Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Holding it Together


Following the death of my mother after a short but intense illness in August 2016, my life irrevocably changed. I became the counsellor’s phrase: “an adult orphan”.

In order to channel my grief creatively, I threw myself into making work; this was my coping response. In answer to an open call from Temple Bar Gallery & Studios for a curated section of artist books in the Dublin Art Book Fair, I had the idea that I could combine my relatively new re-interest in printmaking with my skills in bookbinding. Through a course I had been taking, I found myself giving woodblock demonstrations at the Irish Museum of Modern Art the previous February. I hadn’t done much printmaking work for years, and I had so enjoyed the woodblock printing that I knew that I was going to love a further re-exploration of print media.


Complete immersion in my art was the context needed to help me to deal with the new order of things: I no longer had a mother; an integral part of my family life was now gone. I needed to create something to counteract this immense loss, which I was reminded of in every daily act. I felt the need to have some purpose, a specific project, to prevent me from otherwise being overwhelmed by despair. I needed to create in order to feel buoyant. I had a husband and child who were also grieving and I refused to let myself sink.


Until this illness, my vibrant mother had been in exceptional good health for the entirety of her ninety-something years. She celebrated joy. My mother was active in local social clubs, she loved singing and dancing, and had close friends of all ages. The fatal diagnosis in June 2016 was a shock alternating between disbelief and despair by her ten children, yet my Mum received the news with outrageous good humour. In her last months she repeatedly sang “I’m heading for the last roundup”, the refrain to a song by her hero Gene Autry. Her great age had no bearing on the unfairness of my mother’s diagnosis; she was not ready to depart this earth and the many who loved her were not yet ready to let her go.


After a number of sketches and design plans, my work began with a series of lino prints. I would bind these prints into several book editions, a different language for each edition. I chose three languages – English, Irish and Spanish – as a starting point, with the possibility that I might create future editions in other languages. This was the first time I used my bookbinding skills in an art book context. I have been hand-binding books for over twenty five years to use as sketchbooks, notebooks, photo albums and scrapbooks, but to bind books as part of an art work is a new development for me. Literally, it was a way for me to hold things together.


Each book contains five small lino prints. My prints are straightforward: a mundane greeting to start the day (good morning / maidín mhaigh / buenos dias) and its follow up query (how are you? / conas atá tú? / ¿cómo estás?) enclosing three simple images (an egg in egg cup, two mugs, a teapot). The images are printed in black ink. Clarity. Simplicity. These are images of sustenance, companionship and comfort. This is what I need. What I hope for. These are existential books that allow me to negotiate the circumstances of overwhelming loss: coming to terms with the banality of living while facing the abyss. Since August 25th 2016 my mother is only fully alive in my memory of her.


In November 2016, five copies of each of my books were included on the curated table of the Dublin Art Book Fair. To me, this opportunity provided a quiet memorial to my mother.


I am not religious yet I am not atheist. I believe in humanity as an entity of good, despite so much evidence to the contrary. There is much suffering both on a global and a personal level. But I have encountered kindness in strangers, selflessness in friends, willingness to share and care in unexpected places. These experiences allow me to fly. I keep faith with the unknown. Although I mourn, the best way for me to honour my mother’s spirit is to celebrate it through my artmaking. This helps me to remain unwaveringly hopeful.


I am still coping with the loss of my mother. I am still creating artwork. I am currently working on another group of books and whether they will be accepted for inclusion in the Dublin Art Book Fair 2017 remains to be seen. Whether they are accepted or not doesn’t matter. Fundamentally they are serving a greater purpose: they are holding me together.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Lithography workshop

It is probably becoming fairly obvious that my interest in printmaking techniques has become very pronounced over the past two years. When I heard about a weekend lithography workshop at Blackchurch Print Studio in Dublin, about two months ago, I was quick to sign up for it. Lo and behold, the time flew and the workshop, led by Alison Pilkington, took place last weekend. 


There were only four of us taking the workshop, so it was quite intense. I had brought some sketches of things I had been working on, and spent Saturday morning developing these sketches on a larger scale.


I had another look at my branches images, but decided on beachstones for the litho stone.


Saturday afternoon was spent drawing on the litho stone with a variety of litho crayons and then painting on tucshe in specific areas. For the small stones, I applied the tusche by flicking so that their texture would be totally different from the surrounding linework. Unfortunately I was too busy working, and did not have a camera with me anyhow, to take pictures of the stone in progress. On Sunday morning there were a few applications of nitric acid in gum arabic on the tusche areas and in the afternoon I printed up an edition of four on beautiful Fabriano paper. It was an exhausting but invigorating day!


Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Blind embossing


 I had an idea for a handmade book, "Ghost", where the images would be blind emossed prints. These would be small prints, facilitated by my pasta machine press. The plates are 800 micron acetate, each plate being a tiny 9 cm square. The printed pages are a whopping 12.5 x 15 cm, and they will be affixed to an accordion book 16.5 cm vertically; the covers are 17 cm square. All these figures are important and should be worked out in advance, when creating a book, so that finally putting it all together goes smoothly.

I had an idea of the images I would use, a hand as a metonym for the whole body. I had not done blind embossing on my pasta press before, so I began by testing some materials. Below is an image cut from oilcloth, using the smooth side up.


 I also tried the heaviest grade of sandpaper I could find.


This is the same sandpaper grade as above, but is the environment around the image.


 I did some tests on Fabriano paper. The heaviest grade sandpaper was very difficult to work with.



Although I liked the embossed imprint of the heavy grade sandpaper, I had to fight with my press to get the print! When embossing a thin tissue is placed over the plate so that the paper stays clean, yet I was finding that the tissue was becoming embedded in the print, and could not even be removed when dry.

I tried using completely dry paper, and even though I had some good results, I still had to fight with my press to get a print. So I abandoned the idea of using the heaviest sandpaper grade for my plates.


I also started using oilcloth in lieu of felts with my prints, as it is thin, yet has more weight to it than the thin felt I was using.


Here is a another sample of a plate with heavy grade sandpaper. Though not as heavy as the black sandpaper, there were still some difficulties with the prints.


I had decided I would probably use two hands in each image, the final image (of five) being two hands together emulating a bird in flight. The plate below shows the reverse side of oilcloth, which has a textured pattern.


Still using thin Fabriano for tests, I wanted to see how the oilcloth faired under the press. I was surprised that the pasta machine was sensitive enough to pick up the area where the two hands met. For the oilcloth tests I used two layers of oilcloth in lieu of felts. One must remember to have the smooth side of the oilcloth lying next to the paper, so as not to have any additional unplanned embossing.


My final tests were on the Khadi Indian rag handmade paper. The prints are subtle, but this is in keeping with the point of my book "Ghost".


 My final decision was to use the same grade of sandpaper for all five images, representing the environment rather than the hands.


The last step was printing out each plate. The book will be in an edition of ten, so I needed ten prints for each plate. I finished all the printing last week, and now I am working on putting the books together.