The text below was written (quickly) for the benefit of all the students who will visit the show:
The images in this show were taken on a self-supported trip through the Grand Canyon from December 19, 2010 through January 2, 2011. We launched at Lee’s Ferry, AZ and travelled 225 miles along the Colorado River, camping on sand bars and rock ledges every night. The 10 person team consisted of 6 women and 4 men, paddling 3 rafts and 6 kayaks. All supplies had to be carried with us, since the only contact with the modern world would be via helicopter (and only in case of emergency, IF we could get a satellite signal from deep within the canyon).
Nights were cold, but most days saw temperatures in the mid 40’s. We paddled fast in the long shadows cast by canyon walls, and lazily floated through the section where sun hit the water. With three rafts, we had plenty of food and hot water for tea and cocoa. Still, I caught a bad cold for a few days, and one friend endured the final week of the trip with a broken ankle. Group dynamics plays a very important role in wilderness trips, and we were lucky to have a group that got along well, allowing for open communication and good decision-making.
The prints were developed over the course of the next two years, right here at Fairleigh Dickinson University. The polymer photogravure process used to create the final images is difficult and takes a lot of time. It is a process in which a full sized image must be printed on a transparency, allowed to dry, then placed against a photo-sensitive polymer plate to be exposed to ultraviolet light. After being exposed, the plate is washed with water. The parts of the plate that were not exposed to UV light are carried away with the water, while the parts that were cured by the ultraviolet light remain. This happens on a very small scale to create a photographic image. Take a close look at the final prints. You will see a series of small dots that make the image.
The exposed and cured polymer plate is inked with traditional intaglio printmaking ink. The ink is pushed into the recessed areas of the plate, and the excess ink is wiped from the surface. Varying depths will have more or less ink, creating lighter or darker dots with that ink. The inked plate is placed on an etching press. A piece of damp cotton printmaking paper is placed on top of the plate. Blankets are put over the plate and paper, and everything is run through the etching press, smashing the paper onto the plate with high pressure. The damp paper picks up ink from the plate and the image is transferred from plate to paper, making the final image that you see hanging in this show.
The choice to use the photogravure printing method for these images is a way to draw parallels between the process of making the final prints and the process of preparing and going on the trip through the Grand Canyon.
The easiest parallel to draw is the 19th century spirit of exploration of the American West during a time when photography was a new art form. During that time, the most reliable means of photographic reproduction (for mass distribution) was photogravure, using copper plates. Intaglio printmaking methods were well-established (for several hundred years), and many skilled craftsman existed who could make good intaglio prints for photographers. The process was difficult, but the resulting prints have a quality that was not yet matched by many other means of photographic reproduction. (Some photographers were making very nice prints in the wet darkroom, but the art form was new enough that only a handful of people were highly skilled. Also, the archival stability of the new technology called photography was not yet known in the 19th century, so many artists turned to the centuries tested intaglio printing technique to make reproductions of their photographs).
The second reason I chose to reproduce these images as photogravures was to make a connection between the difficulty of a 16 day wilderness trip along the Colorado River and the difficulty of making photogravure plates and making the final prints. Both experiences required eclectic sets of skills that demanded careful balancing of many odd constraints while finding a mental space that balances calm determination to see the project to completion, fully knowing that conditions will most likely change every step of the way.
The simplest parallel I wanted to make was the action of water etching a surface. The water of the Colorado River carved the mile-deep Grand Canyon, choosing a path that cut through the softer strata and carried the sediment away, leaving behind high peaks of solid stone. Water in the darkroom cut the soft polymer and carried the material off the plate, making pits and valleys that would hold ink, while leaving behind elevated relief areas where the polymer had been hardened by ultraviolet light.
Because this project took so long to complete, and was so unique, word travelled within the whitewater/outdoor community. I was invited, by a the kayak manufacturer Liquid Logic, on a second winter Grand Canyon trip that launched on January 1, 2013. That trip did not have any rafts. Each person’s gear, for the 12-day trip, had to fit inside their kayak. Currently, I’m in the process of preparing those images for a second portfolio of photogravures. If you want to see the project as it continues to evolve, feel free to check into the website on a regular basis.
A delayed flight from Chicago, returning from this year's CAA Conference, gave me plenty of time to revisit the schism between my own Statement of Teaching Philosophy and the teaching philosophy itself. I can speak, at length, about teaching technique with colleagues and reveal my own philosophy in the course of that conversation. But, when it comes to codifying the thing into a single page there is a part of me that reverts to worrying about what certain academics will think, and I end up using jargon that might not perfectly fit. I believe that this is due, in part, to a lack of understanding of what the job of teaching really is about; not by me, but by a select few former teachers (a minority number, but enough to give me pause). Whether they understood the jargon that they used or not, the connection between the words and the meaning of those words was not effectively communicated. It made me realize that my own teaching philosophy has developed to address two main goals:
1. Find a way to get the students to put forth real effort.
2. Make sure that I put more time into helping students understand the language of art (visual, physical, and textual) than I do asking them to remember simple definitions of jargon. Essentially, I hope to turn them into philosophers and not sophists.
Much of my thinking on the flight home centered around a short Facebook thread on Don Kimes' page in which he lamented the use of the phrase "studio practice". It might be academic to use that phrase; academic in the pejorative sense. The Facebook conversation was interesting, and in revisiting it I scrawled some tangental train-of-though pages in my sketchbook while passing the time in the sky. I'll retype it below.
Grammar police beware! This is a blog, not a formal journal, and what is retyped below is just a thought process.
