Friday, May 27, 2011

Artfest 2011 - Part 4 - Pretty Vial Things

My last class from Artfest this year is Pretty Vial Things with Michael deMeng. Our mission was to alter a bottle into something more interesting, but these words barely convey the extent of alterations these bottles endured.

It's been a few years since I laid my hands on tools as beefy and vigorous as the ones we used in this class. Michael gave us a guided tour of the tools and rules before we set off ... how to (or how not to) drill, burn, scrape, paint, attach, detach and puncture nearly every material imaginable, what sticks to what (and what doesn't). A good refresher for me.

And then we set to working with our amazing variety of shapes and sizes of bottles. Some of us came with something like a clear plan of what we wanted to do to the bottles we'd brought with us. Some of us were busy rifling through our bulging containers of random bits and pieces hoping a juxtaposition of materials would activate a lightbulb over our heads.

My bottle was supposed to be a "practice bottle". I thought I'd tinker with it until I got a clear idea of what to do with a lovely (and rare) tapered squarish bottle I'd brought. But the practice bottle somehow took on a life of its own. Michael's supply list had included some materials I'd never worked with (apoxy clay, primarily), and I set about a little task to test its strengths and weaknesses. My test was to raise up the bottle off the table by creating a "fence" of hairpins around the bottom. I wanted a space underneath to put something (I wasn't sure what at the time). Not only did the apoxy clay work ~ it worked fabulously, although it did take some time to dry. As for what went underneath, well even I didn't see that coming.

The day went by very quickly, each of us hard at work on our own little creation, and Michael flitting about the room answering questions and offering assistance with the more dangerous experiments involving sharp revolving metal things and/or fire. He also gave us a really in-depth session on how to mix those crazy paint colour combinations he comes up with. I have to admit that learning his paint mixes was a huge motivation for me choosing his class and he didn't disappoint. I indulged in one his Shades of Alchemy swatch books - it's just the sort of thing I'd create if I'd come up with paint names like Serial Killer Red and Verdigris Crunch.

Somewhere along in the morning Michael reminded us that he would playing music all day, but at 4:00 (sharp!) he'd be playing the theme music to The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and we'd be expected to bring our creations (at whatever stage of completion) for a group show & tell and critique. I must admit that the first few times he said this I didn't really get the full import of his statement, and didn't even catch the ironic humour of the song title. Bruce and I had just re-watched The Good, The Bad and The Ugly a few weeks before Artfest, and my first thought was how cool the music was. Somewhere after lunch (when he said it again!) I finally got it. Also, my piece was definitely headed for the Ugly category at that point in the afternoon. Okay, maybe not "ugly", but definitely not "done".

At the appointed hour (4:00, as I mentioned) we all gingerly placed our ex-bottles (which were now sculptural to the nth degree) on a long table and gathered our chairs to see what Michael might make of our efforts. It's been awhile since I've been in on a critique session. Okay, there was a writing workshop with Lynda Barry, but her critique (as promised before the writing exercises) was simply to say: "Good! Good!" with genuine enthusiasm and move on to the next reader. So what would Michael say, I wondered. Firstly, I give him full marks for asking each person "Is your piece pickupable?" before gently holding it up for us to see. I can honestly say he never once said anything negative, even when the creator in question (including me) was not so confident about how exactly to finish off. I thought my piece was a little "light and frothy", especially compared to some of the darker pieces in the class, and Michael said not to worry, to finish it the way it wanted to be finished. I'm glad I listened, I kept it light, tending towards a kind of weathered Victorian ornamentation rather than the aforementioned Serial Killer Red.

If the variety of bottles before we started was exotic, the variety of things we'd done to them was astounding. The question I asked several times of the artist whose work was being held up was "HOW did you do THAT?!". There's something about the layering of paint and texture that can completely obscure the methods and materials, and that's pretty darn exciting when you're an artist ~ that you can make masking tape look like worn linen, that you can make glass look like rusted steel, that you can make plastic netting look like metal mesh (which is what is wrapped around my bottle).

I hadn't finished my piece by the end of the day, and I spent a few hours after class getting it ready for the Big Show & Tell at the end of Artfest (where all the students are encouraged to show the results of their 3-day adventure). When I bumped in Michael doing the rounds at the Show & Tell, he asked me if I'd finished. "Of course," I said. He asked me to show him what I'd done, and I have to say that even though I was pretty happy with what I'd done it was icing on the cake to have him *really* look at it and appreciate the final result. He looked almost as pleased as me, and then he high-fived me, which I think is quite possibly the first time in my life I've ever been high-fived and even thinking of it now makes me grin.

I'm not sure what to call this piece, although the name that sprang to mind while I was working on it was "Where Sweet the Late Bird Sang" in honour of a Kate Wilhelm SF story. It's been awhile since I read Kate's story, but in some ways this piece reminds me of her writing. You think you're reading about one thing, and then you find yourself aware of some darker undercurrent that's actually been present all along. At the Artfest Show & Tell, just as I was about to pack away my things, a young woman came along with a friend and said: "This is the one I was telling you about. You think it's all pretty, and then you see the hands underneath and you get a little chill ...". I smiled to myself and thought of Kate ... ah, *just* the affect I was going for.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Artfest 2011 - Part 3 - Encaustics!

More about Artfest ... yes, I know it was in April, but I've been, well ... bizzy.

Today's image is from my encaustics class with Patricia Seggebruch. I'd tinkered with encaustics before ... even bought one of those little encaustic irons after 2 days of classes last year.

