Friday, May 29, 2015

New Linocut Print: Irises

The most recent project off the press is this linocut print of irises. I hand-carved the blocks and cranked each print by hand on the letterpress. The only thing automatic was the inking, which gives an even coverage, but still must be attended and added to. Lime green was its own block, as was the forest green. Pink, light purple, dark purple, and black were all cut and printed from the same block: a reduction. The inspiration for the print was a special birthday gift for my sister. The image is based on a photograph that I took, and oddly enough, I didn't even see the pink flowers until I started drawing from the photo. The irises are in a limited edition of 26 and each measures 11"w x 14"h. Twenty, signed and numbered on white paper, are now available on Etsy at nevermindtheart.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Unconventional Writing of Miranda July

I read Miranda July's No One Belongs Here More Than You: Stories and think she is "unconventional." If "conventional" means like everyone else, she is not that. She is "un." But she has her own conventions to which she invites the reader. Having a convention by nature invites some people and excludes others. Who gets an entry badge? Who buys the book? Who goes by the book? Is that conventional? 

The book holds sixteen stories. Reading several stories in a row without coming up for air makes the reader aware of her particular conventions. She will not go where you think she will go until you realize that you expect the unexpected. Her swimming lessons, for instance, occur in a kitchen in "The Swim Team." She is imagining an intruder in "The Man on the Stairs," but seems more afraid of what secrets he will find out about her and her relationship with the man sleeping beside her rather than what he might actually do to her. In July's stories, the action is the imagined life, just under the surface. All the things you might daydream, fancy, or hallucinate rather than the (sometimes, but not always!) dreary world on the surface of her planet. The characters are sometimes shy, awkward, or delusional, but more often than not, they are hopeful as well. And the stories, if not hopeful, are deeply satisfying by the end.

She writes about the tiny details that seem to be side issues, but that reflect human nature and contribute to the scene, such as, "Even the distribution of the napkins had been hard to organize. We had finally settled on take one and pass the rest down" from "It Was Romance" (58). There, in two sentences, she shows us the insecurity and confusion of the group. The characters often feel they know something special, but the knowledge is actually common, like in the "The Shared Patio," this explanation: "…he told me a funny story about a typo. Because we are in the same business, he didn't have to explain that 'typo' is short for 'typographical error'" (5). What makes it so funny is that the reader doesn't need the explanation either, we already know.

Looking for comfort. Sharing a moment with a stranger. Her characters work in printing plants, peep shows, they sand furniture, give earthquake-preparedness talks.They are insecure, they want sex and love. In "Something That Needs Nothing," a character sets one foot in the bathwater and wonders how long she can remain there without moving (68). Other characters freeze in a similar manner. July does erotic well, too, but I will leave that for you to discover on your own.

Conventions require "general agreements" they may be "customs," quirks even, "widely used, accepted." July's conventions are not what I think most readers would call "widely used," or even "accepted," but they are consistent and widely used within her stories. If "conventional" is "conforming, established, traditional, unimaginative," they most certainly are not. They are unconventional: out of the ordinary.

You can read an informative mini-biography of Miranda July in a January 2015 article in the NYTimes. As an art project, and to promote her latest book The First Bad Man, July created fifty objects for sale, objects that appear on the pages of the novel but that did not previously exist with the same meaning in real life, such as "blouse with diagonal pastel stripes" and "the essence of red" and "white paper with Phillip's name on it." You can see them here. It looks like all the objects have been sold, the proceeds donated to The National Partnership for Women and Families. Conventional objects made extraordinary.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Instructions: Hard Cover for Dos-A-Dos Binding

"I thought you'd done every binding!"  a friend exclaimed recently when I mentioned a structure I hadn't made. Somehow, I was never, until this point, inspired to make a dos-a-dos binding. With three hard covers and two spines, it has never been one I've needed for a personal project. A dos-a-dos artist's book that comes to mind is a lovely letterpress book made in 2005 by Ellen Knudson called Self-Dual: How to Walk a 30,000 Mile Tightrope about her weekly commute between Mississippi and Alabama as she left her husband and young son to complete an MFA. She writes that the text were her "driving thoughts." It's a book I ask to see each time I take my CCA students to Mills College library to look at their book art collection. You can see it there or read more and see photos of it at the Vamp & Tramp website at the link, above.

