Wednesday, February 10, 2010

collecting :: printing blocks

My collection of printing blocks started much like my habit of adopting old photos of people I don't know.  I'd often stumble upon a box of photographs at an estate sale and quickly find myself drawn into the stories of these strangers' lives.  Of course, much of this fascination comes from the fact that they were of a different era.  But nonetheless, I would find myself buying a few photos here and there, not because they were collectible, but because of the interesting-ness of these lives captured on paper.
Most of these printing blocks have also come from people--strangers--whose lives were captivating to me, at least in the stories told by their belongings.  The first two I happened upon were holiday-themed "Noel" blocks, carved by a woman whose greatest passion in life was France.  She lived in a striking Queen Anne home in one of Portland's oldest inner-city neighborhoods--just off of NW 23rd, for those of you who know this avenue of little shops and restaurants.  The house was clean and bright, decorated with a delightful collection of art and antiques.  She had fabulous taste.  The house even had a little library room where nearly every book on the floor-to-ceiling shelves was written in French, including many guidebooks and road maps from the 60s that were marked throughout with her notes. This is where I found the large map of Paris that hangs in my living room.  How I would liked to have met this fascinating old woman, to sit back for an afternoon in her front parlor and listen to stories of her European travels.
The printing blocks I found jumbled in a box of office supplies. Charmingly handmade, they seemed to represent the quaint, artistic, French things she loved, and so, I was proud to put them to good use, printing a set of Christmas cards with them that winter.
My knight-in-shining-armor block was made by a woman with similar interests in antiques and world travel, though her stuffed-to-the-gills suburban home was in stark contrast to the light-filled Queen Anne.  This woman was an accomplished pianist and an amazing artist and crafts-person, I discovered.  My own art collection now includes a number of fashion sketches and watercolors she did as a teenager.  Also a proficient weaver, I bought one of her creations for my aunt who is similarly skilled at the loom.

The printing block intrigued me all the more because I found a piece of caramel-colored silk she had hand-printed with this folksy medieval repeat of her own creation.  The fact that I could use it again to print on cards or fabric--to keep enjoying her artistry through my own acts inking the block and pressing it to paper--is what inspired me to bring it home.
The rest of my collection, for the most part, came from a recent sale; again, an elderly woman whose passion was art and, in this case, all things Japanese.  She lived modestly on the first floor of a Craftsman home converted to apartments in southeast Portland.  The dining room was used as an art studio, where printmaking and photography were her mediums of choice.  Oh, you have never seen such a collection of fabulous old cameras!  And then there were were the bins of wood and linoleum blocks she'd carved by hand.  
On several different occasions another customer and I would find ourselves remarking to each other about this woman's talent and the variety of images she so carefully whittled away into each block--animals, Geishas, agrarian themes, folk-art pieces.  The blocks themselves are art.  But I'm also ready to see how their prints might be incorporated into collages, perhaps printing them onto old book pages or thin rice paper.
There is something in these handmade blocks--the connection to interesting, artistic women, I suppose--that inspires me to make things that are a record of my own creativity; things that could be useful or inspirational to anyone who might appreciate that connection to the lives of people who came before them--whether beloved family members or benevolent strangers.