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big clock: buy first, research later


Tall clock, Baltimore, c. 1828, works by Samual Steele, private collection (Fig 169, Gregory R. Weidman and Jennifer F. Goldsborough, “Classical Maryland, 1815-1845,” Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, 1993)

I’ve been eyeing tall clocks (“grandfather clocks” in today’s vernacular) for quite some time. The problems were that: 1) they were quite expensive and 2) clocks made after 1820 (to match the production time of most of my furniture, 1815-1835) were rather scarce.  They were expensive because a fine tall clock needed to be a fine piece of furniture making and have a finely made movement (hopefully with a maker’s name on the dial).  They were expensive, luxury items in their day as well. Once small, far cheaper shelf and wall clocks started being made in the early 19th century, tall clock production declined precipitously.  So surviving well-made tall clocks from the 1820s-on were scarce.

RIGHT: Simon Willard-labeled clock with Stephen Badlam attributed case, c. 1790. (Skinner photo), and LEFT: Josiah Smith-labled clock, Berks County, PA, c. 1820 (Adams Brown Co. photo)

Optimally, the clock I sought would look like this Baltimore one (top). Its triangular pediment reflects the late Federal interests in incorporating accurate design elements from ancient Greece and Rome into American architecture and furniture.  It wouldn’t have either of the two most common pediments for tall clocks from the early Federal period (1780-1815): the arch top with a pierced fret on Boston-area clocks or the broken arch pediment common in the Mid-Atlantic States.

No wonder I immediately gravitated to an 1820s tall clock that I came across in Kelly Kinzle’s booth at Delaware Antiques Show last November in Wilmington. Even at what I thought was a very reasonable asking price–$12,500–it would be the second most costly piece of furniture in my house. And it would require an action that I had never done in order to make a purchase: take funds from my investments–a  step I would partly come to rue a month later.


Tall clock, c. 1825, “William Mitchell, Jr. / Richmond, Va” label, movement attributed to Aaron Willard or Aaron Willard, Jr., case bears the stenciled label of Henry Willard. Dimensions: Overall height with center finial: 96 3/4”; Width 21 3/4”; Depth 10”. (Scott Ponemone photos)

Pretty striking clock, no? Finely proportioned case, fine use of mahogany veneers, and that triangular pediment. But even better was its pedigree. While its dial clearly read “Wm. Mitchell Jr., Richmond, Va,” its case bore the stenciled label of Henry Willard and the dish-shaped dial with églomisé (reverse painted) spandrels shouted Aaron Willard or his son, Aaron Jr.

After a few words with Kinzle, my husband Michael and I left to explore the rest of the show.  Several temptations later, we returned. Kinzle assured me that the pediment was original, although the finials, while of the period, were probably replacements. In a few minutes he agreed to my $10,000 offer, and I had a clock that he would deliver and set up in a week or so.

Once I got home, I immediately turned on the computer. What would a search for “Mitchell Willard clock” turn up? I didn’t expect BINGO immediately, but there in the image search was my clock.  The web page holding that photo was a “sold” listing on the Gary Sullivan Antiques website ( Sullivan’s lengthy description begins:

This Classical tall case clock is an extremely rare form with a dish dial. Less than a dozen of these clocks have been documented and about half of those are signed for retailers from Virginia and the Carolinas. The clock and case were produced in Boston by either Aaron Willard [1757-1844] or his son Aaron Junior [1783-1864] during the first quarter of the 19th Century. These distinctive cases typically bear the stencil of Aaron’s cabinetmaker son, Henry Willard [1802-1887].

Well that made me feel good. Then when I scrolled further down on my web search, I came across a listing from the Christie’s auction house in New York. Here’s the link.  It turns out my clock was Lot 678 of Christie’s sale on January 20, 2017. Estimated from $8,000 to $12,000, it sold for $6,875. (That price is a combination of the hammer price of $5,500 and the 25% buyer’s premium of $1,375.)

Aaron Willard made shelf clocks that had features in common with the tall clocks in this blog post: the dish dial and the églomisé painting with lyres on the dial glass. These common features were part of the reason my clock’s movement was attributed to Aaron Willard or his son. (These images are from a 2010 catalog listing by the Skinner auction firm.)

Did Sullivan purchase it at auction at Christie’s in January 2016 and then sell it to Kinzle? Or did Sullivan put it up for auction and Kinzle was the buyer at Christie’s?  But further scanning Sullivan’s website led me to believe the latter. Sullivan has posted a short video from his installation at the 2015 Delaware Antiques Show. It’s opening view clearly shows Sullivan discussing my clock with a woman. (Click here to find the link on Sullivan’s website.) When Kinzle delivered the clock, he confirmed that he was the purchaser at Christie’s.

Another video on Sullivan’s website answered another question of mine: How unusual was it for a Northern tall clock to be retailed in the South?  It turns out that Sullivan addressed this issue during a lecture/slide presentation at the 2012 furniture forum at the Winterthur Museum & Country Estate. His talk was called “Clocks for Corn: Yankee clockmakers trading with the South.”  (On Sullivan’s Instructional Videos page, a link to a video of his talk can be found.  Here’s the link.)

In his description of my clock, Sullivan discussed the man whose name appears on the dial:

William Mitchell Jr. was born in Boston trained as a silversmith. He is known to have worked in Richmond from 1818 to 1845. He was initially in partnership with Elisha Taft from 1818 to 1820 under the firm Taft & Mitchell before establishing his own silversmith business that he grew to be largest in Virginia. Mitchell retailed a large range of products including both clocks and watches. He retired in 1845 and sold the business to his younger brother Samuel and John Tyler who continued under the name Mitchell & Tyler.

Between Sullivan and Kinzle, I realized, was quite a wealth of knowledge about the production and selling of tall clocks in the 1820s and the selling of tall clocks today. Fortunately when I asked both men whether they would like to be interviewed for my blog, both agreed. The following are transcriptions of interviews I recorded with them.


The first thing to say about Gary Sullivan is that he has written extensively on American clockmaking.  For instance, he co-authored with Brock Jobe and Jack O’Brien Harbor and Home: Furniture of Southeastern Massachusetts, 1710–1850 (Hanover, N.H., and London: University Press of New England, 2009). The book’s jacket blurb sums it up succinctly: “Gary R. Sullivan, president of Gary R. Sullivan. Inc., is a nationally recognized expert on early American clocks.” (A bibliography of his writings appears at the end of this post.) Harbor and Home was the catalog for an exhibition of the same name at Winterthur in 2009.

I begin the interview by asking him about his research into Yankee clocks for buyers in the South.  And since my Mitchell/Willard clock was not mentioned in his 2012 Winterthur lecture, I asked him when and how did it enter his inventory.

When did you first become interested in this phenomenon of Northern clocks made for Southern clients?

Around 2007 or 2008 when I was working on a study of Southeastern Massachusetts furniture for a Winterthur museum exhibition called “Harbor & Home: Furniture of Southeastern Massachusetts, 1710-1850.” I wrote the chapter on clockmaking for the book. One of the principal characters in Southeastern Massachusetts clockmaking was John Bailey Jr. He and his family were the most significant clock-making family in the region. And I discovered that some of his clocks seemed to wind up in the South, and in fact I discovered that a couple of them had presentations on their dials. They were inscribed with the names of the original purchasers. For example, one was inscribed, “warranted for Joseph G. Ray,” a southern merchant, and it just didn’t make any sense to me. So I started digging and looking for information about John Bailey and what his connection was with the South. I found some fantastic letters at the Earlham Library [Earlham College, Richmond, IN] between John Bailey, Jr. and the father of an apprentice of his who was in the South. In his letters Bailey said that he was planning to send some clocks to the South to be sold. This was fascinating to me. So I kind of build on that, and I learned more about Bailey and I learned about the clients that bought the clocks. So that’s what got me started.

A pair of MESDA listings of Aaron Willard-attributed movements in a Henry Willard case with a dish dial labeled: Wm. Mitchell, Jr. Richmond, Va (Pages provided by Gary Sullivan)

How did you find out that the Willards did something similar?

Early in the process of searching I went down to MESDA [Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, Winston-Salem, NC]. I was aware of these dish-dial clocks and found that there were a few of them that had the names of Southern retailers on them. And I think I was vaguely aware of that, but I found a few things at MESDA which made it more clear. Then I started searching for those kind of clocks and found a few more.

A labeled Aaron Willard Jr. dish-dial tall clock at the Willard House Clock Museum, Grafton, MA. (Photo supplied by Gary Sullivan)

When did the Willards stop making tall clocks for local consumption?

That would have been 1812 to 15. I would say that by 1815 they were absolutely not making any tall clocks for local consumption. Probably by about 1812. It was strictly the more fashionable and more affordable patent time pieces–banjo clocks.

I did come across tall case clocks with the dish dial that had the Willard name on the dial. Did that indicate they were made for local consumption?

No, not necessarily. I think at least one of the clocks that went to the South had the Willard name on the dial. There’s at least one that’s got a Willard paper label inside, and then some of them have the Henry Willard stamp. So my assumption is that all of those dish-dial clocks were made for export to the South.

Since your 2012 talk at Winterthur–other than the Mitchell/Willard clock that I eventually bought–have you found others that were not listed in that presentation?

In addition to yours I saw photos of another William Mitchell Jr. clock, not in great condition. It had lost it’s églomisé from the door and did not have any type of fret-work on the top, but what was really nice about it is that it included an original bill of sale signed by William Mitchell, Jr. Two things about it were very interesting. One was that it was the date of the sale was 1835, which puts it considerably later than what I was thinking. The other was the price of $75, which seemed like a tremendous amount of money at that time particularly in 1835, where you could buy clocks manufactured in factories very inexpensively. So those two facts were surprising. That’s the only other one that I found since the presentation other than yours.

An églomisé spandrel for my Mitchell/Willard clock. (Scott Ponemone photo)

Each of the églomisé spandrels on my clock has a lyre. Are the spandrels about the same on the other dish dial clocks?

And I haven’t really compared them, but they’re similar. I don’t know that they’re exactly the same. Some are restored, some are not. So it’s hard to say, but they’re very similar.

What’s your opinion about the condition of the spandrels on the clock that I bought?

I think I felt they had some some restoration, but they were basically original.

That’s kind of how I thought about it a too.  There is some little bit of painterly quality that doesn’t seem right to it. So how did you come across the Mitchell/Willard clock that I’ve eventually bought?

Someone contacted me who had the clock in their family for as long as they could remember. I ended up purchasing it and had it shipped up. Looking through my e-mail messages, which is where people usually make initial contacts and I couldn’t find anything about it. That tells me that it was all conducted over the phone. The person I bought it from didn’t know any history like whether her parents had collected it at some point or whether it had always been in the family. She didn’t know. So there was no interesting provenance that came with it. And I think it was from Charleston. I’m just going by memory. I’m not sure of that, but I think it was living in Charleston.

What was the condition of the clock when you got it?

Pretty much the same as what it is now except that the finish was in dreadful condition. I had the finish restored.

I saw that there was a repair to the back, toward the base supporting one of the legs, one of the stiles.

Oh yeah, I think we did have that done. I think it was missing part of the foot maybe.

OK. Now I saw one of your videos to the 2015 Delaware Antiques Show, and you’ve had it there.

Yeah we got it right before the show and had hustled to get it ready for the show. There were people who liked it, but we didn’t make a sale.

I See. Now you listed it on your website and you called it a Classical clock. Can you explain why you gave that designation?

Well, you could call it Classical, or you could call it Federal; you could call it late  Federal. I thought Classical was a good description for it. It was the tail end of the Federal period. So you could use any one of those terms.

I photographed the reverse side of the classical pediment of my clock to assure myself that it had sufficient oxidation to indicate that it probably was original. The two triangular thin mahogany boards fit into slots on the sides of the three chimneys. Small pieces of wood were inserted into the slots to serve as wedges. (Ponemone photo)

Did the simplified pediment detract buyers?

How do you mean, that this was more simple than a traditional clock fret work?


Oh, I don’t think so. This was the latest style in the period when it was made. So clocks with pierced fretwork were out of style, were out of fashion at this point.

In fact that’s what attracted me to the clock. It was you know 1820s modern in the way. It updated the style just enough. 


So you took it to that 2015 Delaware show. Did you show in any other venues?

I don’t think so. I only do one show a year and I don’t typically bring things to a show twice. I’m sure that’s the only place I showed it.

If you care to, give me a sense of what your asking price was at the time of the 2015 Delaware show?

I don’t remember. I mean I handle hundreds and hundreds of clocks. So it’s hard to distinguish one from another, but it was probably around $20,000.

Well in fairness I’ll say I eventually paid half that exactly . 

Right. It’s a great buy. Yeah, I might have had it priced that 19,500 or 20,000, something like that. It’s a great clock. It’s just that there aren’t a lot of buyers who are looking for that.

You know I think the market is better today than it was when you bought it. I think that was kind of a low.

Well, it was just a few months ago.

The market is better today than it was then for clocks.

Well when was the high point for pricing of those clocks?

2006 was the peak of the market for Americana, January 2006.

And the nadir?

I would say fall of 2016, the end of 2016.

Thanks, Gary. I do appreciate your expertise, and now I’m going to go back and read your essay in the book on Southeast Massachusetts furniture.

Kelly Kinzle poses with my clock after he installed it. (Ponemone photo)


Kelly Kinzle’s booth at antique shows at the York County Fairgrounds has always been a must-see. The quality and condition of his inventory has never disappointed. He has always presented a few select tall clocks. His prices have been fair but usually above what my wallet could bear. But there have been two exceptions, both fancy early 19th-century seating furniture.

Previous to my purchase of the Mitchell/Willard clock, I had bought the red high-back fancy chair and the cane-seat settee from Kelly Kinzle. The cleaning of the chair was pictured in a December 2016 blog post: “2016: MARBLE PIER TABLE & HIGH-BACK FANCY CHAIR” (Ponemone photos)

When I entered of the 2017 Delaware Antiques Show, naturally I stopped at Kinzle’s booth. After greetings, we discussed the merits of a Federal bookcase that he had. When he turned his attention to other potential customers, my eyes jumped to a late Federal tall clock nearby. It both addressed my search for a distinguished late Federal tall clock and, with a stretch, fell within my price range. So after my husband Michael and I explored the rest of the show, we returned to Kinzle’s booth. This time I asked Kinzle to discuss the clock. I didn’t ask that many questions–unlike my normal procedure–before I made an offer that was quickly accepted.  I left a deposit, and Kinzle agreed to deliver and set up the clock. An unlike any previous collecting purchase, I would have to dip into my savings to pay the balance. Part of me was shocked. Michael kept his reservations to himself.

Kelly Kinzle also kindly agreed to be interviewed.

I enjoy your show booths all the time because you always have a nice selection of clocks, tall-case clocks in particular. It must be both a fascination and a certain amount of expertise. Can you tell me a little bit about the first part, the fascination with that type of antique?

Well, I guess the expertise came with the fascination. The first clock I ever bought was probably the worst clock ever bought. But I don’t know what it was that attracted me. Maybe it’s just the mechanical part and the fact that first you get a good piece of cabinet work and then you get a good piece of mechanical work, where a lot of things don’t have that. You can have a chest of drawers or something else like a bracket clock.  With a tall-case clock you have a combination of both. Maybe that was the fascination. I never really analyzed it. You’re my first psychic reading.

I’m just trying to help. 


The eight-day brass movement of my clock. I asked Gary Sullivan why he concluded that the Willards made it. He responded: “The attribution is based on the clock being made at the Willard compound (Henry Willard worked on the same premises as Aaron Sr. & Jr.) The movements are pretty generic, with no earmarks to look for. (Ponemone photo)

What’s the market for tall-case clocks these days?

It just depends on the clock. I just sold a really good clock. In fact I’m delivering next week. You know it’s not as frantic as it was. In my heyday selling clocks I sold 50 American tall-case clocks a year to very few buyers, mostly all dealers. I didn’t have to worry about getting them working or making sure the finish was good or anything else. I constantly had wholesale customers that were either collectors or dealers that were constantly buying. Unfortunately all of those people either retired or died. So the market for me went into getting them fixed and selling them at a slower pace.

More of a retail market?

Sure, where before I didn’t have to worry if they worked or whether the weights were there or anything else, I just bought them and sold them. It was great wholesale market.

What type of clocks did retail customers gravitate toward?

The same thing. I mostly buy and sell regional clocks of this area–Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia. I don’t buy a whole lot of New England clocks. I just buy what I find.

Well what attracted you to bid on this Mitchell/Willard clock in New York (Christie’s)?

The Richmond connection. There’s one in the Dixie clock book [James W. Gibbs, Dixie Clockmakers, Pelican Publishing Company, Gretna, LA, 1979], and I always admired that. So when I saw it in New York, I thought that it was a nice clock and a great find.

Did you know it was a deaccessioned by Gary Sullivan?

No, I didn’t know that was his clock.

Did you need to make any repairs to the clock after you bought it?

I didn’t do a thing to it.

Did you show it at any show previous to last fall’s Delaware show?

Probably, I can’t imagine that I didn’t take it somewhere. I’m trying to think when I bought it.

Well, it was bought in January of this past year.

OK, then I would have probably taken it taken to York. I might have taken it to York. I didn’t take it to Philadelphia. So I guess York was it.

When you open up the reverse-painted dial glass, you find that the dish dial is surrounded with red-painted wood. The hands are made of scrolled cut steel. (Ponemone photo)

Did you get any comments (at the Delaware show) before I’d made my purchase?

No, not offhand. Not that I recall. I mean if you’re sitting in a booth with 50 objects and 10 people are walking by, saying things about 10 things every five minutes. It’s hard to catch them all and even keep them in your thought process.

Yeah, I guess so I’ve never been in your position. Is there anything about that clock–it’s Classical lookthat strikes you as either different or not what people are looking for?

The unique things about that clock was that that clock was at the end of the [tall-case] clock-making period. When spring clocks became common and popular,  tall-case clock-makers went out of business basically. That’s the very end of the period.

The clocks that I find fascinating are the true Empire, really restrained Empire clocks. I’m not talking about having half columns or anything. [I’m talking about] really refined ones without the traditional broken-arch top or, for New England, the arched tops with the pierced fret. When you move out of that, there are very, very few clocks made. So when you find someone that was still making them, like with the dish dial, that was the exception. You didn’t find any other clocks with the dish dial. That was a carryover from the shelf clock. And it was the shelf clock was what put the tall-case clock out of business. You didn’t need all of that room to get an eight-day movement.

What attracted me to the clock was because of my fascination–my affordable window I should say when I started getting more serious and collecting–was in the late teens, to the 1820s and sometimes into the 1830s. So that there’s not much clockwise that’s really available from that time.

I know. Some command a huge price. A number of years ago I sold a clock out in the same period, a Baltimore clock, for $54,000. One particular customer friend gave me a photograph of a clock and said, if you ever find this clock, I want to buy it. And of course it took me 20 years to find one, and I found it. But then he was going through a divorce and couldn’t buy it. And I ended up selling to a guy in Alexandria for I think $54,000. And it was just a simple, plain mahogany clock in that 1830s period.

