Monday, January 30, 2012

Sustainability Issues in Artmaking

Earlier this month I attended the College Book Art Association Conference (mentioned here). One of the panels - featuring my friends Mary Tasillo and Lara Durback - focused on sustainability issues in printmaking and book arts. The majority of information was presented by John Risseeuw. I've been meaning to write on it for a bit, but it's been a hectic month and I'm finally getting to it.

A primary point that John focused on is that most people, artists included, are not informed enough about what sustainability means. Assumptions in making studio practices more sustainable have ranged from "recycling more" to "using water-based materials." John was quick to point out that these do not necessarily meet sustainability standards, and in reference to "water-based materials," may not even be non-toxic, let alone sustainable.

Before I get bogged down in negativity, I think an important introduction to this topic to state the Five Pillars of Sustainability. They are, in no particular order: Ecological, Social, Economic, Cultural, Political, five interconnected and interdependent issues. The arts, of course, fall largely into the cultural, and John mentioned that when he approached a sustainability scientist about how such principles apply to artists, the scientist felt that they didn't, due to the cultural contributions.

Which probably led to the question he asked the audience during his presentation, "Is it fair to consider art in issues of sustainability?"

If so, John brought up issues that would have to be considered, such as:
What is the volume of ink (for art and regular computer printers) consumed worldwide? What are the annual percentages of pigments used in all paints/inks/dyes? What is the carbon footprint of art paper? What volume of polymer plates are consumed, and what are they made of exactly? What is the true environmental burden of digital culture? Can it be sustained? How?

One point John made regarded printmaking paper. If we are to consider such questions as those above, we must concern machine-mold paper that printmakers generally prefer, such as Fabriano. There are no machine-mould paper companies in the United States - all machine mold paper is made in Europe. However, paper companies import their cotton fiber from the United States. So the fiber is shipped across the ocean, transformed into paper, and shipped back, leaving an estimated large carbon footprint. A related issue that John did not touch on was that of bt cotton and its prevalence in the US cotton industry.

Local-made handmade paper might be a solution, if printmakers can keep papermakers in business and if everyone has a papermaker within a locality. And ideally, access to organic, non-GMO cotton (or some other material...flax, anyone?)

Polymer plates, for those who might not know, are a light-sensitive form of plastic plate that can be exposed to light and then rinsed out with water, leaving a relief image for printing. For clients of Boxcar Press,one purveyor of said plates, they can be shipped back and recycled, to an extent. However, when considered sustainability, John pointed out, plastic cannot be recycled more than twice. It is not an infinite cycle. He also added that the carbon footprint of shipping them back and forth would need to be considered.

John went on to discuss what exactly polymer plates are made of. He explained that the long-chain polymers for plates are a form of nylon. Nylon, which sounds innocuous enough, is made with benzene and other hazardous chemicals, and is a petroleum product with a large carbon footprint. When these plates are washed out, the chemicals are washed down the drain and into the water supply.

John often pointed out during this talk that we as humans just do not know enough about sustainability and long-term affects of chemicals both on ourselves and the environment. He didn't neglect to discuss issues of inks in his talk. Most people assume that if something is cleaned up with water, it's nontoxic. Acrylic paints, for example. Yet such paints contain formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, as a preservative.

Soy-based inks, which are often proposed an alternatives to oil-based, are not as sustainable as usually thought, as the rainforests of Brazil are being decimated to provide farmland to meet the need for soy. A final point concerning inks that John made, when considered volatile-organic compounds (VOCs), released into the air from oil-based inks and paints, that no ink will give off as much as driving a car to the studio will.

After his talk concluded, Mary pointed out that one resource that all artists have in relation to sustainability is time. "Slow down and prioritize," she advised. If artists can make time, heck, if all people can make time, sustainable solutions are feasible. I'm not going to argue that making time is an easy process, I as much as others always struggle for it. But it is something to consider, and probably fight for.

