Gray Area

Sketch of nude woman facing out window, away from viewer, by Heather Lee Birdsong
“There was in Her a Garden and a Twilight, and a Palace Gate” by H. L. Birdsong, graphite on paper, 2010.

This is one of my preparatory sketches and early concepts from my undergraduate thesis at PNCA. If you click on the image to see the larger version, you can read my note that says, “Needs some kind of border,” which ultimately directed the format I used for Stories From the Stone House. I like this sketch, but it didn’t fit with other images from the suite as the aesthetic of the project developed. Still, it kind of nagged at me that I didn’t have a use for this.

This is where keeping sketchbooks came in handy: a couple of years later (this year), when I needed something for a print exchange and felt like I had too many ideas to focus, I flipped through a few of my sketchbooks, and came across this again.

“A-ha!” I thought, “finally, a use for this.”

The title is a quote from Vladimir Nabokov’s infamous novel Lolita. It’s a difficult book for me to read because the first part of it feels so gnawingly familiar; and Humbert Humbert, that horrible raconteur,  reminds me of a monster I once knew (though my monster was not half so charming or intelligent). The quote I used is from later in the novel, when H. H. has a moment of realization: that Lolita is an individual, and that she has depths that he did not and could never know about. It’s one of the only places in the novel where her abuser sees her as an actual human being and not just a fetish object. It’s a razor thin moment where the balance of power becomes skewed between them, and one feels a shred of hope for Lolita, for the internal life she might live, because her exterior life is so unrelentingly terrible.

But it’s not a resolute thing. Lolita is never given her own voice, and we are left to guess at and interpret who she is between the lines of H. H.’s lyrical expression of his pathetic self-justifications and illicit desires. Those are the things in that story that most disturb me: the things that readers cannot know. It is a story about her abuser’s version of her, so much so that the title isn’t even actually her name, but the nickname he bestowed on her – an act that completely erases her identity. Who remembers what her “real” name is?

All these complex ideas about storytelling, perspective, identity, and power seemed appropriate for the print exchange. The theme is Gray Area.

For the initial etch, I used a carelessly treated but new copper plate, coated with a thin layer of ball ground and drawn through pretty thoroughly. I wanted it to be dark and rough.

My print, I fear, is a clumsy translation of the sketch. After pulling the first proof, I scraped, burnished, and scratched into the plate using drypoint.

First proof with notes for "There was in Her a Garden and a Twilight", etching by H. L. Birdsong, 2012.
First proof with notes for “There was in Her a Garden and a Twilight”.

I’m not sure that I’m completely satisfied with the image yet, but I ran down to the deadline for the exchange and had to print and mail it. I’m not sure that I’d get anything finished if I didn’t find or make deadlines to meet! This is the second state, the first to be editioned:

"There Was in Her a Garden and a Twilight" by H. L. Birdsong
“There Was in Her a Garden and a Twilight” by H. L. Birdsong

I think it’s safe to say that you can expect a third state, and even a fourth. This plate seems to want a lot of work, and I’m willing to dedicate myself to nitpicking and fine-tuning it. If it comes out at all well, I’m sure you’ll see it later.

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