Well, that kind of covers the subject. I think I was kind of lucky, being in the right place at the right time.

Like you said, the right timing on that clock was everything. I imagine in a couple of years things are going to be cranked up price wise again and it’s not going to be obtainable.

The case of my clock bears the stenciled label of Henry Willard, one of Aaron Willard’s sons. While he did make clock movements, Henry was known as a clock case maker. In his website description of the Mitchell/Willard clock, Gary Sullivan wrote: “The sides of the hood have a field of circular holes arranged in a diamond pattern. This detail is a distinctive feature found on tall clocks and shelf clocks produced by Henry Willard and is considered a signature treatment.” (Ponemone photos)

ADDENDUM A: other dish-dial tall clocks

I found two other Willard-made dish-dial clocks via online searches, and another appeared in a book in my reference library.

These images came from the Charlton Hall website. This auction house is located in West Columbia, SC. Besides severely worn paint on its dial, the clock is missing its hood glass with its églomisé spandrels, The frets may not be original.


Above is composite of a page from the Skinner Auctioneers and Appraisers website. It shows a dish-dial Willard labeled clock with a broken-arch pediment that sold for $14,688 in 2004.

I found the above listing of a Willard dish-dial tall clock in The American Clock by William H. Distin and Robert Bishop (Bonanza Books, New York, 1976).

ADDENDUM B: Rue the day?

Almost a month after the Mitchell/Willard clock purchase, I needed to make another major withdrawal from my savings. On the season’s first snowfall, my 2005 Mazda 3 lost traction on an interstate overpass.  I spun into a cement wall and did just enough damage to have the car designated a total loss. Ergo, I bought a new Mazda 3. On the bright side, 13 years has made a lot of improvements to the model with little or no price inflation. On the down side, I need to remind myself that my investments are not a bank for my collecting addiction.




    • Musical Clocks of Early America, 1730-1830, By Gary R. Sullivan and Kate Van Winkle Keller: Willard House & Clock Museum, 2017


    • The Music of Early American Clocks, 1730-1830, by Kate Van Winkle Keller and Gary R. Sullivan: Willard House & Clock Museum, 2017


    • Art & Industry in Early America: Rhode Island Furniture, by Patricia E. Kane, Dennis Carr, Nancy Goyne Evans, Jennifer N. Johnson, and Gary R. Sullivan: Yale University Art Gallery, 2016. (Winner of the 2017 Historic New England Book Prize and winner of the 2017 Charles F. Montgomery Prize)


  • Harbor & Home: Furniture of Southeastern Massachusetts, 1710–1850, by Brock Jobe, Gary R. Sullivan and Jack O’Brien: Winterthur Museum, 2009. (Winner of the 2010 Historic New England Book Prize)

Other Publications

Furniture Making in Massachusetts: Two Plymouth County Discoveries,” by Brock Jobe and Gary R. Sullivan, Magazine Antiques May, 2009, 104-111.


Southeastern Massachusetts Dwarf Clocks,” by Gary R. Sullivan, Antiques & Fine Art Magazine, Winter 2009, 9th Anniversary Edition, 2009, 274-281.


Southeastern Massachusetts Cabinetmakers and Clockmakers: 1710-1850,” by Gary R. Sullivan (checklist of artisans, published as an addendum to Harbor & Home: Furniture of Southeastern Massachusetts, 1710–1850, 333-395).


Eighteenth Century Hit Parade: Regional and National Tune Choices on Early Musical Clocks,” by Gary R. Sullivan and Kate Van Winkle Keller, Magazine Antiques, September/October, 2013.



Sidewalk Studio deja vu



Every once in a while by looking back you can see the future.  As I was finishing the fourth year of my UP IN ARMS series, I came upon some of the first watercolors I did based on photographs I had taken of people in public places. They intrigued me with their confrontational faces and candid poses–so very unlike the stylized UP IN ARMS paintings in which I showed only the person’s arms and an object he or she was holding. (Most of the UP IN ARMS series can be found at:

When these six watercolors were arranged for my summer 2017 exhibition at the Harford County Community College, I called this group PLASTIC.  (top row, L to R) “KW-Fake II,” 2013; “Soft Cone:” 2015; “Toolbox,” 2015 (bottom row, L to R) “Torso,” 2014; “One for the Road,” 2014; “Knight,” 2014. All are on paper approximately 35” x 25″

The older paintings–from 1983–inspired me to see what would happen if I returned to three-quarter views of people in public places. I started this return-to-the-past effort late last summer. As 2017 ends and now that I’ve completed four of the new painting, I’d like to share what happened and compare the new works to those I did 34 years ago.  In some ways they’re the same and in some ways they’re very different.


My mode of operation then was to use a c. 1950 twin-lens reflex Yashica-D camera to photograph my subjects. I chose that camera–a gift from my father–for fairness sake.  Unlike a 35-mm camera it had no telephoto lens.  To create the images I wanted I needed to be about 10-15 feet aways from my subjects, i.e. I wanted to be visible to all, not shooting from a distance. You see I wasn’t asking for permission to photograph folks, yet I wanted to be close enough for someone to object or at least ask me what I was doing.  But no one ever did either, although a few folks moved aside thinking they were blocking a view of my intended subject.

One real advance using this camera was that it was less threatening than using a 35-mm camera. With the latter, I would have to cover my face and, I believe, appear  threatening. With the Yashica I needed to look both down into the viewer and up at would-be subjects.

My Yashica had a 120 back, meaning it took film with only 12 shots per roll.  Such limited capacity encouraged one to be methodical in shot selection. Also the images in the view finder were reversed right and left, making photographing moving subjects somewhat problematic.

No wonder I chose subjects that were barely moving in a public space (where permission wasn’t necessary). My location was in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor outside the National Aquarium, which opened in 1981. In 1983 it was still the prime Inner Harbor attraction with long lines snaking out from the ticket booth. Those folks in the slow moving line on a hot day were my subjects. Not so thrilled to be caught in the summer’s sun, they were my captive audience.

The top second-from-the-left image became the sketch photo for “Tokens.” Scroll down to see the resulting photo and watercolor.

Here’s a contact sheet from that summer.  Note that the frames are square. The Yashica created 6×6-mm negatives, yielding great detail. And the choice of black-and-white film wasn’t accidental for two reasons: 1) I could process B&W film and print B&W photos at home and 2) I thought color photos would crimp the creative process.  First of all, I admit that I was sensitive about using photography as my sketching medium. So having to transpose a B&W image into a color watercolor would be a worthy and honorable challenge. Furthermore I thought a color photograph was just too much a finished product. Why paint it?

The photo and finished watercolor for “Tokens,” 8 Nov. 1983, image 21 3/4” x 17 1/2″

I did 10 paintings from aquarium line photos. Two of them sold. Here are three more still in my collection.

“The Family That,” 11 Oct. 1983, image 21” x 20 3/8″

“She Sells Shades,” 21 Nov. 1983, image 21” x 14 3/4″

“The Fates,” 30 Dec. 1983, image 16” x 13 1/2″

I marveled at what happened when a stranger, i.e. me, pointed a camera at folks in line without declaring his intentions.  It wasn’t immediately apparent who was with whom when I walked along the queue. But as soon as I directed my camera at a particular segment of the line, family and/or friends groupings immediately made themselves known.  Look at “The Family That” paintings, above, to see the defensive posture the young man made in front of his parents.


The three biggest changes from 1983 were: 1) 21st-century technology, 2) I introduce myself to my subjects and 3) I have no qualms about using color photos as sketches for watercolors.

Who in 1983 could have imagined an iPhone?  Forget even my digital 35-mm Nikon.  I used my iPhone to take photos.  This had a great feature.  Once I photographed folks, they can select an image they can have instantly.  Once they chose the frame they liked, they message themselves a copy of the image.

Instead of being mum when I chose a potential subject as I was in 1983, I would introduce myself and as quickly as possible before they move away explain that I would like them to model for paintings.  If they express any interest, I show them images in my phone of willing individuals/couples and, once I had completed the first painting in the new series, an image of a completed painting.

The UP IN ARMS series that started in 2013 gave me plenty of practice of asking strangers to model for me.  The first people I approached were those who were walking small dogs.  “Would you hold your pet love your head so I could photograph you?”  I explained I was only going to paint their arms and their pup. Small dogs seemed to enjoy the view. (Oscar, my cat, was not humored by the imposition.) Next I tried the farmers’ market. “How many ears of corn can you raise above your head at one time?” I instantly got a taker.

Somewhere over the years I lost my embarrassment about using color photos as my sketches. I think that happened because I realized that my art began when I approached folks to model, that the interaction between myself–the artist–and them–the subject–was an art event in itself.  Perhaps as meaningful as the finished painting.

I began the new series by visiting Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Here’s a screenshot from my iPhotos library of most of the photos shot on a very warm 7 Oct. 2017. So far three of these images became models for paintings. That’s a pretty high ratio: total frames per selected images. I credit that not so much to any skill on my part. Rather subjects seem instantly to know how they want to appear.  For instance the black couple (top left) only needed one pose. Many required two shots: one smiling (that they would message back to themselves) and at my request one unsmiling (as possible image for a painting).

Why unsmiling?  I believe smiling photos look like snapshots. Smiles seem to indicate friendliness, but smiles can also act like masks that deflect efforts to get to know someone. Unsmiling individuals seem to declare: “This is whom I am. Who are you?”  That’s what I want viewers of the new paintings to confront.

Inner Harbor photo paired with “Untitled (black couple),” watercolor, 21 Oct. 2017, image 32” x 20 1/4″

I would have liked to title this painting by the first names of the individuals. In fact, I sent an image of the painting back to them via the phone number they used to receive a copy of the photo. But I got no response. In fact, no one has gotten back to me. Until someone does, these paintings will remain untitled with a parenthetical label giving generic description of the subjects.

Above are some of the steps in creating “Untitled (black couple).” I paint the flesh tones and hair first. Below focuses on the creation of the pair of faces.

And below is a comparison of paintings featuring black couples: the 1983 painting (left) the 2017 one (right).

1983 (left) vs. 2017 (right)

What do you think of the comparison?  I’d appreciate your thoughts.

“Untitled (black couple),” watercolor, 21 Oct. 2017, image 32” x 20 1/4″

Here are the other three new paintings of the new series:

“Untitled (1st white couple),” watercolor, 5 Oct. 2017, image 30” x 23″

“Untitled (white women elbows),” watercolor, 3 Nov. 2017, image 32 1/2” x 21 3/4″

“Untitled (black guy white guy),” watercolor, 28 Nov. 2017, image 32” x 21 3/4″













Shadra Strickland: children’s book Illustrator



The first part of this blog post is largely a reprint of an article–”Shadra Strickland: Reduction Linoleum Cuts for Children”–that appeared in the fall 2016 edition of the Newsletter for the Print, Drawing & Photograph Society of the Baltimore Museum of Art. It presented a conversation I had with Shadra while she was working on linoleum cuts to illustrate a children’s book of poems by Deloris Jordan.

Soon after the issue was printed I asked Shadra if I could turn the article into an ART I SEE blog post with color photos instead of black and white. I also wanted to use photos that the print edition layout didn’t allow. At the time Shadra requested that I wait until the book she was working on in 2016 was published.  That event didn’t happen until last month.

So now I can present A Child’s Book of Prayers and Blessings: From Faiths and Cultures Around the World, by Deloris Jordan, artwork by Shadra Strickland (Simon & Shuster Books for Young Readers, New York, 2017). The first section largely reprints the Newsletter article with additional photos. In the second section Shadra answers questions about whether there were any bumps in the road to publication over the past year.

All artwork © 2017 by Shadra Strictland. All photos by Scott Ponemone except where noted.


Shadra Strickland (Photo by Shadra Strickland)

An award-winning illustrator of children’s books, Shadra Strickland tackled something new in 2015. She worked in reduction linoleum cuts. In fact this was her first book using a printmaking medium. Previously she primarily relied on ink, watercolor, gouache, charcoal and acrylic in various combinations. So her latest book, initially entitled A Child’s First Book of Prayers, has been an adventure for her.

Shadra is a full-time faculty member at Maryland Institute College of Art.  She said, “I teach at least one core class per semester (Sophomore-Senior Illustration) and have taught specialized courses such as Visual Journalism, Professional Development, Book Illustration, and Advanced Book Illustration.”  She earned her B.F.A. from Syracuse University (design & illustration) and an M.F.A. from the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan (Illustration as Visual Essay).

After I visited her in her Hampden rowhouse and enjoyed viewing her project first hand, I sent her questions via email, beginning by asking about her passion for illustrating children’s books before I directed my questions to her current project.

How and why did you get interested in making your own children’s books?

After graduation from Syracuse, I had no real idea what I wanted to do or how to be a professional illustrator. After college I moved home to Atlanta and began teaching elementary school art. In the mornings teachers were required to read to students for 20 minutes or so. That was when I discovered a love of picture book art and was able to see a large range of artistic styles in illustration. After three years of teaching in public school, I moved to New York to pursue my MFA and a career in picture books.

What children’s books have had a great influence on you from your childhood and as an adult?

I loved The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. There weren’t many picture books around that featured children of color. Peter [a character in The Snowy Day] was a revelation. As an adult, Kadir Nelson’s books were inspirational for me because his style was so fresh and playful. Seeing his work helped me realize that I could make books too.

Now, I have a deep respect for a very wide range of styles and content. As a fan of picture books and a professor, I devour picture books so that I can hand pick recommendations for my students. It is so important for them to see a wide range of work being made so that they can find a place for themselves on the shelves.

You appear to direct your books to an African-American audience. Is that purposely so and why? 

I don’t direct my books to an African-American audience and not all of my books feature African-American characters. I’m African American and illustrate stories about people of color, though not exclusively. My stories are for all readers. I get this question a lot in interviews. No one asks white artists why their books are directed to white readers. So why should I, an African-American woman be asked why I paint people who reflect the world I live in?

The preliminary title of your new project is A Child’s First Book of Prayers. What is the source of it’s text?

The book is by Delores Jordan and is compilation of spiritual poems and prayers for children.

When did the project begin? When’s the due date for your illustrations?

I signed the book [contract] a few years ago, but I began working on the prints last June. I will finish the prints this month [July].

How many poems will be illustrated? How many single-page illustrations, and how many two-page spreads?

There are 23 poems; 9 spreads and 10 single pages plus the cover.

How do your images begin?

Each book is different, but I begin by making small thumbnail sketches of any images that come to mind while I am reading the manuscript. It is somewhat like storyboarding a movie. In the case of this book, each image needed to stand on its own to represent each poem. When working on narrative texts, images have a natural flow that reflects the passing of time and changing mood based on the story. There is typically a set color scheme from start to finish. The challenge for this book has been finding a way to order the poems and images into similar groups and allow colors to flow naturally, gradually from the beginning of the book to the end.

Shadra holds her preparatory miniature booklet.

What is the next step?

The storyboard is the map. After I have finished the thumbnails I print them out and assemble them into a miniature booklet so that I get a sense of the page turns and overall pacing of the story. Because illustrating a picture book is more a marathon than a sprint, these extra little steps are ways to add markers to the process before having to focus on making 16 or more finished pieces of art. I do change the order of images based on the development of the thumbnails. Once the thumbnails are set, I focus fully on finishing the artwork.

Why did you decide to illustrate it with color reduction linoleum cuts?

I chose linocuts for this book because it is for very young readers, and I wanted to use simpler shapes, texture, and color to appeal to that audience.

What experience did you have in this medium at the start? Where did you go for advice?

One of my dear artist friends, Taeeun Yoo, works primarily in linocut. I always admired her process and asked if one day she would give me a demonstration. When this book opportunity came along, I knew that linocuts would be a great fit for it. I took a trip to Seoul to visit Taeeun in 2014. She taught me how to make a print before I left. To supplement and refresh my knowledge almost a year later, I watched lots of YouTube videos and referred to many great books on relief printmaking.

Shadra uses a computer to make a color study of an image and (as shown here) to make adjustments to a linoleum cut.

Please briefly run through your procedure for creating an image and then for printing? What tools do you use?

Once the thumbnails were completed, I started the prints. First I make a detailed digital color study using Procreate on my iPad Pro and then finish it in Photoshop. Once that is done, I flip the image [right to left] and print a copy that I use to trace down onto a piece of battleship grey linoleum.

I use Gamblin oil-based relief and etching inks. Most colors are mixed from primary colors: red, blue, yellow, green, white [but] no black. I mix and ink on a sheet of glass and then roll colors onto the plate with one of three rollers. In most cases, I am printing light to dark, using the same printout to trace each color. As each color is printed, the same block is carved away so that by the end of the print, very little (if any) of the plate is left.

When I first began printing I purchased an 18×24 piece of glass, a desk from Ikea, registration pins and a wooden spoon for burnishing. I added an Akua pin press, which has made my life a whole lot easier.

I carve at my drafting table and print on the desk next to me. It is helpful to keep the carving and inking surfaces separate so that I don’t get little pieces of linoleum in the ink.

Shadra demonstrates printing her linoleum block for the poem “Child’s Prayer.” The block had already been used to print the orange background. Then she removed more of the linoleum so that she could print the next color: green. (Right) She carefully places paper using the registration tabs, shown just below her fingers.

Shadra uses an Akua pin press the transfer the ink from the linoleum plate onto the paper. (Below) She carefully lifts the paper to reveal the green tree and grassy slope.

What are some of the lessons you’ve learned in the medium as you progressed from image to image?

I have learned so much within the year of printmaking:

• Initially I printed with only a spoon. Adding a pin press cut my printing time in half.

• Registration tabs saved me from ruining prints that were initially slipping on the plate.

• It is possible to print multiple colors in one day (four is my max).

• Printing is hard work, breaks and massages are essential self care elements

• Adding vegetable oil to my cleanup routine saves my budget and the environment.

• In printmaking, white paper is never totally white.

• Lightweight paper is best for hand printing.

• The online printmaking community is extremely supportive and generous! I love my linocut friends group on Facebook.

The completed print for “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep” (right) beside its linoleum block with only the last areas to be printing–the bright orange highlights on the arms for instance–left uncut.

Which images were the easiest to achieve? The hardest? Which are you most satisfied with and why?

The easiest have been ones with large shapes and fewer colors. I was able to finish printing a four-color print in two days, where the eight- to eleven-color prints with smaller details have taken between one to two weeks.

I think I am most satisfied with the prints that have a gradient layer.* There is something so magical about them to me.

There is one difficult print that I may redo after I finish the book. It was a larger spread and I was printing without registration tabs. I was able to get maybe one clean print out of twelve attempts. That was a very sad week in the studio.

(*EDITOR: A gradient layer is where two colors are printed at once and the colors blend together softly where they meet creating a gradient.) 

Once you finish with each reduction print, you scan one copy in so you can clean up the images. If you are going to finish up on the computer, why not do the whole project on the computer?

