Saturday, October 29, 2011


A thoroughly nasty day today, with gusting winds, cold temperatures, and wet weather including snow (an odd sight when most trees are still full of green leaves). A good day to stay indoors, so my plans of more shopping for my woodcut class were postponed. I did get to the Studio for a few hours. Part of that was to grade two classes worth of charcoal drawings from this past week's college classes. The drawings were spray fixed by the students, but still I figure it's better to not risk getting charcoal dust on everything around my home.

The other thing I did was finish up some bench hooks. A bench hook is a simple construction, a flat piece of wood with narrow strips of wood attached to opposite sides and ends. It is always recommended when using gouges to cut a block to cut in the direction away from oneself. In use, the block is placed on the bench hook, with the far edge of the block right up against the raised strip on the top side of the bench hook. Meanwhile, the strip on the bottom side butts up against the edge of the table, keeping it (and the woodblock) from sliding across the table as the artist gouges the wood. It can also protect the table immediately around the block if a tool slips across the block. I never use one myself- I just hold the block with my left hand while cutting with my right, and I've never had an incident. However, a beginner might not have the control I have with my tools, so I decided to make a few to have around, just in case.

Early last week I had begun the process, cutting out a few pieces of half inch plywood, and some strips made from narrow scraps of plywood, but I ran short of time and realized that since no one would be cutting the first week, there was no hurry to finish them by then. Such things could be handy this coming week, so I continued the project today. I cut half my wood strips in half, then used the radial mitre saw to cut 45 degree angles on the end of each half. I also predrilled a bunch of holes in all the strips, resulting in what's seen above.

Later back at my apartment, as light snow was falling and dinner cooking on the stove, I put them together. I lined up the short angled strips and held them in place with C clamps while I screwed them into the top side of the wood. After that I flipped each piece and screwed the whole strips to the bottom of the other end. Two of the finished ones are shown above. The angled section isn't completely necessary (many bench hooks are just flat strips on both ends/sides), but having the notched angle pieces allows a square block to be held at an angle while cutting, which could be useful. It can also provide a more secure hold for irregularly shaped blocks (including round), or if flipped upside down, a more secure fit against the edge of a round table. I'll have three of various sizes available for my class next week.

Friday, October 28, 2011

I Need Japanese Steel

I've been teaching basic woodcut technique in various settings since 1993, with the specifics of what I teach linked to the situation. The first few times it was in the 2D classes I taught as a grad student. Mindful of the economic situation of the typical college student (which I was, and only 4 years removed from my undergrad years), I showed the students how to create images in the same lauan I used, with inexpensive and easy to find x-acto blades. The same still goes for the 2D classes that I've been teaching at my colleges for the past 8 years. In 1998 I taught my first multi-day workshop at PCNJ, which had a box of inexpensive relief tools that my students could use during our sessions if they didn't have their own. I've taught that workshop maybe 3 or 4 times since then under the same conditions. Did one like that once at the Hunterdon Museum, where they had a deal in place where participants could arrange to purchase a basic 5 tool set, that would be waiting for them on the first day (a few did), and providing a small assortment of beat up relief tools for those who had nothing else.

Since the moment I took my current Studio in Ocean Grove, I had always considered the possibility of using it to teach woodcut, but a couple of things held me back. One was that there hasn't been an overwhelming demand by people looking to take such a class, and the attempts Molly and I have made to publicize such opportunities haven't brought in many people. The other thing was that for me to conduct my own class, I'd have to be able to provide everything needed- wood, paper, ink, and cutting tools. The first three I usually have anyway, but the only tools I have are my own personal set, which I value highly and I don't lend out to anybody. At any point I could have invested in a supply of woodcut tools, but that's a bit of money to put out with no guarantee that a class would follow, so I put it off.

