Friday, October 2, 2015

Six of the Best, Part 35

Part 35 of an interview series in which I pose the same six questions to different artists. Today's interviewee is Aine Scannell, an artist and printmaker who lives in Scotland. 

Shaman's Secret, trace monotype and pastel, 20" x 28"
Philip Hartigan: What medium do you chiefly use, and why?

Aine Scannell: Printmaking is the means or process I go through to create my art. I started out in ‘painting’ because I had the rather naïve idea that, that was what ‘artists’ did. I didn’t have any awareness of printmaking as a specialist discipline in my earlier years. In the beautiful city of Barcelona, Spain, I completed a Masters in European Fine Art (that’s what it was officially called) but on the course we were identified as being either on the painting or the print pathway. 

It was over that time period that I began to realize that I loved the possibilities inherent within printmaking. I was just so excited by it and I could see that it was for me. Unfortunately, being as it was a small course (about 50 people in total), there was no flexibility in terms of re-positioning oneself within the studio/ print workshop context. Looking back now it’s a shame that they didn’t pick up on this, given that my portfolio application was 90% works on paper, as in monotype. I was never that sure as to whether these pieces were prints or drawings.

Anyway, over the next 5 years or so I studied techniques through various community colleges and at London University. Eventually I felt as though I had arrived at a point where I needed to study printmaking at a more ‘professional’ level and so I did another masters degree at Wimbledon School of Art in London.

I have often said that I think printmaking is the most liberating of media where fine art is concerned. I mean you are using paper, and I love working on paper. I always have and of course once you study in this area you realize that there’s such a variety of papers, from say a Tosa Washi 28gsm right through to, for example, a Somerset White Velvet 650 gsm paper. 

Using a range of intaglio mark making strategies on various metals as well as linoleum, wood and plastic, the possibilities are so immense. The tactility is a feast to the senses. Being able to push the ink into the grooves of the ‘plate’ using the immense pressure of an etching press—well, it’s all such an adventure and a joy.

Philip HartiganWhat are you currently working on?

Aine ScannellI just finished making an edition of teeny weeny artist’s books (3 of them) and it was kind of nice working that size (much to my surprise). The reason I say that is I‘m not always that keen on making miniature prints, which I have done at times in order to be able to make submissions to events such as the British Miniprint international or for example the Lahti Miniprint exhibition (Finland) I suppose though, now I think about it, with a little book at least one has the ‘space’ of the opened out pages. I think the accordion book format works best with this. I wouldn’t do this unless it could be in this format. A conventional book format, where you view the pages one by one, just wouldn’t work for me. The size of this, by the way, is 5 x 4 x 1 cm. Isn’t that amazingly small? 

Making these came about through being invited by artist/curator Marina Moreno. It’s for an installation/exhibition project that she’s presenting at Serra Dei Giardini for the 56th Venice Bienniale. In fact this Giardini place is located adjacent to the main ‘pavilions’. However it’s not part of the official Venice Biennial. For some reason or other I have always liked making international connections, going right back to when I had about 32 pen-pals in Boston, Massachusetts, in my early teens. As you can imagine my family really did wonder what on earth I was up to. 

The other thing I’ve been working on recently is something I just got started on last week at Glasgow Print Studio. It’s a series of intaglio prints using thin birch plates as my substrate. I’m so pleased to have found these lovely wooden plates which are so thin that I can easily bevel them and put them through the etching press. I think it’s going to be a series of mythological beings from where I live now, in Scotland.
Sea Doll, intaglio on birch wood
Philip HartiganWhat creative surprises are happening in the current work?

Aine ScannellWell, that’s not so easy to answer as I am always doing experiments and trying things out. Like one of my current obsessions is finding a medium with which I can use watercolour paint as a ‘printmaking ink, to find a way to be able to use it on a brayer and even potentially to ink up intaglio plates. I have done some research (and YES I do know about AKUA inks) but this is something that I particularly want to resolve. The thing is that I just love watercolour, and I use it a fair amount in my printmaking.

Philip HartiganWhat other artistic medium (or non-artistic activity) feeds your creative process?

