Monday, April 22, 2013

Artist Interview with Lexi Babayan

Today's featured artist, Lexi Babayan, is not a fiber artist; she's a printmaker who creates incredibly beautiful and detailed woodcut relief prints from multiple plates, layering her imagery to evoke a sense of multiple moments in time coexisting within the same physical space. 

I have been excited to publish this post since the first moment I had the idea to do these interviews.  Partly this is because printmaking is one of my other loves besides fiber art, but mostly it is because I have followed and admired Lexi Babayan's artwork for a long, long time.  In fact, I first met her when I was five years old, and I have seen her create great art for more than a quarter of a century. 

You can see more of Lexi's work in her Etsy Shop OR in her Flickr Photostream, where you have the added benefit of getting to see images of works in progress and demonstrations of her carving and proofing processes. 

Lexi has shared some fascinating and very specific details about how she makes her art, and while she is a printmaker and many of my readers work in other disciplines, I think these insights will have a great appeal and relevance for fiber artists, since we also focus deeply on the physical processes we use to create our work. 

Describe Your Workspace - is it in your living space or separate? Do you have a preference one way or the other? Is there anything your setup doesn't allow or that you have to do in a weird way? Have you come up with any ridiculously clever ways of working with the space you have available to you?

My workspace is in a freestanding garage, a few paces away from the house. I share the space with my artist housemate, Barry Ebner. We are both printmakers. He had already converted the garage into studio space well before I moved in. I have my worktable in the corner, and I sometimes expand onto the larger central table, especially when printing. When I am carving a block, I usually set a wooden crate on top of the table, and the block on top of that-- that brings it up to a more ergonomic height. (Low-tech, yet effective.)

Brayers with ink

Barry came up with a ridiculously clever, incredibly simple, drying rack solution. He made some simple rectangular wood “frames,” each covered with window-screen mesh. These can be stacked up to about twenty high. The wood strips create a gap between each layer, so nothing touches the face of each print, and the mesh allows air to circulate.

Clever drying racks made from cheap, available materials

I definitely value having an art space where I can get a bit messy, and where I can leave works-in-progress sitting out, ready to be resumed at a moment's notice. This is less practical when one's only working space is in one's bedroom. (I have been in that situation before, a small bedroom at that. It is no coincidence that I made very small-scale works at that time. Also, I made use of clotheslines stretched across the bedroom as drying racks. Then, as now, I was using oil-based printing inks, which take quite a while to dry.)

Ink ready to roll out

Would you say your personal style runs more towards clutter or organization? Does your style work for you, or are there elements of it you wish you could change?

I tend to accumulate things. I continually struggle with shifting my disorganized piles of things into “more organized” piles. “Organized clutter” appears to be my norm. A non-cluttered environment does not seem to be an option for me! A clean, Zen-like space with lots of empty surfaces sounds lovely but unattainable... but it could be that a cluttered environment stimulates my creativity in some secret way.

Lexi's workspace with image being transferred to a wood block

Do you ever have to choose between doing some aspect of your work "the lazy way" versus "the better but far more annoying way," and has going for "the lazy way" ever produced unexpectedly awesome results?

This may sound perverse, but I tend to work in the most labor-intensive methods available to me! However, this is because I enjoy those labor-intensive methods. I create meticulously detailed, hand-drawn, hand-carved, hand-printed woodcuts, frequently multicolored, in a method that requires that a separate block be carved for each color. Not only that, but most artists, when faced with depicting a brick wall, will try to suggest bricks without drawing every single one. Trying to draw every brick is a crazy maneuver, generally only attempted by particularly driven and obsessive self-taught artists. I like to carve out every brick in a brick wall.

Every brick carved by hand

There is a rhythm to carving them out, “brick, brick, brick,” similar to the “stitch, stitch, stitch,” of knitting a scarf. (I am talking about bricks here, but the same is true of other repetitive patterns I may incorporate into a piece.) Ultimately, this seems to create a buzzing vibration across the surface of the image.