It was finally time for me to make my own dos-a-dos. As I scrounged for scraps to make a model to show here, I ended up with Niddegen, a textweight paper, for one side, and watercolor paper for the other. A perfect travel book for drawing or writing on one side, for painting on the other. The covers are made of book board/Davey board/binder's board, the spines are 4-ply 100% cotton museum board. The covering papers are from a frottage-style paste paper I made from Arches Text Wove/Velin Arches (instructions in Painted Paper). Book cloth spine covers. All boards and cloth parallel to the spine. I learned quite a bit while I made this first duo, which means I also made mistakes.

(2) 4-ply museum board spines: 1/2" x 5 3/4"
(3) Book boards: I used 3 1/2" x 5 3/4" for all three.
I recommend instead: (2) 3 3/4 x 5 3/4" & center board (1) 3 1/2" x 5 3/4"
This is so top and bottom boards align with spines on both sides when closed.
(2) Book cloth strips to cover spine pieces (one face up, one face down): 2" x 6 3/4"

(2) Covering papers: 3 3/4" x 6 1/4"
Recommend instead for wider boards: 4 1/4" x 6 1/4"
(2) head and tail strips for center board: 1 1/8" x 3"
(maybe 1 1/8" x 3 1/8")

Find the centers on the backs of the book cloth spine covers
and on the museum board spine pieces.
Apply glue to the backs of the book cloth
and press the spine pieces into place.

Measure and mark 1/4" from the edge of the spine piece
or use a 1/4" spacing bar (should be three board thicknesses).
Apply glue to back of the book cloth again.
Press boards into place.
Remember that once you have two boards attached on
either side of the spine piece, you will turn that section over
to attach the second spine cover and third board.

Apply glue to the head and tail of the spine covers and turn in.

Apply glue to the head and tail strips, center side-to-side, and attach to
the center board.

Measure 3/4" from the center line, head and tail, and mark the board or book cloth.
Apply glue to one covering paper and align the edge with the marks.
Trim the corners, leaving about 2 board thicknesses between the corner of the boards
and the cuts.

Apply glue and turn in the head and tail edges.
Push in at the corners, then apply glue and turn in the fore edge.

What's wrong with this picture? My book cloth turn-ins
and my covering paper turn-ins are different widths and don't align here.
Turn-ins should make an even frame all around the edge.
Even though you won't see them, you will be able to see a slight ridge under the endpapers.

My two book blocks, complete with purple endbands.
To sew book blocks see Making Handmade Books, pages 155-158.
I left the spines flat and did not round them since they were under 3/4" deep.
Recommended size: 3 1/2"w x 5 1/2"h x 1/2"d
(with folded papers 7"w x 5 1/2"h)
Endbands on page 147.

I describe a method of attaching the book block to the hard covers (case), 
but instead of ripping the last pages, I decided to try something different. 
(I knew my watercolor paper would be too thick for the method I described there.)

I glued a strip of mulberry paper under the mull/super and the tapes (ribbons, in this case).
then glued all three parts to the boards.

Attach separate endpapers by applying glue to 
just a tiny bit over half of them, (about 1/4"-1/2")
using the bone folder and pressing down to the board and onto 
the edge (that 1/4"-1/2") of the book block, but
leaving the rest of the paper nearest the book block to fly.
(In this picture, the arrows point to the endpapers 
that are aligned with the head and tail strips, hooray!)

(2) Endpapers (for the larger size recommended): 7 1/8" x 5 1/2"
Measure and fold at 3 1/2" on one side. This will be the side closest to the book block.
Once the book block is attached, check the endpapers before you glue them. You may need to trim the endpapers so they align.

Swing your partner!

Next time I would make my book blocks wider as well, so they reach almost to the edges. I'd also like to try different color covers front and back, possibly white and black with gray in the center and bright-colored book cloth.

You could also try this format with Coptic (p. 181), Secret Belgian Binding/CrissCross (159), and even a softcover Crossed-Structure Binding (150) made with an extra long cover. For the simplest of all: fold a three-panel accordion and sew a single signature (95) into each valley fold.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Do They Like Art Here?

I wandered through two different MFA exhibitions presented by two different schools and was perplexed to find the same thing: lots of theory, but no actual objects or art that inspired me to go home and make my own. In fact, some of the time, I wasn't sure what I was looking at. Was this process? Or product? I have felt the same anxiety in recent years reading descriptions of exhibitions at local museums and have had the same question: what is being shown? The theory, the subject matter, is apparent and often interesting, but if I would see sculpture, painting, video, photographs, assemblage, or beyond was not clear at all. Sometimes, mystified, I would go see. And more often than not, I would be disappointed. What's happening? Looking around, someone said to me once, "I don't think they like art here."