Aine ScannellThat’s not easy to answer because I have a disability, which means that as well as having chronic pain (full time, although I do sleep at night, thank goodness) I have limited mobility. Unfortunately this renders me house-bound to quite an extent. So I suppose my extra curricular activities, as such, might be reading literature, mainly novels. My most recent enjoyable books were “The Kiterunner” and “A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini. I had originally read them about 5 years ago but enjoyed re-reading them so much again as they are of such excellent quality. I have to be thankful that I live in the internet age or otherwise I would feel so isolated. It provides me with a lot of wonderful art as well as much information and inspiration. I also love listening to the radio, BBC Radio 4 and the World Service. Plays are such fun, too.
Einu Sinni Var, miniature artist's book , ed./3,  0.4" x 2" x 1.5"
Philip HartiganWhat's the first ever piece of art you remember making?

Aine ScannellI always remember my mother buying paint by number sets for my younger brother, Barry, and me. Eventually we decided to do them and I remember that I got bored with doing mine and just painted my own ‘made-up’ image over the delineated image, whereas my brother ‘coloured–in’ his little canvas. His was hung on a hook above our bathroom door. Mine was disregarded. She never understood anything much about me, although bless my mother: she really did her best by me.

The other thing I remember was in primary school at the convent how we used what were called ‘jotters’ for practicing our ink nib-pen ink writing. Horizontally across their pages they had two dark red lines, inside of which, were two faint lines, for the lower case script. I must have been about 3 or 4 at the time. We used to make drawings of girls with “sticky-out –dresses” (like wedding dresses) and quite often they would have a veil.  Next to a house would be a stick with a circle on top (representing a tree), and usually there would be a little garden with flowers, and if we had time (before the nuns told us off) we’d put in flowers and sunshine and birds. I used to really love doing those. They would be drawn with pencils and then ‘coloured-in’ with crayons.

Philip HartiganFinally, and you can answer this in any way that's meaningful to you: why are you an artist?

Aine ScannellOh god, what can I say except I’m sorry but that’s all I can do. It’s just in me. It always has been. I live and breathe it. I don’t know what else I can be, really. It’s all I want. It’s not easy,.yet at the same time it’s great.

If you liked this interview, and you'd like to keep up to date with the series, why not Subscribe, or sign-up via Google Connect, using one of the options over on the right? Thanks, and keep creating.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Fifteen years ago

This is Honduras, not Vermont. Close enough, though.
Fifteen years ago today, I woke up in a hotel room in Boston, quite close to the art museum and Boylston Street. I went to the bus station, dragging a duffle bag on wheels that contained enough clothes to get me through two months in the USA , and a boxed set of my James Joyce Ulysses etchings. I boarded a bus going to Burlington, Vermont, and I settled into my seat with a John le Carré novel to pass the time. I recall how bright the sunlight was, how leafy and beautiful the interior of Massachusetts was, how green and hilly Vermont was.

Fifteen years ago, I arrived in Johnson, Vermont, after being picked up at the bus station in Burlington by someone from the Vermont Studio Center. I think there were three or four other people being picked up at the same time, all heading to the VSC to start retreats ranging from 2 weeks to 2 months. I remember arriving in Johnson and checking into my tiny room in an old 2 storey classic New England house, and meeting Brian from New York, and the weird guy from Kenya who later turned out to be the sort of person who never flushes the toilet.

Fifteen years ago, I finished unpacking and walked along the street to the main residency building, a converted red barn by a stream, where I had been told there would be a get together when all the new arrivals and the current residents could all meet. One of the interns wrote my name on a tag and stuck it onto my shirt. I poured some wine into a plastic glass and looked around. I think that I spoke to a young woman with dark hair, and a writer called Andrew who later became a good friend.
She was wearing a wine colored dress and holding a beer bottle with long fingers that extended well past its curved sides. Her hair was blonde, and she wore some sort of reactalite glasses that were still dark from being outside in the sun. She smiled when I said hello, with the sort of smile that looks like someone turned on a light in an unlit room. She didn't say a lot, and I couldn't tell if she was still being reserved or not. So I made a stupid joke: staring obviously at her name tag while asking "what's your name?", she said "Patty," I said in a heavily patronizing way "OH REALLY?", mugging at the name tag with her name on it. It was fifteen years ago this happened. We talked for a few minutes, I don't remember about what, probably about whether we were writers or artists, where were we from, how long were we going to be in Vermont.

