A Culture Cut in Wood by Alec Dempster

Arbol
El Arbol Florido, woodcut. All images in the post © 2015 Alec Dempster

Out of the blue, Alec Dempster wrote to tell me about his new book, Lotería Huasteca. I know a good deal about Mexico, but never heard of the Huasteca. This book is both charming and illuminating. Its woodblock prints provide 54 little windows into the Huasteca culture of East-Central Mexico.

Screen Shot 2015-10-18 at 4.14.17 PMOddly enough, last week we had a master woodblock printer from Mexico on Kutztown’s campus, Alan Altamirano. He often advised our students “dibujar sin meido” to “draw without fear.” Alec Dempster draws without fear. His gutsy woodcuts are infused with a profound respect for Mexican culture. I have traveled some of the same highways as Dempster in the mountains of Vera Cruz, but Dempster has seen much more than I. It helps that he is an accomplished musician, and although he is Canadian, he was born in Mexico. It was an invitation to a musical event that launched his Huasteca project.

Carnival
Carnaval © Alec Dempster

The prints are boldly cut in the tradition of early Taller Grafica Popular prints or the drawings of Jean Charlot.

The text is accessible and informative. The prints are presented in alphabetical order. At one level this alphabetical construct seems odd, but Dempster gives a good introduction. He fashions his presentation after Mexican lotería cards, a deck used for a game something like BINGO. He manages to place the Huasteca creation myth near the beginning with the Arbol Florido pictured above. I love the image of the birds and beasts suckling at the tree’s many breasts.

Amate
Alec Dempster’s Amate illustration seems to pulsate off the page.

‘A’ is also for amate. Anyone who visits Mexico will be approached by vendors selling naive prints done on cork-colored amate paper. Dempster chooses to portray a lesser-known use for the ancient paper.

“Today Otomı shamans continue to cut out small figures from amate paper to represent a pantheon of gods associated with agriculture, rain and mountains. In San Pablito, a community in the municipality of Pahuatlån, Puebla, famous for amate paper, the paper figures are used to intercede with the gods for purposes of healing, protection and spiritual purification.”

Cana
La Caña  (Sugar Cane) © Alec Dempster

Together with the introduction of cattle farming, sugar cane plantations severely transformed the Mexican landscape. Since the colonial era they have been the main cause of deforestation in the Huasteca.”

El Camåin
El Camåin

Dempster manages to convey much of the power and glory of Mexico. Every one of the images is flanked with a thoughtful descriptive essay, and Dempster’s words are as precise as his cuts.

El Tarango
El Taronga by Alec Dempster

This temporary wooden structure is built for musicians to play on during huapangos. It is also known as cuauhtlapechtli, a Nahuatl word meaning ‘wooden bed’.”

Huasteca is just one of many pre-Hispanic cultures that survive in Mexico. Dempster’s chronicle of the Huasteca is a moving achievement. I learned a lot, and realize I have a lot more to learn about Mexico.

Clearly, a vital heritage is still being passed down in songs, recipes, folkways and art. You can see more sample images at Scribd, here. Lotería Hausteca is published in Erin, Ontario, Canada by Porcupine’s Quill. It can be ordered here through AbeBooks.com.

NOTE: A Book Launch Party for Lotería Huesteca will be held in Toronto, Nov. 2 at the Gladstone Hotel. Starts at 7:30pm. Tickets $10 at the door, or free admission with purchase of the book! Live musical performance by Tlacuatzin direct from Veracruz. 

Orale! Alan Altamirano esta en Kutztown.

Alan Altamirano preparing his prints for display at Kutztown University. photo: K . McCloskey
Alan Altamirano preparing prints for display at Kutztown U. photos: K. McCloskey

Alan Altamirano makes art about women, beautiful women. The 27-year old artist is from Oaxaca, Mexico, a city famed for its food and visual arts. Like many of the best Oaxacan artists of his generation he studied with Maestro Shinzaburo Takeda at the School of Fine Arts at the University of Benito Juarez, Oaxaca.

Evan Summer admire a portfolio etchings.
Prof. Evan Summer admires a portfolio of etchings.

Today I spent the day with Alan hanging his large-scale wood block prints in the Student Gallery in Sharadin. When printmaking Prof. Evan Summer visited, Alan shared a portfolio of etchings based on indigenous Zapotec cosmology. Even these etchings portrayed the cardinal elements: Earth, Wind, Water, and Fire as women.

