Thursday, April 16, 2015

Birds for spring

Birds have returned from winter migration and are singing in our trees once again! And I've been busy with birds in the studio as well. Here are a few images of prints I've been working on this year.

This first print, Ovenbirds, was accepted into two shows in Pennsylvania this year - First Impressions, opening this Friday at Artists Image Resource, and at the 2015 Art of the State exhibition at the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg.

This print is an engraving, which means I carved lines into a copper plate using small chisel-like tools, instead of using acid (like in an etching) or another mechanical method (like in a drypoint or mezzotint). The clean, v-shaped gouge an engraving burin leaves in the copper gives me a wonderfully crisp and sharp line.

The text was added to the print using a method called chine collée, where I cut out small pieces of paper and ran them through the press with my larger tan paper, with glue on one side to make them stick. These shapes were clipped from an old zoology textbook. I've also been experimenting with a botany textbook, Audubon bird guide, and plain white paper. Lining up the little paper pieces on the copper plate so that they stick on exactly the right spot takes a steady hand - and no sneezing!

My other project of this spring has been my very first reductive woodcut. I haven't done many woodcuts before this one, and certainly none with more than one color, so it's been a challenge for me. Reductive woodcut is a process where a printmaker uses one block to create an image with many layers of printing by carving away more and more of the block with each layer printed. (Photos and a great explanation can be seen here at this website by artist Lisa Studier.) Because of this process, each subsequent layer occupies a smaller and smaller part of the print - so you have to plan ahead if you want colors in lots of places! My image of a gyrfalcon is fairly simple:

The print on the left shows the first layer, printed in semi-transparent white ink on brown handmade paper. After printing ALL of the prints I wanted to make in this edition, I carved away at the block and printed the next layer in light blue, which you can see in the print on the right. Here's a closer shot:

Printing more than one layer requires setting your print down in the exact same spot on your woodblock each time, so there are systems using jigs and hole punches that printmakers typically use to keep registration exact. Mine aren't all coming out perfectly, but I've enjoyed experimenting with the color relationships I can get with more than one layer on colored paper. I'll be adding a third layer soon!

Thursday, January 29, 2015

New year, new art

We're not yet through the first month of 2015 and I've already had some exciting new projects come up! Here's a recap of where you can see my work in the coming months.

Kinglets at Manifest Gallery, Cincinnati, OH

My new engraving, Kinglets, is part of the Scientificous exhibition at Manifest Gallery in Cincinnati. Scientificous features the art of science and science in art, and will be on display until February 20. It's my first show in Ohio and I'm very excited to be a part of it.

February's artist for Start With Art: PGH

Pittsburgh photographer Matt Conboy has launched a new and wonderful initiative this year, Start With Art: PGH. Every baby born at St. Clair Hospital, the Midwife Center, and UPMC Mercy in 2015 will go home with an original work of art. During the month of February, babies will receive my photograph of this sassy little blue-breasted kingfisher, who I photographed in 2013 at the Cincinnati Zoo. Read more about the project in this article from NEXTPittsburgh.

My first solo exhibition

In March, I'll be exhibiting at the Courthouse Gallery in beautiful Lake George, NY. This is my first solo show, and will feature new prints, as well as the body of work I created in 2014 about fatal bird-window collisions. The opening is on Saturday, March 7th, and the exhibition runs until April 10th.

Online developments

I've transitioned into using this blog as a space to show people what's behind my work, so most of my announcements about exhibitions and events are now on my website and in my monthly e-mail newsletter, which you can sign up for here. Stay up to date with all that's going on!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

India, Part II: The Handmade

Last September, I traveled to India to visit my in-laws and had an extraordinary trip (see my previous post on the colors in India). In addition to the many overwhelming sights, sounds, and tastes I experienced, I had the opportunity to see a lot of wonderful artwork and appreciate the fine arts and crafts still made by hand in India.

Marble Inlay

Marble inlay, or parchin kari in Southeast Asia, is the technique of using cut and fitted pieces of precious stone to create an image. The technique was developed by the ancient Romans, and made its way to Asia by the 16th century, where it found its most extravagant expression in Mughal monuments such as the Taj Mahal.

The photo above shows parchin kari from Agra Fort in Agra, across the Yamuna river from the Taj Mahal. The emperor Shah Jahan built this fort/palace to test out the inlay technique before building the Taj. The precious stones and materials featured include jasper, serpentine, porphyry, mother-of-pearl, and lapis lazuli. Stones were imported from as far away as Afghanistan and Europe.

