Tuesday, November 24, 2015

LAILAC Festival. Demo Dilemma.

The 17th LAILAC Japanese Cultural Association Festival is this weekend and I am going to be demonstrating Japanese woodblock printing again during this year's festival. However, while LAST year I manned a table and carved and printed for almost all of the 3 days of the festival, THIS year I am just doing a brief demo (1 hour), each of the two weekend days so I'm trying to figure out how much I can do in such a short time.
There will be a lot going on, as in addition to Intro to Bonsai, Dogs of the Samurai, Gift wraps, Intro to calligraphy, I will be trying to make sense of Ukiyo-e and moku hanga.  As with last year, I will be competing with TAIKO drumming and Japanese theater and dance.

Since I am not a historian, and didn't fall into moku hanga from the Ukiyo-e direction but from the fine-artist-looking-for-a-portable, non-toxic-medium direction.....so I am hesitant and unqualified to discuss-other than briefly-the history and importance of Ukiyo-e.  But, I an a decent printer and the thing I do love and find fascinating is still the process of Japanese woodblock printing so that's what I'll be doing.

I will be printing from my blocks copies of one of my woodblock prints while discussing the technique and some of the history.
But in just an hour it needs to be fairly simple, big enough to be seen from more than just the first row, eye-catching or crowd-pleasing in subject.

I was planning on printing up copies of my CYPRESS trees print (It is Florence, after all).
I carved it at last year's festival but didn't print it until a few weeks later and it has a nice November/Winter palette.  It has the advantage that the blocks are carved, it's a big print, and I've printed enough that I know the quirks of these blocks well enough to do a decent demo.

But since I am ALSO helping out at the Etagami tables, I have been thinking about trying to make another print from one of my etagami. (The Japanese Etagami Society is again sending almost 25 memebers (most over 70 years old) to teach and help at the Etagami stand.  I also will be meeting my Etagami pen-pal for the first time.
Here is an Etagami I did last year and that I mailed to my pen pal over a year ago.  It was one of the ones I liked enough to want to make an attempt at revisiting as a woodblock print and now seems like the perfect occasion.

I've enlarged it to twice it's original postcard dimensions and have traced the reversed design onto 6 blocks. I'm not sure I can get them carved in time for Saturday's demo, but I'm going to try.
It will be fun to try to reproduce the watercolor blush of the chestnuts and the background and I like the idea of keeping the calligraphic text,
"Autumn Gift". I'll post the progress as we get closer to Saturday and Sunday.

Friday, November 13, 2015


Only a few students showed up for the first open studio today but the presence of three young sculptors meant I kept the space open and once they were working and I was sure all was under control,  I was able to pull out a piece of marble from the scrap pile and have a go.
It was already roughed out as a sort of long cylinder with 4 stud/pronglike things at the top, and it's been drilled for a rod in the bottom so the orientation is already established.

I've only worked the middle section...the rest is still "as found".

Don't ask me what it's going to be yet as it hasn't decided, and nor have I.
I will say I worked mostly today on the middle section, narrowing it and changing it and helping to give it some clarity.

I think I see a direction. So I took a few photos: Front/Back/Profiles so I can mull it over a bit.
It was ugly to start.
It is still ugly.
I wonder what happens next?

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Marble Dust

Ceres, carrara marble, unfinished sculpture, 2000

While it's not definite, I've been asked to help out at a local sculpture school for a few weeks to keep an eye on the students during their independent study time.   I'll be there to make sure they keep on their goggles, and don't work in a way that might risk injury and are holding and using the tools properly, and for that I'm still abundantly qualified. I don't know that I've written about it on my blog, but before I started cutting woodblocks,  I was carving stone.
I'm married to a geologist, and her field work takes us frequently to Liguria and the area in and around Massa and Carrara, where the marble has been quarried for thousands of years and where the stones came for the facade of the Duomo and the statues of Donatello and Michelangelo.

Since we'd often be up near the quarries during the weekends or after hours, I'd putter around while my wife was scouting for geologic clues to the formation of the Appenines, I'd try to find a piece of cast off marble that was big enough to sculpt, but small enough to lift. (They quarry out blocks the size of a small VW van, to be cut down in the city stone sawmills). The pieces that chip off or are lying around are scrap and while for safety reasons (there are no fences protecting the sheer drops of the quarry), no one is supposed to tresspass, no one will bother you for picking up scrap marble.

So in 1998 or so I started first with a rasp, shaping the occasional piece of stone, and then, later I actually rented a room in Querceta, near Pietra Santa and Massa Carrara and started actually learning how to carve marble with a hammer and a chisel.  I worked mostly with hand tools, but after a while I also acquired a pneumatic hammer and grinder as some of the basic roughing out can be done much faster with power tools, although they are very noisy and even more dusty.

