Art Talk: Roadworks and “Open Season”

Sarah-Hope has asked me if I would write an occasional blog entry about art. This past weekend I took part in Roadworks at the San Francisco Center for the Book, so now is a perfect time to write my first Art Talk entry.

The San Francisco Center for the Book is a great resource. They not only offer classes in printing, bookbinding, letterpress, block printing, and other related crafts, they have a small gallery in which they display books and book-related art. Their current exhibit is “Banned and Recovered: Artists Respond to Censorship”, in which 50 artists respond to threats to intellectual freedom, past and present. (And more on that later!)

Roadworks is an annual fundraiser and street fair organized by the SFCB, during which they make giant linoleum block prints using a steamroller as a printing press.

roadworks sign with prints

I have to say, using a steamroller to make prints is absolutely brilliant. I think all printmakers have a bit of the gadget geek in them; you make art using knives, scrapers, acid baths, light boxes, barens, printing presses, and so on. So we all drooled over the rumbling rollingness of the steamroller, fantasizing over keeping one parked in our own backyards.

The gadget geekiness spills over into the craft of printmaking. Not only do you use specific tools in order to make a print, you need to follow a complete process that is painstaking and usually time-consuming. The photos I took at Roadworks illustrate the process of making a block print. Even though the scale is much larger than usual, the steps are the same. (Knitting is a mystery to me, and I often find printmaking is a mystery to knitters. If this is all old news to you, skip to the bottom of my post.)

After drawing your image and carving it into the block –that’s another story!– the artist needs to ink the block. For Roadworks, a group of 6 artists was invited to carve 3-foot-square linoleum blocks, and random local artists (like me) could volunteer to carve smaller 1-foot-square blocks. This picture shows volunteers inking one of the large blocks. Ink is rolled out on a plexiglass plate using a rubber brayer, which is then used to roll the ink evenly over the surface of the block.
Volunteers inking a large plate

Here is a picture of one of the large prints after it’s been printed:
One of the large prints

For steamroller printing, inked blocks were laid down in a grid on top of a piece of plywood:
Laying out the little linos

Even with a small press, you need to protect the paper (and block) from the pressure used to make the print. When you use a steamroller, you stack up several blankets and a hunk of carpet and lay them on top of the blocks.
Covering the blocks with felt and blankets

Then stand back! Here comes the steamroller over the princess-and-the-pea stack of blocks, paper, and blankets!
The steamroller

The moment of truth. The blankets are lifted off, and volunteers –the “clean hand” crew– peel the paper off the inked blocks.
Peeling the paper off the blocks

And here is my print, hot off the press:
My print, hot off the press

In keeping with the larger theme of books, book arts, and banned books, I decided to make my “little lino” a piece about current events, specifically, the presidential race, and even more specifically, the story about Sarah Palin trying to dismiss the Wasilla town librarian after she refused to take some “offensive” books off the library shelves. The print is called “Open Season”, subtitled “In Which Sarah Palin, Far to the Right, Enjoys Taking Out Some Library Books.”
Open Season

Shameless commerce department:
In keeping with the fundraising spirit of Roadworks, I’m putting this print to some good use. I’m selling signed original prints on Etsy, with 50% of the proceeds going to the American Civil Liberties Union. And I’ve also put it on shirts, tote bags, and print items (note cards, etc.) on Cafe Press, with 100% of my profits from them also going to the ACLU. (While you’re there, also check out my “No on 8” products, which urge California voters to support same-sex marriage in November. Proposition 8 would change California’s constitution to specifically ban gay marriage.)

Art, books, politics; it’s a fine mix and made for a wonderful afternoon. Using my little hand press in my garrett will seem somewhat mundane after this!

[Guest blog by Melissa]

Non-Fiber Arts, Part II

The other event of our non-fiber-arts arts weekend was this…
Postcard for Moby Dick
The Acting Company‘s production of Orson Welles’ Moby Dick Rehearsed.

We stumbled on this performance just by luck. I often listen on-line to San Francisco’s big classical music radio station KDFC while I while I work in my office. I don’t pay it much attention, particularly not when commercials are on, but during the mutter-mutter-mutter of one commercial, I caught the words “Moby Dick.”

Now Moby Dick does not mean that much to me. I’ve never read the novel, though I do have fond memories of my family watching the Gregory Peck film version together on tv when I was a kid. (The trailer and a newsreel clip of Gregory Peck at the film’s opening on YouTube.) But Melissa loves, loves, loves the novel and is always glad to encounter new interpretations of it. So the next time I heard the mumble of commercials start up again, I actually listened.

