Sunday, October 31, 2010


Tonight's piece is pretty different from anything I've done previously, mainly because it was "art directed" by the one and only Suzanne Moore, calligrapher and book-artist extraordinaire, who came to town this weekend at the invitation of the Calligraphy Guild of Pittsburgh to give her 2-day workshop entitled "Kol-ahz" at Carnegie-Mellon University. If you are interested in some details about the workshop, read on. If you are not, bail now to avoid boredom!

It was an unsettling endeavor for me, being very wedded to a particularly pictorial, narrative style of collage making. I am a concretist, Suzanne is an abstractionist. So it was sort of Max Ernst colliding with Schwitters and Braque!  I was way at sea--not a bad way from which to begin an educational experience. As I grasp it, Suzanne's style starts with letterforms as abstract shapes, which then become the  focal point of a composition. There are no illustrative, pictorial elements added to these abstract letters, but like any good abstract art, they are executed with such a richness and depth of color, texture and form that they evoke a thoroughly satisfying visual experience. Today during lunch, we saw slides from her book of A's--a multi-year project in which she explored hundreds of renderings of--the letter "A." You would have to see it to believe it! A Sistine Chapel of A, a Pieta of A, a Guernica of A!!!

To start with, we created materials to use for the pending assignments. The first of these involved making broadly gestural, black and white interpretations of letterforms in sumi ink, preferably created using anything but traditional calligraphy pens. Everything from dentifrice aids to chunks of roots dug out of her yard, were employed as mark-making tools. These sheets were then cut up into precisely measured 2 or 3 inch squares (what else could one expect of a book-artist, for whom precise measurement and 90 degree angles are a way of life?)  At one point I thought, "I'm cutting out squares; how boring is that?" until I realized that those squares were just a starting point, within them many things were possible. Our squares containing ink marks of no known meaning became the seminal elements from which we assembled our abstract compositions. While I  found these restrictions and this method of working very challenging, I learned a lot in this workshop. It is always worth the time and effort to encounter and work with a world-class talent close up, one on one.

Nevertheless, the above composition was my only creation from 2 days of effort with which I am even remotely satisfied, and then only because I finally departed from the abstract and inserted a pictorial element (the dragon's head). Moreover, tonight, I decided to add another:  the skeletal arm was added afterward, because I suddenly realized that tonight is HALLOWEEN! I've been doing skulls, bones and innards for weeks, so I could not let the target holiday pass without at least a gesture to the macabre!! The exercise in which I produced this piece involved making a template via a very loosely executed--more "drawn" than written--word of our choice. This was sketched in pencil, then the enclosed spaces captured inside the lines were filled with texture, color, other lettering, clips from many sources, including xeroxes or originals of previous work, magazine images, printed text, photographs --in other words, whatever we chose. My word was "Ominous." If you look very carefully, you can discern the letters, especially the initial O, the N, the peaks of the M, etc. But again, restrictions were in effect, all the choices of "fillers" stated above nevertheless being based upon the types of elements we had been instructed to choose prior to the workshop and bring with us. Suzanne is a great believer in "boundaries" as a way to control the endless choices available to an artist, thus freeing up the mind for creativity instead of mundane in decision-making.

She also offered several other techniques, based on her own preferences and experience as a book artist, for embellishing and enriching compositions. One of these which I did not play with, was sewing, the use of stitchery both as a decorative linear element and a functional one to adhere parts of a composition. the use of needle and tread is, of course, integral to bookbinding and a natural addition to the vocabulary of embellishments for someone involved in that craft. But I found no affinity with it at this point, although many others in the workshop produced effective results utilizing various threads and stitchery patterns.

Many other techniques were demonstrated, and lots of other technical information imparted, well beyond what I was able to absorb. Those which I chose to experiment with, and which have stayed with me most readily, are the ones that most align with what I already love the most to do. But even these are novel, taking a step beyond. Thus do we build incrementally on what we already know, and so approach what will enable us to evolve and grow as artists.

No knowledge gained is ever wasted; no experience is ever without its unexpected repercussions. Over time, I am sure the lessons I learned (both consciously and subliminally) this weekend will affect my work. At this moment in time, the main effect registers as a reinforcement of my current favorite way of creating art: via selecting and assembling pre-existing images into some readable, visual narratives that nonetheless result in (I hope) unique works of art. Who knows what lies ahead?

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