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He went down to the racks, where they cross Lorain . . .  8" X 8" color woodcut from A Pocket Full of Change. 2015.

He went down to the racks, where they cross Lorain . . . 8″ X 8″ color woodcut from A Pocket Full of Change. 2015.

When my kids were little, their teachers celebrated One Hundred day—the 100th day of school each year. They marked the little scholastic holiday by bringing in 100 of something—100 pennies, 100 beads, 100 paper clips, 100 origami cranes, 100 marbles, 100 cookies. The idea was to give the kids a connection to the abstract figure, to give them a visceral sense of what that order of magnitude was. It’s easy to lose track of what big numbers mean if you haven’t actually seen what they represent.

I dive deep into the numbers in the hours I spend standing at a printing press, making the pictures that fill my books. In my new project, a wood block and letterpress book called A Pocket Full of Change, there are 20 pictures made with no fewer than 100 wood blocks, plus 33 additional blocks of magnesium, linoleum, and brass tool, all registered into colorful scenes. The book comes out this week, Friday night at Tregoning and Company.

One block for the sky

One block for the sky

I’ve been printing this book for about 3 years, one block, one color at a time. Let’s just say I know what 100 is. I know what 1,000 is. Indeed, I know what 10,000 is. Printing all those blocks, plus the pages of text, I figure I’ve cranked the Vandercook proofing presses at Zygote Press and the Morgan Conservatory more than 18,000 times.

The words that occur to me as I make each picture is that they are “built,” or “constructed.” One block for the sky. One block for One block for the clouds. One block for the pavement. One block for the light shining down. It goes on like that, until the whole picture comes together. There’s a moment of suspense, printing the black block over the top of the whole thing, hoping everything is properly aligned.

One block for the pavement, another for the clouds . . .

One block for the pavement, another for the clouds . . .

It’s all been a drum roll leading up to this Friday, when we open the doors and I let people see the finished book for the first time: 20 pictures telling the story of a boy who goes out on his bicycle and puts all the money in his pocket on railroad tracks to be run over by trains.

Jake took his bike

and a pocket full of change

and he pedaled down the block

til he was out of shouting range.

Come out and see it, bring the kids, and be sure to say hello. I’ll be at the opening from 6 to 9 pm. Tregoning & Co. is at 1300 West 78th Street, in the 78th Street Studios art complex in Cleveland.

Here it is on Facebook. See you there!

 

One block for the sun shining down . . .

One block for the sun shining down . . .

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snow-hopkins

Close quarters

Lakewood houses are packed in tight, usually with nothing but a one-lane driveway and a little strip of a flower bed separating one from the next.

Sometimes two neighboring Lakewood houses are built with adjacent driveways. That makes for a double wide drive way which—in good weather, and as long as you get along with your neighbors—can be very handy for jockeying the cars around. But in snowy weather, two adjacent driveways like that pose a special kind of problem.

Because on the one hand, you can’t shovel your snow off on the neighbor’s driveway. And you can’t shovel in the other direction because that’s where your house is.

The only solution, as anyone who has one of these driveways knows, is to shovel the snow past the house, and then pile it up in your front yard. You could hire a guy with a snowplow, if you have the money for that. But most of us in Lakewood deal with our own snow.

gathering mass

gathering mass

Snow shoveling under any circumstances is solid exercise. But if you’ve got to move a big pile 30 feet down the drive—making the pile bigger as you go before you shovel the whole mess off to the front yard—that’s more than just exercise. That’s what we call “hard labor.” Depending on your health, you might just be better off hiring a guy with a plow.

But let me tell you about the “snowman method” for driveway clearing.

I invented this technique the other day, when I decided to take advantage of the packing snow and the gravity of my driveway’s gentle slope. Most driveways slope down toward the street, which makes it easy to roll things that way: Kickballs, basketballs. I began near the top of the driveway, rolling a snowball down toward the bottom.

When we say something “snowballed,” we mean it grew over time, like a snowball rolling down hill, gathering more snow. This is what happens if you roll a snowball down your driveway. All that snow—all that white mass, and the labor it represents—gets caught up in the rolling. And then, in the joyous, gravity-assisted process of making a gigantic snowball, it finds its way to the bottom of the driveway.

The fully executed "snowman method"

The fully executed “snowman method”

Once I got there, I rolled the big balls off to the side and stacked them up in the yard—hence the “snowman method.”

