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In Praise of the Traveler’s Sketchbook

My husband and I are on walkabout in Spain — our first vacation together since our daughter was born 22 years ago. Traveling with my children has been among the most memorable times I have spent with them, and I wonder what it will feel like to travel without them.

As I was preparing for my trip to Spain, I was looking through the travel journals I kept during our trips to Europe when my children were 7 & 9, and four years later when they 11 & 13. The notes and the watercolor sketches tell the story of our travels and my artistic journey as well.

Young children and a novice artist make for a humorous journal

On our first trip we visited provencal France and the limestone mountains of northern Italy, and then spent a few days in Paris.

Our first holiday home, many years before AirBnB made this sort of travel accommodation easy to find.

I carried a small Windsor & Newton watercolor set, waterproof pens and a multi-media sketchbook with us everywhere. At the time I used a hiking backpack, as the water bottle holders on the sides were perfect for the two baguettes we required each day.

Water and snack breaks when hiking allowed me to capture some of the scenery.

Some of my sketches show my inexperience in composition… Although the Dentilles de Montmirail translate as “teeth” I probably should have adjusted this drawing to look a little less phallic.

Sometimes the writing is hilarious to me as well. We have a penchant for traveling to France over their national holidays when all of the stores were closed. “Finally got fresh fruit” is a common entry. I wrote about some of the not so nice parts of travel. One day I wrote: “Tom wanted the quintessential rural French hotel experience — and he got it!” I go on to describe a hotel with only one toilet for all of its guests, but curiously a bidet in each room. Further, I wrote “the beds felt as if they were made of gelatin — where they move in several directions at once.”

Gelato stops in Paris were the perfect opportunity to practice capturing the city.

 

The view from our hotel window in Paris. I haven’t nailed down shading and perspective yet, but when I see this sketch I remember the fabulous narrow deep European tub that soothed our tired bodies and feet.

The passage of time shows maturity for children and the artist

Four years later, we again ventured to southwestern France, northern Italy and the Mosel area of Germany. My children are now 11 & 13, capable of longer hikes and wanderings, and therefore I have fewer sketches. My writing is often done each evening.

The ruins of a castle in northern Italy that we reached after a walk through terraced olive groves.

The back of this notebook has some phrases that remind me of how my son got lost coming down from this castle. “Mio figlio perduto — my son is lost.”  “Dieci anno — he is ten years old.”  “Giallo camicia — (he is wearing) a yellow shirt.” It is hard to take a photo of someone being lost, but this brings the memory and all the emotions right back.

I brought back leaves from our hike to explore printing with them.

My painting skills are improving. I’m no longer relying on a pen sketch to create the image. I’m also using text and shapes to explore ideas when there wasn’t something special to paint. On this day (below) we visited the Otzi, the man from the Copper Age who was found frozen in a glacier. A fascinating experience, but it did not seem appropriate to paint an ancient dead human.

Sometimes I used the sketchbook for calculations. In this case, we try to figure out just how hot the hot springs were to decide whether we should pay the entry fee. At 95 degrees F, we thought it wasn’t worth it. Plus the guys did not have the requisite Speedos.

It is hard to understand my sketch here, but if you read the text you might be able to decipher that warm water was supposed to be gushing from the rock. As spoiled Americans, we did not think it was warm enough.

It amazes me that trips that I took nine and eleven years ago become vivid once again when I see and read these entries. I remember that I painted this sketch of a hillside hermitage while squatting on a trail. My family had gone exploring, but I had to kindly chat with each hiking party as they passed with only my poor traveller’s French.

A hillside hermitage is a challenging subject for an watercolorist, including me.

Why some journals get filled, and others do not

I did find a journal from our trip two year’s ago to Amsterdam and Berlin. My children were 18 & 20. I only wrote on the first page, perhaps in the airport or on the plane. Our trip this time was punctuated by almost adult children wanting to venture off on their own — developmentally appropriate, but stressful for me. Strange hours, poor sleep and the ambivalent feelings of an older parent meant I spent no time with my journal.

