When I published my last post, about three weeks ago (sorry, I’ve had many technical issues with this post, trying to move material between my mother’s computer and my own), I was on the cusp of retirement.
Now I'm on the other side: unemployed and gradually getting used to this huge change in my life. I knew that I'd feel peculiar during this transition, and so I made a plan, a small plan, but a plan nonetheless. I signed up for a workshop at Maiwa Handprints that started two days after my final working day. What better way, I decided, to celebrate my new freedom? And the workshop was a Christmas gift from my dear husband.
I finished my last day of work on a Wednesday afternoon, got into my car in the school parking lot, and discovered that something was haywire with the air circulation system. I worked hard not to take it as an ominous sign that five minutes after leaving my paid work I had the first problem with my vehicle since we bought it last spring. Mere coincidence!
I drove to the coast the next day, after getting my mechanic to have a look at the car: the problem is fixable, though it might be expensive, and it doesn't affect the drivability of the car, so I kept going. It was a gorgeous drive, though black ice through Manning Park was nerve-wracking.
But the next day? After a big dump of wet, heavy snow? Oh. My. Goodness. North Vancouver was a mess. I got about a kilometre, creeping along with the rest of the traffic, and decided it would be foolish to continue. I turned around and went back to my parents' house, much to my mother's relief. So I missed the whole first day. So disappointing. It snowed again overnight, but thanks to my brother-in-law's calm company, as I drove him to a Skytrain station, I made it to the workshop. And I had a blast. And it snowed again. And I made it to the third day of the workshop. And again had a blast.
So it all worked out in the end.
I know that you’ve seen lots of photos of snow here on my blog over the past few months (here at home on the ranch, in Kamloops, at the Caravan Farm Theatre near Armstrong), and perhaps you’re surprised that I’d be inspired to take yet more snow photos at this stage of the winter, but this is Vancouver, where a heavy, prolonged covering of snow is unusual. And this is also the landscape of my childhood, these photos having all been taken from the windows of what has been my parents' home for fifty years. Snow transforms the invisibly familiar into something new and strange and beguiling. I think this is what meditation is supposed to do as well. And art, for that matter.
After I took this photos, we had a few days of clear weather and then, on the day I was planning to go home, freezing rain closed all three highways that lead from the coast into the interior of BC. Fortunately, my dear husband and I had been keeping an eye on the weather reports and had already decided that that day wouldn’t be a good bet for travelling. In the end, it was another three days after that before dh and I judged the highways safe for travel. Which they turned out to be, thank heavens.
But what I really want to show you are some images of my experience at the workshop. It was a class in making floorcloths, something I’ve been meaning to try for many a long year. I missed a bit of instruction, but Natalie Grambow, who was teaching the class, is unflappable, and because I turned up early both days I attended, she was more than willing to catch me up. I didn't produce as many samples as other people did, but that doesn't matter: I have many samples in progress, and now that I'm home I'll finish them when I get time.
I missed the first step in the floorcloth-making process, which is to gesso the canvas: some kind person in the class did this for me on the day that I missed. So this is where I started, with a photograph that Nathalie handed me, with the instruction to create a colour key from it, mixing acrylic fabric paints to create the hues I saw in the photo.
And here’s the colour key I made, with my paint palette.
The next task was to paint a background using that colour key. Here’s what I came up with. Obviously, I departed from the proportions of the colours in the photo, but that was fine: the photo is only meant to be a starting point, after all. ( had to take this photo at home because somehow I forgot to record it at the workshop: hence the woodpile backdrop.)
I liked this wild background so much that I can’t yet bring myself to add anything else to it. I have to say I loved this process, which I’d never tried before. I know: it seems so obvious, right? But most of us have colour preferences that we gravitate toward time after time, and it can be hard to see that we need to refresh those preferences by trying combinations we would never consider had we not taken the time to analyze an image in this way. If I’d taken away nothing else from this class than this suggestion for getting out of a rut or for sparking colour inspiration when stymied or blocked, the cost would have been worth it. But I got a lot more than that as we went along.
Unfortunately, one of the things I missed out on was instruction on faux techniques used to create interesting backgrounds for floor cloths. But I messed about with sponge brushes, sponges, and my fingers and came up a background that in and of itself might be rather off-putting but may work well as the bottom layer of a multi-layer composition.
See the two oval printing blocks holding down the edges of the fabric? Carving our own stamps was another stage of the workshop. By this time I’ve taken enough Maiwa workshops, including one devoted exclusively to block printing, to have become comfortable both with the carving the blocks and with using them to add pattern to a composition. Nathalie asked us to concentrate on the idea of making two stamps, positive and negative versions of the same image. I started with something that looked a little like an elongated cross-section of an orange, which you can see in the upper left corner of the sample sheet below, and then carved its negative as a mirror image (centre top). Ho hum, I thought, how dull. So I kept carving, adding an inner negative circle to both stamps, than a second circle. In the final image I stamped, on the lower right of the sample sheet, you can just make out that I’ve also broken the heavy outer line by cutting slices into it in each segment. If you look closely at the stamps themselves, you can see that I’ve also added little slices to the other stamp, again to soften the heaviness of the positive areas.
In the end, I was pretty happy with what I came up with. One of the great things about carving these stamps is that if something isn’t working, one can grab one’s carving tools again and get creative. Not every block lends itself to this kind of fixit, of course, but with something as simple as this I had little to lose by continuing to refine the design.
I painted more backgrounds.
The dark green piece to the left of the above photo, which measures about a foot square, is the first one to which I added extra layers. I started with this cool wooden printing block from India. I love the dots, particularly their slight irregularities both in the shapes of the dots and in the spaces between them.
