Monday, March 30, 2009


My last self-portrait was done in college 25 years ago. It was a large format watercolor in a crouching position boxed in by the borders of the paper--a full sheet but still cramped at 22X30 inches. My skill at portraiture is sketchy at best so when people asked "is that supposed to be you" I wasn't totally unhappy. As it was also a nude portrait, if it seemed more comfortable for all involved I didn't always reply truthfully.

When the printmakers' exchange I am participating in chose a "self portrait as/with/ or including a tree" as a theme I was initially enthused but as I began to think of how I view myself--almost 30 years later, I didn't see myself particularly treelike. I'm short, I have bony knees; I know I don't suck up ozone-depleting CO2 or generate oxygen and I doubt if even on a good day that I'm good for the environment (that will have to wait until I enter the decay cycle).

I started drawing pictures of a generic male figure holding a topiary or a standard ( a standard is a horticultural term for a bushy plant or flowering shrub artificially pruned to a tree form). But I didn't like the idea of "American Standard" as a print with me in it. But moving along I remembered the bonsai...the Japanese form of miniature tree pruning and as I print using a Japanese technique I thought that it might make a decent metaphor for my other Japanese hobby. I'm still a dilettante and the idea of the Westerner who adopts a foreign/Eastern art form as a means of expression and practices it badly has some resonance. The drawings started out fully clothed, then partially clothed, then just underwear but I wanted the print to convey the sense of exposure and vulnerability that I feel when I display any of my works.

So my latest print is a nude self-portrait holding a Bonsai.

I tried to juxtapose the art of Bonsai--the attempt to create the illusion of a centuries-old tree and a model of Nature perfected (but achieved through the patient and deliberate stunting of its growth through root and branch pruning and nutrient starvation) with the image of this middle-aged, somewhat grotesque and inappropriately naked figure. Surrounded by tools woefully inadequate for the task he proudly offers up an example of his modest, Japanese hobby. As Sami, aged 8, the true artist of the family asked, "Dad, if he's naked does that make it Art?" or more pointedly my wife, "God, how long are we going to have to look at this!?). It sounds better (or worse) than it came out. The tree didn't come out pretty enough and there are some problems with the figure (the palsied and too-short left arm isn't a metaphor, just bad drawing) that somehow didn't just go away by carving it in wood and printing it 40 times in color.

It was a great exercise for me technically: 13 colors, a Maple keyblock, a big edition (35) and an attempt at an image requiring careful registration and printing.

The image above is a detail of the finished print. You can see the entire print if you are not offended by adult themes, frontal nudity or badly drawn or printed images. Go here:

Bonsai, 2009 Japanese Woodblock print; edition size 35 for the Baren Exchange #39 and another 5 on different paper/background colors or APs.



  1. Actually kind of awesome, Andrew. Honest (if somewhat out of true proportion) and such a strange and interesting juxtaposition of elements. And 13 colors! Will I be able to recognize you around town from this print????

  2. You are too critical. 13 colors beautifully printed in a large edition is amazing to me. It was a standout amongst the exchange. As for proportionally correct...reality is boring. Kudos

  3. Thanks d.m. and J.T. I had lots of trouble with the left arm in the print and to my eye it looks "funny" rather than just naive or primitive. This was the last of dozens of preparatory sketches (of the figure and of the little tree).
    You'd probably recognize the bonsai first. It is meant to be a flowering Quince although in reality they bloom first before they put out such showy leaves.

  4. I loved reading your explanation and think it is a wonderful print. When I first saw it in the exchange I thought what a brave soul is this! But, then you are younger than I. I think your son has the right idea, it is indeed, art. And even Michaelangelo proportions aren't perfect and he thought Titian's drawing skills were abominable. So, maybe you've joined the ranks of the masters! Personally, I saw nothing wrong with the way you've drawn anything... and I'll look for you the next time I'm in Florence –

  5. Thanks, Sharri.
    After I saw your print, I feared mine would look the the predatory gardener stalking your sweet, innocent
    Raggedy Ann!
    Sami's kindergarten class went once to the Accademia to see the David and then to the Uffizi gallery to see Botticelli's "Spring" and "The Birth of Venus" (Try that in the US and you'd be fired for exposing your students to "pornography"! So he's used to seeing nudity in art. I think he was just trying to figure out why I didn't draw the figure with clothes on since that's how he sees me every day.

  6. I just loved the craggy character shown, your print stood out from the others in Exchange 39. I have just returned from Florence and the David, your print seemed so much more naked, mostly because I could connect to a real life person I think. Anyway Thank you for the courage for such an honest piece of work.