This trip I am determined to sketch and write each day. I have a sketchbook that is small enough to fit into my purse. I will send my photographer husband off to take some photos while I lounge beneath a tree, or on a rock, and try to capture the sense of my surroundings.

Art and writing provide us with a muscle memory that photography alone cannot. Time to flex those muscles…

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Staying Inspired When You Can’t Create

How do you stay inspired when you can’t create? Maybe your studio has been flooded by a wet spring. Perhaps the tendons and muscles in your thumbs demand rest. What if you are forced to be on bed rest to recover your health? Two on-line series provide me with inspiration, even when I have my feet up…

Dried ink -- up close supporting bar on my rubber roller.

When I can’t create, I look for unexpected images with my Iphone. This one is the supporting bar of one of the rollers in my studio.

Netflix’s Abstract

Netflix’s new eight part series Abstract is an absolute delight. Each 45-minute episode profiles a different design professional. We learn where their ideas come from, how they began, and most importantly how they go about creating.

Episodes include:

  • Christoph Niemann: Illustrator
  • Ilse Crawford: Interior Designer
  • Tinker Hatfield: Shoe Designer
  • Paula Scher: Graphic Designer
  • Platon: Photographer
  • Bjarke Ingels: Architect
  • Ralph Gilles: Automotive Designer
  • Es Devlin: Stage Designer

I used to have favorite episodes, but after seeing all of them, I would recommend watching them straight through. I find watching people create a calming yet stimulating experience, as well as a hopeful interlude while you wait to get back to your own creating.

Illustrator Christoph Niemann

Illustrator Christoph Niemann is the genius behind many notable New Yorker magazine covers.

Craft in America

Craft in America is a PBS series created in conjunction with the Craft in America Center. While most episodes focus on three -dimensional or low-relief two dimensional work, they do include printmaker Tom Killion in an episode on process. On the Craft in America site, you can search by episode theme, location and even medium. I could lose myself in this site for days.

Craft in America artistsCraft in America artists are fascinating to watch, and tell inspiring stories.

 

So whether you are cooped up by circumstance or weather or health, there is always something you can watch to stay inspired.

What are your inspirations?

 

 

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Make more art in 2017, but how?

I’m one of those people who loves New Year’s. I appreciate an annual moment to take stock and make a new plan. I have a solo show in a large gallery space in April, so for the next three months, the entire goal is MAKE MORE ART.

Aspirations for the New Year are great, but will be unattainable without a plan.

Goals need a plan

It is one thing to set a goal, but to achieve it, you need a plan. You need actual steps and deadlines so you can see if you are making progress or not. I am not an artist who avoids the studio, but one of the things I noticed from my 2016 evaluation was that my actual productivity wasn’t nearly what I thought. Printmaking takes copious amounts of time, some of which is in your control, and some of which isn’t. Inks dry when they want, paper deliveries can be delayed, or the huge table saw you need to cut your next block can be unavailable.

I realize that in order to make more art, I need to use whatever time I have more efficiently by minimizing distractions.

Taming the devices

I love my smart phone. I delight in having something in my pocket to communicate instantly with my family and friends, take photos and listen to music or podcasts. Not having my phone with me during the studio day is not an option. This device is chief distraction for me, however, so I’ve planning to do several things to help me focus.

• Put it in airline mode
If I really need to concentrate, airline mode means no notifications or texts. My family can call me on my landline if they need to speak with me. But I can still listen to downloaded podcasts or my music.

• Turn off notifications
I still have my email accessible on my phone, but without that enticing number in the corner of the mail icon, maybe I won’t be tempted to check email so often.

• Decide when to interact
One of my main challenges is to decide when to look at email and social media. Perhaps my best strategy is to check the email once in the morning for things that need an immediate response, and then plan a time to sit down and respond at my desktop in the afternoons. The same goes for social media. I will only look at Facebook and Instagram when I’m prepared to post and respond.

Making a plan for action

Because of the current political climate in the United States, I often feel anxious after I read newspaper and online articles. Social and environmental issues I care about are in flux and I often feel powerless. Political scientists state that one important thing people can do is to directly contact their elected representatives, especially by mail.