But that all changed in recent months. Over the summer, people at the BAC asked me to consider teaching a woodcut class for them. And someone local ran across my website and contacted me to ask about classes I might be teaching in the area. Seemed like a good time to finally commit. The BAC would advertise it to a much wider group of people than I could ever reach, and the space is large, uncluttered, and climate controlled. We put it on the schedule and I started doing some tool research. There are basic five tool sets (knife, chisel, v-gouge, small and medium round gouges) available from a few sources, reasonably good tools, usually around $45. I could buy a few of those, but the knife and chisel tools don't really get used much, so it seemed a waste of money. Some of the American made tools were available individually, but they were even more expensive that way. My best tools are Japanese imports, and I found that my supplier had a wide range of individual tools available at different costs. The type that I use go for $40-$50 each these days, but they have other less expensive lines. I waited to see how many students I'd actually have (and thus how much money I could budget), and ordered 9 tools of the types I find most useful. Those tools arrived today. I gave them a quick test on a piece of scrap wood and they're super sharp. They'll get put to use next week. I ended up using a big chunk of the money that I'm making for this class to buy the tools, but I'll have tools I can use for classes for years to come.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Your Moment In History

My thoughts on last night's episode of Bravo's Work of Art, spoilers included.

The show opened with the contestants following a long line of unlabeled tin cans, eventually leading to a Warhol soup can and the day's challenge- create a piece of Pop Art. It's a pretty wide open assignment, and any contemporary artist should know enough about it to produce something suitable, or so you might think. Part of the problem was in how one defines "pop art" in the first place. Show host China Chow's instructions were, "We want to know what you have to say about your moment in history", reflecting a statement that Warhol's work was about how he reacted to contemporary culture. I'm not sure if I completely agree with that. Two Warhol pieces cited during the episode were the Campbell's soup cans and Coca-Cola bottles, both products well known to Warhol's generation, but with packaging virtually unchanged since early in the 20th century (his parents' generation). His famous Marilyn Monroe portrait (also mentioned during this episode) was done after her death. A case could be made that these three very famous examples of pop art were as much about nostalgia as contemporary culture. Simon defined pop art with a series of terms- bold, brash, brave, fun, sex, life, political. A special prize was dangled- the winner (and his or her art) would be featured in a two page spread of Entertainment Weekly magazine. On the other hand, two would be eliminated. Let the fun begin.

Some of the artists went with the contemporary events/culture angle. Lola worked with the idea of how text messages played a role in the recent revolution in Egypt, though I found the shoddy looking construction of her oversized cell phones to be a big distraction. Other political issues touched on- extensive foreclosures in rust belt cities (Sarah), and California's Prop 8 (Young). Some felt more like comments on aspects of society- consumerism (Tewz, Dusty and Kymia), multiculturalism (Bayete), the internet (Sara), and celebrity (Sucklord, whose piece about Charlie Sheen's public meltdown period was amusing, but will likely lack the staying power of any of Warhol's icons).

Two artists made pieces that seemed to be more about pop art itself than anything else. Michelle updated Warhol with an image of a Coke Zero can and a grid of aluminum can tops. Like Ugo in the first week, she was repeatedly told that her piece was too derivative, but she decided she didn't have time to do anything else. Leon's grouping of roughly painted American flags screamed Jasper Johns, and the corporate logos scattered over the top were a tired cliche. Jazz-Minh was going to use some self portrait photos as a source for two Warhol style celebrity portraits, but was advised by Simon to avoid the Warhol trap and just showed the photographs themselves. She still ended up joining Michelle and Leon in the bottom four, rounded out by Dusty and his fast food style garbage bin with a message ("How Could You") on the flap. The works by Dusty and Jazz-Minh shared the common problem that their connection to Pop Art was not apparent in the objects themselves, but required an explanation. While Dusty's piece worked as conceptual art, the judges didn't like it all, but may have been swayed by the fact that it was popular with the crowd at the gallery opening. Dusty was spared for another week, as was Michelle, perhaps because of the good will she built up in the first two weeks. Jazz-Minh and Leon were shown the door.

