended up, for now.

Then I got to work on whatever it was I was going to put in the Open Hang. I had taken photos of models past, and a long-ago pose kept bouncing around in my head. Plus, I was inspired by a sketch book exercise I'd done over a collage, inspired by Gustav Klimt. So I got to work collaging a big'ol piece of construction paper with tons of long-collected 2-D ephemera.

I ate, I drank tea, I went outside and walked around to get some fresh air and movement for half an hour each day. But otherwise, this is what I did. You can see my inspiration wall between the windows. The space's natural light was heavenly.

Here's me at the end of that fervent day (rosy-cheeked, elated), and you can see the collaged piece on the easel in the background.

Before I finished my retreat, I manage to get some blue paint on it, but alas! My time had come to an end. Time to pack up and head home, back to the real world. I cleaned up, re-packed the car (which hadn't been driven the whole time), and moved the furniture back.

To end, a small story:

I was in no rush to get home after the designated "check out" time, so I decided to drive to Denver to visit the art museum. I've been there several times since I became a member three years ago and it feels like home every single time.

As and end to my retreat, I decided to "do what the artists do" when they go to museums: draw. I grabbed a stool, took out my sketchbook and pencils, and plopped right down in front of one of DAM's most beloved paintings in their permanent collection, Childhood Idyll, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1900.

I'd never done this before but had always wanted to. Turns out it was SO cool. I focused intently on the face of one of the figures and very much enjoyed the simple act of drawing, but to my surprise, i found that I also enjoyed bearing witness to other people's experience of the painting.

"Oh honey, this is the painting I wanted you to see..."

"This piece reminds me of..."

"Isn't that just lovely?"

For the most part, people let me be, respectful or bemused by my presence and my intentions, interested in my drawing nearly as much as they were in the painting itself. It occurred to me that here, in an art museum, is one of the few places in our culture where it is 100% acceptable (and even revered) to be an artist. 

After having spent 5 days on my own and arting like there was no tomorrow, doing this seemed like the normal thing to do. I felt so much like the artist I am, 100%. I was accepted, not judged. The question didn't occur to anyone there that this wasn't a perfectly good way for an adult to be spending her time on a Thursday afternoon.

I rarely get this. While my dream is to make art all the time, I am distracted by the routine of daily life, the relationships I hold so dear and work hard to nurture, and the fact that I need/want money in order to fund all my other zillion interests. 

And there is judgment. Society doesn't hold "the artist" as an acceptable occupation. As Brené Brown once joked, lamenting the way creativity gets squashed out of young people as they advance through school, "You go on and do your A-R-T. I'll just get on with my J-O-B."

In the last twenty minutes spent in front of the Bouguereau painting, I heard a timid, "You're a really good drawler."

I looked up to find a little girl, roughly ten years old, with a striped gray t-shirt dress and braids of red hair looking at me. As I'd been drawing, I'd noticed her little shoes through the crook of my elbow while she hovered near me for at least ten minutes.

I said, "Thanks. I practice a lot."

I found myself utterly delighted to get to engage with her, so happy to "talk shop." We discussed the painting itself and how my drawing might improve. She was shy but curious, which had bolstered her courage to say something to me. 

She reminded me of me. I myself had always had an admiration and reverence for people who made art.

Well, look at me now.

Here's Male Figure, Twisted, as it hung in the Open Hang show a week later.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Relief Printing: Color and Meaning

In my last post I concluded that I don't think printmaking is quite for me in the long run. But if you read that post to the very end, you were left hanging, and with an * no less! There was one thing I really loved: relief printing

I found the the complex process of relief to be something I really enjoyed thinking about. There was also more instant gratification than I'd had in intaglio printing. The lino cut piece took just one week, much of it in class! 

Even though it took a month to complete the woodblock design (and that was working on it what felt like day and night), the steps throughout were highly rewarding, and it was great to finally use some color ink.

Woodblock print after the
second of eight colors
I think the aspect of it that I liked most was that even though it was hard physical work (and there was some noise too, when I broke out the Dremel), linoleum and wood were softer, generally quieter materials and the only chemical required was ink.

For the woodblock story, let me start at the beginning.

Our assignment: to somehow use animal imagery in a way that meaningfully connected with our heritage or background.

Hooley the Dog is the only animal I've ever loved in my life, and it turns out that Paul and I happen to own chickens and bees too! So that's where I started, along with a sense of humor (all we need is a goat!), inspired by vintage dishtowels and other chicken art I've made in the last year, and with the desire to integrate text into this project somehow.

While developing my idea with my instructor Johnny, I got to thinking about how chicken farming was what sustained my mom's family as she was growing up in the 50s and 60s. So I texted my aunt, who was really involved on the chicken farm as a kid, and who has taken the concept of farming to a different level on her own large California acreage.

There seemed to be a thread of farming, for various reasons and in various ways, in my very own family.

I drew the above image onto an 18"x30" piece of plywood, and once it was finalized, covered it in shellac to use as a guide throughout the carving and printing process. The first task was to cut away the parts that I wanted to be the color of the paper, white.

Then I covered it in cream-colored ink and printed 7 prints, five on cotton paper and two on cotton fabric (dishtowel theme).

Then I wiped off the cream-colored ink from the wood and started carving away all the stuff I wanted to remain cream on the final print. This meant carving away most of the background, which took several hours. I managed to listen to the entirety of the excellent podcast S-Town over the course of a week while carving, carving, carving. 

I was thinking ahead to the next color: yellow. Looking at my original drawing, there are only a few things I wanted to be yellow: the chicken's legs, the bees wings, and the flowers dotting the background. 

