An Illuminating Woodcut

Medieval woodcut - Jenn White

Medieval woodcut

This time of year is busy with art shows and awards, among which is the annual John Shaw Neilson Art Prize. As part of the Penola Coonawarra Arts Festival, the award celebrates the life and poetry of Neilson, born in Penola, South Australia in 1872, and visual art entries must be inspired by one of his poems.  I was tossing up between a couple of ideas, knew I should probably go with a more ‘commercial’ and overall appealing image – with little hope of winning the $10,000, my work might at least sell.  The Muse can be perverse, and determined.  She nagged in my ear while clinging like a limpet and I gave in, choosing what called to my heart and spirit.

The poem that had me in a lather…

The Stolen Lament

It has the seal of sorrow; it was born
In lamentation where sweet women died
And the red smoke came out upon the corn.

Leave it in pity—it is sealed of woe—
Lest you should hear the hisses of the Dead
Of Ireland seven hundred years ago.

Beauty of light is on it, scent of dew
That once in Heaven was, the bud that came
On trees of happiness that never grew.

Beauty it has that never came by words,
The lordly evidence of Summer-time,
And the deep adoration of the birds.

It has been lifted on rebellion’s red.
But listening in the calm we know that night
Is but a generous playtime for the Dead.

* * * * *
Its wealth of tears is not for you to know,
Lest you should hear the hisses of the Dead
Of Ireland seven hundred years ago.

The poet had me at the first verse, and again in the last – to be honest, Neilson had me at the title, lament bringing the image of a fingers on harp strings, as well as plucking at heart strings.  My maternal great-grandmother was Irish.  What had happened in her birth country 700 years ago?  Had a bard played the lament on a harp while telling of those sorrowful events?  All that time ago, had the story been shared, scripted and illustrated on the pages of an illuminated manuscript?  Or was the shame of war and slaughter swept under the rush matting, as the poet intimated?

Medieval woodcut block, roughed out with coloured pencils - Jenn White

Medieval woodcut block, roughed out with coloured pencils

Fully aware I was being ambitious and throwing down the gauntlet to my creative self, I quickly realised I would never get the print done in time.  It was for me a large block (51 h x 40 w), would be produced without a press, detailed, a reduction print, and drying time between layers of colour was an issue.  But, once started and a good section of the work table taken up by my makeshift registration system (to ensure lining up of repeating layers) I entered another print, dry and framed, to go with another poem, and kept on going.

Registration system for medieval wood block - Jenn White

Registration system for medieval wood block


Once the Muse starts tugging on my sleeve, it’s rarely a simple process to get from go to whoa.  I spent hours researching what happened in Ireland seven centuries ago to inspire the poem.  Because it was ‘sweet women’ who died, I wanted a female harper, telling the story.  What did burning corn look like?  I scanned numerous resources of illuminated manuscript pages (hard-copy and digital) for small vignettes depicting those times, decorative and days-in-the-life-of.  I also scanned life-drawing resource sites for women ‘playing dead’.  I’ve always loved being immersed in research, but I can also get carried away!  Of all the references gathered, only a handful were actually used.

The end result is not what I envisioned, not completely.  I’m yet to discover why some blocks are a pain in the bum to print from, the ink coverage on the paper patchy and generally scant.  Some sections of the block refused to print clearly, no matter how hard I tried.  Is it the build-up of Shellac, applied after each new layer is cut?  Is it the choice of paper, lack of viscosity in the ink, the non-consistent texture of the builders’ plywood?  Or merely the result of not enough pressure using only arthritic hands and a metal spoon?  Or, perhaps a combination of several or all components?

Whatever… Despite the finished print losing quite a bit between my mind and the paper, I’m pleased I did it, and pleased with the result.  In a moment of whimsy, I thought the ‘patchiness’ could represent the story fading into oblivion…or, emerging.  From five prints only two are usable, and they are different – unique states, as yet untitled.  That’s the way it goes, some days (weeks) in the studio.

Medieval woodcut two versions - Jenn White

Untitled medieval woodcut two versions

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Changing Times in Print

The Goblin and the Woman Puppet Show - linocut, Jenn White

The Goblin and the Woman Puppet Show – linocut

Signing up for a Monthly Linocut Challenge seemed like a good idea, though when I saw the ‘brief’ for March I wasn’t so sure.  The basic theme was Fairy Tale characters, which was fine as far as it went.  It was the ‘on Popsicle (icy pole) sticks’ specification that put me off.  Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy cut-and-paste, but I have to be in the mood.  I spent most of the month thinking I would wait for April’s challenge, but the puppet aspect niggled.  The Muse was jigging up and down. She’s always loved puppets, but icy poles she can take or leave, now the weather is cooler.

