Last week my studio was taken over by grey Davey board, linen threads, linen tapes and beeswax; paper, paint and relief-blocks; glue and glue-brushes and leather and many sheets of waxed paper; my Chinese chop and its porcelain pot of ink. The big bookpress was pressed repeatedly into service. I finished one small book that I'd already sewn but not covered, and made another one from scratch - a late Christmas gift for a close friend. Now that I've given it to her, I can share some of the process here with you. (It also gave me a chance to try out the close-up features of my new camera.)
The signatures, sewn on linen tapes, covered by a coarse linen mull, set between the cover boards.
The mull is glued to the inside of the cover boards, and then the tapes glued over the mull. The first page of the first and last signatures will be pasted over the tapes and mull, forming a strong hinge.
At this stage it starts to look like a book!
Printing the cover papers on a hand-painted base. I made four different sheets, different designs in the same basic colorway, and chose this one for this particular book. Unfortunately I didn't take any other photos of the process, but here are some pictures of the finished book, which is about 5 inches long by 4 1/2 inches high.
I love the fussiness of bookmaking -- it's probably perfect for a Virgo perfectionist like me. The binding process is very exacting, but there are a lot of creative decisions to be made along the way, and I especially enjoy making the cover papers. Parts of the process are meditative -- the sewing of the signatures, and sanding the edges of the cover boards, for instance -- and require a lot of patience. Other steps have to be carefully prepared and planned, and then executed very quickly. It's only through practice that you learn how to do that, and believe me, I've irreparably screwed up hours and hours of work at the very last minute! This one worked out pretty well, and I was grateful for that. Sometimes I realize I've been holding my breath for a long time, when doing the final gluing, for instance! That part can be pretty tense.
All the materials involved are tactile, special, and many have been used for centuries; for the same reasons that I like calligraphy, I enjoy this process and the feeling of being connected to so many anonymous, careful scribes and binders who have gone before. The Chinese signature chop was a gift from my pen-pal friend in Beijing; it's carved out of alabaster. She told me that the characters are a phoenetic representation of my name. I only seem to use it for bookmaking, where it feels appropriate, and it seems like it adds a special finishing touch.
I told the recipient of this book that she had to use it, it was meant to be written in! And today I was very happy to get a note from her saying she had written a short poem and some reflections in it this morning. Books should live.
Here's the two-color version of the image, just dry enough to scan this afternoon. I had a nerve-wracking time making them yesterday; the studio was really hot, and I had a difficult a time positioning the second (black) block in register with the already-printed green image. But it worked out well, in the end, and I am learning a lot with each one of these that I do. The black-and-white version pleases me just as much; they're simply different. I made a small edition of these on white Japanese paper.
It's funny...while I was working on these, on one side of the studio, J. was making high-tech photographic prints on his Epson roll printer on the other side. He looked over at one point, holding a print in one hand; I was standing there in my apron, covered with ink. Look at us! he said, laughing. So typical of us...you doing this medieval process, and me, on the computer.
I laughed too, but it's not entirely true. I used the computer a lot in the development of this image. It fascinates me that we have so many tools now to aid the creative process, and to be able to share work with each other across huge distances. The monks in their scriptoriums and the pioneers of relief printing couldn't have dreamed of that, but what they did still amazes and inspires me, and I love the tactile nature of this process -- carving the blocks, rolling the ink, and watching the magical transfer of ink to paper as a print takes shape. It's wonderful.
I printed an edition in warm black ink on a lovely Japanese paper over the weekend and had a great time, even though it was hot and humid in the studio. I don't know why exactly, but I just love the hands-on aspect of making prints, even though it's messy and I invariably end up with oily black fingers and fingernails. Somehow it reminds me of my childhood delight in making things even more than painting does.
Here's the finished print; the actual size is 6 1/2 x 9 inches. The detail below is larger than life size.
Now I'm working on the two-color version, which is tricky to figure out. Here's a detail of my final sketch, using acrylic paint and a white opaque pen on a xeroxed copy of the print; it will be something along these lines.
This is the finished block for the primary (darker) color. I'm going to print a small edtion in one color only, then work on the second block for the other color. It's cooler in the studio today -- what a relief! Makes it so much easier and more pleasant to work.
