Showing posts with label Storytelling. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Storytelling. Show all posts

Monday, February 10, 2014

Printing at the Frost Fairs

An 1814 woodcut illustrating the carnival atmosphere on the Thames, with a printer peddling keepsakes on the left, and Blackfriars Bridge and St Paul's cathedral in background. Source: British Museum

Source: 1814 Frost Fair watercolor painting from the Gardner collection via Shakespeare Solved

What may seem like the coldest Winter any of us can recall, it pales in comparison to those of the Little Ice Age which began in medieval times and continued to the mid-19th century. First the frost and snow would hang on for months, then canals and rivers would freeze, stalling cargo ships on cities' major arteries, bringing commerce to a virtual standstill. In London, the Thames River was much wider at this time and especially prone to freezing, causing thousands of dock workers significant hardship when they couldn't earn a day's wage to feed their families. It wasn't long however for some of these enterprising Londoners to seize an economic opportunity and turn this winter wonderland into an outdoor commercial carnival on ice, known as the Frost Fair. This past week marked the bicentennial of the largest Frost Fair, which began on January 31st in 1814 and lasted five more days.

The Fair on the Thames, February 1814, Luke Clennell, Source: Museum of London via Atlas Obscura.

In London's 1814 Frost Fair, peddlers, tradesman and hawkers of every stripe flocked to the ice and set up tents for games, bookstalls, puppet shows, gambling booths, and wheels of fortune. These 19th century pop-ups profiting from this freeze were decorated with flags, streamers and signs with names like City of Moscow, reflecting the cold winter conditions. Local watermen held guard at the gates, charging tolls for entrance onto the City Road, the main artery onto the ice which was lined with ash for safe walking. They then charged visitors once again when they chose to exit. The crowds increased daily as news spread, as did the chaos and petty crime. Boisterous revelers drank gin, rum and beer, ate roasted lamb and danced to fiddle music amidst the frozen landscape. Onlookers even reported an elephant was daringly escorted onto the ice to add to the carnival atmosphere. Meanwhile, about a dozen local printers dragged their large printing presses and lead type onto the ice to print souvenir keepsakes for this once-in-a-lifetime occasion. This proved to be one of the most popular attractions at each of the Frost Fairs. Those that could manage setting their names in cold metal type could print their own personal memento of their Frost Fair visit. 

A souvenir printed at the 1814 Frost Fair. Source: Where Thames Smooth Waters Glide.

Wood engraving with watercolor of the earlier 1684 Frost Fair. Source: Fine Art America via Shakespeare Solved

Another engraving of the 1684 Frost Fair on the Thames when King Charles II and his family visited. They stopped by a printer's stall to print their own souvenir keepsake from this Frost Fair. Source: British Library

The 1814 London Frost Fair. Source: Alamy via The Telegraph 

From George Thompson, A View of the River Thames, 1814, Museum of London via Atlas Obscura. Notice in center, on the right, you can make out a handpress just between the two tents and crowds of people.

Cracks in the Ice

By the 4th day of the Frost Fair, temperatures began to warm and the ice began to loudly crack beneath the raucous crowd. Huge fast-flowing chunks of ice broke loose, casting some unfortunate fairgoers adrift. Desperate vendors were reluctant to fold up their shops so quickly and forego the easy income. Many booths and a number of printing presses sailed downstream never to be seen again. In defiance, another printer set up his press on an ice island near Westminster, however this warming trend inevitably signaled the near end of London's last great Frost Fair of 1814. By 1831, the old medieval London Bridge came down and was replaced with a bridge with wider arches permitting the river to flow more freely. In the 19th century, embankments were built, creating a narrower and faster flowing river, less prone to freezing. It is highly unlikely in these times that we will ever see the Thames again freeze in our lifetimes. The biggest threat it now poses is of the river flooding its narrow banks.

Contemporary Views of the London Frost Fairs

Source: Artwork by Dan Escott for All Posters

Nicholas Stevenson's, 2014 lively interpretation of the Frost Fair. Still trying to spot the printer.