The only puppet show I remember taking part in was at Primary school.  We were tasked with making a hand puppet.  The head was to be Papiermâché mounted on a piece of dowel, with a sewn body like a hand puppet.  I remember Miss Fothergill very well – the puppet’s name, not the teacher’s.  She was rather school marm-ish, with woollen hair coifed in a bun arrangement, red lips and stern face.  She was named for an unfortunate young girl (nothing alike in appearance), a classmate of my younger brother’s.  I wonder what sort of personality complications the poor child ended up with, being constantly avoided as a desk-mate, because she ‘smelled bad’.  She also seemed to often be in trouble, the teacher admonishing ‘Miss Fothergill’ on an almost daily basis, according to dinnertime conversation.  I don’t know that I ever actually knew the poor kid’s given name, but her family name stuck in my mind.  Repetition will do that.  Miss Fothergill – the puppet, not the girl – ended up falling apart, no doubt due to moisture absorption.

As a result of the Muse’s relentless nagging I decided to tackle the challenge, just to shut her up, but with my own take on the puppets.  I had as much fun doing the linocut as I remember having when making Miss Fothergill.  The print seems be part of a developing personal theme – kids in times gone by.  Most of my grandchildren, especially the older ones, probably wouldn’t be inspired to either make puppets or put on their own puppet show.  A pity, as I’d be vying for the best seat in the house, front row on the floor.


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Women in Woodcuts

Concertina book cover - woodcut - Jenn White

Concertina book cover – woodcut

When I first revisited printmaking, after many moons, I was introduced to combining printing with book making, a welcome adventure for me.  Very often, after a printing session, I’m left with strips of paper.  It’s not a cheap item, so I tend to hang onto off-cuts for small prints or bookmarks.  With a love for books, and every piece of artwork telling a story – however obtuse to the viewer – I decided a concertina book was there for the making.

Many of us belong to our own ‘tribes’, folk we have an affinity with – similar interests, values, beliefs – and we all belong to the human tribe.  Most of us also relate to others of our gender.  I know I do.  We experience on some level and to some degree, large or small, the trials, tribulations, and heartaches of those within our tribe, even from a distance of decades or centuries.  There is a common thread that weaves its way through our psyches, that can be empathy or perhaps even ancestral memory.

Years ago, while doing family history research and checking census forms for a particular family, I was saddened, and in this politically correct society, uncomfortable, to read a child as listed as an imbecile.  I followed that child’s life through the records.  The terms varied (moron, idiot), but throughout her life she was always labelled as different from her siblings.  I could only try to imagine what her life was like.  She was fortunate to live most of her life with family, residing with a sister after their parents died, but ended up in an asylum.  In those days, the work houses and asylums were places for not only the mentally or physically challenged, but also the depositing place for those who had nowhere else to go.

Researching female ancestors – girls who worked on the gold fields alongside male family members, servants working for the more well-to-do, young women who braved the unknown in the search of a better life – I felt the tug of the common thread of femaleness.  I can’t possibly know how Truganini felt, watching her tribe disappear, though I have lost loved ones, often through tragic circumstances.  Nor can I truly feel her fear of having her body put in a museum, as a curiosity, after her death, which came to pass.  But, whether stranger or family, our gender binds us.

Concertina book of original woodblock prints - Jenn White

Concertina book of original woodblock prints



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A Printing Press by Another Name

Mangle or Press?

Mangle or Press?

I do enjoy printing with a metal spoon or baren (a small, handheld bamboo disk used for burnishing the back of the printing paper), but there are times I’d like to play with a press.  I also love old things.  So, what better solution than using an old mangle to soothe both desires?

A friend had the mangle in a garage sale, late last year, and I took the plunge.  Delivered by her kind husband, it has sat in the little display area of the studio for weeks.  Now, with the help of same said husband and his mate, Matilda the mangle – the mighty battle maid, and Mattie for short – is in place.

I readily admit I’m not always a patient person when it comes to artwork.  I want to get stuck in.  Mattie is definitely in need of some loving attention.  Nevertheless, she wears her mantle of rust with dignity.  I couldn’t help wondering how long ago it was that she came by ship from England, and how many homes she has had.  How many women have cranked her handle?  Looking at her worn and warped wooden rollers, it’s obvious she has worked hard in her previous incarnation, squishing water from untold amounts of laundry.  Evicting the resident spider, but leaving the cobwebs for the moment, I gave Mattie a run.

