It’s late April again, and Bob and I are at the old country house
with my brother Chris, performing our family’s 77-year-old annual ritual
of opening the house for the summer.
For the first couple of days, there are actual chores:
Heavy wooden storm doors and windows to remove and store in the barn,
the plumbing system to get up and running,
furniture to uncover and move onto the screened porch,
and fallen branches and other storm debris to clear in the yard.
Canned goods are hauled out of the freeze-safe cellar
and back onto shelves in the “spring house,” the little pantry
where spring water used to flow into a tank from up the hill.
The excuse for making the 7-hour drive up here
is to ready the house for family gatherings in the summer.
But mostly we are here to slow way down and enjoy a simpler life for awhile,
after a busy few months at the city house.
Here we have no TV, internet or cell service.
Life is quiet and almost timeless.
The first simple pleasure appears before we even enter the house:
Our dear neighbors have left us a little gift of a prized Vermont craft beer!
~ ~ ~
Just before arriving here, I had spent a few weeks working on
a new edition of block prints at a fairly hectic pace, with the usual brain strain
and head-scratching technical glitches.
They say that the artistic process, not the product, is where the magic resides.
Angst, definitely. Magic? You be the judge…
The inspiration for this block print had come from two walks:
one through woods on a foggy morning,
and one through a neighborhood full of flowering trees.
~ ~ ~
Imagining a flowering tree in a misty woods, I spent a couple
of weeks drawing and re-drawing a color sketch. I pondered how many colors
it would need, and in what order they should be printed.
That was the brain strain part.
I cut a piece of linoleum, and mounted it on board.
No carving was needed, since this was going to be a solid block of
background mist color. Mist is white, but taking some artistic license,
I mixed a light aqua blue.
Bob has the brute strength to cut thick stacks of paper to size on the old paper cutter,
and he had presented me with about 200 sheets. So I printed them all.
Next, I drew the background layer of trees with a Sharpie on acetate,
taped it to the linoleum face down (to make a backwards image
so it will print frontwards), slid transfer paper underneath and traced the drawing.
Here’s the drawing on the block…
…and here’s the carving.
The carving part is mainly fun and relaxing. No decision-making required.
Fire up an audiobook (Robert B. Parker is a favorite), dig into the soft linoleum,
follow my outlines and plow away, removing all the negative space.
This carving probably took about five or six hours.
I locked the carved block in place on the press,
mixed up a sort of grey-blue ink, inked up the block…
This layer of trees is pale and blue, since it’s in the far distance.
The trees look severely pruned at the tops on purpose,
because much of that area will be covered by future printings.
If I’ve planned it right.
Time to get outside. It’s a lovely Spring day. My favorite little blue flowers
(the inspiration for my “Blue Flowers” block print) are blooming in the back yard.
I used to call them Squill, but after I blogged about it, some controversy erupted
regarding what I should call them:
or Siberian Squill,
So I just call them little blue flowers.
Bob is out here splitting wood.
The house has no insulation or central heating, and in the hills of central Vermont,
temps can dip into the thirties at night, even in summer.
Thanks to Bob, our cozy wood stove is now operational again, with a new
triple-walled pipe, freshly split firewood, and a Scoutmaster-grade fire
blazing away in it.
~ ~ ~
Back to the printmaking story.
The next carving was for leaves and forest floor in the second layer of trees.
I’ve been trying to carve more areas to just meet at the edges, like puzzle pieces,
because too many overlapping layers of ink can cause trouble, and too much shine.
So I carved empty shapes where tree trunks should fit in later.
(Do I have the chops to achieve that kind of precision?)
To save time, I peeled off the linoleum between leaves and ground,
where no carving was needed.
This carving required a darker, greener blue than the last layer,
to bring it forward a bit.
In order to achieve really precise carvings and “puzzle piece” printings,
I put a sheet of clear acetate over the previous print
and made a sharpie drawing for the next carving./div>
It would be tree trunks, and I was hoping to make them fit perfectly
in the spaces created in the last printing.
These tree trunks were even more aggressively pruned
than that first layer, for the same reason…
…and on the press
The tree trunk shapes fit nicely into their slots.
But they were also kind of see-through.
That was not in the plan…
What did I think of this translucent ink accident?
Well, it was a little weird.
But it was also kind of dreamy-looking.
And it showed the layering process.
I decided to go with it.
As I’ve told my workshop students,
at times like these you say, with great conviction,
“That is the charm of the handmade print.”
(Thanks to my printmaking guru Ron Netsky for this invaluable quote)
~ ~ ~
Back to the country:
Bob and I take an early morning walk along our winding dirt roads.
Much of our road is edged on both sides by beautiful stone walls,
probably built around 150 years ago.
I love these walls.
This Spring has been extra rainy, and there’s a lot of velvety green moss.
I love moss.
Other things we see on our walk:
The first blooms of spring!
There are little streams and springs that run alongside the road, or underneath
(disappearing on one side and reappearing on the other),
rushing and gurgling as we walk.
