Friday, January 31, 2014

Winter Selections from Mary Azarian's "A Farmer's Alphabet"

The atmosphere of a rural winter in her home state of Vermont, comes through clear in these woodcuts by Mary Azarian. Each scene featured here is a tribute to a way of life connected to the land and seasons.

In addition to the more common winter activities of sledding, shoveling, and building snowmen, there are mittens drying over an ornate, wood-burning stove, where an old-fashioned tea kettle boils. In another scene an adult pulls on a set of one-piece long johns with a buttoned back flap. These subjects, so varied in their patterns and textures, so colorless and harsh in their lighting, are particularly well-suited to the mark-making abilities of a master carver. 

The series was commissioned by Vermont's State Board of Education for display in classrooms. Maurice Sendak, one of the most acclaimed picture book illustrators in history, was often quoted as saying that he didn't make his work for children. For example, in one of his last interviews, he said,
I don't write for children. I write. And someone says, "That's for children."
Azarian was a teacher before she took to illustrating books with her stunning woodcuts, so she certainly must have had a sense of what interests children. That said, when I look at these images, I never feel that they are particularly made for children.

Certainly I can enjoy this book with my children. They are excited to point out scenes that relate to their experiences, and inquire about anything unfamiliar. But the level of sophistication found in these images make them captivating for any age.

Godine Press published it as a beautifully bound, large gift book in 1981, and it continues to sell. It is definitely worth either buying or finding a copy in a library. It isn't enough to see it on a screen. One must leaf through the heavy, archival paper and really take in the exquisite details found in each lovingly carved image.

To borrow another quote from Sendak:

A book is really like a lover. It arranges itself in your life in a way that is beautiful. 

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

"Winter Birds" by Lisa Toth

Image posted with the permission of the artist. View and purchase more of Lisa Toth's prints at her Etsy store. I wrote previously about one of Toth's prints here

The moon shines on a staircase of plump, resident birds. They prefer the cold (up to a certain limit, of course), it's an excuse to rest. Also, winter chases off the riffraff, and then these stalwarts can enjoy the hidden bounty of the season in peace and solitude. 

Moonlight, not near as warm or bright as the sun, but beautiful and mysterious with its silver rays. 

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

One of Donald Judd's (Black and White) Woodcuts

I was reading up a bit on Donald Judd for this article I wrote in my Humanist Mom blog, and in doing so I discovered that Judd was a prolific woodcut print-maker, starting back in the 1950's. Poking around the Internet I'm now shocked I didn't know about Judd's woodcuts before. They're stunning! You can find more info and many images here.

I'm sure I'll write about Judd's color woodcuts with more dynamic compositions in future posts. But for today, this simple, black and white image most stirs my heart.

Is it cold in here?

To my recollection, the lines were straight across. I didn't count. How straight? I couldn't say. How straight is the trajectory of a drop of rain? What was in between? I hadn't considered that before, but now I'm sort of obsessed. The horizon stretches as far as we can see. There's more air in this room than flesh. More is said with silence than words. What we find between the lines can change everything.

Is it getting warmer?

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Groundhog Day 2014

Almost time for Groundhog Day, and as I now live in Pennsylvania, the birthplace of this charming holiday, I have decided to begin an annual tradition of designing a Groundhog Day image to put on greeting cards.

My, he seems earnest in his existential plea. I suppose he deserves some sort of reply. Let me think...

Well, if you see your shadow, it's supposed to frighten you back into your burrow, and for some reason this means winter is prolonged. If February 2nd is dreary, you'll not see your shadow and spring will come sooner. (Which is kind of ironic seeing as that if you see your shadow it's a sunny day.) There's apparently some mystery and debate as to exactly how this particular bit of lore started and what it originally meant, which may not matter all that much since it is certainly not how most people would take it today. How they take it today is... er, well, I'm going to have to go with Douglas Adams on that one and say maybe 42?

Thursday, January 23, 2014

"Tree No. 15" (version II) by Andrea Starkey

Image posted with the permission of the artist. More of Andrea Starkey's work can be found at her websiteblog, and Etsy store.

The icicles make the trees seem to hang their heads and drip, a gesture as sorrowful as a weeping willow. But really there is not a drop of movement, nor a whisper of sound. The sky is so terribly still and gray. Time itself seems to have stopped, and we have been given a long moment to reflect on the sound of silence, the extremes of black and white, and the mystery of the number zero.

Each icicle has its own unique contours, unique as a snowflake. They stand together in lines like disheveled soldiers. White and weather-worn, like bleached bones. Skulls without eye sockets.

