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the “paper ruler”…

May 24, 2013 at 4:13 am

Related to this project for With Care, here’s a further note on font-drawing technique… or actually, on a technique that’s applicable to any precise-ish drawing *not* on a computer. [n.b. I wrote some of the below update back in February, revised & publishing now…]

My friend Will found this stack of 60-year-old r.s.v.p. cards, and I’ve been working on making letterform drawings of crucial or significant words on them… 35 of them were up at AS220 in February — these guys:


(more in-progress shots here and here.)

35 cards was enough for the gallery, and I had to get other things done for the show so I set the remaining 22 cards aside for a bit. I had been working on them with all the earlier ones spread out in front of me… so when they were all up in the gallery, I went in a couple times to draw some more of them while the space was open.

The card below is going to say “presence”… but whoops, even though the “E”s will be a little narrower than the other letters, the “S” is still too far to the right to fit the whole word on the card. I moved “P” “R” and “E” to the left already, but I had drawn out this nice and slightly weird curve for the “S”, and I wanted to retain its weirdness instead of making it more generic when I moved it over…

an index card with illegible handwriting on it and the large letters "PRES"

This involves a tool which I’m not sure I’ve ever posted a picture of here: the “paper ruler”, which is a scrap of paper, often an 8.5″x11″ sheet but it could actually just be a little scrap, folded in half diagonally (for length, straightness, & sturdiness), with the folded edge used to transfer distances and dimensions. Line the folded edge up to your drawing, make fine pencil marks on the paper ruler at the marks you want to transfer, then move it to where you want to transfer the dimension to & make the marks on the drawing.


For drawing purposes, it improves on a traditional ruler with numbered markings, because a) there’s no need to translate what is simply visual information into numerical information and back again, b) inches or centimeters have no relevance when the important units are “how wide is the letter” or “what is the distance between the baseline and the crossbar of the “A”, etc, and c) the piece of paper will be easier to hold and move around than a (usually heavier) regular ruler is. Also, you can make one wherever you happen to be by using a postcard, business card, or the edge of an envelope, or tearing a sheet of paper out of your notebook and folding it to create a straight line.

I took the paper ruler and made a set of marks on it showing how far I wanted to move the “S” over… then setting one mark against the existing curve of the “S”, marked that distance to the left, at intervals. You can see the dots on the card to the left of the upper part of the “S”, and a line traced through those dots to the left of the lower part:

closeup of the letters "ES" showing how the letter S is being moved to the left

The transferred “S” (dots erased, and lines cleaned up):


Once the drawings that they are made for are finished, the paper rulers become meaningless — I never remember which dimension was relevant to which specific thing I needed to measure, and the drawing’s done anyways. Even if I pause a drawing and start it a couple of days later, I’ll just make a new set of marks on a new folded piece of paper. But the rulers themselves have been touched and marked and known and seen so many times in the course of making the drawing, that it is hard for me to let them go completely… obviously sometimes they get lost in the shuffle of desk papers… but they are such information- and memory-laden objects that, though I occasionally intend or attempt to throw one away, I can never quite complete the action of putting it in the trash basket.

Thus, this envelope that lives next to my desk:


a selection of various sized rulers from the envelope:


closeups, including a golden-section reference card for a specific (unremembered) layout [blue cardstock, left], and an Occupy Providence flyer [upper right].


This technique, and this blog post, fall into the categories of “Why would I want to spend less time thinking?” and “my computer is almost 8 years old & very slow & drawing is way more fun anyways”* and “things that are way harder to explain in words than they are to do”…

… and also squarely within the category of “things I learned from Myron Barnstone that I use every time I draw”. Mr. Barnstone, who turned/turns 80 this year (I think?), is an independent art teacher in Coplay, PA (outside of Bethlehem), who teaches an intense course of study on composition, drawing, and color. I took his drawing and composition classes when I was 18. His rhetoric is deeply dogmatic, of the “My way is the one correct way to do art” variety — it took me about a year to recover from the intimidation & start drawing again after studying with him — but 16 years later, I use techniques & methods that I learned from him in pretty much everything I do. If you’re intrigued, the man is 80… his knowledge & skills are irreplaceable… now is your chance…!