One of his grand-scale relief prints.
One of Alan Altamirano’s grand-scale relief prints.

Some of his models he has known for years. Others Alan met for as little as an hour. In many portraits he includes decorative geometry and elements from nature. The image above is of a Puerto Rican woman he met who told Alan about her memory of her beloved uncle. Her uncle, a fisherman, was swept away at sea and drowned. The drowned man appears to her left. Another male figure, the barefoot campesino, walking across the foreground represents her father. This artwork is a stunning example of relief printing, or xilographia, as it is called in Spanish. Here, Alan carved the image not into wood, but MDF, or multi-density fiberboard.

Alan working on print above. Photo from oaxacaculturalnavigator.com
Alan Altamirano working on print above. Photo from http://www.oaxacaculture.com

RECEPTION Oct 8 4pm Sharadin Student Gallery:

Alan Altamirano’s extraordinary prints will be on display in Sharadin October 6-12, with an artist’s reception at 4pm on Thursday, Oct. 8. This is remarkable work. He will be on campus the following week meeting with interested students. The exhibition and his 2-week residency at Kutztown is funded by the Fine Art and Communication Design Depts. and a generous grant from the Kutztown University Sesquicentennial Committee.

11921987_10207631550164792_1547332123_nKutztown students have a unique opportunity to study with Alan in Oaxaca as part of Kevin McCloskey’s Winterterm course. Alan invites visiting artists to work in his studio. He also offers frequent workshops for printmakers at any level at his Taller Chicharra. See Norma Shafer’s Oaxaca Cultural Navigator for more images from his studio.

OAXACA KU Study Abroad Winter 2015

Update: Kutztown U’s Oaxaca Course will be offered again. Tentative dates: Dec.27, 2015 to Jan.10 2016. Details in August. For a new non-credit 6-day (Jan 10-15, 2016) Oaxaca printmaking workshop see offering here via Oaxaca Cultural Navigator.

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Kutztown University is offering an affordable opportunity to study  in Oaxaca, Mexico with Prof. Kevin McCloskey. Oaxaca may the best place for a visitor to experience art in all Mexico. This beautiful colonial city is famed for its markets, street art, and printmaking studios.

Oaxaca Street scene, art by Arte Jaguar. photo ©K.McCloskey
Oaxaca scene, street art by Arte Jaguar. photo ©K.McCloskey

Students will experience many things they can’t do in Kutztown. For example: We’ll climb and sketch ancient pyramids. Visit a papermill that makes fine art paper from indigenous plants. Work with local artists. Drink spiced hot chocolate in the lobby of the chocolate hotel.

Corey Reifinger sketching a pyramid in Queretaro,  Mexico
Corey Reifinger sketching a pyramid in Queretaro, Mexico, 2008.

Located high in the mountains of Southern Mexico, January weather in Oaxaca is typically sunny with highs around 80°F

CDE 375: Drawing on Location in Oaxaca is a 3-credit Communication Design Elective. A hand’s-on course, students will complete a sketchbook documenting their personal response to the travel experience. Includes a 3-day relief printmaking workshop in a fully-equipped artist’s studio. Field trips to museums, markets and historical sites will provide immersion in the unique cultural traditions of Oaxaca.

Oaxaca Street art by Swoon. photo © K.McCloskey 2012
Oaxaca Street art by Swoon. photo © K.McCloskey 2012

The cost?  For in-state (PA) undergrad tuition, airfare, shared accommodations, printmaking workshop, museum entries, and daily breakfasts should total approximately $2,400. Out-of-state students’ will be need to pay more. (Fees must be approved by KU council of Trustees.)

Young girl in one of Oaxaca's many parades. photo ©K.McCloskey 2012
Young girl in one of Oaxaca’s many parades. photo ©K.McCloskey 2012

Prof. Kevin McCloskey has been visiting Oaxaca for over 30 years. In 2007 he was awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship to study the visual arts of Oaxaca. He received a second NEH fellowship in 2011 to explore the visual culture of the Maya regions of the Yucatan and Belize.

Kevin McCloskey with one of his woodblock prints at Espacio Zapata, Oaxaca.
Kevin McCloskey with one of his woodblock prints at Espacio Zapata, Oaxaca.

