Sunday, May 31, 2015

"He Sings of Freedom" by Sue Kallaugher

Yesterday I received my prints from [Baren] Exchange #64. The theme for this exchange was "freedom of expression." The paper size was 5" x 7". The print I made for it was Amina As Lysistrata. I enjoyed all works by the 23 other participating artists, but this one is my favorite.

The prints is He Sings of Freedom by Sue Kallaugher, who writes that it is a portrait of French Algerian guitarist Pierre Bensusan, "whose beautiful guitar music and voice inspire artistic creativity and freedom of expression."

Kallaugher also writes that this is her first woodcut of a person, surprising because it struck me as having a lot of subtle personality. The calm, closed-eyes expression with Bensusan's face curled intimately toward the neck of his guitar blends harmoniously with the soft, warm colors, and I long to hear this gentle song.

Of course I had to go poking around the Internet looking for performances by Bensusan. Perhaps this image attempts to visually convey something like this performance of So Long Michael, which in the below video was performed in Takoma Park, Maryland. That location is less than an hour away from where Kallaugher lives, which makes me wonder, did she see that show and do her sketch from this performance? The "Michael" of the song is Michael Hedges, yet another musician who has inspired others with his innovation expression.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Two Views of Nihonbashi: Junichiro Sekino and Utagawa Hiroshige

The first print shown here is Nihonbashi by Junichiro Sekino and the second is Clear Weather after Snow at Nihonbashi Bridge by Utagawa Hiroshige.

I sit here pondering how to cross the divide.

I look above and listen to the revs of countless engines and the continuous whoosh of unseen cars overhead. There is a bit of yellow and blue, but all else is a grey hum. It is a place I have been to many times before and will be again. A place where everyone simultaneously waits, feeling small and powerless, but with a heightened awareness of an unceasing journey through space and time.

I shift my eyes to the image below, and I see more, but things are quieter. I am far away; a witness in the distance. This is not a place I've ever set foot. The sounds of nature form an auditory backdrop in the same way that the mountain and distant trees and sky form the visual background.

Again, there is blue, and hints of red, but mostly all is grey and bleached and impersonal. As with the other, there is the sense of a steady movement forward, this time more leisurely - footsteps, gliding boats - but every bit as ephemeral.

"We are ghosts, hungry for something bigger than what our lips are kissing." -Anis Mojgani 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

"The Blue Jackal" by Marcia Brown

Yesterday I wrote about Marcia Brown, who just passed away this month. The reason the artist was on my mind was because upon returning from vacation Monday, I received The Blue Jackal. It is a picturebook, published in 1977 and illustrated in color woodcuts.

I have been thinking a great deal about the similarities between music and visual imagery. The train of thought was sparked by reading Maurice Sendak's Caldecott and Co.: Notes On Books and Pictures, which opens with a short essay about the music Sendak would hear when he looked at the work of Randolf Caldecott. He also wrote about the influence of music on his own work.

Reading this felt like a deep revelation, as I suddenly realized that when I read certain picture books out loud to my children, I sometimes add my own music out loud, and the music I make up seems intuitively in response to the illustrations. For example, in Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, after the line "Let the wild rumpus start" there are three full-bleed, double-page spreads of Max and the wild things making amok, and I have always instinctively added an energetic jungle beat soundtrack when I turn to those pages.

I now find myself consciously thinking about what music I hear in my head in response to images, and how some images conjure up more distinct sounds than others. I realize that in many of my blog posts responding to single images, I have included descriptions of sounds and onomatopoeia in my reflections.

Marcia Brown's The Blue Jackal conjures up layers of sound and music for me. I cannot look at the cover without hearing the jackal's howl and a fierce wind blowing.

Even the end pages (second image shown here) present such a dynamic and layered composition that I hear the monkeys chatter and scurry across the tree branches to the distant beat of a drum.

When the jackal walks along the road toward the city (third image), there are hints of danger and desperation as the quivering rays of the sun intermingle with the bounce of the intruding clouds and sweeping crash of the landscape. Beyond lies the blue city, so stately that I can almost hear soft-yet-regal trumpets sounding hope.

The page spreads that describe the forest animals encountering the jackal (now dyed indigo,) crowning him their ruler, and driving away the other jackals remind me a great deal of Sendak's "wild rumpus" sequence. The interplay of shapes and colors is like a samba, fast-paced and energetic.

The action and thus the music speeds up as the animals get more frantic in their glorification of their blue jackal king (fourth image.) Then, suddenly, there is a harsh pause when the jackal hears the distant howls of his fellows.

