Monday, August 29, 2011

A Trick for the Ruler Challenged

Days Made Strange, 2011
It has taken me—no, I'm not going to bother to say, it's too ridiculous—a million years (there, I said it) to finally become comfortable sight-reading a ruler. If I were smarter, I would have done everything in metric, truly. But I think I've got it now. Except when I don't.

I remember numbers out of order—that seems to be the biggest problem. I'm working on an edition of forty book/calendars and I've cut at least three of the inner holders incorrectly. I knew it was supposed to be 1 1/4", but when I looked at the diagonal cut I made (it was supposed to be straight) and remeasured it, one mark was at 1 1/2". Argh. I needed a template so I didn't have to remember the number six times per holder. And I had a second spot that needed to be measured at 1/2". What to do?

Hooray for artist's tape! I taped one side of my ruler—the one I could read most easily (in 8ths, not 16ths of an inch). I left the other side free of tape so I could use it for cutting. My work is going much faster. I hope yours does. Metric users, do you ever have this problem? Just wondering.

Tape the interval you need on one edge of the ruler.

Use the untaped side to cut against.

Use thinner slices of tape for a second interval.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Arts & Crafts, Punk & DIY: Movements & Messages

We're back at that place where everyone wants to see the hand. Today, if it's perfect it's too slick or lacks feeling. Punk rock had this aesthetic, too; you didn't have to know how to play an instrument, you just had to have strong feelings, plenty of stamina, and the drive to be heard. But punk had anti-establishment, anti-corporation, anti-racist and anti-sexist politics behind it. The Arts & Crafts Movement, by contrast, promoted fine craft and skill, honoring the maker (anyone could be trained) and was partially in response to the poor working conditions and treatment in the factories. Today we have a mixture in the do-it-yourself (DIY) movement: anyone can make anything and the handmade is praised, but nothing has to look precise. It's about challenges. It's about doing. At least that is what it looks like to me.

The Arts & Crafts movement glorified both the beauty of the object and how it enhanced everyday life as well as the pride of the maker. William Morris, in the 1890s, focused on fine materials in his Kelmscott Press books, which included handmade paper, woodcuts, and hand printing. I don't think beauty or quality is entering into the picture today, though. I think it is the coolness of the act of making the product that is the source of awe. The eyes-open "how'd you do that" or "how'd you think of that" rather than the "how did you learn to do that so well." We've got YouTube so anyone can make a video, no matter how good. We've got MP3 players where the quality of the music isn't what people are after—it's the accessiblity. There has been a renewed interest in LPs, but it is possible people also like the "authentic" pops and skips along with the finer (in general) sound.

Maybe it is actually character that people want. A personalization of a thing that makes it unique and stands alone from others. I think that longing for uniqueness gets confused sometimes with something roughly made. Nobody really ever wanted pops and skips on a record when records were the norm, for example. The disinterest in perfection, or I'd rather call it precision, is also possibly a reaction against big box stores, generic malls, and sameness found in certain areas across the United States.

Each of these "movements" was/is a reaction to the times with punk the most overtly political of the three. In a compilation of essays by Greil Marcus called Ranters and Crowd Pleasers: Punk in Pop Music, 1977-92, I found a some interesting examples of progressive sociopolitical views. The Clash incorporated Jamaican reggae into their music and wrote about social problems such as haves and have nots. The Raincoats is fronted by three women who wanted "to put a bit of a distance between what we do and the rock 'n' roll tradition" which was "based in the exclusion of women and the ghettoization of blacks" (113). Gang of Four looks at the corporations, how capitalism affects people's everyday lives, and bases some of the their lyrics on advertising propaganda. Interesting how the street posters for these bands (or bands like them) were the photocopied, disjointed, cut-and-paste variety reminiscent of Italian Futurism founder and pro-Fascist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti who promoted war and technology,  the abolition of galleries and museums, and capturing the feelings of speed, movement and flight in art.

