Birds seem to have become a theme in my printmaking, lately. Aussie printmaker Kate Gorringe-Smith sent out notification of a call for artists to contribute to a special exhibition. ‘Birds + Us’ is being organised by BirdLife Australia,to raise money and awareness for the Threatened Bird Network, to celebrate their 20 year anniversary. I was hooked.
Although, unlike the Tasmanian Wedge-tailed eagles, our Victorian wedgies are not on the threatened list, they are protected – it is illegal to shoot, poison or trap these beautiful birds. Being protected by law is no guarantee of a peaceful existence, as I discovered during my time as a wildlife rescuer. Over a few short years, I experienced the heartbreak of seeing too many magnificent wedgies brought into care. Some were victims of mishaps, more often they were victims of human thoughtlessness and outright cruelty.
With one of the categories for the artwork being ‘Working with Birds’, I immediately thought of the two beautiful ‘girls’ rescued by volunteers of the Wildlife Rescue Emergency Service (WRES), based in Central Victoria, I had the privilege to know and help care for.
Tasia was found as a fledgling by a property owner. Instead of notifying wildlife carers, he caged and housed her in a busy machinery shed, from which he conducted his business. She was captive for over a year, fed an improper diet, which resulted in a longer than usual beak, had no perch and was forced to stand in filth. She was without sunlight – accounting for her darker than usual plumage – and could not see the sky. On being rescued, she high-stepped across the ground in the hospital aviary, the earth beneath her feet an alien experience. With infinite patience and care, Neil Morgan, the raptor specialist with WRES, encouraged and taught Tasia to grip a perch, to fly, and hunt.
Cassie was found near railway tracks in Castlemaine, Victoria. Whether she escaped or was thoughtlessly set free (perhaps her captors became bored, or went on holiday, or some damn thing) is unknown. All her flight feathers were sheared off or broken, due to being captive in a too-small cage. She had used her talons to climb a tree, seeking safety. A gentle girl, whose eyes told of her confusion at the hand she had been dealt by humans, Cassie was in care until new flight feathers grew, after a complete moult.
These magnificent birds were companions in care, in a spacious, specially built flight aviary for almost two years before they were released. I had the privilege and joy of seeing them both take to the sky.
The sunrise in the printed image signifies hope, while the broken wire represents their rescue and eventual freedom. Whether or not my linocut print of ‘The Girls’ is chosen for the juried exhibition, it was wonderful to relive some very precious memories of these two wedgies while I cut the block and pulled the prints.
A Note on the Process
The print was hand-pulled – placing the paper on the inked block and burnishing the back of the paper using a wooden ladle and metal spoon, and lots of elbow grease, transferring ink to paper – no mechanical press involved. It was done using the Reduction Method (otherwise known among printmakers as the suicide method – no going back, and any major boo-boos in cutting-away means starting the whole process again from scratch with a new block). After each successive colour is printed, sections of the block are removed to retain what’s already printed and in readiness for printing the next colour, usually working from light to dark.
Registration (getting each pull of the print perfectly lined up on the paper with preceding passes) was my first challenge. Although I delight in the mystery and often unexpected results involved in the Reduction Method, I was yet to work out the perfect (for me) method of registration. I was continually frustrated at too many ‘lost’ prints. Pablo Picasso might get away with misaligned registration in his ‘Portrait of a Woman after Cranach the Younger 1958‘ which hangs in the Tate gallery, but Picasso I ain’t.
Research gave me a few tips and I duly tried the ‘pin’ method. This involves dowel or metal pins being inserted into a fixed ‘border’ of the registration board, upon which block and paper are placed, and punching corresponding holes into the paper, a margin allowed. Before beginning to print, I tested putting the paper on and off the dowel pins, as there would be several colours and this would happen numerous times for each print. The holes stretched. The registration would be thrown off.
In the end, I ignored the pins, but utilised the wooden strips attached to the registration board. I added mat board borders on two sides to ‘contain’ the block. And, as much as I love the softening effect of deckle edges on prints (even though they are usually covered during framing) I proceeded to cut clean edges on the two corresponding sides of the paper.
Fingers crossed and heart in mouth I began printing The Girls. Mostly, it worked. One colour on one print was off because of a tiny chip of lino stuck to the back of the block, throwing the registration out, dramatically. Another was a bit off, for whatever reason.
As more of the block disappeared with cutting, there was a lot of wiping of already cut areas needed, to result in a ‘clean’ print. I missed a section and there was a print with dark streaks in the sky.
The print ended up darker overall than I anticipated, due to being extremely low on white ink for mixing colours. With my regular supplier in Melbourne being out of stock, and having no one local to go to for printmaking supplies, a visit to Castlemaine presented an opportunity. No, it wasn’t Graphic ink, but the Caligo (which I also use) would work fine. I stocked up, only to discover the said ‘5% difference in formula’ had a major impact on mixing and drying times. For me, the two inks were not compatible.
I was working to a deadline (as usual) and rather than waiting days for the Caligo/Graphic mix to dry, I resorted to white oil paint mixed with Georgian Block Printing Medium, which I’d used before. The medium transforms the paint into a tackier consistency suitable for rolling, essential for printmaking. And, it dries quickly.
The final result? Out of eight prints, I ended up with an edition of five, plus two artist’s proofs (acceptable but not perfect) and a trial proof. Better than my average for the Reduction Method. Despite the challenges, I am pleased to have captured – only figuratively – the two regal wedgies that will dwell eternally in my heart.