I like to think that my great-grandmother's thimble made her finger as sweaty as it does mine. I like to think about the quilts she and my grandmother made together, and sometimes I sleep beneath them. We were all named Elizabeth... Not long before she died, in 1992 at age 92, my grandmother asked me, "You have Libby's thimble, don't you?"
"Yes," I said, "would you like it back now?"
"No," she said, sitting back in her chair, satisfied. "I just wanted to make sure where it was."
Each stitch is a tiny step closer to clarity, to restoration, to the spring that is inching its way north. Across the city, a friend writes that she's just bought a balloon for a friend in hospital. The morning's snow flurries have given way to bright skies, and the afternoon sun butters the walls of the carpentry school, where students brush off sawdust and look forward to the weekend, a few beers, some music with friends. I'll see an old dear friend tomorrow, and sing a mass by Delibes on Sunday. Another line of stitches, another pocket to hold our warmth next winter. Such inconsistency in these stitches, these steps! I've been doing this my whole life and I'm still a beginner.
Sculpture by Jimenez Deredia
In Mexico I am always, immediately struck by the emphasis on form in all the arts. Whether dealing with architecture and public spaces, with fresco painting, or - especially - with sculpture, the emphatic and confident use of form is a major, defining aspect.
If we look around, there are reasons. The land, shaped by volcanic activity, is dramatic, and these shapes were echoed in the iconic stepped pyramids of Teotihuacan and Tenochtitlan.
The plants are sculptural.
The people themselves are monumental and beautiful.
There is a long history of form-emphatic art, from the very early Olmec heads (around 1000 BC)...
...through the long pre-Columbian period of remarkable ceramic sculpture...
...combined later with the Spanish wood-carving tradition.
Form finds expression in literal, representational ways, but also in abstraction: Mexico has a strong tradition of graphic design, surface decoration, typography, and pattern.
I'm always fascinated to see contemporary expressions of these traditions. While at the Museo Franz Mayer for the Decorative Arts, we saw an exhibition of contemporary ceramics. It was in two parts: a biennial competition for functional ceramics, and a separate room containing (mostly large) works by master living ceramic artists. I was crazy about some of these latter pieces and took pictures to show you:
Cactus, by Javier Villegas
Bodegon con taza y peces, by the same artist.
Florero, by Marta Ovalle
Horizontes continuos, by Gloria Carrasco. Each of these pieces is about two feet in the widest dimension. Aren't they beautiful?
There are several methods for making multiple-color relief prints, and in every case, the tricky part is the registration of the colors. In a reduction print, the same block is used throughout. You print a number of copies of the first color, then carve away a bit more, print another color, and so forth. By the end, of course, the block cannot be used to print another edition because most of it has been carved away. But the registration issues only involve placing the paper in exactly the same place every time.
When printing from multiple blocks, both the paper and the different blocks have to be in register for every copy. But nothing is destroyed in the process; you can print editions with different colorways, start over, add additional colors by making another block. I've made a few two-color prints, but this was the first time I tried three. Above are proof prints of each of the colors that will be combined onto one sheet of paper in the final print. Below, the blocks used to create them.
One block, called the key block, contains the most helpful information for keeping everything in one place - in this case, that's the black one, with the most complex detail. The other blocks are based on it and have to be created in perfect register. This is not particularly easy, because of the amount of handwork involved in tracing a mirror image onto a substrate that's going to be carved by hand.The blocks have to be exactly the same size, and held by some sort of system - I used a jig that I made out of matboard, mounted securely on a slightly sticky mat of a vinyl material used to line shelves. There also has to be a method for placing the paper in the same place for each color impression: I used finely-ruled lines on the edges of the matboard; for a larger print I would use a pin-registration system similar to that used by offset printers in the days before digital pre-press.
Below, the blue block and red block have been printed. The black lines of the key block will cover the gaps that you can see in the image, for example around the upper hand, and the triangular motif of the gown below the neck. (For the final edition, I mixed a slate-blue color rather than the brighter blue shown here.)