Beauty used to be part of art. Have we lost beauty? In 1898, Leo Tolstoy completed his book-length essay What Is Art? He was a clear proponent of beauty, and much of the book discusses theories of it. While his theories contained many oddities, Tolstoy understood the complexities of art. He wrote:
So that art, which consumes enormous amounts of human labour and of human lives, and breaks down love among people, not only is not anything clearly and firmly defined, but is understood in such contradictory ways by its lovers, that it is difficult to say what generally is understood as art, and particularly as good, useful art…
Perhaps we will never agree what "good, useful art" is, although many, this writer included, would like to assert their own definition. Reading an article about the 2015 Venice Biennale by the art critic Roberta Smith confirmed that I wasn't imagining a change: there is a recognized agenda today. She writes: 
…"All the World's Futures" brings out into the open a central preoccupation of the moment, namely the limiting belief that art is not doing its job unless it has loud and clear social concerns, a position whose popularity has made 'social practice' the latest new thing to be taught in art schools.
I agree that this belief is "limiting." Who has the right to prescribe and/or proscribe what art should do? To push against prescription/proscription, Duchamp, in 1917, as a social protest, gave us the now-classic urinal in the art gallery: disrupting how we saw art and challenging the bourgeoisie. His social act was to push against "limiting" perceptions.

In her opening paragraph, Smith writes that the current Biennale's message is "The world is a mass of intractable ills on which art must shed light." Are we really in the dark? Read the paper or turn on the news: we can't pretend that all is well when we have wars and droughts, earthquakes and floods, murders, and so many more things to depress and outrage us. Are we not allowed a measure of escape, uplift, or inspiration to do good or better? This is not say the art should be devoid of message, but a balance would be nice. It has always seemed to me that the message may be good, but if the work is poorly made, no one will want to look at it. The converse is also true: it may be beautiful, yet empty. I believe in social message, but I think it can also be subtle, not just "loud and clear."

How is art being taught in universities today and to what end? Grad students can speak very well, they can explain and edify, succinctly describe their experiences. The students are clearly engaged with their work, a good thing. But where is the experience for the viewer? The finished piece cannot be bought by an individual; it is often baffling, frequently large, and, I dare say, occasionally ugly. It can only be understood with wall text or mounds of essays. The visual work does not speak on its own. It is sometimes hard to feel, emotionally. Or it is emotional without apparent craft. How can we engage all kinds of viewers, not just those schooled in the theory? If this is now what art is, who is going to want to pay to go to grad school to make it? 

The current idea of "social justice" is being encouraged. It's a good idea. "Social practice" in the art world can be used to address fairness and equality, access to art by those outside of the educational system, inclusion of communities. But when those same universities teaching social practice theories are still hiring adjunct professors on a semester-to-semester contract with no benefits and no job security, it makes one pause. 

I hope that art programs will move forward eventually to promote virtuosic techniques and handskills, keep the attitude that art can change our ways of seeing, shed light where it is rarely seen, connect with the viewers, and continue to encourage thoughtful, inspiring, and even beautiful works that inspire others to see and make. But, as seen in the recent MFA shows and alluded to in the current Venice Biennale, the "new thing" right now is not quite that.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Beginner Bird

When we learn something new, the first thing we do, is try to copy or mimic something outside of us. We babble, then talk. Take steps, then walk. Some neighborhood birds got me thinking about this. I heard a strange bird call, one I'd never heard, very peculiar, a screech-croak like a bluejay with a sore throat. Looking up I saw two gray birds. One flew up then down: wing flash, they were mockingbirds. But what bird were they mimicking? They seemed agitated, and I realized that the call must be their own. Like seeing a hummingbird sit down for the first time, experiencing the mockingbird's own call tickles the senses. I walked around the corner and scanned the tree and rooftops to see what might be bothering them. On a roof peak perched a crow. The mockingbirds swooped and screeched at it, but the crow sat calm. Occasionally it snapped, hoping to scare.

What made me compare a mockingbird to a beginner, I don't know. Perhaps because this semester's class was full of strong individuals, each with their own voice. None had made books before, so they were trying out each structure, each assignment. Did it fit? How could they make the assignment their own? How could they realize their own work in book form? First they made models to look like what I showed them. Then they remodeled to their own taste. By the end, they had found their own songs.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Talking about Critiques

We slid into home plate last week at California College of the Arts: the last week of the semester. My Bookworks class began its final critique Tuesday and continued on Thursday. I asked my class if they ever thought about why they had critiques. Silence. It's hard to talk about art because we don't really want to be talking about it, we want to be doing it. Well, I hadn't thought about it in a long time myself. Here is a version of my answer.

