With This Printing Press, I Thee Wed

Elspeth Pope's "wedding ring"
Elspeth Pope’s “wedding ring”

To say Dr. Elspeth Pope was a lover of letterpress would be an understatement. She was a book artist, a maker of printed cards, and a printer of broadsides, and used letterpress freely in all of these media. She named all of her dogs and cats after typefaces. When her future husband proposed to her, he gave her the option of an engagement ring, or a printing press. Ever the enthusiastic printmaker, Elspeth chose the press.

After meeting Dr. Melissa Hardie, who had founded an artistic residency in Great Britain, Elspeth created an American chapter. Elspeth’s Hypatia-in-the-Woods, located in Shelton, WA was a residency for women in the arts, that recognized women’s need to separate their artistic selves from the special and intense demands of their home lives, and gave them a space to focus on their work.

I think of her as the Florence Griswold of the West. Like Florence Griswold’s house in Old Lyme, CT, Elspeth’s residency attracted some famous names. One is Nikki McClure, who generously donated a lithographic plate from her residency to use in a recent event sponsored by Artist Trust. I was lucky enough to pull a print from Nikki’s plate on Elspeth’s “wedding ring” press.

Pulling prints is always exciting -that surprise of never quite knowing what you’re going to get – but it was extra exciting to be a part of this community, to feel on a tangible level the sensation of women, makers, and doers paying it forward for others. Even just for one night.

Real Art in the Real World

Unknown, found at the mall
Unknown, found at the mall

I love finding real artwork outside of a museum. Just like when I see real, live flowers on a restaurant table or in an office, no matter how simple the arrangement, my opinion of the place goes up a hundred fold. I found this print (a real print, not a poster!) when I was waiting in line for the restroom at a mall in Bellevue, WA.

Hearing Your Work Matters: Priceless

Excerpt from my 2010 sketchbook; this image is from the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi.
Excerpt from my 2010 sketchbook; this image is from the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi.

My 7th grade English teacher, who lives in Florida, was visiting New York and decided to look up some of my work at The Sketchbook Library. This is very touching on its own, but it turns out the Library has recently relocated. My teacher hiked around Brooklyn and finally found the new Library. Except their new location wasn’t quite open for business yet. Undeterred, she sweet-talked them into letting her in so that she could check out my sketchbook.

All this effort to see my book! I’m so very humbled.

She wrote to me about these adventures, and told me she had tears in her eyes when she was finally able to examine my book. Then, she actually quoted a line from the book to me. I’ve heard authors talk about seeing someone on the subway reading the book they wrote (or maybe fantasizing this scenario), and this is what it felt like:

I’m grateful for our friendship. I’m happy that something she read and saw in my work moved her. I’m moved that she worked so hard to see it, and wanted to tell me about it.

Sometimes you need to know that your work matters. This was one of those times. I really needed to hear this right now.

Behind the Scenes, Part 2

Tangier Overture
Tangier Overture

“What does it mean?”
“What were you thinking about when you painted this?”
A few times: “I see a golfer”.

It’s amused me to think of doing a series on golfers to give the people what they seem to want, but I don’t really care for golf. So instead, here’s what I was thinking about when I painted this painting:

As I mentioned earlier, this painting already existed as another painting, until I decided I needed to return to it and improve it (which I hope I’ve done).

In the exhibition where that original version was shown, someone started a conversation with me about pattern in my work. Specifically, he said that he noticed that I used a lot of pattern, but that I always cover it up with fields of plain color. He asked me why I did that, and I didn’t have an answer because I hadn’t even thought of it that way myself. From that conversation, I challenged myself to consciously use pattern, and to resist what I now know is my temptation to bury it. This has led to some interesting developments for me, and a new (to me), labor-intensive way of deliberately creating patterns, such as stripes. I’ve used a lot of tape in the process, laying it down, painting stripes, blow-drying them, removing the tape, and starting again with the next stripe.

This mindfulness, and taking pains with details, came at a time where my wife and I suddenly woke to the fact that, Hey, we’ve been together a while now; this is now what you’d call a long-term relationship! We’re not honeymooners any more. Time has a way of creeping up like that.

In my mind, I started to examine these two things side by side, the attention to my process, and the attention to my marriage. Both go better when you’re mindful. Both go better when you take the time. Both need a lot of attention.

Also around this time, we took a long vacation, the first since our honeymoon. Among our stops, we revisited Italy, where we had gone together in the very early days of our relationship. Going there again provided a natural comparison and opportunity to look at our relationship at its beginning and at its current bloom, seven years in.

As an artist also, there was an irresistible comparison to revisit old themes, since Italy had provided me with such inspiration for my work a few years ago. I’ve started working with Italian wall posters again, as well as other found objects. Bruce Springsteen and many others have revisited past material and made it fresh again, for example, rearranging Born to Run, a song he wrote at age 23, to reflect a mid-life perspective, or touring this year solely on the back of an album, The River, that he wrote at age 30. There is the possibility for an increased richness of perspective and self-knowledge and of course – better work! Which is really what us artists are after all along.

