“I hate when they call it creative ‘practice’,” someone said to me other day. “We’re not attorneys and we’re not just monkeying around.”
I nodded. Sometimes I nod to indicate that I am, in fact, listening. That can be meaningful, if you know me well enough to have seen me tune-out mid-sentence, but it can also mislead people into thinking that I agree when I do not. I began to wonder about the word ‘practice’ and the phrase ‘creative practice’ in particular. I stopped nodding.
I am newly appointed ‘gallery manager’ at a contemporary art gallery. I began in early September, on its fourth day of public operation, and it is the first full-time position I’ve held that involves a regular paycheck and tax forms. So the notion of ‘creative practice’ and what it might mean to me personally has grown like a tumor on my consciousness over the last six weeks.
‘Practice’ does not bear a negative connotation, as far as I know.
I haven’t been producing much or working in my studio (more accurately described as the corner of the desk where I can leave copper shavings without sullying my partner’s pristine inks and papers). I’ve been working, establishing a rhythm and setting up calendar reminders for my job. I’ve been living 40+ hours a week in a beautiful white box, surrounded by the manifested ideas of others. I love my job.
I haven’t been ‘practicing’ anything and my need for it is going to reach critical mass soon.
I did make a small, experimental edition for an annual print exchange hosted by Rainbow Ross. I listened to Raidolab and made relief ink from gouache and honey. It smelled odd and dried to the velvety matte finish I wanted.
Anyway. Creative practice: to me it seems appropriate, the phrase. The final work that winds up in a gallery (if one is lucky) or on a collector’s wall (if one is luckier still) is often the tangible result of much scratching around, working out, seeking, destroying, rebuilding, and thinking. Are all of those unshared, unseen moments and movements something as prosaic as ‘practice’? Well. Yes, I think so.
Putting down a mark is a banal gesture (or pushing into a daub of clay, chunking off a piece of granite, or manipulating a pixel, etc. etc.). An artist is made not by a single gesture but by a multitude; one must put in the time to practice, to doodle, to experiment, fail and learn. Most of that mark-making stuff can be learned by nearly anyone with the will to dedicate time and effort (that is an unpopular opinion, I know). The artist is one who dedicates, one who practices. Even if someone has an unusual degree of innate ability, it’s meaningless without practice.
I must redefine a work-life balance, to carve my practice into the structure of my days. It is, in some ways, the hardest part. My excuses are good: new job, looking for a new apartment, waiting to find out if I’ll have grant money to fund this project that’s simmering in my back of my brain. But they are not not good enough.
Even if my life feels distractingly full, I must practice in small ways, so that I am ready when I am finally willing to admit that life is made of distractions and the only thing standing in my way is myself.
I’ve just finished updating the Calls & Contests page with fresh opportunities for printmakers – so go check that out if you need more on your “to-do” list.
Also, I’m pleased to announce that the Regional Arts and Culture Council has accepted my Intent to Apply application for the Individual Artist Project Grant category. This means that the grant process is officially live, and I couldn’t back out of it even if I wanted to. The RACC does a lot of work to help facilitate the grant process, especially for first-time applicants, and I am truly grateful for the experience.
There are still one or two kinks in the new website I rolled out recently, but I should get to those updates in the next couple of weeks. It should all be smooth sailing from there…
I’ve been working on a subtle re-design for my portfolio website, heatherleebirdsong.com. I launched it a few days ago, but finally have most of the kinks worked out. The above image is a screen shot from my currently in-process Geometries project. This page is likely to see a lot of updates in the next few months, so feel free to bookmark it and check back occasionally.
I’m reading The King of Infinite Space: Euclid and His Elements by David Berlinski. In addition to being an enjoyable read, it’s helping me distill and clarify my ideas concerning Geometries. I’m working on writing an introduction for the unbound book I will eventually produce. The first bit that really struck a chord for me is this:
“…the theorems of an axiomatic system follow from its axioms… The image is physical, as when a bruise follows a blow, but the connection is metaphorical. The relationship between the axioms and the theorems of an axiomatic system is, when metaphors are discarded, remarkably recondite…”
-David Berlinski, The King of Infinite Space: Euclid and His Elements, p. 14
I first tried my hand at silverpoint in 2007, as part of Paul Missal’s Techniques of the Old Masters class at PNCA; since then, it’s become a regular if not frequent tool in my creative lexicon. ”Silverpoint” is a pretty literal descriptor of the medium, but for those of you who are unfamiliar, here’s an extended definition (courtesy of Wikipedia):
A silverpoint drawing is made by dragging a silver rod or wire across a surface, often prepared with gesso or primer. Silverpoint is one of several types of metalpoint used by scribes, craftsmen and artists since ancient times. Metalpoint styli were used for writing on soft surfaces (wax or bark), ruling and underdrawing on parchment, and drawing on prepared paper and panel supports. For drawing purposes, the essential metals used were lead, tin and silver. The softness of these metals made them effective drawing instruments. (Watrous, 1957)
Following old masters class, I began using silver to sketch my initial compositions for paintings. Its archival qualities coupled with its inert relationship to paint made it an ideal medium for sketching on primed painting supports. It eliminated the problems of smudged charcoal and graphite bleed-through.
