Obsession, or Printmaking as a Coping Mechanism

Things at my house are in a state of upheaval. For the most part, positive changes are happening, and since my house and studio are intrinsically intermeshed, I am constantly surrounded by emotions and preparations. None of these changes involve me directly, so my job is to be present. When I have to center myself and be present — especially when I have little control over the situation — I draw circles.

Circle drawing from a long committee meeting.

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The seen and unforeseen of life

I live in a university town. I am continually aware of the predictable changes in life — graduations from high school and college, weddings and first jobs. People move in and out of our town with regularity. Other changes — a surprise award, an illness or a job loss — are not so expected. And their results not so predictable.

Elizabeth Busey. Unforeseen. Linoleum Reduction Print
25 x 17 in, 2013.

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And the clouds revealed…

Elizabeth Busey. Hope Despite the Evidence.
Linoleum Reduction Print, 17 x 25in, 2013.

In the last post I related the saga of my ruining a block and having to start over. This print is the final result of a new block, new paper and many more hours of carving. On the previous block I carved away those crucial corn stalks that extend over the water. Without them, I don’t think your brain would have been able to make sense of things.

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Blessings of a do-over

When I describe my printing process to non-printmakers, I often stress that because I am using only one block, if I make a mistake or I don’t like something, I can’t go back. In truth, there are many times when I don’t like something, but I just continue and see if another color layer can make it look different.

I’m working on a new print that has clouds. I had originally wanted to carve the clouds in a sort of engraving style, where you could see my carving marks. Kind of like Gustave Baumann’s Malapi. Sadly I didn’t achieve this, as my clouds looked more like a dust-up of cute cottontails. But I couldn’t go back, so I began to carve the block for the next layer…and I carved away the wrong area.

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Now if only spring would really come

Elizabeth Busey. Prints on the Land. Linoleum Reduction Print, 25 x 40in, 2013.

My first large-scale print is finished. In Prints on the Land, I wanted to capture that overwhelming experience of late spring in the Midwest – warm, moist, earth-scented, and yes, green.

When I first finished this print, I hung it in my studio to take a look. My studio is small, so I could only stand about four feet away from the print. I was pretty unsure about what I had created. Last weekend I exhibited one print at my church as part of the culmination of my grant. When I could stand back farther, I suddenly saw what I had intended. Larger work just needs more room to breathe. Whew!
For the grant, I am placing prints at several places where the public can experience the work, read about the project, and yes, even touch the print (gasp!) Framing these larger works is more expensive, and I didn’t want to have any site say no because of concerns over liability. So people can touch the print, read about the press expansion, touch a sample of carved linoleum, and see “in progress” pictures. I rarely put in-progress pictures in my blog because setting up the lights and camera is a lengthy process. For this grant, I set up some of the lights and used a smaller camera. So the colors aren’t exactly precise, but you will get the idea.
Yellow/orange blend roll.
Light green
Blue layer using a stencil protect the hillside.
A layer of magenta changes everything.


Now we can see more of the rows.
Another blue area.


Another layer of bright blue completes the print. Now if only spring would really arrive in the Midwest.


Yet another developmental hurdle

I have teenagers in my home now. But I clearly remember when they were very young, that before they made a developmental leap like learning to crawl or walk, they fell apart. Happy children became irrational, weeping, demanding creatures. Child psychologists would call this disorganization. Perhaps this is what has been happening to me.

My newly expanded drying rack.

In my last post, I unveiled the newly expanded press. I knew that the challenges of working bigger were not over when the Rives BFK (30″ x 44″) I ordered would not fit into my flat files. When I began preparations for this new work, I went to hang the paper up and realized that my 12″ wire shelving racks weren’t wide enough and the paper would buckle.  Panic set in…

A trip to Lowes and an evening with my dear husband yielded a new wider drying rack thanks to 20″ wide shelving. Now I would have somewhere to put the paper while I was printing.

The paper trapeze is created with a dowel, rope and zip ties.

The next problem I encountered was how to control the paper when I placed it over the block. I really need another set of hands, but since I work during school hours, these were hard to come by. And my cats were not supportive.  I worried that I would not be able to handle this large (and expensive) paper. After one small meltdown and some pacing in the studio, I came up with the paper trapeze. (I do not recall if I have seen anything like this on the Internet, so forgive me if you are the original inventor!)