* I got a modern computer this month… it makes many things faster… but drawing is still more fun…

pushing away from certainty

May 15, 2013 at 7:22 am


I’m teaching this silkscreen class, on transparent colors & rubylith, now for the second time at the AS220 Community Printshop, and for my fourth time overall. I think it’s become clear that the crucial component of the class is that the people who are learning get to try stuff out, try a lot of things, and try doing those things different ways — a whole bunch of different ways.

I can say “a good way to tape off the screen is like so” or “you might have more success getting good coverage with the flood if you hold the squeegee at a shallower angle”, and I might have some authority on those things being “right” — but even so, none of that stuff will solidify until you do it a bunch of times.


(I will quickly note that at the same time as I definitely *do* have methods & techniques that I teach or recommend, I also maintain that there is no objective “right” in screenprinting, just a lot of collections of widely varying strategies for getting various desired results…!)


Then there are things that I actually have no idea how to teach or what to recommend, as when the question comes up: “What colors will look good together?” It’s up to you as the printer, and as the learner, to determine this. The way you would figure it out is the same way I would start to address the question: try out lots of different colors and combinations of colors, try things you wouldn’t think would look good, allow yourself to be surprised, don’t rule out options…

There *are* some principles that we can work from. In this scenario where we’re printing two layers of transparent color over each other to get three separate areas of color, one thing we’ve learned is that overlapping complementary colors (blue-orange, red-green, etc) produce a color that is the most *different* from each color by itself…

…as seen in these newsprint tests from Lara’s print:


This can be extrapolated into subtle strategy like “if you want two grays to overlap and make a very different gray where they overlap, push one of them a little into the orange zone & one of them a little into the blue zone”… But it’s not a hard-and-fast rule, just a potentially useful tactic. (The only actual hard-and-fast color rule I know of (and it only applies in the US & Europe, maybe?) is: “If you put red & green together, people will think ‘Christmas’ even if they try their hardest not to.”)

Sometimes when I’m working on a print, I make a small color test strip — in some kind of layout that will show me how each color will combine with each other color — and print that beforehand with a bunch of different potential color combinations. Here, we’re making a small-ish image, and using the image itself as a way to test colors. This removes the necessity of imagining the tested colors onto the image, and makes the process that much more direct.

Everybody prints four or so copies each of four colors…



… and then prints four *different* transparent colors over those — ideally ending up with sixteen different color combinations. That’s enough to begin thinking about, to get some surprises as well as some blah ones…

An unexpected color combination (ink still wet) from Lara’s work:


In Buck’s prints, the same transparent green printed over three different colors:


Different color combinations produce different “forest lighting effects”:


A table of Buck’s test prints; one of Katie’s two-layer test prints is visible in the foreground (sorry I don’t have a better picture of it!!):


Some combinations that Lara picked out from her test prints:


Here we are (except for Jeremy the awesome T.A. who is taking the picture) looking at and talking about what’s happening with all these colors (so many colors!). This class is small (people dropped out at the last minute, and one of the students was out sick this week as well…) so it’s nice, we get to take time for lots of questions / digressions which in a larger class we might have to gloss over. It’s the end of the long evening in this photo so we all look kinda exhausted, and as Buck said a couple minutes later, it was basically “bedtime”.


It’s truly difficult, when you’re striving to a) be “successful” in carrying out a process and b) get a result that looks satisfyingly “good”, usually on c) a timeframe (a “timeframe”?) of some kind, to give yourself a chance to try weird stuff / dead ends / potentially non-useful options. What I’ve learned in teaching these classes, what I’ve heard so far as feedback from folks in the classes, and what I’ve gathered in paying attention to “what’s the fun part?” of my own work, is that those moments of testing and experimentation, the moments where we’re not sure what’s gonna happen, are often what is indeed most fun about the process.

