• alexjgardner

a look back...

A little retrospective of my printmaking from the last few years.

I didn't think I'd manage a blog this week. My best bud has laid down a challenge this week and it's taking me a little longer than I thought (largely due to fact that in typical 'me' style, I've ended up creating something far more complicated than originally intended!). So that'll be next week's entry. But to keep my promise to myself - to get a blog post out at least once a week - I had to come up with something to talk about and show. So I thought we'd have a little trip down memory lane, and look at my history with printmaking over the 6 or so years I've been playing with the medium(s). So here goes...

1. Robots - My first foray into linocut (2014)

I can't remember when I first came across linoprint (or relief printmaking in general). I do remember seeing prints by local artists around this time, and being drawn to the textures in the work, and the graphic art nature of some of the prints I saw. I remember having a trip to Fred Aldous in Manchester and picking up all the cheapest linocut supplies I could find, and setting out on my first adventure in printmaking. I used the softcut lino to start with (which I'd recommend to anyone wanting to have a go, especially younger budding printmakers). I was pretty happy with how these turned out, and still am - I've sold most of the editions over the years (and gifted a few too!). This was the project that got me hooked!

2. Landlines - a bigger challenge (2014)

Pretty much as soon as I finished the robots I started on a series of bigger pieces, utilising my love of maps and typography. I did a few different pieces in this style, for various places in my local area. They went down particularly well at local Christmas and Summer art markets. I have one of the Broadbottom prints in the living room to remind me of my early work. My love of maps endures to this day, and it's great to look back at this series as it feeds into one of the bigger projects I'm currently working on. These were also carved using softcut lino, some of which was kindly passed on by local artists who were really supportive of my interest and progression in the medium. It really helps when you're surrounded by talented creators who are more than willing to pass down advice etc to help with the learning process. Unfortunately many of my arty neighbours have since moved away - I do miss the little creative community we had in Broadbottom.

3. Boxing in Bloomers - first entry into a print exchange (2015)

This was a small (max print size 10cm x 10cm) print I did as an entry into the International Print Exchange (IPE) in 2015. Run by Green Door Printmaking Studio, the annual exchange draws artists from all over the world. You submit an edition of 10 prints, and receive a mixed pack of 10 prints from other artists. There's also an exhibition of all the prints organised in Derby where Green Door are based. I really should enter more of these - it's wonderful to have a pack of prints drop through the door, filled with such variety and from all over the world. I got prints from Ireland, UK, Australia, Brazil, the US and Israel. The 2020 IPE submission deadline is 30th September - I should really put that date in my diary and get something sent in! If you want to get involved you can find more info here: https://www.internationalprintexchange.org/

4. Cyberman - an experiment in reduction linocut (2016 - I think)

At this point I'd got to the stage where I wanted to try printing with more than one colour. I adapted a design by my best bud so I could test out the reduction technique, sometime known as a suicide print, due to it's tricky nature - if you screw up the carving on any of the layers, then you're a bit buggered! There's no separate blocks for each colour, so there's no do-overs. I wasn't massively happy with this at the time, registration for the second layer was a pain in the arse and the ink coverage was very patchy. But when I look at it now it's not actually too bad for a first try. And it's a good reminder that I do need to keep practicing and keep trying - I haven't done a reduction print since this as I got scared that I couldn't do it. But it's about time I went back to it I think! There's another project to add to the list then...

5. The Continuum series - the prints I'm most proud of (2017)

To this day, these are the prints that I'm most pleased with. I know why - it's because they came from a deeply personal place. They weren't made as experiments or learning exercises, or made because I thought they might sell at markets, but because they were my way of telling my story.

I had seen an exhibition of Paul Peter Piech's work at the People's History Museum the year before I made these, which blew me away. Piech's work is activism at its heart - striking graphic art linocut posters tackling issues of social justice and political corruption. His series on racism is hugely impactful, and still very relevant - just google his name and see what I mean. Piech's clarity of message and bold style inspired these pieces of mine, and in a way I found his confidence of voice a source of strength in making this work - I am always rather scared of putting myself out there and this work (for an exhibition I co-curated on being transgender in 21st century Britain) meant laying myself open publicly for the first time. The positive response these pieces gained meant (and still means) the world to me. The sad thing is that I have lost the confidence I found doing this work - I haven't addressed being transgender in my work since. These pieces were even included in an online exhibition this summer; a wonderful collection of work from a number of trans masculine and non-binary artists organised as part of a trans arts festival in Manchester. That the curators saw value in my work and wanted to include it was fantastic and I am so grateful for that, and yet I couldn't even bring myself to promote the fact I have work in the exhibition. Well, now is a good time to start: you can find the ‘Lost In Translation’ exhibition (part of Trans Vegas Festival 2020), curated by Chester Tenneson and Zorian Clayton, right here: https://found-in-translation.squarespace.com

I think that perhaps the increase in transphobia we've experienced recently drives my fear, but rationally I know that this means it's the time to speak out, not hide away. That's easier said than done though! But I'm going to try to beat that fear from now on, and say it how I see it. I need to take heart from what I expressed in these prints - strength comes from vulnerability, and a life lived unseen is a half-life.

