Monday, May 28, 2007

Luncheon Under the Ash Tree

From the lunch room windows at my work place we look down on the orange tile roof of a small brick building. From its architecture and location you might think it one of the ubiquitous Plunket rooms that were built all over New Zealand last century for women and babies (to match the war memorials and Masonic lodges built for the blokes). However, this funny little civic building with an entrance that looks like a back door facing the Cafler Park Wishing Well, is the Whangarei Art Museum.

I had the galleries to myself on Saturday afternoon (the only time I have ever seen another human other than the desk-minder at the Museum was at an opening). Until then my peripheral awareness of the travelling exhibition, Luncheon Under the Ash Tree: The Ian & Elespie Prior Collection, had stalled on the Evelyn Page paintings and her pretty, impressionistic, domestic style doesn't interest me so much these days as they would have a few years ago. That's why it's taken me two months to get round to checking out this show, despite the proximity of the Museum to the building where I spend most days. Silly, silly me.

The exhibition is diverse; an idiosyncratic showcase of mid-late 20th century New Zealand art, including lots of prints (my special interest at the moment). The collection developed in the context of a network of friends and family which includes many of the 'big names' of NZ art and literature.

The networking aspect is what hooked me actually as the first piece to catch my eye was a name and a face I thought I recognised: an Douglas McDiarmid portrait of Charles Brasch who looked uncannily like my friend Ian McDiarmid- note to self, find out if Ian is related to Charles or Douglas or both. From that moment of (imagined?) personal connection I was swept along by a series of pieces that delighted and stimulated me.

A colourful monoprint by Stanley Palmer of a windswept Southern landscape in a long narrow format that made me want to know how it was made. With my limited knowledge of printing I measured the monoprint against the various plates and presses at TKPT and realised how Palmer must have (literally) stretched the boundaries of normal processes.

Pat Hanly's 1967 drypoint, Invention of Area, was a lovely composition but looked to have been printed on acidic paper as I'm sure the surface wouldn't have been the colour of old tea bags back in the 1960s (though I could be wrong). I took it as a caution to myself creating works on paper that I would really like to look just as good in 40 years as they do when they are made. But since I am also engaged in a stimulating exploration of what it means to print and create ephemera, I appreciated Invention of Area's deterioration as an intrinsic quality of the piece, perhaps unintentional but nonetheless dynamic and interesting.

It's probably result of the intense self-imposed contemporary-art-education-reading programme I am engaged in, but I finally saw a Ralph Hotere work that I really really like. I didn't write down the name but it was something about anenomes at night with a Charles Brasch poem (him again! See what I mean about the network?). What I liked about it most was the way that Hotere wrote the poem in ink onto wet watercolour paper, so the letters seemed to glow softly like sparkler writing, which really suited the poem which compared stars in the sky with anenomes in the water. Half the page was the text on white paper and the other half was a typical Hotere field of dark dull colour but enlivened with splurts of rich red exploding in that way that watercolours do when you drop them on wet paper.

But the highlight, the absolute highlight of the exhibition for me, were two of the three works by John Drawbridge, whose name I remembered from the Mervyn E Tayl0r book. There was an abstract watercolour with stunning, rich, sumptuous colours in broad vertical stripes overdrawn with graphite on a dark background. How can I describe these colours? They weren't clear and they weren't bright but they were vivid and deep and intense and made me think of velvet curtains and red wine and autumn leaves and candlelight. And then later, I was captivated by the composition of John Drawbridge's black and white print, Big Scape which frames a mountain range in a proscenium arch, like a beautiful brain-teasing optical illusion.

So, it's a great exhibition, go see it if you are in Whangarei and you haven't been yet. Maybe you will like the pretty Page paintings more than the abstracts, or be captivated by something quite different that just didn't happen to sing to me like the ones I've described here. But there will be something, I promise, that you will be glad to have seen. Don't miss out.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Press Calls

I was walking home from the farmer's market early yesterday morning, laden with bags of produce, pockets stuffed full of ATM card, change, glasses case, keys, hanky, chalk and cellphone. This last item chimed to let me know a text had arrived so I juggled my bags around and groped through my pockets to find the phone.

