Sunday, November 22, 2015


Beauty has become a bad word in the art world today, it seems. Scoffed and mocked as all eyes turn to political, social, and ecological concerns. The Venice Biennale was packed with those concerns. Art schools are emphasizing them. It's in the air, the water, the canvas, the texts.  "Social Justice" has been so overused now, though, that it feels like skin rubbed raw. Yes, we want it! Yes, we really need it! But we also need soothing periodically so our souls don't look like that thing boxed at the back of the refrigerator. I thought about all the overused sayings floating around for "beauty," and decided to investigate.

…skin deep. Ouch, don't do that. I thought there was more, but it's a façade. Nice to look at. What? I've forgotten it. Temporary pleasure.

…comes from within. I have X-ray eyes. I can see from where this sprung, time deep, set with a sapphire. An intricate spinning, set on firm foundation. Emotional ground or passion for meaning, message. Deep-rooted desire.

…in the eye of the beholder. You be you. I'll be me. We'll never agree. One size doesn't fit all. Subjectively defined.

…the beast. Convince me. But you have to come out of hiding and step into the light. The edge of the divine.

truth in…. Now I know, I really know. I understand everything. Gravity, earth, the sun.

…a joy forever. I can look at it all day and it invigorates me, touches me, tingles. Satisfies as it soars. All in one.

The word "beauty" for an artwork is being used badly, and now misunderstood. To continue with the theme of acceptance and inclusion I've been mulling over this year: let's look at beauty and, and social justice and beauty. Balance, as usual, hand in hand. Nice to meet you.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Beginning Again: Wood Engraving with Rik Olson

For two Sundays, I stopped time and took a class at the San Francisco Center for the Book. It was Wood Engraving, taught by Rik Olson, artist and master carver (although he would modestly disagree with those descriptions). In addition to his woodengraving work, Rik has been carving huge pieces of linoleum for the Center's Roadworks Steamroller Print Festival every year. Each day was eight hours of looking, listening, drawing, and carving. Mostly carving. With Chad Johnson, SFCB's Studio Manager and friend, on my left, and book artist, Bettina Pauly (someone I had heard of but had never met) on my right, along with seven other students I did not know, we made the journey through wood together.

I had thought, going in, that my decades of carving linoleum would be of aid, that all I needed to know was what tools to use and how to sharpen them and I would be good to go. Smack the forehead and hit the gong here. I was so wrong. Very soon I learned I was a beginner again.

Rik is an extremely mellow, relaxed teacher who gently directs and encourages. He began by showing us a brief Powerpoint presentation he had prepared for a talk elsewhere, but it was very helpful to see the overall process right away. He brought books and books and examples of the most virtuosic woodengravings one might hope to see, which had an awe-inspiring affect, but also a most humbling one. As he showed the works he often said that the creator of those were artists. Rik was taught by artist and master carver Barry Moser, known for several of his book illustrations, and perhaps most famously for the 100 illustrations in the Arion Press version of Moby-Dick (1979).

I sat staring at the photo of ivy winding through chairs that I was going to work from and realized immediately that it was too small and too detailed for a first block. Chad was working on a simple initial letter F. Bettina was planning to carve a carrot, but her image was too long and thin for the size blocks we were given, so she switched to a turnip. Both of them wanted to carve something they could use. I let that go, deciding instead I would experiment and relieve myself of the stress. I went for the ivy, experimenting first on a practice block to see what kinds of marks to make. The woods Rik recommended: boxwood, maple; you can also use Corian and Resingrave. I asked if there were any well-known women wood engravers and he said Abigail Rorer, and she uses Corian. Her work is amazingly photo-realistic.