We've been at war for decades now, but there's no big rebellion in the DIY movement (unless you want to count the computer and cell phone hackers…). Perhaps it is about looking for something positive, a reaching out for community, a culture of sharing, collaboration, reusing information and materials. We still have the artist/crafters who take pride in their skill and ability to make beautiful things, as evidenced in magazines like Fiber Arts (final issue: Summer 2011) and Fine Woodworking and there is a little overlap, but the emphases are different, including a devotion of fine crafters (as evidenced in FWs website) to "becoming better" and "excellence."

To become better acquainted with DIY, I hunted through some back issues of Make magazine: most of which had to do with electronics and science and contained great hacks (challenges to be accepted when faced with either a device that won't let you do something or just to see if you can, such as a webcam attached to a vacuum cleaner). I found only one woman listed in the front of each issue (if that). It did include a couple of craft-related things, such as making buttons from fallen tree branches which I immediately had to try. I made nearly a dozen buttons before I remembered I had other work that needed to be finished. The buttons are a bit crude—no wait—I mean rustic and unique. What will I do with them? I don't know. Did I enjoy myself? Oh, yeah!

Craft magazine is the sister magazine, geared primarily to what women have typically been interested in making (knitting, sewing, cooking) and to the current recycle/reuse attitude towards materials. As a printer, however, I can't say I'm happy about the idea of the "Make a Type Cabinet into a Coffee Table" project, even if it does include welding.

Linked to both of these magazines is the Maker Faire, which started in 2006 and contains science, electronics, and crafts. I attended in 2009 & '10 and discovered: conductive thread that could be used to light up books and textiles; the needlefelting group; the steampunk costumes; the craft fair where I bought paper tape and cool stuff from Xylocopa; and the Doggie Diner heads. I took photos of the people—so many people!—that turned up and paid to visit this event. I made some linoleum cuts based on the photos and this summer printed Days Made Strange: a perpetual letterpress haiku calendar. My art was certainly inspired by my visit.

The mainstream craft end of the DIY movement appears to be pushing against the depersonalizing aspect of the digital boom; it's about working with your hands—making something, anything—and joining a community that makes. It's a democratic world where the people are important and equal and individuals are in control. The downside is that some of the aesthetics are actually anti-craft. By anti-craft I mean the excellence that comes from practice and skill. It's more about the process, the curiosity and "what if" rather than the art of expressing oneself and refining a technique.

Change is inevitable. It is possible that this is the beginning, that people will eventually want to refine the craft or have their project mean more to themselves and their viewers. In the late 1990s, just after the spotlight on book structures, people began to ask how they could make more than just interesting objects. They wanted to add content to their work. The content becomes the connector, reaching out to our shared emotions in a more permanent form.

Arts & Crafts wanted to promote beauty in our everyday lives. Punk wanted to free us up as individuals. DIY brings curiosity back into our experience. Each time there has been a desire to make something better: sometimes an object, sometimes the world, sometimes the process, sometimes a little of each.

Bibliography & Sources
Marcus, Greil. Ranters & Crowd Pleasers: Punk in Pop Music, 1977-92. New York: Doubleday, 1993.
Clark, Robert Judson, ed. The Arts and Crafts Movement in America, 1876-1916. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1972.
Belsito, Davis, Kester. Street Art: The Punk Poster in San Francisco, 1977-1981. San Francisco: Last Gasp, 1981.
Livingstone, Karen. Essential Arts and Crafts. London: V&A Publications, 2005.
Make magazine articles of note: Vol. 21 (Magic photo cube by Ken Wade, p. 136), Vol. 22 (Tameharu Nagata, Japanese street performer  with storytelling cards [kamishibai] and snacks, p. 23; Brazilian artist Felipe Barbosa who makes sculpture out of recycled materials like soccer balls and firecrackers), Vol. 23 ("Walled Gardens vs. Makers" by Cory Doctorow, an excellent article that says precisely what DIY is about, p. 16, and American artist Theresa Honeywell, who knits over motorcycles, machine guns, handguns, p. 23); Vol. 24 (wooden buttons from tree branches by Kristin Roach p. 126)
Craft magazine
Arts & Crafts history website
MoMA | The Collection | Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. (Italian, 1876-1944)

(all photos by me, as usual, unless otherwise noted)

Monday, August 22, 2011

Resharpening Cutting-Edge Art

Seeing the sepia-toned, collage-style wallpaper in the coffee store made me put down my hot chocolate for a moment. I loved it (both the drink and the wallpaper). From what I remember—this was a few years ago—the topics were postage and travel. The aesthetics were pleasing. Well, that ends that, I thought at the time. Can't make sepia-toned collage work anymore if it's showing up in a chain.