He has written extensively about Mexican political prints. He has curated eight exhibitions of Mexican prints across the U.S, notably at the Fowler Museum, UCLA. In 2012, he was invited to Princeton University to lecture on Mexican prints at the Woodrow Wilson School of International Studies. Here are two of his recent  articles on the Oaxaca art scene, one at Project Bly, one at Printeresting.

Interested students can email for more info: mccloskey@kutztown.edu

Medula Negra of Xalapa

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Sebastian Fund is an artist on the move. He was born in Argentina, moved to Mexico as a child, and is now beginning an artist’s residency in Havana, Cuba. He collects abandoned shoes. He deconstructs them, inks them up and prints them. The remarkable results evoke the humanity of the individuals that once walked in those shoes.

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Javier Arjona is the second half of the Taller (Studio) Medula Negra of Xalapa, Mexico. He does woodcuts. He likes to use a technique he calls placa perdida. A single plank is carved and printed, color after color, for as many a six colors. Because there is no turning back with this method some U.S. printmakers call it a “suicide print.”

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I met these two dedicated young artists in July in Xalapa. They gave me a studio tour, and we drank a toast of mescal at their printing press.  They have invested heavily in their studio and put in long hours at the press. I wrote about Medula Negra for the online  journal, Printeresting. They lent me a batch of their small works to exhibit at Kutztown University’s Rohrbach Library.

The press at Medula Negra, Xalapa. Photo by Tirso Pérez
The press at Medula Negra, Xalapa. Photo by Tirso Pérez

They have a killer website: www.medulanegra.com. Their photographer friend Tirso Pérez did a photo shoot of the studio. His black and white photos are far superior to mine, so I will share a few of his fine works here. More of the photoshoot entitled “Un Dia de Trabajo” (One Day of Work) can be found here on Medula Negra’s Facebook page.

Javier checking a proof. Photo by Tirso Pérez.
Javier checking a proof. Photo by Tirso Pérez.
Sebastian preparing shoes to print. Photo by Tirso Pérez
Sebastian preparing shoes to print. Photo by Tirso Pérez

Medula Negra: Grabados Pequenos de Xalapa is on exhibit until Oct. 16 on the 2nd floor of Kutztown University’s Rorhbach Library in the Voices & Choices Gallery space.

The exhibit at KU's Rohrbach Library runs through Oct 16.
The exhibit at KU’s Rohrbach Library runs through Oct 16.

DRIVE BY PRESS to Park at KU

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Linsay Derecola
Lindsay Derecola

The Legendary Drive By Press,  touring woodcut printmakers, will print in Kutztown, PA, next week. They will do a brief residency in the KU Printmaking Studio and present an illustrated lecture: Thursday, Sept 12 6pm @ 120 Sharadin, Free and open to the public. Here is the scoop thanks to this guest post by Lindsay Derecola, KU student and President of the Art Club:

Drive By Press is a portable print shop made up of artists and designers that believe process is just as important as the results. Quality over quantity; while we live currently in a world surrounded by the desire for instant gratification. Drive By Press believes that craft is and always will be top priority. It is about doing what you love because you love it, not to be the next superstar in the art world or to make lots of money.”

29_n copyI found out about Drive By Press through Evan Summer, Printmaking Professor at Kutztown University. He mentioned he met Greg Nanney and heard about this amazing tour he puts on with his crew. The idea of a portable print shop was intriguing, so naturally as I explored their website and social media outlets, I was becoming even more excited over their work and their mission. I persisted in making it official to have Drive By Press come to Kutztown to bestow their wisdom and creativity on the student body. Thankfully, everything worked out marvelously.

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Founded in 2006 by Greg Nanney and Joseph Velasquez, the Drive By Press team finds the best designers and artists to work along side them on their mobile printing journey across the country. They have two studio locations, one in Austin, Texas, the other in New York, NY. They are currently on tour doing educational and promotional trips to “spread the ink” about their purpose and passion. They will be making their next stop at Kutztown University on Thursday, Sept.12 and Friday, Sept. 13 in the Sharadin Arts building’s Printmaking Studio, Room 12G.