In 2010, when I was doing preparatory work for my undergraduate thesis, I began treating silverpoint as a medium in its own right. I love the way its lines build, delicate mark after delicate mark, and feel the process is akin to drawing through hard ground with a needle.
My most successful artwork from that exploratory period is a diptych, consisting of a portrait of my grandmother and a block of text, letterpress-printed with silver rubber-based ink. This work appeared in the 11th Annual PNCA BFA Juried Exhibition, and is now part of a private collection:
It was part of a body of work that (without getting too specific) pondered the nature of family narratives, which walk a hazy line between fiction and truth, and the process of realizing that the adults we love unconditionally when we are children are, in fact, flawed humans – not benevolent deities. Ultimately I decided that body of work was too personal to move forward with in the context of the very public thesis process, a decision that eventually led me to produce Stories From the Stone House.
Recently I recreated this drawing of my grandmother in a smaller format, on a low-tooth panel. The toothiness of the panel made it impossible to recreate the subtlety in her expression, but I occasionally like to redraw old work (mine and old masters) as an exercise. I’ve been drawing more than printmaking lately, spending time that I would normally spend in the print lab developing the Geometries project and the grant that I hope will fund its creation.
When I draw in silverpoint, I use a piece of silver wire roughly the diameter of drafting lead (around 12 gauge, if I remember correctly) and secure it in a lead holder for comfort. My partner gave me this piece of silver, but it’s easy and inexpensive to purchase. Most people purchase silver wire from jewelers’ supply stores; in the past, I’ve purchased pieces from Cline Glass here in Portland, Oregon.
To prepare the wire for drawing, I file the tip so that it has two flat edges and looks like a “V” from the side. The V point can be used for making fine lines; the flat areas are great for soft tones and shading.
Silver is pretty soft, so I have to periodically reshape the drawing tip, particularly if I’m working with it a lot. I actually enjoy the reshaping process; it’s similar to but much less rigorous than sharpening engraving tools.
To sharpen my stylus, I just wrap a wood block in medium-to-fine grit sandpaper and rub the flat sides against the sandpaper until it looks right. Some people will sand one side only, leaving an oval-shaped flat instead of the half-circle. Either way works.
Silverpoint drawing fell out of common use following the invention of graphite drawing sticks, which makes sense. Graphite writes on more surfaces, is erasable, and comes in a wide range of hardnesses and softnesses. (Fun fact: pure graphite is the softest and darkest; harder and lighter grades are created by mixing clay with the graphite.) Still, silverpoint is lovely, and doesn’t mix into my pigments when I paint over or into drawings.
If you’re interested in silverpoint, Anita Chowdry wrote a more thorough blog post last year, “Getting Started with Silverpoint”, which you can find here. She describes silverpoint drawings as “exquisite, intimate things,” which is why I like them. You might also want to check out silverpointweb.com. It hasn’t been updated since 2011, but there’s plenty of good information.
A lot of information sources really geek out on the details and complexities of silverpoint drawing, which is nice, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. All you need is a piece of silver and a gessoed support – and any good gesso with a reasonable quantity of titanium dioxide will do. While a smoothly sanded support is best for finely detailed work, a rougher surface is fun to scratch away at too. Most importantly, just have fun with it. Personally, I find the slow drawing process relaxing.
I hope you’ve all kept yourselves busy producing new work, because the summer influx of juried exhibition opportunities is approaching quickly. I just updated the Smidgeon Press Calls & Contests for Printmakers page with a slew of upcoming opportunities. Some of them sound pretty fabulous – like the $40,000 Mario Avati – Académie des beaux-arts Award, which includes an exhibition in Paris.
Remember, you can submit any opportunities that I haven’t listed by filling out the form at the bottom of the Calls & Contests page. It’s a surprising amount of work to collect all the current printmaking opportunities, and I love it when I get a little help.
Good luck out there – better yet, work hard and keep at it.