Postcards to the rescue! I plan to use my leftover postcards to contact my elected officials. Make sure to have addresses and stamps handy.

I’ve decided to press my leftover postcards into service. I’m printing out address labels for my senators and representatives, both national and for Indiana, plus lay in a supply of stamps. When I read or hear about a potential issue about which I am concerned, I can very easily fire off a brief postcard to the appropriate people. If the issue is urgent, I can immediately place a phone call to my representative’s office, because I have their phone numbers in my phone. I make sure to leave my full name and address each time.

YOU can make your own resource list and labels.  Go to www.usa.gov/elected-officials to create your own list. Do it right now before you forget.

I may not be in the majority, but I can ensure that my opinions are counted. Actual mail — especially handwritten — counts most, by the way, followed by phone calls. Those fun internet petitions, while easy, may not make that much difference.

Making a way for me to quickly send a response is my best attempt at dealing with my anxieties, and getting back to my studio work. After all, those gallery walls won’t fill themselves.

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Artists need to be in shape

Artists need to be in shape. This is not one of those annual missives that occur around the New Year, exhorting people to improve their physical health. Artists certainly don’t need to be athletes, but art making is a physical activity, and thus taking care of your body is extremely important.

The studio is an inherently physical place.

All it takes is one twinge

I have been working out at an exercise studio almost daily since August. I started this regime for stress relief and distraction, but I do find that I feel more fit and strong. Yet all of this bodywork could not save me from injuring myself while lifting the heavy block for Emancipation of the Sun. It is 25 x 40 inches and weighs about ten pounds. As I tried to lift it up and over the rollers and gears on my press, I felt something give in my shoulder. This led to two weeks of complete incapacity, ibuprofen and heating pads. Finally, my GP sent me to physical therapy.

Posture is everything

In my two weeks of agony, I discovered that if I stood with rigid military posture, the muscle spasms and tingling in my left shoulder blade would subside. My physical therapist confirmed that my tendency to slump my shoulders and lean forward, plus my weak shoulder muscles, were the problem. Exercises with colorful bands were prescribed, plus a way to stretch out the front of my shoulders which get tight when leaning forward.

I purchased a three foot firm foam roller, and now use it frequently to open up my chest. It is hard to keep perfect posture when I am carving, or rolling out ink, and taking a break each hour to stretch is very helpful. Most things we do — whether at a desk, looking at our electronics or working in the studio — encourage us to lean forward and slump our shoulders, so I highly recommend the foam roller.

Getting support for standing

On printing days, I can stand for hours. I find that two things help keep my legs and feet in good condition. Compression calf sleeves — sold to runners who suffer from shin splints — keep the blood flowing up from my feet and ankles and make me feel less tired. Plus they come in super neon colors.

I haven’t been brave enough to wear my calf sleeves with shorts yet.

The floor in my studio is a cement slab which can be hard on the feet, even when I am wearing good shoes or clogs. I purchased two anti-fatigue mats for my studio that I can move around depending on my activity.

Do not forget your hands

The length of  time I can spend in the studio is often governed by how my hands are feeling. I can only carve for a few hours, and need to take lots of breaks, especially when I am using my Foredom drill. I found these gloves meant for knitters help support my hands and keep them warm in the winter.

Pushing too hard for productivity

The biggest danger to my artistic practice is my impatience. I wish I could carve or print for hours upon hours, but I know that my productivity in the coming days will only suffer if I push too hard. Stopping before things hurt, stretching, going for a power walk and switching activities are just some of my artistic training strategies.

What secrets do you have for keeping your creative self in the best physical shape?

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Why would you want to print on silk? Part 2

Water is not a friend of relief printmakers who usually print on dry paper. Water sinks into the fibers of printmaking paper and makes it buckle and ripple. After this, registration is a problem. So when I set about glueing silk fabric onto Rives BFK, finding a glue with a large enough open time and low enough water content was a challenge.