Though the computer can mimic many things, it really can’t replicate the wabi sabi that happens when working by hand, and I absolutely love working traditionally.* The computer is a great tool, but it is so easy to fix mistakes and perfect an image there. I like the happy accidents that comes along with working with traditional techniques. It’s also much more satisfying to have a handmade object at the end. The digital finishing on this book will be minimal, just cleaning a bit of printing noise here and there. The majority of the prints will require no extra touching up.

I also plan on selling the prints once the book is released instead of selling digital prints, which is what I do for my other books.

(* EDITOR: Wabi sabi is a Japanese aesthetic that prizes the imperfection of things, the beauty in the humble and modest.)

Shadra holds up the completed print for “Navaho Song,” while below is the image in the completed book.

What does going through traditional relief printmaking do to make the images strong?

I love the process of it all. There are so many steps involved along the way that I feel completely invested in the object. There are no lazy printing days. I am not relaxed on my couch when I’m printing. It’s hot, sweaty, intense labor. My body aches at the end of a long day of printing. It’s as satisfying as a good run. So, I think that that is part of it … the manual labor component.

In addition the texture that is achieved with lino is unmatched. I have seen students and friends try to replicate it digitally. Some have come close, but there’s still a difference to me.

Lastly I believe that working traditionally makes me a stronger digital artist. At the end of the day, each medium has it’s own vocabulary, including digital. As an illustrator, I am always thinking of the best voice for whatever text it is that I am working on. Having a lot of experience in many different types of media helps me make the best book I can …. or maybe I just like to play.


Since over a year had passed since I last interviewed Shadra Strickland for the Newsletter article, I thought it would be enlightening to check back in with her.  Best of all, I got to see the finished book and how her linoleum cuts appeared as book illustrations.  This second interview was held 30 Oct. 2017.

“A Child’s Book of Prayers and Blessings: From Faiths and Cultures Around the World,” by Deloris Jordan, artwork by Shadra Strickland (Simon & Shuster Books for Young Readers, New York, 2017).

Where there any significant changes to A Child’s First Book of Prayers since last year?

The title changed to A Child’s Book of Prayers and Blessings: From Many Faiths and Cultures from Around the World. The publisher changed it, more than likely to reflect the diversity of the collection.

Did you finish up your lino printing in July 2016 as planned? If not, when did you finish?

I finished the last print in September.

Has there been any changes to your MICA workload and the type of classes you teach?

I still teach three classes per semester. Currently I’m teaching sophomore illustration, book illustration, and professional development.

Did any of your prints need to change?

None of the prints needed to be changed. I did have to clean a few stray ink marks, but any changes made, were ones that I deemed necessary.

How difficult is it for you to redo an image once it meets your own initial satisfaction?  You’re quite a veteran illustrator, but I was wondering how tough it is for you to accept criticism of your art work.

As a book illustrator, I understand the collaborative nature of what I do. It is rare that I am asked to redo an image after it’s finished because we usually go through an extensive sketch phase before getting to final art.

It isn’t difficult to accept criticism, but illustrating an entire book is like a marathon. Redoing an image after it’s done would be like running backward and then turning around to finish the race again.

Did any part of the publication timetable change from what you anticipated in summer 2016?  If so what were the changes?

I didn’t know what the new publication date actually was. Once I turned in final art, I waited to see what they would release it.

And if so, how did you feel about the delay? 

I was fine with it, just excited about it’s final release date.

As the project proceeded and you got page proofs, were there any surprises either positive or negative?  If any surprises, what were they?  And what changes were made, either to the illustration or typography?

A few poems were changed from the initial ones I illustrated. That was a little frustrating, but it wasn’t a fight I was willing to have at that point. I just trusted the editor and author’s judgement there.

How was working with Deloris Jordan on this project? 

We never spoke. It is uncommon for authors and Illustrators to communicate during a book’s progress … if ever.

Have you received any prepublication reaction to your illustrations? If so, what were they? 

Mostly friends and family. My editor and art director were extremely pleased with the book though. I’m waiting now to hear what critics think.

Shadra showed me completed linoleum block prints when I first interviewed her in 2016.

Will you be exhibiting your A Child’s Book of Prayers and Blessings prints?

Hopefully, though I haven’t lined up any shows yet.

What illustration projects are you currently engaged in?  Where are you in each project?

I contributed to Susan Hood’s latest project, “Shaking Things Up”,

I did the cover of Jewel Parker Rhodes’s next anticipated title, Ghost Boys.

And I am currently working on my first authored book, Jump In. After that, I have two other exciting titles lined up that I can’t discuss at this time.

Shadra holds up her linoleum block print that she made to illustrate the poem “Ancient Tibetan Buddhist Blessing.”


To see more of Shadra Strickland’s work, please go to:

Shadra’s Books

Here is a list of Shadra Strickland’s children’s books, listing the media used to make the illustrations and recognition received:

• A Child’s Book of Prayers and Blessings: From Many Faiths and Cultures Around the World by Deloris Jordan, Simon and Schuster Books, 2017, reduction linoleum cuts

• Loving vs. Virginia written by Patricia Hruby Powell, Chronicle Books, January 2017; ink drawings and digital color (A Junior Library Guild Selection)

• Sunday Shopping written by Sally Derby, Lee and Low Books, 2016; watercolor, acrylic, and digital collage (A Junior Library Guild Selection, Bank Street College Best Book of the Year)

• Please, Louise written by Toni and Slade Morrision, Simon & Schuster, 2015: watercolor, gouache, and crayon

• White Water written by Michael S. Bandy and Eric Stein, Candlewick Press, 2011; watercolor and gouache (Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Award, NAACP Image Award Nominee)

• A Place Where Hurricanes Happen written by Reneé Watson, Random House Books, 2010; watercolor and gouache

• Bird written by Zetta Elliott, Lee and Low Books, 2009; watercolor, charcoal, gouache, and  ink (Ezra Jack Keats Award, Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award, ALA Notable Book, Kirkus Best Book of the Year)

• The Diary of B.B. Bright, Possible Princess written by Caroline Randall Williams and Alice Randall, Turner Publishing, 2012; pencil (Phillis Wheatley Book Award, NAACP Image Award Nominee)



Italian Doorways, Infinite Vistas


Every time I go abroad I know to pack the tools of my trade: a block of watercolor paper, paints, brushes and a palette.  What I don’t know ahead of time is what I’m going to paint.  Well, I do know that skies will be a component.  They were in Tuscany in 2012, when a first-day visit to Lucca inspired me to surround images of skies with borders derived from inlaid stone pavements like the ones that graced the city’s Romanesque duomo.  And toward the end of my 2016 artist residency in northern India, I started composing roundels with skies encircled with filigree-like patterns based on traditional Aipen designs.  (See my ART A SEE post:

(Left) “Tuscan Sky 6,” watercolor, spring 2012, 13 1/2″ x 10 1/2″ (Right) “Sky Aipen III,” watercolor, March 7, 2016, 12″ round.

Last May’s adventure began with ten days in Rome. I began sketching with the idea of replicating the idea behind seven small watercolors done during a trip to visit my sister in Reno, NV.  There I sought out surviving motel signs from the 50s and 60s. I drew tops of those signs from a low angle so that most of the image was a sky.  Then I painted a sky.

Here is 8-Reno, watercolor, 7 Sept. 2012, 10 1/2” x 7 1/8”.

So instead of a border, an object penetrated the rectangle of the sky. With that idea in mind, I made three sketches in Rome, one of which depicted one of the angels that stand guard atop the railing on the Ponte S. Angelo, the bridge over the Tiber leading to Castel Sant’Angelo, formerly known as Hadrian’s Mausoleum. But I hesitated to paint the sky because 1) the sky stayed blue, 2) the contours of the statue were more irregular than the motel signs had been, and 3) the rectangle was, at 16” x 12”, significantly bigger than the Reno rectangles were.


I strongly doubt that I’ll ever paint those three Rome sketches if only because the whole point of sky paintings is to paint a sky on location.  I guess I could add a Baltimore sky, but that would violate the spirit of the series.

All photos, drawings and paintings © Scott Ponemone

Italian doorways, Infinite Vistas

On the 11th day, my husband Michael Frommeyer and I picked up a rental car and drove to Assisi, where we would spend three nights. This short visit was intended to make up for a disappointing visit in 1999.  Two years before an earthquake severely damaged to the upper church of the Basilica di San Francesco.  The upper church as closed as work was still underway repairing the beloved Cimabue and Giotto frescoes.

(Right) Assisi, watercolor, June 1999, 10 1/2” x 8 3/4″

While wondering the town I came upon a doorway (top, left) that I recognized instantly. I had painted it in plein air (right) in 1999. As you see, inside the doorway opening, I inserted a view of the town with a striped sky.  And just as instantly I realized that those magnificent stone portals that proudly proclaim the importance of the occupant would be my sky frames this trip.


But I decided not to do that doorway again. Instead I chose these two.

(Right) “Assisi (14 June 2017,)” watercolor, 14 3/8” x 9 3/4” (Left) “Assisi (14 Aug. 2017),” watercolor, 14 1/4” x 12”


Here are the two completed paintings.

This pair of skies is the exception to the rule.  Each painting includes a partial landscape, something I almost always reframed from doing. Please click on the video below.


Blame the exception on the view from the balcony off our Assisi apartment.  We just loved the light, the clouds and the swallows.  Had we the option, we would have stayed there longer just for those long, beautiful late afternoons and early evenings.

Instead we followed our itinerary and drove north to Padua, where we would stay for the rest of May. On the way we revisited Ravenna, which was a side trip during our 1999 Italian visit.  Fortunately Ravenna hadn’t suffered damage from the 1997 quake. We stopped off  because the outstanding Byzantine mosaics preserved there were well worth a second visit.

Padua afforded us a good base for day trips to Venice, Ferrara, Verona, Mantua, Vicenza, Travis and Trento, as well a several Palladian villas.


The following are the steps in creating each of the ten Italian Doorways paintings:

▫️ I photographed a doorway

▫️ Uploaded the photo and processed it in Photoshop on my laptop

▫️ Figured the scale of the doorway to fit watercolor paper measuring 20” x 14″

▫️ Drew the doorway opening and partially drew the stonework (mostly so I would remember which doorway went with which photo)

▫️ Painted the sky in Italy

▫️ Back home in Baltimore, I printed out photos of the chosen doorways (see image below)

▫️ Completed the drawing of the doorway

▫️ Painted the doorway.

The dates on the paintings record the day the doorways were finished.

Here are three examples of the state of the doorways watercolors after I returned to Baltimore and printed out the source material.

Above are the steps toward completing Padua, starting with the completed drawing of the doorway.  The finished painting is just below.

 Completed suite

Here is the complete ten-painting set of Italian Doorways, Infinite Vistas, starting with “Padua”:

“Padua,” watercolor, 22 Aug. 2017, 12 7/8” x 10 3/4” (A storm sat over Padua when we arrived.)

“Ravenna,” watercolor, 14 July 2017, 16 5/8” x 11″

“Vicenza,” watercolor, 27 July 2017, 13 1/8” x 12″

“Verona,” watercolor, 5 Sept. 2017, 14 1/4” x 11 3/4” (The last one completed because it had the most detail.)

“Cittadella,” watercolor, 3 July 2017, 16” x 13 1/8”

“Trento (13 June 2017),” watercolor, 14 7/8” x 9 7/8″

“Trento (30 Aug. 2017),“ watercolor, 14” x 9 3/4″

“Venice,” watercolor, 5 Aug. 2017, 12 3/4” x 10 1/2″

“Assisi (14 June 2017,)” watercolor, 14 3/8” x 9 3/4”

“Assisi (14 Aug. 2017),” watercolor, 14 1/4” x 12”


And here’s a view of the first nine to be completed.  (They were posted as they were finished, bottom row to top row.) The Verona painting was still at my easel. I guess I’ll have to look for a different arrangement to get all ten in view.


When you create a series, there’s always the question whether you have one painting with so many components or a set of individual paintings. What do you think?












Harry & Bill: Making of a woodcut autobiography


This article was first published in the spring 2017 issue of On Paper: Journal of the Washington Print Club. Because the blog format is not handcuffed by the restrictions of page layout and color usage, this post provides an ideal opportunity to republish my article.

Sternberg: A Life in Woodcuts with its original lucite slipcase. (Photo by Scott Ponemone. Courtesy of the Estate of Harry Sternberg.)


Fortune smiled on me last winter when I was able to purchase at auction a copy of Harry Sternberg’s book Sternberg: A Life in Woodcuts. I hadn’t come across a copy of his autobiography since soon after it was published in 1991 by Brighton Press, San Diego, California. At the time I couldn’t afford it. However, as a lover of books featuring original relief prints without text—precursors of today’s graphic novels—I never forgot about it. Since his book was published in two small editions of 40 each—a regular edition and a deluxe one—I never had a second chance to own a copy until December 2016.

So now I had signed copy number XL/XL. Did I have the deluxe or the regular edition? To my delight, a quick online check for Brighton Press confirmed that this small press was still publishing and, more importantly, Bill Kelly, who founded the press in 1977, was still actively involved. (See the Brighton Press website at emailed Kelly to see if he would he be willing to discuss the making of A Life in Woodcuts and his experiences working with Harry Sternberg, who was in his eighties when the project began. I especially wanted to ask Kelly how Sternberg cut his blocks. The marks that made up his woodcut images were so irregular, I didn’t get a sense of what tools he was using.

But first, who was Harry Sternberg (1904-2001)? Born in the Lower East Side of Manhattan to Jewish emigrés from Eastern Europe, Sternberg studied at the Art Students League. He learned etching from Harry Wickey and taught at the Art Students League for 35 years. In 1927, when Sternberg was 23, one of his prints was exhibited by the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and the American Marxist magazine New Masses illustrated one of his drawings. Over the next five years, his works appeared in numerous group shows, including at the newly opened Whitney Museum of American Art. Carl Zigrosser of the Weyhe Gallery in New York gave him his first one-person show in 1932. (Ellen Fleurov, No Sun without Shadow: The Art of Harry Sternberg. San Diego: California Center for the Arts, Escondido 2000, 11.)

For collectors like myself, when I think of Harry Sternberg, I think of his pre-1950 prints that pulsed with images of New York street life, the hardships of the working man, his fascination with the circus, and even his imagining humans flying through the air to represent musical instruments. His art often reflected the leftist political views common among artists of the day.

Harry Sternberg, Circus #3: The Wheels, etching and aquatint, 8 7/8″ x 11 7/8″, 1929 (March), 1/30, signed. Of his circus images, Sternberg recalled, “I had never been to a circus when I worked on this series of plates. I invented my own circus as a means of exercising my interest in the human figure in motion through space.” (James C. Moore. Harry Sternberg: A Catalogue Raisonné of His Graphic Work. Wichita: Edwin A. Ulrich Museum of Art, 1975, 40. Print #38) (Photo by Scott Ponemone. Courtesy of the Estate of Harry Sternberg.)


Harry Sternberg, Bound Man (Enough), crayon aquatint, 14 7/8″ x 11 3/4″, 1947, signed. (Photo by Scott Ponemone. Courtesy of the Estate of Harry Sternberg.)

Sternberg had a working career of over seven decades. After World War II his prints mostly drifted away from his earlier themes of social consciousness. This was especially true after he left New York in 1966 for Escondido, north of San Diego. From Ellen Fleurov’s book No Sun without Shadow, pg. 118: “Suffering from lung disease, he is advised by his doctor to leave New York. Takes extended leave from teaching…. Intends to stay for only one year, but settles permanently in California and retires from [Art Students] League.”


Had Sternberg not settled in southern California, he wouldn’t have met Bill Kelly and there wouldn’t have been A Life in Woodcuts. Kelly recalls:

I was the only professional printer for artists in San Diego and I was doing some print publishing as well, primarily for Mexican artists. This was in the early 80’s, and I was running the San Diego Print Club with several other artists at the time. Harry made an appointment, brought in three plates to test me on. I knew his work from an earlier show and several books and print publications I was aware of. I owned Carl Zigrosser’s book [Artist in America: Twenty-Four Close-ups of Contemporary Printmakers. New York: Knopf, 1942] which had a focus on Harry.

(All quotes from Bill Kelly were obtained via email exchange between Kelly and myself in January and February, 2017.)

Kelly was taken with Sternberg’s printmaking.

He knew how to make a print, and his compositions were emotive, expressive and, I would say, very sophisticated. He knew how to draw the figure and early on impressed me with a drawing he did of his mother on her death bed. It was her hands I remember the most. As I began to really know his work and saw his studies, it became clear that he had a great affinity for the exaggerated body. He apparently liked my first printings, and I worked regularly printing editions for him for the next 15 or 20 years.

The next step in their collaboration actually began when Kelly’s Brighton Press published a book in 1985: A Colored Poem presented poems by W.D. Snodgrass illustrated with colored etchings by DeLoss McGraw. Kelly said, “The book did well. It sold to collections. One dream I had was to know writers, and this was a perfect vehicle for that. Still is.”

Kelly’s new endeavor intrigued Sternberg, and Sternberg had some definitive views on the enterprise. Kelly remembers:

He [Sternberg] was slightly mystified by this poetry thing. One day when he came in to print and knew our financial troubles, he said he had figured out why we weren’t making much money. He declared the poetry was limiting our sales and undercutting the value of the prints. The binding was expensive, and museums didn’t really quite know what to do with them. Still books made sense to us, and Harry stayed amused.

After five books or so I decided to approach Harry with a book idea. A book of hands, powerful and expressive hands. He wasn’t interested. He proposed a book with a poet, not a living poet but a poet none the less.… I wanted to work with living breathing poets, but nothing was lining up.
You can see our mission at the time was twofold: the artist makes the work and we put the work to the service of an idea in book form. There really wasn’t much more to it than that. It led us into some fascinating projects. We have rarely deviated from this view and are just finishing our 50th book. Writing though was important to us and has remained our way into the making of images and text. Harry was different. He was a good reader…but his work was purely visual.

The first Brighton Press imprint of Sternberg’s prints was Myths and Rituals, a suite of eleven large woodcuts in an edition of 30, 1986. The prints were so large that Kelly decided to issue them not enclosed in a portfolio, although Kelly had designed one. For instance, Sternberg’s woodcut Creators and Critics measured 34 5/8” x 17 7/8”. (Images from Harry Sternberg’s Myths and Rituals can be found on the San Diego Museum of Art website. They are numbered 2000.55.1 through 2000.55.11. “Sternberg, Harry.” San Diego Museum of Art, accessed March 10, 2017,

“There are some strong images in this series and some lovely puns,” Kelly said.

I think he was just enjoying the making. We weren’t so much—the printing of these with a spoon, especially when the fragile paper ripped after 45 minutes of printing. There were three, then four of us printing hard….Myths & Rituals never made it to book status. We tried a version in polymer but didn’t like the scaled down feel of it. There were 11 prints, all large….We sold several, all 11 as a suite of prints on the theme as Harry developed them. When he signed the prints, he would often change the name. He would do this right in front of our eyes. It drove us crazy. He just laughed it off. He also would change the edition number.

