Monday, April 28, 2014

Wood Engraving Artist


Grace Arnold Albee (1890–1985, US), Fly Argaric, 1973. Wood engraving on paper, sheet: 21.9 x 26.4 cm (8 5/8” x 10 3/8”). Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-3143)

There is a high degree of skill in printmaking, particularly—in the case of relief printing—the carving of the vehicle. I, for one, have tried relief printing, both linoleum cuts and woodcuts, and I am not dexterous enough to produce either fine line, or smooth contours of shapes (like the oak leaf in the Albee print). In many ways, printmaking changed from the 1800s to the 1900s in that artists started carving their own surfaces rather than handing a drawing over to a professional printmaker. There is a grace and sophistication to Albee’s prints to which I just awoke (go figure, I awake to new and exciting art every week!). She is yet another example of a woman artist who slipped under the radar of most art history surveys, except for mine!

Wood engraving is a relief printmaking medium, in which the design is carved out of a wood block. It is an ancient art form. Ancient Egyptians used wood engravings to stamp designs on fabric. The ancient Romans stamped designs in brick and terra cotta. The Chinese were producing wood engraved prints long before Europe. Wood engraving was first used in the West to produce devotional prints and playing cards.

The heyday of the medium was the late 1700s through the 1860s, when the medium was used to illustrate books and magazines, and to reproduce paintings for mass consumption. By the late 1860s, the medium was eclipsed by lithography, a much simpler process. Drawings did not need to be transferred to a wood block and carved. The artist could draw the design directly on the litho stone.

Wood engraving enjoyed a revival in the early 1900s as a fine art medium in its own right, rather than illustration for other works. As a child, Albee was fascinated by the wood engraving illustrations in her grandfather’s books. Although she studied painting at the Rhode Island School of Design, wood engraving became her primary medium as a mature artist. Like the majority of artists working with wood engraving in the 1900s, Albee carved her own woodblocks.

After marrying, Albee and her husband lived in Paris from 1928 to 1933. There she met the engraver Paul Bomet, with whom she took lessons in wood engraving. She had her first one-woman show in Paris in 1932. Between 1933 and 1937 Albee lived in New York, where she produced primarily prints of urban scenery. After moving to Doylestown, PA in 1937, she began producing the prints for which she is best known, close-ups of nature. This subject matter remained a part of her oeuvre the rest of her life.

Albee produced over 250 prints during her career. They are mostly small in scale because she preferred carving on the end-grain of the wood block. This required high precision in carving, producing extraordinary detail, obvious in this print of the fly argaric mushroom.  In this print she has cleverly placed a fly in a contrasting color to the whole in a play on words.


Studio Activity: A nature relief print. Make a one-color relief print on a linoleum block using linoleum cutting tools. Choose as subject matter an element of nature such as a plant, grass, or the side of a tree. Make sketches to practice, and then sketch on the linoleum block. Make a note which areas will be printed in the one color. Remember that the areas that receive the color remain raised. Simplify the shapes so that the carving of the linoleum does not involve a lot of detail. Carve away the linoleum that will form the white background or outlines of shapes.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 4.20, Explorations in Art Grade 5: 19-20 studio, A Global Pursuit: 7.3, Exploring Printmaking: 3, The Visual Experience 9.4

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Another Pioneering American Woman Artist


 Emma Stebbins (1815–1882, US), Machinist, c. 1859. Marble, 74.9 x 29.2 x 29.2 cm (29 ½” x 11 ½” x 11 ½”). © Art Institute of Chicago. (AIC-414)

 Considering how hard it was for women to be accepted as artists (in the US) in the 1800s, and considering that it was frowned upon for them to attend art schools, it still amazes me how many women became sculptors in the early to mid-19th century. Yet, here we have another example of a woman who turned from studies in painting to become a sculptor. Sculpture was considered, at the time, a man’s “domain” because it involved physical activity, and might, (gasp) cause the need to climb a ladder or scaffold to work on a monumental piece.  That could mean women might have to wear pants (gasp) like male artists. We always think of Europe as more liberal when it came to women artists, but never forget that the painter Rosa Bonheur had to obtain a police permit to wear pants in public in order to study barnyard animals! Stebbins, like Bonheur, is a truly unique individual in the history of art, and in the study of women artists. While I continue to say that women have always been important participants in the history of art, that doesn’t mean that they’ve been adequately represented in textbooks that students see. I am, humbly, here trying to correct that.

Sculpture in the 1800s in both Europe and America was dominated by Neoclassicism. It was also a field in art that was considered too “unladylike” a discipline for women artists because of the physical nature of the work, especially in monumental pieces. There were several pioneer woman sculptors, Stebbins being one of them.

Stebbins was encouraged to pursue art by her family while growing up in New York City. She studied at various art schools in New York, and was elected to the National Academy of Design in 1843, a rare occurrence in 1800s America. In 1857 she wet to Rome in order to study the abundant examples of ancient Greek and Roman art. Although she had initially trained to be a painter, once in Rome she decided to pursue sculpture as her medium. She joined a circle of expatriate American women artists of sculptor Harriet Hosmer (1830–1908). Hosmer had established a lively community of American woman sculptors that include Anne Whitney (1821–1915) and Edmonia Lewis (1844–1907). There, Stebbins found the support of teachers, fellow women students, and the inspiration of being surrounded by classical art (which informed her mature style). She also met her partner, Charlotte Cushman (1816–1876), there, an internationally known actress, who was Abraham Lincoln’s favorite for interpreting Shakespeare.