The jackal's anguished muzzle in the foreground bursts into the next page-spread (fifth image,) sounding his own HOWL. The monkey scampers away - trot trot trot -  the turtle yells - yah! - and the rest of the forest animals collapse into each other, their folds, stripes, and spots lending a background chorus of plinks, plonks, and hums to the song.

I can look at this book over and over again, just as I can listen to a favorite piece of music over and over again. And like a beloved song, each time I re-experience it, I am taken aback at how much more electrifying it is than the memory which lives in my mind.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

"Submarine" by Marcia Brown

Three weeks ago the accomplished illustrator Marcia Brown passed away. Brown was a master of woodcuts (among other mediums,) and won the Caldecott medal three times, including for Once A Mouse, a fable in woodcuts. Jil Casey posted several images from Once A Mouse on the blog The Art of Children's Picture Books. You can also read Marcia Brown's obituary in the New York Times.

Skimming along just above the surface, we see above and below. Spindly feelers stretch out as we pass through the shrouds of water and air. Eye wide open, always moving, we are armored by steal scales and ready for any encounter. Like a fish with wings, we are caught between worlds.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

"Into the Pond" by Nancy Darrell

This is a wood engraving by Nancy Darrell, another artist I discovered in the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts gift shop in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. 

The swimmer, a solid, naked form, plunges into the deep. Her presence is a disturbance. While other creatures merely release gently floating bubbles, her bold and deliberate movements scratch through the previous calm.As she heads down into the dark, the ripples she's created will travel across the surface until they bounce against the edge of the shore from which she came.  

Friday, May 22, 2015

"Walking the Dog" by Jan Heath

I discovered the prints of Jan Heath in the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts gift shop in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. This linocut especially caught my attention because of the energetic, yet balanced composition. The woman's lean back is emphasized by the blunt cropping and aerial perspective on her feet, and that is pitted against the giddy pull of her small dog. The dog's flight is playfully punctuated by his perky tail, asymmetrically flopping ears, and the bottoms of his rear paws flatly facing the viewer. So much tension lands on that pointed finger and the thin line of a leash that connects dog-walker and dog. If not a puppy in age, certainly one in spirit. 

The subject matter, bright, complimentary colors and style of mark-making also reminded me of the late, great Stephen Huneck, who possessed a great love of dogs.  

Thursday, May 21, 2015

"Blind Boy" by Agnes Nanogak Goose

This is a stonecut print by Inuit artist Agnes Nanogak Goose, illustrating a scene from the folk tale The Blind Boy and the Loon.

The pair are joined in flight. It is unclear where her plumage ends and his fur begins. His nose, her beak point the way, and they dive. Are they hovering in the air, or plunging down into thick and bubbly waters? She paddles mightily with outstretched wings as he kicks. She is spirit, he is mind, and together they soar.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

"Workable Kitchen" by Lagana Bluangtook

This is a black and white linocut with color serigraph. The artist has posted both the color and black and white version on her website which can be found here. More often than not when I see two versions - color and black and white - of a relief print, I prefer the black and white. There is usually more of a surreal element, an added layer of psychological and formal complexity to those versions.  Color versions are usually flattened, too often in a predictable manner, and therefore provide viewers fewer entryways into the unknown.

However, in this case I find the color version much more intriguing. For one thing, may aspects of black and white are maintained because only that screaming yellow and a few, small swaths of blue and red are added to the basic black and white image. Rather than setting all the shapes in their predictable places, the color here seems to arbitrarily highlight certain shapes within an image that is ultimately - in its truest form - a colorless image. The color is an overlay or even an intrusion. In the black and white version, I feel I am in a simple kitchen with all the basic and necessary tools for preparing a meal and cleaning up afterward. But in this color version, I am in a place with a shrill emotional tenor. A place where - though all is still in this moment - something has happened here, and left its hysterical tinge on the walls and certain objects. The serenity of the composition and literal images is at such odds with the intense color that I cannot ignore the strikingly conscious, human presence.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

"Le Confiant" by Felix Vollotton

His face presses into her gentle hands. His body melts into the black folds of her gown. In this dark and quiet corner, he is safe. She will never hold these secrets against him.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Scottsboro Alabama: A Story In Linoleum Cuts (Still Relevant Today)

A friend recently gifted me a copy of Scottsboro Alabama: A Story In Linoleum Cuts by Lin Shi Khan and Tony Perez. It is a series of 119 expressive, black and white linocuts, interlaced with brief text, that dramatically tell the story of the Scottsboro Boys. Apparently the book was created in 1935, but then quietly disappeared until it was re-discovered in a library archive, and published 2003 in a version edited by Andrew Lee. I was given the book mainly because of my work teaching art to elementary and high school students, as these prints have the potential to be a powerful teaching tool. 