A poster for an exhibition of Harry Sternberg’s suite of woodcuts Myths a& Rituals. (Image provided by Bill Kelly. Courtesy of the Estate of Harry Sternberg.)

An exhibition of this series was held in June, 1986, both at Brighton Press in San Diego and at the Tobey C. Moss Gallery in Los Angeles.

In 1989 Kelly hit upon an idea for a book to excite Sternberg: an autobiography in woodcuts.

We were doing a lot of woodcuts with Harry, and they were good. I drove the 30 miles to Escondido, where Harry’s studio was. He heard me out and loved the idea. I came back elated, and within a short time he was doing a block nearly every week…. He felt the book. I can imagine—he was 89—that, when he said the images flooded out from his memory, he was feeling the joy of an artist living his life in the arts.

Among the first decisions about the production of A Life in Woodcuts was how was it to be presented. Sternberg, the veteran printmaker, gravitated toward a portfolio of loose prints. Kelly, however, thought in terms of bound books. They reached a compromise: two editions of 40. One edition numbered in Roman numerals would be just the book containing Sternberg’s woodcuts printed from the block; the other edition in Arabic numerals would be the same book (but using different papers) plus a portfolio of loose prints, the same prints that appeared in the book. Each was signed by the artist.  (Kelly said Sternberg chose to number the portfolio edition in Arabic numerals because “he thought it would be harder, maybe weird, to sign prints with Roman numerals.”)

Another critical decision was the size of the book and, therefore, the prints.

The book needed to be big enough to give Harry freedom of movement. His hands shook until the Dremel hit the wood. Then he was amazingly steady. He like the scale but was concerned with restrictions as to composition. He couldn’t change page size but could do whatever he wanted on that page. He asked if he could break the square [an image with all right angles], and we cheerfully said yes.

Photos of Harry Sternberg using a Dermel to create woodcuts for Sternberg: A Life in Woodcuts. (The images appeared in Ellen Fluerov’s No Sun Without Shadows, pg. 121. The photo credits list Thomas B. Szalay as photographer. I contacted him but he couldn’t confirm that the photos were his.

Kelly’s mention of “Dremel” helps explain how Sternberg cut his woodblocks. The name refers to a rotary power tool with interchangeable bits. It was developed by Albert J. Dremel, who founded the American Dremel Company in 1932. It appears that Sternberg first used the power tool in creating The Atom, an intaglio print from 1950. Of that experience, Sternberg wrote, “Instead of acid or engraving tools, I used a power drill for cutting most of this plate. I worked with a flexible shaft drill, not unlike those the dentists use, with various bits or point.” (Moore, Harry Sternberg, print #196)

In Sternberg’s instructional booklet Woodcut, he wrote:

The use of powered cutting tools in woodcut is relatively new. The tool itself is similar to that used by dentists, but is smaller and more compact. It consists of a flexible shaft attached to a motor. At the end of the shaft is a grip into which cutting burrs and grinding wheels can be fitted interchangeably. A foot-controlled rheostat that starts, stops, and varies the speed of the motor, is desirable. The rapidly revolving burrs do the cutting, so that the hand is used solely to guide the tool. By using several burrs and varying the speed of revolution, a wide variety of textures and lines may be obtained on the face of the wood block. (Harry Sternberg, “The Power Drill” from Woodcut. New York: Pitman Publishing Corporation, 1962.)

Plates #3 (left) and #15 from Sternberg: A life in Woodcuts. (Photos by Scott Ponemone. Courtesy of the Estate of Harry Sternberg.)

Sternberg’s use of the Dremel explains why the prints in A Life in Woodcuts lack the marks made by traditional woodcut tools, namely chisels, gouges, and knives. Instead, his woodcuts have an erose, almost pitted surface, which gives them an edgy, nervous energy.

Sternberg’s project progressed. Kelly recalls:

Preliminary drawing and completed woodcut for image #31 in A Life in woodcuts. (Drawing courtesy of Bill Kelly. Photo (right) by Scott Ponemone. Courtesy of the Estate of Harry Sternberg.)

Preliminary drawing and completed woodcut for image #8 in A Life in woodcuts. (Drawing courtesy of Bill Kelly. Photo (right) by Scott Ponemone. Courtesy of the Estate of Harry Sternberg.)

He was steady. Almost every two weeks or certainly once a month he would show up with a new block or two. Sometimes he showed us drawings but not always. He was excited by his memories and loved having printers who would drink with him. I don’t believe there were blocks or prints that didn’t make the cut. Some were better than others, but we just watched printed and counted. No target number was set, just waited for him to tell his tale.

One notable feature is that each print in the book was numbered to correspond with a biographical chronology at the end of the book. That idea came about when art editor Helen Faye interviewed Sternberg. According to Kelly, “[she] came up with the chrono dating and numbers. Seemed like quite a good idea now that I think back, and I am certain Helen thought of this. There are some inaccuracies in the chronology, caught by Malcolm Warner in his book. Harry was cagey and often inventive, but for the most part he was sharp and accurate as far as we can tell.”

(Malcolm Warner, The Prints of Harry Sternberg. San Diego: San Diego Museum of Art, 1994. At the time, Helen Faye was director of art editing in New York and San Diego for Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. Bill Kelly said: “When she retired, she came to work [for us] as the Corrector of the Press. She is 96 now.”)

Preliminary drawing, the completed woodblock and the completed woodcut for image #4 in A Life in woodcuts. (Drawing and woodblock courtesy of Bill Kelly. Photo (right) by Scott Ponemone. Courtesy of the Estate of Harry Sternberg.)

Kelly used a Vandercook 219 press to print the project: “Blocks were raised to type high and lead type for the chronology. The portfolio prints were printed by spoon. I still like to print that way.”

(Top) Sternberg family photograph: father Simon, sister Mae, Harry and mother Rose. (Bottom) The photo as prepared to run on the cover of A Life in Woodcuts. (Courtesy of Bill Kelly)

The cover features a round photograph of the Sternberg family: Harry at age eight, his sister Mae, and his parents Rose and Simon. Harry surrounded the photograph with a hexagonal frame comprising the family names. Suspecting that there was a story behind that design, I asked Kelly about it:

The cover was one of the last things, and it was a little hard to resolve. (I found the photo Harry gave us of the family and the first proof of the idea.) The round idea, I have no idea. Harry again was given a dimension and showed up with the cut. He very much liked the cover. I would maybe do it differently now. I was looking at the book last night, first time in awhile and musing over design decisions.

He added: “Michele [Burgess, Brighton Press Director] just said the cover design idea was mine and hers was the color decisions. Sounds right.”

Harry had to be watched when it came time to sign and number the two editions. Bill remembered:

He even when signing our books would mis-number or swing something different. We had to have people sit with him to watch what he did carefully. Anna [Williamson–her mother Sue worked at the press at the time] often sat with him while he was signing, but she was more of a happy distraction than the person who watched and listened to all the stories that were part of the ritual.

The whole project, Kelly said, “took about two years, maybe a little longer. After the idea was settled on, the first blocks of the family leaving their villages was in our hands. The Statue of Liberty was early on. We were pretty excited by that one.”

Bill Kelly (left) with Harry Sternberg and Anna Williamson, whose mother worked at Brighton Press. (Photo, c. 1990, courtesy of Bill Kelly)

In the end, Kelly said:

The book itself had many lives. Sales, exhibitions, travel, and meetings with all kinds of people who love books and prints. So many odd and interesting tales. The two editions seemed natural. One for the walls, and the other for the shelves.

This doesn’t always work out so neatly. Books are torn apart for the images, and collectors who want prints don’t really want books. Museums don’t really know how to display books, and you really can’t have masses of people turning pages. It has gotten better, and many places treat the book form quite respectfully.

Most collections that bought Harry’s book bought the version with the separate prints, and there have been many and lovely exhibitions of all the prints on the wall with the book displayed open to a page spread…. We like to think we sneak art into the libraries, and books into art collections. A wonderful book artist, printer and sculptor, Walter Hamady, called this the Trojan Horse of art.






When I ran into a roadblock four years ago with my series of paintings and wood engravings devoted to hands–I couldn’t get permission to photograph hand surgeons operating on hands–I literally broadened my interests to encompass arms. Thinking ironically about imagery from the good old U.S.S.R. and its propaganda of heroic posters of working men and women holding up hammers and sickles, I wondered what do Americans value so highly that they would hoist it proudly in the air. As in the hands series, I wouldn’t paint faces.  I would only paint the arms and the objects being held aloft.  I was interested in the connection between the individual and the object.  I would ask a farmers’ market vendor to hold up produce; a parent an infant, a musician an instrument, a mechanic a tool, etc. And not being too shy of puns, I titled the new series: UP IN ARMS.

This essay is not just a listing of the series that now numbers 65 paintings, but I’ll relate how my understanding of the series changed over time and how that understanding affected how I would exhibit the paintings. (For a nearly complete listing of the UP IN ARMS series, please see my portfolio:

First exhibition

Naturally I started with little dogs.  As an owner of an 78-pound airedale, I’ve always found little dogs and their owners amusing.  What is that squirrel-size thing at the end of a leash?  Anyway, picking on little-dog owners walking in the neighborhood with their pet was a way for me to build the gumption to ask strangers to pose for my camera.  The experience was heartening.  About half of those folks I asked agreed to hold their little pup above their head. I always presented my models with my business card, saying contact me if you want a photos of yourself modelling for me. No one has ever emailed me afterwords.

(left to right) Pet Lift D, watercolor, 30 July 2013, image 23 1/2″  x 13 1/2″; Pet Lift B, watercolor, 19 July 2013, image 26 1/2″ x 17 1/2″; Pet Lift C, watercolor, 24 July 2013, image 24 1/2″ x 13 1/2″

Above are three of the first four UP IN ARMS paintings.  Each was painted on a sheet of Arches cold press watercolor paper measuring about 35″ x 25″.  The cat painting–of me holding up Oscar–if nothing else demonstrates that cats don’t like being taken out of their comfort zone while dogs just might enjoy the view.

RAISING CORN, watercolor, 7 August 2013, image 25 3/8″ x 15 1/2″; MEAT:LAMB, watercolor, 4 Sept. 2013, 22 3/4″ x 17 3/4″

With my confidence raised by pet owners, my next source of models was found at the local farmers’ market.  I approached a corn seller with the age-old question: How many ears of corn can you hold above your head at one time?  There was no hesitation to find out.

Then came chard, watermelon and eggplant.  My first foray into livestock came when I asked a friend who’s a commercial photographer and happens to raise sheep on his Harford County farm if I could visit him during lambing season.

KW-Caught II (Tuna), watercolor, 21 Oct. 2013, image 21 1/2″ x 23 1/4″; KW-Caught I (Barracuda), watercolor, 16 Oct. 2013, 17″ x 28″

I used images of these early UP IN ARMS paintings in applying for a residency at The Studios of Key West.  I said I would go down to the charter boat dock and ask tourists/fishermen to hold up their prized catch. The Studios of Key West took the bait. And as you can see from the images above, so did the fishermen.

KW-Fake I (Paper maché toucans), watercolor, 12 Oct. 2013, image 27″ x 17 1/4″; KW-Feathers I, watercolor, 25 Oct. 2013, 21″ x 22 3/4″

But the best part of Key West is not the tourists, but the locals.  If you think Baltimore can breed some oddball types, imagine what tropical heat can do to the brain.  The paper machè toucans were sitting in one of several huge wire cages outside a house not far from the residency.  I biked passed several days before I came across an elderly husband and wife were doing yard work there.  I asked the gentleman where are your birds.  He said neighbors complained about the noise they made; so they’re now inside. The fake toucans were the only outdoor cage occupants. Upon request, the wife modeled them for me.  The real macaws lived at Nancy’s Secret Garden.  A small sign by the sidewalk of a rather ramshackle wood-frame Victorian house led you to a gate and buzzer beside the house.  Nancy with her long grey hair in a ponytail and her black t-shirt with human skulls soon answered. She led me to her backyard populated with large wire cages.  While she normally charges to bring out her macaws, as a fellow artiste she modeled them for me gratis.

Python Fore, watercolor, 5 Aug. 2016, image 21 1/2 x 44 1/2′; Python Aft, watercolor, 5 Aug. 2016, image 25 1/2″ x 44 1/2″

And then there was the zoo underneath the Monroe County Detention Center.  One Sunday a month there was an open house.  Jeanne, the woman who ran the place, had a year-old sloth draped around her neck.  The rest of the zookeepers wore jail-issued orange jumpsuits.  After they held up an African tortoise, rabbits, the sloth, a kinkajou, and a large lizard, I asked: What about the albino python curled up in its cage?  Did they ever take it out?  Yes, I was told, to feed it.  So the next Wednesday I returned (they wouldn’t take it out during the open house with swallow-size children running about), and the python was held aloft by Jeanne and three inmates.

Note that the date on those two paintings is nearly three years later than the other Key West paintings.  The logistics of this image were daunting.  Do I paint the snake as an albino and struggle with making it jump out from the white paper? Do I paint four separate paintings, one for each holder?  I finally decided to 1) yes, keep it albino and 2) paint it on two pieces of paper–each 35″ x 52″–cut from a 10-foot roll of paper.  I kept the scale the same so that, should I decide to, I could cut the right margin off the Fore painting so that the two images would fit together. (See the photoshopped image that leads this post.) However, I don’t intend to.

The Key West residency did lead to my first exhibition of UP IN ARMS paintings. And it was a disaster.  At a carnival there I met a potter of playful ceramics. He offered to exhibit my works in his showroom in early 2014.  I agreed to frame four paintings and send four others with just a foamboard backing.  Well the frames got damaged in shipping. So I had to have a Key West framer repair them. Nothing sold. Then I had all eight shipped back without frames.

SEcond Exhibition

By the time of the second UP IN ARMS exhibition in November 2015, I had 48 paintings to choose from.  I had added six paintings of naked infants held by  a parent, four of critters both domestic and wild, three of food both baked and raw, two of music, five of plastic, one of a tire, one of a chain saw and one of a CPR dummy.

One way I could exhibit them would be in single file, marching around a gallery with no sense of order, just one image after another, independent of each other yet somehow in conversation with adjacent paintings.  Then I conceived of the notion of Triplets, groups of three that are arbitrarily arranged as if appearing randomly at a slot machine window.  This is what I wrote in an artist statement for an exhibition competition in 2015:

I believe the paintings can be quite powerful individually. Yet I always suspected that a dialog would occur between paintings once they are presented formally in a gallery. But not until recently did I realize how magical groupings of UP IN ARMS paintings would be. And groups of threes–Triplets–seem to work best. The selection and order within the groups are very interchangeable, and each variation instantly creates a new dynamic, a different energy, a change in tension.

My first chance to display UP IN ARMS paintings in Triplets came at Jordan Faye Contemporary in Baltimore in November 2015.

Jordan Faye Block, director of Jordan Faye Contemporary in Baltimore, ponders Triplets of UP IN ARM paintings before mounting them on the wall.

(left Triplet) ABoy, watercolor, 10 Sept. 2014, image 27 1/2″ x 16″; MEAT:PORK, watercolor, 16 Sept. 2013, image 20 1/4″ x 19 1/2″; HBoyButt, watercolor, 25 Sept. 2014, image 28″ x 16 1/2″. (Right Triplet) TOOLBOX, watercolor, 23 July 2015, image 29 1/2″ x 20 1/4″; ONE FOR THE ROAD, watercolor, 30 Dec. 2014, image 26 1/2″ x 16″; RAISING EGGPLANT, watercolor, 28 Aug. 2013, image 24″ x 15 7/8″

As you can see, none of the paintings in this gallery space were framed.  (Unfortunately these Triplets were only hung for the opening. The space was later used for a holiday bazaar.) I presented most of the paintings in this exhibition unframed to maximize the interaction between the images of each Triplets.

KW-Caught III, watercolor, 20 Feb. 2014, image 29 1/4″ x 9 7/8″; BBoyButt, watercolor, 3 Oct. 2014, image 25 3/5″ x 21 1/2″; Horn, watercolor, 29 Nov. 2014, image 27″ x 18 3/8″

Above is a Triplet with frames, while below are two Triplets unframed in the same gallery.

(Left Triplet) KW-Fake I, watercolor, 12 Oct. 2013, image 27″ x 17 1/4″; MEAT:GOAT, watercolor, 16 April 2015, image 28″ x 16 1/4″; LOAVES, watercolor, 15 July 2015, image 25 1/4″ x 20 1/4″. (Right Triplet) RAISING HEADS, watercolor, 22 May 2014, image 28″ x 19 3/8″; SAW, watercolor, 17 Sept. 2015, image 30 3/8″ x 15 1/4″; WARTY GOURDS, watercolor, 2 April 2015, image 28 1/4″ x 15 3/4″

While I’m thankful that Jordan Faye Contemporary gave me this exhibition, I was disappointed that most of my show was presented in a rather small, disjointed  space that both limited the number of Triplets on display and didn’t provide optimal viewing distances to see individual triplets as well as to see the variations in the Triplets.


In 2016 I started to create groupings of related objects.  In reaction to the uprising in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Grey, I tried to get images of objects related to police and gun violence.  Going through formal channels at the city Police Department went nowhere not surprisingly.  Going to the downtown shop that provided tools of the trade to law enforcement officers also was a waste of time. Ditto at gun shops. I even went to an outdoor target range in Baltimore County.  The good old boys who ran the place were immediately suspicious of my request for folks to model their weapons. They offered to bring up my request at the club’s board meeting, but I knew not to expect a positive result.

FF CPR, watercolor, 11 Sept. 2015, image 29″ x 16 1/4″

So until I figured out how to approach weapons use in Baltimore, I turned to the fire department. I already had a related image painted, thanks to the 2015 Maryland State Fair, where firefighters had a CPR dummy on display.  Unlike the Police Department, the Baltimore Fire Department was quite welcoming. One of the huge garage doors was open at the Lombard Street station when I approached in August 2016.  No one was about when walked in. The fire trucks stood ready. By each door were uniforms with boots attached, positioned so that firefighters could quickly outfit themselves.  Finally I came upon a control room. I explained to the woman on duty there why I was there.  She summoned a young firefighter, who was white, to be my model, and he gamely first held up the giant pneumatic wrench called “The Jaws of Life,” then a pair of axes, an oxygen tank with its harness and finally a helmet.  I returned a few days later with printouts of some of the resulting photos, but my first model wasn’t there.  I asked the pair of black firefighters I met on my second visit to hold up a coil of hose, but they declined, offering instead to summon a muscle-bound firefighter whom they called The Hulk.  And The Hulk dutifully arrived by sliding down a brass pole.  He effortlessly hoisted a coil of hose.  Once again firefighters helped me out. I only wished The Hulk was black so I could represent the racial diversity of the Fire Department.

