16 May 2015

Been Studying

My mind is still reeling from the month of study I just spent at American Antiquarian Society (AAS) in Worcester, Massachusetts. If you're familiar with my work, you know that I often incorporate historic references into my projects, so I was thrilled to receive the 2015 Jay and Deborah Last Fellowship for Creative and Performing Artists and Writers, granting me four uninterrupted weeks of research with the assistance of AAS staff.

Founded in 1812 by Revolutionary War patriot and printer Isaiah Thomas, the AAS is a national research library whose mission is to “collect, preserve and make available the printed record of what is now the United States from 1640 through 1876.” According to this article, the AAS has twenty five miles of shelves, which hold over four million items including books, pamphlets, broadsides, newspapers, periodicals, sheet music and graphic arts materials.

My stated fellowship project was to conduct research about the spirituality/religiosity of American national identity, particularly looking at early American woodcuts and engravings. I wanted to find visual materials which demonstrated the presence of religion in the development of our national identity, a presence which I thought would be subtle and understated. What I discovered is that there are very few colonial printed images that do NOT contain religious references. I looked at children’s primers, almanacs (including several almanac diaries), juvenile literature, type specimen books, and a few hymnals and broadsides. It was not necessary to dig for religious references -- there was a sort of generic Protestantism present in almost every genre.

All that material (I took almost 1,500 photographs and downloaded scores of PDFs) is still sifting through my mind, but I'm very sure it will emerge in my work. I just ordered some washi (Japanese paper), and soon the process will begin.

03 May 2015

Spring 2015 Moku Hanga Workshop

I just finished teaching a two-day moku hanga (Japanese style woodblock) workshop at Zea Mays Printmaking and I wanted to show you the great prints that my students were able to complete in just two days.

Joan did these acorn variations.
Carol made croissants.
Elly did some abstract blocks to mix and match.
Sandy took a similar approach with abstract blocks.
Evan printed a deep black, white on top of that, and then color over the white.
Sandy did a second set of blocks (3) to challenge herself to work with a tight registration and created this soft landscape.
Laura did a color version of a well-known black and white photograph of a couple sitting on a diving board.
Sarah did this print with an eye toward a future series of Aesop's Fables illustrations.
Vivien's blocks were versatile and allowed her to make several variations. This was her favorite.

26 February 2015

A Real Fake: Final Image

Art has deep and difficult eyes and for many the gaze is too insistent.
—Jeanette Winterson

Final step: A removable veil to cover the image.

Watercolor woodblock print with gold mica, rubber stamp, and removable printed veil
11.5" x 7.5" (29.2 x 19 cm) image on 18" x 12 (45.7 x 30.5 cm) shin hosho paper
edition: 22

The last two steps in this print were to add a removable 'veil' (above) and some rubber stamp text (below). A couple of articles I read recently noted that even in countries where images of Muhammad are frowned upon in mosques and other public places, they are often allowed for personal private use. I realized that this image is basically a private image, since it will be part of a boxed portfolio of prints, but I wondered if there might be a way to make it even more private, so I decided to add a veil. I used some lovely and extremely thin Japanese paper that I've had for a while and never found a use for, and it worked well for printing a single color. (I printed with the paper dry rather than damp.)

The final print, with rubber stamp letters added. The text says "this is not Muhammed."

I don't have much to say about the veil, another culturally fraught symbol in conflicts between the so-called west and the so-called Muslim world, but obviously I'm referencing that practice by creating a veil for this print. Also obviously, with my rubber-stamped text I'm referring to Magritte's painting The Treachery of Images, on which he wrote "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" (This is not a pipe), a work that addresses the distinction between the representational and the Real. A Real Fake.

25 February 2015

A Real Fake: Mica and Magical Objects

Some objects have a certain aura that might be described as magical or somehow otherworldly, and some objects of that nature are art objects. I think some magical art objects, for example The Mona Lisa, acquire their power through accretion and historicity. Some acquire magical qualities through the activites, real or imagined, of the artist – the works of Agnes Martin, say, who lived as a recluse and who is thought of as a kind of mystic. Other art objects, like Warhol works for instance, acquire at least some of their magical properties through their commercial value. And some magical art objects are magical because of the spiritual/religious meanings they carry. I've been thinking about this a lot as I've worked on my print of the Prophet Muhammad. I've especially been grappling with the question of whether or not the magical properties attributed to the original miniature that I'm copying would or could transfer to my reproduction.

I'm deviating from the original miniature quite a bit in this next step in the process as I add gold-colored mica to the flame-halo around the Prophet's head. This is a distinctly Japanese technique, where a glue of some kind (I used rice paste) is printed onto the paper and then mica powder is sprinkled on and lightly brushed. Here are photos of my mica application in process.