Below, a gate of the Taj Mahal at sunrise; the light glints a little off of the highly reflective marble and mother-of-pearl.

Because the Taj Mahal is such a famous destination, the craft of marble inlay is still a bustling industry. There are shops all over India, although the best ones are in Agra, and the best of those are run by descendants of the original artisans who worked on the Taj Mahal. We were able to visit one of these workshops on our trip.

Below, the artisans are using hand-held, bow-driven grinders to shape tiny pieces of stone.

Samples of precious stone, including turquoise, agate, malachite, lapis lazuli, mother-of-pearl, and sandstone.

These are the tools used to carve out the marble substrate that the colored stones are laid into:

The colored pieces of stone are arranged on the marble to ensure a proper fit. The backs are grooved and keyed so they fit together and into the substrate snugly.

The finished designs are often elaborate and always wildly colorful. You can tell how skillful and precise the artisans are by how closely all the small, fine pieces fit together — there's hardly any cement or filler.

Contrast those professional examples with this small elephant I took home, probably done by a student. It's perfectly lovely, but you can see the shapes are a bit more crude — particularly the curved edges — and it has a fair amount of cement in spots where there are none above.

Miniature Painting

Miniature painting is another thing that you can find all over India, although it seems to be the most plentiful and of the best quality in the north, where the Persian influence was stronger. The City Palace in Jaipur had several vendors, all clamoring for our attention at once, so I sat down at the closest table that looked like it had a lot of wildlife paintings. It turned out to be someone from the Ramdev family, a clan of award-winning miniature painters.

Miniature painting in India is done by grinding solid pigments or minerals into a stone with water to produce a watercolor-like paint, which is applied to paper or cloth with an extremely fine brush using small strokes. Building up a painting this way takes forever and they're often very detailed. Here's one with a kingfisher, painted on old papers dating from the Raj:

Block printing

No trip to India is complete without seeing some block printing! This old technique of building patterns using wooden stamps and natural dyes is still used to decorate all kinds of cloth goods, from clothing to housewares.

Here's what the carved wooden blocks look like — they're basically used as stamps. The stamp in the foreground provides the outline for the elephant design, and the stamp in the background fills in the colors on the saddle.

The design is printed in layers with fabric dye. Most shops use a combination of synthetic and natural colors.

The elephant design with two of its three colors:

All colors printed. This printer was experienced enough to eyeball the placement of each layer without any kind of guide or grid.

 These aren't the final colors. Next step is to wash the printed fabric in chemicals that make the dye react:

And voilà!

An example of layered block-printed fabric below. Complicated designs can include stamping the fabric with a waxy resist instead of ink, then dyeing the whole piece and later washing off the resist to show an un-dyed portion, a little like batik techniques.

As a printmaker and artist who works with images of wildlife — usually on a small scale — I liked seeing all of these traditional arts still done by hand.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

A peek into The Passenger Pigeon

I received an early Christmas present this year - a copy of The Passenger Pigeon, a book written to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the death of Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon. The author Errol Fuller actually contacted me after finding my work on this very blog, to ask permission to use my artwork in the book. Fuller, an artist, naturalist, and author, has written a few books in a similar vein about extinct animals. Of course, with my enthusiasm for birds and conservation, I was excited to be involved.

There are already quite a few reviews of the book online (notably from Huffington Post and Financial Times, the latter of which includes many evocative preview photos), so I won't write too much here other than to summarize the book. The Passenger Pigeon is the story of a species that went from the most numerous bird in the world to completely extinct in a matter of a few hundred years, due entirely to hunting by humans. As such, it's also the story of our own short-sighted folly and the awakening of the conservation movement in America. The book is full of pictures, everything from artwork, historical documents, and most interestingly, many photos of passenger pigeons, which can be hard to come by even with Google around.

I've taken a few snapshots of the book to share. First, the cover, featuring an illustration by the godfather of bird art, John James Audubon:

The contents page. Hello pigeon!

Here's where my work appears, in the section describing the pigeon's plunge towards extinction:

There are illustrations of birds throughout, many of them historical:

And some work by contemporary artists as well. Here's an amazing piece by Sara Angelucci, part of her Aviary series, which combines photos of birds and people in the style of cartes de visites. Do check out the rest of her site—it's full of fascinating artwork.