Ten minutes and some quick on-line shopping later, Melissa and I had tickets to this production.

Orson Welles worked with Melville’s story a number of times in his life. He wrote and performed in Moby Dick Rehearsed, then did a Bristish television version of the novel (there’s speculation that this was actually a production of Moby Dick Rehearsed, but no copy of it seems to have survived), played the key role of the preacher shortly afterward in the film, and near the end of his life he’d begun filming himself reading the novel. (Clips—with Italian subtitles—on YouTube here and here.)

The central conceit of Moby Dick Rehearsed, which is set in the mid-19th Century, is that a traveling group of actors performing King Lear has been convinced by one of its members to spend an afternoon doing a reading based on the novel, which he’s taken a fancy to. The young actor plays Ishmael. The imperious actor/manager who runs the troupe takes on—of course—the role of Ahab.

The promos for the play made it sound as if the two narratives—King Lear and Moby Dick—were woven together to create a more complicated, composite text, but this really wasn’t the case. Once the troupe begins the reading of Moby Dick, they remain in these characters, until the very end of the play, when they step back out of their roles.

The acting itself felt rough as fist, the 19th Century players a group involving all the usual theatrical stereotypes: an egomaniac, a “serious” actor, an ingenue, a drunkard, and so forth. I had a hideous moment of thinking, “I laid out how much for these tickets?” Then the actors began the reading of Moby Dick, and Melissa and I were both riveted. At the moment when the actor perched atop a ladder that stood in for a crow’s nest boomed out “Thar she blows!,” I knew I’d gotten my money’s worth. The ocean was real, the whale was real, the crew were real. Ahab walked on two legs, but the cane he held in front of one of them felt as real as any more elaborate peg-leg get-up could have. The black boxes on rollers and ladders transformed back and forth between shore and ship easily.

I’m pestering Melissa now to put the film Moby Dick into her Netflix queue. I want to compare it both to this production and to my memories of seeing it forty-odd years ago.

Non-Fiber Arts, Part I

Long ago when we were young (the weekend before last, to be exact), Melissa and I took in a truly wonderful art exhibit and a very interesting play.

The exhibit, Borderlandia, at UC Berkeley’s museum of modern art, featured the works of Enrique Chagoya.
Borderlandia brochure
Chagoya’s works are explicitly political, dealing with themes of immigration and post-9/11 civil rights, and mix images drawn from indigenous and popular cultural in busy, complicated ways. We saw three distinct types of pieces at the show: large-scale painitngs, etchings drawing on Goya’s The Disasters of War (also on exhibit in the same museum), and codices.

My favorites were the codices: accordion-fold books that “read” from right to left.
This is a small picture. The actual pages are about 7″ x 10″. Imagine unfolding a book like this and spreading it out until it reaches its full length of six-to-ten feet.

And the images on each page have this sort of complexity:
We’ve got Mayan text, a modern-day super hero, a Goya-esque mouth of hell, and politically challenging questions in both Spanish and English.

You can see why Melissa and I want to return to this exhibit a few more times. The richness of Chagoya’s thinking—and, as a result, of his art—can’t be absorbed in a single viewing.

Most of his codices are one-of-a-kind and far beyond our means, but we were able to purchase a copy of the Codex Espangliensis: from Columbus to the Border Patrol, a for-publication project assembled by book artist Felicia Rice, using images by Chagoya and text Guillermo Gómez-Peña.
Codex Espangliensis
We’ve already spent one lovely evening looking through this book together and expect to enjoy many more.

Coming up next: Part II, featuring Orson Welles’ Moby Dick Rehearsed.

Melissa’s Camino de Santiago Prints

Melissa has a show up in Sacramento at the moment (although it’s coming down next week—I am not as timely as I ought to be) featuring the prints inspired by her hike across northern Spain last fall along the medieval pilgrim trail, the Camino de Santiago. It’s at Butch ‘n Nellie’s Cafe, in case you want to drop by this weekend.
Art and customers at Butch 'n' Nellie's
While I enjoy all of Melissa’s work, these prints are something special.

She worked on them for the better part of a year, and I had the pleasure of watching them come into existence one-by-one.
Second Saturday at Butch 'n' Nellie's
I also got to suffer along with Melissa as she experimented with different inks and papers, looking for the perfect medium. Carving the block is only the start of the work. Then one has to learn each block’s particular whims and whiles—how it wants to be fed into the press; which spots need heavy inking, which need light; how often it is willing to be printed before it wants a nice, sudsy bath and some time off.

If you go here you can look through all the prints in this series.