I took in everything about her in a few seconds. We clicked, as they say, but we both clicked with lots of other people during that residency, and there was nothing you could put your finger on and say : Yes, that's the moment, that's the glance, that's the phrase that meant we would find our way to each other in the next few days and weeks, past the other people claiming our attention, both in the US and the UK, across the many parties and bonfires and gatherings by the river in the darkness with the flames in the oil drums, the guitars, the six packs from the local gas station, the singing, the loud laughter in the summer air, the intense conversations while pressing shoulders against one another.  Yet this is the moment, fifteen years ago, at 6 p.m., on August 28 th, 2000, that we return to in our memories, and our private talk, and our public talk when people ask us "How did you meet?" The start, the moment of ignition. Our foundational story.

Fifteen years ago, long enough to get married and build a new life. Short enough that it seems to have passed in the blink of an eye. Long enough to fall and stay in love. Short enough to say to each other, We just met yesterday, didn't we? And to realize with deep wonder, No, that was fifteen years ago.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Exhibition news

These two paintings are on show in Chicago for the next four months as part of a group show at Robert Morris University Gallery, in the heart of the downtown loop district:

The reception for the show is on October 15th. Links describing the show:

Chicago Artists' Month
Exhibition Blog

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Water Towers and Kevin Swallow's Urban Landscapes

"Andersonville Water Tank," oil on canvas (click to enlarge)
As a foreigner living in the United States, I can attest that one of the most striking features of the urban landscape in America is the water tower. European cities may have walls built by the Romans, medieval palaces, and grand eighteenth-century neo-classical boulevards, but as far as I’m aware you can’t look up from a street in Paris, Rome, or London and see these giant wooden cylinders with their little caps, standing on a rickety framework and silhouetted dramatically against the sky. The Chicago water tower, for example, may have been referred to by Oscar Wilde as “a castellated monstrosity with pepper boxes stuck all over it,” but it is revered in the city as one of the few buildings to survive the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and it’s just one of several hundred that are still dotted around the city.

A century ago, almost every apartment building had a water tower sitting atop the roof. As modern plumbing was installed, most of these water towers were disconnected or demolished, to the point where there are currently fewer than 200 left. It is against this backdrop of urban renewal (which some might call destruction) that artist Kevin Swallow’s recent exhibition, “This Must Be the Place,” can be evaluated. In this show of some fifteen paintings at Firecat Projects, the water towers of Chicago are the central feature. Some are depicted from close up, as if viewing them at eye level from the rooftop. Some are shown from below, as if the viewer is looking up from the street. In some pictures, the skyline takes up most of the space, and the water tower becomes a bit player in a larger architectural ensemble. Most of the paintings are executed in bright colors and picture-book style contours, giving them a child-like or cartoonish feel. The better painting occurs when Swallow uses a more subdued palette, as in "River North Electricity", and instead of using quick flat strokes, spends more time framing the water towers against curling entanglements of power cables, or the intruding bulwark of an El track’s support. This seems less like a postcard than many of the works on display, and more like the work of someone whose visual interest in the shape of the water tower has begun to encompass how that shape interacts with its environment.

"River North Electricity," oil on canvas (click to enlarge)
In November 2014, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks redefined its list of what should be preserved, and the water tower was deemed unworthy of preservation. From now on, if there is no other compelling reason for historic preservation related to the specific building or district in which the water tower is located, that list of 200 or so surviving Chicago water towers could shrink to just a handful in the coming years. Kevin Swallow’s paintings of water towers, then, are hymns to a notable American structure, and quite soon they could also be elegies to something that’s disappeared for good.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Six of the Best, Part 34

After a long break, here is the return of the interview series in which I pose the same six questions to different artists. Today's contributor is Krista Svalbonas, a mixed media artist who is based in Chicago, USA. Beginning September 29th, 2015, her installation Home is a Name will be exhibited at the Spartanburg Art Museum, South Carolina.

"In the Presence 16"
Philip Hartigan: What medium do you chiefly use, and why?