“MJB Coffee WHY?” woodcut by Alexis Babayan

I will say, however, that the fact that I need to carve a separate block for each color leads me to think whether every color in the image is strictly necessary... For instance, can I use just two colors and make it “feel” like a full spectrum? Can I declare, for the purpose of one image, that “green” is actually the same thing as “black?” A limited palette can help to create very strong, energetic-feeling images. This is where the physical difficulty of making the image helps me to pare it down to the essentials.

“Easy Liquor/ Best Fire” woodcut by Alexis Babayan

Are there any particular patterns or motifs that creep into your work when you're not paying attention, and have you given any thought to where they might come from?

I seem to be very partial to the color of rust, and I take particular pleasure in knowing that the pigment in my rust-colored ink is a form of iron oxide and hence chemically the same as rust! That color is particularly beautiful against a vibrant blue or turquoise, and I tend to seek out scenes that include those ingredients. I like certain repeating patterns, like brick walls and chain link fences. I also like things that break up patterns, like weeds growing through cracks in the concrete. When I am drawing absentmindedly while thinking of something else, I nearly always draw human forms and faces. My “serious” art, these days, rarely includes human figures. However, it nearly always includes indirect signs of human presence.

“Read a Book” Woodcut by Alexis Babayan

 Are you a stickler about your particular medium, or are you happy to cheat, borrow and steal from other disciplines whenever it seems like a good idea?

I am a stickler about “making things by hand” but I am not so much of a stickler when it comes to what particular raw materials I use. Sometimes I carve into wood, sometimes I carve into linoleum. Both are “relief printmaking” and I consider them to be basically the same thing, though the different materials have different strengths and weaknesses. The major difference is texture: linoleum has no grain. This can be helpful in images with lots of tightly curving lines. (Wood has a strong opinion about how it wants to be carved, and objects to curlicues that go against the grain!) However wood generally “feels” nicer to carve, and the wood grain often creates happy accidents that couldn't happen any other way. Sometimes I will use both wood and linoleum for different layers of a multi-block print.

“Union Machine Works” Woodcut and linocut by Alexis Babayan

Have you ever spent Way Too Much on some exciting new art-making tool and it ended up being the best idea ever? (tell us the story!) Alternately, have you ever done the same thing and it did NOT work out at all? (give us all the gory details!)

I spent a lot of money on a really nice large brayer, imported from Japan. Later on I bought a small one of the same type. (Like these: They are even more expensive now than they were then, but eventually I want to acquire another one!) It was worth it to me. The thing is, the inexpensive soft rubber brayers you get from Speedball work quite nicely for most purposes. (Those are the ones you can find in just about any art store.) Speedball also makes a hard rubber brayer, which is almost completely useless—it will slide around on the ink rather than picking it up evenly. These brayers are firmer than Speedball's soft brayer but softer than Speedball's hard brayer. Because they are on the firm side, they discourage over-inking. They are exactly the right texture for emphasizing wood grain and retaining fine detail. The larger width and diameter help to apply the ink evenly. If you see my working set-up, you will find that I often have three or four brayers in use simultaneously with different colors of ink. I've got the two Japanese brayers and an assortment of Speedball soft rubber brayers.

One time, I ordered a “nice” chisel from Daniel Smith that cost twenty-some dollars. (I had a gift certificate that was burning a hole in my pocket.) It is nice and sharp and the blade is a good shape, but the handle just doesn't feel comfortable in my hand so I almost never use it. I greatly prefer my Power Grip tools, which cost about eight bucks apiece.

The least expensive art tool which I use regularly (and which I love,) is a bamboo rice paddle which I bought from a Chinese grocery store for about one dollar. I use it as a baren (burnishing tool for hand printing.) I like it better than “official” barens that I have tried. I even prefer it to a multi-thousand dollar printing press!

The rice paddle magically brings the print to life!

Are you currently having a passionate love affair with a particular medium or technique or concept, and would you care to share all the steamy details?

I am passionately in love with both my medium (woodcut printmaking) and my subject matter (urban street scenes and signage.) We have been together long enough that we should really be considered to be married under common law!

Describe your sketchbook (or other Vital Idea Capturing Aparatus). Do you work in such a way that there is a great distance between sketches and finished projects, or are you more likely to incorporate your sketches directly into your final work?

