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Joy spotted a sign for an etching workshop here in Oaxaca (grabado en metal, in Spanish): three days, five hours a day, various techniques. Investigation confirmed that the artist, Marco Velasco, would gladly teach a ten-year-old how to work with acid, something not all printmaking workshops here have been willing to do, so all three of us signed up.

The germ of this piece came to me seven years ago; it even inspired me to begin learning GNU Gimp (open-source Photoshop) because I envisioned it as a digital collage. But I didn’t learn how to make digital collages (yet), and the piece sat in my sketchbook and a corner of my mind. When I learned about the variety of marks one can make with etching, it emerged and said “make me a print!”

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Colony Collapse Disorder, etching, about 4″ x 8″, (c) Amy Zucker Morgenstern July 2017

 

It involved fun research. I did not know that the headache-medicine people, Bayer, own a company called Bayer CropScience, soon to acquire Monsanto. Nor that it is one of the biggest manufacturers of neonicotinoids, the pesticides that work by attacking insects’ neurological systems, and of course an ardent advocate of the claim that they have no significant effect on bees. Nor that Monsanto has decided to protect Bayer’s flank by producing a new kind of bee. (It’s the Roundup Ready corn of the insect world. Make poison, spread it on everything, and when you discover that it kills some species you like, instead of changing the poison or ceasing to spread it, alter the species.) Bayer’s logo even resembles the cross-hairs of a rifle, a pleasing bit of serendipity. I also did not anticipate that looking up images of the Gadsden flag, the one that says “Don’t Tread on Me,” would cause websites full of US flags and pugnacious political mottos to pop up in my ads, but of course it did.

I think the founding principles that united the American colonies left us particularly vulnerable to attacks like the one on the bees (and our food sources, and the entire web of plant and animal life), but these ideas are still too abstract for art; I don’t have the image yet to express what I think is threatening to cause the collapse of the human colonies. Maybe there will be future works in a series.

I know for certain that I want to do more etching. I loved the techniques. You can scratch into the varnish that will resist the acid, or use a different kind of varnish and draw right onto it (the smudges in the lower left come from my leaning on the plate as I did that, a mistake), or scratch into the plate itself. And make areas of darker and lighter tone by how long you leave the plate in the acid, and by gently sanding the plate’s surface. Unlike relief techniques like linocut, where you think in negative (what you want to be dark, you leave behind as you carve), the marks you make on an etching plate will be dark. This makes it possible to transfer images to the plate in my own drawing style. The three days involved painting, drawing, scratching, sanding–I enjoyed every minute.

I’m at the annual meeting and conference of Unitarian Universalists, General Assembly: this year, in New Orleans. Instead of bringing knitting to occupy my hands through the many meetings and workshops, as I have done before, this time I brought my sketchbook. The last three might be called Variations on a Theme by Brice Marden, since seeing some of his work at SFMOMA last week clearly influenced what’s in my head.

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Sometimes, being a minister means working with some prickly people. They’re among the congregational leaders or visitors or–particularly tenderly–among the people I visit when they’re sick or sad. Not long ago, I was on my way to meeting with a member of the congregation when I passed under a stand of sweet gum trees (I think that’s what they are), whose seeds I love whenever I see them, and have never dared to draw. I went on to the meeting, and in our conversation, the person was both prickly and, to me, very beautiful: honest, caring, vulnerable. When I left, I picked up one of the fallen seeds, and I drew it that evening. In my private thoughts, it has this person’s name.

I’m loving exploring this idea from different angles. When does a grid stop being a grid? What is it then? The tension between the formal rules of the grid and the movement that arises through and in spite of that form evoke all sorts of other tensions in my mind. To what extent are our lives ordered or chaotic, regimented or free, communal or individual?

Both of these are about 4″x6″, drawn with ink in a pocket sketchbook. The light and camera available distort the colors, but you can get the idea.


I keep drawing these grids in my little 4×6 sketchbook.

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I’m experimenting with how to change the shape and flow of the squares; in my view this next one went off the rails, but the two people who have seen it both like it a lot, so what does the artist know:

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These next two are my favorites–I love the way they ripple and move:grid-5-from-sketchbookgrid-6-from-sketchbook

I thought this one wasn’t finished (I don’t have my markers with me and there are still orange intersections to put in at the bottom), but since I was scanning the rest I scanned it too. Now I think maybe it is finished.