Cutting the silk

(See Why would you want to print on silk? Part 1 to see how I stabilized and dyed the silk.) Before glueing, I had to cut the silk down to the size of the block so it would register. Using the block as a guide, a very sharp Exacto blade was a quick way to trim the dyed silk down to size.

cutting-fabric-away

Even with a sharp Exacto knife, cutting away the silk was tricky.

The secret glue recipe

After trial and error with PVA (an archival white glue), rice paste, and methyl cellulose, I settled on a three-quarters PVA and one-quarter methyl cellulose mix. The PVA provides a strong bond, but dries almost instantly in the very thin layer that is needed for my purposes. Methyl cellulose, which creates a hair gel like substance when mixed with water, put enough water into the mix to allow for a very brief open time.

spreading-the-glue

Work quickly from the center outward, making sure to go over all the edges.

Thanks to several bookbinding videos on mounting silk onto paper, I learned to work fast with a rubber scraper, pulling the glue from the center across the silk and off onto the newsprint. (You need to use new newsprint for each piece of silk.)  Any globs of glue will squeeze out when run through the press, so an thin even layer is critical.

A chine collè of sorts with silk

glue-side-up

Quickly transfer the silk — glue-side up — onto the block that is registered in the jig.

After getting the silk all glue-y, I had to work fast to orient it on my block (glue-side up please!) so that it would register later with my lino block. On the first pass I made the mistake of having the block lino side up, which gave a much more embossed effect, but less consistent glueing. The registered printing paper is gently lowered onto the glued silk, run through the press, and then you get…

Taking the time to dry right

dry-between-blotters

The silk is glued down to the Rives BFK, but needs some time and pressure to convince it to stay flat.

Here the silk is adhered to the paper (above), but remember we still have the freezer paper on one side of the silk. To make sure that the silk dries as flat as possible, I sandwiched the newly glued paper/silk combo with newsprint and blotter paper, and let this stand under old lino blocks over night.

Finally the linocut takes shape

peel-off-paper

Carefully peel the freezer paper off the silk starting at one corner.

After everything is dry, you can carefully lift one corner and pull off the freezer paper. A corner or two may need a bit more glue… Now it is time to add the lino block. Here are several versions as I thought about seasons, and had a bit of fun with colors that you don’t typically see in the forest. The topo lines are taken from an actual place in the Deam Wilderness (near Bloomington, IN) poetically called Cope Hollow.

spring-cope-hollow

summer-cope-hollow

autumn-cope-hollow

psychedelic-cope-hollow

In my painting, I used a reversed image of the block as a crude guide to have the colors follow the topo lines. Lucky for me, the colors seem to move through the silk for a long time, and the merging effect is better that I could have imagined.

An art-group friend asked why I was insisting on glueing down textiles instead of letting them float freely. I don’t have an answer to this yet, but perhaps some hanging silk will be in my future. For now I’m enjoying the free-flowing intense colors that dyed silk brings to my linocuts.

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Why would you want to print on silk? Part 1

I’m waiting…I needed to order more linoleum for another large cloud linocut, and of course this is taking longer than expected.

So as I wait, I’m exploring more ideas to incorporate into my printmaking. I have several drawings of rice paddies, and thought how nice it would be if there could be a watercolor effect in the paddies that are flooded. This type of blending with relief printmaking is nearly impossible. As my mind turned toward all things originating in Asia, I thought “SILK!”

Painting on silk is harder than tie-dying

My daughter and I have painted silk scarves with Procion dyes, often used for tie-dying. A e-mail exchange with the folks at Dharma Trading Company prompted me to purchase Jacquard (Green Label) dyes because I wanted to make sure all the colors were going to be stable. Blues (again!) are often the problem.

jacquard-colors

Jacquard (Green Label) Silk Colors were recommended as more stable than the tie-dye Procion dyes I had used before.

(more…)

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What do you do with your failed linocuts?

