Sunday, July 13, 2014

Visit to an Artist's Studio: Amy Crum


A few days ago, I visited the studio of artist Amy Crum, in her home near the Chicago River. We sat for over an hour next to a window with a view of treetops and plants, looking at her recent work spread out on the floor around us. She's recently returned to making art after a long break, and what she's been doing are collages with some ink and paint additions, all on letter-sized paper. The collage originates in vintage newspapers and magazines from Europe, which gives the overall tone of her pieces a subdued, cool, look. You can spot all kinds of individual objects and stylistic pattern in the source material (flowers, letters, clothes) but each piece is clearly about the abstract pattern of Amy's arrangement of these bits and pieces. They all occupy an elongated space in the middle of the paper, either vertically or horizontally, and the forms spiral out and back in on themselves repeatedly, no matter which side you see them from. It reminded me of looking at the patterns a skilled skater leaves in an ice rink after a performance.

Another impressive thing was that in less than six months, she's produced what art world people call a 'body of work' -- a group of pieces with a coherent set of themes and a commonality of execution. She's also produced them all in small spaces, at home, on table tops, proving that you can make good art anywhere.


You can get a closer look at her work here.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Restoring my big printing press

I am currently working on restoring my large Dickerson printing press to a working state. This mainly involves removing a heavy deposit of rust on the steel rollers, which built up as a result of the press lying in storage and not sufficiently protected from the elements. I've taken lots of advice and tried different cleaning agents and methods, including:

  • Going straight at the rust with steel wool.
  • Brushing on a combination of vinegar and lemon juice, then rubbing with steel wool.
  • Wrapping the rollers overnight in aloominum foil.
  • Coating the rollers in a strong rust removing agent.

None of these have really been satisfactory. The only thing that seems to have worked so far is to soak some rags in a mixture of distilled vinegar, mineral spirits, and baking soda, and wrapping the rollers in the rags for a few hours. I then use steel wool on the residue, which comes away pretty easily. You can see the difference in the following photos between the rusted and the cleaned parts:



The difference is particularly noticeable in the close-up.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Printing an edition

Yesterday in the studio I took one of the acrylic resist experiments and printed an edition from it. It's the 'Boxer and factory' image, on which I took an old copper plate, coated it with Lascaux hard resist, and did a mixture of carborundum/pastel ground collagraph, and drypoint:


I wanted to do an edition to see how well the material on the plate and the lines drawn into the resist would hold up to the pressure of a printing press. Below are six of the eight prints I took from it:


Two others were good prints, but the colour came out slightly different. My conclusion? I could probably get maybe ten uniform and good quality prints from the plate before the carborundum would start to be rubbed away. If I needed a big edition, I would probably have to look at sealing the surface of the plate more, but 6-10 prints is a good size for a small edition.

Now it's back to watching the World Cup...

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Commemorating A Wartime Disaster



 
Peter Bolger, a friend whom I’ve known since we were both 11 years old, recently posted updates to a website he’s been adding to for a few years. The blog is NorthShields173.org, and it’s dedicated to the history of one night in the north of England during World War II. It’s a fascinating project and the site is worth visiting by anyone who’s interested in history, the second world war, and good use of the internet.

North Shields is a place on the banks of the River Tyne that was once a small fishing village. It’s about ten miles downriver from the city of Newcastle, the largest city in the northeast of England. Peter was born and raised in North Shields. I lived a few villages over, in a coal-mining area, but we went to the same high school in North Shields. I more or less moved away for good when I was 18, and I now live in the United States, while Peter still lives with his wife and son in North Shields. Peter’s deep roots in the area meshed with his professional life in library services in this project, which explores one night in 1941 when 107 people were killed by a single bomb that fell on an air-raid shelter. The shelter was located below a lemonade factory, whose telephone number was North Shields 173 (hence the name of the website). It was the single largest loss of life at one time in the north east of England during the whole war. The main purpose of the website is to explore all aspects of that night, from the names of every one of the victims, to details about the factory, local history, pictures of the gravestones that lie in local churchyards.

Peter and his co-sitemaster Peter Hepplewhite started the site with a grant from the English National Lottery back in 2000, which is a pretty big deal. They are still updating and adding to it, and as it says on the site’s “About” page, they get enquiries and leads all the time. The project was even featured in a BBC documentary a few years ago, called “How We Won the War.”

There are many things I could choose to illustrate how great a site this is, but I’m just going to pick out this one: a page of archive photos, and some contemporary film footage, showing the ruins of the factory after the air raid.

Go explore this website: you won’t be disappointed.

Friday, June 27, 2014

An Explosive Read

I’ve never been a soldier, and I’ve never wanted to be a soldier. I was a staunch pacifist beginning in my teens, though I modified that later when I read more about the history of the Second World War. But WWII remains, for me, the single war of the twentieth century and the first part of the twenty-first that I think was justifiable, worth fighting, and that I would have volunteered for. Every other war – at least, the wars initiated by European and American governments – I believe to be absolutely unjustifiable in terms of a direct threat to the security of the nation, and that they were started for mainly political and ideological reasons rather than as a response to the sort of existential threat posed by the Nazis.

I hold these beliefs despite the fact that both my parents were in the British Army in the 1960s, and that many of my memories from my first five years of life are of army bases, military housing, a father in uniform. In other words, I have contradictory impulses on the subject of warmaking and soldiering, further evidenced by the fact that I’ve always been an eager reader of written accounts of war. I read The Iliad for the first time when I was 14, for example. My interest at that age was probably to do with these ancient tales as adventure stories, plus a teenage boy’s bloodthirsty enjoyment of the staggeringly high body count and the minute detail they contained of dismemberments, disembowellings, beheadings, spear piercings, etc. Funny how political beliefs are no match for testosterone in the male teenage body.