(from the right) FF HELMET, watercolor, 10 Nov. 2016, image 26 3/4″ x 18 1/2″; FF TANK, watercolor, 29 Nov. 2016, image 26 1/4″ x 15 1/2″; FF CPR; FF HOSE, watercolor, 31 Oct. 2016, image 23″ x 20 1/2″; FF JAWS, watercolor, 30 Sept. 2016, image 24 1/2″ x 21 1/2″

While I was painting the firefighters suite, which I was later to call LIFESAVERS, someone told me about Continental Arms, an indoor pistol range in Timonium, just north of Baltimore.  There I watched guys fire their weapons at paper targets.  What do they do with the used targets, I asked the woman in charge.  Often they throw them away, I was told.  She offered to collect some over the weekend.  Good to her word, the following Tuesday I picked up about a dozen bullet-ridden targets, most with a black torso and head, a few in magenta.  Now I needed models.  The paper targets–each about 35″  by 22″–were too flimsy to hold up. So I glued a black target to one side of a piece of foamboard and a magenta target to the other.  Then I took the board to the park around the Washington Monument in the Mount Vernon neighborhood in Baltimore.  I asked various folks to hold up the target for me to photograph.  I told each willing person that you could choose to hold up the black side or the magenta side and that you could hold the target right-side up, upside down or on its side. I found willing models black and white, male and female. This was a new approach for me. Instead of having models hold up an object closely associated with them–most notably a parent and a child–I sought out models based on demographics.

As I was drawing the first Target image, it dawned on me not to paint the bullet holes.  Doing so would be a pain. Since I don’t paint white, it would mean painting around each hole in order to leave the hole white.  Why not, I asked myself, use my Target paintings for target practice.


As you can see, my request was wholeheartedly accepted at the Timonium pistol range. All that I asked of Lucito “Lou” Lara, the range master, was to fire within the painted image of the targets.

After he shot it, Lou Lara holds up TARGET B.

Above is a closeup of Target B.  Now how could painted bullet holes compare to these? Soon all of the Target paintings were violated with pistol holes.

By the end of February 2017 I had seven Target paintings, five with black targets like Target B and two with the colors reversed. I decided against painting magenta targets.  There was no metaphoric import to that hue.  Instead when models chose to pose with the magenta target, I painted the target tan and the background black (or reverse of the black target paintings).  This way I could present paintings where the targets could represent the skin color of victims of gun violence, while the skin color of the models could represent either the victims or the shooters.

(Left to right) TARGET A, watercolor, 5 Jan. 2017, image 33 1/2″ x 16 1/2″; TARGET D, watercolor, 2 Feb. 2017, image 30″ x 23 1/2″; TARGET G, watercolor, 23 Feb. 2017, 34 1/8″ x 17 1/4″; TARGET B, watercolor, 12 Jan. 2017, image 35 1/4″ x 18″; TARGET E, watercolor, 9 Feb. 2017, image 26″ x 16 1/4″; TARGET C, watercolor, 20 Jan. 2017, image 35″ x 15 1/4″; TARGET F, watercolor, 15 Feb. 2017, image 34″ x 16 1/2″

OK, now I had what I hope would be seen as a thought-provoking group of paintings. The only problem was that the curator of my next exhibition didn’t know about this turn in my oeuvre.  Last summer I was contacted by the curator of the art gallery at Harford County Community College.  He saw images of my paintings at the Baker Artists Awards website. He asked me and a number of other artists to apply for an exhibition in 2017.  I provided him with a proposed exhibition of Triplets.  The result was an offer of a summer 2017 exhibition at the college.

As I was about to tell the curator about these new paintings and a new way of showing my UP IN ARMS series, I attended a theatrical performance that dealt with racial stereotypes that might be encountered in an upper middle class cocktail party.  After the show I stayed for a discussion led by a professor from Morgan State University.  As I drove home afterwords, I realized I needed to contact the professor.  Would he, I would ask him, be interested in leading a similar discussion during the run of my exhibition in Harford County?  The next day I called the theater and got the email address for the professor.  I sent him images of groups of paintings for my show.

(top to bottom, left to right) ABoy; HBoyButt; BBoyButt; WBoyButt, watercolor, 22 July 2014, image 29″ x 14 1/4″; BGirl, watercolor, 19 March 2015, image 25 1/4″ x 17 5/8″; WBoy, watercolor, 7 Aug. 2014, image 26 1/2″ x 13 1/2″

His reply was generally positive, but he had this reaction to the above grouping of paintings that I call TABULA RASA;

What immediately struck me about the artwork below is the presence of genital organs of white boys (2) and a black girl (1) and the absence of a similar display of white females and black males. Is this deliberate or is it part of the entire exhibition? I mention this because the most common rape of women in American history is that of the white male raping the black female and the most forbidden relationship was of course, between the white female and the black male. Just curious about this.

This is exactly why a discussion would be needed for this exhibition. His comments are perfectly appropriate; however, my selection of paintings entirely depended upon what side of the child the parent was willing to show the camera. Thoughts of potential rapists and victims were furthest from my mind.  These infants–all younger than six months–were selected to illustrate how we each come into this world as a blank slate or tabula rasa.  Infants are vessels that will be filled with the language(s) of the parents, the social standing and moral compass of the parents, of siblings, of schoolmates, of friends and extended family.

The professor did visit my studio and thankfully agreed to be available for a discussion during the run of my exhibition. With this promise in hand, I contacted the gallery curator and told him about the professor.  Then and only then did I send him a schematic of my exhibition using the diagram of the gallery space that he had sent me.

You’ve seen three of the groupings: TARGET, LIFESAVERS and TABULA RASA.  The others are PYTHON where I position the pair on either side of a corner, PLASTIC for the common composition of the objects, FOOD with both vegetables and adorable young livestock, MUSIC with an instrument case and two potential ad-lib instruments, and SPARE because that it what it is.

All of the paintings were delivered to the curator last week along with the diagram and instructions for spacing.  The paintings will be hung with magnets. The exhibition opens June 2 and closes September 15 with a reception Thursday, September 14.  I’ll be out of the country until just before the opening.

Even though I would have preferred not showing over the summer, this exhibition has given me an opportunity to display UP IN ARMS paintings to reflect how I currently think of them–an evolution that has gone from seeing them as individual paintings, to members of arbitrary Triplets, to groupings of like-minded paintings.


I haven’t been to the show yet, but it was installed according to my instructions that I sent before I left for Italy on May 1, 2017.  I hope to view the show and maybe update these images.  The reception is not until mid-September. Curator Brad Blair kindly sent me these images.

















George Walker’s new edition of Images from the Neocerebellum is a wonder indeed.  Of course its presentation clamshell box is exquisite. One expects that in a Walker limited edition wordless book.  The book itself with its beveled boards and black moiré cloth has heft and presence.  And the personage with crossed arms stares at you from the box cover, the book cover as well as the title page.

George A. Walker, Images from the Neocerebellum, 2016, George Walker Books, Toronto, Canada, #2 from edition of 28, with clamshell box right. (All images courtesy of the artist.)


Lenticular version of “Big Hands,” signed, with black matboard.

And when you first lift the book from the case, a surprise greets you. A lenticular (ridged plastic ) version of his “Big Hands” wood engraving. So tempting to pick it up and slowing turn it from side to side so you can see the bigger hand become the left hand, then the right. (See a short video of it at the end of this post.)

But the real treat is inside Neocerebellum: page after page of some of George’s most powerful wood engravings. Each was inspired by a dream he had.  He called it a dream diary. When Images from the Neocerebellum first appeared in 2007 as a paperback (The Porcupine’s Quill, Erin, Ontario, Canada), across from each image was a title and brief text description of the dream illustrated. In the new publication no text appears.  Walker will explain his decision to eliminate text in the interview that follows.

Why George Walker decided to publish a limited edition–what I call his New Neo–was explained in a previous ART I SEE post.  (See It’s worth checking this out if only to see photos of the work in progress.) In short, George agreed with me that his Neocerebellum images deserved hand printing on his Vandercook proofing press. I made the suggestion in 2015 when he was in the midst of producing his Trudeau: La Vie en Rose wordless biography of Pierre Elliott Trudeau. He then gave his wife, Michelle, the task of finding the blocks for Neocerebellum. Some blocks stayed stubbornly missing.  A few blocks were damaged.  But last summer he set about to publish New Neo, deciding which images merited recutting because they were either missing or deemed not so well cut.  He also needed to determine whether and where to trim the damaged blocks. In a few cases George chose to add wholly new images.


After the limited edition of Images from the Neocerebellum arrived in early December and after comparing the new version against the old one, I sent George my usual cascade of questions. He graciously replied just before New Years.

George Walker working on his limited edition of Neocerebellum. (Michelle Walker photo)

It’s odd that I need to reference the original book with its titles for each image in order to ask you about changes you have made.

Yes, I suppose it is odd to need one book to interpret the other, but what I was trying to do in the limited was to create a new experience. I thought the images should stand on their own without the explanations I provided in the popular edition. I printed 28 copies (half my age) because this edition was nostalgia for past dreams and a reflection on whom I have become. Some dreams were a transparency on my unconscious self and others (even now) remain opaque.

Essentially you kept the same sequence as in the original when I guess you were free to choose a completely new arrangement.  Why so?

When the first edition of Neocerebellum came about in 2007, I spent a lot of time sorting my dream diary images into a chronology that I thought made sense. At the time I was thinking about Jung and Freud and dream interpretation. The task I faced was a perceptual “identifying” of sensory patterns, complexities of the dream images made into single frames. When we dream and then recall that dream later, the rationality of the daytime experiences before the dream filter gives the censoring force another form of meaning. Freud called this “secondary revision” when the mind attempts to sort the dream-sequence by giving it a narrative sense and coherence. The dream interpretation severs the pieces that have been artfully joined in the mind. The arrangement is more of a chronology, but this fails slightly because some of the images are based on recurring dreams.

“Meeting My Subconscious” (left) and “Hand Smoke.” (All plates © George Walker)

I see you left out “Meeting My Subconscious.” It seems a perfect topic for this book. But you leave it out. Why?

That was such a prophetic dream. It still haunts me. I searched my studio to find the original block—and I should have recut a replacement for the lost one—but I didn’t. This dream was two years before the birth of my granddaughter. I now think it foreshadowed her arrival. The text reads, “Waking up, I sit at the edge of the bed and am feeling distressed that I can’t remember my dream. As I puzzle over this, the room begins to move and a little girl runs from the dark and places her hand on mine. I try to look at her, but she became only a shadow. A fear runs through me as I realize I am still dreaming.”

 What about dropping “Hand Smoke”?

Michelle had spent many hours in the studio looking for the blocks used in the Neocerebellum. She found most of them, but some remain lost, and I was left with the problem of what to do. I could recut—and some blocks I did just that. The other option was to replace them.

I like the new Bear image.  Have you been face-to-face with a black bear?

I’ve encountered bears on my hikes and camping adventures, but I have never faced-off with a bear and I certainly wouldn’t want to. I used a similar image for the cover of Sue Goyette’s book, The Brief Reincarnation of a Girl published by Gaspereau Press (2015). In the book the bear appears as a symbol of hope and is the grounding force of the little girl’s fears and hopes.
In my dream of the bear, I am followed and then confronted by the bear as it emerges from the woods. Bears can be unpredictable, and its appearance in my dream made me wake up immediately. The psychologist Carl Jung believed that all wild animals in dreams represent feelings and emotions. I was profoundly affected after reading Goyette’s book and trying to find an image that fit her narrative. After the dream I knew exactly what the image would look like.


The first version of “Steppenworlf” (left), the recut version (right).

It appears you recut “Steppenwolf.”  Tell me why, please.

In Herman Hesse’s book Steppenwolf the protagonist is ill-suited for a world filled with the everyday of frivolous bourgeois society. He is a stranger to his own society and outsider of two souls.  I lost the original block and I felt this dream was significant enough for me to recut. I identified with the transformation imagery that I had in the original dream—myself as both man and animal.

Original (Left) and partially recut versions of “Night Jasmine.”

I see partial recutting of “Night Jasmine.”

When I started to pull proofs of the blocks to ready them for printing, I noticed that some parts of “Night Jasmine” were damaged, and I decided to recut some of the lines to fix them.


(L to R) “Dancer,’ “Crow with Rose” and “The Blackbird, Girl and Fish.”

Very nice new images after “Night Jasmine.”  I know you’re not putting into words your dreams in new Neo, but can you tell me a little about them?

Thank you! The new images explore new haunts that I am puzzling over.

The image after “Night Jasmine” is a dancer who has just stopped moving and is resting between performances. I am sitting close by, but the dancer does not notice me. I can see the choreography in her mind and know exactly what she will spring into next. But I am not able to speak to her.

“Crow with Rose”–There is a landscape that is flat and wide open with the hot summer sun beating down. Three trees stand in the distance. I hear the distant caw of crows, and then one appears with a rose clutched in it’s beak. The rose falls from the crow’s grasp and lands near me; the crow fades into the horizon.

“The Black bird, Girl and Fish”–I am on a street and a girl is talking to a fish. The fish seems to understand her and she it. The language they are speaking makes no sense to me. A black bird flies over them, and their words become visible patterns in the air. I think I may be able to read them, but they are squiggles and lines that fade like vapor as the air from bird’s wings blows the whole dialogue away.

“Algonquin Park” before  (right) and after trimming (right)

“Closed Eyes” before (left) and after trimming (right)

Why did you trim “Algonquin Park” and “Closed Eyes”?

The blocks were damaged and had crushed edges that I could only repair by cutting away the damaged parts. I find it interesting though how things change with time even if we leave them to their own fates. Just like these revisited dreams are not exactly the same as when I first made them.

“Momento Mori” was cut new for New Neo.

After “Closed Eyes” I see a number of changes like the reintroduction of “Evergreen Harvest.” The one new image that catches my eye is just before “Sleeping.”  I love the skull on the right margin. What’s the story behind that?

I titled this one “Momento Mori” which literally means “remember to die” [in essence: “remember you must die”]. I was working on a book, The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar by Edgar Allan Poe. The story is about a group of mesmerism doctors who decide to mesmerize a man on the cusp of death. The experiment works, but the man is trapped between the two worlds. The horror of this predicament kept me up at night. I imagined death was pulling at me and I was trapped.

“Timmy the Pierced Face Wonder” before (left) and after trimming (right)

I’m not to sure about the trimming of “Timmy the Pierced Face Wonder.”  The original taller brow gave the head a shape to mimic of open mouth. Comments?
I agree. I was torn about how to deal with the damaged block. Perhaps I should have just printed it with the damage instead of trimming it down. But what’s done is done.

Original “Whaler” (left) and in New Neo (right)

Congrats on opening up and trimming the top of “Whaler.”  It enhanced the narrative.  Comment?
A happy accident really! I was preparing the block to print and was trying to fix the damaged top portion. Sometimes things just work out for the better.

The jester after “Whaler” seems to come from a different source.  Was this image borrowed from another project?

I had this dream about the images on a Tarot deck coming alive. I thought the jester was symbolic of the mercurial man, clown and entertainer. I was working on my Leonard Cohen book at the time, and I thought perhaps he was the embodiment of this card. Then I changed my mind and didn’t use it in the final book.

If so, were any other new images borrowed?

Yes, “Momento Mori” is from The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar by Edgar Allan Poe. But the process of “borrowing” is not as straight forward as taking from one thing and using it elsewhere. Sometimes I will engrave a dream image and then find a purpose for it in another project.

“Sleeping” and “Woman in Conversation”

[In fact George reused “Sleeping” and “Woman in Conversation”–both of which appeared in the original 2007 Neocerebellum (and reappeared in the new version)–in his first limited-edition wordless narrative Book of Hours, 2010.]

“Birds of a Feather” before (left) and after trimming (right)

I like the recutting of “Birds of a Feather.” But I’m not sure which version of “In Praise of a Lunar Phase” I like better. Your thoughts?

When I first made the image “Birds of a Feather” I intended to print it as a two-color block. The image that was printed in the first edition of “Neocerebellum” was the yellow colour block for the background. What you see in this new edition is the black key block that should have been used in the first edition.

“In Praise of a Lunar Phase” before (left) and after trimming (right)

The block “In Praise of a Lunar Phase” was modified to show movement. It was one of those experiments that I wanted to try but should have thought better of.

“Tow-headed Man” before (left) and after trimming (right)

I miss “Flying Dream” in the new edition.  Did you not like it, or was it missing?

It’s a lost dream! I’m still looking for it.

I like the new version of “From the Building,” while I don’t think you improved “Two-headed Man.”  Just my opinion.

Sometimes I fail and sometimes I get it right. Sometimes I don’t know until I leave it alone and wait a few days. Jack Kerouac famously said, “My fault, my failure, is not in the passions I have, but in my lack of control of them.”

That’s probably too much, but I am curious as to what went through your mind when you worked on this project.

I revised my text introduction to this dream diary. I went back to reread some texts on dream theory and rethink the meanings of the signs and symbols that inform our unconscious mind. Like Jung’s experimental exploration of the unconscious, I wanted to confront my dreams through willful engagement and conscious revisiting of what Jung termed “mythopoetic imagination.”

Did your thoughts about dream imagery change?
I would say my thoughts about dreams are changing but only insofar as I am still torn about the conscious and unconscious communication between states. The questions I have–on how much of one state of mind informs the other and are they equal in their effect on our behavior–still engages my curiosity.

Was your appreciation of your earlier block cutting generally enhanced by redoing Neo?

No, I sometimes grow to dislike my previous work. I wanted to consider again why I did the piece in the first place, especially with the possibility of changing the order and deleting dreams I did not like. Revisiting my blocks disrupts my ego and makes me consider what the purpose of the project was and why I would expose my unconscious self to the scrutiny and critiques of others. It’s good therapy!

Upon my request, George and I swapped wood engravings. My choice was a proof of the cover image, what I call “Man with Crossed Arms.”

What type of comments have you gotten on new Neo?

One comment was: “What a beautiful book—but George—your dreams are creepy!”

“Purely personal associations with dream imagery are less important than the archetypal associations shared as part of our cultural consciousness. That is, perhaps, part of what makes Images from the Neocerebellum so fascinating: the blending of sensations that seem uncannily familiar with imagery that is uniquely the artist’s own.” —Katherine R. Lieber

“We are all bothered by items from our subconscious, be they thoughts, desires or even actions that we question later. Dreams are a big part of our subconscious. And if we choose to think about our dreams or even talk about them, we find that we are finding truths about ourselves. But do our words–written or spoken–do enough to explain our dreams or does a visual record need to be done to describe the images we see in our sleep. That is the type of thought one gets when one looks at George A. Walker’s Images from the Neocerebellum.” — Steven Buechler

Did doing this change your thoughts about future projects?
Every project makes me consider my choice of materials, typography, design and structure. I ask myself: Did the concept communicate effectively? Was the work well crafted? Did the work have a narrative flow or was it disruptive?


When writing the introduction to this post, I didn’t know how to describe the bonus lenticular version of “Big Hands” that came with the book. So I asked George what it was and added:

What inspired you to add it? What a treat to find in the box. I hope all purchaser of your New Neo get to have one.

