Monday, February 27, 2012

Gender Words as Cultural Colors

In English we do not have masculine and feminine words; all words are neutral, we think. A table, for example, is an object, an "it." But in another language, "she" may be calmly waiting to present us with our food like a stereotypical mother, or "he" may stand solid and strong like a stereotypical father. 

In the article "Tip of the Tongue," wine writer and expert W. Blake Gray writes about a hypothetical international dinner party where no one can agree on the description of the wine.  Each person's view is colored by whether the language s/he speaks refers to the wine as masculine or feminine, among other considerations. Gray points out that the language we use for a common object affects our perception of that object. He cites Dr. Robin Lakoff, Berkeley sociolinguist, who notes that the word "bridge" in French is masculine and the French think of bridges as strong and powerful; while in German the word "bridge" is feminine, and the Germans may think of bridges as beautiful or have delicate cables.

Even though English has gender-neutral terms, we might become more observant and careful writers if we pay attention to how gender aspects color our world.

Try choosing an object, setting a timer for five minutes, and jotting down the characteristics of that object. Quickly and automatically: describe it, its uses, and how it functions. When the timer rings, look back at what you wrote. What do you think? Are you male or female? Did you write words more commonly used for your gender? Equal? Opposite? Interesting.

Protecting the Forest, 2010
photo by Sibila Savage

Friday, February 24, 2012

Making Another Felt Book (2): Needlefelted Areas

To add large blocks of color to your wet-felted fabric you can use pieces of wool sweaters, other wool scraps—perhaps from previous felting projects—or you can needlefelt the dry wool roving to the dry felt. You will probably want both a single felting needle and a multi-needle tool, both available at some craft stores and also through online sources such as Black Sheep Designs.

Take the roving and lightly needlefelt it in place, tacking it down to start. Use the multi-needle tool to affix most of it. Go back to the single needle and clean up the edges. You'll be able to see how much fiber you have felted through by looking at the back. It is up to you if you want to make the new area perfectly flat or leave raised areas. For this little clementine (or The Big Orange Splot ) I wanted the edges secure and flat, but the center slightly raised.

To Bind: machine or hand sew the folded page to the center of the cover. See this post for an example with multiple pages, but the idea is the same.

Next up: (Creative Process and) Finishing

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Exquisite Corpse in Writing & Art

Someone told me recently that she was not sure how one might go about making up a character. I know my characters are composites: hair from an old friend, shoes from a neighbor, the walk of someone I've seen on the street. I've had to explain that writing isn't about pulling ideas out of one's imagination kicking and screaming, it's more like an exquisite corpse or a menu: one from column A, one from column B, and so on.

Here is an interesting exercise to try. Divide a piece of paper into columns. Write down things like "hair" or "shoes" or "hats" and go out into the world and collect information: all the kinds of hair you see in one day; the types of shoes and who wears them; the kinds of hats different ages of people have; older people; college students; children, etc.. Keep the lists for character references.

Exquisite Corpse or Cadavre exquis began as a Surrealist game in the 1920s. Before I knew anything about the Surrealists I was taught to make "folded stories" in elementary school. Everyone in the game has a piece of paper and writes a sentence or two, leaving a couple of words on the line below. Fold the paper so just the couple words are showing. Pass it to the next person, who continues the story where you left off. The first person might write about a mountain and leave "then it became covered with" on the exposed line. The second person might finish with the word "chocolate" and write about something completely different. Continue the process until the page is filled. Unfold the paper and read the absurd story aloud. The first piece from the Surrealists' game was "The exquisite / corpse/ will drink / the new / wine," which is how it got its name. They eventually expanded this process to include drawings and collages. In 1992, The Silver Buckle Press at the University of Wisconsin at Madison organized A Printer's Exquisite Corpse. You can see all the parts at the link: heads, upper torsos, lower torsos and feet. Interactive slide show here. It was so successful that they launched Exquisite Horse, A Printer's Corpse in 1997. Each letterpress artist got a card indicating where the parts should join together when assembled so she could plan her section.

How do you get ideas for the parts? Bob Glück recently suggested "plein air" writing. The term is usually used for paintings that are created outside "in the open air" and when the artist is looking directly at the subject rather than painting from photographs (or from online images) or from the imagination. Bob used it to describe a writing exercise. He suggested I sit in a café and choose a person, note how old he is, how he moves, the gestures, how he arranges things, what he does when he speaks, etc.. Write it all down, and then layer it onto the page. "This will freshen up your characters," he said. We've probably all heard the old writing saw about "show don't tell;" now we can really understand what it means.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Making Another Felt Book (1): Layered Color

For this felt book you wet-felt three layers of dry wool roving into one sturdy piece of fabric that does not ravel or tear. A benefit of this process is that you can use different a color for each layer. Contrasting colors work well. In this example, the outer layers are dark blues, purples, and blacks, and the inner layer is peach, light brown and dark brown. For added interest, include some mesh and fabric in the inner layer. Once the wool has been completely felted you can use a small sharp scissors to cut through an outer layer and expose the inner colors.