So these are the thoughts that are influencing my work right now. For this painting specifically, I was also thinking about some experiences in Morocco. The blue and white color palette, as well as the suggestion of Arabic writing evoke a little of the visuals of Tangier, where we spent a couple of days.

You may or may not know that being gay is illegal there, and there is an active effort, in some locales more than others, to bring gays to “justice”, which is harsh. I wasn’t concerned to travel to Morocco, as I’d had quite a bit of experience in the Middle East, and we were going to Tangier, a major city located within sight of Spain. The sophistication of a big city and its familiarity with Europeans made me feel completely comfortable, and honestly, we can “pass” as straight whenever we want to. (We don’t usually do this, but sometimes it’s safer). Mia, though, had some hesitations about ways that we might accidentally reveal ourselves, and was anxious about getting “caught”.

On top of this dynamic, in the airport when we left, I was pulled aside for an additional, private inspection by a female security agent. This never happens to me, so it was notable. It became even more notable when this particular inspection made up for the previous lack of attention. When I tell the story in person, I make it sound very funny and act it out with some degree of abandon. But that funny version sort of minimizes the underlying scare of it, because when you’re gay in a time and place where it’s illegal to be, you don’t have any power. I made the conscious decision to not object in any way to any part of the inspection, because I had my own fears about what would happen if I had. If I had suggested that the inspector was somehow wrong, or had gone too far, I’d be making a public declaration. By saying I was uncomfortable, I’d be saying that there was something inherently sexual in what had happened. Because we were both women, that would make it illegal. If I put her back up against that hypothetical wall, her only defense would be to lash out. And if she lashed at me, she’d hit her mark, because after all, I really am gay, and my wife is standing right there to prove it. Suddenly, or in my mind anyway, we’d both be going to jail, while the inspector is filling out paperwork and making jokes in the backroom. No thank you.

So these relationships – between visual elements in the painting, between Mia and me, between our current relationship and our younger relationship, between the agent and me, between my current work and my previous work, between a foreigner and a new city – were in my mind while I worked.

Then, one day while I was listening to classical music in the car, I heard the title of a piece, which was Algerian Overture. [Lately, I’ve been enjoying this fun game that I play with myself, which is that I get ideas for paintings from mis-hearing the titles of classical pieces. My favorite is that I heard Music of 10,000 Fernandas, which had so many possibilities to a lesbian, but when I checked the playlist later, I realized that they’d said “Music from Antonio Fernandez”, the classical guitar player. Which I can’t help but think isn’t nearly as interesting]. Although I’d heard Algerian Overture correctly, I knew then that I’d found my title if I just changed it to “Tangier”.

Behind the Scenes (The Painting Fought Back)

Tangier Overture
Tangier Overture

The author David Foster Wallace once said something like, When writing a book, there always comes a time where you fall to the ground and bang your head against the floor. I see a lot of parallels between writing and painting, but I don’t feel this way with every painting because there are some that almost paint themselves. Then there are definitely those that want to wrestle you to the ground, grab you by the hair, and forcibly bang your head down for you.

This was one of those paintings. Now that I’m finished, I can talk about it without feeling like I’m going to jinx it. Or, like it’s judging me. You can see up there at the top, hanging out, looking innocent. In reality, I think it’s the most difficulty I’ve had in five years. I probably went through a good 17 different versions of this painting, including turning it to different sides, completely wiping out sections, changing or moving elements, even starting over completely from what I thought was already a finished painting.

Yes, here’s the painting that I thought, for a brief moment, was a finished work:

Beginning point (sort of!)
Beginning point (sort of!)

I even exhibited it, but I knew it was wrong when I saw it again on the wall at the show after not having seen it for a while. My head kind of snapped, and I made a little half-gasp under my breath. All of a sudden, it just wouldn’t do. It no longer seemed resolved. It bugged the hell out of me.

When the show was over and I got the painting back to the studio, I tried not to look at it, but it always tugged my eyes over. I knew I’d have to do something about it. After some time of assessing it, I started to work on it again.

Work-in-progress, Stage 2
Work-in-progress, Stage 2

I didn’t document it completely, but now you can see a big difference in the overall structure of the painting from the so-called starting point. See that little pointing, square blue shape from the top right of the Starting Point painting? I liked that, and it stayed, but see how everything around it changes.

Work-in-progress, Stage 3
Work-in-progress, Stage 3

Follow the little blue square as it moves to the upper left…see how I turned the painting 90 degrees counterclockwise? For a while, that seemed to make more sense. Eventually, I turned this version upside-down and settled on that orientation for the final. The blue square ended up at the bottom right.

And those were just some of the major changes. There were many minor ones that probably only I would notice. And then, one day, when you’re lucky, you look at a painting and it tells you it’s finished. There’s nothing more you can do to resolve the energy and the tensions between the parts. It fits the way it is.

Hopefully, this one will stay that way this time…