It’s a lenticular of one of my engravings. It’s made by using software to interlace the images and then attach a lens to create the effect. It can either be used to create an animation or 3D effect. Here’s the Wiki with the details:

I learned to create lenticular images at Firefly Books. We were making a book on the work of Edward Muybridge and his motion studies. I made the lenticular proofs so that we could select the images that worked best.

I thought a lenticular would work well as a dream image because of the magical properties in the way the lens tricks our eyes into seeing motion or depth. The image I chose was based on a dream I had where my hands grew large and then shrunk down. I thought a dream about transformation would work well with a lenticular flip image (animation). I included one of two images in each book. You can see the other image here:

Bottom of the page:

I used an animated gif to imitate the effect of the lenticular.

[Here’s a clumsy video of mine to show the “Big Hands” lenticular animation.]


Here’s a link on George Walker’s website to a flip page version of the original book:

And here’s a YouTube video on the original Neo:

For those considering obtaining their own copy of the limited edition of Neo, please go to:

2016: marble pier table & high-back fancy chair


I made just one decorative art acquisition in 2016–a c. 1830 marble-top pier table–but I’d like also to write about a rare high-back fancy chair purchased in early 2014 because its twin was auctioned off this year.  The pier table in and of itself is interesting, but so is why I bought it, what research I did before purchase and what I learned after it came to live with us. Discussing the fancy chair allows me to admit how lucky I was to be  able to remove its dark surface grime and how lucky I was not to bid on its twin.

Pier table

The pier table is an interesting form. As its name attests its function is to sit in the space–the pier–between two windows.  Most often its top is marble. It usually has no drawers. The center of the back houses a mirror. The front often is composed of free-standing columns that rest on a shelf, which in turn rests on short legs. The form seems to appear in America around 1800 and continue, reflecting the current fashion, through the 19th century.

The piers in our 1850s Baltimore townhouse are rather narrow, too narrow for most pier tables.  So acquiring one was not high on our list. Yet I admired the form. In 2013 my interest grew during negotiations with an antiques dealer to make her a floorcloth for her federal house in exchange for furniture from her inventory. Two of her three pier tables–particularly a stenciled 1810 Philadelphia one–interested me, but she wouldn’t budge on either of them. I have no regrets, however, with the over-mantel mirror and card table I ended up with.  (See  the making of her floorcloth at:


We first saw our pier table on display at the Original Semi-Annual York Antiques Show and Sale in Sept. 2016.

Our search ended at an antiques show in York, PA, this September.  I immediately liked the strength of its broadly fluted tapered columns and pilasters as well as their simple Doric capitals.  The frieze under the marble top of pointed Gothic arches and acorn-shaped corbels was equally attractive. The top of what is usually referred to as Egyptian marble was stunning.


Even the mirror plate with its severe flaking was a positive because it was original (and not to be seen at face height).  The other condition question was the repair to the marble. It had broken. The break followed the pale, rather straight vein visible near the left edge of the image above.  There had also been a few small repairs to the mahogany veneer.

The asking price seemed fair.  But other than taking a few photos and asking the dealer (from Kentucky, this being his first York show) for his card, I left the show without making a bid on the table. But negotiations had in fact begun.

The first task was to go home and look online for auction records for similar tables, maybe even finding the sale of the exact table.  I would also check books for similar tables.



Corner of the frieze on my table.

Well, my reference library failed me, but the site didn’t.  While I didn’t find “my” table, I did come across some variations, and the auction  prices suggested that the one I saw in York was fairly priced. The top example had much wider arches, nubby acorns and the frieze corners differently than “mine.” The frieze (shown above on the right) corners with a completed arch both on the front and on the side so that an acorn wraps around the corner.  On what would become my table (right) and on the example above, lower right, the frieze corners at the top of the arch both on the front and on the side.

So the example on the lower right is closer to mine.  It’s wider–by one arch across the front; its capitals are somewhat different. The height of its mirror plate–probably replaced–is the same.  (Note that in the example on the top, the mirror plate is taller.)  The top example also has a flat bead running below the acorns and at the base of the plinth.  There’s no bead anywhere on mine and on the lower right example.

I include the example on the lower left just to show a variation.  The column shafts are the same, but the capitals are Ionic.  The arch frieze is missing, but the flat bead is present. The mirror height matches the one on mine.

All three examples have black Egyptian marble.  Like my table, the marble tops on the top and lower right examples have been repaired.  Maybe the dramatic veinage of this marble makes it subject to breakage.

So we saw the table on Friday. I did my research on Saturday and tried to hold off calling the dealer until Sunday. But I couldn’t constrain myself.  Late Saturday I offered him 20 percent less by email.  He countered saying he couldn’t go below a 10 percent discount.  That’s as far as it went until Sunday morning, when I called him. We chatted a bit. He claimed he’s had a lot of interest in the table and so refused to drop the price further.  In short I yielded, but would he accept about three/eights now and two equal checks for the balance post-dated for late October and late November.  He agreed but wanted the initial payment in cash when he delivered the table. (Free delivery!)

One other point: Only my table had feet (left). The ones I saw online were in the French console style–without feet.  So when the dealer  arrived, I checked the bottom of the feet before he removed the table from his vehicle. Were the feet added? I figured that if they were, they would have to have been screwed in from the bottom.  But there were no screws. Rather each foot had three wire nails toenailed in (hammered in at an angle) near where the each foot met the plinth.  This was done, I suspected, because the tenons had become loose. (In the photo you can see the head of one of the nails. It’s the very small bright spot above the highest ring turning of the foot.)



The arch-and-acorn frieze on my pier table.

With its very Greek columns my pier table fits nicely in with late neoclassical American furniture, maybe 1830s.  The frieze of pointed arches is called Gothic.  While pointed arches are associated with the short-lived American Gothic Revival style of around 1840 and the 1850s, American cabinetmakers were incorporating pointed arches much earlier.  Above is a desk and bookcase by John Shaw and his workshop in Annapolis (active 1770 to around 1825).  Shaw used pointed arches as early as 1790.  The above example is from around 1800.  (See more examples at: Baltimore cabinetmakers used pointed arches on cabinet doors–particularly on sideboards–as early as 1815.


Guess what?  Another search, another result.  I think this time I might have written “Empire pier table” when searching sold items at Live Auctioneers. It certainly is my table: pre-repair to the marble, identical mirror flaking and little turned feet.  Being an inveterate bargainer, I admit I was a little taken aback with the $475 hammer price. That’s only $536.75 with 13% buyer’s premium. I wondered if the seller of my table was the winning bidder for it at the May 27, 2013, Mark Mattox auction. So I had to ask.


The pier table in its pier in our dining room, where the curtains hide how narrow the pier is.

Taylor Thistlethwaite of Thistlethwaite Americana (that’s graciously agreed to answer some questions:

“I actually did not get that table from Mark Mattox. I purchased the piece in the late of 2015 from a well published art historian from Paris, Kentucky, who was moving to Brussels.  Yes, he did get a good deal on it, but I didn’t pay that amount. After purchasing the piece, I had the marble and some minor veneers repaired, which cost considerably more than the Mattox purchase price. The finish wasn’t touched with the exception of cleaning and waxing the piece.

“The size and quality of the piece made it rare. Also, in Kentucky classical pieces are not especially popular. Most antique collectors in this area prefer regional material or high-style English. Empire furniture of good scale I felt could do well in an urban environment or in the Deep South. I actually wasn’t going to put the pier table out at York, but rather save it for the Main Line show the following week. However, earlier that week I sold a PA chest that I was going to put in that spot. When I arrived at York, there was very little formal furniture and hardly anything Empire. Being my first time at the show, I felt that table might make me stand out from the rest of the dealers. Wouldn’t you know, it was the most popular thing in my booth. Actually, after I accepted your deal, I had two other people call me about the table.

“Formal furniture is a tough sale today unless it is the best of the best. Empire is especially tough. I felt that your table was special. Although it had a repair to the marble and some veneer repairs, it had a presence. The size and the black marble with the rich mahogany made a special package. In today’s antique market small and quality sells. I only represent pieces that I would want to live with and that piece tugged at my heart.”



I’ve written a few times about painted furniture, a genre that was popular in federal America. Here are two posts: One features six mid-19th-century chairs by Lancaster, PA chairmaker John Swint (, and one discusses learning to read painted furniture surfaces ( Missing from those articles is something that’s quite uncommon: a high-back fancy chair. “Fancy” here indicates a piece of federal furniture had some combination of bright colors, faux graining (either simulating real wood grain or playfully referring to it), stenciling, gilding, and/or free-hand painting.

Baltimore was a mecca for fancy painted furniture, particularly chairs. But high-back ones are rare.  For years I’ve followed online one on the Stanley Weiss Collection website and watched its price fluctuate from $6,000 to currently $15,000. ( It’s a nice chair, definitely in the Baltimore mode, although the painting is quite crude.

So I was primed when I came across the red-painted one at the 2014 winter version of the Original Semi-Annual York Antiques Show.


It sat in the booth of Kelly Kinzle.  It certainly resembled the Stanley Weiss one: very close to the same feet front and back, same tablet crest rail with rolled top, similar arms and very similar arm stumps.  The biggest difference was the back. The frame for the caning on the red chair’s back was identical to the back itself.  In the Weiss model there are two pairs of back stiles: a turned pair that the arms are attached to and a unturned pair that the caning is attached to.








When I placed photos of the red chair on Facebook, one furniture expert thought it wasn’t a Baltimore product, but Gregory Weidman, author of Furniture in Maryland, 1740-1940 and currently curator of the Hampton National Historic Site, suggested the components were of Baltimore manufacture but that the painting was not, i.e. the pieces of wood were shipped to somewhere (probably southern Pennsylvania) and assembled and painted there. There was that unusual since painted chair making was often an assembly-line process.  For instance a turner down the street could make the legs for you, while the guys in your shop did the rest.

Anyway, the chair sure was grungy.  I had this stuff. I decline to name it other than saying it was a gel. I had bought it years ago to clean up other painted pieces.  But I had barely used it, fearing it could inflict non-reversible damage to original surfaces.  Yet I tested it with cotton swabs on an out-of-the-way part of a rear leg.  Swab it on, wait a few minutes, and the gunk started to wipe off, and the red base color started to glow.  So with my confidence growing, the area swabbed and cleaned grew and grew.  The last area was the most prominent: the tablet crest rail.



The covered urn on the crest rail certainly seems appropriate for a neoclassical image choice c. 1830. True, the painting is crude, but it looks untouched.  Ditto for the pair of laurel or acanthus sprigs on either side.  And the base color–often called Pompeian Red–was a striking choice, totally showy and the height of fashion.


(left) A partial view of the back and seat caning from the front and (right) a partial rear view of the lower back rail and caning. (P.S. I didn’t clean or shellac the back of the chair.)

As I cleaned it, I came to realize that the caning on the back was probably original. Since I strongly believed that chair had never been repainted or over-painted, I read the evidence of the red paint (see right image above) on the back of the caning and where the cane wraps between the holes on the rail to indicate that the caning had never been replaced. If you look closely (left image) on the caning of the back, you can pick out traces of yellow paint.  The show side of caned seats or backs were usually painted, yellow being the common choice.  The seat caning is clearly bright and new and unpainted.


After cleaning, I did a light coat of white shellac and applied and buffed a layer of paste wax.

Kelly Kinzle thought the chair may have been used by a fraternal order, a grand master’s chair perhaps.  But the urn and sprigs didn’t point to any order I was familiar with. It certainly would enhance a private office as well as  some judicial or civic setting. How unique it was partially answered by this auction notice:


It sold last July at Brunk Auctions for $350, or $441 with buyer’s premium.  It was exciting to see my chair’s twin, but I never considered buying it since the crest rail was in rather poor condition.


Crest rails of the Brunk chair (top) and my chair (below).

When prepping the Brunk image for this post, a phrase caught my eye for the first time: “possible old loss to top of crest (unpainted).” So I created these images to see if I could confirm the “loss”:


The Brunk chair in profile is on the left, mine on the right. The arrows show that the cress of the Brunk chair has a squared off top edge, while mine had what is called a rolled top. This is created by gluing a piece of wood with its curled back atop the larger flatter crest rail. (This lamination saves on wood and work.) On the lower image the pair of arrows point to a faint horizontal line where the two pieces were glued together on my chair. And if you look back on the pair of crest rail photos above, you can see that darkened urn and sprigs on the Brunk chair crest rail are lopped off because the rolled top is missing.

In short I’m even happier I didn’t bid on the Brink chair.  Now I wonder if there’s a third chair out there.





Fighting Fires: Step by Step



Last summer I set out to create an image data bank of photographs of policemen and firefighters holding aloft equipment of their respective trade. Then these photos would serve as sketches for more of my Up In Arms watercolors. (To see inventory from this series, please go to

I immediately ran into trouble getting cooperation from the Baltimore City Police Department.  I spoke to a district commander at a community meeting and was given a name and an email address to try.  But all I got was a terse reply: “Unfortunately, at this time we are not able to accommodate your request.”  That was not so surprising considering that just a year previous Baltimore was suffering through a spring of turmoil after the death of Freddy Gray at the hands of police. I decided I needed a new approach in order to address the use of firearms and the deaths that result. After a few false starts the answers came at the Sunday farmers’ market and an indoor shooting range in the burbs. But that’s a tangent I’ll tackle after the New Year.

Fortunately, the firehouse is a very friendly place. They keep the big doors open in the summer, for God’s sake.

Modeling for FF Paintings

In fact it was harder finding parking near the big firehouse on Lombard Street beside the Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower than it was to enter the facility.  The middle door was wide open.  A mammoth truck stood silent just inside. Waiting on the cement floor on each side of the cab was a firefighter outfit–boots attached–arranged for speedy dressing.  But no one was in sight.  I shouted out “Hello” several times without response. I saw no one until I came upon a glass-enclosed office.  A woman–maybe an EMS unit member–was seated inside. When I explained my desire to have a firefighter model equipment for me to photograph, she gave a call upstairs.  A young man soon appeared, and once I showed him cellphone images of completed Up In Arms paintings, he agreed to help out.


(Left) An oxygen tank and harness and (right) a Jaws of Life rescue metal cutter. (Since I didn’t ask him if I could make public the photos, I’ve blurred his face.)

First he modeled a hydraulic Jaws of Life cutter used to tear away crumpled car doors at accident scenes. Then he hoisted an oxygen tank with its harness that he would need in order to enter a burning building. Then he held up an ax and a manual metal cutter (an image I never used, not enough visual heft) and lastly a black helmet (an image I almost didn’t paint).

After printing out these images, I realized that there was at least one object sorely missing from my firefighter’s inventory: a hose. So I returned to the firehouse with prints of the Jaws of Life, the oxygen tank, the ax and the helmet images to give to my model.  This gesture was intended to give me the opportunity to ask him to lift a coil of hose.  Except he wasn’t at work that day.  I couldn’t convince either of the two black firefighters who greeted me to model.  (Too bad because it would have helped to illustrate the racial diversity of the department.)  Instead they called upon a young white guy whom they called the Hulk.  Good to his name, he did the macho thing an slid down a brass pole.


I don’t know about “the day,” but he seized the hose.

Step by step

The following are series of photos to illustrate the progress I made in painting the FF Jaws, FF Tank and FF Helmet watercolors.  Always the object being held aloft is painted first.  You’ll see I tend to paint from top to bottom on an image, and I also tend to complete areas of a certain color. For instance in FF Tank I painted the tank first with its mottled blues then the mostly black harness.  In FF Helmet the yellow-green plastic inserts were painted before the rest of the mostly black helmet.

What I didn’t photograph was the simple penciled line drawing.  I use a #4 pencil, and it leaves a very light mark.  By itself it wouldn’t make a good photo. You can see some of the drawing in early images of each sequence.

FF Jaws




Finally for online presentation’s sake, I white-out the unpainted paper.


Scott Ponemone, FF Jaws, watercolor, 30 Sept. 2016, image 24 1/2″ x 21 1/2″






Scott Ponemone, FF Tank, watercolor, 10 Nov. 2016, image 26 3/4″ x 18 1/2″


FF Helmet






Scott Ponemone, FF Helmet, watercolor, 29 Nov. 2016, image 26 1/4″ x 15 1/2″


FF Hose


I forgot to record the steps in painting FF Hose.


Scott Ponemone, FF Hose, watercolor, 31 Oct. 2016, image 23″ x 20 1/2″



Actually the first firefighter watercolor was painting last year after a visit to the 2015 Maryland State Fair in Timonium.  There I came across an ambulance with two EMS workers seated nearby. And on the ground beside them was an inflated dummy used to practice CPR.  I remember first walking past toward a row of carnies with their games of chance and plush toy prizes. But I couldn’t help myself.  The dummy was just too queer. (I can’t think of a better word.) Fortunately one of the EMS guys was a willing model.


Scott Ponemone, FF CPR, watercolor, 11 Sept. 2015, image 29″ x 16 1/4″


The FF quintet


Right click to view image larger.


















Richard Wagener: Naturalist/Wood Engraver



My excitement about acquiring copies of Richard Wagener’s two books of wood engravings–California in Relief (The Book Club of California, 2009) and The Sierra Nevada Suite (The Book Club of California, 2013)–stemmed from thinking of them as natural successors to Paul Landacre’s much-heralded 1931 book California Hills and Other Wood Engravings. In fact, Victoria Dailey in her preface to Wagener’s California in Relief writes: “In the realm of California printmaking, Paul Landacre (1893-1963) has been the undisputed master of wood engraving, creating sumptuous landscape prints and several illustrated books including his masterpiece California Hills (1931). Not since Landacre has any California artist achieved prominence in this challenging medium until Richard Wagener (b. 1944) began to explore it in the 1980s.”


Paul Landacre, California Hills and Other Wood Engravings (Bruce McCallister, Los Angeles, 1931), No. 150 from an edition of 500, signed.

So I immediately wanted to email him to ask if Landacre inspired his own California book.  If only I had read more of Dailey’s essay where she said: “Soon after he began to make wood engravings, Wagener became aware of Landacre, whose work he appreciated. Nevertheless, he says that Landacre had no direct influence upon him.” So that effectively killed that way to approach Wagener. (Although later he did comment: “Paul Landacre is someone I’ve always admired. There is a distinctive style and clarity in his cutting that I find amazing.”)

Instead I proposed that I send Richard images of five wood engravings from the late 19th century to mid 20th century and ask him to comment. He responded: “I’ve been thinking about your proposal and am not sure how I feel about it. I’m not a critic. Well I am privately, but feel uneasy about making my value judgements public. The curse of the artist/critic is living up in your own work to the standards applied to others.”

But I assured him that I would not send him images of artwork of living artists, and he agreed to share his thoughts on each.  I also included questions about his own work and working methods. Those responses turned out to be more enlightening than his comments to others’ work.  So I’m going to start with Richard Wagener on himself.