The judges loved Kymia's close up self portrait photo of a bottle of dirty polluted water held between her bare breasts, dealing with both pollution and using sex to sell everything. Of course, such a photograph would have violated standards for what can be shown in a general interest magazine, so the top winner was Young's interactive Prop 8 piece, with simple bold graphics on the front (as I said last year, artists on this show are way too dependent on computers and laser printers to make their work) and a place on the back for people to add messages of support.

With my strong pop influences, this challenge would seem to be right in my wheelhouse...maybe. It really depends on how the judges interpret things. Based on the instructions given by China and Simon in the beginning, my recent smoker piece seems to fit the bill. It was done specifically to capture this exact moment in history (as written about here), and it addresses concepts like life, politics (smoking bans), sex (some in the critique group thought that the attractiveness of the model far outweighed the original concept of smokers forced outdoors), while being boldly graphic. But there's no reference to any specific product or known individual, and no color in the current version. So there's no connection to Warhol (or any of the other big 60's Pop artists), but then again, neither of the top two pieces this week had any connection either.

This moment in history thing got me thinking about past works, and it turns out that even before my smoking figure I was capturing views of a passing era. I'm not talking about purposely retro images done now, but what was contemporary with the art as I made it. There are quite a few examples in my Fourth of July series, which is closing in on 20 years old. Just the first half of year includes images of me mailing letters in envelopes to people back home, doing work on a typewriter, playing a first generation Nintendo game, using a VHS video camera, looking at 35 mm slides in class (ok, I still use slides in my classes, but 90% of my fellow faculty have gone digital)- all things that were perfectly normal in the early 90's but largely outside the experience of today's college students. As the years go on, that series may look more and more like a relic of the distant past.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Woodcut Class in Belmar Begins

Tonight was the opening night of my new woodcut workshop at the Belmar Arts Council. I got there plenty early so that I could have everything set up. Being the first night, I brought a lot of print examples, so that the participants could see some of the options for working with the relatively simple process of woodcut. We went through a few group folios (mostly looking at the relief prints), and highlights of some of my work, along with some more experimental pieces.

Then we got down to work. First I had my new students describe what kind of print they would like to try to make- subject, process, etc. Then I helped them each prepare a woodblock. I cut two 9" x 12" boards, and we used wood filler to surface them, including sanding them smooth (see above and below) I drilled holes in one block to allow that artist the possibility of registering some form of color later. That was enough for the first night. I asked them to have a drawing worked out by next week, at least on paper if not the block itself. I should have some new cutting tools for them by then. They left, I cleaned up, packed the car, shut the building, and went home.

On a side note, this post marks a milestone for the blog- the 1000th entry on this blog. Took not quite 5 years to reach this point. I probably have more than a 1000 more on my various other blogs. A good chunk of that is work related, but obviously I have spent way too much time on the computer.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Hitting the Road

Coming into this week there had been a few inquiries about my Belmar woodcut class, but no one had signed up. Not sure if it was even going to run, I was hesitant to invest in a lot of materials and tools. A few days later I had 3 paid up students, and with registration closed now, 3 is where it will stay. I've done this with 3 students before, and that's a decent number to have. Enough students to allow for some interaction between them, and a small enough number that everyone should get as much attention as they need.

Three students means that I'll have more than enough money to cover the cost of supplies for the class, but now I have to go out and get those supplies. I'll be ordering some cutting tools from my preferred source out west, but the rest may or may not be available locally. Today I was working on that process. Started on the computer, taking notes as to what was available from some catalog sources, as well as their prices. With that in hand, I started on my way around the county.

First stop was the Studio. One of my college classes has started their woodcut projects, and the other one will begin this week. They actually won't get their wood blocks until the following week, but I wanted to get them taken care of now. So those are done (cut, sanded) and set aside. The rest of that sheet of plywood, plus one other that I bought recently, will be made available to my workshop students.

Next was the largest art supply store (that I'm aware of) in the region, up in Shrewsbury. Even a huge art store like Pearl had a very limited printmaking section, so I had no idea what I'd find at this place. They did have a small selection of water based relief inks (small tubes only), but that's about it. They had a limited selection of loose papers, some of which could work for us, though the prices are a bit high. I can probably do better for both, but it's good to know I have options in an emergency.