Test prints with Mattie the Mangle

Test prints with Mattie the Mangle

As with any new piece of ‘equipment’ the first try-out left a lot to be desired.  Using a mat board-lino-paper sandwich, did not accommodate Mattie’s off-centre and worn rollers.  I then tried re-positioning the sandwich to feed off-centre.  Better, but not great.  I tried running the re-inked sandwich through twice, reversing the feed, which meant a slight shifting of the paper – too dark and smudgy.  Add a top cushion of sturdy felt, and…wow…look at Mattie go. There’s life in the old girl yet!

Second test block - linocut - Mangle print - Jenn White

Second test block – linocut – Mangle print

Turning the wheel to turn the cogs, and listening to the clank, bumps and grinds was something special.  Like this old girl, Mattie is yearning for some oil in her joints, but happy to be moving.  I think I’ve also discovered a new exercise partner… Come on Mattie, let’s rock ‘n’ roll!

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Rennie - wood engraving - Jenn White

Rennie – wood engraving

My first printmaking project for the year was to be an edition for the Baren Forum Woodblock Printing Group.  An un-themed exchange, I struggled with choosing a subject – too many ideas.  I had thought to do a reduction print, but with the weather playing silly buggers, one day cool and the next dumping a heatwave, drying layers of ink would be unpredictable.  Like all exchanges, there was a deadline. There was also a Christmas gift to think about.  Added to that was the daily awareness of the ageing process, not only for me, embarking on another round of medical tests, but also for my canine mate, Finn, and his sister Rennie. The mind works in convoluted ways…at least mine does!  My Muse is much like Victorian weather with her whims and sudden knocks to the side of the head that have me reeling.

In late 2008, seeking a new canine companion, I trawled the internet, not pedigree sites, but those providing second chances.  I also wanted a large breed, something I would actually see before tripping over it.  I’m a sucker for any creature huge and hairy, you know, gorillas, Chewbacca, Yetis.

I found my perfect mate.  A litter rescued from ill-treatment and the prospect of a life spent pig-hunting (something Wolfhounds and Wolfie crosses are easily trained for) and already four months old, the dogs’ chances of being homed were slim.  The scruffiest one snatched my heart on first sight.  I wanted them all, but…

Arrangements were made, money paid.  Finn duly arrived in Bendigo, after the long trip from New South Wales with a helpful and dog-loving greyhound owner.  A few weeks later, Finn was reunited with his sister, Rennie.  Pretty and appealing, she had caught the attention of a good friend and neighbour in Maldon, where I lived at the time.

After what had been a very rough start, they soon settled into their new homes.  From nervy toddlers they quickly grew to formidable teenagers – in size, but not temperament.  And, like human teenagers, they egged each other on, embarking on adventures never considered alone.  Seen often together around town, the pair, and their owners, became quite well-known.  Fortunate, on the day they escaped.  During a play date one of them sussed out how to slip the gate latch.  After a heads-up from a kind and concerned local, the pair were finally apprehended, frothing at the mouth from exertion.  They’d had a wonderful time, tear-arsing around the town.  It was hard to keep a straight face while reprimanding, seeing the ecstatic grins and lolling tongues.  And probably a touch of pride in their derring-do at having crossed the busy road, twice, and avoided being skittled by any one of the numerous passing trucks.

Ten years later, Finn and Rennie’s days of escapades are over, insecurities and failing bodies slowing them down.  Though, boys will be boys, whatever the age.  There are still nights, usually when the moon is either new or full, when my boy worms his way under the fence and takes off across the paddocks, his bark fading as he chases an invader.  For a short time he’s a kid again, forgetting his age and infirmities.  He pays for it later, but aren’t all the young-at-heart a bit like that?

The subject chosen, with both exchange and Christmas gift in mind, I decided on a wood engraving.  It’s been a while.  Plus, I’d promised myself to try out the disks of wood, sold as drink coasters and bought with engraving in mind during a trip to Bali.  I only have one engraving tool, a scorper, and had no idea until I started how it would work with an unknown wood.  It was a bit crumbly in spots, and I had to incorporate a hole in the centre into Rennie’s tongue.  Yes, there are things I would change, if given a second chance, but overall I’m pleased enough with the engraving, and the portrait of a younger, much loved and now elderly companion of a good friend.

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Someone’s Best Friend in Print, Paws and All.