I feature these three images from the book because of how clearly they express emotion and personalities of the Scottsboro boys (and men.) In just a handful of cuts that break up the field of black ink, these faces convey fatigue and frustration, but also determination and hope.

Larry Wilmore of the Nightly Show recently sat down at a diner in Baltimore with rival gang members who had come together to quell the destruction of property and violence being committed amidst the peaceful protests. The most moving moment of the interview for me was when Wilmore asked, "Do you guys have hope?" (4 min. 40 seconds in the video) Without missing a beat, they all nodded and answered, "Of course."

Even though many horrible aspects of slavery, poverty, and racism are depicted in this book, taken as a whole, it is an incredible story of hope for progress. The story focuses on those in power who work to keep the races divided in order to keep the least affluent distracted and powerless. The third and final section of the series is titled "White and Black Unite" and the final sentence reads "But the symbol of Scottsboro will weld the masses forward and driving all of the many parasites into the ash heap of the bitter past."

Unfortunately, that hope has yet to be realized. In the year 2015, we might have a black president, but there is also so much reported evidence of racial bias in employment, schools, and healthcare, as well as criminal justice. Legally mandated and enforced segregation may have ended, but the divisions between black and white are still widespread. We see disproportionate poverty in black communities, and the killing of unarmed, black men by police, that sparks protests and riots such as those in Baltimore last month, as well as the Black Lives Matter campaign. Later this month we'll see the release of the film Southern Rites that documents racial divisions today (including the killing of a young, black man over his relations with a white woman) in two counties in Georgia.

80 years later, these linocuts are every bit as relevant to issues of poverty, racism, and race relations in America. If art truly can be a catalyst for social change, I highly recommend getting a copy and sharing it with young people.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

"Uri," "Schwitz," and "Underwalden" by Urs Graf

Urs Graf is typically credited with inventing the white line woodcut technique (the kind where white lines are carved out of the block, which is then printed with black ink on white paper), but more accurately, he took something recently invented by others and made it great; the earliest example of the technique dates to when Graf was only 17 years old.

These are three images from Graf's Standard Bearers series of Swiss soldiers. They date to the 1521. These three represent Uri, Schwitz, and Underwalden, the three cantons that founded the Old Swiss Confederacy some time between 1291 and 1315, which set the political groundwork for modern Switzerland.

What captivates me the most about these images is the expressive linework, despite the meticulously organized compositions. There is so much going on in each of these images, even more-so because every purposeful mark seems alive.

Graf understood the unity that can be achieved through this technique. Billowing plumes mimic shadows on metal and fabric alike. Highlights that define a human face take effort to separate from all the other lines that describe the folds and curves of every surface. The ground beneath the soldiers' feet moves with them as if an extension of their bodies.

The reversal from what we normally expect from black and white drawings and prints achieves an otherworldly quality. The more sizable swathes of solid black in the flags and the soldier's bodies drop into the endless black voice of the background, leaving many of the white lines almost as loose as dangling thread. These three soldiers appear more like spirits - strong and proud in concept or memory - than they resemble men of flesh and blood.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Antonio Frasconi's "The House That Jack Built"

About a week ago I stumbled a used copy for sale of The House that Jack Built: La Maison Que Jacques A Batie, which is a picture book in English and French by Antonio Frasconi. It was selling for just almost nothing so I had to buy it, and yesterday my treasure arrived in the mail. The cover is rather beat up, and it appears to be a well-loved library copy, but the pages are in good shape and I haven't been able to stop staring at it all day. (Funny aside: my two kids who are ages 3 and 5 could care less.)

Frasconi's book illustrations exhibit every quality of woodcuts I love: using the wood's resistance for more expressive mark-making, using the grain to add organic textures, and a general economy of marks. As a picture book with words on most pages, the compositions are unexpected. In almost every spread the woodcuts bleed partially off the page, but in different ways each time. Only black, white, and three colors (magenta, green, and yellow) are used, but they take turns filling the large swaths of background areas. The main text of the rhyme discretely rests in the negative spaces, but the typography for the onomatopoeia of the dog's "Grrrs" and the church bell's "Ding Dongs"  is arranged as part of the visual imagery.

Just as with all of Frasconi's woodcuts I've encountered, the work seems so completely inspired. He makes it look so easy, as if these visual arrangements simply flow through him onto the block, then to the page. Looking at this work makes me want to run off to some isolated retreat and just make woodcuts for months.