See Making a Felt Book for detailed instructions on wet-felting.

First layer

Beginning second layer

Second layer with included fabrics

Second layer

Third layer

Wet-felting the layers

The felt

Cutting one page and a cover

Trimming the page to fit

Cutting into one layer

Exposing the mesh fabric

Cutting into one layer

Exposing the inner layer color
Next up: Needlefelting large areas of color

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Save the Paper Mail

Here it is, Valentine's Day. I wasn't going to mention it, let alone post anything remotely related to it, but something appeared in my IN box that seemed worthy of note on this particular day.

The post card. The U.S. mail. We've probably noticed fear building up around the decline of snail mail (can we call it paper mail, instead?). We hear rumors that our post office boxes will be closed and that Saturday delivery will be ended. Some cities and towns have had closures already. Who is to blame? We are. We like our fast technology so we are writing fewer actual paper letters and cards. Maybe you, in particular, aren't to blame, but lots of somebodies are. As our times and habits change we always have to address the question: do we try to save the past or let it go? 

Bonnie O'Connell and the Friends of the College Book Art Association are trying to save it. They've taken on "A national campaign to save the United States post office by inviting everyone in America to mail any postcard to anyone on the 14th day of every month" and they are launching the project today. They are recommending that you "Find or make a printed, altered, or handmade postcard, address to anyone, attach a 32 cent stamp, drop in a mailbox!" While the actual date you mail it shouldn't matter, the idea of having a monthly—why not weekly?—practice to make and mail a postcard or letter is a good one. A small, manageable project, mail art can be used to sketch out ideas, explore a technique, have fun, finish, and give away.

If you would prefer being on the receiving end, The Rumpus, an online magazine "focused on culture," has recently started a new mail subscription series called "Letters in the Mail." Sign up and pay $5 a month and you will receive a paper letter from an author almost every week. You can write them back but it is unclear if you will receive a personal reply. You can also pay for a year in advance or send a subscription as a gift. Each letter is from a different writer and duplicated for all the subscribers.

These are only two of what I suspect are many more projects to help us get back to letterwriting and postcard sending. In a previous post I mentioned mail art and I sent out some odds and ends via the paper mail. Today in honor of my love for stamped ephemera, I repeat my offer to send you something. If you are one of the first three people to comment and would like to receive a postcard, please also send me an email with your paper mail address.

I went to the post office window to buy first class stamps. "Are they all Forever stamps?"
I asked. The postal worker answered sadly, "Yes, and they're gonna last forever."

The neighborhood dogs are barking in chorus again. Must be the letter carrier…


Thursday, February 9, 2012

What I'm Not Reading

I can read whatever I want to. That may sound strange but after three years of grad school I'm done with my coursework. This is very exciting! But also very daunting. How can I possibly read all the books I've been introduced to? How can anyone?

With Intent to Read
Currently, I've got these checked out of the library: The Printmaker's Daughter: A Novel by Katherine Govier (about Hokusai's daughter), Bleak House (Crime Classics) by Charles Dickens, New and Selected Things Taking Place by May Swenson (poetry), and. And bought these recently: Malaquias Montoya a new monograph of the artist-activist-professor, Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists' Writings (California Studies in the History of Art), and Picture This: The Near-sighted Monkey Book  (comic and instructional book) by Lynda Barry. That's a lot of books I'm not exactly reading. I know what they are all about, but I'm not sure I'm going to get through them all. Is it cheating to only read part of a book and then try to talk about it?

Sometimes, I pick one up, open it, get the idea, and close it again. Other times I realize that great gems are hidden inside. If I see a glimmer I'll go back and immerse myself in the entire book from the beginning. Like all creative works—including artists' books, film, music, plays, etc.—this particular piece may resonate with me or it may not. The work itself may or may not be ultimately inspiring, but the search should yield interesting results.

A couple months ago I read How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read by Pierre Bayard. Bayard is a professor of literature in France who is also interested in psychology. He writes that he is a lover of literature, but that he can't possibly read everything he wants to read. He suggests that books are situated in certain places, that you don't need to know exactly what is in them to know what they are about. If you know what they are about you can talk about the ideas within. Bayard has a hilarious classification system that includes: books read, books he's heard of, books he's read and forgotten, and books he's never heard of. If you have forgotten a book is it like never having read it? I have a whole bookshelf of books I've read and vaguely remember. This makes me feel uneasy.

