16 September 2014

Portfolios for Secret Codewords

Shortly after my workshop at Anderson Ranch I was feeling anxious to use my newly acquired bookmaking skills, so I made portfolio cases for five full sets of Secret Codewords of the NSA. I used manila file folders for that special touch of authenticity and created string tie closures like those used on inter-office envelopes.

I printed out a label for each folder and stamped them 'classified' for a finishing touch. These full sets will sell for $1300.

14 September 2014

Sometimes I'm Married 2014

Every August (or thereabouts) on the anniversary of my legal Massachusetts marriage to my longtime partner Lynn, I update this slow reduction print series called Sometimes I'm Married (see the series here). I'm a few weeks late this year, but here's the 2014 installment. Four states have been added to the 'I am married' column: Oregon, New Mexico and Pennsylvania by court decision, Illinois by legislative vote. There are twelve states where marriage bans have been overturned but appeals are in progress, a situation which almost guarantees that higher courts will take up the issue. Supreme Court watchers believe that the court will accept a gay marriage case sooner rather than later. I could have labeled these state 'I might be married,' but with the situation so fluid right now I've decided to ignore that category, which I used in the past for states where there was no legal policy at all (neither a ban nor a legalization, and no policy on reciprocity with other states).

When I started this series in 2008 I wrote, "I plan to revisit this very gradual reduction print every year around our wedding anniversary until all the states are one color. Then we can frame the series and hang it on our nursing home wall." How wrong I was! This map will likely be all one color well before Lynn and I reach the nursing home, perhaps as soon as next year! Stay tuned.

02 September 2014

20th Century Japanese Prints in Denver, CO

A Spring by Koshiro Onchi
September 21, 2014, is the closing date for an exhibition of seventy 20th century Japanese prints called At the Mirror at Denver Art Museum. This article by Ronald Otsuka, curator of Asian art, points out the split that still somewhat persists between the shin hanga (new prints in the old style) and sosaku hanga ('creative' prints) movements in 20th century Japanese woodblock printing. The article also discusses the technical perfection of traditional style Japanese woodblock prints, suggesting that this perfection is a drawback in Japanese art.

I don't know if it's a drawback in Japanese art, but the technical perfection of the Japanese woodblock masters can certainly be a stumbling block for contemporary artists who are trying to work with the Japanese method. Unfortunately, that type of perfection is what many people think of when you say "Japanese woodblock," so it's often the silent standard in a viewer's mind. And in an artist's mind, how can one do a bokashi and not think of (and compare oneself to) the Ukiyo-e masters? Making a bokashi connects you to Japanese art; using washi connects you to Japanese art. The carving tools, the brushes, the process itself connect you to Japanese art. There's a challenge, and a bit of humor, in making contemporary American art using a traditional Japanese art form. For myself, I try to take the support of the beauty and elegance and history of the method without letting go of my own voice and identity, which places me firmly in the tradition of the 20th century sosaku hanga artists.

Unfortunately, I won't be able to see this show, but if you go and would like to share your reaction I'd love to hear about it (or publish it on this blog).

21 August 2014

View of Fuji from Mt. Holyoke

View of Fuji from Mt. Holyoke after a Thunderstorm (after Thomas Cole)
White line woodcut on Rives heavyweight

I wanted to try one more white line print before I teach a workshop at Zea Mays in October, and this time I wanted to try something a little more moody, since I was previously disconcerted by the relative brightness (and happy tone) of my white line experiments. If you've ever seen Thomas Cole's "View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow," then you'll know what I mean by moody.

My white line print certainly can't compare to Cole's painting, either in mood or in skill. But it's a view of the same scene (the Oxbow of the Connecticut River at Northampton, Massachusetts) and it perfectly encapsulates my feelings of longing to go to Japan next month for the Second International Mokuhanga Conference. Alas, I can't go, so I will pretend that I can see Mt. Fuji from Mt. Holyoke when I look westward.

On a technical note, I carved this print on birch plywood instead of shina. I'm not fond of carving birch ply – it chips more than shina and the glue is hard on tools – but the grain was fun to work with.

I sent a jpeg of this print to my friend Mariko who lives in the Tokyo area thinking that she would appreciate the sentiment. She did appreciate the sentiment, but I was amused when her feedback included the word 'akarui,' which can be translated as 'bright' or 'cheerful.' I guess white line prints look cheerful in any language.

11 August 2014

Report: Karen Kunc Workshop at Anderson Ranch

Anderson Ranch: view from the porch of the print shop building
I've just returned from a week-long workshop at beautiful Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass, Colorado, where I took a workshop with Karen Kunc, an artist, printmaker and Cather Professor of Art at University of Nebraska - Lincoln. It's hard to say a thing like this after only a few days, but I'll say it anyway: I think this workshop was a life-changing experience for me.

The workshop, titled "From Text and Image Into Book," had a two-part design. For the first couple of days, Karen introduced a number of low-tech and simple methods of generating printed works that could be made into book pages later in the week. We did woodcuts, collagraphs, monoprints, paper litho, and pressure prints and used stencils, rubber stamps, typesetting and pochoir to print. It was fun, but for me it was also stressful because I've worked almost exclusively with moku hanga (Japanese style woodblock) for most of my career. The methods Karen introduced us to were all new to me: using a press (instead of hand printing with a baren), working with litho inks and Akua intaglio inks (instead of water-borne pigments), printing intaglio -- all of these materials and processes were new to me, so I was on a steep learning curve all week. Even doing woodcut felt unfamiliar, as the wood we used was a thin birch ply with shellac on it and it felt entirely different under my chisels than the shina I usually use. Below is the 8 x 30 inch woodcut I did, a very stylized series of images from the JFK shooting in 1963, that I planned to make an accordion book with. It was all done with oil-based litho ink on a press, so I was way out of my element.