A high school teacher introduced me to the war poems of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfrid Owen. From there I went on to immerse myself in writing about WWI. I can still recall being mesmerized by Robert Graves’ “Goodbye to All That,” and the immense power of a kind of writing that was suffused with sorrow, anger, and reproach only just held in check, as if his aristocratic eloquence and British reserve were about to burst their bounds at any moment. The same with All Quiet on the Western Front, and Ernest Hemingway’s war fiction, and Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. War as adventure, war as terror, war as dirt and grime and death, war as individual acts of heroism painted against a wide backdrop of futility and betrayal. All of these men (and they were all men, of course) came from a generation and a long tradition that believed it was their duty to go to war, and even though they were damaged and scarred by their experience, both physically and mentally, they knew that they had undergone the largest experience of their lives.

All of the above is a lengthy way of getting round to talking about a book I read last week, called Kaboom, by Matt Gallagher. It’s a memoir of his time serving in Iraq as an officer in the US Army Rangers and the Infantry, in 2008 and 2009. I met the author just a few days before I read the book, while we were both teaching adult classes at Interlochen. That might be the main reason I picked up the book (though I hope I would have come to it sooner or later), but I’m glad I did. I started reading it on a Thursday evening, and then read the whole thing on the following day. And when I say “read,” I mean “grabbed by the neck and pulled headlong through the narrative with barely any bathroom breaks.” It arrests you from the very first page, and doesn’t let you go until the end. The sense of scene, characterization, dialogue, are incredibly sharp, and Gallagher is so good at putting you right there in the field with him that sometimes you forget how good the writing is, and you feel that the events are just unfolding right in front of your eyes. 

Whatever your feelings about war in general, and the American invasion of Iraq in particular, Kaboom is a vivid, funny, and extremely humane account of how that period was experienced by the soldiers on the ground. As Gallagher says, only those who were there can truly know what it was like to go through it – a point that is frequently made, implicitly and explicitly, by his illustrious writer-soldier forebears. But like Robert Graves, and T.E. Lawrence, and Ernest Hemingway, and George Orwell, and Tim O’Brien, reading Gallagher is the next best thing. Kaboom absolutely belongs on the same shelf as those men’s books.  

Monday, June 23, 2014

I just finished teaching a monoprint class

Last week, I went to the Interlochen College of Creative Arts to teach a 3-day intensive course in monoprint printmaking to a group of 6 adults. A monoprint is a type of print you make by painting or rolling ink onto a surface (a metal plate or plexiglass, for instance), manipulating the ink in different ways, then pressing paper onto the plate and applying pressure, either by hand-rubbing or a printing press. You usually only get one print at a time this way, hence the name "monoprint." (Strictly speaking, there is a difference between a monotype and a monoprint, but I'm not terribly purist about that.)

It was a great class, very tiring for all concerned, but we got some great prints out of it. On the first day, we spent some time outside making contact monoprints while doing some blind contour drawing:


Here are a few prints from that session:



The next photo shows a plexiglass plate on the bed of my portable printing press, the image painted freely with Akua intaglio inks using q-tips instead of a brush:


And this is the print that came out:


To keep track of the various combinations of inks, papers, and so forth, I drew a chart on the whiteboard so that people could check off the type of print after they had completed it:


On the final day, we made larger size monoprints by taping together two sheets of acetate, and combining all the inking and wiping methods we'd been trying out for three days: rolling ink on, brushing it on, using stencils, masking out certain areas, wiping out ink here and there. Here is one participant's print above the inked up acetate it was printed from:


Some truly glorious prints came out of this:


And what was so great about the whole session was that there were a couple of people with art school experience, and several people with no experience, yet they all produced really high quality prints. 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Visit to an artist's studio


Last week, I visited the studio of an artist who I became acquainted with via Facebook. It turns out his studio, which is in his home, is only five blocks from where I live in Chicago. The artist's name is Robert Porazinski, and he makes these interesting paintings that appear to be quite flat and abstract at first glance, but which on repeated viewings reveal organic shapes and a variety of painting textures.

There's a nice pushing together of the strict manipulation of technology with observational painting. The photo above shows a table in his studio laden with flower-like sculptures he constructs out of different materials. He then photographs them, stretches and alters them on the computer, and then makes paintings based on those altered photos. Mostly the paintings begin by following the 'map' of the photo, but he always seems to throw in different colours and shapes and marks, depending on what the painting needs.

Robert is showing at the Chicago Art Source beginning June 19th 2014. If you're in the area, it'll be worth your while to take a look.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Collagraphs and drypoint, cont.

Back in the world of the non-toxic printmaking, I got some great advice from printmaker and blogger Aine Scannell a few days ago. I've been looking for ways to reproduce aquatint tones on a collagraph plate. I was experimenting with different strengths of acrylic resist mixed with carborundum, but she suggested I use pastel ground. Pastel ground already contains minute particles of grit which will hold a lot of ink when dried on a printing plate. On the following two plates, I used straight pastel ground for one of the figures, and a tiny amount added to water for the background shapes:
 

Result: a beautiful variation in tonality, pretty similar to an aquatint. Adding some lines scratched into the Lascaux resist in other parts of the plate leads to even more variety and lusciousness of mark making.

I am heading out of Chicago next week to go and teach a monotype class in northern Michigan, so I will mainly be brushing up that technique. But these prints represent another breakthrough for me with collagraph printmaking, one which I will pick up in earnest when I return to my studio after the workshop has ended.

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