The Prints of Frances Gearhart

Frances Gearhart (1869-1959) was a print maker whose work celebrates the California landscape. Influenced by Japanese block printing, Gearhart’s work combines a close observation of the natural world with a vibrant color palette. We were lucky to snag a reproduction of one of her prints thought the Legion of Honor gift shop.

Methinks we could all benefit from having more images of trees and mountains in our lives in addition to surrounding ourselves with, well, real trees and mountains. Museums should also include more work by women artists who make up just 2% of the world art market.

If you’d like to see more of Gearhart’s work check out francesgearhart.com.

The Minneapolis Institute of Art has an exhibition open through March that includes some of Gearhart’s prints along with the work of other artists of the Arts and Crafts era.

The Buddha of Oakland

A friend and I took a wrong turn in Oakland once and accidentally stumbled on this shrine in an otherwise unremarkable cul-de-sac. This unsanctioned intervention began when a local resident Dan Stevenson, fed up with illegal dumping and graffiti, had the idea of installing a Buddha statue to calm things down. Stevenson is not a Buddhist, but the statue was adopted by the Vietnamese community and what started out as a modest gesture became something much bigger. The short video above tells this amazing story. You can hear more about the “Buddha of Oakland” on this episode of 99% Invisible.

Here in Southern California shrines and murals of the Virgin of Guadalupe fulfill a similar role.

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We need more of these sacred surprises in our cities.

My New Thoughtstyling Throne

As an aging gen-x blogger I decided it was time to build myself a throne from which to harangue, cajole, abjure and speak ex cathedra. Said throne is a replica of Gustav Stickley’s Bow-arm Morris Chair #336 from his 1901 catalog as shown above with a cat for scale.

The differences between the original English Morris chair and the American versions say a lot about our cultural differences. An Essex based carpenter, Ephraim Colman, designed the chair that William Morris would take into production for his company in the 1860s. While the English chair is delicate, Stickley’s American versions are beefy, aggressive and man-spready. The #336 begs for a cigar and whiskey accompaniment along with the assumption that you’ll be using it to oversee your various robber baron hustles. With its adjustable back the robust and elegant #336 is the spiritual ancestor of the BarcaLounger which shows you how far this American Empire has declined.

Making Stickley’s #336 involved an nerve racking steam bending process. The wood went in a makeshift box fed with steam from a wallpaper steamer. After an hour in the steamer the wood was quickly rushed to a form made with plywood. I had to actually sit on the arm to get it to bend. On the first attempt the arm broke and I had to do it all over again. When I was done with the arms I had to steam bend the back slats of the chair. All this took many, I should add pleasant, hours of focused labor blissfully apart from the distractions of the interwebs.

Of all the furniture in a house chairs get the most abuse. Each time you sit down and get up you stress the joints. The arms on the #336 attach to the legs via a sturdy, handsome and labor-intensive through mortise. Details like this explain why Stickley went out of business. His competitors made fake versions of through mortises to save a buck. While my chair was at the upholstery shop someone wanted to buy it but the price offered was way short of the amount of time required to do the steam bending and to fit the four (!) through mortises. The chair sold in 1909 for $31.50 which would be around $900 today.

It’s interesting how much Stickley’s design depends on the attractive ray pattern of quarter sawn white oak. I’ve seen versions of Morris chairs like this made with much cheaper plain sawn red oak and they look horrendous and primitive as if made by Fred Flinstone.

As usual, mistakes were made in building this chair. The principle one was not reading the fine print in the directions in the book of plans I was using that noted that Stickley added two inches to the legs between versions make between 1901 and 1909. I was able to counteract the lack of height by having my upholsterer make a thicker cushion. Since Kelly and I are of the tall tribe I need to pay better attention to customizing fit. If I’m going to go through the trouble of making furniture myself I might as well take the time to make sure it’s a custom job.

Now lets hope this latest DIY project doesn’t lead to the sort of bad ideas that afflict other throne owners:

Our Hot Streets Are an Opportunity

I can’t remember where I got this idea from but I think it was Alissa Walker or someone she was writing about who had the bright idea to go out and check the temperature of our streets on a hot day with a IR thermometer. Since I have one of these handy gadgets for firing up my pizza oven, I thought I’d head out in the neighborhood at around 2:30 in the afternoon and take some temperature readings.

The asphalt in front of our house measured an egg-frying, temperature of 135.3º F (57.3 C).

A rare, tree-lined Los Angeles street one block over was a lot cooler at 80.9º F (27.1º C).

A few blocks north, and to much fanfare, our city coated an asphalt street with a gray coating as part of a “cool pavement” program. The temp on this street was 120.8º F (49.3º C).