I also generated twenty 6 x 6 inch squares using a combination of woodprint, stencil pochoir, cardboard printing, letterpress and rubber stamp for another book. Here are a couple of those pages:

The next days were devoted to learning some basic book binding techniques. Over the course of three days Karen showed us how to do a basic accordion book, an accordion form called leporello, a bradle binding, and a couple of different sewn bindings. We learned to cover chip board with book cloth or other papers, learned to use an awl and PVA glue, how to wrap corners, how to attach pages to each other, how to make a spine. Again, these were all new techniques for me so there was a certain amount of stress, but I was absolutely thrilled with the results. I made two accordion books, one called 1963 and one called Beloved. They're very imperfect and I don't care! Here are photos.
So how was this workshop life changing? I think because I stretched so hard. I got through a whole bunch of hurdles and fears. I had been afraid of taking my prints apart, afraid of folding them, afraid of messing things up with glue, afraid to try book making because it looked so complicated, afraid of oil based ink and printing presses, nervous to experiment and try new things on my own. Karen gave so much permission to just play, to fool around, to try things. We had SO much paper and so much time and so much support among the nine artists in the workshop -- one just couldn't help but be swept up in the spirit of play and discovery. I feel like I've come home with a huge new toolkit for making things and a whole new attitude towards balancing work and play.

Sample books that Karen brought

If you ever get a chance to go to Anderson Ranch (I got a scholarship from Boston Printmakers, who give one out every year), do it! It's a gorgeous place and the classes are top notch. And if you ever get a chance to study with Karen Kunc, do it! She's a great teacher. In fact, she just opened a studio called Constellation Studios in Lincoln, Nebraska, where she teaches classes and offers opportunities for residencies. Take a look at the web site.

On our last night together, Karen took us all on a hike in the nearby mountains. We had bonded pretty strongly and it was a sweet ending to an amazing week.

31 July 2014

"White Line" Prints by Toshi Yoshida

I just discovered that Toshi Yoshida, who wrote the book Japanese Printmaking that I reviewed in the last post, did a series of prints that he referred to as 'white line' prints in the 1960s. Although he was inspired by the Provincetown white line method, Toshi Yoshida's white line prints were actually multi-block facsimiles of Provincetown prints.

An article about Yoshida's white line series on the Hanga Gallery web site says "The traditional method of creating a white line print uses a single carved matrix block, which is hand-painted with multiple colors inside each of the outlined sections… Toshi's white line prints imitated the style of the earlier Provincetown prints, but they were printed using multiple blocks in large, unlimited editions."

The web page from a 2013 show of Toshi Yoshida's white line prints at Worcester Art Museum (Massachusetts) explains that some of the white lines were actually embossed using un-inked keyblocks.

Even though these aren't white line prints in the strict sense, I feel inspired by them in my pursuit of white line nirvana.

29 July 2014

Book Review: Japanese Printmaking

Japanese Print Making: A Handbook of Traditional and Modern Techniques by Toshi Yoshida and Rei Yuki; published by Tuttle Publishing, 1966.

This wonderful book is out of print, but happily I just received a copy from my friend Paul Ritscher, a California based wood engraver, book maker, and letterpress printer. The link above connects to Amazon, where you'll find copies starting at about $125, or you can use WorldCat to search for a library copy near you. I recently spoke with someone from Tuttle Publishing about re-issuing this book (I told them I know where they can find quite a few buyers!), but sadly they weren't interested.

There are plenty of books in English about Japanese prints, especially ukiyo-e prints, but books in English about Japanese woodblock techniques are few and far between. This book comes from a period in the first decades after World War II when Japanese prints became so popular that even books about techniques could find a readership. I love it not only because it's full of descriptions of advanced techniques, but also because it contains contributions from some of my favorite 20th century Japanese printmakers: Umetaro Azechi, Un'ichi Hiratsuka, and Kiyoshi Saito.

The book is divided into two sections, the first being an overview of ukiyo-e techniques and the second detailing 20th century developments. The ukiyo-e section, while it covers some material that is easily found elsewhere, is not a historical survey but a step-by-step description of how a Japanese woodblock print is made, from getting the design onto the blocks to carving and care of tools to all the details of printing, including discussion of pigments, brushes, the traditional baren, and basic techniques like bokashi.

Part two, "Modern Prints," begins with a brief history of the modern print movement in Japan and color plate illustrations of a dozen or so practitioners. The rest of the book discusses the various ways that these artists expanded the materials and techniques of Japanese woodblock printing, with discussions of various woods, pigment types, and papers followed by well-illustrated examples of artistic effects and techniques. These are too numerous to recount, but they include printed wood grain effects, baren effects, effects caused by different paper absorption, and various overprinting techniques. If you're an artist working with moku hanga, this section of the book is a treasure trove of information that could transform your practice (as I'm hoping it will transform mine). The last chapter in this section is a fascinating account by each of the artists whose work is illustrated in the color plates, detailing how they employed the various techniques in the book.

There's an appendix at the end with a chart called "Guide to the Beginner" which is presented as a kind of curriculum for learning moku hanga. I was amused to see that the very last entry in the chart is "changing of the ategawa," which means "baren re-covering," a task I've yet to master.