So it goes and maybe it's natural. Over and over artists move into ghost towns or low-rent districts, fix 'em up, do exciting things and…there goes the neighborhood. Expensive lofts are built advertising the arty feel, rents go up, artists are forced out. Art is parallel with life here. Artists create something, it's picked up by commercial media, splashed about willy nilly, and suddenly it's a cliché. The real cutting edge becomes a dull prop.

Is this, consciously or unconsciously, why some artists guard their "secret formulas?" I don't hear it often because those aren't the circles I chase around, but I have heard the response to the question, "How did you do that?" to be "I'm not sayin'." I see why they might conceal their methods, but I've always felt that sharing information is the best way to make it available for the right person to grab hold of it and do something terrific. Sometimes I'm just as satisfied to learn, share things as I learn or figure out, and move on.

But if I—you—they—didn't? Would the vibrant, new, cutting edge art hang on a little longer? Well, just look at that sentence again. Cutting edge can't exist forever. If we must hold onto the metaphor, a knife, even a great knife, always needs resharpening. So that is our task: to continue resharpening ourselves, our outlooks, our art so that it stays fresh and meaningful and inspiring.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Book as Hourglass: Transforming Time

I like to imagine that the three young people at the outside restaurant table have their heads bowed because they are all reading while waiting for their food. And maybe they are. But they aren't reading books. The world is in front of them, contained in tiny devices. Large or small, artist books, too, are able to open up a world, approach big subjects, broaden a view, expand a moment in time: what can make them work?

The activity of reading is usually solitary. The activity of making often is as well. Either way, the head is bowed in reverence to…what? There's that mystery again: the creative process, the things that inspire us, and where it all comes from. Imagine all that noise out there coming through a funnel with a filter—your filter—a way to make those large moments smaller so that a protest, a courtroom, seven dreams, or everything you saw on the street today make sense. And so you can make them into art: a story, poem, book, sculpture, orchestral work, play, video, comic—whatever medium you like. What would be cool is if you could take those large moments, fit them into the art, and then have the viewer/listener experience that largeness again. The book doesn't have to be bigger than your head but the concepts can be.

Another way to do this is to start with the small, then connect to the large (mentioned in this related post and this one). We rented a Polish film the other night called Big Animal that was seemingly about a camel that appears in a small town and the childless couple who adopt it, but turns out to be about something larger: intolerance and fear. The film has no villains, yet it has conflict and heart. Each person is made up of emotional and intellectual shades of grey—perhaps appropriate since this 2000 film is in black and white. The film takes you from the small problem of one couple to the larger problems of the world. A moment in time, expanded, possibly exploded.

An intriguing essay, "The Beaten Path" by Carlo McCormick in the excellent book Beautiful Losers: Contemporary Art & Street Culture takes up the back and forth, push and pull between the larger background of history, particularly art history, and the personally experienced, current moment. In his dynamic, hard-driving prose he shows how we yearn for an earlier time, disregard it, and/or rebel against it. When do we draw on what we have experienced in the past or what others have experienced or made and how do we make it relevant now? Chris Johanson, one of the artists whose work is shown in the book, has a piece in a monograph where he has painted the words, "This conceptual art is about human connections that can happen between people and how important it is to be in the moment with your people." Johanson's work deals with those interactions between people that are timeless, yet are depicted in his current style: paintings on boxes and walls, whole cities created from painted cardboard. His work also provides commentary on life today: one installation contained a "nice" store, "Nice Store / The store that treats people like people / that have individual needs."