I'm just learning about the technical problems involved, but I have to admit, it's the kind of challenge I like - and it fits pretty well with my early days as a graphic designer, when we cut masks out of rubylith and had to figure out the registration of multiple-color jobs ourselves, setting them up manually. And it's OK with me not to have an absolutely perfect result - part of the unique beauty of a hand-pulled print is that it is just that: handmade. We're so used to computers making everything perfect. This is an ancient process, and I like it for exactly that reason.
Every book project presents unique design challenges. As the poems began to arrive for Annunciation, I quickly realized that a major issue would be finding the right balance of illustrations to poems. The project had begun with a large, almost-square image, and I planned to do others in a similar format, each taking up a page on its own.
These new images developed as I read and thought about the poems: the one above arose because several of the poets referred to Renaissance paintings that depict Mary reading a book.
Once I had completed half a dozen prints and laid them out with the poems on the pages, spacing them out through the book, this number seemed about right: the six large, full-page relief prints were graphic, with strong solid black areas. They needed to contrast with the more delicate typography and generous white space on the facing pages, but not overpower the words.
An early "test" layout, above -- this image ended up paired with a different poem.
But there were further considerations. Some poets would be represented by a single poem, others by as many as four, and the poems were of varying lengths, but every author had taken the project seriously and put their minds and hearts into it. It was very important to me for each poet to have some art on their pages. It was already September, and I was running out of time: I couldn't complete sixteen full-page illustrations, one for each poet, and I felt that would be too many pages of art in any case. I had already done a few smaller illustrations. It seemed to me that these "occasional" or "spot" illustrations would augment the text, extend the art onto more pages, and complement the words and their meaning.
The first small illustrations I had created were fairly realistic and representational, like this white rose:
But as the project progressed, the illustrations had becoming more graphic and abstract, and this direction pleased me. Now I wondered what motifs would lend themselves to the subject, but also allow some abstraction? Leaves? Berries?
These blocks yielded illustrations in several sizes, and by scanning the prints I was able to flip them horizontally and vertically, or to rotate and scale them to extend their usefulness.
Then I thought of olives, and their long, thin leaves. I played around with that subject, doing a minimum of preliminary drawing, and just carving freely. I had liked the "dotty" areas in the previous attempts, and went for that more intentionally:
One of these olive images became the basis for the book's endpapers, a crash design effort that was necessary for a last-minute technical reason.
Those endpapers ended up being one of my favorite parts of the whole design -- I'll talk about that in another post.
(I'm giving away an original 8"x8" print (at left) to one of the Annunciation buyers, chosen at random: if you'd like to enter, please put your name in the "December Giveaway" box on the order form. If you've already bought a book, you will be automatically entered. Here's the link for more information on the book and ordering.)
Over at Phoenicia, we're excited to announce that Annunciation is now available for pre-order (at a special price through November 20), and that books will be shipping toward the end of November, in time for the holidays. The website also contains process notes written by the contributors, and they are pretty fascinating.
For me, it's the first time I've illustrated a book with linocuts, and represents the culmination of nearly a year of thought and artwork (see the links below), as well as the editing challenge of inviting and working with many talented poets on a single project.
Many of the poets will be familiar to readers of this blog; I got to know some of them back during the qarrtsiluni days. Others are new acquaintances who I'm very happy to know, and feel privileged to publish. Because part of my incentive for the book was to look at Mary from an interfaith, as well as secular, perspective, the poets are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and secular, and they've brought an amazing breadth to this volume. I am moved by the way in which each poet has managed to identify with Mary, and express some personal point of connection with clarity, emotion, and immediacy. It could have turned out to be a "religious" book but it's much bigger than that -- it's a human book.
So please take a look - I hope some of you will take advantage of the special price. (The pre-orders really help me to gauge how many books to print, too.) Thanks very much for your encouragement during the year as some of the illustrations unfolded here. I hope you'll like the result; it's been a labor of love for all of us and something I think we can all be proud of creating.