Richard Wagener in his studio.


I began by asking Richard about his 1998 book Zebra Noise with a Flatted Seventh (Peter Koch, Berkeley, CA, edition of 70), which contained 26 short fictions by Wagener and 26 of his wood engravings each incorporating a letter of the alphabet. In particular I asked about one of his wood engravings of that period:


Richard Wagner, Shadow of the Hawk, wood engraving, 1984, 6 7/8″ x 5″

Can you tell me what you were trying to achieve with Shadow of the Hawk and what you learned in the process?

Early in my explorations of ways of bringing together disparate aspects of my background, undergraduate studies in natural science and graduate studies in abstract painting, I juxtaposed flora or fauna against a flat grid. This was at a time when I was rethinking conversations I had some years before with a sculptor in San Diego about Matisse’s approach to composition–every part of the field deserves consideration. Splashes of ink entered the compositions and there was a lot of thinking about also incorporating letter forms.

One day I was in a bookstore in Little Tokyo (Los Angeles) and took in the beauty of the books filled with all the wonderful Japanese characters. And with the beauty of the type was the mystery of what any of the characters meant. In my engraving I didn’t want to get tied down to a specific word or thought so I started playing around with abstract calligraphic gestures. Shadow of the Hawk seemed to be the first engraving that fully embraced the ideas I had been thinking about.

Wood engraving has long been used to illustrate fauna, going back at least to Bewick. How did Shadow of the Hawk fit in with that genre? How did it break with it?

When I first discovered wood engraving as a medium with which one could create a vast range of marks and establish tonalities, I had no intention of becoming a wood engraver. I was only interested insofar as the use of these tools and the wood surface could be of use in exploring ideas. That is why I deliberately chose not to buy the David Sander book on how to do wood engraving. As he was the only known source of engraving materials, the wood engravings I saw were the ones he would print in his catalogs, including a Bewick print. Beyond that I was pretty clueless as to the history of the medium. There was no one actively engraving in Los Angeles and no one to talk with about engraving in wood. With the exception of seeing Barry Moser’s illustrations of Alice sometime in the mid 1980’s, it was not until David Sander offered Simon Brett’s 1992 book Engravers Two that I had a chance to see what many others were doing with this medium.

Being essentially unaware of the genre of wood engraved fauna, it was not something I stopped to consider during the early years of exploration. My efforts were focused on making something work for me. Part of this was naiveté and part of it was not wanting to be influenced while finding my way. It took many years to become comfortable with what I was doing. After I found a certain level of comfort with what I was achieving, it became easier to then look at the historical precedents in the medium and appreciate their achievements.


Richard Wagener, California in Relief, The Book Club of California, San Francisco, 2009, No. 79 from an edition of 300, signed.

What attracted me to your California and Sierra suites of images–such as Outlook Tree–were the calm each radiated, the focus on silhouettes, and the picking out details in the shadows. Can you talk about each of these three properties?

My love of the California landscape was formed by all the time I spent during my childhood with my grandfather in the high desert and up in the Sierra, time that left an indelible mark. And yet, it was not until I hiked up around Shuteye Peak, south of Yosemite and overlooking the Ansel Adams Wilderness area, that I felt the need to bring my experiences to bear on what I was engraving. And I found that like John Masefield’s sea, the Sierra invokes feelings for me that then beg to be engraved. Since my formal art training was almost exclusively graduate studies in abstract painting, the Sierra imagery challenged my abilities as an engraver. The felt experience of hiking throughout this area was compelling and the question of whether this could be expressed in wood captivated me.


Richard Wagener, Outlook Juniper, wood engraving, 5″ x 2 7/8″, from The Sierra Nevada Suite.

The Outlook Tree (or Outlook Juniper) is a survivor, emerging out of cracks in the glacier–polished granite–enduring over hundreds of years in an environment of scarce resources and harsh weather. I find a beautiful solitude on these rock outcroppings and sparse areas. My experiences up in the Patriarch Grove of Bristlecone Pine in the White Mountains with no one else around and walking among trees that are over 4,000 years old are beyond words. The idea is to try and convey the dignity of the tree as it stands against the wind and elements. I want to be very specific about the tree that haunted my recollection of the time and place. Here, as in many other engravings, I have pared away other elements that may interfere with the attention this tree deserves. So the context may be altered to enhance the appreciation. And there is much to be appreciated in the shadows. Unless there is a reason for a more dramatic effect, the shadows help round out the personality of the subject.

As I wrote in my notes for California in Relief, I have gone back and tried to find some of the trees I’ve engraved and I couldn’t find them. This has made me wonder if it was the particular day, or time of day, that brought my attention to certain things, things that at other times might have been missed.


Richard Wagener, The Sierra Nevada Suite, The Book Club of California, San Francisco, 2013, No. 182 from an edition of 308, signed.



With your work for Vestige (Mixolydian Editions, 2015) you again appear to have sought out something meditative. Is there something common “thread” running in your work?  Yet how was making images for Vestige different from what preceded it? Did it break new ground for you either in process and/or open your eyes to possibilities for future work?

When I was developing the text that would appear in Zebra Noise with a Flatted Seventh, I began to learn how editing could pare down my stories to the essentials. The same thinking guided my writing for Cracked Sidewalks, where a main concern was how many words were needed to tell a story. This approach was also taken in one of the engravings where the question became “how many lines do I need to engrave to sell the image?”


Richard Wagener, wood engraving from Vestage.

While printing the images for The Sierra Nevada Suite, my thoughts drifted back to an idea from long ago, the idea of a loom and threads. The question then became, “how many threads does it take to make a weaving?” The three drawings exploring this idea were on my table as the remaining images were printed. The later engravings based on this thinking ultimately yielded a suite of sixteen conceptual prints printed along with a poetic response from Alan Loney, a New Zealand poet residing in Melbourne, Australia. With the exception of the first three drawings, all the subsequent engravings developed organically during the process of engraving and deviated from the loose markings initially made on the block. The last image in the series was started with only an idea in mind. There was no drawing or marking on the block to guide the engraving.

The resultant book was titled Loom (Nawakum Press & Mixolydian Editions, 2104). The deluxe edition, sixteen copies, came with one print from the book so that no two copies were the same. I decided to do a special print that was not from the book. If the print followed the same format as the images in the book it would seem to raise the question as to why it was not included in the series. The solution was to approach the idea of weaving from a different vantage point. Whereas the Loom series was dealing more with the threads coming together into a weaving, the second series was thinking more about the ultimate fate of this activity and the beauty in weathered and distressed textiles. The new drawings gave way to five engravings of this modified theme. Alan picked up on the new ideas and again wrote a poetic response. This became Vestige.

Is there a common thread running in my work? For me, a change of medium requires confronting three basic problems. The first is the very rudimentary problem of how to do it and getting comfortable with the tools and materials in order to understand the basics of the medium. This seems pretty simple. Putting in some time and effort one can achieve a reasonable level of familiarity and comfort. The more difficult and problematic questions concern what to do with this medium and why. These two questions have never gone away, and I am continually confronted with them. What to do was initially solved by the determination to bring together the disparate aspects of my background. It took a long time thinking to find out what that bringing them together might look like. And even then there was a gradual evolution of that solution as I continued to reflect on the question.

When the blocks for Zebra Noise were completed, 1993-94, I needed a sense of mental separation from the works of the last decade. A new answer had to be found. Flora replaced fauna and the representational element was freed from the specimen box and took on a more prominent role. In time another answer knocked on the door and asked to be considered. Then another. I believe in the idea that art comes from art. The more I work, the more ideas appear. As I think about what I am doing I am always trying to answer for myself why I am doing it. So it has been a meditation on who I am, what does it mean to be scratching the surface of a wood block, and what is the nature of this medium.

As requested, Richard later emailed me images to illustrate his working procedures.

I don’t do many finished drawings on paper. My best drawings are on the block.


Richard Wagner, sketch for Behind the Lake (left) and image as it appears in The Sierra Nevada Suite (right). Wood engraving, 5″ x 4″.


Richard Wagner, sketch for Sentinel (left) and image as it appears in The Sierra Nevada Suite (right). Wood engraving, 5 1/2″ x 3″.

[Richard then sent me a picture of a block in progress.]

IMG_3463 - Version 2

(Above) Partially cut block for (below) Richard Wagener’s Eastern Sierra Morning, wood engraving, 3″ x 5 15/16″


On engraving a block

I don’t proof my blocks during the engraving. I put as much information on the block as I think I might need in order to not get lost. Then I mentally figure out how I want to approach the engraving and then go for it. That is not to say there is never some refinement at the end, but reworked blocks often just end up as reworked blocks and lack the freshness of a well engraved image.

With one of the prints in The Sierra Nevada Suite I sharpened the tools, took a sample of wood and checked to see how the tools were cutting, how I was cutting on this particular morning. Based upon that information, I figured out what I was going to do, which tool I would use for certain areas. When I felt comfortable with this preparation, I started engraving the good block. However, about five lines in I realized that this wood was cutting differently than my sample wood. At that point I was committed to those lines and had to rethink everything else to get me out of the mess. All wood cuts in its own way. Sometimes the best laid plans go awry.

Work in progress

The current project is a book: Exoticum, Twenty-five Desert Plants from The Huntington Gardens. I’ve printed all the images and now I’m printing the titles for the images and the text. A friend who writes for National Geographic and teaches at the Graduate School of Journalism, UC Berkeley, has written an essay for the book. The official publication date is January 2017 and will show at the Codex Book Fair & Symposium. Perhaps the binder can get me an advance copy to show at the APHA conference.

Wood Engraving critique

I sent Richard images of five wood engravings in my collection, presented in ascending chronological order.   I tried to seek his thoughts on prints that illustrate a progression of what wood engravers were trying to accomplish from the 1880s to the 1950s.


William “Willy” R. Miller (American,1850-1923), Sunset, wood engraving, c.1886, 4 5/8” x 7”, japan paper, After a painting by George Inness (American, 1825-1894)

This seems to be engraved from a photographic copy of the painting. The style at the time was to engrave the entire block, seemingly using few small tools, such that the value range is compressed and there are no areas of solid black or of pure white. This works well for a number of Inness paintings. I remember seeing an exhibition of Inness’ paintings in the mid 1970’s, and some scenes of evening deep in the trees were almost monochromatic. The use of small tools to create stippled tonalities seems to be a good way of translating painterly techniques into print. A highly linear rendering would lose some of the subtleties.

The point was to faithfully reproduce the original in a different medium and didn’t allow the engraver to explore their own personality. I’ve read about practices at the large engraving workshops such as Harper’s whereby a large engraving could be done by four different engravers, each working on one-quarter blocks that would then be bolted together and printed. The engraving style was so tightly established that the work of different engravers was interchangeable.

[I’ve made several posts on late 19th-century American wood engravers. Here’s a link to “Interpretive Wood-Engraving: Interview with its Author.”]


Sidney Lee (British,1866-1949), The Wave, wood engraving, 1914, 13 3/4” x 9 3/4”

This seems to be a departure from the prevailing approach to a subject using wood engraving that captures more of a woodcut appearance, invoking the Ukiyo-e sensibility. I like that it doesn’t conform to what a more mainstream wood engraving of the time might look like.

[Indeed The Wave was a departure for Sydney Lee at the time. But from 1904-10 he made a number of color woodcuts strongly influenced by Japanese printmaking.  To read more about Lee, please go to my blog post: “Sydney Lee, an Obscure British Printmaker.“]


Grace Albee (American,1899-1985), Contrasts – Rockefeller Center R.C.A. Bldg,  wood engraving, 1934, 7” x 5 1/2”, 16/100

Despite being a dark scene, for me this is a very bright print that captures what it is like to walk around midtown Manhattan late at night when the ambient lighting hides the stars. The contrasts are plenty: the light and the dark, the old and the modern, the secular and the religious. The scan of this print looks like the print is on perhaps a thin gampi paper that has buckled. It is hard to tell what is creating the light reaching up into the sky. Even the rendering of the car at the corner contrasts with the engraving of Rockefeller Center. I would like to see the print in person to be able to fully appreciate the engraved marks.


Two details from Grace Albee’s print Contrasts.

[After I sent him two detail images from the Albee print, he wrote:] The details from Contrasts seem to show a very sensitive printing of the block with the black of the building being so much denser than the black of the sky. Nice use of make-ready. I like this print very much.


Victor Delhez (Belgian,1901-1985), Scherzo in Gold, wood engraving, 1948, 11 3/4” x 8 7/8”, inscribed “epreuve d’artiste,” small edition

Not sure what this about. Studies in Euclidian geometry or the occult? But nicely rendered. Perhaps this is the engraving that one wonders about the longest.

[This intriguing wood engraving was purchased from Bill Carl.  He devotes a page to Delhez on his website:]

baskin-laureateLeonard Baskin (American,1922-2000), Death of the Laureate, wood engraving, 1957, 11 5/8″ diameter, a/p

Seems to be a hybrid of woodcut sensibility coupled with wood engraving. This is not to diminish black-line engraving, but it has the feel of many woodcut artists from the 50’s and 60’s. Baskin has no peers for this visceral approach, although Jacob Landau, a student of Baskin’s, mined similar territory very successfully. This certainly exploits a wide range of wood engraving possibilities. The tension between the two approaches enhances the effect.







George Walker’s Neo Neocerebellum

NW Neo feature


Sometimes one can nag a friend.

And I remember beginning to nag in June 2015 when my husband Michael and I visited George and Michelle Walker in Toronto and all four of us became fast friends. That trip was the result of the January 2015 ART I SEE post I wrote on Book of Hours, George’s 2010 wordless narrative in wood engravings. (See My nagging was about something George hadn’t done: namely issued a limited printed-from-the-blocks edition of his 2007 book Images from the Neocerebellum. That required a good bit of chutspah on my part to nag a guy who has displayed the Herculanean physical and creative energy to author wordless narratives in 2010 (Books of Hours), 2011 (The Mysterious Death of Tom Thomson), 2013 (Conrad Black) and 2014 (The Wordless Leonard Cohen Songbook). And when we visited, George was working on Trudeau: La Vie en Rose, published that fall.

But there was collector’s logic to my nagging.  I found something in the images for Neocerebellum that seemed largely missing in his other books.  First some illustrations:

GW New dance spread

George Walker, two-page spread from the prospectus for Images from the Neocerebellum, 2007.

GW black spread

George Walker, two-page spread from the prospectus for Conrad Black, 2012.

When I bought the Book of Hours from George, he included in his package four propectuses of three other novels in wood engravings plus one from Neocerebellum. Because the images like those for Conrad Black served an historical narrative, they tended to be rather literal and hint at a photographic antecedent. But those for Neocerebellum had a Surreal energy as if the swirls created with dremel power tool transmitted electrical force to the image.  This Surrealistic charge was fully intended since in Neocerebellum George’s images were inspired by his dreams. As you can see from the prospectus for Neocerebellum, across from the image is a verbal recall of his dream.

In short, beginning with our visit to Toronto I started nagging George to produce a limited edition of Neocerebellum. Then when George and Michelle visited Baltimore in the fall of 2015, I noodged again. And when we shared a spring week in New York in 2016, the topic came up again (not even by me).  The Walkers liked the idea from the start. The issue was finding all the blocks from 2007.

Then this summer, Michelle announced work had begun.

Work in Progress

On August 9 Michelle send this email: “George is working hard on Neocerebellum, I’m folding pages constantly! How would you like the in-progress photos sent to you for your blog?”  On August 24 Michelle started sending images one at a time until I had 27.  With this cache of images on hand, I though an in-progress blog was indeed appropriate.  So I asked George to do a quick email interview.

GW w:dark angel

George Walker measures a fold for Neocerebellum with the image called Dark Angel in the original book. (This and subsequent photos are by Michelle Walker.)

Despite the fact that I’ve been egging you on, why are you doing a limited edition of Images from the Neocerebellum?

I wanted to revisit this project and make some changes to the introduction and replace some images I wasn’t happy with. Many of the blocks I used in the original edition were modified or missing and I hadn’t had a chance to properly edit all the images to my satisfaction. Your push to get me to print the Neocerebellum in a limited edition was just the kick I needed to create the fine edition of this project.

GW cover final touches

George sets up the title page in lead type with his engraved block in the center. He’ll then use his Vandercook proofing press to print it.

Has this project provided you with an interregnum in the production of wordless narratives which has included Trudeau: La Vie en Rose,  2015; The Wordless Leonard Cohen Songbook, 2014, and Conrad Black, 2013?

Yes! I’ve been trying to get out of the habit of making biographies. I wanted to explore some other avenues such as mythologies and other forms of story that might work as a wordless narrative. This project gave me a chance to revisit an earlier work where I was headed in a different direction with my subject matter. Perhaps this will be the start of a new direction.

GW title pages

A title page setup (left) with an augmented page printed in two colors.

Will the limited edition of Neocerebellum include the dream texts? If not, why not?

It will have my introduction but not text to match each image. I rarely wrote in my dream diary when I started it in the 1980s. It was all about getting an impression of the dream in a single picture. I wanted to restore this project to the original intent, which was the visual impact of the dream without explanation.

GW Dark angle

Dark Angel ready to be printed on the Vandercook proofing press.

Did you find all of the blocks used for the original trade edition from 2007? If there were any missing blocks, did you recut them?  Did you add any new images?

No, some blocks we were unable to find. I did recut images I was still attached to and I added new images that I thought were better compositions and reflections of my dreams as I remember them.

GW block box with sleeping

Boxes of wood engraving blocks showing Timmy the Pierced Face Wonder (#49) above Sleeping. (Block names are from the original Neocerebellum.)

You’re quite number conscious in sizing your editions. How many will there be this time and how did you determine the number?

This edition is 28 copies. This number is half my age as of September 16th, 2016.  In May of 2017 the Porcupine’s Quill edition of the book will be a decade old. 2+8=10

GW Anima

Completed folds of Anima/Animus Circus are ready for binding.

When do you expect this version of Neocerebellum to be ready for sale?

December! I was trying for September—but I was side-tracked by other work.

GW signatures w:harvest

George sews signatures of Neocerebellum as a guide for the book binder. The image is of Evergreen Harvest.


If you are interested in reserving a copy, please contact Michelle at








Portfolio Madness: A Diary

Portfolio Alt feature


Enough is Enough!  I need to end this streak of five portfolio purchases that started in March when a catalog from Bromer Booksellers arrived in the mail.  Inside the back cover was this listing for an unpublished portfolio, Twelve Wood Engravings to The Psalms, by the German artist Gustav Wolf (1887-1947).

Bromers Wolf

Bromer Booksellers Catalogue 144, page 11

I’d become fascinated with Wolf ever since the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) purchased in 2015 his portfolio Welt (World) of 12 large and dramatic woodcuts. As often happens when I learn of artworks that excite me visually, I turned to the computer to find out more about the artist and where his artworks may be available.  I found a listing for individual signed prints from Welt on the website of a German gallery. But for a price one needed to make a request. I did twice but got no answer.