After that, I worked my way back to my local home center to get some wood related stuff. My college students get pieces of luaun as is, but for my workshop classes I do demonstrate how I use wood filler to make a much nicer surface on the relatively inexpensive wood, and make it available for them to use. I have some that's pretty dried out (with water and a bit of effort I can make it workable), so I splurged for a new pail of the stuff. Also a few plastic putty knives to apply it, and some 220 grit sandpaper to sand it down afterwards. Since on the first night we aren't likely to get beyond the beginnings of the block sketch, these purchases were the most important things I needed to buy today. I'll deal with the rest early next week.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Great Reality Show...For Me to Poop On

My response to last night's new episode of Bravo's Work of Art, including spoilers.

The episode began with the group being dragged early in the morning to a little courtyard, and waiting around until a group of parkour practitioners popped up and started bouncing off walls, doing backflips, etc. The contestants were told that they were to use this, along with the walk back to the studio, as inspiration for this week's art challenge- movement. I'm not sure exactly how this combination was put together- parkour had its moment of mainstream popularity like 7 or 8 years ago. Before anything else happened, the artists were divided into two groups based on where they happened to be standing, and told that each group was to put together a unified show of individual works within the theme. Last year the collaborative challenges did not work out well, so I had a lot of doubts at this point.

One group decided that they would interpret movement as migration, and picked up junk from the streets on their journey back, with plans to use it for their artworks. As for the other group, last week's winner Michelle announced that she would like to do a "pooping piece" (a type of movement I suppose, and a subject/material that has been part of art for as long as people have been making it, such as the George Grosz detail shown above), which led to a plan to have the artists in her group do works representing different parts of the body during digestion. Back at the studio, each group started work. Simon came by to see how they were doing. He seemed a little wary of the digestion group, and was completely baffled by the plans of the migration group, so he called everyone together to complain that none of this had anything to do with the parkour demonstration and that they all needed to start over. The poop group decided to go with a playground theme, while the migration group decided to simplify the idea of movement to a loop, and that all works would have a circle in their design. Kathryn saw no reason to change her idea (more of her patented photographed simulated guts), although producing it as a looping time lapse video would be her nod to the circular theme.

The playground group's show was definitely the more successful of the two. I didn't see any great art, but many of the pieces were interactive and had a sense of humor. The judges chose Michelle's park pervert sculpture and Bayete' first person spinning video as the two favorites, and gave to top spot to Bayete. They considered the whole circle group to be a failure in terms of interpretation of the theme, as well as a lot of uninspired art. The bottom group included Lola's giant ball of shredded paper held together with hot glue, Tewz's hose and bucket readymade, and Kathryn's blood and guts video. When the judges pointed out that her piece was pretty much the same thing she made last week, Kathryn burst into tears and had a sobbing breakdown, a clip of which has been featured prominently in all the ads for the season. The judges decided it was time for her to go, because of the art and for her own well being. This wasn't a case like last season, where a collaborative group threw team member Erik under the bus, but more like last season's book cover challenge, where Judith decided to ignore the assignment and do her usual art. Kathryn is so locked into her process and product, that it looked like she was not prepared to do anything else. By contrast, Michelle went away from her much admired cut paper sculptures this week and ended up with a successful piece anyway. There are a lot of things about the way this show is put together that I disagree with, but it is the producer's game, and those who don't want to play along can't expect to hang around for very long.