The new project here at Phoenicia is Annunciation, an illustrated book of poems by a diverse group of contemporary women. The project began in my mind after I did this relief print, back in December of 2014. About 15 poets who I've invited will be contributing poems; I'll be designing the book and producing a set of relief-print illustrations to go with the texts.
This week I finally got going on the new prints, and thought you might like to see the first one in process. This is "Gabriel's Lily." It started out with the pencil drawing, above, to which I added a hand grasping the stem.
The translation from pencil drawing to a block print is worked out in pen and ink; I usually end up with a pile of drawings and worked-over photocopies. Once the idea is fairly set, I reverse the drawing and transfer it to the linoleum, and ink it to minimize mistakes in cutting.
Starting to carve. I use the drawing as a guide, but the vigor and expressive energy in a print comes through the cutting itself: I have to trust myself to add that intangible element through my hands, and a certain amount of freedom and letting-go. This is something I hope I'm getting better at as I gain experience in the medium.
This is the back side of a print as it starts to emerge. I'm using a new ink, Akua, that cleans up with soap and water and doesn't have any odor, so I had to do a lot of experimenting to find the right consistency and thickness on several different Japanese papers. It's pretty different from my usual oil-based ink, but I came to like it.
The block went through several revisions too, until it arrived at this state. That's the scariest part: I wanted to simplify parts of the design, but knew if I went too far, I'd wreck it. Here's my table with the rolled-out ink and baren, the block, and a finished print. What you don't see is me saying "whew!"
A bunch of prints hung up to dry.
And the artist's proof. The book will be coming out in late fall, 2015, and I'll be sharing more of the process as it comes together. It's possible that this particular print won't even make the final cut; what was important was to get started. I'm thrilled about the poems I've received so far, and inspired by them: so many different interpretations and responses to this story, by excellent poets of different faiths and backgrounds. All the texts will be submitted by July 1, and then it's up to me to finish the work of making it all into a book.
It also makes me so happy to see how the collaborative publishing efforts that began with the Ecotone Wiki and carried on into the online literary magazine qarrtsiluni, co-managed for years by Dave Bonta and me, continue to spawn new projects and new relationships. Dave has just started a really cool new project that I'll tell you about in another post, and most of the poets who are working on Annunciation are people I met through qarrtsiluni or other online venues. I sometimes forget to stop and trace the lineage of those relationships back, since all this has happened over just one decade, but it strikes me as a sort of rapid evolutionary process, where creativity and human relationships have partnered with advances in technology and communication, changing all of our lives and probably our brains as well.
It's always such a pleasure to hold a new Phoenicia book in my hands, knowing that the author's work has been put into print for present-day readers and for posterity, and that I've played a role in making that happen.
I first became aware of Magda Kapa through our mutual friend Teju Cole, and began reading her blog ("I Was Not Born in English") and following her on Twitter, where she was quite active and experimental, writing short poems and aphorisms, or short sayings/definitions. We left each other comments, and gradually became friends, with her Greek heritage and my classicist background as another connection.
"In 2013 I spent a whole year on Twitter exploring the meaning of “big” words like life, death, love, sex, pain, pride, violence, hope… When I started writing these “definitions” in January that year, I had no idea they’d become a project. I had just entered a period in my life where reflection and its creative documentation not only felt necessary but became my life’s red thread. A thread far from following a straight line, though, but mostly curling into circles that only slowly, if at all, formed a moving spiral. Most of the words escaped permanent definitions; life kept, and keeps, redefining them for me."
This project, named "All the Words," became a journal of aphorisms, short sayings, epigrams, and "naked verses." Poet and translator George Szirtes was one of thousands of readers captivated by Magda Kapa's project, and praised her writing as "the pared-down core of poetry;" Dave Bonta stated that Magda Kapa is "a master of the aphorism" and that her book will be on his shelf along with classics of Chinese, Hebrew, and Sufi literature.
Eventually, Magda approached me about the possibility of turning "All the "Words" into a printed book. I read and re-read the manuscript, and we talked. Magda described the manuscript as a Heraclitian river, and I liked that: the term comes from the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who said "No man ever steps in the same river twice." Although Magda revisited many words in the course of a year, life kept redefining them for her. In my page design for the book, I tried to keep this sense of constant change, and Magda's "moving spiral" was the inspiration for the calligraphic painting I did for the cover.