You are hereby encouraged to try this at home.

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I got a great deal on some particle board the other day.

A few months had gone by since I finished my last binge of a letterpress project, so I figured it was time to start working on a new one: another children’s book, printed with wood blocks and movable type.

Jacob and the Djembe Rocket is a classic odyssey, a trip to the stars and back. It’s the story of a boy at a drum circle who is surprised when, by the force of rhythm blasting out the back of his djembe rocket – he takes off into the sky and finds himself soaring above his town, eventually touring the constellations. Then, when he comes back and tells the drum circle beaters where he’s been, no one believes him—even though they saw it with their own eyes.

The print and the plate

One day Jacob was at the drum circle, pounding along with the big kids. The bonfire burned, and the air shook with sound, and except for the moon and stars, the sky was just about as dark as it gets.

Jacob had a new djembe. Just got it the other day. And so he came to play.” 

Along the way there are references to principles of physics, and to the classic children’s story Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel. It’s mostly un-metered, but it falls into 12/8 time for a refrain of vocalized rhythm that ought to be fun to read with kids:

With four of eight blocks printed

Ba dukka ba dukka ba dukka ba TAH

Ba dukka ba dukka ba dukka ba TEK 

As this description makes clear, the story is already written, and in fact it has been complete except for tweaking a word here and there, for a couple of years. What I mean by ‘start working” on Jacob and the Djembe Rocket is to start making of the wood block pictures, and printing them. Which for me are one in the same process. The pictures don’t exist in any form until the blocks are carved and printed together.

The particle board isn’t for carving the pictures, but as a base for the carved block. They have to be the same height as Foundry type, which is a very precise nine hundred eighteen thousandths of an inch high. Most of my letterpressing friends probably know already that if if you glue some quarter-inch Shina to some five-eighths particle board, and add a couple sheets of paper beneath it on the press bed, that gets you pretty close. The Home Depot doesn’t carry five-eighths particle board, but Loews does.

“He knelt over the top of it, like on horseback, and he continued to pound out beats.”

It takes eight blocks to make this picture. I’m telling myself right now that most of these pictures will not be that complicated. Most will not have both glowing fires and moons. Still, this book will certainly take well over 100 blocks to make the pictures. I’m printing them one by one. Before I finish this post, I will have one picture complete, and a story ready to go, and this big stack of particle board and Shina plywood waiting for me to draw the rest. I’ll be at this for years.

And so it begins.

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The Water Moose at Lakewood Streetwalk, 2011

The swallows come back to Capistrano. The Monarchs go back to their trees in Mexico. And ever year at the same time, the Water Moose Portable Sprinkler Park returns to Detroit Avenue in Lakewood, Ohio. Like so many animals that make an annual pilgrimage, the water moose returns with just one thing on its mind: Total soakage of anyone who passes near its vast spray.

In case you don’t remember last year, here’s a little refresher: the Water Moose uses the full force of a municipal fire hydrant to convert a piece of Detroit Avenue to a sprinkler park. With the support of Lakewood Alive and the City of Lakewood, and with assistance beyond measure from Glenn Palmer at Lakewood Hardware, and with further support from the guys behind the counter at Summers Rubber Company the Water Moose is back Saturday, July 21 from 4 p.m. until the Summer Meltdown ends.

Check out this video, shot last year by the incomparable Dan Morgan. 

I like the way the whole scene sounds. The white noise of the traffic is gone because Detroit Avenue is closed to cars. Without that you can hear the steady rhythm of the sprinklers like brushes on a snare drum. You can hear kids feet slapping wet pavement as they run from one gushing sprinkler to the next. You can hear the kids voices and laughter peeling out.

The weather looks promising.

I’m just about at a loss for words to explain what joy it gives me to put a sprinkler park on Detroit Avenue. To all the dads out there, come on down and say hello. Bring the kids. Bring your mom and Dad. Heck, bring the entire family. And wear your swimsuit.

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Very fashionable, no?

Today at William Busta Gallery, my daughter Grace, age 9-point-seven, will debut a bit of haute couture, a striking blue dress knit from those blue plastic grocery bags.

You’re well familiar with these bags. They’re the ones that get caught in trees and stay there, sometimes for years, whipping the sky like flags for the state of Gross Consumerism and Litter.

Pardon my vehemence. But these bags are a pox on the landscape. In Ireland, the government has even taken an effective action against them, with a $0.15 tax on each bag–an attempt to deal with their far-reaching environmental impact.