The classes I took last year were definitely a more painterly approach to encaustic wax. I struggled mightily to create things that looked like real trees and flowers with a medium that seemed spitefully determined to look like crashing sea waves, nebulae and psychedelic dream sequences in 1970's movies. I felt a certain urgency to get things right, even while the hot iron was sliding dreamily about on a cushion of hot wax which looked deliciously edible and exotic. At the end of two days I could see that if I stayed at it, I would eventually be able to do landscapes, floral arrangements and other non-psychedelic representations of reality.

The trouble was that I wanted something *deeper* ~ I wanted the wax to be absorbed into stuff, be embedded with stuff, be scratched into with tools and have pigment rubbed into it. I wanted encaustics that even the hard of seeing could enjoy ~ by running their fingers over edges and bumps. I wanted to look at the surface of the wax and feel like I was looking *through* something into something else ~ like fog, or water ~ getting hints and glimpses of what lay beneath. A kind of archaeologically sculptural experience, rather than a painterly one.

Luckily, that's exactly the kind of encaustics that Patricia was teaching at Artfest. What I've shown you here is my "warm-up" exercise ~ we were given three small boards, and then shown a whole bunch of possible ways to alter them. I decided immediately that I would make a tryptich showcasing as many techniques as I could ... the red panel has embedded pattern tissue, and surface incising with oil paint added. The center blue panel has image transfer, and scattered gold leaf crumbs embedded. The last yellow panel has texture built up by stencilling through punchinella, text made by impressing with metal letters and dotted lines made with a pattern tracing tool with red oil paint added. All three had underpainting with pigmented wax and their edges tinted with pan pastels, and then overpainted with medium again.

Our main project for the class was a book with wooden covers that we altered with encaustics, and although I tried a few more techniques, the end result was a little boring after the freedom of playing with the triptych. I think (having made more than a few books in my time) that I stayed to the tried and true in the book construction and really didn't let loose the way I had with the warm-up exercise. A shame that ... there were some really amazing books that came out of the class, mine just wasn't one of them.

So ... I have this *problem* when I make art ... I just get so *danged* attached to it that I can barely let it go. Whenever I make something, I always (yes, ALWAYS!) make two ~ so I can keep one. It makes the letting go a little easier. But I have to say ... encaustics might be the thing I can finally do where I'm not compelled to keep one of everything. I can see myself actually parting with my creations happily ... not because I don't love them just as much, but because they're so much fun to make that the sheer volume of keeping one of everything could easily overwhelm any storage space I might have. Of course, in reality, the supplies cost a fair whack, so that should help keep the volume down as well.

Since Artfest I haven't yet invested in all the accoutrements of encaustics (apart from buying the iron last year), but I know I will because it was just way too much fun. Now if I could just find a wholesale supplier of wax medium, I'd be a very happy camper ...

Friday, May 06, 2011

Bookish and loving it ...

I've always loved books. I can't remember when I learned to read ~ certainly it was before I went to school ~ probably at age four or so. I know this because I have vivid memories of being bored out of my mind tracing 8" high fuzzy ABC's with my index finger in Grade One, and being seriously annoyed when I realized we weren't going to be given any *real* books until after lunch, or maybe even later.

I claim no particular genius in reading so early, it was most likely due to the fact that in my early years I lived in what we called "the bush", i.e. smallish dwellings in deep forests far from town, and without the benefit of television or (that I can recall), even radio. There were only limited options for self-amusement: go outside and play (which at some times in the year might result in freezing to death), make art (still doing that ~ plus ca change!), help with housework (um ... ick), and reading. Reading seemed the most reasonable of these, since constant art-making was not on the cards due to the shocking absence of craft stores in the deep forest. Reading had the added advantage that I could learn about the Great World Beyond, where I would (and eventually did) go. Even in the smallest of our dwellings, there was always a corner designated: The Library. It might only be a bookcase, but to us it was a Library. I didn't actually get my own public library card till I was 13 or 14 I think. But that's another story and completely unrelated to my reading habits.

Anyone who's been to my house can attest to my ongoing love of books. I *do* have a library card now, but I seldom borrow books. But only because I can't bear to give them back. It's like I form a bond with them ... a contract ... that having read them once, I will read them again, and again, and how can I do that if someone else has them? No ... better to buy them outright. Well, at least until you run into the problem we currently have - no more wall space for more bookcases. Sigh.

Meanwhile, back to the book that inspired this ramble ... or, why have I put a picture of Jonathan Safran Foer's book Tree of Codes here for you to see? I can't claim to have read it. I'm not sure if it's good. But it's definitely interesting. A book after my own heart. In order to find out why, I offer the following videos: public reactions, how it was made and Jonathan says.

In "how it was made" I was particularly touched by a scene midway (2:42) showing pages being hand-collated, a process I've been intimately involved with since I was 18 and continuing up to the present day. Oh, and the cutter shown at 2:33? I know my way around that, too. Granted, I spend much more time nowadays at a desk interacting with a computer (who doesn't?), but if push comes to shove (which it sometimes does), I can cut, collate and bind if needed. Maybe not on as grand a scale as the video, but hey - we can't all be big publishing houses, can we?

The video portrays my very familiar world in an almost romantic way ... the snow of little diecuts falling from the sky ... the tenderness of little suction cups feeding sheets into the press ... the lush musical score. And for all the times that I really really really do not want to go to work (constant art-making is much more fun), there is an ordered beauty to the printing process that makes me really happy too. And I wanted to share it with you.