I am a research assistant on a public health career path but spend most of my free time covered in block-printing ink. I spent a few perilous years in New York City trying to "realize" my love for art by settling for a publishing job that really just involved photoshopping celebrities. Last summer, I quit my job, packed my belongings into my car, and moved clear across the country to Portland, OR. Here I am finding a slower pace of life, a wonderful artistic community, and the understanding that art is a personal process, not a commercial one.
How did you get started in printmaking?
I started loving printmaking at age 3, when my father carefully dissected Mary Azarian's "Farmer's Alphabet," a beautiful book of rural woodcuts, and taped them all over the walls of my room. Like many American children, I was trusted with my first linocutting tools in elementary school art class. I remember it vividly: the activity we did while the teacher stood by with a first aid kit, warning us repeatedly to cut our little rubber block by motioning the blades away from ourselves, and finally kicking Tommy out of class for threatening to deface Rachie’s American Girl Doll. I remember gleefully lifting my paper from the block, and becoming crestfallen as I realized that the letters I had carved so perfectly were printed backwards. A few attempts later, I had figured out the reversal process couldn't stop printing.
While trying to survive the bustle of NYC after years of printing abandonment, I decided to give it another shot. I bought some plastic carving tools, a couple of blocks, and discovered that it was just as rewarding as I remembered it.
Describe where you work.
I work all over my tiny apartment. I have a designated printing table in a small nook, but it's often overflowing with supplies and prep for art fairs. I print on the coffee table, the kitchen counter, the dining table, the floor, the desk, and sometimes actually on my printing table. Really whichever 2'x2' space is free and flat.
What's your favourite printmaking process?
I can't resist linocutting - it is such a smooth, cognitive process. I often find that I marry whatever I've been listening to - radio stories, song lyrics, etc., with a particular part of a carving. For instance, I recently carved an anatomical heart, and can still hear the NPR Talk of the Nation discussion I was listening to as I carved the pulmonary arteries. I have plans to build up the courage to venture into woodcutting, but so far am so satisfied with linocutting that I can't seem to make the switch.
What's your creative process for any given print? (eg. sketch first? Pre-planned or free-form?)
After my sad experience in grade school where I forgot to reverse the letters in my carving, I developed a technique to make sure that all my prints are printed as originally envisioned: I sketch in pencil on tracing paper, then press the tracing paper - graphite down - on linoleum and bare down with a pencil to transfer the drawing to the block. My carving is based on the transferred pencil marks (with some liberties taken). My prints are usually hand-pressed (as in, with my fingers) - though I have a baren (a pressing tool) in an attempt to reduce wrist strain, I just love the feel of the block under the paper and usually the baren stays in a drawer.
What do you enjoy most about printmaking?
I love it all, but I think my favorite part is inking a block for the first time. I absolutely adore the tacky sound a brayer makes rolling in ink (I've been known to roll it back and forth much longer than necessary). When the brayer rolls across the ridges of the linoleum for the first time, I get giddy to see what used to be a flat drawing realized in three dimensions.
What's your least favorite part of the process?
I wish that I could keep calm while carving. When I carve too quickly, I inevitably slip and take off a piece that then takes forever to glue back into place and recarve. Carving is such an exciting process that I can't help but get a little over-zealous. Kind of like when you have something wonderful to drink, can't contain your excitement, and spill some on your shirt.
What are your inspirations (other artists, people, places, events, etc.)?
As a kid, I was stunned and inspired by the printed political posters made Bread & Puppet-style artists. Their simple sylvan designs were screen printed onto linen in vibrant colors with few well chosen words expressing disgust with politicians, hope for change, and love for the simple pleasures. Mary Azarian, a woodcutter from Vermont, has been formative for me with her intricate, hand-colored images that reflect much of my rural childhood. Sabra Field, also a woodcutter from Vermont, has reminded me that simplicity is key in communicating sweeping emotions. And lastly, despite my recent move to the Northwest, I can't help but draw continued inspiration from the "clean dirt" feel of rural Vermont, where I was born and raised.
How has your work changed and evolved since you started?
It hasn't been long since I decided to embrace the term "printmaker," but I have recently noticed a sense of confidence in my designs that wasn't necessarily there before. At first, I relied a lot on the unexpected elements of printmaking to make my carvings interesting - maybe I had pressed the paper with different weights which lent a mottled effect, or I forgot to carve some areas deeply enough and the resulting print had a darker feel than I had planned. Now I have a better idea of what works and what doesn't, and most of my prints are quite purposeful.
How do you get past creative slumps?
I am guilty of long slumps. Eventually, though, I'll start feeling anxious that I haven't printed lately, and begin to reconsider my surroundings. I'll try to see everything as a carving - the trees and dogs in a park, my kitchen, a lamp. I enjoy working in series, so if I find one possible carving, I'll often be able to extrapolate that to other similar carvings in content or style.
How do you promote your work?
Most of my promotion is online - the usual social networking sites and Etsy, primarily. I've attempted a blog but put it aside due to lack of inspiration - I felt inspiration was better spent carving. I'm working up the courage to contact local commercial establishments to carry my more marketable products - greeting cards, for instance. And lastly, I'm working on a set of prints that could be sewn into a children's book. I'm hoping that venturing into publishing might expand my scope a bit.
Any other comments or advice for others who want to try making hand-pulled prints?
Any artist who has ever felt a pull to work with his or her hands will feel completely at home with some carving tools and a block. The tactile elements of block printing are wonderful, and the serial nature of the work allows an immense satisfaction. Just make sure to have plenty of band-aids handy!