Krista Svalbonas: That’s a difficult question for me to answer. I paint, I photograph and I create installations. I have a hard time remaining true to one medium and find myself often mixing or moving fluidly between media depending on the focus of the work. Recently, I completed a series of large-scale paintings on industrial felt that combined silk screens, slats of wood, rusted metal and oil paint. At the same time, I was working on a photographic body of work using aluminum dibond, CNC routers and gold leaf. I find that very often the ideas in the work are what help dictate the execution. I started working with felt when I began tackling issues of modernist housing and its use of industrial cheap materials such as concrete, stucco and brick. I wanted to use a material that spoke to industrialization in its use and color, but at the same time offered me the flexibility to carve, build and cut away the surface much like a architectural rendering. My residency at Bemis, directly inspired this new series on dibond. I began researching Omaha’s first public housing development, the Logan Fontenelle complex. Created by Roosevelt’s New Deal, it was among the first public housing projects established in the United States. Getting my hands on the original architectural plans was what led me to using metal, in this case dibond, a material often used in architectural and commercial applications.

Philip Hartigan: What piece are you currently working on?

Krista Svalbonas: I mentioned above the two bodies of work that I have been working on, one in painting and the other in photography. I have some small touchups and tweaks along with some laborious gold leafing to get the work where I want it to be, but mostly I’m in finalization and digestion mode. I find that it can take me some time to process a body of work, what it means to my practice and me and then have that inform the next series of work I do. I’ve often reminded myself that just because I’m not “making” in the studio it doesn’t mean that I’m not working on the next body of work. Looking, jotting notes, staring out the window, reorganizing my studio, making studio visits all counts and are all necessary steps in the start of the new.

"In the Presence 20"
Philip Hartigan: What creative surprises are happening in the current work?

Krista Svalbonas: For a while now, I had been very curious about experimenting with laser cutting. Although for this newest series on dibond that wasn’t possible because there were issues with formaldehyde gas, I did use a similar process with the CNC router. Working in a new way always creates surprises, some frustrating and some enlightening. There will always be a learning curve. Having a design background, I rather enjoyed the labor in creating the precision files that are used in both of these processes. This experience has made me more open to using fabrication tools in the future.  I love the feeling of “what if”. To me, that is one of the best surprises a work can give you.

Philip Hartigan: What other artistic medium (or non-artistic activity) feeds your creative process?

Krista Svalbonas: Teaching. I’ve been teaching at the college level for almost 10 years now, and it’s always fed my creativity in one way or another, whether by learning or being surprised by my students, or by constantly keeping up with the ever-changing medium of Photography. It can be exhausting, time consuming and frustrating, but also amazingly rewarding. One thing has always remained true: it keeps me on my toes. I’m constantly thinking, considering, questioning and staying alert.

"New Deal 06"
Philip Hartigan: What's the first ever piece of art you remember making?

Krista Svalbonas: At Bemis the artists have opportunities to engage with the local community now and then when a tour group passes through. Tours range from grad to elementary students. On one occasion I was speaking to a group of elementary students aging from 5-8 years old. Among questions about length of time to make a work and when I first thought of being an artist, this same question came up and I drew a blank. I wasn’t quite sure how to answer it and I’m still not quite sure. It’s been in the back of my mind ever. First piece… was that the popsicle sculpture I made at an after school program, the snow sculptures I made ever year in the yard, the jewelry I made at a metalsmithing class in 8th grade… or is it the first time I realized I was making something I wanted others, in a broader sense, other then my mother, to appreciate? I suppose High School was when I really began to start making with a more critical awareness. My parents helped me set up a darkroom in an alcove under the stairs and I spent hours there developing images. The camera always gave me a license to explore. One series I particularly remember was of industrial buildings in York and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. I created a hand bound book with each image printed as a Van Dyke Brown or Cyanotype on watercolor paper. I remember that feeling of magic watching each image develop in the sunlight.

Philip Hartigan: Finally, and you can answer this in any way that's meaningful to you: why are you an artist?

Krista Svalbonas: Is there a choice? She asks with a smile.

If you liked this interview, and you'd like to keep up to date with the series, why not Subscribe, or sign-up via Google Connect, using one of the options over on the right? Thanks, and keep creating.

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