But getting back to the dress: This vivid blue bit of style is actually modeled after the one worn by Big Sister Kitty, the superhero Grace invented. Big Sister Kitty’s story is partly  told in the first little children’s book I printed, Clam Boy and Big Sister Kitty Liberate the Tree and the Sun and the Moon and the Entire Landscape.

Big Sister Kitty, engaged in the fight against litter

The plot: Someone litters one of those blue plastic bags. It gets stuck, high in a tree. Clam Boy and Big Sister Kitty see it, express their disgust, and figure out a way to A) get it down; and B) throw it away. Then the landscape is improved, just a little bit, at least for now.

In that story, Big Sister Kitty wears a blue dress that looks very much like the blue plastic bag itself. There’s a forthcoming book that tells how Big Sister Kitty got the blue dress she wore. But as you can tell by the word “forthcoming,” that story has not yet been told.

What must be told now, however, is how Grace got her Big Sister Kitty dress. The simple answer is that her Grandmother made it. Grace has two grandmothers–one known here as Grammy-Who-Sews, the other as Grammy-Who-Knits. This particular dress was made by Grammy-Who-Knits–who, outside this house, and among adults, is known as Betsy Shaffer.

Note the curly hem

Betsy gathered blue plastic bags from other knitters, friends, and family for months. She didn’t simply cut them like fabric to fit a dress pattern—oh no, nothing so easy and un-stylish as that. And neither did she knit the bags whole with big fat needles, which would have produced a much clunkier, chunkier thing.

Instead she cut the bags into strips about one-inch wide, tied those strips into skeins of vivid blue ribbon, and knit it in stitches like you’d expect to find in any decent sweater.

It is easily the most extravagant and labor intensive bit of recycling I have ever seen. The dress has a great shape. It’s skirt whirls out when Grace twirls in the kitchen—which she tends to do now and then. Besides wearing it for the release of my woodblock and letterpress book Common Household Rhymes for the Modern Child tonight at William Busta Gallery, she gave her classmates at Horace Mann Elementary School a preview by wearing it to school today.

Indeed, I’m certain this is a dress with a future. Grace is already planning to wear it on her birthday, which is Earth Day (which, coincidentally or not, is also the day I launched this blog). The truth is, she could wear it any day of the week, for just about any occasion calling for cheerful, stylish clothes. Washes easily. Drips dry. I mean, really.

Whirling in the kitchen

So if you come by this evening, be sure to engage Grace in conversation, and take a good look at her dress. She can tell you all about it. She can show you the story of Clam Boy and Big Sister Kitty. She can even introduce you to her Grandmother, Betsy Shaffer, who might just  reveal unto you untold mysteries of the human condition. She has that in her. I mean, really.

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Shadowed title for the frontice, and a label for the spine of Common Household RhymesToday I printed the final impressions for my wood block and letterpress children’s book, Common Household Rhymes for the Modern Child.  I printed the first layer of the title in copper ink, then moved my type just a touch and overprinted in black, to make a shadow on the words. I cranked the Vandercook proofing press at Zygote Press today for perhaps the 12,000th time.

I found myself slowing down as I got close to the end, to enjoy the labor toward the completion of something that’s been in the works for almost three years. Literally making a children’s book—writing the rhymes, drawing the pictures, carving the wood blocks, setting the type, printing the words and blocks on a manual letterpress machine, stitching, and binding an edition of 100 copies—has been many things: a labor of love, a learning process, a blow stricken for the Old School. It’s also been a manufacturing job.

We’ve heard this kind of language from the Community Partnership for the Arts and Culture for years: Artists and performers are the makers of our culture, laboring long and hard to make the objects and performances that make our lives worthwhile. It’s particularly true for artists who make objects. Consider Brinsley Tyrrell, firing glass on steel to make his stunning Ohio Landscapes. Or Stephen Yusko, artist in residence at Rose Iron Works. Or consider my sister, Toledo resident Kathleen Gill-Slee, whose Sherwood Inn Pottery has steadily increased production of  functional whimsy in clay to meet demand.

Olga, the grey cat

Making a children’s book from start to finish drove the point home for me personally. I’ve written about the work of artists and the way they build culture for a long time, but it is another thing to labor at a physical object for years and bring it into the world.