Delightfully, and disconcertingly, instead of the screen telling me 'you have a message from...' there was this photograph of the Arab press:
At that moment, immersed in the mundane pleasures of my daily life beyond printing, it felt like a siren call from a sweetheart.

Obviously the crowded pocket environment had pushed buttons at random, setting up the phone to send the photo (taken a while ago) as a message, which I wasn't aware of until a friend sent me a text.

But on the other hand, if I can use my imagination to create the reality I want and use reality to manifest my creative vision, why wouldn't the press be calling me?

Monday, May 21, 2007

Dream poem

In my dream:
offcuts of precious paper,
creamy, thick, luscious scraps
follow me around the Quarry
like a flock of tiny lambs.

In the night:
type chatter in the cases,
shivering with anticipation.

Inside the door:
the Arab squats patiently,
inscrutably relaxed and
eager to work.

Me and the sweet Arab press,
we are mother and father,
raising an orphanage
of talented children,
teaching them to dance and sing:
songs of freedom, redemption songs.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Fascinating Phenomenon

Along with a big carton of leftover inks Murray gave me two boxes of old fashioned invitation cards, the kind with the scalloped edges, some edged in gold, some in silver and some in lolly pink. They are irresistible, especially arriving just as I was planning to print a series of postcards.

I do like the invitational resonance for the series which is called Addicted to Capitalism and consists of a collection of 5 aphorisms I made up in the middle of the night recently. Sample text: Drink Coffee- Capitalism's drug of choice.

Anyway, with these cards I am indulging the Arab's capacity for mass production- though my runs of 50 at a time are just a warm up for this enthusiastic machine. Thus on Friday afternoon I had a table top at TPKP covered in 150 postcards drying their ink. A third of them were the lolly-pink cards printed with Use Pornography - Let capitalism commodify all your desires.

I've noticed that the couple of men who encountered this aphorism prior to the print-run had misheard or misread the phrase (none of the other cards seem to have this problem for either gender). My nascent theory, that the word pornography has the power to make men's brains stall, was reinforced by the reaction of a visitor to the word in wet pink multiplicity.

This guy came in, as many people do, but instead of a quick look and a quick chat like most, he lingered. And lingered. He did run home for his portfolio to show me some of his (impressively realistic) drawings but then there was no getting rid of him. I just kept printing as he told me about his life in jail, drawing superheroes on commission for gang members (fee: two joints for a small drawing). Finally the conversation petered out and after a long pause he asked, "So what made you decide to use pornography as your gag?"

Of course I've been just dying for someone to ask me something like that, so as I continued to pump the treadle and print Watch Television - A capitalist occupation, I launched into a cheerful exposition on how I want the whole series to provoke consideration of personal preferences in a socio-economic context and how pornography is an example of a market-driven mass addiction pervading public spaces with compelling, fascinating images, how it conditions (especially, but not only) men to perceive (especially, but not only) women as a product-line of body parts to be consumed, and co-opts fetishes into a niche-marketing paradigm channeling intimate relationships into pre-determined narratives of desire and gratification...

Well! That got rid of the malinger. I don't think I had really understood the phrase 'slunk out' until yesterday when I paused in my monologue. Perhaps he had thought I was a pornographic enthusiast and hoped that we could bond over a shared appreciation of the genre. Anyway, whatever he was anticipating, he looked utterly crestfallen when he slunk out of the building in the wake of my feminist rant.

Luckily the porno cards will never be seen en masse again so their apparent brain-numbing powers will be diluted by isolation or in the context of the other, slightly less provocative, cards.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Three Gentlemen of Printing

I'm starting to get the hang of the Arab press now, thanks the generous, kind, patient help of three good gentlemen of printing.

Ron de Rooy got me grooving on the marvelous proofing press, and together we fixed up the ink plate on the Arab so it moves sweetly as it should. I enjoyed hearing his stories about his life as a printer and the history of some of the gear I am using. Come back Roy, my cleaning project has made a massive leap since you were here.