I use a camera for the initial stage of image-gathering. My current body of artwork would not exist were it not for my habit of taking long walks accompanied by a camera. Sometimes I use a heavy old 35mm film camera that used to belong to my grandfather. I like the ritual of using it. Other times I use a digital camera, for expediency. The photos do not become part of the final piece, they are part of my own personal documentary project. Later on I make drawings based upon some of the photographs. Usually those drawings are not in a sketchbook, but on various stray pieces of paper. I change up my drawing methods: sometimes I work out my drawing in brush and ink, other times regular graphite pencil, other times white pencil on black paper, or whatever drawing tool feels right at the time. I choose which elements to emphasize and how to translate the image into the printmaking medium. Often I end up re-drawing my image on trace paper, for ease in transferring the image to a woodblock. As I carve the image into the block, there are still things that need to be edited and decisions that need to be made. The process is still “alive.” I am not just duplicating my earlier sketch. I keep my photograph nearby as I am carving the block. I also use a small mirror as an extremely useful “wireless graphics tool” (marvelous for reversing images.)

Carving tools and mirror

Do you ever find yourself anthropomorphizing the media you work with or a particular aspect of your process?

Yes. I work with a lot of very sharp tools, and I have a theory that if I treat them with respect they will serve me well and won't cut me. If I ever disrespect them, or act blasé about their abilities, they will probably turn upon me and cut me. In general, my tools and I have a very good working relationship.

What is the best thing about people bringing their own unique interpretations when they interact with your work? Also, have you ever heard someone's interpretation of something you made and thought to yourself, "Gee, I'm not sure where you got that one, but I wish you'd toss it back where it came from!"?

I work with some very specific local landmarks in my art, so that provides an entry point to conversation that wouldn't be there if my work was more abstract. Someone who grew up in the neighborhood can talk about their memories and feelings about a certain place, about local history, and about scandals that happened a long time ago! However, it irks me when someone just tells me that my work is “funny.” It has an element of humor, but that is mixed in with other elements, such as finding genuine beauty and pathos in unexpected places.

“Lite House” Woodcut by Alexis Babayan

Monday, April 15, 2013

Art Show: "Pleased to Meet You" at Materials For The Arts

For the past several months I have been having a glorious time volunteering a couple of days a week at Materials For The Arts, my absolutely favorite arts-based nonprofit organization in New York.

I had known about these guys for several years but had never been there until I started volunteering.  MFTA is seriously like some sort of magical wonderland in which nothing that could be used to create art ever has to become garbage ever again.  Also, deserving and underfunded arts groups and schools can have access to all the materials they need to enrich the lives of New Yorkers.  I freaking love this whole concept, and all the dedicated people at MFTA do every part of the process so well!  Have I been drinking the Kool-Aid? YOU BET.

Anyway, Materials For The Arts is having their staff show, "Pleased to Meet You," right now and they offered to let me put in a few pieces!  I attended the show's opening night this past Thursday, and it was a wonderful evening, with fun conversation, tasty cheeses, excellent artwork and not a single moment of pretentious or boring conversation. How many experiences contain all those things?

I took some photos at the event, so please enjoy these images of some of the pieces in the show (though by no means all of them!).  Then go check out MFTA's website and blog!

If you live in the New York area and you have some sort of art supply you'd like to go to a good cause, definitely get in touch with them - no donation is too small, and even the weirdest stuff is guaranteed to end up exactly where it needs to be! 

And now, some ART!

PTMY Crochet Environment by Olek
When you first arrive at MFTA you know you're already in a different world (Art Work = "Crochet Environment" by Olek)

PTMY hallway entrance
The fabulously industrial hallway space where the show is installed - look, there are my pieces right at the beginning!