Stebbins’ work reflected the prevailing taste for Neoclassicism in sculpture that had endured since the Renaissance in one form or another, and prevailed—especially in the US—until the mid-1900s. While she produced many lofty allegorical works in the classical style, she also applied that style to more humble subjects such as the Machinist and his Apprentice. Works such as the Machinist reveal Stebbins’ no-nonsense American point of view combined with the Neoclassical style. This figure reflects the growing influence of the Industrial Revolution on American art. While depicting a humble working person, Stebbins has imbued the figure with the timeless grace and dignity of classical art, visible particularly in the contraposto (hip-shot) pose and attached support that are seen in Roman and Greek marble sculpture.

Correlation to Davis programs: A Community Connection: 4.4, Beginning Sculpture: 5, Exploring Visual Design: 7

Monday, April 14, 2014

Maidu Basket


Mary Kea’a’ala Azbill (1864–1932, Maidu, California), Presentation Basket, as early as 1874 to as late as 1932, probably between 1900 and 1932. Sedge root, briar root, willow shoots, 20.3 x 37.5 cm (8” x 14 ¾”). © Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY. (BMA-4735)
I will share my continued fascination with First Nations art by showing you a new addition to our digital collection of images. Basketry is a prominent art form in all indigenous American cultures since the earliest times, but it was particularly elevated in sophistication in the First Nations of California. Although Pomo culture baskets decorated with feathers are most often the objects discussed when talking about California basket artists, there are numerous cultures that populated California in great numbers before the Spanish / Anglo “colonization.” The Maidu are one of them. The Maidu are a people whose homelands extend roughly from the southernmost reaches of the Cascade Mountain Range to the north, the crest of the Sierra Nevada to the east, the North Fork of the Consumes River to the south, and to the Sacramento River to the west. “Maidu” is a word that means “people” in their own language.

The three forms of basket making are plaiting, twining, and coiling. Coiling involves spiraling filaments that are stitched together horizontally. “Presentation” baskets were made as gifts to friends or relatives, or for trade with non-Native people. This basket has a foundation of three willow rods. The buff strands are sedge root, and the dark brown are briar root. Mary’s son, Henry, called this pattern “wings and lightning.”


Mary Kea’a’ala Azbill, of Chico, California, was of Coyongcauy, Maidu, and Hawaiian descent. She travelled several times to Hawaii, settling permanently in California in 1894. Her mother, Alvin Sow-with-kee-neh was from the village of Taiyum Koyo, where Mary was born. Her father, Iona Kea’a’ala, was Hawaiian.
From the 1870s on, Azbill became renowned for her sophisticated basket art. She developed her mature style at the time in the late 1800s when there was a growing demand for Native arts, which included baskets, textiles, Katsina figures, beadwork, and ceramics.

Studio activity: Make a coiled basket. Use a clothesline along with yarn threaded into a plastic needle. Wrap the rope with yarn in spirals, and form into a circle. Thread yarn over and under to sew the coils together. To create interest, use yarn of different colors.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 2: Unit 3 Connections, Explorations in Art Grade 6: 4.21, A Global Pursuit: 2.5, Exploring Visual Design: 6, The Visual Experience: 8.7, Discovering Art History: 4.10

Monday, April 7, 2014

National Art Education Association Excitement!


Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (born 1940, Salish/Cree/Shoshone), Sources of Strength, 1990. Ink and pastel on paper, 74 x 105 cm (29 1/8” x 41 ¼”). Minneapolis Institute of Arts, © 2014 Jaune Quick-to-See Smith. (MIA-180)

I had the privilege of meeting Jaune Quick-to-See Smith at the National Art Education Association conference in San Diego last week. She is an inspirational advocate for art education, and for educating people about the struggles of Native Americans and Native American artists. Her latest efforts focus on a series of biographies of Native artists’ childhoods, expressed through their art. It is truly wonderful to meet someone so committed to not only her own art but also art education. She stresses that, just like herself, most Native Americans are of multiple cultures. When we look at First Nations art, we should look at the individual artist and not label it as an individual culture. We talked about how Navajo rugs, Pueblo Katsina figures, and Santa Fe School paintings have come to represent “Indian” art. It’s time to refocus on 21st century Native art. She also prefers to call herself an art worker, rather than an artist.

Although Smith originally trained in the Abstract Expressionism style in the late 1950s, she eventually came to incorporate images from artists who “documented” Native culture in the 1800s, such as George Catlin (1796–1872), and the style and figures of nineteenth-century native Plains artists’ “ledger paintings.”

Sources of Strength is part of a series of paintings that Smith terms “narrative landscapes.” These paintings have stories that are revealed only to those who know how to see life in an arid land like Montana, where she was born (the Saint Ignatius Flathead reservation). In this work, Smith has created a patchwork of shapes meant to imitate cultivated farmland as seen from the air. She has placed symbols, both Native and easily recognized from everyday American life.

The upper left corner of this work represents the American suppression of Native peoples. The style of the figures and imagery is in imitation of the Plains indigenous cultures’ paintings that recorded battles with white settlers and the army. Also on the left, she has included Native symbols of strength and bravery: the bear and the thunderbird. The zigzag in the center (variously a symbol for water and lightning) refers to the environment. 



Smith is not only significant for her artwork, but also her activity with Native artists, who she feels are marginalized in the “art world.” She has founded two galleries that show exclusively Native art, and curated numerous exhibits of Native art. She is a tireless advocate encouraging young Native Americans to become active in the arts, and express their cultural experiences through art. Most of the money she makes from her own artwork goes to social causes among Native peoples and to reservations.

Studio activity: Childhood experience expressed through symbols. Using felt tip pen, crayons, charcoal, or pastels, direct students to depict a significant moment in their lives through symbols. Emphasize geometric shapes, abstracted natural forms, or simplified natural objects. Have each student explain their symbols and what they mean to them.

Correlations to Davis programs: Discovering Art History 4.10; The Visual Experience 14.5; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.35; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 5; Discovering Drawing 10