They are the moments of delight, they’re where we get the best new ideas from, and the strange color combinations look odd at first but might turn out to be the ones we use in the end. And hopefully, the next time the question comes up: “Try something weird, or go for the known option?”, the remembered delight will push us in the direction that leads away from a comfortable certainty…

personal note personal note:

This morning I woke up frantically from a dream that, as is standard with my dreams, had me wandering with an unknown-but-imperative purpose around a cryptically organized and/or disintegrating building… but then it also somehow managed to be an anxiety dream about an unprecedented number of stressful things, in sequence or nested within each other in the story of the dream. I texted this to myself in the bleary moments after waking, to exorcise / to remember (edited slightly for coherence):

winter bikeriding on treacherous streets; social rejection for unperceivable reasons; inability to hold tiny pieces of paper and/or fabric in place while trying to do a precision task with them; seeing someone I made out with, out in public, with their significant other, who can never know we made out; realizing that a friend had command of a craft that I had persuaded myself to not try because it would be “impossible for me to learn”; having great difficulty climbing an avant-garde-ly deconstructed/redesigned flight of stairs; romantic rejection because of being trans and pointless arguments about body determinism with the people rejecting me; deep confusion over how to redesign my website to best represent my work *and* to be logically navigable; deciding not to do something I enjoy doing because of being afraid that old friends didn’t like me anymore; the uneasy certainty that I am not working on the most important task, but still unsure of how to know which is the task to work on…

The day got better from then out, obviously. Upcoming-project cellphone-camera blurry snapshot….


“what does that say?”

May 12, 2013 at 3:22 am


It says: dissonance.

Here are the two colorways of the actual print, a green that’s somewhere between forest & olive, & a bright orange. It’s about 27.5″ x 12.5″, a large one. The below images link to the prints newly in the store!


So… why “dissonance” ?

This print springs directly out of drawing (in mid-summer 2012) all the letters for the “our complexity is the world” print (some process details; buy one!); and feeling just a little fed up with drawing so many lowercase letters in the same form; and my handwriting slipping into sketchiness when writing “dissonance”…


Then I realized that there was no need to pull those letters back into linear alignment, and that that was a word that I wanted to celebrate further in another print…

Late summer 2012 found me sitting on a rock on Conanicut, above the waves, mostly naked (as friends & I were a lot last summer), drawing it in my sketchbook:

sketchbook balanced on knees of bare legs on a picnic blanket, with the word "dissonance" partly written on the open page

(Here’s past process notes from some color decisions, and some color testing and weird-overlap-printing. More process shots from printing are below; hover over them for details.)


“Sooooo….. uh. Why dissonance?”

The application of this word to trans stuff or gender issues originates with the awesome writer and scientist Julia Serano, in her book Whipping Girl:

gender dissonance:
A form of cognitive dissonance experienced by trans people due to a misalignment of their subconscious and physical sexes. Gender dissonance differs somewhat from the psychiatric term “gender dysphoria,” which typically conflates this cognitive dissonance regarding one’s sex with the mental stresses that arise from societal pressure to conform to gender norms.

When I was first reading about trans stuff, Whipping Girl (which I highly recommend), was really important to me, not least because of finding Serano’s definition quoted above. Her extended explication of her use of the word “dissonance” gave me a handle on the way I felt about my body, which I had had no words for before. I had felt that way pretty much all the time since my early teenage-hood, and, partly because of having no words for it, had assumed all women felt the same way about their bodies.

In the couple of years since first reading that, the word “dissonance” has continued to be super relevant to my existence. As time has gone on, through conversations and meeting people and the internet and witnessing the multifariousness of the possibilities of gendered existence in the world, I’ve relaxed some of my harsh demands on my own gendered existence… I’ve allowed myself to be a person who has a complicated gender & complicated body, and I’ve complicated that gender & body for myself further… and come to embrace the ambiguity and positivity that come along with the word “dissonance”.


It’s more useful for wrapping around my gender or body feelings than the commonly used term “dysphoria” — which is all medicalized, seems decisively negative, and makes you feel like there’s something “wrong” with you. Dissonance is originally a word for talking about sound or music, it’s the opposite of “consonance”, which is “things sounding similar” or “things in harmony” — but neither consonance or dissonance are necessarily good or bad, they’re just descriptions of two states of existing or relating.

