Three steps forward and two steps sideways

The other day I decided to do something completely different. I do that a lot, but as a general rule I work up to it. I read comprehensively (some might say compulsively), experiment on a small scale, choose some safe place to start the process if it is complicated, and with a combination of nervousness, excitement, and fear, I start. I have the route through the process memorized even though I have never done it and I turn each step over in my mind before I perform it. Like most people, I figured everyone thought the same way as me, mentally observing a yet-to-be-made creation from various angles as it rotates in my mind’s eye. Certainly, my father thought the same way; once he told me step-by-step how to take off in a helicopter even though he had never even sat in one, much less flown. Actually, he was deathly afraid of heights and flying–making a helicopter a particularly unsuitable mode of transport for him.

I project my life weeks, months, years into the future. To mentally navigate the future gives me a measure of security in the here and now. What will my kids be doing by a certain time, what milestones are still to come in their lives to which I can look forward? When will Sir be retired–and what adjustments will I need to make? How soon will my darkroom be finished? Will I have finally cleaned out the office closet by then? I wonder about what stage I will be in art-wise, such as whether or not I’ll have sold anything, had shows, been published. It should come as no surprise then that change can be difficult for me because it requires that I shift focus.

I have a friend who does not think this way at all. She looks about a week ahead at most, and yet she remembers our past with uncanny detail–the names of our classmates, our curriculum, even who said what when. Our children are similar ages and when we were young mothers together I always admired all the things she did with her kids–the hiking, the looking for antlers and other treasures, the visits to the beach, the puppies and kittens and ducks, the large scale garden, the artwork messes. Me, I was at home making quilts and clothes and photographs while my children amused themselves cutting and pasting paper, playing in the trees outside and riding their bikes up and down the street. My son helped me gardening once by cutting down a little citrus tree and my daughter made complicated collages covered in tiny paper snippets. It was only in the last year that I discovered that my friend planned very few of those events she did with her kids; she had no grand education scheme in mind as I had supposed and those amazing and rich outings were spontaneous. The future, in the way that I see it, is a foreign land to her and it is with a kind of surprise that she even explores it. I cannot wrap my head around such a view.

What I mean is, even with my artistic endeavors, I plan. I am an observer more than a learn-by-getting-my-hands-dirty kind of person. Staring at a blank canvas is particularly painful because I find it difficult to impossible to just put something–anything–on it. I have to have an idea, a shape, some kind of vision and direction. An enlarged doodle, a simple form, a question about light. I don’t do well just walking around with a camera either unless I am in a new place. I tend to look for resonance in my surroundings and it just doesn’t happen often. Sure, I see interesting things but they are the equivalent of a word, rather than a sentence or phrase–there is no punctuation, and I just can’t be bothered. That is also probably why I tend to go back to the same place repeatedly–because I have found somewhere that harmonizes with some subconscious song I sing when I look for pictures. It does worry me a bit that people will become bored by what I shoot and stop looking at the endless variations on the same theme, but I seldom waste my time asking why because I have found that I have no answer.
Years ago a painting teacher I had called me a “materials junkie.” In my experimentation back then I tried all kinds of things for their compatibility with wax, the painting medium I was using at the time. I used colored mica powder rubbed into the surface; various papers imbedded and scraped back; molds for polymer clay out of which I pulled three dimensional flowers and leaves; various inks and pens that I used to draw directly onto the wax; children’s blocks I made into sculptures; carved architectural foam I used as frames and other sorts of blocks. I liked visiting the hardware store and junk places for interesting things. I picked up a copper fence post cap and cast iron door hinges and incorporated them into projects. Once I found a crushed pet cage and made it into the chest of a life sized sculpture of a woman with a skirt, but a guy doing some yard cleanup took her to the dump, thinking she was garbage. I miss the glint of the sun off the disc of her face, blinking in the wild grass of the hill in my backyard.

Some months ago things went photographically awry for me when I broke my foot. Not being mobile in the same way as before meant I had to spend time using the images I already had rather than go searching for new ones. But it didn’t take long before I had etched all the plates I thought were any good, and as the weather cooled so did the etchant, making the process more involved as I sought to warm 5 baths of ferric chloride to the same temperature and have it remain there for an hour. No, it didn’t always go well. So I played with ink colors and inking techniques, getting more involved in printmaking and, shockingly to me, drawing.

A couple of months into my printmaking venture I had lunch with a friend who was unfamiliar with my painting past. I showed her some old stuff as a prelude to the current direction. “Why are you photographing at all?” she asked me. “I mean, what you do is nice, but this is wonderful!” I hate when people tell me what I used to do is great because it makes me feel like I made a mistake by leaving it behind. But it got me thinking. She was the second person in a week who had said the same thing to me. My paintings were about color and texture but in my opinion my repertoire was limited by my aversion to drawing. That was one of the reasons I turned back to photography–no drawing required. But I also left behind color.

So I went home and cut a linoleum block. I cheated insofar as I drew an image on it that I had painted numerous times so I didn’t have to think about much aside from its placement on the block. I did several more of them and looking at them later I was charmed by their freedom and naiveté. I did 6 or 7 before I came across a picture online of something even more appealing: wax collagraph. Unlike block printing, where online examples are rife and technique tips abound, there is very little about the nitty gritty of printing from a wax painting. Press pressure needs to be “light” and paper needs to be “wet” and the ink has to be the water-based stuff.

For the first time since my painting days–and infrequently then because it was so painful–there I was staring at a blank canvas (or in this case a piece of 1/8″ plexiglass). It is daunting and intimidating because I don’t want to waste resources by making something hideous–especially as that can happen anyway no matter what I may try. Aside from having painted with wax before, I had little notion of what I was doing. In a fit of frustration I simply slapped some circles on the plate. How thick could it be? Should I use pigmented wax? How much detail could be retained? Was I making a relief plate or an intaglio plate? I could not mentally navigate with any confidence through the process because there was little written about it and of course my first efforts show my ignorance.

However, I am nothing if not thorough. When something thwarts me I get pissed off and I start changing variables one at a time until I identify the problem and fix it. At that point I often walk away because it seems that sometimes the most compelling part of a process is its difficulty. Once I have solved the conundrums and begin producing consistent results, I am bored. What I found as I worked through the quirks of the process was that a 1″ foam pad between the blankets is essential for printing. Pressure can actually be moderate. Too light and the incised lines I make in the plexi don’t print, too firm and the wax gets flat and featureless in just a few runs. Thinner wax is better and damp paper is essential–but not dripping wet because it dilutes and dulls the water based inks. Will I dump it when I figure it out? Perhaps.

I don’t know if this experimentation is leading me away from photography or toward a new melding of the two. I don’t know if it matters as long as I am doing something. I don’t know what any of it will look like 10 days or 10 years from now. And I don’t know if any of that is even relevant. For now all the direction I am planning is to have forward movement even though not having an idea of what the future looks like makes me squirm a bit.


One thought on “Three steps forward and two steps sideways

  1. …so screwing-up my life and trip this summer — may lead you down a new and different path but what about those who counted on you — guess it doesn’t matter — also guess this comment will never make your Dark Side blog.

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