Here's a look inside:
Several of you have already ordered the book and we appreciate that very much. I hope some other Cassandra readers, too, may want to dip into the ever-changing river of Magda Kapa's thoughts: it has certainly helped me find new ways of considering my own relationship to the everyday words with which we define our lives and their movement through time.
Furthermore, please know that your support of a book like this encourages the sort of experimentation and creativity that mainstream publishers have almost completely abandoned. I think it's crucial for all of us who care about language in general, and poetry in particular, to support writing that breaks new ground, uses non-traditional media, and expands our awareness of how our minds work with words.
ALL THE WORDS is only available through direct order from Phoenicia, and we are able to ship it anywhere for very reasonable prices.
Laura Frankstone, whose beautiful drawings and paintings I've admired for a long time, has invited me to participate in an around-the-world blog hop of creative artists. The rules are simple: answer the four questions, and then nominate another artist to follow you. So here goes!
1) What am I working on?
Right now I'm working on two book projects. One is a poetry book that my press, Phoenicia Publishing, will publish in March - it's a "dictionary" of poetic aphorisms and epigrams by Magda Kapa, a Greek writer now living in Germany. Each entry, containing a noun and a definition, or a poetic "comment" - is no longer than 140 characters, and they were originally published as tweets over the course of a year. I felt that the design needed to be different from a regular book to best reflect its content. Magda said that she thinks of the project as a Heraclitian river - a river that is always changing; one can never step into this same river twice. So in my design I've tried to do the same thing. (The cover is described at the end of the previous post on this blog.)
The second project is a much more complex one: a book that will come out at the end of 2015. It will be an anthology of poems about Mary and the Annunciation, and I've invited fifteen women poets from widely varying cultural and religious backgrounds to contribute work. I'll be illustrating the book with original relief prints like the one above (that's a detail; the process of making the full print is shown here), editing and designing the text, and maybe printing and binding a special edition - we'll see! I'm very excited about this project because it is going to push me as an illustrator, printmaker, and book-artist, and force me to learn some new skills, and at the same time I love the collaboration with the poets, some of whom are longtime friends and acquaintances, and some who I'm just getting to know.
Last year I kept a sketchbook and tried to draw almost every day - so I'm hoping to keep that practice up this year too. And I work on personal paintings or prints whenever the urge strikes.
Lupine - a drawing from my sketchbook.
Daylily and Lupine, acrylic on paper.
2) How does my work differ from others of my genre?
It's never been useful for me to think about my work in comparison to others, except so far as I am inspired, challenged, and encouraged by the work they do. I don't know how my work is different - it is simply my work, and I try very hard to be true to my own path, to listen to my intuition as well as my intellect, and to see each project as a stepping stone to the next. I will say that, as someone who started out doing traditional realistic work, it's been a challenge to find my own style(s) and express myself in a way that is uniquely mine. The process of searching and going deeper always continues, and it's very personal.
Handbound book with suede spine and handpainted/handprinted cover papers, 2013.
3) Why do I create what I do?
Again, that's hard to answer! When I look back over my life - I'm 62 now - I can see the threads running through it, but it's much harder to speak about the present, let alone the future. I'm someone who plans, but I also trust intuition and "the muse," and the way one thing often leads to another if you work hard, think hard, then let go and open yourself up, and really give yourself to it. I have a liberal arts education and am almost completely self-taught in art and design. My career has been in graphic design; I've loved the book arts since I was a child, but I'm also a painter who works in many mediums and who loves drawing. I'm doing less commercial design work than I used to, but now I have this publishing venture that is leading me ever further into collaborations with other artists, photographers, and writers. I want to push "the book" farther, using both technology and traditional methods and materials, but I also want to use the time and freedom I have now to do the best art and writing that I can. Having said that, at the base of everything, I'm always inspired by nature and the beauty and mystery of human beings.