Ultimately, my ideal book takes you in with your head bowed and back out again with an expanded mind. An hourglass where the sands change: the book is that narrowing of attention for a brief time that causes a thought to linger, transformed, as another world sifts and shifts into view.

Antenna, 2007

photo by Sibila Savage

Monday, August 15, 2011

More Inkjet Printing: Cloth, Paper & Gel Skin

Last post I tried out the non-porous digital ground so I could print on a piece of cloth (in this case a "book pelt"). Here are the next tries on the cloth and on the gel skin I mentioned previously. To alter inside pages, I also tried out artist's tape to mask words and masking fluid through a stencil to create a shape.

For the cloth, I used a dampened cotton swab and blurred out some of the hard edges of the photos after they were printed and before I sprayed the images with the archival varnish.

I made the gel skin from self-leveling clear gel poured onto a piece of disposable palette paper, which I had painted first with a little gold interference fluid acrylic. The gel pooled like glue, then dried clear after  two days. I applied the non-porous digital ground on top of the dried skin and let it dry for a day. The palette page had to be cut down to printer size, but the skin  remained stuck to the palette page to print. I then proceeded with the printing, drying, spraying, and drying as before.

Top left: Daniel Smith watercolor ground painted on cloth. (It works, but it leaves brushstrokes and texture; the Golden matte digital ground would probably work better.)
Top right: masking fluid through a stencil (vaguely visible)
Bottom left: artist's tape to mask words
Bottom right: gel skin coated with non-porous digital ground

Taped and printed. The top right paper got jammed in the printer because it fed diagonally by mistake, but it left an interesting image anyway that happened to enhance the content.

Clockwise from top left: gel skin (still on the palette paper), masking fluid, watercolor ground, artist's tape.

All tape  and masking fluid removed. You can peel the gel skin from the palette page now or spray it first.

Gel skin resting on dark background. Notice that the interference gold acrylic shows up very well here. If you make several skins please note that they will stick together or stick to almost anything else even when they are dry. Put pieces of the palette paper or aluminum foil between them to store. If you are planning a project with the gel skin, prepare it at least three days before you will need it.

To mat the gel skin or to use it as a window in a book cover, cut holes in two 4-ply museum boards and sandwich the gel skin between them.

Cover the boards or paint them with acrylic paint first if you like.

You can position and reposition the gel skin on one of the boards. Add a shim of extra paper to even out the surface (where there is no gel skin) before you attach the second board.

Adhere all with any kind of gel medium. The skin is now suspended.

Creating a board book with these layers, putting text behind the skin, printing text on the skin—these new tools open up excellent possibilities for enhancing message and meaning.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Inkjet Printing on Book Pelts & Cloth

If it prints, I'm interested in it. If it transfers, that's cool, too. If I can make a book with it, awesome. I attended a free two-hour demo at the Blick store on transfer and printing techniques that use inkjet printers. The demo was given by Nina Deckert (pronounced Nine-a), an artist and rep for Golden Acrylics (no relation), and I was inspired to try out those particular processes because they use printing, transferring, and I can use them in bookmaking.

The newest techniques to me were the making of gel skins and the applying of a digital medium to unusual materials for inkjet printing. The gel skins are transparent and can be applied (with acrylic medium) on top of paintings, book covers, or wrapped around three-dimensional objects so that the painting, book cloth, colors, textures, or substrate material shows through. Make one with just acrylic paints or colors, or brush on a clear gloss digital ground, tape it to a piece of paper, and run it through the inkjet printer. A great, detailed article about the gel skins is on the Golden website in their Just Paint newsletter archives: #20 "Technology Therapy: Overcoming the Fear" by Patti Brady.

This is not scary. This is just about painting one plain coat. And taping something to a piece of paper. And using your inkjet printer in a normal way. (And inkjet only, please.)

The digital medium allows you to print on just about any flexible, thin surface. Nina showed various uses for the Digital Grounds, which come in Gloss, Matte (white), and for Non-Porous Surfaces like foil papers, Mylar, and for the gel skins. Gloss is good if you want to see the color or material through the image, such as for line drawings. White is best on dark backgrounds or if you want an image in the midst of a heavy pattern. The ground nicely adds a slight stiffness to the gel skin or cloth. Nina said you can also use the non-porous ground on porous surfaces, and since I got a free sample of the non-porous I decided to try it out with two of my waiting "book pelts."