Wood engraving tools are quite different from linocut gouges. They are knives, with a single sharp edge at the very tip. Rik said that linoleum cutting was bigger cutting with bigger tools, which would make this small cutting with smaller tools. But after studying the engravings he brought in, I decided this was not the case. Wood engraving, for the most part, has a very specific look: the image is created with lines, not unlike a pen and ink drawing, where the entire surface is made up of lines or dots/stipples. You can do this with linoleum, but that is not how I work. I also realized that I work, and prefer to work, in color, using color for shading. I would have to use lines close together and far apart to shade. Dots together and far apart. And work much, much, more slowly.

I didn't mind the slowness. I liked the feel of the wood handle in my palm as I carved, the steel in my fingers, the tiny marks and flecks of wood at my fingertips. It mesmerized me. Slow processes are familiar: I set type, each metal letter one at a time by hand. 

We had eight tools in front of us to start. Staring at eight without knowing what marks they made was too overwhelming, even trying them all out was too much. With linoleum gouges you can see the little Vs and Us at the end. I started feeling more connected to the tools after asking Rik if he could only pick three, which three would he choose. So I limited myself to those. It took me until the middle of the second day to really understand what I was looking at with the wood engraving tools: elliptical tint, flat graver, and round graver. Elliptical would make a varied line depending on pressure applied. Flat cleared out wide areas. Round made perfectly even lines. The numbers gave a clue as to how wide the lines were, but only in relation to each other. Rik kindly carved out an E on the handle of elliptical tool for me so I could find it more easily. I circled the tools in the McClain's catalogue he gave us.

My block on a sandbag on a bench hook, with wood engraving tools.

My brain was exploding. I got up frequently, made myself some tea in the kitchen there, nibbled at the baked goods Chad generously brought in. Wandered around to see what the other students were doing, and engaged Chad and Bettina in conversation. The room was quiet for most of the time, as if everyone were sitting in solitary. I kept carving, trying different things. Too much going on, and muddled. Like a party on a block.

I found a book of work I absolutely fell in love with. More expressive illustrations than the others, and more like what I aspired to make. But I couldn't get there, yet. When I got home after the first day, I searched for the artist and the book online, but was unable to find it. So the second Sunday, I took pictures. Very 1960s. Wood Engravings by Imre Reiner.

Broken down, the process sounds simple. Make a sketch. Transfer it to the block, first making sure that any letters will be backwards on the block. Outline it in Sharpie. Rub a little ink into the block to darken it. Choose a place to start. Carve for a while. Rub a piece of broken glass over it to remove the little bits of wood sticking up. Shake a little talc or baby powder onto the block and rub it in to see where the whites will be. Keep carving. Repeat. It's all about lights and darks. Contrasts. Being aware of the light source in the picture. Being aware of the shadows. I still think it would feel more familiar to me to work more abstractly, more flat.

We finished up carving. Chad set up the older hand press so we could see how it worked, then we printed a "printer's dozen" on the Vandercook cylinder press. We printed with rubberbased ink so it would have to dry before being stacked.

I was satisfied with the process, but could see that mine was definitely by a beginner. Still quite muddled about the middle. "It's a chair," Rik said. He suggested I try working with scratchboard. Chad made a very nice, simple F and he was happy. Bettina, in the week between the two classes, sanded down her blocks and started again. She made the most beautiful fish, clearly showing her gift for the process. I was so pleased that she wanted to trade and asked me first, because I didn't feel I could ask her for one.

Bettina's fish

I was very glad to have taken the class. To meet Rik. To learn how to look at wood engravings. To talk to new people. To have a new process I can incorporate into my art practice. And remind myself that it is always a good thing to be a beginner every now and again.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

"Who Are Your Influences?"

"Who are your influences?"

I noted that this seemed to be an important question for writers and artists to answer. I had grown up collecting images and sounds, words and feelings, listening to all the songs on 93KHJ, Los Angeles, but knowing few of their names. I would have to focus, pay attention. What kinds of work engaged me? Who could I list as an influence? Whom did I admire—besides everyone? 