Rice paste is applied to the block with a regular te-bake (hand brush) and the impression is taken with the baren.
Immediately after the paper is removed from the block, mica powder is sprinkled on and a soft brush is used to cover the glue with the mica and brush away the excess.
Sheen of mica seen in glancing light.

If you'd like to see a video of the process, check out a demo by Keiji Shinohara at this web site. (Note: Click Enter Site, then Techniques, then Kira Zuri (Mica Technique)).

My studio is full of magical objects; magical because of what they mean to me and remind me of. Here are a few of them.

I do so much research in my work, I was drawn to this little scholarly Buddha.
Sarasvati, Hindu goddess of knowledge, music and the arts, wearing a rosary I made.
Zuni fetishes I collected while I lived in New Mexico: horse, bear, fox and snake.
Nataraj (Dancing Shiva), the primal energy of God, whose dance is both creative and destructive.

24 February 2015

A Real Fake: Colors

After a fair amount of research about the color of Muhammad's robe, I've concluded that Muhammad is most often, but not always, depicted wearing a green robe. In his book Islam and the Heroic Image, scholar John Renard states, "that robe is one of relatively few specific items in the heroic religious iconography of Islamicate painting," so I'm going with green.

Thirteenth color pass: green robe.

Yesterday a friend wondered how many blocks were carved for this print and how I broke down the colors, so I thought I'd show you the 6 blocks that I used.

A couple of notes. First is that the halo I carved on the upper right block is for applying glue for gold mica (next step). Second note is that in order to economize on wood, I used a single block for the two different magenta colors on the rug and back wall. I carved a thin line between the two areas so I would know exactly where to ink. The white line isn't visible in the final after everything gets printed over it. The third thing you might notice is that sometimes if I've ganged up a lot of colors on one plate I carve away portions of what I've already printed so that the inking is easier for the next color. On the keyblock for example (lower right), you can see that I carved away some of the line work that had printed blue so that I could more easily ink the gray lines around the figure. Of course, this means that I can't ever re-print this set of blocks.

23 February 2015

A Real Fake: Key Block Printed

The line work in the original miniature on which my reproduction is based has the look of graphite. It's kind of gray, or blue-gray, rather than black, so I decided to print my keyblock in gray to match. I'm still not sure whether to deviate from the original and keep the robe white, or to make it green so the reproduction is more exact. I'm leaning toward going with the green, since I'm a little nervous that there could be meanings attached to the various colors that I'm not aware of.

Twelfth color pass: gray line work.

19 February 2015

A Real Fake: Purity

“No one is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart: for his purity, by definition, is unassailable.”
― James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name

If there's a God I can't imagine why God gave us, wholly imperfect human beings as we are, the ability to imagine purity. When we're faced with contradiction and failure, notions of purity and perfection are like a built-in torture mechanism with which we can oppress both ourselves and others: I'm not good enough, this thing I made isn't good enough, you didn't measure up, you've let us down, you're a loser. Conversely, when we think we ourselves are pure, we become self righteous and arrogant: I'm on the right side of this thing, my country is exceptional, my logic is irrefutable, I know what God wants, you're a sinner, you're a moron, you're unclean, you deserve to die.

Fundamentalism, whether religious or secular, is a quest for purity. Fundamentalists regard the world as impure and corrupt, and according to author Richard Antoun (Understanding Fundamentalism), there are three basic strategies that Fundamentalists employ in order to deal with this perceived corruption in the world: migration (eg. the Pilgrims coming to America), separation (Christian colleges such as Bob Jones University), or militant struggle (Al-Qaida). Large organizations like ISIS as well as small groups of terrorists like the Charlie Hebdo shooters have chosen the third option.

Tenth color pass: linework on back half-wall.

Meanwhile, I'm dealing with purity issues of my own regarding this print. If you think about it, I'm trying to make a 'pure' image of Mohammed. But now part of me doesn't want to make the robe green as it appears in the original. I like it white, but the rules I set up at the beginning of this project include making a close reproduction of a 16th century Persian miniature, and I don't think I can wiggle out of that without messing up the purity of my premise. Muhammed is wearing a green robe in the miniature painting I reference, and he is shown wearing a green robe in most historic depictions. The green color is said to be associated with Islam, for which I found a myriad explanations. If you're truly interested, here's an article I referenced about color in Islam. According to this article, it would not be out of place for me to use white for Muhammed's robe, as white signifies purity and harmony. There's that purity thing again.

Eleventh pass: red lines in flaming halo.

Since I can't decide what color to make the robe, I think I'll print the keyblock next and see how I like it.