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During their stay they will be inhabiting the University’s Printmaking studio that Evan Summer, Professor of Printmaking at Kutztown University, has opened up for their special visit. Drive By Press will be in 12G from 12-6pm doing demonstrations on various printmaking processes, techniques, talking about history of their medium and their process of printing t-shirts. At 6pm, Thursday 9/12 in room 120 Sharadin, they will be presenting the history of their company and how they have evolved and progressed through the years. The Printmaking Studio will be open for all students Friday for additional demos, or just to say hello to the Drive By Press crew. Please stop by to welcome Greg Nanney and crew Thurs Sept. 12 and Friday Sept. 13.

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T-shirts and prints for sale for $20. Bring your own t-shirt and have it printed for $10! Don’t forget to spread the ink!

New Street Art in OAXACA

Reflejos de Huida, stencil, 2013, Lapiztola.
Reflejos de Huida, stencil, 2013, Lapiztola.

MACO,The Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Oaxaca has an exhibition of street art on its walls. Does street art belong in a museum? Well, MACO’s Hecho en Oaxaca spills over into the streets. The artists came from all over the globe, Swoon, The Date Farmers, How and Nosm, MOMO, Retna, Saner, StenLex, and Vhils. Oaxacan artists Yescka, Dr. Lakra, and Lapiztola round out the show curated by Pedro Alonzo.

Lapiztola Collective's birds seem escape onto the street
Lapiztola Collective’s birds seem escape onto the street.

I am fond of Lapiztola’s work. I’ve met them, in fact they once let me hitch a ride home with them from a birthday party in the hills. Their stencils are always crisp graphic statements, often they relate to musical themes. I was not familiar with L.A. artist Retna. Retna’s blue wall at MACO (below) titled “Somos los ninos de las manos manchadas” translates as “We are the children of stained hands.”

Art by Retna, 2013 Acrylic.
Art by Retna, 2013 Acrylic.

His work resembles Arabic calligraphy. I thought Retna also painted the front of ASARO’s studio, Espacio Zapata, home to a gallery and the cafe,”Atila Del Sur.”  A reader informs me it is the work of Sanez.

Retna, Espacio Zapata, Studio of  ASARO collective, # 519 Porfirio Diaz. Van artist unknown.
Wall by Sanez, Espacio Zapata, Studio of ASARO, # 519 Porfirio Diaz. Van artist unknown.

Dr. Lakra has an untitled mural in the exhibition. It looks to be inspired by Hollywood, Bollywood and cheap whiskey. In Lakra’s case, I prefer his simpler ‘dragon woman’ mural on a wall near Espacio Zapata.

Dr. Lakra, untitled, acrylic and spray paint.
Dr. Lakra, untitled, acrylic and spray paint.
Dr Lakra, Street mural, Porfirio Diaz. Oaxaca.
Dr Lakra, Street mural, Porfirio Diaz, Oaxaca.

Swoon’s project is among the largest artworks in the museum. Like many old public buildings in Mexico the museum was once church property until it was seized by the government. Swoon worked around fragments of painted wall decoration which may date from the 17th century. She turned a high-ceilinged room into a temple of intense female figures. To borrow a phrase, the walls reflect both “agony and ecstasy.” Overall, her imagery evokes a suggestion of hope. I first saw Swoon’s work on a wall in Braddock, PA. She is an inspiring artist.

Swoon, detail, showing fragments of colonial wall decoration.
Swoon, detail, showing fragments of the colonial wall decoration.
Wall by Swoon at MACO, Oaxaca.
Wall by Swoon at MACO, Oaxaca.

Swoon’s outside murals were on prime real estate in the historic center of Oaxaca. I was told the building houses Dr. Lakra’s painting studio. Her works are woodblock prints on kraft paper which are pasted to the walls with wheatpaste. In some places they call these works “throw-ups.” The street artist can unroll the work and throw it up on a wall in a matter of minutes.

Oaxaca Street Art by Swoon, complete with a museum label on right edge.
Oaxaca Street Art by Swoon, complete with a museum label on right edge.

I will leave you with an image that includes art by Swoon, but it looks to be a collaboration with Retna and perhaps the blue skull is by Dr.Lakra. Next post I will share work by my old friend Yescka.

Oaxaca Street art, Swoon, Retna, and maybe, Dr. Lakra.
Oaxaca Street art, Swoon, Retna, and maybe, Dr. Lakra.

Moku Hanga, Not a Coffee: Lessons in Japanese printmaking

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April Vollmer demonstrates how to carve registration notches on woodblock.