Critiques are kind of like the stereotype about vegetables: you don't always like them but they are good for you. Why? Three reasons (because we like things in threes). 

Language and analysis. As we talk about other people's work we develop a language, a vocabulary that we can share. Books have specific elements that other works may not have: sequence, pacing, rhythm, for example. Once we agree on that language, we can begin to analyze the works. We learn how to look for them. How are we seeing these elements in the works?

Learning and comparing. When you look at and talk about someone else's work you may find things, learn things you didn't know, or hadn't thought about. "I wouldn't have thought to…" is a phrase that comes up fairly often. That's exciting! Talking about someone else's work gives you the opportunity to look from a distance, to think objectively. After you do this, you can compare it to your own work. Did I do that? Why or why not? Would I do that? Would I like to try that in the future? So talking about someone else's work can teach you about your own.

Clarity. By engaging with the works and talking about them, you let the instructor know if s/he has been clear, has made the important points obvious. It's not that I want to hear my words echo back to me, I want to see how the student is thinking about the works.

Critiques in my class begin with one student willing to introduce another student's work, beginning a discussion to which everyone is encouraged to add. The maker hears how the other students have experienced the work, what it does, how the materials work together. Then the maker talks about his/her process, any problems that arose and how they were solved, how s/he got to what we are looking at now. Lastly, the maker asks the group any questions, such as: how did you experience this part; was it confusing when you had to untie the string; did you get that those two things went together, etc. Generally, by this time, the maker has found that the class has already answered the questions.

Our final critique includes a written component that helps when students haven't been talking much in class. I give them a grid with the elements about books we've been discussing and they look for them in each student's work. They turn in the sheets, I read them, cut them into strips, and hand each student a packet of critiques just about their work. They give. They get. And I learn, too.

Letters to Grandma, final Bookworks project by Tu Vo
CCA, Spring 2015

Another blog post about writing workshops and art critiques from 2011 is here.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Paper Grain & Learning with Your Senses

When you make books, you need to know the direction of the paper grain so the folds crease well, the accordions lie flat, the pages don't spring open. Someone wrote to me last week, asking about paper grain of a specific paper: "Canson states that Mi Teintes has a variable grain." Did I know what that meant? I wrote back that my experience with Canson Mi Teintes is that it does have a grain. In this case "variable" might refer to the size of paper or paper all from the same batch. Mi Teintes papers of the size 19 x 25" all have the same grain, again, from my experience. I do not recall which way, and I don't have a piece at hand, but there are some tests you can do.

Bend the paper in the middle (but don't fold) and gently press on it, long way, then short way. Which way does the curl seem to get smaller? That's with the grain. Which way does it seem to resist you? That's against the grain.
Tear a piece: tear a strip lengthwise (down the longest side), then tear a strip widthwise (the shortest side): which tears more easily and straighter. That strip is torn with the grain.
Wet a piece: which way does it curl? It will curl parallel to the grain.

(I like that the acronym for these three also stands for "By The Way.")

Paper in a roll is grained long. Ever notice how your paper towels don't tear very well? I hate how I pull to tear it and it ends up scrolling across the floor. How unhelpful. The perforations are against the grain. 

And how about the deckle edge on some papers? (The deckle is that wavy edge that looks like it has been torn.) Stonehenge, for example, has two cut edges and two deckle edges. This paper was not handmade: the pulp was fed onto a conveyor belt and little jets of water were sprayed at the edges to achieve the handmade look. It's grained long; in general, paper that has only two deckle edges is grained long. There are always exceptions, so it's good to check.

Handmade paper may have a non-discernable grain. It's very hard to tell. When it's made, the pulp is shaken in various directions, causing the fibers to lay this way and that. One way may be stronger. This is where you come in. If it isn't possible to tell, use it how you like. But test it, too.

Ultimately, you are the cook. From experience, you learn what the ingredients and spices taste like. You know how they should work. Then it is up to you to trust your own eyes and hands and not worry too much about the recipe, or the words the manufacturer uses. Experience comes from practice and testing. Those are our jobs.

Sometimes you don't want to reinvent the wheel. But sometimes you learn more that way. Then again, after you've tried, it never hurts to ask.