Sometimes dissonance can be really incomprehensible, confusing, and make you feel unbalanced & weird, when two notes are not in tune or two frequencies are not quite lining up & there are weird noises that you think you might be imagining…


BUT when you listen carefully it might also sound pretty awesome and interesting, and more complicated than just some Mozart or whatever, and there’s a lot to hear there that you might not have listened for if everything had been all sounding-good to start with…


BUT even if you’re making this music yourself, on purpose, cause you like it, it might still be hard or painful to listen to… BUT you feel compelled to make it and/or other music is just boring and/or it’s the only thing you’re interested in and/or you don’t know how to make any other kinds of sounds…


SO you keep making it even though it feels weird sometimes. Or, all the time. Or rather, it feels TOTALLY WEIRD and TOTALLY AWESOME at the same time, or so closely alternating / simultaneous that you can’t actually tell how you feel about it. Even figuring that out is confusing & takes up a lot of your mental energy, but ultimately it’s worth it cause you don’t really know another way to be… you don’t have a choice. OR maybe you do — the “born that way” doctrine is kind of obnoxious & determinist, after all, and you are indeed making a choice — as this guy has said, your choice is to be here with us.


So yeah, DISSONANCE. All right.

“ink and knife”-native letters

May 10, 2013 at 1:11 pm


How did I not write anything at all about this project yet on this bloggy? I think it was because I was ***way way way behind schedule*** getting it done, so didn’t have any time to make process posts along the way. Then afterwards I got super wrapped up in organizing a bunch of stuff for a month of non-assimilationist Pride events here in Providence. So it goes!


I made this print last summer, for a print portfolio project organized by the amazing political artist and potter Meredith Stern. The portfolio is called “This Is An Emergency!” and is focused on reproductive & gender justice. Meredith has been doing presentations about the project (and her work) around the country, as well as doing the logistics/promotion to get institutions and libraries to buy copies of the portfolio, which is super awesome cause a) those institutions have these radical prints, and b) it’s pretty great that some of my work is in the collection of institutions all over the place.

You can buy the purple-gold-orange colorway of this print here, and I also made two new colorways because I was running out of the first one; blue-silver-green (sparkly) and tan-gray-red (not sparkly). They are $20 — cheap! Shipping is $6 or I’ll deliver in Providence or you can pick it up. Get it, put it on your wall, use it to help tell your cis friends about what it means that you’re trans, to help explain to your parents why racial profiling is dehumanizing, or to help remind your students that their values are worth hanging on to even if they don’t coincide with the values of the academic institution… anyways, I made it for you.

complexity_blue_246 complexity_gray_245

The full text is at the bottom of this post.

I spent a while brainstorming and writing the text for this print (and trying to figure out how to make the text more concise, but avoid “soundbites”/tumblr-esque-ness… also thinking about representation of human beings & once again deciding to avoid it)…


…and then time hit me & I realized that I needed to make the simplest possible print, alignment- and printing-time-wise… but how to make a “simple” print about “complexity”? Plus I wanted it to look super cool (the classic downfall, I know). I decided to make basically the whole “background” of the print a giant rainbow roll of *ink*, and leave the letters the color of the paper.

First step: draw out the text how I wanted it to read (thinking about “reading” vs “seeing” & how they work together), not getting it perfect but just enough to ink over:


Then: inking. This was done on wet media mylar (“prepared mylar”), using a nib pen, brushes to fill in the background, and an Olfa razorknife to scratch unwanted ink away. Each of these steps requires some time for ink to dry, and is contingent on working your way across the surface in one direction at a time, so you don’t smear the wet ink you’ve just put down. I also wear thin cotton gloves, with the thumb & first two fingers cut off the dominant hand, to protect the plastic from the grease on my hands. Okay here goes! Watch the lower-case “g”s…

1. outline the letters & begin to fill in their smallest concavities, with the pen:


2. fill in the spaces between the letters with a small brush:


3. fill in the ink on one side of the letters with the brush:


4. …and then fill in the final gap:


5: now with the back of the point of the Olfa knife, fix any places where you blobbed over the line, clean up the inside part of the “e”, “a”, “o”, etc, square off the corners and ends of the letters (check out those “g”s), and generally sharpen it all up:


Was this simple? Kind of. Did it take a hell of a long time? YES. I’m terrible at this time thing.

But that aside… I really like working this way because it produces letters that are native to the materials I’m using to create them. The act of my hands using specific tools to make them is what gives the letters their shape — not just aesthetic decisions in a vacuum. It was intriguing to make a couple different sizes of the same letters, and a vertical and slanted set (not sure if “roman” and “italic” apply here), and to see how they all came out differently… Of course, there’s an alternate set of letterforms created by “drawing the same letters” but with ink as the *positive* instead of the negative — just as cutting “the same” letters negatively or positively out of rubylith results in different forms. Someday! actual usable computer fonts will come out of all this work… maybe?