Neil Perfect is the problem-solver extraordinaire! If he happens to be in earshot as I mutter to myself about some little challenge or another, inevitably before I even realise he was listening, he has swiftly provided or promoted an ingenious solution. Together we replaced the packing behind the runners that support the rollers as they glide (smoothly now) over the chase. He figured out how to get tissue paper to stay on the tympan. He entertained me with pipe-laying anecdotes that brought back fond memories of my own days of driving a trencher.

But best of all, most of all, Murray Inder is the Man! He arrived into a moment of hysteria on my part as the chase had flipped into the rollers as he drove up to the building. Calmly and without hesitation he took charge of situation, rescued the chase, and proceeded to take me through step by step of setting, locking and proofing type; creating a new tympan and positioning the gauge pins (gauge pins have changed my life, I would sell my second-born [if I had one], for a certain supply of gauge pins. With gauge pins I no longer feel the lack of a frisket). Murray is a brilliant teacher who explains things clearly and sensibly, answers all questions but is unswayed from his curriculum. Nothing he said or did ever allowed me to feel dumb. I envy his apprentices (I assume he has had apprentices) and I aspire to his teaching style.

I am very glad I got over my curmudgeonly attachment to working alone. The supportive presence and active contributions of these good men (and others who spend time at TKPT, especially Daniel Lyons) not only make my work go infinitely better but add unanticipated social delights.

Finishing Capacious

After my first heady experience with the Arab press, I came up hard against the limits of my inexperience and lack of knowledge. Some pretty terrible printing ensued and unfortunately these examples will be enshrined forever in The Capacious Book of Powerful Words, which is close to being bound and done.

Why? Why don't I go back and reprint those pages I am least pleased with? Why am I not more of an obsessive compulsive perfectionist? (And why do so many people seem to assume I already am beyond the pale in this department- don't they see the flaws I see?) Truth is I've decided to cut my losses and move on to the next project. Capacious was always only my printing-learner-wheels book. It embodies in its imperfections all the struggle and frustration of that damn etching press. It also embodies in its ambitions (those realised and those not) a massive transition in my life; at the centre of which is my return to passionate book-making after a year and a half in the wilderness.

Right now I don't like Capacious very much and, nose to nose with it as I bind, all I can see are its agonising defects. Ideally I would finish it, put it away for a year or two and come back to it with fresh eyes and the indulgence that adults have for the cute and clumsy creations of children.

I recently rediscovered the last serious book I made before my long dry-up. While I could still see why I hid it away for so long, the sharp shame I remembered was gone. From my current vantage I am more interested in all the ways it succeeded in manifesting my intentions than in the ways it fell short. I hope to feel that way about Capacious eventually.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Ricky Eyre's Shell Book

I came across this wonderful book structure at work, not generally an environment where book structures other than codex flourish. The creator, my colleague Ricky Eyre, made it for a university assignment to collect and label New Zealand sea shells. Each different kind of shell is in a zip lock bag with the identifying information on a sheet of paper. Each bag is suspended from a heavy wire ring balanced on three hooked arms extending from a central stem and balanced on another wire ring base. The structure was Ricky's original idea and he and his dad welded it up together.

As a book structure it is extremely functional and well balanced. The 'pages' move easily on their 'spine' and the base is very stable even with all the weight of the bags being shifted about. Despite the utilitarian materials it's also attractive and eye catching, and perfectly suits the content and purpose.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Containment Class Notes

Today I taught a short workshop on making books and boxes to 2nd year art students at Northtec, the local polytechnic. The students and tutors were a delight to work with and I promised I would post my class notes here for them to access. The following notes may not make much sense if you weren't there seeing the examples and demonstrations to illustrate. There are many excellent books available for teaching yourself how to make books and that is how I learned most of what I know. For beginners I recommend Shereen La Planz, Peter and Donna Thomas and Alisa Golden for easy to follow instructions and inspiration.

What do books and boxes have in common?

“A book is a sequence of spaces.” Ulises Carrion 1975 The New Art of Making Books.