Right now I'm cleaning up from lunch and checking mail, which is another way of saying that I'm procrastinating a little about getting out the messy oil-based printing inks. But I'm always anxious to see what the print will actually look like, so once the process gets going I always find myself very concentrated. It seems like it's this way in all the arts: starting is difficult but once you get going, it's rewarding and completely absorbing, and even with the inevitable difficulties, steady incremental work does add up eventually.
In Ottawa this week we saw a remarkable exhibition called "Van Gogh - De Pres," or "Van Gogh Up Close." There were about 40 paintings, many of which I'd never seen before, in a show organized by the Canadian National Gallery and at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Along with the paintings -- still lives, flower paintings, and landscapes which explored compositions that include a nearby focus -- there were photographs, drawings, and Japanese woodblock prints of the type that VanGogh would have seen and collected, and used for inspiration and study.
Like all of these blockbuster exhibitions, this one was crowded and admission was by timed tickets. I felt like one of many sardines, but we walked ahead and then went back as the first rooms cleared out, and were able to spend some time fairly close to the paintings we most wanted to see. I felt exhilarated, moved, and also troubled by the profits that are made from this extraordinary, ill, incredibly gifted man's work and difficult life.
The painting above was the one that probably spoke to me the most, and this image doesn't begin to show how beautiful it really is (you can click for a larger version, but even so...the color simply isn't accurate and the depth doesn't come across.) In person, you see that it is an exploration of the complementary colors blue and orange, built up of many layers of carefully applied paint so that it has an internal glow. I was absolutely stunned.
I've read Van Gogh's letters, and a number of books about him. To be in the presence of so many of his paintings was even more emotional than I had expected; they are so full of quiet joy as well as the agitation that's been so emphasized. It's also personal for me, because Van Gogh often grappled with the same subjects that interest and bedevil me -- how to represent nature in its complexity, how to find the strong forms and a shorthand way of showing what we see. Most of all, it was so apparent, looking at the dates of the works, so compressed, that here was a man who showed up and worked almost every single day of his short life; th work kept him going, but so did nature itself. I left feeling humbled, inspired, and grateful.
A while back I mentioned I was thinking about making a print from this drawing, and I finally started working on it. Here are some of the stages the work has gone through so far.
An initial sketch, trying to hone in the forms and the interplay and balance of the positive/negative. After this, which I didn't like, I decided to try it as a two-color print, with the fern leaves indicated in a second color that also underlies much of the darker one and defines the overall rectangular shape - but obviously you can't see that here.
This is a sketch for the primary (darker) color and main block. I wanted this block to basically stand on its own, so the forms needed to be strong and work together.
Here the shapes are more refined and I'm starting to think about how I might do the carving.
The sketch transferred to the linoleum, first by transfer-paper and then with the lines darkened by an indelible marker.
After a few hours of carving. I'm learning as I go, here, knowing I may have to start over again. That's OK. A important challenge to me in printmaking is keeping as much of the energy and vigor of the original drawing as possible. That means not planning everything to a T, and cutting with energy and spontaneity as well as care, to put both variety and vigor into the lines. Designing the print itself is a challenge that flows from all my years in graphic design. But it will be years before I feel like I've gained real mastery in this medium.
We were in Ottawa on Wednesday and Thursday, where I saw some truly wonderful art -- I came home inspired. More on that tomorrow!
Banner for my new online shop, StudioCassandra
As I wrote a while back, I've been musing about what to do with some of my artwork. Back in the U.S., I was associated for just about thirty years with AVA Gallery and Art Center in Lebanon, NH, a non-profit exhibition and educational institution, first as an exhibiting artist and then, for many years, as a board member, board chairman, and member of the education committee. It was an important part of my life, and something I really believed in. Over the decades I saw AVA (that stands for Alliance for the Visual Arts) grow from a small local gallery to an arts institution known and respected throughout northern New England, with a vibrant year-round educational program for children and adults, ongoing exhibitions of very high quality, showing the work of the best contemporary regional artists and often taking risks; most recently, AVA bought and renovated their own building, full of exhibition and teaching spaces and artist studios, in the most environmentally sound way.