Sustainability is defined as, "Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to be meet their needs." This post is by no means comprehensive of their discussion. A presentation like this one can cause someone to get bogged down in how complicated their artmaking choices can become. Or, they can see this knowledge as empowering, a launching pad for new ideas. It was clear that the information presented in this panel needs to shared and spread. The panel certainly made me feel like I understood my own impact much more clearly, and I am considering how it will affect my practice.

If I were to answer John's question, I think it is more than fair to consider the arts in relation to sustainability. The arts are part of and depend on community, both local and global, for support, encouragement, participation, and as audience. As part of that community, our artmaking decisions need to consider sustainability issues. Solutions might be tricky, difficult, expensive, or not always feasible, but they need to be considered.

To download an earlier version of John's talk, visit here.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Two New Prints (with details)!

Finally got a few prints finished and documented! Above is what I will probably end up with the title Wyoming Triptych. Begun and mostly printed by hand at Jentel, with the final layer of sky printed in my home studio. It's a reduction block, though now that I think about it, a bit of an odd twist on the concept. Reduction printing involves printing the most general, background color first, and carving away more and more material from the same block and printing successive, more specific layers. Typically, the first layer is the background, negative space, or sky color. Any paper surface that does become part of the image is usually negative or white space.
However, I wanted my handmade paper to have a presence in the image, particularly since this paper is such a lovely, delicate blue. So the landscape is the paper itself, and the section of sky is reduced.
Today I was loaned a book called How to be Sick, A Buddhist Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers. The loan has interesting timing; last night I watched a PBS documentary on the life of Prince Siddhartha, the man who became the Buddha. I haven't started reading it yet, but I was intrigued by one quote I came across while flipping through, "Let things take their natural course. Then your mind will become still in any surroundings, like a clear forest pool. All kinds of wonderful, rare animals will come to stare at the pool....You will see many strange and wonderful things come and go, but you will be still." (Ajahn Chah) least in mind. I'm trying to hold on to this image. While in Wyoming, I kept feeling that the landscape had restorative capabilities, which is why I placed Robert within it. After I finished this print I found myself thinking about how cows have taken over what was once the land of the buffalo, and how sacred and revered the buffalo were to the Native Americans.
This print is called Cows and Corn, though the corn is the fiber of which the paper is made. The cows were such lovely dark shapes in the blue landscape. My arrival in Wyoming coincided with a re-reading of The Omnivore's Dilemma. I was caught up in Michael Pollan's discussion of corn as the basis for our food system. It's fed to cows, chickens, pigs, even farmed fish, transformed into flakes, syrup, xanthan gum, flour, diapers, dextrose, maltodextrin, MSG, mono-glycerides,di-glycerides, ethanol, plastic substitutes, wallboard, adhesives, batteries, ink, paint, pharmaceuticals...I could go on. So this print is an abbreviated version of that - corn as the basis for our meat-based food system, corn fiber is the substrate for this print of cows.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Upcoming Class at Kala

Monoprinting and Pop-Up Engineering with Michelle Wilson at Kala Art Institute, Saturdays, February 4 & 11, 10am-4pm, Tuition $232. In this workshop, students will use learn to incorporate basic monoprinting and pop-up paper engineering techniques to create printed pop-up structures that can be the basis of paper sculptures or artist books. This class is ideal for artists who are interested in ways of taking their two-dimensional work into the third dimension, or teachers who are interested in learning ideas to incorporate into their classroom. No prerequisite required. To register for the class, please visit here. For information on class discounts, please visit here. Questions or to register over the phone, please contact Carrie Hott, Program Coordinator for Artist Residencies and Classes, at or call 510-549-2977 ext. 303

Monday, January 9, 2012


As the title of this post suggests, the past few days have have been a bit crazy. It began last Wednesday, when I had the chance to take over the Autonomous Organization's space in Southern Exposure's Working Conditions exhibition.

I used the time to start carving a new block, continuing my exploration of my new caretaker identity, which I'm thinking of calling Waiting Room.

Thursday evening was the reception for Bibliotech at the San Francisco Public Library's Skylight Gallery. My book, Chacaltaya, was included.

The reception was also the opening event of the College Book Art Association Conference here in the Bay Area, so not only was there a great turnout, I was happy to see many people from the East Coast whom I miss terribly at the event.

