Tag: H.L. Birdsong

Visual Chronicle of Portland: new acquisitions now on view

Visual Chronicle of Portland: new acquisitions now on view

Toward the end of last year, Polygons No. 5 (Oregon Blueberries) was acquired by the Regional Arts & Culture Council for the Visual Chronicle of Portland collection. A special exhibition of all new acquisitions made during 2016/17 is now on view at the Portland Building, through April 21, 2017. Visual Chronicle works normally move around, exhibiting on rotation in different public buildings throughout Portland – so this is a rare opportunity to see many from the collection at once, and probably the only opportunity to see all recent acquisitions together.

Polygons No. 5 (Oregon Blueberries) is also one of the pieces I keep referencing regarding works I’m proposing for PDX-CSA. Learn more and buy in before April 16.

An edition of my first handmade book, A Means of Centering the Mind, also found a home in a collection at the end of 2016, in the Ella Strong Denison Library, Scripps College in Claremont, California.

Acquisitions like these are important: they allow artwork to remain accessible to the public, making sure that culture is not accessible only to the top income-earners; they offer essential financial support, particularly to early- and mid-career artists – even those whose work may not be suited to commercial galleries. The National Endowment for the Arts is responsible for supporting a multitude of organizations across the United States, including the Regional Arts and Culture Council. RACC makes Oregon a great place to be an artist, and I have certainly benefitted directly from their programs.

Unfortunately, the National Endowment for the Arts is on the chopping block in the current proposed national budget. If you are a U.S. citizen, please contact your representatives to let them know that the NEA is essential, and that you are against de-funding the arts.

A Means of Centering the Mind, 2009-15, accordion book, 4.75 x 3 x .25 inches (closed), ed. of 6.
Community Supported Art

Community Supported Art

Earlier this year, I was invited to participate in the PDX-CSA program. The spirit of it is why I agreed: it offers affordably-priced original artwork at the concept stage, meant to encourage aspiring and nascent art collectors to invest (their reward being not only the finished art, but following along as the artists create the work), while offering artists a measure of financial security for their project yet preserving their creative autonomy (unlike most private commissions).

The individual projects are all priced at $175 or less, while “pairings” (related yet independent work by two simpatico artists) offer the opportunity to purchase two projects at a small (around 10%) discount: an instant collection.

I proposed small gouache pantings, in the manner of the Polygons series, focused around Portland’s Forest Park. $175 is probably the least anyone will ever pay for one of my original paintings, making the individual buy a great deal – and the pairing with Alyson Provax even better. I’ve long admired her work, and I’m thrilled by the chance to share ideas, influences, and hikes through our famed city wilderness.

Pre-buy now through April 16, 2017.

Heather Lee Birdsong and Alyson Provax, PDX CSA artist pairing.

Polygons Process: Sketchbook to Sketchup to Substrate

The sketches I make when preparing a new Polygons painting look simple, but it takes quite a bit of time to draw each form. I draw, erase, redraw, making smaller and smaller movements as I get closer to what feels right. The way they lean, the balance of obtuse and sharp angles, the height to width ratios, are all gestures invested with emotional resonance. It is deliberately analogous to the way I think of people: I remember them less from their looks or names, and instead think of people in terms of how they feel – how they inhabit space, the emotional resonance of their interactions. Over time, people who feel similarly begin to blur together in my memory.

Once I’m satisfied with the shapes, I reconstruct them in Sketchup and move them around. This program gives me incredible latitude to play with them, establishing spacial relationships that evoke narrative.

When the drawing is resolved, I redraw the whole scene on a flat, bright piece of hot-pressed paper. The final part, which is often the most difficult, is the color. I probably spend more time mixing than anything else – there are very few out-of-the-tube hues in my work. I like gouache for its flatness and ability to be rewet after it dries on the palette.

I’m not yet sure what color these ones will be. The colors I drop in with Sketchup may establish an overall tone, but they rarely carry over to the actual painting.

Drawing in Silverpoint

Drawing in Silverpoint

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:

Rhea may have fed her children to their father, but no one blames her for her obedience. She still sits on her throne, an honored woman, the Magna Mater. How many times would she have watched her husband devour her children if he realized that the last he swallowed was really a rock in swaddling instead of his newborn son?
silver ink on paper, mounted to panel
Silverpoint portrait of an old woman with a warm smile and kind eyes.
silverpoint on gessoed panel

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.

Geometries: It Will Have a Cover After All

As some of you know, I am in the process of developing a body of work that uses elements in Euclidean geometry as metaphors for patterns in narrative (specifically from folk tales and/or common human interactions). A major goal for this project is to apply for a project grant through the Regional Arts and Culture Council, primarily to purchase paper and hire a leather worker to produce custom folios to house each edition of this body of work. (If the grant doesn’t work out, we’ll go to plan B, but I’m feeling pretty optimistic at the moment.)

After some searching and many conversations with an array of artisans and shop owners, I am pleased to announce that Wood and Faulk has agreed to create the folios. You may already be familiar with the fine products made by Matt Pierce, the designer and self-described tinkerer behind the Wood and Faulk label. If you are not, please check out his wares at his newly-redesigned online shop, shop.woodandfaulk.com, or visit any of the fine stores listed here (I’m a fan of Beam & Anchor myself). I’ve followed Matt’s blog for a little while now, and have long been impressed with the quality of Wood and Faulk wares. I’m certain that the folios will be the perfect packaging for the Geometries prints – even though neither party is quite certain how they’re going to look yet, so don’t ask.

Belts, bags, and beautiful leather baubles.
Wood and Faulk wares from their recent sample sale.

I’m particularly grateful that Anna, who also works at Wood and Faulk, and Matt have agreed to take on this commission because they don’t typically do custom work, and what I’m asking for is definitely out of the ordinary. I realized pretty early in the planning process that I wasn’t going to be able to do it by myself. I’m a printmaker, and learning all about leather just for this project is not feasible time-wise, and nothing I could produce on my own could possibly meet my standards for quality. Besides, why would I want to miss out on an opportunity to work with some of the talented people who are already knowledgeable about working with leather? Though, in all honesty, I don’t think I realized exactly how clueless I am until Matt started asking me questions about what I wanted.

Don’t get too excited yet though – this project will be a while in the making. If you’re interested in learning more about it as things develop, please check back periodically for updates (all posts regarding this project will be tagged “Geometries”). You can also subscribe to this blog to get my posts directly in your inbox (or in your WordPress Reader if that’s your thing). If you’d rather only get updates about the Geometries project in particular, I suggest signing up for my newsletter through Tiny Letter, since that’s pretty much all I’m going to write about in the newsletter for the next year. I’ll likely be sending out the inaugural letter in the next few weeks.

On a more personal note:

My partner and I celebrated our third anniversary this weekend, and it was wonderful. He gave me a book: Suppressed Plates by G. S. Layard, 1907. I’m looking forward to reading it; a casual perusal piqued my interest. But then, he always does such a good job choosing books for me. It’s got cancelled plates from Charles Dickens and Punch, stuff by William Hogarth and George Cruikshank, and switched heads and taboo subjects (not that much of it is salacious, really; there are plenty of boring reasons why a publisher or an author might object to an illustration). Anyone who reads this blog with any regularity knows how much I love sharing books, so you can check out a digital (and not nearly as pretty) copy of this book here.

Old green book with a sexy, sexy burin-and-brushes design on the cover.
Suppressed Plates by G. S. Layard, 1907. Check out that sweet burin and brushes design on the cover!