Cold as the frozen over river that ceases to flow. Cold as a tomb in January. Cold as the top of the tallest mountain. Should we weep over this cold? Or instead use it as an excuse to close in tight with each other for warmth? Loyal 'til the end and beyond.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Owl and Cat in Love, "First Date" (double page spread pages 5-6)

"First Date"
Woodcut (reduction)
20" x 9.5" (image)
24" x 15" (paper)
Oil based inks on Subi paper
Limited edition of 4

The holidays are over, it's a new year, and I am definitely back on this Owl and Cat in Love project.

Having met while hunting the same rabbit, the two decide to share dinner. A little foreshadowing of their voyage with the guitar, sea, and green boat, and their future tropical island home with the wallpaper behind them. I designed the composition in a way to echo the dramatic love-at-first-sight gaze from the previous double-page spread, with the double arches on the right side and round window and moon on the left, both of which resemble eyes.

I'm going for a minimal effect with color. I plan to stick with the same limited palette - dominated by orange-brown and ultramarine blue - throughout the book. I'd also like to have some of the wood grain visible in just about every page. I love how both of these techniques can be used to make objects seem ethereal. The wallpaper melting into the blue of the sea, the animals camouflaged against the wood floor.

We shall see what happens on the journey. I always have a plan, but the muse is the boss.

Monday, January 20, 2014

"Homage to George Jackson" by Antonio Frasconi

We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. 
-Martin Luther King Jr.  

The woodcut master Antonio Frasconi died just about a year ago. (You can read his his NY Times obituary here.) He often made political images and was committed as an artist to social justice, as seen in this image he created of the Black Panther activist George Jackson.

I find it a difficult and haunting image to look at. A striking arrangement of textures punctuated by sharp shapes of black that sink into endless voids. Jackson's figure, helplessly bound on the ground, is a mountain of fabric, flesh, and metal, against stark and blindly white light. The bottom of a shoe, a bent knee, clenched fists, they all struggle against the chains that hold him down. He wears an expression of raw pain. No matter how much people are dehumanized by enemies, how much they are made to suffer, humanity can't be stripped away. All people... All people.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

"Above the Clouds" by Hiroshi Yoshida

In the history of Japanese wood block printmaking, I most prefer the late ukiyo-e and shin-hanga that followed (Hiroshi Yoshida falls in the latter category.) The reason is mainly color. Just as the Impressionists and Post Impressionists were having their love affairs with new pigments with which to paint light in all its breathtaking varieties, modern Japanese printmakers were using color in just as sophisticated, expressive, if more subtle ways.

In this image, the outline is barely discernible. The gradations soft and subtle as in a watercolor painting. Mountains, purple and washed over by currents in the thick atmosphere. They rest under clouds that appear like bubbles of sea-foam. In the distance, the tallest mountain rises up like an island. Lonely, yet triumphantly reaching toward another world.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

New Year's Resolutions

Oftentimes people who know I'm a full time stay-at-home-mom of 2 little ones and work as a teaching artist (sometimes working as many at 4 gigs simultaneously) compliment me on how productive I manage to be in the studio. These compliments really make me feel good because they are external affirmation that I'm making progress.

When it comes to my art (and really life in general) I often feel I'm climbing a great mountain. Typically from where I am, I can't see the summit. One tool I use for internally evaluating my progress is New Year's resolutions.

I make New Year's resolutions every year, and I'm serious about them. I mean that I make a huge list of goals with subheading and bullet points. I print this list (currently 2 pages long in 12 point font) out and stick it on the side of my fridge. I look at it at least once a week. I make notes and modifications. 

I use New Year's resolutions as a tool for not only motivation, but self-evaluation. If I totally blow off a goal, the next year I come up with a new strategy for achieving it. If I continue to blow it off after several strategy changes, I question whether I deep down really care that much about that goal. Over the years I've had to let a lot go, which is great because it leaves me free to concentrate more on my real priorities.

A while ago a book club I'm in read The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathan Haidt, and the author used the metaphor of the elephant and the rider, and I've since found it tremendously useful. To explain the metaphor I'll use Haidt's own words:

The mind is divided in many ways, but the division that really matters is between conscious/reasoned processes and automatic/implicit processes. These two parts are like a rider on the back of an elephant. The rider’s inability to control the elephant by force explains many puzzles about our mental life, particularly why we have such trouble with weakness of will. Learning how to train the elephant is the secret of self-improvement. 