Da - Jenn Whitekota - Linocut

Dakota – Linocut

Yesterday, the temperature soared into the forties (centigrade). I was coping okay.  Too hot to make printing ink work down in the studio, I battened down, working on my novel, regularly cringing as the violent winds bludgeoned the gum trees towering above the cottage.  I was, however, concerned for my ageing loyal mate. Poor Finn, my ten-year-old Wolfhound/Bull Mastiff cross, wasn’t doing as well.  Time for the air conditioner.  Watching his breathing gradually go from short, sharp panting to the regular, even rise and fall of his chest while he slept, I wondered how much longer we will have together.  For his breed/s and size, and with hips buggered since puppy-hood, he’s doing well, considering.  Still eager to go for rambles, especially down along the Glenelg River, he ranges ahead, the leader of a pack of two.  He inevitably veers off at the two sandy beaches for a drink and paw-cooling.  Dogs smile, of course they do.  His pleasure is evident while we’re out, but, he pays for it later, his disintegrating hip joints unable to sustain the effort of carrying his 46 kilos too far, for too long.



How will I cope when he’s gone?  I accept that in the not too distant future, he will embark on his last journey.  If love alone was the elixir of life, my raggle-taggle, scruffy boy would live forever.

Before Christmas my daughter-in-law asked me to ‘do something’ with sheets of paw prints of her friend’s now deceased dog, a loyal and much-loved member of the family.  Suggestions were vague – perhaps a bunch of flowers, something she can keep and display.   Uninspired by the bouquet idea, I was in a quandary.  What would I like as a commemoration of a dear mate?

There had been no printmaking for more than a week – oh, woe – so, incorporating a linocut was top of the list to include.  A photograph of the dog, Dakota, duly provided, I set to work.

The Book of Dakota - Accordion book, Jenn White

The Book of Dakota

I had fun doing the small project, the recipient was thrilled, and a devoted pooch was memorialised in a creative and, I considered, fitting way.  Not wishing to tempt fate, I won’t be starting a book for Finn anytime soon.  Later…

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Myth, Magic and Maladies

Unicorn Box - acrylic and lino stamps on wood - Jenn White

Unicorn Box – acrylic and lino stamps on wood

There have been years, when my children were young and grandchildren not so much as a glimmer in the distant future, that I’ve pulled an all-nighter on Christmas Eve, getting ‘homemade’ gifts finished for Santa to deliver.  I’m sure the Red Man’s elves were far more organised!  Perhaps it’s age-related, or merely being worn out at the end of a busy year, but this season I’ve put less pressure on myself.  There were plans.  Of course, there were.  Hopefully, they will come to fruition next year.

In a quandary over a gift for one granddaughter, I quizzed my son.  A glitch in family cohesion, with a blossoming adult travelling a separate path, meant I’d largely lost touch for a while with her likes and dislikes.  “She loves unicorns,” my son told me.  Ah, myth and magic, I thought.  Appropriate for this time of year.

I considered doing a print or painting, but with my granddaughter’s living arrangements soon to again change, wall art might be a bugbear rather than a blessing.  So…what else?  Something decorative but portable, easily stored if need be, and also useful.

An avid collector of boxes, ones to use and others to do something with, sometime, there are always potentially useful receptacles on hand.  Why?  Perhaps because I so often am unsure where I fit in the world?  Trying to find the right box for a good fit?  Trying to avoid getting into the box?  Striving to be a this-millennium woman and get out of the box?  Mr Freud would no doubt explain it succinctly.  There was no need to dwell on the foible, or hunt through my stash – I’d recently picked up a promising item.

I was on my way, gesso, paint, music from the tape player (I’ve already admitted to being old-fashioned) and in the zone.  Having had a week or so away from printing, the lino sat like an itch I needed to scratch.  Two small stamps resulted.  The effect on the painted surface was imperfect – live with it, Jenn – but added a bit of otherworldly-ness to a fantasy effect and subject.

Unicorn Box (2) - Jenn White

Unicorn Box (2)

The painting and decorating complete, I wanted the lid hinged.  A rebated lid added a new challenge – hinges attached, this way, or that?  By far the most frustrating part of the project was adding those piss-farty hinges, for which I needed to use a screwdriver as skinny as a skewer.

Repeatedly struggling with the tiny screws while positioning the box and lid, with arthritic hands that some days can barely grasp the morning’s magnesium tablet – a size suitable for a horse pill – I railed against the upside-down nature of being human.  Now, finally, when I have the time and freedom to indulge my heart’s delights, my body is turning traitor.  Ah, well, there was nothing for it but to persist, while swearing alternately at my fumbling, dropped minuscule screws amongst the lino chips, and be grateful that I’m still here to finish the box.  Just hope the recipient likes it!

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