Notes from ningyo editions studio and gallery

Joe Wardwell: If This Is It

And I know soon/ that the sky will split
And the planets will shift,
Balls of jade will drop/ and existence stop.

-Patti Smith


The readership has come to expect a certain level of quality in this little blog, though in referring to the “readership”, I actually have reason to believe that this really just includes myself alone (as a quick check on my WordPress dashboard stats confirm.)   As sad as this makes me (which on a scale of 1 to 10 is a 5) I feel like I must continue to post at least once in a while because what is more sad –  like a 7 or an 8 – is visiting a blog that has not been updated for a year or more.  You briefly wonder if the person has become very ill or even died, then determine that more likely he or she just got lazy: the passion withered and creeping realizations of the futility of the whole effort set in and eventually won out.  All maybe less sad than death, but still depressing, and each representing a kind of death in themselves.

Having said all of that, I give myself a pass to write a bit lazily on the excellent Boston artist Joe Wardwell, for which I believe he of all people will understand.  We spent enough time actually making the print, fussing over it, curating and coddling it, that for me to now tack on more energy waxing sentimental about it, his work, or him (though god knows I could do all three)  would be overkill, as I have a life to lead (in the sense anything living has a life to lead, and not in the sense that I have anything necessarily more important to do.)

What I will be focusing on, then, is (almost) strictly the process of creating the woodcut we collaborated on, entitled If This Is It (after the jaunty but ultimately defeatist song by Huey Lewis and the News from 1984.)  I will keep philosophy and interpretation to a minimum (hopefully) and treat this as a “how it was done” post (“To late!” says the non-existent reader, pointing to the ramblings within the first two paragraphs.)  But really, the process/how-it-was-done piece was originally the entire point of this whole lonely blog.  For anyone who happened to stumble on this as a first post, I apologize for all of this banter.  For those who happened to visit via the ningyo editions website to read how the print was done –  alright, alright, here it is:

Joe Wardwell: If This Is It

If This is It

This woodcut was done using 4 blocks, 9 colors and one reductive process (i.e. cutting away areas of a block after it had already been printed, then reprinting what remains on top of the already-printed image in a darker color.)  Two split fountain/bokashi (i.e fade from one color to another) rolls were used (one in the pink of the clouds and mountain and one on the blue strip at the top in an homage to Hokusai.)  The blocks (shina ply – a kind of basswood – each measuring 18 x 24″) were rubbed with alcohol and brushed gently with a wire brush in order to emphasize the wood’s grain (this is especially noticeable in the middle blue section of the print.)  The areas of white that comprise the text are the only exposed paper in the print, the rest being covered by printing.  The paper used is Rives Lightweight, and – I will freely admit – a few sheet of Rives medium weight to complete the edition of 15 (we had already started printing the first block – it was late – I hadn’t realized we were so low on the Lightweight and so we substituted something pretty close.  Sue me.)  The final print is a bleed with deckled edges measuring 16.25 x 20″.

The blocks themselves are shown below:

wardwell block 1

Block 1: pink; green; black (reductive)

wardwell block 2

Block 2: blue/gray (one color)

wardwell block 3

Block 3:  sky blue, (later yellow and purple); green (two colors, 3 with bokashi roll)

wardwell block 4

Block 4: blue/grey (one color)

The process was very strait forward Western-style relief printing (we were aping the Japanese look but not its technique, wherein liquid inks and and hoghair brushes are utilized and the whole print is done by hand with a baren – see the entry on Serena Perrone’s Settlements elsewhere on this blog.)  For our purposes, standard rubber brayers were used, and the ink of choice was oil-based Graphic Chemical Perfect Palette and Charbonelle etching with heavy doses of tint base extender.  All the printing was done on the etching press.

The Apocalyptic Proofs

As we finished printing each block during editioning, we pulled several extra proofs on Thai Mulberry bleached paper in an entirely different palette.  The sober light blues and peach tones of Hokusai and Hiroshige  gave way to electro-psychedelic colors more in keeping with the post-apocalyptic fantasy landscapes of Heavy Metal magazine and mass-market sci-fi book covers (though I read in Martin Amis’ preface to The Complete Stories of J.G Ballard that true sci-fi fans refer to their beloved genre as SF and hold a great disdain for the former term.)  In this way the Apocalyptic Proofs were born.  No attempt was made to edition these (there are 9.)  All are varied  enough to distinguish each- in tone, thickness of ink and amount of transparency used (some were even sprayed with spirits before printing to create drips that emphasize the spirit of decay.)  Below are two examples:

Joe Wardwell

Apocalyptic Proof (1)

Joe Wardwell

Apocalyptic Proof (2)


Finally, below is a working proof of blocks 3 and 4 (of which 2 were made.)  I refer to these as the Kool Working Proofs (after Kool cigarettes, whose ads suggesting fresh air, vast, unexplored, open spaces and pure, unbridled freedom were plastered on drugstore walls in the 1970’s and sport a similar minty palette.  I have a distinct memory of such an indoor billboard from my childhood at a now long-vanished CVS-type store called RIX, with Smokey Robinson’s Being with You playing in on the intercom.  This early-stage proof seems to embody a rock and roll spirit of peace, adventure and the American frontier that was so prevalent in album and advertising art of that decade.  To hear Joe Wardwell talk about his formative memories of his father’s John Denver Rocky Mountain High poster gives us tremendous insight into his penchant for the American landscape painting tradition and rock and roll as a kind of new, still-undiscovered frontier.  As we consider this influence and study the Kool early proof; the finished print; then look finally to the Apocalyptic Proofs, a quote from a band generally considered to be a bunch of pussies (I can think of no more concise way to say it*) comes to seem an ominous, cynical resignation to a universal fate much worse than Huey’s broken heart.

Joe Wardwell

“Kool” working proof

*And with a small apology to Huey Lewis – he really was great in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts.


Filed under: Editions (from ningyo editions), , , , , ,

5 Responses

  1. “visiting a blog that has not been updated for a year or more.  You briefly wonder if the person has become very ill or even died, then determine that more likely he or she just got lazy: the passion withered and creeping realizations of the futility of the whole effort set in and eventually won out.  All maybe less sad than death, but still depressing, and each representing a kind of death in themselves.”
    David, this is a blog worth reading. Thank you for sharing on FB because otherwise I’d not have read this. The exhibit was very well done and I enjoy the details of the process here too.

  2. Perhaps it’s a coincidence that I have noticed a salient uptick in Huey Lewis airplay on local light rock radio stations. I’ve heard “heart of rock n’ roll” multiple times at the fresh pond whole foods alone. Clever move to attach the wardwellian critique to such a ubiquitous, seemingly innocuous vehicle.

  3. Leggy says:

    I want a new drug. One that won’t make me sick or talk too much or make my face break out and this is it.

  4. Very interesting details you have observed, regards for putting up.

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