I’m also both delighted and saddened that she recently sold one of my favorite paintings, Grace of Summer Boughs. In a selfish corner of my heart I almost hoped that no-one else would recognize how lovely this piece is, so that we would still have it to hang in the home we plan to buy together when we retire.

Paintings are a lot like knitting in that way—you watch them emerge, drink in their beauty, then send them off into the world knowing that you may never see them again and hoping that they’ll be loved.


I’m afraid this may be a visually boring week, as Melissa and I didn’t get together and I wasn’t able to take advantage of her artist’s eye and digital camera. She’s painting like crazy for a show she has coming up in Mill Valley that will feature her landscapes. Meanwhile, I spent the weekend here in Santa Cruz, assisting with negotiations among the members of my newly expanded cat household. We still have some hissing going on, but it’s getting much more pro forma. Saturday night, I imagined writing up minutes: “Let the record state that Bea wanted to sniff Sparky’s butt, but Sparky objected, tabling the activity until an unspecified date. On at least sixteen occasions, Penny raised the issue of not being allowed outside, repeatedly labeling Sarah-Hope’s references to her stitches [the vet found out the hard way she’d already been spayed] irrelevant.”

I wish that I could show you my lovely Wrapped in Comfort malabrigo shawl. I worked on it Friday night at a stitch-along at The Golden Fleece. The owners had the swatches out for the entire malabrigo line, which was both thrilling and frustrating: thrilling because I could touch everything, but frustrating because the swatches are so short they don ‘t really give a clear sense of any of the colorways. In a masterful enabling ply, Carol, one of the owners, said, “I can get you all the malabrigo you want. Just give me a list of the colors and how many skeins of each.” Oh, it will be a long list, I can tell you that, but I have made a promise to myself that I will not hand off the list to Carol until I have saved the money to pay for the yarn when it comes in. Meanwhile, I will be visiting the malabrigo web site and drooling uncontrollably (the cats may have to start wearing little Wellies).

Drops Designs has some great new (free!) patterns up. This cardigan looks comfy as all get-out, and I appreciate the complete absence of areas of stockingette wasteland. This jacket is a bit longer than I’d like (and the bustline bobbles have to go), but again cozy, cozy, cozy—and decorative enough to dress up or down. And here’s a pretty little shrug.

Take a minute to check out the Turkish Delight Hat at Black Purl. The genius of Donna Druchunas‘s design is that she’s taken a traditional mitten pattern and transformed it into a hat, which opens up all kinds of possibilities for those of us who are “thumb phobic” (or just too lazy to work a thumb). I may soon be wearing Hello Yarn’s squirrel mittens on my head.

Paso a Paso

Today, while my flooring is being replaced, I’m hanging out at Melissa’s. I’ll settle in upstairs to mark papers, which need to be returned tomorrow. Meanwhile, Melissa will be downstairs, putting finishing touches on linocuts and running the blocks through her press. She’s getting ready for the opening of “Paso a Paso,” the exhibit of her linocuts based on the six-week, 500-mile trek she made last fall across northern Spain along the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrim route dating back to the 9th Century.

I always like her work, but I am absolutely in love with this series of prints, which combine the medieval and the mystic with the contemporary, all set in the wide expanses of the Spanish plains. The last six months or so, I’ve had the pleasure of watching all these images come into being, seeing Melissa carve away at the blocks and hearing her talk about her ideas and recount her stories of the pilgrimage.

Here’s “Entering Castrojeriz.”
Entering Castrojeriz

And “Stray Dog Sleeping in an Albergue Doorway.”
Stray Dog Sleeping in an Albergue Doorway

If you like these, head on over to her web site, where you can see eight more of the twenty or so prints that will make up the show. (That number’s not set in stone because she keeps getting new ideas even as she races to perfect and print the blocks she has carved.)

The Testimony of Our Hands

Mmmmmm. Before we do anything else, check out this yarn.
Prize yarn
It’s from Cathy-Cate at Hither and Yarn. I won this prize for being the 100th commenter on her blog. I had no idea there was even a competition going on! She sent me the nicest note, congratulating me and asking about my taste in yarn. I told her I like rich colors, and she wrote back to say, “I have just the thing.” Well, this yarn most definitely is just the thing. It’s a 140-yard skein of wool-silk blend with a real sheen to it (the photo gets the colors right, but doesn’t reproduce its luster). I don’t know yet what I’m going to make with it, but this skein definitely deserves to have a new pattern written it its honor—perhaps some decorative, but functional wrist warmers?

As I promised, here’s a picture of the dishrags I knit up using self-striping Sugar ‘n Cream.
Self-striping dishrags
The cloth on the left uses the self-striping yarn as the background; the cloth on the right uses it as the “ribbons” that run across the piece.