April Vollmer recently taught a two-day Moku Hanga workshop at the Printmaking Center of New Jersey.  KU Prof Elaine Cunfer and I took the class along with five other students. I know a bit about Japanese prints, but had never tried my hand at the traditional Moku Hanga woodblock printing technique. April, a great teacher and printmaker, has travelled to Japan to perfect her skills. She has an extensive gallery of her prints online at aprilvollmer.com.

Moku Hanga print "Migration" ©2008 April Vollmer, from www.aprilvollmer.com
“Migration”  Moku Hanga print © 2008 April Vollmer

Moku Hanga is nothing like my prior printmaking experience. I am used to the down and dirty printing of Oaxaca or Tom Huck’s Evil Prints. Moku Hanga is far more refined. I came to class dressed in my ink-stained black shirt and raggedy painting jeans. I learned there is no need to dress like a hobo to print Moku Hanga.  The pigments are water-based and do not stain clothes like oil-based relief printing inks.

2 horizontal pattern prints © 2011 April Vollmer
2 horizontal pattern prints based on nature © 2011 April Vollmer

April suggests beginners might start printing with tube watercolors, but a more economical color can be had by mixing pigments. She uses the pigments from Art Guerra. For wood and carving tools she recommends McClain’s Printmaking Supplies. The wood we used was shina plywood, imported from Japan. The shina and carving tools are rather expensive. A small, 8 by 10 inch, piece of shina ply costs $6.35. April says the expense is due to the currency imbalance between the Japanese yen and the U.S. dollar. If you have never used real shina ply, it is a joy to carve. McClain’s will send you a free sample; find details here.

Ukiyo-e print by Utamaro, circa 1800, printed with mica  background. (Wikipedia)
Ukiyo-e print by Utamaro, circa 1800, printed with mica background. (Wikipedia)

April showed us master Ukiyo-e prints by the likes of Morunobu and Utamaro before demonstrating her technique. One of the secrets of the art is cutting a precise registration corner and landing pad for the printing paper. The best paper, naturally, comes from Japan.

Blue Vortex, woodblock, (detail) © 2005 April Vollmer
Blue Vortex, woodblock, (detail) © 2005 April Vollmer

More of April’s tips: Your work table should be about navel level. Printing is not done with a press, but by rubbing the baren, a light weight disk, on the back of the paper. Printing starts from a balanced standing position with a quick burst of energy using upper body strength. April says she can print faster with a baren than printmakers who use a press. She claims she can print an edition of 25 in one morning and I believe her.

McCloskey making prints of St. Francis. photo: E. Cunfer
K. McCloskey making prints of St. Francis. photo: Elaine Cunfer

She also demonstrated the proper way to hold the paper, set up one’s workspace, and sharpen cutting tools. There was one student who had no prior printmaking experience; even he came away with successful prints. We managed to do an edition of two-color prints with a single block of shina by carving the second color on the reverse side. If you have the opportunity to study with April Vollmer, you can learn a great deal in a brief amount of time.

April Vollmer pleased with her student's prints at Printmaking Center of NJ
April Vollmer seems pleased with her students’ prints at Printmaking Center of NJ

For more insights into the history and current state of Moku Hanga (also spelled mokuhanga) check out April Vollmer’s comprehensive essay in Art in Print. There is also a brief (4-minute) documentary video filmed by Dempsey Rice of April Vollmer at work, here.

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UPDATE: Dec.12, 2012: April Vollmer sent a note about the post above:  “I hardly recognize myself your review is so flattering, but it is great to have someone describe the class. I always have fun, and people learn a lot. I always talk about the history, and how the technique fits into Japanese culture. I do hesitate about the refinements, it can be overwhelming. But my printmaking career (if one can call it that!) has been about making mokuhanga accessible, less precious, but without throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Good tools and good paper are such a pleasure, and actually much more affordable than, say, coated digital paper, computer software, etc. I paid $120 for my large soainomi (fan-beveled chisel), but I have had it for 20 years already!

Printmaking in NY is very different from Mexico, and that is completely different from Japan…The shina (basswood) plywood from Japan is good not only because of its even grain, but because the glue between plys is very thin and waterproof. Printing wet makes more demands on the wood than oil base does. Shina is also very lightweight which I appreciate, having to carry it around all the time!”

She also noted that she has met the legendary Tom Huck and went bowling with him when they both taught at Frogman’s Print Workshop in South Dakota.