Sunday, February 6, 2011

Interview with Daniel Labovitz

Check out Daniel's Etsy Shop.


I split my time between New York City and southern Vermont (Wilmington and Brattleboro, particularly).  Mostly, I am in New York, where my kids go to school, but we spend as many weekends and vacations as we can at our home in Vermont.

I’m not a formally-trained artist.  For 15 years, I practiced law on and around Wall Street.  Last year, realizing that my heart wasn’t in the law anymore, and having both the blessing of a supportive wife and family and the financial wherewithal to do so, I gave up practicing law to figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.  

I’ve always been a nights-and-weekends casual artist - mostly pastels and pencil drawings, with the occasional acrylic painting for variety - but I had never allowed myself to think that I could be an artist full time.  Over the past eight months, I have begun to explore what it would mean to take that step, personally and professionally.  I have no clear answers just yet, but so far my explorations have led me to some interesting places.

Why printing?  

It sounds corny to say it, but I think block printing chose me rather than the other way around. 
When I was very young, my mother made linoleum block prints, but she stopped doing them when I was in elementary school.  After she died, I took one of her prints - an illustration inspired by the Langston Hughes poem “A Dream Deferred” - and hung it in my office opposite my desk.  Looking back, I think it was more emblematic of my dissatisfaction with practicing law, rather than any fascination with linoleum block printing.  Even so, the medium must have touched me on some subconscious level: shortly after I quit my law job, I saw a Speedball linoleum block starter kit at my local art store, and without really thinking about it, I bought it.  That night, I began experimenting at my dining room table with how to create dynamic lines and images on a block, how to express values, and how to separate and print multiple colors.  It felt oddly like coming home after a long time away. 

Though my early results were rough and at times totally frustrating, the whole process still felt somehow intuitive.  And, as I have done more work, I have found the result to be more psychically satisfying than other art forms I’ve tried, partly because the process of drawing an image, transferring it to a block and cutting the block forces me to go back over my work at each stage, consider each line and mark, and refine them as I prepare the image for printing.  My other artwork hadn’t ever demanded that kind of refinement before I could consider it “finished”.  But as any author will tell you, editing is what makes good writing great.  The same is true of art; and printing, by its nature, seems to enforce that discipline.

What is your favorite print medium and why?

It’s hard to have a favorite when you’ve really only tried one print medium, but I do like the ease with which I can cut a linoleum block without expensive tools.  To put it another way, as someone who is new to the process, I find linoleum blocks very approachable.  I hope someday to try other print media, but with small children in the house, not to mention the physical limitations of a New York City apartment, linoleum blocks are a good fit right now.

How long have you been printing and how has your work evolved?

I am very new to printing (six months or so), but in that time I feel like my work has evolved exponentially.  Among other things, early on I set myself a specific task - illustrate a three-letter word for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet - as a way of focusing my design and printing education.  In my first print of the series, I also serendipitously established a design template that I have ended up using for each subsequent image in the series.  The template is fairly small - approximately 3” by 3” - but I have found it to be a marvelous teaching tool.  On the one hand, it teaches discipline because the framework forces me to be creative in my choice of images (there are surprisingly few three letter nouns in Hebrew that are susceptible of an interesting illustration in that space), while the small size forces me to be creative with perspective, scale and line, because there’s only so much you can do in 9 square inches that includes three hebrew letters along one side.  At the same time, to prevent keep the images from becoming too uniform or formulaic, I also established a “rule” for myself that each image should break the frame of the picture in some way that is consistent with the theme of the picture.  Thus, in one image, lightning strikes the bottom frame; in another tree roots curl around the bottom and sides of the frame; in a third, mud from a farm yard refuses to be contained by the frame.  By winking at the conventional device of framing, I am hoping to engage the viewer simultaneously with the image depicted and the visual container in which it is depicted.

What or Who influences your work? 

I’ve been strongly influenced by artists in my family, particularly my mother; my grandfather Samuel Levy, a commercial illustrator whose painting decorated my childhood home; and my wife’s great grandmother, Adelaide Bratt, who did hundreds of small watercolor sketches of the landscapes in the New Hampshire lakes region and urban scenes in Boston.  

Outside the family, I have always been fascinated by the art of Ben Shahn, Leonard Baskin, Jakob Steinhardt and Gustave Baumann (which could explain why printing felt immediately intuitive to me), as well as by the animation and concept art from the heyday of the Disney studios -- artists including Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston,Ward Kimball,and Ub Iwerks.  The Disney artists in particular focused on using line in innovative ways to convey dynamic movement and mood, which I have found useful to my thinking about designing blocks.

Finally, as might be obvious from my work, my Jewish identity also informs my work, and provides a rich vein of images, stories and material to work with.

How do your promote your work?

Through Etsy, and word-of-mouth, at the moment.  I am building up an inventory of prints and drawings that I will eventually put into a website, but I don’t think I’m quite ready yet.

Any good printing tips or funny printing stories (or both??)

Hand-pulled prints make excellent presents for the person who has everything.  This summer, instead of buying just another anniversary present for my wife, I made her a reduction print of an iris (her favorite flower) with an inscription from Victor Hugo about the value of love, which is now framed in her office.  I’m told it was one of the best presents I’ve ever given her (second only to the iPad that I got her for Mother’s Day, I think!).

1 comment:

Amie Roman said...

I like your Hebrew word themed prints. I too have found a lot of artistic value in working within specific restrictions (e.g. size, theme, colour, etc.), and it's a great learning experience. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, great interview.