First, I chose Georgia O'Keeffe. I had bought a book of her paintings and studied them. For an assignment, I had even attempted a reproduction of one of the oil paintings on canvas using acrylics on paper. Later, I settled upon a triumvirate, my own trinity of women: Patti Smith, Laurie Anderson, Gertrude Stein. They valued sound and rhythm, vivid imagery, a connection to visual art, humor and human storytelling, all in different styles, but with a certain edge. The work of Patti Smith gripped me, like many, the most.

I kept Patti Smith's Babel, a book of poetry, next to my bed for close to ten years, dipping in nightly, and when I came to the end I began again. My college friend Richard liked her first. He let me borrow all of his records, and I, like him, became captivated by her spoken music rock poetry. But I was too late. It was 1981, and Patti Smith had gotten married and stopped touring. I had missed her in person. 

The first time. When she reappeared in San Francisco for a comeback tour in the mid-1990s, I was finally there. The audience was welcoming, and we were thrilled to see her. (I wrote about her previously in this post, "One Patti Smith.")

She went on to receive the National Book Award in 2010 for her memoir 
Just Kids, which I promptly bought and adored. Her prose is magical, yet grounded in everyday life. I've been to New York City since then and fallen in love with it, too.

Her latest book M Train, is what I am reading now. Here, I think, is one of my favorite passages, both poetic and simple, grounded in the ordinary (page 77). In a park, a kid taps her on the shoulder and hands her a sock.

I recognized it immediately. A pale brown cotton lisle sock with a gilded bee embroidered by its edge. I have several pairs of such socks, but where did this one come from? I noticed his companions—two girls around twelve or thirteen—in a fit of laughter. It was undoubtedly yesterday's sock caught up in my pantleg that shimmied down and slid to the ground.
She's so calm about her surprise and so cool about her embarrassment. I have never seen this event in writing. Perhaps it hasn't happened to everyone. But I could identify with this tiny, specific, human scene. She captured the details perfectly.

While M Train does not have the clear narrative through-line of Just Kids, it does contain her sparkling and insightful prose. Her dreams merge with waking life. She writes of her travels, loved ones, loss, black coffee, crime and detective shows, and her relish in solitary thinking and writing time at Café 'Ino. It meanders like a thought, then another remembered. I'm happy to be on the train looking out the window of her life with her. And glad that her writing still inspires.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

February Workshops with Alisa Golden at SFCB

Save the dates! Come paint and bind with me! I'd love to meet you all. I'm teaching workshops this winter and spring at the San Francisco Center for the Book in 2016. We've just scheduled two for February: dates and descriptions are below. I'll be updating the info here as I get it, but you can keep checking the workshop page on the SFCB website, too. Registration is through the Center.

Sunday, February 7, 10am - 4pm 
Watches, Time, and the Hourglass Book

As we explore the connections between form and content, we'll draw and paint from watch parts and sundials and sew a softcover book with an hourglass binding.

Looking at time as inspiration we will first create stencils and paint on paper with gesso and acrylic inks. We'll then use our painted paper as the cover of this simple but elegant hourglass sketchbook or journal, which is based on multiple pamphlet stitches. In the beginning of the session we will draw and cut stencils and paint resists and washes. The latter part of the workshop will be devoted to binding the book, devised by Alisa. We'll also discuss further content development. All levels welcome!

Thursday, February 25, 10am - 4pm
Fish, Nature, and the Fishbone Fold

We'll explore the connections between form and content as we layer large sheets of paper with pearlescent acrylic inks, then bind one or more versions of a fishbone folded book originally devised by Hedi Kyle.

Looking at examples of natural connections such as fish and scales, the cloud formation known as "mackerel sky," markings on a "mackerel tabby" cat, and leaves of a redwood tree, we'll begin the workshop by painting large sheets of paper with sparkling pearlescent acrylic inks. Then we'll bind the papers into one or more variations of this flexible, visual and sculptural book and discuss further content development. All levels welcome!