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

This entry was posted in Art, Current Works, Printmaking, Reduction Method, Woodcuts and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to An Illuminating Woodcut

  1. Arlene says:

    WOWZA! That is amazing Jenn! Can you not embellish the others that didn’t print well?


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