Name: Alfred Stark, dakokichidekalb (Japanese for "kite crazy")
I discovered printmaking when I discovered Japanese kites. About five years ago, I finally decided to finish that unrequited fourth grade box kite assignment. Not really knowing how to make a box kite anymore than I did some twenty four years ago, I decided to take a trip to the local library. There I discovered a very influential book titled The Art of the Japanese Kite, by Tal Streeter. In this book I saw the most beautiful, delicate and improbable looking paper kites ranging in size from a small postcard to being several stories high. I was intrigued by their varying size, form and imagery. The images were so graphic and bold. Anyhow, to make a long story much shorter I made a box kite, it flew, and I quickly began trying to figure out how to make and fly Japanese style kites. It wasn't long before I discovered that many of them were block printed. This led me to look up books on Japanese block printing. I found one titled Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints, by Helen Merritt. This book really opened up my eyes and I immediately fell in love with moku hanga. As an added bonus, Helen Merritt turned out to be a regular customer at the local hardware store where i work. Anyhow, I quickly began to buy books on Japanese kites and prints and to experiment making both.
Whats our favorite printmaking process?
I quickly discovered a book on Moku Hanga by Keiko Hiratsuka Moore. This book really laid our the process very well for me and helped my get started. I also take the time to pump Helen Merritt for information at the hardware store whenever I can. Through Mrs. Moore's book and Helen Merritt I was introduced to the work of Unichi Hiratsuka. He was a modern Japanese block print artist who pioneered the whole do it yourself moku hanga techinique throughout most of the twentieth century. His black and white imagery cuts to the core of his subject and is just about the coolest stuff I've ever seen. Anyhow, the strong, yet free flowing black and white style of Unichi really inspires me. Despite what I've heard, I think it's really hard to do black and white prints well. Its hard to simplify and maintain the essence of the subject while making the white of the paper come alive with the black. Right now printing in black and white is what I'm most interested in trying to figure out.
Process-wise I try to keep things simple. For a typical print I either draw from life or use a photo image I have taken myself. This image gets transferred to thin tengucho paper which is then glued down to a maple or cherry block. This image is carved out and printed by hand using a brush or brayer, a baren, water or oil based ink and Japanese paper.
What is your work about?
I try do do prints only from nature. I love to go out and find little images of the natural world which seem to resonate with my somehow. I try not to think about it too much. If I see a particular flower, weed or bird I like I'll do a print of it. Maybe after I do a whole bunch they will start to come together as some sort of narrative, but for now I'm happy just to explore how images from the immediate natural world might translate into black and white prints.
As far as the whole art thing goes, I guess I'm more interested in the process of making nature prints than in wondering if they are art or not. I've heard my kites derided as "craft". I don't care that much, my favorite art magazine is American Craft so I guess it makes sense.
What do you enjoy the most about printmaking?
The thing I like most about printmaking is being able to work and re-work an image many times at the same time or several months apart. It's so cool to be able to use an image which I have carved again and again in several different ways. I can sell a print but I never have to part with the basic piece. I like the idea of being an old man with a lifetime of woodblocks on a shelf somewhere.
What do you like least about printmaking?
I love to share my prints with others. The idea that I can make an image and have several of them all over the country is amazing. I tend not to number my prints as editions. I know this goes against the status quo of the print community, but I feel that if a thousand people want one of my prints then they should get one. If only ten want one then that's fine too. I'm not likely to flood the market with my current income anyhow. I make a few prints, and if I sell them all and I still like the image, I'll make a few more. The idea of a limited edition is a nice one, and seems appropriate for many situations, but for me it just seems silly. It's important to me that I be able to do what I want, as much as I want with any of my prints. I don't want anything "exclusive" about my work. The idea that I'm supposed to limit what I do is somebody else's rule from a completely different world than mine. The fact is I'm really limited as far as the number of prints I can make anyhow because I'm basically poor.
How do you get past creative slumps?
When I can't think of what to do next, I stop trying and go for walks. Having a digital camera helps. I just go out and start taking pictures of whatever. Flickr is a great website for handling creative slumps.
How do you promote your work?
Etsy is my primary means of promoting my work. I feel so lucky to have found a place to put my work where so many people from so many different backgrounds will see my work. I honestly feel like I wouldn't be doing block prints any longer if I hadn't discovered Etsy and Flickr. I mean, having the chance to share work with others is a huge incentive. I don't rely on the feedback so much, it's just nice to know someone saw something. If they like it that's cool, if they think it sucks that's fine too.
I have to say the best thing so far about Etsy is finding other artists out there who do block prints. There are some very, very good printmakers on Etsy who blow me away with their work. I've noticed that some of my favorites are right here on Printsy! Thanks to Etsy, my wife and I have a house full of original art work that we'd never have been able to afford otherwise.
John Porcellino, king-cat.net
The poetry of Mary Olliver
Unichi Hiratsuka, modern master
Tal Streeter, The Art of the Japanese Kite
Thich Nhat Hahn
Henry David Thoreau
John James Audubon
Thanks, Al, for the great interview, and for introducing us to the art and craft of the Japanese kite!