Between each color stage it was more about carving the right stuff off while advancing through my color palette. I had to think ahead and behind at the same time.

Between each layer of ink, the prints had to dry overnight. A perfect time to carve more of the woodblock!

Starting to show some depth with 4 colors:
cream, yellow, light green, dark green.

As the colors progressed the plywood board became less and less recognizable.

Our minimum color requirement was 3 colors. Of course I overachieved. No less than eight colors for me, including light and dark brown, orange, and red.

And here is the final piece (click on it to get a closer view):

The biggest successes are the orange tree and the border (reminiscent of this blanket project I did two years ago in Fibers), and the fact that I managed to keep all the words in tact while carving (hand slippage is very common--you'll notice the dates were scrapped).

I loved that this was the last part of our class, a high note for me to end on. Not only did woodblock relief printing boost my art confidence back up, but it redeemed printmaking overall for me in a meaningful way. I excelled at this process, my professor and TA were very encouraging, and I felt like I spiritually connected my grandfather (note the carving on the tree), aunt, and husband through the common interests we all had/have: the life and work and fun of a farm.

I thought, as a final nod to this topic on my blog, here are some of the other students' prints from this project. Post a comment or send me an email if you'd like to know who made these.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

What Kind of Tedium Do You Like?

Last spring semester, I took a printmaking class at the university. I wanted to take it because I never could quite understand it. Prints, I mean. I'd seen them in museums and wondered--how is that done? What is the process? What about it is artful? I'll admit that I didn't think printmaking was all that. 

Now that I've spent 16 weeks learning it, well, I definitely UNDERSTAND it. More than that, I think it is pretty amazing.

So why might I title this post Tedium?

Preparing the zinc plate for intaglio means
beveling the edges with a file, polishing them,
 and taking off the protective plastic layer.
(Snacks are always close by.)

It has something to do with the fact that this was the hardest studio art class I've ever taken. It's not that the techniques were all that hard, although because I'd never done anything like it before, it was actually harder than usual, especially to attain the standard I'm used to achieving. More than anything, it was the challenge of the process. 

This is a post not so much about what I learned about printmaking, but what I learned about myself because of printmaking.

The first technique we learned was called dry point. After you prepare the zinc plate, you take an engraving tool, a scraper, and other mark-making tools to "draw" a design straight onto the metal. 

This image was inspired by the 40th birthday party
I'd just had, where several of my friends brought
tons of delicious things and lined up
the crock pots all in a row.
Like I said, this whole concept of art-making was completely new to me, so preparing the plate and drawing a backwards image with a metal tool went pretty slow. It was taxing on the body (drawing into metal doesn't have the same ease of flow as drawing on paper, no matter the tool!). The studio was always loud with everyone scraping on their plates and air vents on all the time. There was metal dust and the smells of motor oil and India ink.

Yep, this is the semester that I learned how freaking sensitive I am. In fact, I found myself seeking comfort and constantly second-guessing myself.

Speaking of smells, our second technique turned out to be even smellier: hard ground! Coat the plate in an asphalt-beeswax mix and then scrape away the tar-like coating to reveal the part you'd like to be eaten away in acid.

It wasn't until the third technique that I finally saw a place for me in all this sharpness and hardness and chemicals and noise: soft ground. Finally, a nod to softness and nuanced texture! 

I made this texture collage in my studio at home, talking on the phone with a friend for part of the time and with my speakers playing Amazon Prime's "Liquid Mind" station (yep) the other part of the time. 

Instead on focusing on the visual aesthetic of color and print, I looked at all my materials solely for their textural components. I saw my art room completely anew, totally fresh.

With this technique you press your design into a softer wax coating onto the plate, then let the acid do its work!

To offer more control in the outcome of the final print, you can use multiple techniques. You can see here that I wanted to block the acid in one spot, so I used hard ground.

Here's the plate, with the wax and hard ground washed off, and all inked-up for printing:

And the print result. Pretty cool.

Our final intaglio technique was aquatint. For this one, you have to think backwards, working from light to dark, and it offers a way to do value and tone. I actually like this technique very much on a hypothetical level. I really enjoy challenging thinking processes in art. 

Yet another toxic thing was added to my life for this: resin dust. By now, I had to wear a whole uniform while working in the studio. I was starting to feel like Darth Vader.

The aquatint plate, and the print, below:

All the Letters I Never Write, aquatint print,
Image area 11¾” x 18”, Paper size 18½” x 24½”,
edition of 2 

Here's a photo of some of my printmaking classmates/friends, who loved talking about art and were smiley and encouraging along the way: Mac, Taylor, Zach, and Erin. 

I said before that I find printmaking to be truly amazing. I do. I am really impressed.

I am so grateful to have learned how to do it. My art context has expanded exponentially. Now, I UNDERSTAND printmaking. And I have so much respect for the artists who love it and focus on it, and strive to be excellent at it.

And yet for me, printmaking was simply not soft enough, not quiet enough, and too darn smelly.  There was a "this takes forever" component in the process that wasn't satisfying enough for me. There wasn't enough instantly-gratifying progress (no matter how small) as I proceeded through the process.

Indeed, I declared a fibers concentration this semester. Not that there isn't a certain amount of tedium in weaving or dyeing or hand stitching. It's just that for some reason, my personality and sensibilities don't mind that kind of tedium as much.

As a last hurrah* to printmaking, in case you're wondering how to get the print from the zinc plate to the paper, I made this 3:33 minute video showing the process.

*Well, there was one thing I actually really liked in printmaking (relief printing), but I'll blog about that in the next post. :)