...The automatic emotional reactions of the elephant guide us throughout our lives. 

"Blind Monks Examining An Elephant" by Hanabusa Itcho
I've been learning to love, accept, and understand my inner elephant. So then when the elephant and I disagree, I'm better equipped to either trick the elephant into doing what I want, or just peacefully accept that I can't win this one.

You see, like most people, I fail to meet most of my resolutions. But that doesn't bother me or deter me from making them.

For one, I'm not disappointed because it means I'm still being optimistic about myself. There is something great about making the goals and the ten striving toward them.

I notice that for the goals I do actually reach, there is a lull, a period where I'm depressed and kind of useless that follows the surge of triumph. It's not like we're ever satisfied and done once we've achieved one goal. How must a gold medalist feel a week after the Olympics are over?

Also, even when I don't achieve my ultimate goal, I always get at least part of the way there. If I set a goal to blog an average of 12 times a month in this blog, and I reach 143, technically I "failed", but that's still a huge accomplishment! Most of my resolutions are designed to be goals I can continue to strive toward throughout the year and feel good about the percentage even if it wasn't 100%.

Hardly any of us can just suddenly make a major change in our behavior. Those who do manage to make such changes don't do it through sheer will. Dramatic change require a huge change in setting and/or circumstance. Even then that might not be enough.

Studio priority #1
But we can all change slowly, one small step at a time. Training an elephant takes time! That's how I do my work in the studio, despite all my other responsibilities and stress. Over time I'm learning how to do studio work in short spurts. I'm learning how to better manage my time. I'm learning how to take downtime in a healthy way.

New Years resolutions are a process through which I've learned to know and care for myself better. That has allowed the artist in me to thrive.

My biggest New Year's Resolution for 2014 is to pick up and finish work on my Owl and Cat In Love project. In fact, I'm halfway done with the next print for it, and will post the final image to this blog within the next few days.

Happy 2014! 

Sunday, January 12, 2014

"The Sleeping Dragon Plum Tree at Kameido" by Ogata Gekkō

We walk in snow that is 
As white as plum blossoms.
The snow erases on what it lands.
We are shielded by our parasols
And leave a trail of footsteps
Discolored impressions
Like bruises 

When I first encountered this print I thought it was a painting with ink and watercolor. not a woodcut. I have discovered that not only this image, but most of Ogata Gekkō's woodcuts possess this misty quality, complex gradations, and textures more common to watercolor paintings. This all seems counter to the more graphic, rough, and often punchy aesthetic of most woodcuts.

The work is particularly unique considering that at Ogata Gekkō's time (late 1800's-early 1900's) Japanese carvers and printers were specialized craftspeople with certain standards and requirements for the artists who designed the imagery. Standards and requirements Ogata Gekkō apparently defied.

But maybe this is not so surprising as Ogata Gekkō came of age just as the Edo period came to an end, and the modern era began. It was a time of cross cultural influences, of new technologies, of war (the artist is known for his images depicting war) and such dramatic, historical transitions are inevitably mirrored by not only the subject matter, but the style and techniques with which artists work.

I will certainly be looking more at the work of this artist and writing more about it in the future. If you would like to see many more of his works, countless high quality images and information about the artist can be found at this website.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

"The Glacier Sierra" by William S. Rice

Seems a good time of year to meditate on one of William S. Rice's glacier woodcuts.

Drama is found in the tension between heaven and earth. The bright, purity of the snow is mesmerizing, like a siren's call. The jagged lines of blue ice remind us of the snow's true nature. Beautiful things are often dangerous. Only the blackened trees, which appear as quiet shadows lift up toward the sky. They are the only signs of life after all. All else is pulled down into the frozen gorge. Even the great mountain slouches as if ready to collapse.

Monday, January 6, 2014

"Heavy Snow" by Linda Mahoney

Image posted with the permission of the artist. More of Linda Mahoney's work can be found at her website. 

An eerie sound breaks the silence.


It is most certainly the winter wind rushing through tight spaces between scrawny trunks and jagged bare branches of trees. Two heavy, green mitts of evergreen foliage burdened by snow reach out like the claws of a possessed yeti.

This is Out In the Open. Bright reflections of sun all around. Should be a cheery scene, no? Maybe to some degree. But for sober consideration, there is always the cold. The cold that drives so many animals into hibernation underground. That traps people on un-plowed streets with buried, useless cars. The cold that's like a monster who can't get inside the house, but lurks just outside the front door waiting for the furnace to break.

Scary, but exhilarating.
Frozen still, yet poised for an avalanche