Melissa and I spend most weekends together, but occasionally life interferes, as is the case this weekend. She needs to spend most of her time up in Oakland carving lino-blocks for her upcoming shows; I need to stay in Santa Cruz to protect the homestead from ravening herds of raccoons. So, in lieu of a weekend’s domestic bliss, we met up in San Jose for a date.
The feathered serpent of San Jose
We both love this statue of the feathered serpent, Quetzalcoatl, that stands guard at the plaza set among the city’s museums and theaters.

After a delightful lunch at the Old Spaghetti Factory (bless Melissa for her willingness to indulge my love of mizithra!), we walked to the San Jose Museum of Art, which is hosting an exhibit of the works of Martín Ramírez.
Museum wall sign for the Martin Ramirez exhibit

The museum documentation offers a brief summary of his life story:

Ramírez (1895–1963) created some three hundred artworks of remarkable visual clarity and expressive power within the confines of DeWitt State Hospital, in Auburn, California, where he resided for the last fifteen years of his life. He had left his native Mexico in 1925 with the aim of finding work in the United States and supporting his family back home in Jalisco, but the economic consequences of the Great Depression left him homeless in northern California in 1931. Unable to communicate in English and apparently confused, he was diagnosed as a schizophrenic and spent the second half of his life in mental institutions.

In the 32 years he was institutionalized, Ramírez hardly spoke to anyone but taught himself to draw. Tarmo Pasto, a professor of psychology and art at Sacramento State University, discovered Ramírez’s drawings in the early 1950s. Pasto started to supply Ramírez with materials and eventually collected his drawings and organized public exhibitions of his work.

Martín Ramírez’ oeuvre forms an impressive map of a life shaped by immigration, poverty, institutionalization, and most of all art. Migration and memory seem to factor strongly in his images, which document his life experiences; favored images of Mexican Madonnas, animals, cowboys, trains, and landscapes merge with scenes of American culture. While his singularly identifiable figures, forms, line, and palette reveal an exacting and highly defined vocabulary, they also show Ramírez to be an adventurous artist, exhibiting remarkably creative explorations through endless variations on his themes.

The mix of beauty and playfulness in this piece drew an involuntary little gasp from me as I turned to face it.
Martinez drawing: Courtyard

As you can see in this image, his works are quite large and done on multiple sheets of paper pasted or taped together.
Martinez drawing: Madonna
Melissa and I wondered whether this was by choice or if he was only supplied with the small sheets and did the joining up out of necessity. We also wondered whether he drew first, then joined or vice versa. Because he was viewed as an interesting psychological case, rather than as a full-fledged artist, during his life, his artistic process seems not to be well documented.

One of the most enjoyable features of the San Jose Museum of Art is the reading area attached to each exhibit, with comfy chairs and books about the featured artist and related works. We looked through the exhibit catalogue and decided we’d have to buy a copy of it. We also fell in love with another book, Miracles on the Border: Retablos of Mexican Migrants to the United States. Unfortunately, the museum didn’t have this book for sale, but we’ll be tracking down a copy as soon as we can.

We made our second stop at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles, which currently offers several exhibits of textiles exploring themes of war and human rights.
Literature from the Quilt and Textile Museum

“Woven Witness: Afghan War Rugs and Afghan Freedom Quilt” looks at the way traditional Afghani rug making has been altered to incorporate images of military conflict.
Detail of Afghan war rug
These images began to appear in Afghan rugs, at first in “hidden” form, shortly after the Soviet Invasion in 1979 and continue to appear—modified to reflect changing politics and conflicts—today.

The traveling exhibit, “Weavings of War: Fabrics of memory,” includes pieces from many cultures.
Hmong story cloth
This Hmong story cloth documents Hmong collaboration with U.S. forces in Vietnam, their subsequent persecution, escape as refuges, and immigration to the U.S. The exhibit also included two large quilts and several smaller pieces documenting life under apartheid in South Africa, small works in appliqué from Chile and Peru documenting human rights abuses, and traditional Asian weavings with military motifs incorporated, along with a number of other kinds of pieces.

I feel insufficiently wise to explain what viewing these pieces meant, the messages they spoke, and the ways they made me contemplate what it means to be an American living the life that I do. The scope of the violence and suffering is so broad and has so many causes that I could easily feel helpless in the face of it all. But these pieces of handwork remind me of the power of individual actions. Perhaps one of the lessons is that I shouldn’t waste my time trying to decide upon the most effective, most comprehensive action. Instead, I should focus right now on the things I do every day, the activities I love, and work to make them part of my own response to the injustices around me.