For Love Not Money Comes Home

Back when the For Love Not Money project finished its run in Estonia, we were told that they were working on some additional international locations to present it. That may yet happen, but meanwhile it's getting a quick presentation here in New Jersey. Got word the other day from project organizer Eileen Foti that the postcard set will be shown at the New Jersey Book Arts Symposium, held at Rutgers University-Newark on November 4, 2011. As far as I can tell, it's just for the one day. The cards will be on display at the Paul Robeson Galleries, inside the Robeson Campus Center at 350 Dr Martin Luther King Jr Blvd. I won't be able to make it that day, but if you find yourself in the vicinity of Newark on November 4th, go check out the collection of small print based artworks from around the world.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Blatantly Kitsch

Last year I watched the complete run of the Bravo network's art based reality show Work of Art, and blogged about each episode. Like a lot of artists, I had a love/hate relationship with the show. I loved that there was a show on tv that showed some of what goes on in the creation of visual art, but I hated what the game show structure forces on the creative process. Plus the show shares the problem of all reality contest shows (even those on PBS!), that contestants seem to be chosen who specifically lack the skills or mindset to meet the challenges, and possess enough personality disorders to guarantee that there will be group conflicts. Although the network gave it very little promotion and only one primetime airing per week, enough people watched it that they renewed it for a second season, which premiered a few days ago. I don't know if I will be blogging each episode again, and it probably won't happen on the same day that the episode airs, like this post. Anyway, here goes.

The season premier includes 14 contestants, all but a few from New York City. Unlike the first season, even the oldest contestant is younger than me. And I'm pretty sure that I have no connection to any of them. The producers stocked the cast with some typical art world characters, including one who goes by the name, "The Sucklord." The episode was titled "Kitsch Me If You Can", and the challenge was to choose a piece from a room full of bad art- the kind of stuff that you might find at a garage sale or flea market and isn't good enough to sell even at those prices- and transform it into something good. Some of the contestants went along with the instructions to make use of the original piece in the final version more than others. It appeared that most of them just did the same thing they always did with previous art. Eight were sent to safety, and the others kept for the winners and losers crits. First night winner Michelle's piece may have been the best, but it was hard to tell because all the producers gave us was about 3 seconds of the camera panning over it. I would have preferred a much longer view, but that would have taken away from all the time showing young attractive Lola moping around with no clue as to what to do for the assignment. (somehow the thing she threw together at the last minute got her into the top 3) The Sucklord ended up in the bottom three, along with two other men. I would agree that Bayete's piece about racism was unfocused and he should have been able to explain better what he wanted from the work, but it seemed that the judges' critique was a bit harsh. (some of that may be the editing- judge Jerry Saltz said in his blog that these sessions can go on for up to 45 minutes per artist) In the end, Ugo, the tall handsome Frenchman with an accent, was sent home, with him still not understanding why so many people thought his Keith Haring derivative art lacked originality. I get the impression that Ugo's career may owe a bit to gallery people just like having him around to look at.

Last year I generally had a relatable story to the theme of the week, and that continues for this episode. Several years ago I was invited by Cassandra Simon to be part of a group folio called "Blatantly Kitsch". I met Cassandra at the SGC conference at Rutgers, where she was part of a pack of Wash U. print kids out there with Tom Huck and other St Louis printmakers. Some of those students had memories of my earlier visit to St Louis, and bringing them some St Joseph's pastries on March 19th cemented my reputation with them. The idea behind the portfolio was to create art that made use of materials more associated with crafts than fine art. There can be a lot of kitsch value in older objects, and so I looked to the past to come up with my concept, a fake vintage ad for TV dinners, which themselves have a kitsch quality. The mule meat reference came from a dog food label of that era, found in the basement. I had to rely on memories of the classic aluminum foil compartment tray that was still common in my youth, since Swanson and the others switched to microwavable plastic years earlier. The little girl logo borrows from some 50 year old advertising graphics without directly copying anything. The pattern of stripes in upper half is a piece of scrapbook paper overprinted with the block, and the wood grain table is actually some contact paper. (Martha Stewart brand) The stated price was the cost of the original TV dinners (invented to use up some surplus turkey that the company didn't want to pay to freeze anymore), remarkably a price I also found on sale priced frozen dinners five decades later. Getting everything to line up took a little planning, but I think it was worth it.