PTMY House by Dan Darbandi
"House" by Dan Darbandi

PTMY Green Orbit by Jenny Kraft and Green Being by Chase Carlisle
"Green Orbit" by Jenny Kraft and "Green Being" by Chase Carlisle

PTMY Installation Recopilacion II by Luisa Tamara
"Installation Recopilacion II" by Luisa Tamara

PTMY Bird is Visiting by Sabu
"Bird is Visiting" by Sabu

PTMY Art Darts by John Cloud Kaiser of Freeystyle Family
"Art Darts" by John Cloud Kaiser of Freeystyle Family

PTMY For Steppenwolf by Marna Chester
"For Steppenwolf" by Marna Chester (rotating sculpture, exterior and interior views shown)

PTMY Chair by Joel Frank
"Chair" by Joel Frank

PTMY Magic Forest by Doris Littlejohn
"Magic Forest" by Doris Littlejohn

PTMY two untitled pieces by Ben Pederson
Two untitled pieces by current MFTA Artist in Residence Ben Pederson

Friday, April 12, 2013

Art Show, "Paths: Sculpture & Watercolor by Kathy Creutzburg," at Michael Mut Gallery

I often end up going to exciting art events because someone I know is acquainted with an artist. In this case, it turns out my boyfriend is friends with a woman who embodies one of the exciting New York City Artist tropes - Kathy Creutzburg is a painter, sculptor and mixed media artist who lives in the East Village and makes things from other things that she has found.

Kathy's show, at Michael Mut Gallery on Avenue C, consists of both two dimensional and sculptural work. I was most drawn to her paintings and wall-mounted mosaics so those are the pieces I'm featuring here.

The show includes subtle, thoughtful touches that I noticed and appreciated.  First, Kathy's work is perfectly sized to fit attractively into the space available (Michael Mut Gallery is a teeny, intimate space which really gives smaller artwork the opportunity to shine as it should). Kathy worked with a curator for her show, Marie Katherine Vigneau, who provided help around which works were selected and how the space was used. The second thing I noticed is a small thing, but it made me really happy - the gallery uses those little thumb tacks with embossed numbers on them to indicate how to find a work on the price list.  Adorable and classy!

Michael Mut Gallery's website has this to say about the show:

"Paths is a collection based on an artist's journey. Her materials and ideas are collected remnants found along different paths. Some of these paths are taken alone, while others are shared. As we move forward, trails both tangible and invisible are left behind. The East River, becomes a metaphor for process, meandering in one direction and then another. .... The watercolors illustrate the journey whereas the sculptures embody the outcome of the voyage."

My favorite works in this show were the pieces that most directly reflected the title.  These are small scale watercolor paintings which contain literal map-like elements. Seeing these little imagined map paintings made me realize that there are a lot of fiber artists whose work is based on making maps, like Emily Miah Stewart, Linda Gass, Valerie Goodwin, and sometimes me! My theory about why this theme emerges so often for fiber artists is that we are very concerned with seeking meaningful ways of filling space, since we have to actively construct every part of our work. 

I wrote a few questions for Kathy based on my thoughts about her show, and she very kindly carved out some time to give excellent answers to them.  Read her responses below, then go see her work:

"Paths," through April 27, 2013  
Michael Mut Gallery 
97 Avenue C at 6th St 

Larger paintings featuring stenciled designs

Could you give some thoughts about what it was like to work your curator?  How did she help to clarify the show's message? What was the selection process like for determining which pieces ended up in the show (joyful, painful, somewhere in between)?

I came across Michael Mutt's gallery a couple of years ago. He is an artist, and I participated in one of his projects. I live right around the corner from the gallery, on 7th Street between B and C. More recently, I asked Michael to look at my artwork at my studio- which is in the back, behind my apartment. He came over, and he offered me a solo show. I was kind of surprised (and ecstatic!) because I had never had one. Marie Vigneau works with Michael, and was my curator, and she was very thoughtful about her choices of which pieces to put in the show. We had the freedom to find the direction that the show would go. After looking over the watercolors and  sculptures on several occasions, particular groups of work began to blend together. I have been working on the idea of paths for a number of years, and the idea seemed to bridge my public art projects with my personal work. We began with the show title Paths That Lead There, which was edited to Paths. I really appreciate feedback from the people I work with because it allows me to think of my artwork in a new way. The edited title addresses the work that we were choosing, as well as opening up new possibilities for future work.