Working in multiples has the unfortunate consequence that when you fail, you fail in multiples. For every few linocuts I create, there is always a series that doesn’t work out. Maybe the image doesn’t read right. Perhaps it is boring. There are others in a successful series that have poor registration or inking problems. The paper I use is expensive, and when you are left with a stack of linocuts not destined for frames, it is hard to know what do with them, but also hard to throw them away.

If the paper is large enough, I simply put the stack away, later to be flipped over and used as tests for the next series.  I’ve heard of people who have an annual bonfire of their less successful work, and that has its appeal although it is clearly not environmentally friendly. My friend artist James Campbell has used old art magazines as the basis for sculptures, and I have considered cutting and stacking my linocuts, adhering them in some way that I could then sculpt them.

Lotus stars

Two folded eight-point stars made from my linocuts are ready to join over 10,000 stars woven in Bloomington, IN as part of a worldwide effort.

The best use so far has come from staff and volunteers from the Lotus Education and Arts Foundation in the form of eight-pointed woven stars.  “One Million Stars to End Violence : Lotus International Star-Weaving Project is part of a global effort to create an installation that speaks to the violence occurring globally. Creator Talia Pau from Australia explains, “Every star is a commitment to resist violence and revenge, to believe in forgiveness and healing.” The more than 10,000 stars woven in Bloomington, IN will join those woven around the world at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia.  (more…)

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Playing the waiting game

I’m a big fan of the montage — a device in movies used to move the story along. The characters grow, change and learn, all while accompanied by a great soundtrack. I need this for my studio. I am back printing my large (25 x 40 inch block) linocut, and patience has been required at every turn.

waiting game

My latest linocut, hanging to dry after a trying printing session.

My image is a large cloud formation, over a small area of flat land. I couldn’t decide whether this was summer or autumn land, so I did some of each. With such a large block, I would hate to guess wrong. I used a frisket (or a mask for non-printers) to help me lay down some of the bright colors of the land which will contrast with the darker, more monochromatic clouds. This is not an exact process, as I discovered when I printed the first layer of blue. My measurements must have been off, because it overlapped the land in a small band!

My initial reaction was to try and carve away a thin strip or linoleum, but this a dangerous operation. I could carve away too much, and would then be left with an inexplicable slice of exposed white paper. Like a very itchy insect bite, I had to tell myself, don’t touch! This area will be covered by the darkest ink anyway.

More problems came as I printed the first and second layers of transparent blue. There is something about the combination of lots of transparent base and just a touch of pigment that leads to a gummy residue on the block. After every four prints, I had to clean off the block to prevent this residue pattern from transferring onto my paper. I have found that the first transparent layers of a linocut often look terrible, but are incorporated into later layers with no trouble. Again — don’t touch and don’t fret!

Wouldn’t a fast forward button and a great soundtrack be perfect right now?

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In praise of the tiny coral — nature’s jewel

My two latest linocuts deal with jewels — jewels of the living kind. Out of Many, One is a bird’s-eye view of part of the Great Barrier Reef. Made up entirely of coral polyps, this living structure stretches over 1,400 miles off the eastern Australian coastline.

From above, the reefs seem to glow as if illuminated by an underwater light. And yet the National Academy of Sciences estimates that it has lost half of its coral since 1985 due to coral bleaching. Warmer oceans stress the coral, which depend on a symbiotic relationship with algae-like protozoa that photosynthesize and provide the coral with nutrients. Stressed coral expel these protozoa and begin to fail.

Aerial view of part of the Great Barrier Reef
Elizabeth Busey, Out of Many, One. Reduction Linocut. 28 x 14in, Edition of 10, $275 unframed.
I was struck by the almost infinite number of tiny organisms that make up such a massive and impressive structure. A piece of jewelry for the world. And it could disappear.

(more…)

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If it’s yellow…let it mellow…*

I have been up against a self-imposed deadline. During February, I am the featured artist at the Bloomington Bagel Company. Besides the fabulous bagels, the venue has a large white, well-lit wall, and my people (folks who like or buy my art) eat there. So I wanted to get several leaf prints finished.

Everyseed bagels are my sustenance of choice.
But be safe — don’t eat in your studio.

(more…)

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