Athletes practice for years to be ready to play. The audience only sees the show, a moment, the culmination of all the past effort. Musicians practice for years, stumbling, fumbling and learning their instruments. Same can be said for actors. The audience does not hear the sour notes, the awkward first rehearsals, only the brief perfection of the concert, the show. Scientists study, theorize, and experiment. Experiments fail, and they document the process and results, adjust the experiment, and run a new experiment. The process of experimenting and adjustment is repeated until a discovery is made. Even then, the discovery dictates the direction of new experiments. The audience only reads about the final discovery, not the years of experimentation and failure that lead to the amazing published discovery.
The key to any of these (sports, performing arts, science) is a willingness to put forth real effort. Real effort is work. The reward is not immediate. Often, the reward is not immediately noticed, and needs space for analysis.
Students need to understand that foundation classes are designed to build good work habits that will give them the tools for later advanced study. Effort must be employed, whether students are advanced or beginners.
Let's recontextualize the word practice as it is currently most applied to creating visual art. The connotation that seems most common is that practice is being used to draw a parallel between making art and other disciplines which have older academic traditions (such as medicine and law). I think that the term art practice (or studio practice) has existed for a long time, and been justified through usage, similar to discussing the practice of a skill for the sake of learning and improving (with the implication that the improvement is continuous and that learning never ends). Musicians and athletes practice skills; they practice their trade. Science experiments. Experimentation is, itself, a practice.
Unfortunately, some academics have lost sight of the effort behind practice, and are simply co-opting the word (practice) to align an artist's business in the studio with the business of being a medical doctor (scientist who's business is called a practice) or a lawyer.
While some academics may be doing this out of insecurity, many do so with a full recognition of both the effort required to make art and the desire to constantly learn and improve. Unfortunately, students don't always get the background information, and end up parroting the word "practice" because they heard it roll off their professor's tongue. And, the job of a teach is to help a student draw connections, understand the source of the words. If not, then students resort to (what essentially are the note-taking techniques taught by prep schools and college prep courses) listening for repeated words and ideas that the lecturer emphasizes. Essentially, the students are listening to hear the material that is going to be on the test.
Too bad that we now live in an environment in which state and federal requirements force teachers to teach to the test. Higher education is (or used to be) the exception, in which students could research and discover connections between concepts and their source. I am getting the feeling that is increasing less true, and even college teaches to the test.
I challenge my colleagues to return to teaching effort and experimentation, with the goal of giving students the tools to make their own discoveries, make connections between the vocabulary and the real meaning of the concepts.
Teach the meaning, not the jargon.
Teach the habit of work, not just the result of a show.
Foster curiosity, connection, and experimentation, instead of memorization.
If these are done, then a student will learn a real studio practice instead of just repeating a phrase that indicates one is not working (making art), but just talking about it.
Three of the photogravures from this series just came from a show at The Belskie Museum of Art and Science, so I know that many local people saw the work there. This, however, is a rare opportunity to see all of the images together, in one place, where the narrative is more developed.
I will give a brief presentation to the University's students, about the process of making these images. The general public is welcome (and encouraged) to attend. The time for the presentation is not yet set. I'll post here when it is.
The show will only be up for two weeks, so mark your calendars!
February 24 - March 21
The University Hall Art Gallery is open Monday - Friday
from 9:30 - 4:30 pm.
I teach on Tuesday and Wednesday nights and can open the gallery for people on those evenings if you contact me.
On October 13, 2010, I made a blog post about photogravures with polymer plates, in which I was frustrated about the process, realized that I was mostly on my own with how far I wanted to push the process, and had mostly given up on the usability of the information on the internet. http://artandwater.blogspot.com/2010/10/keep-on-paddling.html
The information is out there. The frustration grew from two things:
1. The good information is scattered among lots of incomplete or bad information.
2. Those who had the type of success I was pursuing seemed to have access to some very expensive equipment, and I wanted to do this without spending thousands of dollars.
As the October 2010 post suggests, I decided to "keep on paddling" forward.
Fast-forward to November 2013, and I had figured out the least expensive way to get the high quality that I wanted. I published a book about the workflow. In the book I included an email address, offering to help those who bought the book. Currently, I'm having email correspondence with a few people, and am anxious to see the success they will have.
For the sake of encouraging others who look to explore the process of making photogravures with polymer plates (and for curious record-keeping), I will post links to most of the blog entries I made over the past three years (that have to do with learning this process). Hopefully it encourages students by reminding them that success is not instant. It takes work. They will experience frustration. The reward is worth the effort (I believe).
Believe it or not, making many cyanotypes helped me understand making adjustment curves. I had some success, but in 2011 I felt that I did not yet understand it well enough to teach. Making many cyanotypes, allowing myself to experiment with making curves by intuition (making many different digital negatives for small prints) let me develop a solid understanding of compensation curves for digital negatives. Cyanotypes are significantly less expensive to make than polymer plates for photogravure. Toning cyanotypes with different agents also reinforced the idea that different inks and tones will have different grayscale densities, forcing me to be very careful in the future about which ink I was going to use for photogravure (making unique curves depending on the ink color).
working proof (some grit from sanding still on the surface of the plate, the edges are not totally smooth for editioning yet; essentially it's one of the first two prints to see if the plate is good. The tone in the sky will be much smoother once the plate is cleaned.)
Click on this link
to view a PDF (that can also be downloaded)
of Chapter 5 in the book "Making Photogravures With Polymer Plates"
that reveals how to establish both
the minimum exposure time and optimum exposure time
when using polymer plates for intaglio process