The people who see these prints on the walls at William Busta Gallery will see them as art objects, and they will think about them as pictures with rhymes.  That is how it began for me, too—as words and pictures in my head. But as the images began to build up on  these sheets of paper—and certainly as I began to stitch them into signatures—I began to think about making Common Household Rhymes as a manufacturing job.

Consider this cat, Olga.  She stars as the long-suffering “grey cat,” waiting, not quite asleep in her slanted patch of sun.   She’s 15 years old, and for most of that time was chased mercilessly by our other cat, the late Pablo, AKA “the black cat.” She is a much happier cat now that Pablo is gone. But let’s stick with Olga, shall we? She makes for a good demonstration of the way these pictures are built, one wooden block at a time.

Just the black, ma'am.

I drew the whole picture first, on a piece of wood that would become the black background plate. That image serves as a map for all the rest.

I printed it several times,  so I could transfer the shape of the cat, pillow, and sunlight onto other plates. Then I carved all that out of the black image to leave the empty space behind.

When it was time to print the color plates, I used the black background as a map to register the color blocks in their proper locations.

In this case, I printed the black background first. I wanted the effect of the sunlight shining across the room, the pillow laying on top of the bed, and the cat laying on top of the pillow. So that’s the order in which I piled up the patches of ink.

When I printed the light, I mixed opaque white ink in with the yellow so that it would have a little more substance: you can see through it, but there’s no question that you’re looking at yellow.

black and blue

Once each block was registered, I’d print about 115-120 of them. I printed extras because I knew there would be mistakes.

Once the printing was done–all 17 pictures, all 83 blocks, plus the words– I cut the sheets to size, stitched them into signatures with linen thread and fabric, then bound the whole package in acid free, archival boards with cloth. All of which brings me back to those labels I printed today. Attaching those is the the last bit of and hand work.

If all this sounds like a lot of work, that is part of the point.  This was an old-school,  Cleveland manufacturing job.  Sure, it’s about cats, and mice, and riding your bike, and adults staying up late. It’s also about work. Making a book this way in the 21st century is striking a blow for individual capacity and control. For kids learning to read in the early 21st century, holding a book manufactured entirely by one person using mechanical processes is an exotic

Three out of Four

experience. When my kids and yours read this, I hope they connect with the fact that one person did it, from start to finish.

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Facebook friends and readers of this blog have peeked in the window on something I’ve been doing for almost three years.

The happy bicyclist in my avatar, and the wheels and street scenes that appear at the top of this page are part of a children’s book I started making in February, 2009.   Using wood blocks and moveable type, I’ve nearly completed Common Household Rhymes for the Modern Child, a collection of multicolor relief illustrations, and accompanying rhymes.

I’m releasing it Friday, December 2 at William Busta Gallery. I hope you’ll join me.

I wrote, illustrated, carved, typeset, printed, and bound it. There are 74 wood blocks, eight linoleum blocks, and one block cobbled together out of wood and copper wire used to make each book.  A total of 17 pictures, plus moveable type. We’re talking old school. 

I’ve hand cranked the cylinder of a half-century-old Vandercook proofing press at Zygote Press 10,000 times. I’ve adjusted registration by the width of a sharp pencil line, slipping in whisper thin strips of lead, and cranking it over again. I’ve stitched 100 bindings.  So you can imagine I am, shall we say, enthused to send this out into the world with a party.

I’m exceedingly grateful to Bill Busta for believing that to be a good idea. So I hope you will join me at his gallery to be among the first to see this collection of children’s rhymes and accompanying pictures.

"After your bed time, the moon gets up high. The grown-ups keep talking. Nobody knows why.

The rhymes play in the realm of domestic life in a decidedly Cleveland setting. There’s vernacular architecture, and a couple of nods to specific buildings. There are cats, mice, an orange fish, a bicycle ride in the depopulated city at night, and a workbench cluttered with tools. There is the true fact that adults get to stay up much later than children do.

The subjects are very familiar to kids, but the words don’t talk down to them in any sense. In fact, they aim high, calling on kids to observe, make connections to the world around them, and to other rhymes, and bits of culture. This is a book for parents of strong readers.

I’ll continually add to this story on this blog, but for now, I hope you’ll save the date and join me for my book launch. We’ll have some wine and light horsd’oeuvres. It’ll be fun.

Common Household Rhymes for the Modern Child

Book Release Party

6 to 9 p.m. Friday, December 2

William Busta Gallery,

2731 E Prospect Avenue  Cleveland

216-298-9071

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