We were commuting often those years so I'd spend a few months in Italy carving stone, then go back and work as a physician back in the US.  I did shift work in the ER and they were always short-staffed, so I never had to worry about having a job coming back after time away.

Commuting however is hard with stone. An unfinished sculpture is still really heavy and the tools are all steel and iron.  I never wanted to deal with shipping a container of stone to the US from here, nor did I have contacts in the US to buy Vermont or Colorado marble or stone to carve when I was home.
Eventually it was the hassle of trying to carve stone on two continents that led me to woodblock prints.   A class in Santa Cruz, CA. in 2005 allowed me to start carving wood, instead of stone and I've been printing ever since.
But I miss the stone carving. It is probably one of the most fun things I've ever done. The tap, tap, tap of the hammer, the slow emerging from an ancient block of stone something that didn't exist before, the dust and the marble chips that would fall from my brow, hair or out of my nose the next day would always make me smile. (Marble is also pretty inert, and was not going to cause lung disease--which granite or other silica based rocks can do).
Even an ugly statue looks good in the garden.
So, I'm really glad that I came to mind when they were looking for someone with some carving experience with stone and stone tools to help out in the next few weeks.  I also think, since there are just a few students, that I'll also get a chance to work a bit on a new piece of stone after a few years of pause, and that has me dusting off my tools and looking for my safety glasses.  I can't wait.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Studio Shuffle

My new space, freshly painted.

There's been a lot going on in the last few weeks.
Today, I finished painting my new studio. It's not really a "new" studio.  I am just shifting rooms from a room towards the back closer to the street and front access. One of our 4 artists moved out. My neighbor took the front room and I decided that since I am hoping to start teaching moku hanga classes in Florence that having our rooms contiguous would allow us to occasionally share spaces (each room alone is only big enough for 3-4 students but together can host up to 8-10).
I took advantage of the emptied room to repaint it but that meant pulling down lots of ugly shelves, patching holes, painting the walls and today finishing the painted baseboard. While the rest of the studio is peaceful, neutral beige/off-white, I went with colors a bit more fanciful.
The back wall is a white indoor house paint with a ton of leftover dry pigment mixed in: mostly phthalo blue and burnt umber.
This is the space before painting.

And after.

While this is my current room--charming but very cluttered.

Tomorrow I will start moving stuff forwards but as you can see from my old room photos, I've accumulated a lot of stuff and hope I can take advantage of the move to get rid of many things that don't belong.
But while I hope to get moved in very soon, it may be a bit before I can get any real work done:

I'm preparing for the Japanese Cultural Fair that opens in 2 weeks and where I'll be doing a printing demonstration and I found out today that I will be assisting and supervising a stonecarving studio's independent study for a local, private Exchange program one day a week through December.
Plus I have shallots and garlic to plant, and fields to prepare for next year.
Not to mention New prints to start and finish.

Thursday, October 22, 2015


I've been an occasional forager for mushrooms for over 20 years......I'm cautious after working for a few months in the San Francisco Poison Center in November, when new immigrants would occasionally ingest seemingly familiar mushrooms with deadly consequences or we'd field a call about a child who'd eaten a mushroom off the front lawn.

My first solo foray was in Pt. Reyes State Park and I picked and filled a big hat with mushrooms I picked off the damp forest floor.  I'm a good observer and I sort of figured out what were probably edible boletes, probably russole, and probably amanitas.....I wasn't intending to eat any based on my untutored hunches but they were confirmed at the parks entrance when a couple with a basket Full of Porcini and chanterelles stopped me to tell me that the amanita I'd picked was indeed poisonous.

Since then, I've been to mushroom fairs, guided forays, hung out with mushroom experts and read lots of books. I'm not an expert, but there are a few that I can reliably identify, a few more that are hard to get wrong and a bunch more that I find now and then that I'm "pretty sure" are this or that but won't eat them until I can find an expert to confirm what I think.

While in Santa Fe, I'd regularly find Porcini and chanterelles and shaggy manes, here in Italy we find on our property lots of common field mushrooms (agaricus) sp., chanterelles, puffballs, lactarius, once a truffle, and I'm still hoping to find a morel.
We have poisonous mushrooms too. Amanita's fruit regularly, I think they're Grisette's (so probably edible) but I won't eat any of the Amanita's and I check EVERY mushroom to make sure there's no volvulus (the sac at the base that means it's a potentially deadly amanita).

This is a big mushroom.