I printed a column of these dots down one side of the green background, using white paint at the top and a warmer white at the bottom. Then I stencilled on some gingko leaves in both grey and silver paint. I’ve almost never used stencils other than the odd time in a workshop, so I was happy to use them again here.
I liked what I had at that point, but wanted to bring in more warmth to balance the cool greens and greys, so I stencilled on some pinkish chrysanthemum petals. Here are the stencils I borrowed from Maiwa’s huge workshop supply for this process.
Better, I thought, but still not very eye-catching. So when, in the last hour of the last day, someone offered me a syringe-tipped little bottle of magenta paint to use up, I grabbed at the chance and used the syringe tip as if it was a fine paintbrush.
Whether I improved the piece with this final addition is moot. I prefer the gingko images without the vein markings, but I have to say that that intense pink, used sparingly, adds something to the whole.
Here’s another sample I worked on. I started with the peach sherbet background and decided that my very first embellishment should leap into a complementary colour. I stencilled on a stylized leaf pattern in a mix of teal and green paint with a bit of white.
Oh ho hum, I thought to myself. This looks like stencilling 1980s style, when people were peppering their walls and furniture with vaguely folk-arty stencils, and that peach and teal combo was another throwback to a bygone era. So I grabbed a hand-carved block of narrow arcs and some dark paint and stamped away to make things less predictable.
And produced just a mess, as far as I was concerned. So I decided to mute the whole thing to make it retreat into the background, and sponged on some moss green paint.
And thereby created an even bigger mess, in my view. Yes, I toned down the peach, but the result was muddier than I’d like.. So I rubbed off as much as I could, but much of it was already dry and couldn’t be removed.
At this point, I felt I had nothing to lose. So I decided to print over everything with the two blocks I’d carved the previous day, using opaque red paint for one stamp and transparent deep red ochre for the other. That worked better than I’d thought it might. And since the piece was sitting on the table in front of me when that little bottle of magenta paint turned up, I used it here too, adding dots to the block prints and lines to outline the leaves I’d stencilled at the outset. And I felt enough of a sense of completion to call this sample done. It’s not fabulous, but it’s complex and layered and that’s the effect I wanted to learn to create.
Aside from learning many methods of applying paint to the floorcloths, another major part of the workshop was learning to use matt medium to make photo transfers, both on fabric and as decals that can be applied to fabric or paper, and certainly to floorcloths. We were given the run of a big bin of photocopied images and I chose several to try, not least because Nathalie warned us that the process requires a delicate touch and that it is easy to ruin a transfer. Some of these images I applied to fabric, and below you can see images on both silk organza and lightweight cotton.
The fabric transfers require only one layer of matte medium, spread with a sponge brush, but the decals need at least half a dozen, and each layer must dry completely before the next is applied. Given the damp and cool conditions outside, leaving these pieces to dry anywhere near a window meant a long wait, so I lined mine up under a convenient baseboard heater.
I was so caught up in the application of paint on my samples that I had time to attempt to finish only one transfer onto fabric. Once the medium is dry, the decal or fabric transfer is soaked briefly in water to make it possible to remove the paper. Here you can see the time- and patience-consuming process of gently rubbing the paper part of the photocopy off the fabric, leaving the image behind on the cloth. This process takes what feels like forever, and I still haven’t removed enough of the paper to make the transfer clear on the fabric: a thin film of paper remains, clouding the image. But I know I can go back anytime and soak the image again and try to remove the rest.
I tried a decal too, and have already destroyed about a quarter of the image by rubbing too hard. Hey ho. Perhaps this is not a technique I’ll add to my arsenal. But I’m really glad to have had the chance to give it a go. And if I can get it to work, I’ll be tickled.
Yes, that’s paint on my hand. Despite vigorous hand-washing, I was still sporting paint for a day or two after the workshop. Not that I mind: every time I caught sight of that stubborn paint, I was reminded of what fun I’d had on the weekend.
As we finished up on Sunday afternoon, we had a bit of a critique of everyone’s work. I didn’t have much to show for my two days, but I’m not bothered: I know what I’m doing now and can continue at home.
Here’s a better shot of the piece I painted from the photo reference Nathalie chose for me: it’s the cloth on the right side of the image.
One of the joys of taking a class at Maiwa is that everything one could possibly need is supplied, and amply so. See those linen aprons you can glimpse in the top left of the photo above? We each had one to wear and I love the fact that these aprons wrap right around one’s body and extend far enough below one’s knees that it’s virtually impossible to get paint on one’s clothes (though I did end up with paint on my watchband and on a shirt cuff: good thing I’d had the wit to wear old clothes to the workshop).
And I know I showed you this table last year, when I wrote about attending a Complex Cloth workshop at Maiwa, but I can’t resist another image. This array of supplies, all of which we were encouraged to use as liberally as we liked, makes my heart sing.
What a joyous weekend it was, and what a contrast to what was happening outside! This was what I saw when I glanced out the window at the end of the workshop on Sunday as I wondered what it might be like driving back to the North Shore: a lot of icy ruts interspersed with deep slush.
It might not LOOK daunting to those of us used to snow, but I assure you that driving these side streets was a challenge. And the snow was still falling, as you can see. Fortunately, most of Vancouver was snugly at home, it being Sunday, and the main roads were pretty clear. I got back to my parents’ house without a problem, with a roll of painted canvas, a new set of techniques, and lots of ambition to continue with the floorcloth adventure.
Lots has happened in the weeks since then, but I think this is enough for one post, don’t you? Stay tuned for more post-retirement developments.