The studio with some large charcoal drawings of Iceland, a print of Montmorency Falls in Quebec, and two smaller paintings for a friend in New Zealand.
4) How does my creating process work?
If we're talking about a complex project, usually an idea presents itself - often as an outgrowth of something else - and I think about it for a few days, to allow the initial excitement to settle down and some questions about feasibility to surface. I listen hard to my intuition, and if it tells me to proceed, then I go for it wholeheartedly. If there are doubts, I either wait or move on. The actual process depends on the end product: if I'm making a print, I always begin with a series of drawings, but my large drawings are usually done directly. Designing a book is a complex, picky, and often technical process that takes place mostly on the computer; it may include hand artwork, photography, calligraphy or drawn type, image processing, scanning, and several different software programs.
But in terms of spontaneous work, if I'm inspired by something I see or feel, I try to capture that quickly by sketching or painting something expressively. I've found that the practice of drawing a little, everyday, makes it much easier to work on bigger things when inspiration strikes. When I was sixteen, I took a summer art course where we had to paint for three hours every single morning - that was very good for me, and showed me that you can work in spite of difficulties, lethargy, different moods and physical states. I've always been pretty disciplined, and I'm grateful that since moving to Montreal I've had - for the first time in my life - a large studio with excellent light in which to work. The rest is up to me, and the first step is to show up every single day.
Thank you, Laura, for inviting me to participate here! And now I'm going to pass the baton across the Atlantic, to my dear friend and artist extraordinaire, Natalie d'Arbeloff, in London.
Going through an old photo album today, I came across this picture of myself with "His Nibs" Philip Poole in London back in 1997. Poole was an expert on calligraphic pens, nibs, tools and supplies of all kinds, and he both sold and collected them. He had a small shop at the back of Cornelissen, the famous art supply store on Great Russell Street, not far from the British Museum. When I met Mr. Poole in the 1990s, he was already quite old and rather infirm, but he came into the shop every day, and seemed happy to talk to calligraphers like myself. Somewhere, I've got a printed broadside he gave me showing an array of antique pen nibs from his collection, and of course I bought some nibs as well. He was a fixture of the British calligraphic community and I'm glad I got to meet him in person. It looks like some of his collection is now in the Philip Poole Room of the Birmingham Pen Museum.
At the beginning of my graphic design career in the mid- to late 1970s, I made a good part of my living doing calligraphy - from wedding invitations to larger jobs like lettering the matriculation certificates for the entire Dartmouth freshman class. But by the 1990s, my husband and I were doing advertising and corporate graphic design, while my interest in calligraphy had become more artistic.
Oddly enough, while looking through my flat file today for some work to include in an exhibition at the cathedral during Montreal's Nuit Blanche next week, I came across the piece shown above. The theme of this year's Nuit Blanche is "Light," and what could be more appropriate? This mixed-media work incorporates texts from the first chapter of the Gospel of John about incarnation and light and darkness, such as "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God," "And the light shineth in darkness and the darkness comprehended it not." It's a big panel, about 22 inches wide, and unfortunately I wasn't able to photograph it very successfully. Here's a detail:
The texture is built up from many layers of ink, gouache, intense black sumi ink and acrylic, with brushwork and overlapping layers of calligraphy, removal and scratching-through. This kind of expressive calligraphic treatment of a text was spearheaded by an American calligrapher named Thomas Ingmire in the late 1980s and taken up by many talented calligraphers who had previously felt constricted by the page and the need to make "perfect" letterforms. I found it all enormously exciting and liberating, and did some experimental pieces that also incorporated repetitive printed elements, though my artwork eventually went in other directions.
My studio wall in Vermont, twenty years ago.
However, I came back to it just last week when I was working on the cover for a forthcoming Phoenicia book by Magda Kapa, titled All the Words. These techniques seemed perfected suited for her book, and although I can't show you the cover just yet, it felt exciting and natural to work with letterforms, painting, and printing in that way again. Finding these photos and older works today just seemed poetic, and a serendipitous affirmation of the way things come around again.