6. Further experiments in print (whilst flailing around for direction!) - 2017 to 2019

The next couple of years weren't very print heavy. I couldn't really pin down what I wanted to focus on, and had a number of design commissions that left me with less time to concentrate on printmaking (not that I'm complaining about that - I enjoyed doing those jobs immensely!). But it made for a rather fallow period of personal work. I tried various things, more linocut, some woodcut (which I struggled with) and some intaglio printmaking in the form of drypoint, which I really like and plan to go back to soon. I made work that I thought might sell (kiss of death to creative progression!) rather than what I really wanted to make. None of it was horrid, but none of it was great either! It was a tough time creatively and I don't think I progressed much at all during these two years, at least not as a printmaker. My design work definitely got better though, so not all was lost!

7. Sheep Rock prints - getting back in the groove (2019)

After a while without picking up a gouge, I decided to use the opportunity of a local Christmas market at the end of 2019 to get back into linocut. I had spent much of the 'flailing years' out in the hills, as they're my happy place, my fortress of solitude, and I'd accrued a large collection of pictures of sheep on rocks (and in other rather random positions). I adore the little bleaters - they're hilarious and curious and sometimes downright naughty and never fail to bring a smile to my face! So I wanted to immortalise them in some work, and created two prints of the monkeys balancing on and/or peeking out from behind rocks. Really it was a way to get back into the swing of things when it came to printmaking. And it was something I wanted to do, rather than something I thought might be sell. If they did make a few pennies then that's great (and I'm happy to report that they did - in fact they've sold as far afield as the US) but they were just fun to make and gave me a confidence boost. And more than anything they solidified the idea that making work about landscape and my relationship to the outdoors and the creatures who call it home is a worthy and positive area of focus for me. And so began some initial plans for projects that build on these themes of autobiography, landscape and journeys.

8. Raising Our Futures (Raising Films commission) - a bolt out of the blue (2020).

My plans for a series of work on landscape and autobiography were somewhat scuppered for this year with the arrival of Covid-19. I had planned to undertake a journey through Snowdonia, on foot, as part of a walking-art project, which of course had to be cancelled due to the outbreak. I was fortunate to get some emergency arts council funding to do some R&D work in preparation for when I can actually get out and do that journey again (which will probably be next year now), but as lockdown went on I was finding it increasingly hard to focus on anything creative. I was just starting get to the panicky point of my creative anxiety when out of the blue I got the opportunity to create the above work for Raising Films. (You can find out more about the organisation here - they're a really fantastic group of folks who are really passionate about challenge institutional inequalities in the TV and film industries: https://www.raisingfilms.com/) They had seen my Continuum prints and wanted to commission work that presented a unified call-to-action based on survey responses from members of the film and TV community. And thus the Raising Our Futures print was born.

I worked a bit differently on this piece as we needed to create something that could be displayed online and printed digitally to keep production costs down and raise money for the organisation for future campaigns. So I carved and printed the design in linocut, and then cut it up into sections and scanned it in to the computer where it was composited into the finished poster. Working in a new way was a fantastic experience for learning, but the true joy was working with a team of people who were passionate about the sorts of things that mean a lot to me, and also immensely supportive of my work. This job couldn't have come at a better time. It got me working on a larger scale again, it got me fired up about typographical design again, about the importance of using one's voice and how much strength there is in unity.

And that brings us up to the beginning of this blogging endeavour. When I look back at my past work I can see themes emerging. I see the work where I was obviously most invested, the little pieces where I learnt loads, and yes, the pieces which my heart wasn't really in. And what I can't show here is all the pieces I started but never finished - mainly because they weren't in one of the two 'self-approved' themes I tried to restrict myself to, landscape or social justice/politics, so I abandoned them, in the belief that I was 'wasting my time'! I often worry that I 'bounce' around too much between themes or subject matter or styles. I've always been like that - my parents used to refer to it as 'flitting about', which concerned them that I'd not settle on something long enough to really make something of it. And I worry about that too. But what I see as constant is my love of creating, of printmaking, as well as the joy I get from having an interest in many different things. I need to stop treating that curiosity as a potential downfall and embrace it. If something inspires me to make work I just need to damn well run with it. And that's what this blog is for after all! I think the most progression in my skill and style etc will come out of just making work and seeing what happens - it's the happy accidents that often provide the most enriching experiences. If I take this approach then I think that the next retrospective viewing of my work in a year or so's time could be a really interesting one...

Right I've rambled long enough - this turned into a bit of a long one. Well done if you're still reading at this point!

Until next time,