Free for all

I am currently at the mid point of my Open Studio event. I’ve been opening up my studio for the last four or five years, allowing the public to arrive at will and experience a working print room. This is the first year I have opened for every day of the fortnight and it’s a mixed blessing: on the one hand it’s great because it pins me down in the studio all day and on the other hand it’s rotten because it pins me down in the studio all day. I am suffering from cabin fever. Suddenly the thought of going to the supermarket with an optional visit to the dry cleaners seems as seductively exciting as a trip to Monaco.

On the plus side it is making me get on with my work, though in fits and starts depending on who arrives and what they want to see. I feel there’s no point in having an open studio if people can’t see work in action and talk to the artist, pick up tools, handle the prints and ask all sorts of questions. The questions are interesting and range from the highly technical (a retired engineer interested in the inside specifications of the Albion Press) to the ghoulish (small boy ‘are those tools sharp enough to cut you so it wouldn’t stop bleeding until all your blood ran out?’) and sometimes to the plain well, plain: ‘how much money does this make you?’.

On the whole I enjoy this hiatus in the solitary time I spend with Radio Four and now with Radio Four Extra. Printmaking is such a blend of craft and art: it’s a bit of theatre with plenty of opportunity for thrills and surprises, the dark tragedy of the misplaced registration and the joy of peeling back the final perfect impression. It’d be a shame to keep it to myself all year.

Apron Strings

Laura wearing her Marketing Pinny
My American friend Betsy thinks it's great that we should call this a 'pinny'

This is my ‘printing pinny’ with one of my landscapes sewn on the front. I came up with the idea because I’m often at shows and fairs and I want something that says who I am without slapping a big badge on my front. I’m going to be demonstrating at Art in Action this year; it’s a big festival and the print marquee (as I recall) is hot, crowded and confusing. It’s hard to see the artists from the audience sometimes; one year I asked a charming man all about woodcut tools and, after answering me at length, it turned out he was a fellow visitor (albeit a printmaker). So apron plus landscape hopefully equals working artist plus identity…

There is a bit more to it than that. I grew up with a mum who was a professional dressmaker for a while and a brilliantly good seamstress. She didn’t cut my sister or I any slack and we both learned to sew early. This developed into quilt and collage making while I was running a business and, if you look at my prints, actually forms the basis for how I see landscape: the sky is often a backing cloth for the land. So the apron is just a dip back into the past for me and was such fun to make.

I do still make the odd quilt by hand. I made this one for my new great niece Millie in Australia – something traditional from the old world for a new world baby…

Millie's Quilt
Millies Quilt

Those who can’t…

‘Those who can’t do, teach’ – right? Teaching gets a bad press over here: seen as something an artist is forced to do to finance the creative process at best. At worst we’re teaching because we’ve failed to make it at any other level. So wrong in my opinion, especially after eight weeks of learning in Japan

As an artist, one of the greatest tools I have at my disposal is the opportunity to teach. How else will I get to work with such a diverse crowd of adults and children, all with ambitions, images, ideas, talents so very different from my own? The fact is that I have never taught anyone from age three up who hasn’t had something interesting to say through their work and their approach to printing. To work well I need to be teetering by the toes of my plimsolls on the wrong side of my comfort zone and it’s my students who help to get me there. Left alone, it’s me and Radio Four and no challenging ‘why’ or ‘what if’ or ‘how’ questions.

Japan is different. Teaching in Japan is seen as the art, the finished work is the by-product, and the more I teach the more I see why, though in truth I still see art as the art. With every group of students that leaves me clutching their prints and new found knowledge, the richer my work is for the exchange. I am glad that I have the knowledge to train others in the print process and to do it well: it’s for my benefit every bit as much as theirs.

‘Those that want to move forward, teach’ is the way I see it.

I’m teaching Japanese Woodblock at Oxford Brookes and at Missenden Abbey this summer. There are a few places still available, follow the links on the workshops page of my web site.

It’s not all about me

A couple of weeks ago I printed this linocut for my mother-in-law Sal. It was cut by her dad, Jim Boswell, who was a significant artist and illustrator. He was also, by all accounts, charming, funny, badly behaved and immensely engaging to know. It’s one of my great regrets that I never knew him in person, though I know him well through the many paintings and illustrations we have on our walls. I’d have liked his help and advice, which I know would have been good and, most of all, I would have liked his approval. Having Jim’s endorsement of my work would have meant a great deal.

Jim Boswell's Linocut

I was lucky enough to know his wife Betty, a woman of great good humour and resource. She had the wit, during rationing, to whisk away Jim’s Communist Party protest banners (which he had painted enthusiastically scarlet) and boil them down into suitably pink nightdress material for Sal’s boarding school wardrobe.

This print is very simple, it was done for a record cover (I’m guessing folk music, probably sea shanties), and easy to print on my Albion. Linocuts are like fingerprints: no artist cuts a block in the same way and to ink up Jim’s block was to get that little bit closer to knowing him better. It’s not a great print, certainly not one of his best, but it’s another piece in the puzzle for me. It’s also made me wonder about my own blocks: will some distant relative inherit them? I pity anyone who has to work out my woodblocks which are a maze of multiple blocks on both sides of the same wood (I learned to be thrifty in Japan and will put work wherever there is space). There’s not much hope for the lino either: my blocks are mostly destroyed as I cut away with every layer of colour I print. No point worrying though; I shan’t be around to care!