Use a disposable palette page, aluminum foil, silicon release paper, polypropylene sheet protectors/dividers, or polyethylene as a work surface (not acrylic plexiglass). Brush the ground onto the cloth, hang it up to dry (mine took 4 hours on a foggy morning).

Tape it to a piece of standard printer paper with low-tack artist's tape.

Make sure there aren't any loose areas on the cloth that will bunch up. Use a little double-sided tape if necessary.

Run it through and let it dry.

Spray it with one or two light coats of the archival spray varnish and let dry (in the afternoon sun it took only a few minutes although the directions say 24 hours). The digital grounds are water soluble so once they are painted on the surface, run through the inkjet printer and dried, they must be sprayed or they will not be permanent. As per Nina's recommendation, I used the Archival Spray Varnish, which also protects against UV light, to fix the images. It has a strong initial smell, so use it outside. The odor goes away in an hour or so.

In this case, I backed the cloth afterwards. I spread wheat paste on Velin Arches and smoothed the cloth on top of the paste, which worked very well. The sun was strong and warm that afternoon so it didn't take long to dry and I could cover the boards in just a few minutes. Instructions for mixing wheat paste and backing cloth are on pages 21-22 of Making Handmade Books.

Cover a board*. For a book or portfolio, use a second piece of backed cloth for the back board.

Here on the left, only the boards are covered, awaiting the book block. Background is acrylic ink painted Tyvek.

Right: Bound book with light tan Nideggen paper inside. Turns out to be very sturdy.

(Click on each to see larger image.)

Printing on a lighter cloth or using the matte white digital ground would probably give even better results. Definitely worth more experimentation. And the thought of printing on foil origami paper is intriguing, too. If you print on Mylar you can do a transfer technique onto a large piece of dampened printmaking paper. More to come…

Just for your interest: the Golden paint company has various workshops given by their working artist representatives: some free, some not. You may be able to find a schedule here.

*Bookmakers: I partially covered each board separately as you might for a quarter cloth bound book. I glued three strands of embroidery thread for bookmarks to the book block spine before casing in. Various instructions in my how-to books:
  • "variation" up until "a" for Covering Separate Boards in Expressive Handmade Books, pages 127-128
  • Hardcover Portfolio up until Step 11 in Creating Handmade Books, pages 130-131
  • Hard Cover: Multiple Signature in CHB, pages 118-119 or Making Handmade Books, pages 224-225; or Case Binding: Flat Spine in MHB, pages 213-214
  • Case Binding in EHB, pages 130-133
  • Attaching the Book Block in MHB, page 215

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Lynda Barry: Pursuing a Vision

We take classes for different reasons. We may attend intent on learning a skill, meeting new people, getting feedback, checking out a new community, or just having the time and space to do something we love. The chemistry of the class is unpredictable; we have signed up separately, but we hope we will all be compatible. We can research the instructor, but we still don't know what s/he will be like with this class and with these people. If we are jumping in cold we can evaluate the class based on a few observations:

  • Are we encouraged to pursue our own visions or the instructor's vision?
  • Is the class process- or product-oriented?
  • Do the exercises open our minds and inspire us or shut them down and block us?

A couple years ago I picked up a book that inspired me by Lynda Barry. What It Is was published in 2008 by Drawn and Quarterly Press, and I found it answered affirmatively to the three questions, above, in a visual (nearly overstimulating) way with collagelike pages. I brought it to an educator's group where it was met with mixed reactions. One person was horrified because she felt the aesthetic was messy and she didn't want her students to think that was okay to make things like that in her class. While I could see her point, I thought that the aesthetics might be the start of an interesting discussion. I felt that the book was much deeper and that the ideas supported the creative choices. In an interview Barry said:
I just wanted to make it so that when you started to flip through the pages you just had this itchy urge to make something, and I wanted to make both those books completely by hand and to use stuff that you could just get at the corner store. They're all made with scissors and Elmer's Glue and some paper from the trash.
The creative process is messy.