Printing on Ice

Frostiana: Or a History of the River Thames in a Frozen State; With an Account of The Late Severe Frost; and The Wonderful Effects of Frost, Snow, Ice and Cold, in England, and in Different Parts of the World; Interspersed With Various Amusing Anecdotes. To Which is added, The Art of Skating. (yes, that is just the title), was printed and published by George Davis shortly after the 1814 Thames River Frost Fair. The title page of this souvenir booklet, with it's ridiculously long title was handset in cold metal type in arctic temperatures and printed on ice at the fair. Even though Davis printed the rest of the book in his warm shop, it was as close to live-tweeting as one could possibly conceive in the early 19th century. (Not sure when the hashtag symbol was invented...) A first edition of Frostiana, with his many accounts of the Frost Fair, anecdotes about winter sports, construction advice for an ice house, and recipes for ice cream, sold at auction in 2008 for £320, or roughly $500. You can find a pdf of it from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to download here.
Image source: Atlas Obscura

Souvenir keepsakes printed at past Frost Fairs

Until March 30th, Frozen Thames: Frost Fair 1814 is on exhibit at The Museum of LondonBelow is a brief video about the exhibit.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Interpreting the Artist's Muse

Everything is subject to interpretation. Even muses, as Seattle artist Patty Grazini has illustrated in her latest show of work at the Curtis Steiner gallery in Seattle. Her subjects of interpretation are thirteen scale models of artists' muses fashioned entirely in paper. Accompanying each of her fifteen-inch paper models are: varied accessories rendered in the artists' paintings; a decorative frame of gold papers with a replica of the artwork; and a handsome display providing a short biography of each artist's muse. The word astonishing frequently comes to mind when I try to describe her interpretive artworks.  

This is the seventh consecutive year that Grazini has exhibited her paper artwork at Curtis Steiner's gallery (follow this link to last year's post which will lead to two others), each with a new theme and narrative. One common thread however, is the historic costume, and I asked her about this interest. She explained that she particularly loves 19th century costume, however she wanted this show to reflect a wider time period and range of different artists and muses. This group spreads over the course of 400 years, beginning with Rembrandt's muse and wife, Saskia van Uylenburgh, and ending with Picasso's muse, Dora Maar.  

It seems there is nothing that Patty cannot replicate in paper. When I asked her if she had any particular challenges with this group, she spoke of the difficulty of creating the surface designs on a number of the costumes. 
     "The greatest challenge with this group was trying to replicate the dress and accessories in the paintings. I had to treat the papers in ways that were new for me. In the Rembrandt (Saskia) piece, I bleached the paper. I wanted to retain the surface design, but remove the color. Then I re-dyed the paper to match the painting. I wasn't sure if I could accomplish this before the paper disintegrated. Although the paper was very fragile in the process, it ultimately worked." 
A sleeve from the Rembrandt muse, Saskia, which Grazini bleached and re-dyed. 

For her portrayal of the Matisse muse, Grazini added her own stamped and ruled surface designs to the paper costume in order to loosely interpret his intentions.

Few details get lost in Grazini's work; even on the reverse side. Each model can take her nearly three or four steady weeks to complete, and she focuses on just one piece at a time, so "not to scatter my attention" she claims. Every stitch, and every seam, is constructed the way a master tailor might design each piece. It helps that she has an eye for color and for texture, and she continually challenges herself to learn. 
     Picasso once said "I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them." The same could be said of Grazini's work. Much to my surprise, she never works from preliminary drawings. Instead, she prefers to experiment as she goes. 
     "I sometimes start a piece and then if it isn't working...I start over again. I need to see it before I know if I am able to get the results that I want" she explained.

The narrative story in Grazini's work is as critical an element as the craft itself. She loves stories and history—especially art history—and has finely tuned her research skills over the years to find these stories. 
     "I want to give voice to people in history, and especially to women, who have been overlooked or forgotten. There were a few muses whose story I felt compelled to tell. These were a bit more challenging because I had to portray the muse in whatever painting she appeared. The dress was a secondary concern. Jeanne Hebuterne (the Modigliani muse) and Lizzie Siddal (the Rossetti muse) were two examples."

Rossetti's muse, Elizabeth "Lizzie" Siddal (1829-1863) was a milliner's assistant before she became entangled in a twelve-year relationship with him. Their dramatic affair was filled first with joy and then anguish, and ended tragically after her drug overdose. Rossetti insisted his journal of poems about her be buried in her coffin—only to regret it later. Eventually he had the notebook retrieved.

Titles displayed on each model's base were penned by gallery owner, Curtis Steiner who has a beautiful way with the pen.  