The paper trapeze is my silent studio assistant.
The idea behind the trapeze is that I can hang the paper over it while I pop on the registration tabs. The Rives paper is stiff enough that it does not make a crease.
I use four registration tabs on a 30″ side.
With the trapeze I can use both hands to snap in the registration tabs. With my left hand, I carefully begin smoothing the paper down on the block, while holding the remaining paper in my right hand. I try to smooth in the very same spot each time.
After my first printing session today, it is clear that I need to start a stretching and strengthening regimen immediately.  Lifting the 25″ x 40″ block straight up and then on and off the press is going to take some practice.  I must stretch in new ways to get the paper on and off the block, and then hang it on the rack.  10 prints and 4 proofs later I am a puddle of exhaustion. But then I remember why I am doing this — I wanted to create prints that are large enough to get lost in, the way you get lost in Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.
Well, maybe not that big, but you get the idea. Hopefully with a little more practice, this developmental hurdle will be behind me.


My kingdom for something flat

The odyssey to expand my printing press began in the amazingly hot Midwestern sun, and has come to completion during a cold spell that has delayed schools. I imagined myself jumping up and down when it was finished, and inside I think I am, but outside I am simply relieved. Here it is…

My new expanded press!

What you see here are the old sides and gearing of the press with new rail extensions on either end to support the 64″ bed. Most of the construction process went without too much trouble — no emergency room visits but some serious bruising — and I did once have to assume the position of a Soviet-era weight lifter to get the top roller into the gearing. My husband did a great job fashioning extensions to support the new bed.

If there was one trouble spot in this whole process, it was the bed. One of the most important criteria for a press bed is that it be flat. And to the naked eye, lots of things appear flat. Our quest for just such a bed involved numerous layers of hardboard, rollers and wood glue, cinderblocks and solid core doors for weight, and a tremendous amount of middle-aged muscle. What we discovered was that each of our two attempts yielded a bed that was not flat. And thus, the obligatory winter dump run…

So in my twenty-first century problem solving mode, I scoured the internet for advice. People recommended something called phenolic resin, but it didn’t come in anything longer that 48″. I corresponded and visited with a plastics supplier, and learned that plastic is not nearly as rigid as we might think.

At this point I had been without my press for a month and was feeling panicked. Miraculously I found an old post from Dean Smith at Graphic Chemical who recommended a composite material called Arboron. Arboron is made of papers impregnated with melamine and phenolic resins and formed under extreme heat and pressure to create a very flat sturdy surface.

The 36″ rollers glide smoothly along my new Arboron press bed.

Google-fingers at the ready, I started searching for a supplier, putting in nearby states as I struck out with my own. I finally found Woodcraft Mfg. Co. in Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. Jim and his family kindly let me come for a visit, test the material for flatness and cut a beautiful piece of Arboron for me to take home. They even gave me a great deal, and the visit with the shop Boston Terrier, Scooter, completed the day. The Abroron fits the press like a glove, and it the flattest thing I have come across.

The larger Rives BFK paper (30 x 44″) arrived and I am steeling myself for my first large print. I’ve been doing a small test print to see how the press handles, and how I deal with the new press size. So far so good.

Many thanks to the Indiana Arts Commission for making this adventure possible. Now back to printing…

You can’t always get what you want

Dry midwestern lake bed. Would you put this on your wall?

Every artist blog needs an image. So when a print you have poured yourself into for weeks does not turn out, it is difficult to know what to do. It is heartbreaking, and a bit embarrassing as well.

During the summer, a nearby lake was drained to repair a leak in the dam. A severe drought helped the process, and by August you could walk on the lake bed and take pictures of these interesting patterns.

I really wanted to use this pattern, but as dry earth, it only conveys lack, desperation and death. Not really the type of image I work with. So I tried to turn it on its head and imagine evaporation, perhaps with some tasty Mediterranean sea salt as a by-product.

The print that shall not be named (detail).

To try to get the idea of crystallization, I turned to etching for some interesting textures. I have now remembered why I prefer the dryness of relief printmaking. In this detail, you can see some of the areas that were etched. I actually etched the block three times, and found it to be a very random process. The changeable autumn weather played havoc with the experiment as well. Sometimes the etch dried quickly, and other times it stayed hydrated and ran off the block — and under the tape I had applied to protect the MDF (medium density fiberboard) block.

Pulling out all the stops in the studio.

As I was cleaning off the block the last time, the MDF was beginning to expand and decompose. I knew this was the last time I could print with this block, and there were still many problems to be solved. So I pulled out all the stops — a frisket for some details, and two different gradations. I gently eased the block back and forth from press to table, but in the end there were perspective problems that had been there from the beginning, and couldn’t be solved with another layer of color.

I thought long and hard about whether to put the whole print on the blog, and decided against it. Once it is here, it has a life of its own. At my house, it glares at me as it dries in the studio. We need some time apart, this print and I.

Time to head to Starbucks for a ridiculously expense coffee, sketchbook in hand, to try to regain my artist inspiration. You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find you can stuff it in a bottom drawer.