 This year I was surprised to find a large fruiting of a very large agaricus. Driving in I saw what looked like a dozen white plastic plates in a distant field and told my son, we have to go check those out....they're probably Horse mushrooms!    I did check them out. We picked some and I ran them through the algorithm in the David Aurora's wonderful book,  Mushrooms Demystified that is useful for identifying mushrooms.
Large white agaricus, non-staining, tan to pink to brown gills, no phenolic smell.....that sure sounds like Agaricus Arvensis (the horse mushroom--a good edible). But nearby I found another very similar grouping, and these did stain yellow (a bit) and did have a funny smell......that would mean Agaricus Xanthoderma (not edible/poisonous). Neither had the almond smell that was supposed to mean the edible type. Spore print-chocolate brown (like all the agaricus)...so I cooked a tiny portion of one and didn't have to even taste it as once cooked an odd, medicinal, odor came out of them that convinced me that they were probably not something to eat without a better confirmation than, "probably".
This clump had some yellow staining at the base and a funny smell. ? Agaricus Xanthoderma?

Agaricus? xanthoderma or arvensis?

Slippery Jacks and Field mushrooms (agaricus campestris) and chanterelles under both.

Fortunately, it's been wet and there was a whole field of mushrooms I knew we could eat.  I picked some slippery jacks (Suillus Granulatum) and Field mushrooms (agaricus campestris) and Chanterelles and we cleaned those and cooked them with garlic, olive oil,  and a little soy sauce.
Chanterelles from the front lawn!

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Baren Tests

I spent a few hours yesterday testing my home-made barens and comparing them to the professional-grade Murasaki (strong) and the ball-bearing barens that I already own.

These tests were performed on damp, double-weight, coated bond paper for inkjet papers.
It's what I use for demos and proofing as it is easy to register and prints well when damp.
Then the heavier barens were also tested on Magnani Incisioni, a 190g/m2 etching paper that I use for some of my smaller moku hanga works and that prints well when a good baren is used with lots of pressure.
Not surprisingly, the best impressions, cleanly and efficiently printed with little effort were with my $150 Murasaki Baren.  More suprising, instead, was learning that my twisted-cord Barens all worked reasonably well. They needed more work and rubbing and left a lighter impression but improved greatly by printing twice.
My Thumbtack baren was too strong for this small piece of wood, printing over the grain and causing the paper to slip. With extra care to keep the paper from moving, it also gave a decent impression.
My Ball-Bearing baren was surprisingly weak on thick paper.

My twisted-cord barens all performed surprisingly well for a cheap baren made from humble materials and designed to be suitable for beginning users.
They needed more concerted pressure to get an impression, but with TWO passes, yielded very satisfactory results. This impression is from my nylon twisted-cord baren, printed Twice.
Baren #4, printed twice.
 And here is one printed with a twisted hemp cord coil: one impression on damp bond paper.
Baren # 8 Hemp cord and vinivil
While my thumbtack baren was harder to use. I had paper slippage (three times) with the dampened bond paper which wasn't a problem with any other baren. With incomplete rubbing I got Baren-suji, the marks left by the baren path.
But with care to make sure the paper didn't move, the impression was good, but heavy. The wood grain was partially lost, and there is some color that squished out here and there from the heavier pressure.
Thumbtack Baren, Rives etching paper.

Thumbtack Baren/Bond paper

Thumbtack baren, suji and slippage.

The Murasaki Baren printed cleanly on both the etching and bond papers.
Surprisingly,  My expensive ball-bearing baren was the weakest:
Ball-Bearing baren

This was not a blinded test. I knew which baren I was using and varied the pressure and effort of rubbing to match the baren.  My goal was to find out if I could get a decent impression from each baren not how they would all print with the same effort.
I'd like to go back and retest the ball-bearing and thumb tack barens to see how they perform on normal and medium-weight washi and with  bigger passages of printed color.
Another fun test would be to print a small batch of prints, using different barens for each copy but on the same paper.  This would allow me to see the tonal variations of the various barens in multiblock prints. 
I'd also like to print a big section of color using them to see how the tack baren performs when really worked hard. 

Thursday, October 15, 2015


"I look a little like this"
My etagami penpal, Yasuko Izumiya, will be coming to Florence for the 17th LAILAC Japanese Festival next month and although we have been exchanging these sumi ink and watercolor drawings for over two years, we've never met in person. The Japanese Etagami Society has many members and last year's group and the publicity they received in their monthly journal (with photos of the fair, the etagami tables, the paintings they did of Florence) has stirred up much interest and I'm told that this year there is a waiting list of those who wanted to come......Most are in their 70's and 80's, so it's quite a stretch to imagine flying from Japan to Italy, touring the country a bit, spending two full days at the Fair, hosting the Etagami tables and helping young and old alike learn how to make etagami, jet-lag and all.

I will be demonstrating moku hanga prints again this year and I've also volunteered to help out with the etagami section if there's need.
I'm thrilled I get to meet my Etagami-pal after sharing  drawings of flowers, bugs and everyday objects with her for almost 2 years.

As we've never met, and there will be a big crowd, I'm sending her these cards to help her pick me out from the others.