Bibliotech is on view till March 11, 2012, open during regular library hours.

Friday was the first day of panels for the CBAA conference. My Book Bombs partner, Mary Tasillo, was on a panel about sustainable practices in printmaking and book art with another friend, Lara Durback, as well as the esteemed John Risseeauw, Susan Moore, and Cynthia Thompson. I found it to be one of the most stimulating panels during the entire conference, and plan to write an extended post reflecting on some of the issues, once I've had a chance to rest.

Friday evening was the opening for Get Lucky, the Culture of Chance, at SOMArts. I was surprised and thrilled at how much people interacted with the paper, stepping close to inspect the fibers of each sheet - one child ran up to one with his mouth open ready to rip out a bite with his teeth (his mother got to him just in time). My favorite thing to watch was people stepping in close to sniff the paper - though most did it so quickly I couldn't get a picture.

Dorothy Santos live blogged the event, if you follow that link you can see other works in the exhibition (and she writes a great Bay Area Arts blog, you should check out her posts regularly). And Kenneth Baker wrote this response to the show in the San Francisco Chronicle, focusing mostly on the musical sculptures/performances of the evening.

I owe a debt of thanks to curators Hanna Regev and Justin Hoover, for all their hard work putting the exhibition together.

Get Lucky
is open till January 26, when there will be a panel discussion about John Cage and a closing reception from 6-9 PM.

Saturday was the final day of the CBAA conference, and papermaking was featured in not one, but two panels! Unfortunately, they happened simultaneously, grrrh, so I only made it to one. Since then I've gotten some rest and begun a new to-do list for January. Thanks to everyone who came out to either of my exhibitions, and I'm hoping that this week's good fortune is providential for the rest of the year!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

New Year and a Jentel Wrap-Up

My friend Steph has a family tradition of doing laundry on New Year's Day. I think the idea is to set a tone of accomplishment rather than procrastination for the year. I've been meaning to write up a conclusion to my Jentel posts, to form some sort of completion to its narrative on this blog. Today is January 2, not the first day of the year, but I'm finally getting to writing something, though I'm not sure I've figured any of it out yet.

While there, I started processing how I've become a caretaker to someone who is ill, and all the implications and changes that this is going to mean for my life. I also spent a great deal of time feeling alternately guilty, angry, or worried (I was so lucky to have good people around me at Jentel who helped me deal with these feelings). At the same time, I kept thinking about the ideas of healing within the landscape, which led me to piece above (detail below), placing me and Robert within it, hoping that by envisioning health it could come to us. (Also why I didn't post images of it before - wanted him to see it first)!

Though I have to admit, so far, no such luck. Last week, after puttering around cleaning up my studio (always puts me back in the groove), I finished the last triptych that I started there. During the last few days I had run out of blue ink, so it had to wait till I was home for the last layer. I'll post the full triptych soon, but here is one of the completed center print hot off the press:

Have to admit, I loved the intimacy of all the hand-printing I did at Jentel, but on a press it goes SO MUCH FASTER.

The suspicious part of my brain wanted to believe something like, if I finish this triptych (which also has Robert in it in another panel) maybe he will get better. And he did seem to be improving for a day or two last week. Still in pain, but more present. And then he took another bad turn and my hopes were dashed again.

In the past two days, I've been repeatedly asked if I'm depressed about my current situation. On the phone this evening with a friend, they said something about how I need to keep my hopes up.  Thing is, I'm finding it more difficult to deal with my hopes being crushed repeatedly as we explore treatments that don't end up working, and I would rather just let them go. A few days ago I read something about making peace with uncertainty in regards to illness, and I think that's a good summery for where I am. I don't know if that's depression or not, but I feel better without the ups and downs.

At Jentel, I slowed down, I was not my constantly-rushing self. Part of my typical acceleration comes from ambition and planing planing planning for the future so much I'm never in the moment. I'm trying to hold on to this new unhurried demeanor, and allowing myself to proceed at a more measured pace through this uncertain time. Concentrating on just being in the now, and taking it day by day.