Many of the techniques and tips which make a good box are the same for making book covers, but covers are much quicker and easier to demonstrate and practice.

Making a perfect accordion book block (the Heidi Kyle method)

Terminology: In the world of instruments an accordion is rectangular and a concertina is hexagonal. So unless you are making a hexagonal book this structure is correctly called an accordion fold (Thomas & Thomas)

Why use this structure? It’s simple, versatile, it opens out for exhibitions or for a long view.

It’s simple, but there is a trick to getting it right. If you measure and fold a strip of paper from one end it will be uneven and if you trim it you will lose the grain (plus potentially some content/registration).

Always fold with the grain, always align grain with spine. Finding the grain: flop, roll, tear, wet, rub finger along edge. Grain folds are cleaner and crisper; and minimise/eliminate warping from adhesive/ time/ damp. Use a bone folder or similar. Go slow. Paper is unforgiving of mistakes.

Fold strip of paper in half. Fold each end in towards middle fold to make quarters. Repeat so each quarter is folded in half one at a time. Accordions must be made with 4, 8, or 16 panels. If you want fewer panels trim or for more, fold separately and attach.

Refold as necessary to get alternate mountains and valleys. Put under weights for a while.


Making boxes is very fiddly. I don’t know of a quick and easy way to make a box from scratch. If you are in a hurry for a box and aren’t to worried about custom fitting, you can cover a found box, whether appropriated from the rubbish, another use or bought at a craft store.

So why bother making boxes from scratch? To have pretty much complete freedom to convert a flat piece of board into a three dimensional box of any size or shape: perfect fit, customised openings or compartments.

Tips for box making

  • Careful measurements: For snug fit without rubbing, the inside space should be a mm or two larger than object. Remember to allow for the width of the board where overlapping. Lip should be width of board plus cover paper.
  • Grain: board and cover paper should align grain, and grain parallel to any hinges
  • Covering box with paper: outside first, then inside.


Covering cover boards is similar to making boxes in terms of careful measurements and right angles, attention to grain. These notes are for covering separate boards, but a case bound book or a separate spine will follow more or less the same principles.

When cutting boards, measure off the book block. Cover boards should be 2-3mm bigger around than book block. Eyeball, then measure and mark, then eyeball again (and repeat as necessary until 100% confident) then cut. Make sure both boards match, are square, have smooth edges. Lightly sand if necessary.

Cutting: change blades frequently, between almost every cut into board; snap blades into a waste container, facing down; cut on waste side of the edge, even if you have to turn the board or paper; use light repetitive strokes until cut is complete

Cover paper: Use boards to measure paper about 3-4 cm beyond each edge of the board (eyeball, measure, eyeball). Make sure grain will be parallel to accordion folds.

Pasting: Wheat (wallpaper) paste and EVA/PVA have different qualities suitable for different materials and tasks. Board to board ie box framework, use EVA/PVA. Attaching paper or cloth to board, use paste. Half and half is what I use for general use ie paper to paper. Adhesive shouldn’t be too watery, or applied to heavily, or the paper will warp.

Always apply adhesive to the lighter material. Put on a very thin layer, start from middle and work out in star burst. Leave corners dryish. Use masking materials where appropriate so adhesive only goes where it is wanted and needed. Smooth air bubbles out with bonefolder and work the edges so they are square and tight. Trim corners after board is attached, making sure the corner tip won't be exposed when you fold over (2-3mm). Reapply paste to flaps and fold over. Get corners as flat as possible and smooth with bone folder. Protect with sticker backing or wax paper, place under weights to dry.

Attaching covers to book block: In the demonstration we used end panels of accordion as end papers/ means of attachment. If using a separate spine, attach it first, making sure spacing is even and sufficient for book to open and close smoothly and completely without stressing the paper. Put adhesive on paper, using masks and protector sheets. Carefully place on cover, smooth with bone folder. Place under weight to dry.

Being precise and accurate allows more creative freedom, as your concept is not obscured or undermined by sloppy presentation.