This was an unusual and meaningful project for me to be involved in; I'm really happy with how the book turned out. If you're interested in ordering a copy, The Passenger Pigeon is available on Princeton University Press's website, as well as through Amazon.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Observations from India: Part I

I recently had the extraordinary opportunity to visit my in-laws, who live in the province of Gujarat, India. (My mother-in-law chronicles her very interesting day-to-day adventures on her own blogspot, Horn OK Please.) I didn't know much about the visual culture of India, so I did some research before I went. This book on Indian art, recommended to me by illustrator Marcia Hartsock, was a pretty helpful survey of 5,000+ years of art history. There was a lot to take in, obviously. I'll be posting a few entries on my observations and experiences.


Colors hold a deep spiritual and cultural significance in India, far beyond their decorative purposes. They are important in worship and as a part of day-to-day life as a way to signify the attributes of a god, channel a certain state of mind, or enhance the meaning of a ritual. The use of color in Indian art is partially what influenced my installation on bird window kills from earlier this year. I made small "mandalas" from my drawings of birds, divided by color:

Birds with red and orange plumage

Birds with yellow and green plumage (and yes, there is red in there too)

So, I had been anticipating seeing a lot of color. In India, people dress colorfully, and what would be considered a vivid or loud ensemble in the US is normal. Patterns abound, and solid colors are often embellished with metallic embroidery or tiny mirrors. More than one of our guides hypothesized that bright clothing is a kind of response to the dry, monochromatic, dusty browns of most of the Indian countryside. (The exception to that is the lush, colorful rainforests of Southern India - and of course there, it was much more common to see people in white or drab solid colors.) I loved how colorful everyone's clothes were.

Women transporting crops on their heads near Agra 

Women at the Amber Fort, Japiur

Me at the Taj Mahal, in brightly colored scarf and kurta (tunic) made in India. When in Rome...!

It isn't just clothes. Everything is decorated, even vehicles, often by hand.

City Palace, Jaipur

Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai - colored lights and walls

Thirumalai Nayakar Palace, Madurai

Painted trucks in Northern India

Painted trucks in Northern India

India as a crossroads

Somehow I had pictured India as existing somewhat separately from the influence of China or the Middle East, but the truth is that every place is on the road to somewhere, and the Indian subcontinent has been a trading route for Greeks, Jews, Persians, and others for millennia, all leaving their stamp on India's painting and architecture. This was really apparent at Fatehpur Sikri, a capital city built in the 1500s by the Mughal emperor Akbar the Great. His reign was characterized by cultural and religious pluralism: Akbar abolished taxes on non-Muslims, translated ancient Sanskrit texts into Arabic, and promoted cross-cultural relationships. His favorite wife and many of his ministers were Hindu. Religious leaders and scholars from around the world gathered at Fatehpur Sikri to mingle and debate peacefully. Akbar even attempted to promote his own pan-religion, Din-e Ilahi.

The complex of Fatehpur Sikri sits on a high, lonely desert plateau. The capital was abandoned soon after it was built, and it still retains an eerie air of ghostliness.

Entering Fatehpur Sikri

The buildings are a hodgepodge of architectural influences from Persia, Afghanistan, India, and Turkey, characteristic of early 16th century Mughal style. The ornamented, curved shapes in these architectural details are typical of Jain art, seen in Western India:

The throne room

The Astrologer's Seat

Some details reminded me of Western architecture, especially the coffered ceilings and rosettes so common in Roman and Italian Renaissance buildings:

The Italian Renaissance Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence, Italy, from Wikipedia.

Some buildings had Persian-style domes, and also the sloping, slightly flared eaves seen elsewhere in eastern Asia:

That was all in the lower courtyard of the monument. The upper portion contained a shrine to a Sufi saint and a still-active mosque. The painted floral designs, inlaid stones, and shapes of the domes were all reminiscent of Persian architecture.

Painted floral decorations entered India via Persian and other Mediterranean cultures.

Shrine to a Sufi saint. The pillars holding up the eaves are almost Gaudi-esque.

I couldn't help but feel a little déjà vu when we reached that upper courtyard. It reminded me somehow of Piazza San Marco, in Venice, also the onetime crossroads of the East and West. Perhaps it was all the spires and domes.... or maybe just all the pigeons.

Piazza San Marco in Venice, Italy

I'll be writing another post on some of the traditional arts of India we were able to get a close look at: miniature painting, stone inlay, and more. In the meantime, all of my photos are up on my Flickr page. Please have a look!