And Barry is all about process. This particular book draws from journals, sticky notes, paintings, personal stories and children's writing and artwork from the archives of the Mitchell family, one of whose members had been a school teacher in the 1920s. Barry asks many questions, such as "What is an Idea?" and "What is an Image?"  "What Makes Something Meaningful?" "Why Write By Hand?" and "Where are Images Found?" She is interested in play and what children and grown-ups do when they make art/write.

The pages are numbered and the book has four color-coded sections:

  • periwinkle: What It Is; this is the bulk of the book that asks questions and tells stories.
  • salmon: Activity Book "contains some of the excercises [sic] we use in class to help us find images and follow them as they take form" (138).
  • light green: Let's Make Writing a "do it yourself writing kit" (174) She gives suggestions for making a "word bag" and a "picture bag" and ways to use them.
  • pumpkin: Notes on Notes; she keeps a pad of paper next to her main work so she can doodle and keep her hands in motion while she is thinking (190).

One of my favorite pages (145) is titled "Now Let's   Turn Around   Inside of This    Image." She says that "An Image is a Location." This idea makes me focus on what I'm seeing in my head and then go there. I love the idea of looking around an image or place in my head.

If you find a copy of this book, take some time with it. Go through it about three or four times. If you can focus on one aspect each time the book can be inspirational rather than overwhelming. Look at all the pictures. Then go back and read it. Then see if you can understand the order and what you might take away from it for yourself. You don't have to make work like hers. Think of the book and her voice in it as a nature guide pointing out a trail.

An article, "Inside a Master Class: Breath, Punctuate, Forget Led Zeppelin" by Erik Piepenburg in the NYTimes touched on learning and teaching. In the article actor Raúl Esparza said essentially that the master class is to help someone improve. Actress Betty Buckley suggested that teachers are like coaches and guides, that a master class is like "a tuneup." Both sounded supportive, ready to nurture an individual's dream.

So, this is what I'm looking for in teachers. Coaches, people who want to help me be more ME rather than more THEM. I think Lynda Barry gets at that in her book, and she gratefully thanks her own teachers in the process.

Interview with Lynda Barry by Jesse Thorn
KQED interview
Lynda Barry has recently written another book—this one about drawing called Picture This.

Start with Pencil, 2005
photo by Sibila Savage

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Everything Matters, Now Compromise

Compromise is in the air. I can't pretend otherwise; let's see how it applies. Here I am moving along, creating something, and without warning I have to put on the brakes. Decision time. I have to make a choice which may be miniscule or enormous—either way it will affect my progress and the piece as a whole. It's a bit confusing to think that everything matters, that I may have to compromise, let something go, give something up.

Let's look at a visual chart of choices to consider while designing a book. Hang in there with me a minute.
Original desires are in yellow.
Problems are in red.
Decisions are in blue.

Let's say I want to make multiple copies of a handmade book on yellow paper and it has some kind of text. Now, notice how the original concept changes depending on the choices. These are hypothetical problems, examples to show what might happen. The green boxes exhibit four different outcomes.

Possible outcomes:
Left: sidebound book with thin paper, doubled, printed as I wanted it, but it won't open flat. 
Right: accordion fold book with thick paper, printed as I wanted it, but it won't be yellow. 
Bottom Left: one handmade copy, and multiple facsimiles, available at a lower cost to the readers. 
Bottom Right: one handmade book or very small edition of handmade books, higher priced.

So you can see that all of the choices matter, but I may end up making a book that is different from the book I had in mind. In some way, it just might be better.

Another possibility is that I spend the time and make a large edition by hand.

A framework by Eli Goldratt that is used in business and engineering, known as the "triple constraint," involves problemsolving, and through it, compromise. One example is: "Good, fast, cheap: pick two." If you examine what we have looked at, you can see that our choices lead to those as well: binding (how the book handles/quality), labor (production time), cost of materials. Quality, time, cost. Still, we only get two. Something's gotta give. The choices all matter; they just aren't always easy.