Monday, October 10, 2011

It's That Time of Year Again

Off from work today for the holiday, which felt more like a summer day than days should this time of year. (trees in my complex are already changing colors and dropping leaves) And yet the calendar tells me that it's already woodcut time for one of my 2D classes. A few days ago I had purchased a 2' x 4' lauan panel, and given it a quick cutting test back at the Studio. It cut cleanly with both gouges and the x-acto knife, so it should be fine for my students. This afternoon I cut the panel into twenty-four 6" x 8" blocks, more than enough for this week's class, but I'll need more for later in the semester.

Wood comes from the manufacturers (trees are natural, but plywood isn't) in batches, so I figured I should get back to my local home center quickly and snag a few more identical panels. I took a small piece of the wood and the label that had been attached to my panel, and found 2 more of the same brand, same code, and looking and feeling exactly the same as my first piece. Dropped those back at the Studio. I'll use part of one for my other 2D class, and if my Belmar woodcut workshop runs, I'll probably need part of the third. Since I had not done it yet, I sanded the edges of the small pieces of wood I had cut up today, cleaned up all the sawdust, and headed home.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

St Benno part 4

I had noted earlier in the week that the one thing brought up in the critique toward my piece was drawing issues with the frog. One person specifically mentioned the legs, saying that they didn't feel attached to the frog. I didn't disagree with this observation. The original drawing was done with some haste, as I had the immediate deadline of having to show block cutting at my presentation in Westfield. Trying to give frog features to my toad was only semi-successful, and I purposely chose not to cut any of the frog part of the block that day, should I want to fix it later. Today was that day.

The problem that I had with the legs was that I couldn't find a good reference of a frog from that eye level side view, and my attempt to make it up based on other views of frog legs didn't work. I decided that the simplest solution would be just to find a better frog reference than my old toad drawing, and just redraw the whole thing. So that's what I did, along with moving the saint's name down a little. This changes a bit the area around the frog, so I decided to hold off on more cutting until I decide if I want to add anything else (including additional frogs) to the composition.

Monday, October 03, 2011

The Lost Critique Group

Tonight's critique group got off to a kind of confusing start. As I drove up route 71 I looked over at the back of our building and saw no lights on in the basement, meaning Molly hadn't arrived yet to open up. As I reached the corner of Main and Main, I could see a lot of cars in the parking lot. Entering the parking lot itself, I saw it was as crowded with cars as I have ever seen, but with no sign of anyone leaving. I managed to pull up by the front door, where I saw Jane and a friend of hers. With no parking available, Jane said she'd hold down the fort and I drove a few blocks up Main Street to look for parking. As I was walking back toward our building, Molly called to say she was on the way and to start without her. I found my way to the basement, opened up the Studio, and dropped off my stuff. No sign of Jane or her friend waiting outside our door in the basement or on the 1st floor. Went to check the parking lot, and saw a few cars finally leaving. Decided to go get my car and move it back to our lot. With that done, went back downstairs and found the Studio still empty of people, but with a few of Guido's paintings there. Where was everybody? Checked the first floor again, used the restroom while I was up there, went back down. Finally some people- Molly had arrived and was talking to one of the regulars. It turned out everyone else was in the cafeteria, where they had decided to start without us. (I was later told that Jane was worried about me because our door was open and she had no idea where I had disappeared to as I was running around everywhere.) I retrieved the group and we set up in our usual way.

Molly didn't have anything to show, and Lisa was also present just as an observer, but several other brought art. In the above photo, we have a large painting from Jen (Jane's friend), three medium small works from Harriet (just returned to our group after a few years living out west), a colorful painting in progress from Jill, two landscapes from Guido, and my little St Benno block. The photo below shows two pieces from Jane, a painting and a clay sculpture destined for a wood firing, both in progress. Not shown- Katie's drawings (viewed earlier in the cafeteria), an early state of a new painting from Edy, and Tim's sketchbook.

The St Benno print isn't nearly as complicated as most of my work over the past few years, but I did pass the block around, tell the frog story, and explain the idea behind the whole Everyman series for those who were unfamiliar with it. People generally liked the image, though a few thought the frog sketch could use more refining. That part was rushed to get it ready in time for my demo in Westfield, so they may have a point.