Kathy's work has a fantastic sense of something happening just beyond what we can actually see.

(continued...) In the past, I have collaborated with other artists, a writer, students, teachers, family members, etc., so working with others is part of what I do. My feeling is that more than one mind just adds dimension to artwork. Since Marie and I were both new, we did not begin with pre-conceived ideas about how to create an exhibit. I felt like I had taken my time to find my direction as an artist (which is the hardest part!), and the process had run its course. Marie was then able to think about which pieces fit together aesthetically, and how to place them to make them the most effective. She was also reconciling the connection between the watercolors and sculptures, how paintings of the maps and the sculptures were related. Michael also offered some guidance, as well as my son, Klay. Movement paths connect with so much of what I am doing in so many different ways. There is both a physical and a psychological dimension to the idea. It affects my daily life.

Four small scale map-themed watercolor paintings

You clearly made some very thoughtful choices about how to price your work, and I am curious about how you arrived at your price structure.  As both a fellow artist and a very non-wealthy New Yorker I was greatly impressed by your decision to include incredibly affordable pieces in your show, allowing normal people to own original artwork.

I priced the artwork to be accessible to my present audience, and because I, too, love to purchase art and I lack the budget to do it. I think back to what was affordable to people who have bought from me in the past, and what I have made on commissioned pieces. I really want to put my artwork out for people to enjoy, and the best way to do that is to make it affordable.

Mosaic style pieces made from found objects collected along the East River

Since I normally write about fiber art, I would love to hear whether you have ever made any pieces using fiber techniques such as quilting, weaving, felting, embroidery and dyeing.

I have studied weaving, and when I was a student, I designed and built my own counterbalance floor loom. I was really fascinated with building a machine, and figuring out how the parts work together. I still have my loom, but it is not set up (mostly due to space issues). I also sew and do needlepoint, when a project calls for something like that. At any rate, I find myself bending and twisting things such as wires, steel rod and recycled materials in such a manner that echoes the soothing rhythm of fiber art processes.

The postcard for Cathy's show

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Artist Interview with Nancy Crasco

This week's featured artist is Nancy Crasco, a fiber artist with a ridiculously extensive history of exhibitions and teaching experience. I discovered Ms. Crasco's work while I was Googling all of the artists with whom I will be participating in SAQA's exhibition, "Deux," later this year, and I immediately fell in love with her work for its elegance, graceful color choices and excellent craftsmanship.

Are there any particular patterns or motifs that creep into your work when you're not paying attention (as opposed to the motifs you've consciously chosen to work with), and have you given any thought to where they might come from?
Many  of my early works were inspired by the direct observation and interpretation of nature and landscape, but I gradually progressed to a more critical point of view during the 1990's with a series of "soft protests"; visual commentaries on air and water pollution.  My current series of larger works pinpoints what is happening in the oceans and other bodies of water as a result of climate change.

I keep returning to watery themes.  I grew up in New Jersey and experienced the ocean, lakes and rivers from an early age.  Swimming is my favorite exercise and I frequent the neighborhood YMCA, where I swim two or three times a week. I still love the beach and other coastal areas, particularly salt marshes and estuaries, and enjoy drawing at these sites.

Water flows in my works, both consciously, as in the the ocean series or unbidden, like "Salt Marsh Spring" (2006) in a series about the seasons, or "Sailing off the Grid" (2009) in a series of twelve works entitled "Off the Grid."  "Swimming Against the Tide" is part of an ongoing series that interprets climate/weather adages.  Both pieces in DEUX are part of that series.

"Sailing Off the Grid," by Nancy Crasco

Are you a stickler about your particular medium, or are you happy to cheat, borrow and steal from other disciplines whenever it seems like a good idea?
I often use newspaper articles and photographs for inspiration.  When I need an image of a specific organism, animal or plant for my work, I research and use photos from the Internet for reference, but I am very careful not to violate any copyright laws. For example, in my recent piece "Diatoms"' I needed to know what diatoms actually looked like.  So I did some research on the Internet and found that I could represent them by using a collection of old doilies, and printed with them on mulberry paper.  Then I arranged  and sewed them between layers of silk.  I print images on paper or silk using a gelatin plate, and also use linoleum prints in my work.