Here’s a cool photo Pam Murray took to show the metallic ink I used to print it, and the resolution of the letters:


And I wanted to include one quick set of images to answer the question “But how did you do the rainbow roll at an angle?”

A. Shoot the transparency on the screen at an angle!

1. transparency at an angle, and a “linear blob” of different colors of ink on the screen:


2. a couple of prints into the run, the rainbow roll has smoothed out (you can see how the paper is aligned on the table at an angle as well):


3. epic squeegee (don’t drop it):


One last note about this portfolio format for political art work generation and distribution — it rules!

Meredith is part of Just Seeds, a radical artists’ collective, and though this portfolio was not a formal Just Seeds project, they’ve used the same model a number of times: “a group of artists each make a print about an issue, possibly collaborating with organizations or mentors, then those prints are collected into a portfolio which is both distributed to organizations to sell/use/display, and can be shown as a thematic exhibit and be the occasion for discussions and an impetus for activism”. It’s a pretty bad-ass method for disseminating political art outside of the big-money art market, for getting little-known artists (like myself) some wider distribution and possibly recognition, and for providing art to political organizations.

It seems like something that should happen as widely as possible. If you know of an issue in your town or area that could use a bunch of prints made about it, grab this idea & run with it! Contact Meredith through her website to ask her questions about the process… She has worked really hard to make the whole project happen, and to promote it & make it successful, but it now has a momentum of its own: a young woman came up to where I was tabling at the art sale last weekend with Sam Merritt, who also made a print for the portfolio and was displaying it in front of our table, and asked her “Is that print in that, uh, reproductive rights collection? That was exhibited at my college last month — people were lining up to see it, it was a great event, everybody loved it!”


Full text of the poster:

so you’re not comfortable with our complexity?

you pull us over, lights flashing
you call us back to the counter
you don’t understand why we have to do that to our bodies
you demand picture ID, proof of residence, a letter from our therapist, citizenship documents, tax returns, body mass index, a calm rational voice, coherent gender presentation, formal english grammar, insurance card, deference

and it even sounds friendly when you say, “come on, baby, would it be so hard to give me a smile?”

and we almost do it
so you’ll let us exist safely in the world you offer

but — your systems of control are not safety
they will never be a place to live

so we leave them behind
we run from them headlong, heaving homemade bombs back over our shoulders into the gated compound, waiting for the explosions
we rip them, piece by piece, excruciatingly slowly, from their nesting places within our own hearts and stagger away wounded, barely alive
the door of the bus closes with a soft noise and we pull our knees to our chests

our demands are simple, contradictory, impossible, necessary
you tell us the world has no space for our complexity

yet we live right here, in dissonance & beauty
we’re not comfortable
yeah, we might be dangerous
our long-term effects are definitely unknown

our complexity is the world

In re. the art sale: here I am, sleep deprived & coffee fueled, in a shirt that is my favorite colors, in need of a haircut, gesticulating about something I don’t remember but which seems entertaining, standing outside with Sam and a girl I don’t know, under a nice sign that says “QUEERS!” — that’s good, right?


queers edition // art sale today!

May 4, 2013 at 2:06 am

Via grainy cellphone camera, the finished colorways of the QUEERS! editions. As seen in progress here and decision-making process discussed here. Finally done, after being promised / procrastinated on for two+ years!


I’ll be at the RISD Alumni Art Sale ***today***, Saturday May 4th (10a-4p, Benefit St. & Waterman St. in Providence) with these brand new guys, the new-ish “dissonance” script-font prints that were in the show, the new-ish colorways of the “complexity” manifesto print (and a couple copies of this purple/orange/gold one), the Recycle-A-Bike prints, with their cool silkscreen duotone, that I finished last year but somehow haven’t posted a completed image of until now….. and lots of other stuff! Tabling with Sam Merritt of Double Vision Embroidery who is super cool.

We’ll be accepting “credit cards” via a borrowed “mobile digital device” — your favorite Luddite screenprinting grandpa dips a toe gingerly into the 21st century…


Okay gotta run & finish the last stuff! See you soon! Wish me luck with sleepin’ tonight!

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