With both writing and artwork, there are times when I enjoy the challenge of working to inspiration provided by someone else. This year’s Penola Coonawarra Arts Festival, specifically the John Shaw Neilson Art Prize, provided such inspiration.
The brief was for artwork to be inspired by the poetry of John Shaw Neilson. Never having read any of this Aussie poet’s work, I duly did some research and was taken with his poem The Loving Tree. The poem is a discussion by four women, three young and one older ‘lean and lame’ about which tree is the Loving Tree. A tree-hugger from way-back, I’ve always been enthralled by the shapes, sometimes tortured and always fascinating, of old, gnarled trees, damaged and warped by time and weather. It always also fascinates me that life can sprout anew from a seemingly dead tree. The following verses, from the older woman’s point of view, inspired the woodcut.
“Some trees are slim and lovable
And some are sleek and strong,
But the tree that has the cripple’s heart
Will know the cripple’s song.
“The sweetest death is the red death
That comes up nakedly,
And the tree that has the foiled heart
It is the loving tree.
“While ever lip shall seek for lip,
While ever light shall fall,
The tree that has the ruined heart
Is tenderest of all.
The woodcut is ply, which can be tricky when the ‘cut’ wants to run with the grain, and took several days to complete. A test print resulted in a too-dark background, and fine-tuning was necessary. Wanting colour, because of the ‘red death’ and ‘ruined heart’ images, I tried hand colouring the print, though found it too precise for the effect I wanted. Instead, I tried a monoprint of gouache.
After laying a sheet of glass over the block, I used gouache to paint the colours onto the glass, not worrying too much about the accuracy of colour boundaries. When satisfied, I pulled the print by spraying the painted glass with a mist of water, and brayering the back of the dampened paper to l ift the gouache from the glass. When the monoprint was dry, I over-printed with the woodblock. It took several attempts to get an acceptable combination of the monoprint and the woodcut – either the monoprint was too wet, or too patchy, or the wood block wasn’t inked enough, or the paper moved during the transference. Eventually, I achieved an effect I liked.
I have friends, fellow-artists, who think print-making is merely a faux form of art. Yes, they admit there is skill in cutting a wood or lino block, but the rest of the process is too simple (with a blandly black and white result) to be called ‘art’. I know even the most experienced and skilled printmakers struggle at times to get the ‘perfect’ print. Discarded prints pile up under the table to be used for scrap. It’s a process, often lengthy and sometimes bordering on tedious, to produce the desired effect from a blank block to a hang-able image. This one took six weeks from idea to framed print.
Printmaking is not everyone’s glass of Chai, but I’ll take mine neat. The problem-solving only adds to the sweetness of a savoured process.