Marsh Marigolds grow along the roadside spring,
and two days later, flowers start popping open!
~ ~ ~
The next step for my so-called “charming” handmade print
was to carve more tree trunks and branches.
I also cut away little holes that I hoped would be
precisely filled with blossom shapes later on.
Was I making things way too difficult in the effort to avoid ink overlap?
I also added a bit of path at the bottom. Maybe it’s a path made by deer.
Maybe the path will invite the viewer into this misty woods.
This block gets a sort of plum-colored ink.
Yay, the trunks fit into their slots!
I love the lacy quality of the little holes I left for leaves and blossoms.
Next I need to print the leaves and ground foliage that go with the new trunks.
Here’s the carving, with slightly darker, greener ink than previous layers of foliage.
Emboldened by my success in getting shapes on separate blocks to fit together,
I carved a spiky bottom edge into which foreground blades of grass should fit,
and little spaces for the dark deer path.
This was way more precision than I’ve ever attempted, however,
and I started to get nervous.
I ran a few prints, adjusting the position of both paper and block,
trying to get things to line up.
I used up all twenty-plus of my previously botched prints, and forged ahead,
botching up more and more good ones.
Finally the leaves fell into place, but that dang ol’ path down below would not.
I had created a monster.
The only possibly solution was to peel the lower section up and move it
about a thirty-second of an inch down.
IF such a thing could be done.
I moved it, and printed…
Moved it again…
It took about seven or eight moves, and more prints down the drain,
but finally I got a good one.
Then I carefully traced that line of spiky grass shapes onto acetate with a sharpie
and transferred the image to the next block.
To really bring this hunk of grass out of the mist and into the foreground,
I violated my long-standing personal rule to never use Golf Pants Green in printmaking.
(Breaking rules is fun.)
Holy cow, my grass shapes fit into their tiny spiky slots!
I paused and gave humble thanks for having made it this far,
still with well over one hundred perfect prints, and only two colors left to go.
~ ~ ~
Back here at the country homestead, it’s time for breakfast.
I do most of the cooking around here, but for breakfast,
Bob fries some onions in butter for his omelette.
One of my great pleasures is cooking in this old kitchen.
By any modern standard it is grossly inadequate:
there are no countertops, no kitchen cabinets, no dishwasher,
and the gas range and huge porcelain farm sink date back to the 1930s.
And yet we cook great meals for gangs of people here.
Instead of countertops we have two vintage tables,
and instead of cabinets we have some stacked orange crates, painted white,
shelves in the little spring house, and a pantry.
An old gun cupboard holds baking supplies.
Tacked to the inside of the cupboard door
is Grandpa’s legendary pancake recipe, scrawled on a piece of cardboard.
~ ~ ~
After breakfast we venture across the lane and over the hill,
past the wild raspberry bushes to the little log cabin.
Grandpa built this cabin in the 1970s, with a little help from the rest of us,
because he couldn’t let those perfectly good telephone poles lying by the roadside
go to waste.
Uncle Jon couldn’t let that perfectly good Seattle driftwood go to waste either,
so he made cedar shakes for the roof and shipped them here.
Now the cabin and its land belong to our dear beer-giving neighbors.
They let us use the cabin as sleeping quarters for teenaged boys
during the summer family gatherings.
Bob has just discovered that he can get cell service on the cabin porch.
I have mixed feelings about this.
This is the view from the cabin porch.
I love those green-yellow veils of baby leaves.
The view of those hills hasn’t changed much in my lifetime, except that it’s shrinking,
as the woods in front of it grow taller every year.
Good thing I like woods.
~ ~ ~
Okay, now my block print needed a blossoming tree for the foreground.
I was dreaming of a certain species of tree as I designed it,
but that species shall remain nameless, so that it can be whatever tree
you want it to be.
Sheesh, it’s got a lot of blossoms.
After one printing, the pink was too weak.
So I ran each print through the press twice, to get a more opaque, bright pink.
Better, but dang it, they still don’t quite “pop” the way I’d envisioned…
While the prints dried, I went home and spent a day working out
whether I should surround the blossoms with some Golf Pants Green leaves,
to bring them forward. But would that clutter up the scene and obscure
my lovely background woods?
So the next day I went back with the same block, mixed up a warmer pink ink,
and gave the prints two more hits.
Ah. That did it.
And then I was onto the last (eighth) carving and the last (tenth) printing.
Unless I screwed it up.
This carving would print a black border, branches and foreground path.
I was nervous that the border might not land exactly on the edges of my print.
And the edges were a little uneven, so the border needed to cover all that up.
Why the little hole in the linoleum, you ask?
We had to leave for our country vacation in two days,
and these prints had to be finished, dried, scanned,
and put into our online store before departure!
Plus all the packing and whatnot…
I got a little impatient.
But thanks to my Printmaking angels, the last printing worked beautifully.
I hope this print might offer you an escape to a quiet little dreamland.
The kind of escape we get on our ritual walk down the lane
to gape at the Green Mountains.
Peace ~ Laura