"Diatoms," by Nancy Crasco
I have a degree in art from the Rhode Island School  of Design, and visit art museums and galleries and attend other art events quite regularly.  I sometimes see something in the works of other artists that generates an idea. I occasionally take classes, and have attended summer sessions at The Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle, ME.  Several of these sessions have added techniques to my craft vocabulary, and have had a significimpact on my work.

I do not believe that artists create in a vacuum sealed environment.  They are affected by all that happens around them and it is how they process this sensory information that results in artistic products, which are new ways of looking and describing what they know and feel.

Describe your sketchbook (or other Vital Idea Capturing Apparatus). Do you work in such a way that there is a great distance between sketches and finished projects, or are you more likely to incorporate your sketches directly into your final work?
I maintain several types of sketchbooks.  I try to carry a small one when I visit art venues as I often like to sketch or note something I have seen to research in more detail later: the name of an artist, a technique with which I am unfamiliar, or a quote or a construction detail I want to remember.  I have a second collection of drawing sketchbooks that I have filled with land and cityscapes when I travel or vacation.  The third type of sketchbook I keep is a record of visual references and thought processes for most of my works.  I also keep a running log of work hours, expenses and income.

Pages from Nancy's working sketchbook. These were sketches for her piece "Tip of the Iceberg" which is shown below.
Are there people in your life who always come through with excellent input that continually helps you improve your work?  What is it that these people see that makes them so helpful?
I am very fortunate to belong to a critique group of seven fiber artists which meets monthly to share current work or work in progress with an open exchange of ideas and constructive criticism.  We all work in fiber but have very different voices. We have been meeting for more than twenty years and can be very honest and open with each other about our work without the risk of personal affront.  We listen to each other as critiques are rendered, but we feel no obligation to carry out what is suggested.  The suggestions sometimes lead the artist to another, satisfactory solution altogether.

I also have a best friend that I have known since we were students at RISD together, and we talk to each other frequently and more recently this includes showing each other our work using FaceTime on our iPads.  Another RISD classmate lives close by and is a printmaker.  We attend a lot of art exhibits and museums together, and share our works in progress as well.

Nancy's sketches of Batiquitos Lagoon
"Salt Marsh Spring," by Nancy Crasco

You live in Massachusetts - what opportunities exist locally for fiber artists?  What about the character of your city do you find particularly inspirational? Are there any local organizations or groups you'd like to mention so they can get more exposure?
Boston is a great city for art and is very welcoming to fiber artists.  Most of the local arts organizations like The Cambridge Art Association and Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown, accept fiber entries in their shows equally with the "fine arts", and  the myriad of quilt guilds in the Greater Boston Area guarantees that there are quilt exhibits year round.  We have the New England Quilt Museum and the American Textile Museum, both just 45 minutes away in Lowell.  Boston and many other towns and cities in the area have local art centers with galleries, studios for artists and thriving educational programs.  In the fall and again in the spring there are many Open Studio events which gives one the opportunity to visit with many different artists and to purchase work directly from the artists.  Boston is home to too many great museums to single out, and they all show fiber, but the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem are especially good.

"Tip of the Iceberg," by Nancy Crasco

Do you have any extremely talented artist friends whose work you'd like to plug here on the blog?  They don't have to be fiber artists, just super cool folks who could use a little blog love.
The co friends that I mentioned in your earlier question are:
Judy Becker
Linda Behar
Elizabeth Busch
Sandy Donabed
Sylvia Einstein
Carol Anne Grotrian
Jude Larzelere
Adrienne Sloane
Patricia White

"Swimming Against the Tide," by Nancy Crasco

Thanks so much to Nancy Crasco for an excellent interview - I cannot believe the number of wonderful sounding museums that will await me when I finally arrange a trip up to the Boston area.  This is at least a week's worth of entertainment in a single paragraph! Also, I feel truly inspired by the idea of developing such close artistic friendships over the course of more than twenty years - that's a wonderful goal for an artist!