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In related news, I’ll be putting up 17 drawings, prints, and alebrijes from my sabbatical in the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto lobby today, with comments on each one. They’ll be there through the end of March.

A benefit of being in Mexico is that I don’t have my smartphone. My service wasn’t easily transferable to Mexico, and rather than sign up for something that would deliver data here, I just got a pay-as-you-go cheap phone with Telcel, a Mexican company. It lets me text and call, which is all I need, and frees me to look around and be more present. My smartphone is waiting out the six months in a drawer, but I recognize myself in the people all around who are doing this:

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The only reason I’m not doing the same thing is that my phone doesn’t work.

I made the above piece under time pressure. I had to draw something for a lesson in silkscreening, since the project I had in mind didn’t fit the criteria of simple lines and three colors. So I drew what I’d been noticing, wincing a little at the preachiness of it. Silkscreening turned out to be fun and frustrating; of 30 prints, I didn’t get a single one that was in register (colors lined up properly) and lacked smudges and had a clear print of all three colors. Just the same, there is something very satisfying about lifting up the screen to see what the squeegee has accomplished.

Most of all I am glad I made this piece because it lodged a reproof firmly in my mind: the preachiness hit the mark it ought to, myself. When, last month, the munchkin and I spent a week in Maryland and Pennsylvania and I reactivated my phone, I remembered this just-finished print and managed to use the phone mostly for its important purposes–calling and GPS–and stay off it the rest of the time. But oh, the lure of Facebook! So much of what I’m seeking there is simply “We see you,” as Marc Maron says, in a statement illustrated devastatingly by Gavin Aung Than on Zen Pencils. It is a supremely ironic reason to ignore my friends and family. But the data access and other tools are very useful, so I’ll have to find a good site blocker when I’m back, to use them without giving in to addiction. And maybe I’ll post this print where I can see it often.

I’ve been working on this drawing for a few weeks, as part of a series on change, decay, and erosion. It feels like a collaboration with the unknown sculptor or sculptors who carved these paths through the wood of a tree. I do not know who they are or even their species–some kind of insect, most likely–but I am moved by the patterns they make, which could also be called decay and disease.

Discovered on the leg of an outdoor table in San Augustin Etla, Oaxaca. Pencil on paper, 6.5 x 8.5 inches, November 2016.

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I’m working on a silkscreen print in the same series–it will be of rust–but it went wrong and I decided to start over. I’ll have to begin a new screen on Saturday.

Here’s another in a series. I finished it a few weeks ago and then took the ideas in a new direction, seen here. The common thread is the way forms show without outlines. They just emerge, presences that are undeniably there even without clear definitions. It didn’t work quite to my liking with this one, hence the new direction, but it was fun.

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I’m taking a class on woodblock and linoblock printing. The first piece I made was this one. As I was working on it I was dissatisfied, and made this drawing also. The drawing is a more successful rendition of what I was going for, but hey, it’s my first woodcut. I don’t have control of the medium enough to make lines as fine as I was imagining, and there are places I went too light–once you’ve done that, there’s no undoing it. Really, I think the only print medium that could have captured what I had in mind with this image would be a lithograph. But here it is, anyway, the first proof.
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The second piece was a linocut and much more successful. These are the seedpods of a kind of acacia, called huizache in Spanish, that grows here abundantly. I love them, and have enjoyed spending so much time with this one.

In previous wood- and linocuts it was very challenging to have drawn lines on the surface that signified the places I did not want to cut, i.e., that I wanted to print black. I kept feeling like I was supposed to carve where I’d drawn. So with this print, I made the drawing in negative, blacking in the places where I intended to carve, i.e., where I wanted to print white. It worked well.

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Another pastel. One day I opened the door from our kitchen here in Oaxaca, saw this light, and knew I had to try to draw it.

Pastels are tailor-made for one of my challenges, which is to refrain from too much detail and trust that broader strokes, well placed, will convey what is there. I went looking for oil pastels in pencil form (not for this piece, but for another one) and discovered that they do exist but that I’d have to have them shipped to me, which is slow and expensive. Just as well, as they’d be my attempt to do an end run around this limitation of the medium, and thus miss out on its promise as well. (I will buy them when I get home, though. They’re right for some projects.)

I keep thinking this piece isn’t quite done, but I’ve put it on our art wall, a declaration of “done enough.” Call it “patio with orange bucket.”

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