Early on, I was still doing a lot of art, but during the years when I was working hardest at our design and communication business, I didn't do much art myself but I always cared about it - and AVA was one way I could, and did, stay involved. After moving up here, though, I haven't been thrilled about the gallery scene; for all its strengths in music and film, I don't find Montreal very strong in the visual arts or crafts, though we do have a very good contemporary museum. There are the predictable galleries catering to tourists in the Old City, but a lot of the work shown elsewhere is very conceptual and intellectual -- the kind of thing where the artist's statement seems more important than the work on the walls. And there is also the problem of money: Montreal doesn't have the sort of individual wealth you still find in America, and while Canada and Quebec have always strongly supported the arts, the Harper government is busy cutting arts funding right and left.
As in publishing, artists have the freedom now to market their own work, and some do quite well on the internet. So I've decided to open a virtual "shop" -- I'll give it six months or a year -- hoping that this will also be an incentive for me to keep producing new work, especially prints which are affordable, and also that it might add to our income. I have no desire to go backward artistically; I want to keep growing and pushing myself forward, but I do have a number of paintings and drawings in my flat file drawers and on my shelves that I'd rather know that people are enjoying in their homes, so I'll be listing some of those as well, and may in the future produce some high-quality, archival giclée prints of certain pieces, such as oil paintings and large works like the Iceland drawings.
I think all of us artists and writers are uncomfortable promoting our own work, but unfortunately this is the present-day reality unless we are well-established, with agents and sellers who are representing us - and who, of course, share in the profits, as they deserve to do. Making a living as an artist (and here I mean all the literary, fine, and performing arts) is becoming harder and harder, precisely at a time when -- I feel -- society needs art, and artists the most.
I don't want The Cassandra Pages to be commercial, so I've taken the "shop" offsite. I'll mention and show new artwork here, and continue to talk about the process, because you've been so interested, supportive and helpful with your comments and suggestions, but, as with Phoenicia Publishing, the transaction space will be over there for now. Of course I'm glad to hear any comments, suggestions, or stories of personal experience you've got relating to this venture, too!
After doing a quick drawing today, of a corner of my studio, I leafed through the pages of the rather old sketchbook. This drawing caught my eye. It was obviously done years ago in my Vermont garden, which was full of ferns, and I guess at the time I didn't think it was very successful. But today I loved the energy of the lines, the interplay of the forms, and could see all kinds of possibilities lurking in that foliage for a relief print. (Note to self: search out your forms with blunt, chunky objects, not those sharply pointed ones you seem to prefer...)
It's odd, isn't it, how we change, and how it's sometimes so hard to see the potential of a creative idea or expression at the time. A good argument for keeping sketchbooks and notebooks of poetry and writing, and actually going back through them once in a while!
Some readers may remember last summer's exploratory series of drawings and paintings of the Montmorency waterfall near Quebec City, where I did this charcoal drawing:
I've had an abstract drawing from that series on my studio wall all year, and this week I went back it as the basis for another relief print. At the top of the post is the block being cut. Here's the back of the print, after a first pass with the round baren, with half the print fully transferred to the rice paper using the back of a wooden spoon.
And here's a finished print from an edition of seven. I like this better than all the paintings I did last year, though I'm still fond of several of the drawings.
When I was younger, I seldom worked this way, delving deep into a subject until it is really internalized. Each piece was kind of a one-off - I'd be inspired by something, do a painting of it, seldom even sketching it first, and that was that. Though working that way can be wonderful, it's an entirely different way of approaching art.
Reading the letters and biographies of artists, as well as studying their work (the recent show of Picasso's guitars at MoMA is a good example) made me want to do more of this "horizontal" exploration, making sketches, playing with different media, trying to see deeply into the essence of a particular subject and my own response to it - what is it that I find compelling? Form? Line? Rhythm? Color? What's my emotional reaction? What can I do with the subject to make it my own? Picasso's inventiveness and refusal to stay in one category or style is an inspiration to me. Gauguin's woodcuts and transfer drawings, which I was looking at this week too, couldn't be more different in mood than Picasso's drawings, prints, and ceramics, but I saw, now, how complementary they are to his paintings; you can see Gauguin working on the subjects, going deeper into their emotional impact and his own psyche. Over in Wales, Clive Hicks-Jenkins returns again and again to his St. Kevin, holding the blackbird's nest, and to the blind saint Hervé, and his wolf, and there's a strong sense that he, too, is looking within.
There's something extremely exciting about moving in this direction, and realizing that a handful of subjects can provide such a rich ground for creative and personal exploration, not just for great artists but for me too, if I have the determination to stay with it over time. "It doesn't really matter what the subject is," a painter and teacher once told me. "You just have to be drunk with it."