If you are in the Seattle area between now and Christmas, Curtis Steiner is keeping his gallery open daily. Grazini's paper models are nicely staged there against a backdrop of beautiful furnishings, finely beaded jewelry, exquisite artworks and other alluring antiquities, which are all for sale and on exhibition throughout the holidays. You can also read more accounts about The Artists' Muses on her website.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Opening Exhibition of Camp Stories, Illustrated

It is a good thing this campfire wasn't any hotter, or it would melt the Letterology masthead above, making a sticky mess. As it was, the Camp Stories, Illustrated exhibit of my mother's and my own artwork, received a very warm and enthusiastic reception this past weekend at the opening, and I'm proud to say we may have set a world record for building the first publicly sanctioned bonfire and marshmallow roast in a university library. No books were burned in the process, I promise. 

I have to admit; setting up camp in any library is no easy task, but librarians are the best scouts you can imagine. Anything in need, they found it for me. I really want to thank Jane Carlin and her staff at the University of Puget Sound Collins Library in Tacoma for all of their accommodations while building the Camp Stories exhibit. The centerpiece of the exhibition was my campfire with roasting paper marshmallows, but more on that later.   

As I have described elsewhere in weeks past, this exhibit began with the stories of my mothers' childhood adventures spent living on Puget Sound, during the Hard Times of the Depression. Each Summer, the family of seven lived in a small, one-room beach house fondly referred to as "Camp". This was a time of neighbors-helping-neighbors and children who were free to run barefoot all Summer long. 

The image for the exhibition's poster originated from her joyful 11x14" illustration Swimming in the Rain as you can see above. Stepping back further, you can see my grandmother standing on the porch watching four of her young children playing in the water. This portrait sets the stage for over 30 more of her wide-eyed childhood drawings, each illustrated in 1983, at age 54. Her collective memories were all recorded in a journal which I discovered only after her death last January. All of her stories and drawings were produced within just one month, at the same time she was struggling with the increasing loss of her mobility after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The drawings were produced with no motive of financial gain nor recognition, but only for her own personal growth. In the purest sense, this was art for art's sake. 

The rustic Camp house often overflowed with company every Sunday—sharing in a meal on the long front porch—as seen in another of her charcoal drawings below. My mother was the devil child in the middle who is being chastised by her father for clowning around during prayers. My grandmother, Mert is seen working away at the wood stove with dog, Spunky waiting for handouts.  

Most every image had a story accompanying it. For additional context, I sprinkled in a number of copied pages of her journal and early photographs from family members and various historical archives.

In this scene, my mother put herself in the image twice—in the foreground drawing, and on the bench looking out to the water. She also cut the roof open as an xray, to view the scene from above.  

Having Fun With This 
April 8, 1983

I want to do a night scene with the full moon coming over the bay—I want to draw us eating breakfast on the porch in the morning sun; the beds on the porch; the pillow fights we all had; the wood block and chopping wood. 
     I want to show the fear of the snakes coming up the path and how we'd throw rocks and wood sticks to chase them away. I want to draw a big bonfire and how we all sat around and roasted marshmallows and sang. I want to have us in a scene walking through Newell's property, Mrs. Garness and the cow, the milk house, the pasture and the barn I want to draw us on the bridge and dock waiting for the boat—the "Elsie C". 
     I want to show us going to first dock, the huge rocks we'd climb up on top of and the clay cliffs I want to draw the fire at 3rd dock and the ruins, the blackberry picking, Mert cooking in the kitchen. I want to draw rafts, the ocean liners coming from the Narrows, and the huge waves. 
     I want to draw the back of the Camp from looking down from up on the hillside. This is so exiting that I love it. 
     My childhood was active—I ran my legs off so it's no wonder I can't walk now. I never walked but ran full speed. I see now the body wears out from childhood and I need rest now I can write and reminisce forever but visual imagery is where it's at. 
     I can draw the boogeyman—the bears, the skunks, feeding the seagulls—we had wood to burn from the beach we had kerosene for light, a roof over our heads and a warm wood stove to heat on cold days. We had fresh water from the hillside spring, clams from the beach and fish from the sea. We had it all and life was rich even though we were poor. We never knew it.

My mother was essentially a unskilled self-trained artist who made her own rules of perspective, composition, style and technique, and her narrative line drawings reflect some of the raw, spontaneous folk artwork of outsider artists. Combined with the many stories accompanying them, I was delighted to see they brought enthusiastic responses and smiles to many at the opening reception this past weekend. For myself, it was an incredible journey I was able to make with my mother back to her family home in the 1930s, when she could still run free. I can't imagine a better collaboration. 
    The exhibition will continue through January 14th at the University of Puget Sound Collins Library in Tacoma, WA. Check website for the Library hours. Stay tuned for tomorrow when I will feature some of my own artworks from this exhibition.