Bayard also makes the point that you may not read an entire book at once (or ever) but you may live with it your whole life as you dip into it from time to time.  Perhaps living with a book is more important.

I guess I am relieved that I can also not read whatever I want. I just have to find more books I can live with.

On a somewhat related side note: I finally saw the excellent and passionate 2008 film The Reader with Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, and David Kross. It is a love story, a thoughtful exploration of moral and social responsibility, and a look at emotional confusion and indecisiveness, with books and reading as the pivot point.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Reading Room

The insides of the Berkeley Art Museum gift shop have been moved several feet and are now in the lobby. They are by the ticket takers, surrounded by a fence that says "no bags or backpacks beyond this point." A temporary displacement. The gift shop, the real one, has a new sign that says "The Reading Room," and suggests that you browse the books inside—poetry and experimental fiction—with the understanding that you will bring one back to replace the one you take. "We look forward to seeing how the character of the works on the shelves evolves over the course of the project!…guided and inspired by Ramsay Bell Breslin and Lyn Hejinian."

I enter the old space that seemingly wears the new clothes. The lighting is similar: dim overall, with gooseneck-lamplight on the books that makes the colors glow. The carpet erases my footfalls: I move stealthily around the small room, alone. Two voices recite poetry from hidden speakers. Two modern overstuffed chairs and one swivel chair are the only furniture aside from the full bookshelves that line the walls. With a tilted head, I read every title. There are many repeats.

I recognize names: Lyn Hejinian, Kelsey Street Press, Kate Delos, Dale Going, Rena Rossenwasser, Bill Berkson, and Steve Benson (I first knew him as one of my managers at Pegasus Books, later found out he was a poet. Coincidentally, Pegasus is participating in World Book Night, a giveaway, on April 23. More details are here.) I have so many books at home—what book do I want and what book would I trade for it? I've been trying to rein in my book acquisitions. Then I see the dark gray spine and title Poetical Dictionary (Abridged) by Lohren Green. I know nothing about this book, but I have an inkling and I want to find out if I am right.

This book makes me happy. Each word has a poem below it, composed of real dictionary definitions, the rest made up, artful. I like how these definitions deepen the meaning of the words by their visual examples. Who cannot be delighted by the poem "acrobatics?" An excerpt:

acrobatics—dance on peaks, striking stances…
1. an exercise in what one already knows
about the swing of rings, acting out
a practiced feeling for
just the right degree of composure
there atop the throbbing rope, with
toes gripping twine-rugged texture…

I've seen artist-writers use the dictionary for inspiration before, but not in this poetic form. In the Table of Contents we see that "A" has four entries: acrobatics, affect, affect, atmosphere. It is both bold and humorous having two poems for affect, I think. I'll take it. And I promise to bring one back to replace it. But I'm not going to sit here and read; it feels too much like a waiting room. 

The Reading Room project continues through June 17, 2012.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Eco Transfers with Waxed Paper

In a change from conventional drawing styles, Robert Rauschenberg created transfer drawings in the 1960s. He used turpentine or lighter fluid, newspapers, and a dry pen to make montages of appropriated headlines and disparate images that united in one large picture. He began these drawings in 1958; an exhibit of the works were presented at the Jonathan O'Hara Gallery in New York in 2007. The words and images were always reversed, the hatch marks showed. Sometimes the overinked sections of the soaked newspaper functioned as color blocks. The transfers are ghostly, yet the marks show movement and traces of the hand.

If you like creating narratives with found text or you enjoy making montages with imagery, you might be interested in this waxed-paper transfer technique. It involves only a piece of waxed paper, a fresh newspaper, and a burnisher, such as a bone folder, the handle of a spoon, or the cap of a pen. The beauty of it is that it is non toxic and inexpensive. The results are somewhat ghostly and can be a nice starting point for colored pencil shading or watercoloring tinting. With this technique, the words and images are right reading, not backwards like Rauschenberg's. Black ink works best, but some colors will also transfer.

  1. Locate the image or word you want on a piece of fresh newspaper.
  2. Put the waxed paper over the image/word.
  3. With the burnisher, rub gently, but thoroughly
  4. Peel the waxed paper up.
  5. Position the image on a new piece of good cotton paper or inside a book you've made.
  6. Rub the image or word onto the paper.
  7. Repeat multiple times. 
  8. Shade with colored pencils or watercolors, if desired.
If you have a copy of the now out-of-print Unique Handmade Books you can find transfer techniques on page 110.

Not Rauschenberg