Being a crank I have two conclusions:

1. Let’s plant trees.

2. How about instead of painting streets gray we do something really radical and pull them up entirely and start cooling people rather than serving cars?

According to the Los Angeles Times, “Recent research has found that when manufacturing emissions are taken into account, most cool pavements hurt the climate more than they help.”

So, as is typical for our mayor Eric Garcetti it’s all about the press conference and not so much about the actual science. The one glimmer of hope that I have is that people younger than myself are catching on to the empty gestures of neo-liberal, pseudo-environmental politicians like Garcetti and the rest of the Los Angeles City Council. They are beginning to see a more radical alternative to business as usual. As Mark Fisher says in a book everyone should read, Capitalist Realism Is There No Alternative?,

The long, dark night of the end of history has to be grasped as an enormous opportunity. The very oppressive pervasiveness of capitalist realism means that even glimmers of alternative political and economic possibilities can have a disproportionately great effect. The tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism. From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.

So how about we tear a hole in these hot streets and plant some trees?

Misadventures in Laser Cutting

Here at Root Simple we have a tendency to only post our successes. This can lead to the impression that we live in a state of transcendent Martha Stewart perfection, obscuring the reality that DIY projects are as arduous as climbing a mountain. There’s an initial enthusiasm followed closely by alternating periods of triumph, self doubt and pain. Hopefully you learn from your mistakes while acknowledging that you’ll never un-see the flaws nobody else will ever notice.

My latest episode of DIY mountain climbing involved a laser cutter. When I found out that the LA Central Library had a laser cutter that you can use for free I jumped on the opportunity. As an experiment I thought I’d try making a woodblock for printing as well as etch a few images on wood.

For the woodblock I downloaded an image from the internet by the Belgian turn-of-the-last-century artist Félix Vallotton. I used a combination of Photoshop and Illustrator to change the downloaded JPEG image into a vector file suitable for laser cutting. The actual laser cutting was fairly simple. I loaded my Illustrator file into the library’s PC based CorelDRAW program and then hit the print button. A screen pops up with a set of options for the laser cutter which includes materials and depth of cut. I used birch plywood and checked the thickness of the material with calipers. I ended up having to run the laser cut twice to get a deeper cut in the plywood so that the cut portions of the wood wouldn’t soak up ink. It was almost as easy as printing a normal document on paper.

A few days later I asked Kelly (since she has the art degree) to assist in printing the woodcut. We made a trip to the art supply store to get a brayer, paper, and some ink. I fashioned a baren, used to press the paper onto the woodcut, out of scrap wood and a doorknob.

Problems
We managed to pull two not-so-great prints. The problems fall into two categories: materials and concept. First, I should have sanded the birch plywood before laser cutting. The surface of the wood left too rough an impression in the print and soaked up too much ink. I probably would have better results had I put linoleum in the laser cutter instead of wood. Or, perhaps, I should have sanded and sealed the plywood more thoroughly. I did put a coat of shellac on the wood but that wasn’t enough.

Conceptually, using a computer and laser cutter to make a woodblock can remove what is interesting about a woodblock: specifically the irregular line qualities introduced when a human hand cuts wood with a gouge. This does not mean that using a laser cutter to make a print block isn’t worth doing. But I think you might get more interesting results where you acknowledge, rather than try to disguise, the use of a computer and laser. For instance, artist Patrick Collier uses photographs with a halftone pattern to make large lino prints. In a similar process, Toby Millman deomonstrates in a YouTube video how she turns photographs into colored lino prints. The advantage of using a laser printer to make a printing block is that you can do effects that would be impossible to do with a gouge as well as make large prints that would take weeks to cut by hand. Getting the right balance of concept, materials and tools is, of course, one of the central struggles in making art.

Printing on Wood
After completing my print block I had some extra time in the lab so I thought I’d see what it looks like to simply etch in wood. First I tried an image of our cat Buck, one on birch plywood and the other on a scrap of quarter sawn white oak. With some more tweaking in illustrator I probably could have gotten a better image on the birch but I didn’t have time. The oak image did not work at all because the figure of the wood competes too much with the image. If I had my own laser cutter I could probably spend my weekends sitting in a booth at cat shows making laser printed wood cat portraits but that’s not a future I look forward to.

I also tried cutting a more complex image by the symbolist illustrator Carl Otto Czeschka. The results prove that the laser is capable of very fine line quality. I’m thinking of experimenting with some intricate Islamic patterns on a small wood box. Laser cutters can also cut entirely through thin materials so that opens up more possibilities to do things that would be difficult to do by hand. I’m intrigued, for instance, with the possibilities for making three dimensional folding paper cards. You could also use the laser cutter for screen printing, making stencils, wood inlay or marquetry.

Many thanks to the knowledgeable staff of the Octavia Lab!