I also found an online listing for Gustav Wolf on the website for an American print dealer. When I clicked on the name, all I got was the phrase: “Coming soon.” So I called the dealer. He said he had a number of things, but he was swamped doing shows and dealing with family concerns. He hoped to get to the Wolf prints soon, but never did in 2015. So that put things on hold until the Bromer catalog arrived.

The folks at Bromer were very good in sending me jpegs of several plates plus a page of text that was a transcription of notes that Wolf left on the back of watercolors that served as his sketches for the wood engravings. Wolf, who suffered from diabetes, died before The Psalms could be published.  What Bromer was offering was a set of proofs. Nice, but at $2,500 I kept my finger off the trigger.

But their availability served as a catalyst for me to renew my Wolf quest.

Madness begin

Wolf welt #5

Gustav Wolf, Plate 5 from Welt, 1927-29, woodcut, image 15 1/2″ x 20 3/8″

First and foremost, I had some money to spend in mid-March, when I returned from a month’s artist residency in India. There’s nothing like having prepaid holiday to build up a discretionary nest egg. First I tried the folks at German gallery again. This time (April 1) I got prices on the nine individual Welt prints they had. Seven were 250; two were 400. Together the nine were offered at 1,700.  Then the proprietor said he had a complete set of Welt that wasn’t listed on the website. “I just got it,” he said. “Found it in my father’s estate.” He offered that at 3,000, or 4,200 if I bought the set plus all of the individual plates. You see how things mushroom? Yet, I wasn’t sure I wanted Welt, either whole of in pieces. Once the BMA has something, my interest flags–as if I’m competing with the museum’s pocketbook.

So I try the American dealer again a week later. This time the dealer has the time to search for Wolf items. Previously, he said, “I have been consumed by the job of settling my Dad’s estate and cleaning out a house and three-story barn of a lifetime accumulation. I need to sort through everything because they were also dealers in antiques, books and art. Being the only child makes this a monumental task.” Now he provides me with images from three Wolf portfolios. He says: “Provenance for all the Gustav Wolf material is Lola Wolf, the artist’s widow. I purchased them directly from her.”  And he starts to provide me with images for Die Blätter vom Lebendigen Sein (Plates of the Living Being), 7 plates, 1918-22; Zehn Holzschnitte (10 Woodcuts), 1910; and Zehn Worte Des Anfangs (10 Words of the Beginning), 1928-29.

Wolf triplet

Left to Right

Die Blätter vom Lebendigen Sein, 1918-22, Plate 1 Weltbild (World Image), hand-colored woodcut, 15 1/2″ x 12 1/4″ (portfolio price $2,500)

Zehn Worte Des Anfangs, 1928-29, Plate 11 Der Name, hand-colored woodcut, 7″ x 12 1/4″ (portfolio price $750)

Zehn Holzschnitte, 1910, plate V, color woodcut, 4 1/8″ x 3 5/8″ (portfolio price $1,000)

I like the scale and power of Die Blätter vom Lebendigen Sein, but I’m not sure of the color. The dealer says the portfolio was issued with 50 sets hand-colored and 200 sets without color.  All plates are signed in both sets. Again the $2,500 price makes me hesitate. But knowing the name of this Wolf portfolio is sufficient to set me off on a search. Sure enough a German dealer has an uncolored set, and the price is 400 with expedited shipping. So my first portfolio was bought 21 April 2016.

Wolf Sein #6

Gustav Wolf, Das Herrliche (The Beautiful), Tafel VI from Die Blätter vom Lebendigen Sein, 1918-22, woodcut, 21 1/2″ x 17 3/4″

 Second Portfolio

So flush from my first portfolio purchase that barely put a dent in my discretionary nest egg, I turn to a recently passed-up opportunity. At the Capital Print Fair, the first weekend in April, I came across Crucifixion, a powerful but very difficult wood engraving by the artist Fritz Eichenberg (German-born American, 1901-90).

eichenberg Crucifixion

Fritz Eichenberg, Crucifixion, 1980, wood engraving, artist proof, 15″ x 9″

I think the price is $575, which is a bit much for all-but-the-earliest Eichenbergs but a lot less than a current online offering at $1,800. So I show the print to the dealer, and he says I can’t buy it separate from the portfolio of 17 prints called Dance of Death. He asks $3,000 for the set, which is assembled, i.e. about half are numbered 2/50; the rest are artist proofs. But all images are present and signed.

Now fast forward to the day after I bought the Wolf portfolio. I phone this dealer and offer $2,500 for the Eichenbergs.  He grumbles for a moment or two but agrees to my offering and includes shipping. Once the negotiations pass, I mention to him how this acquisition comes a day after my Gustav Wolf purchase. Hearing this, the dealer that he has some Wolfs too. He can’t remember what, and he’s not sure where they are. But he’ll look for them and get back to me.


Ecstatic over my two new portfolios, I invite a print curator from the BMA over to see them.  After I turn each huge plate of Die Blätter vom Lebendigen Sein over, I show on my laptop the nearly psychedelic hand-colored version. It makes for a nifty ooh-and-ah session. But we both agree that the black-and-white versions are more powerful.

A week or two later I visit the BMA to see their copy of Gustav Wolf: Das Druckgraphische Werk, the 1982 catalogue raisonné by Johann Eckart von Borries. It’s a bit underwhelming visually, but all the information is there albeit in German.  I don’t take notes, but I do go online and buy a copy.

The horizon is quiet for a month or so. Until the day I altered my search (I don’t remember what I did) and landed on the website, which features mostly German art. Sure enough, there’s two portfolios by Gustave Wolf offered by the same dealer: a large one in woodcuts called Confessio, Worte und Zeichen (Confession, Words and Characters),  1908, and a more delicate one in lithographs called Am Anfang/Genesis (At the beginning/Genesis), 1913.

Wolf Conf.Genesis

Left to Right

Confessio, Worte und Zeichen, 1908, woodcuts, 11 plates, edition 250, portfolio size 25 5/8″ x 19 5/8″

Am Anfang/Genesis, 1913, edition 250 (the first 50 hand-colored), Der dritte Tag (The Third Day) and Der siebente Tag (The Seventh Day), portfolio size 20″ x 16″

Here was where having the catalogue raisonné was handy. I could see that only four of the eleven Confessio plates were text-free, while the Am Anfang/Genesis portfolio was a rare case of Wolf using lithography. It also was related to Die Blätter vom Lebendigen Sein in that both utilize seven plates to express a Genesis progression. While the dealer offered both for 700 with shipping instead of 440 and 360 individually, I chose to just buy Am Anfang/Genesis for 350 with shipping. That was 21 June 2016.

So you see, I wasn’t so crazed for Wolfs that I needed them all.


I did suffer a little anxiety attack because Am Anfang/Genesis didn’t arrived until 30 June. At which time I casually asked whether the dealer was just selling of a few items from his collection or was he a full-time print dealer. He answered: “Art trading is my business.” So I asked him to keep an eye out for “a very early woodcut edition of Alfred Rethel’s Ein Todtentanz, also Max Thalmann’s Der Dom [The Cathedral] or signed plates from his Amerika im Holzschnitt. I have the book.”

What I wasn’t prepared for was this answer on 6 July: “I can offer Thalmann’s DOM portfolio (complete including envelop) as one of the 250 unsigned pieces (700 euros).”  I request photos and don’t hear from him immediately.

In the mean time I remember that I hadn’t heard from the American dealer who sold me the Eichenbergs. Did he find the Wolfs that he thought he had?  Two days later he calls with the news that he has a complete set of Gustav Wolf’s Twelve Wood Engravings to The Psalms individually matted. On 12 July he offers them for $900, a great discount from the Bromer set. Later that day he sends images of the title page and the 12 plates. I compare them to the catalogue raisonné and the Bromer-supplied images. They’re better than the Bromer ones, and each has a pencil inscription well below the image. It reads: “Last work by Gustav Wolf, printed posthumously by Mrs. Gustav Wolf.” (I wonder if she actually printed them or only authorized and supervised their printing.) I call back 13 July and he accepts my offer of $800 with shipping.

Wolf Psalms #5

Gustav Wolf, Twelve Wood Engravings to the Psalms, Plate 5, Psalm 139.7, wood engraving, 14″ x 11″

The very next day I get this email from the German dealer: “I was on a short trip, so sorry for the delay. Unfortunately I can’t find the portfolio in my storage loft, where it should be(?) but I can offer my personal one with the plates individually signed in pencil (initials), in very good+ condition (first two plates slightly foxed with folds upper right) and incl. the foreword by G.F. Hartlaub and the original brown wrappers (950 euros).”  And he sends images of several plates, the portfiolio cover, and a close-up of the initials. The latter I compare to the signatures on an online set of Der Dom plates.

Thalmann dom plate

Max Thalmann (German, 1890-1945), Der Dom, 1922, set #59 with 10 woodcuts, initialed, 19 1/2″ x 14 3/4″

I should note that like the published Wolf portfolios Thalmann’s Der Dom portfolio numbered 250 sets. Both Wolf and Thalmann divided the sets into the first 50 and the later 200. In Wolf’s case he often hand-colored the first 50 and issued the rest un-colored. But he signed all the plates in all 250 sets.  Thalmann, on the other hand, signed each plate only for the first 50 sets.

Naturally, I tried to drop the price, but he rebukes me: “Please note it’s an important work of art in fantastic state. Lets say 940 incl. shipping (and minus PayPal fees, taxes…). Hope this is OK with you!” It’s OK with me and pay on 21 July.

This portfolio splurge–five purchases in 4 1/2 months–better be over now, I tell myself.  So I dare not ask any dealer any time soon: “Do you happen to have….”


Well, there’s no hiding the fact that I really get off on relief prints. I just love the energy artists like Gustav Wolf and Max Thalmann can create in the clash of blacks and the whites. What both artist share besides their German heritage is their evident strong religious feelings. Wolf was Jewish. (Fortunately he and his wife escaped Germany in 1938.)  His portfolios WeltDie Blätter vom Lebendigen Sein, and Am Anfang/Genesis are all Old Testament creation cycles. And Twelve Wood Engravings to the Psalms sings the praise of God again and again. Thalmann expressed the Christian beliefs in Der Dom and Passion portfolios. You can’t overlook his feelings of religious ecstasy in the plate above.

A year after Der Dom was published he made a trip to the United States and so taken with the skyscraper canyons of New York that he created two woodcut portfolios: Rhythmus der Neue Welt (Rhythms of the New World) with 10 plates and Amerika in Holzschnitt (America in Woodcuts) with 30 plates.  The woodcuts of Rhythmus are rather geometric with straight edges and right angles; while the Amerika woodcuts are cut more feverish and ragged in the best German Expressionist fashion.

Thalmann Amerika #6

Max Thalmann, Amerika in Holzschnitt, the book, Plate #6 Nord-Sud, Studentweit, reproduced woodcut, 6 5/8″ 5 1/2″

The plate above is from the 1927 book Amerika in Holzschnitt with 24 plates chosen from both portfolios. It shows Thalmann’s Expressionist fervor in cutting the block. I sense that Thalmann in the streets of Manhattan felt an ecstasy there similar to what he felt in Gothic German cathedral. Was Manhattan his new church?

A great amount of Thalmann material resides at the Loyola Marymount University, Department of Archives and Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library, Los Angeles, CA.  According to the Online Archive California page for the Max Thalmann Collection: “Upon his return to Europe, he left his collection with his brother with dreams of someday moving to the United States, but he never did.”

Fritz Eichenberg, however, was raised in a non-religious Jewish family in Germany. He and his family emigrated to the U.S. in 1933. He certainly recognizes the influence of religion, but in his art he usually kept it at an emotional distance. Crucifixion from his Dance of Death portfolio was a dramatic exemption. He appropriated the Christian symbol of the cross to stress how millions of Jews each became the new sacrificial lamb.


Max Thalmann

The link to the OAC Thalmann page is: Under “Additional collection guides” is a link to a PDF of the items in the collection.

Images to some of his Amerika woodcuts and all of his Dom woodcuts can be found at:

Gustav Wolf

There’s a museum devoted to Wolf in Östringen, Germany.  It has no separate website and certainly no gallery of Wolf artworks. Here’s the link to the Wolf page at the town’s website: The Wolf page talks about how in the 1980s the town’s mayor reached out to Wolf’s widow Lola with the promise to create a museum devoted to her husband.

The Arts in Exile website has a page––on Wolf. Below the text is a thumbnail image from his 1941-42 etching portfolio Vision of Manhattan. Click on the image and you can see the complete portfolio. Above the thumbnails is a short bibliography on Wolf.

Fritz eichenberg

Useful information can be found on his Wikipedia page:

Eichenberg worked with Dorothy Day and contributed mightily to her publication The Catholic Worker.  To learn more about this collaboration, go to:

Many print dealers carry his work. So just google the name.



























Donna Diamond: Imagined light

DD featureIntroduction

The chief perquisite of my ART I SEE blog is getting to meet some of the artists I’ve written about. Last year I totally enjoyed meeting George Walker in his hometown of Toronto after blogging about his wordless narratives in wood engravings. (See: Then in June I had the great pleasure to meet Donna Diamond, who was the subject of a January 2015 post on her magical linoleum cuts. (See: When I first proposed meeting Donna in New York, I sought to visit her Bronx studio. But she demured and suggested instead meeting where she printed her linoleum cuts, namely the Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop at 323 West 39th Street, 2nd Floor in Manhattan. (Blackburn is a program of the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts.) This proved fortuitous because I got to meet the person she credits for the success of her Linoleum cut production, Justin Sanz, Blackburn’s workshop manager.

(I should note accomplanying me on this visit to Donna at Blackburn were my husband Michael Frommeyer and George Walker and his wife Michelle. We coordinated a week in New York with the Walkers and enjoyed a number of behind the scenes museum visits and general good fun.)

This post allows me both to share the new works that Donna showed us at Blackburn–ink drawings and petite mezzotints–and to revisit to her linoleum cuts by talking with Justin.

DD smokers

Donna Diamond, Clay and Smoke I, (left), Clay and Smoke II, (right), each linoleum cuts, 22″ x 16″, edition 20


Justin Sanz

Donna is effusive in her praise for Justin Sanz. Without him she knows her Clay and Smoke linocuts would not have been so beautifully printed.  During our visit to Blackburn Donna showed us her latest linoleum block–a portrait of her daughter Alex–which hadn’t been editioned yet. Justin didn’t hesitate to examine it as well, knowing that he’ll be called when it was time to print it.

Because he has been so instrumental in printing her linoleum blocks, I decided to get Justin’s perspective on their work together. Via email, we created the following Q&A:

Donna & Justin copy

Justin Sanz and Donna Diamond examining her latest linoleum block. (Photo by scott Ponemone)

First off, what is your position at Blackburn, when did that initiate, and what are your duties there?

I am the Workshop Manager at the Blackburn. I have held this position of three of the past five years (a two-year break in between) and have been a part of the workshop since 2005. My duties are very vast and include but are not limited to the following:

Master printer: providing technical expertise to all community members and volunteers, printing and delegating contract print projects, and collaborating with artists to create editions of prints to be sold by the workshop

Educator: developing, organizing and coordinating of printmaking classes and demonstrations; teaching formal classes to members and informally educating 40+ volunteers on printmaking processes

Facilities manager: maintaining the printshop; tracking inventory and stocking Materials; organizing, selecting and providing residencies to eight artists per year; fostering a diverse workshop and continuing Bob Blackburn’s legacy of providing affordable, professional quality printmaking facilities to all.

Gallery director: curating and hanging exhibitions, selling published artwork, and seeking and applying for grants.

When did your first start working with Donna on her linocuts?

I believe it was 2012 or 13.

What type of assistance did she seek from you?  What problems had to be solved and how were they solved?

She had done some linocuts and needed them printed. Her cuts are very difficult to print so I had to wet the paper in order to use the most minimal amount of ink possible while achieving large black fields and fine hair line cuts.

How did you manage to get so much detail out of her images?

Practice and 14 years of primarily relief printing. Finding just the right balance of ink to maintain detail and print a dense black. Attentiveness to amount of ink being applied and ability to reproduce the same results through an edition.

In what way was this a collaborative effort?

Donna was unsure of the translation of carving to the way it would print. I showed her what was possible to print. We achieved her desired printed results through careful back and forth of me proofing the plate, adjusting ink levels, and Donna re-carving which sometimes had months in between [printing sessions] for a single image.

Donna at Blackburn copy

Donna Diamond with Justin Sanz and Michelle Walker . (Photo by Scott Ponemone)


Donna Diamond

After showing us the linoleum block of Alex, Donna completely surprised me. Her newest work was not the delicate realist image of Alex nor the magical realism of the Clay and Smoke prints. But pure investigations of light.  First she presented brushed-on ink drawings as large as 28″ x 20″ and then showed five tiny mezzotints, three 2″ x 3″ and two 4″ x 3″.  Yet as different as her latest work from the linoleum prints I was familiar with, all of her work exhibited strong contrasts and a fascination with light. This focus on light became the subject of the first questions I posed to her via email.

Mezzotint, I should say, is an intaglio printmaking process in which a metal plate, usually copper, is first given a uniform roughened surface, which if printed would yield a velvety black. The image is then created by burnishing (smoothing out) parts of the plate to various degrees, with the completely burnished areas printing paper white. Of the YouTube videos I scanned perhaps this one, while chatty, by David Crown is the clearest on mezzotints:

04_Unanswered Questions XIV

Donna Diamond, Unanswered Questions XIV, 2014, brush and black ink on paper, image: 16″ x 24”

What led you to do your light paintings? In what ways does light fascinate you?

The play of light and shadow has fascinated me as long as I can remember. I was classically trained to render forms in space, but from early on what compelled me was light in space.

As a representational artist, I have explored light as an emotive language that can reveal forms or evaporate them. I have worked with light to assemble and organize space or deconstruct it, convey ambiance and character or render emptiness, develop moments of clarity as well as ambiguity.

About three years ago, I was in my studio at daybreak. A ray of early morning sunlight was reflecting off a plastic print protector onto my wall. I began to flex and bend the plastic and discovered I could manipulate the reflections on my wall and virtually draw with reflected sunlight. The sunlight reflections I created on my studio wall were ephemeral and fleeting. Thinking of these reflections as a basic vocabulary, I began to imagine and create drawings on paper of light in space.

The specific content of my light drawings is deliberately ambiguous, yet the drawings seem to suggest something that might exist in the world. I am intrigued by the idea that these drawings of imagined light in an ambiguous space appear to hover between representational and nonrepresentational work. I am now creating preparatory drawings that explore this duality.

Did your Clay and Smoke linocuts–particularly how the “smoke” is captured by the light–influence your current interest in light?

When creating the mummy image in linoleum (Clay and Smoke I & II) I was exploring the value range possible with small marks in the dark. I wanted to evaporate misty light across a rendered form and smoldering light into darkness. It was exciting to see the illusion of smoke become visible on the block, weaving around and across the mummy.

At the time, my value range in linoleum did not allow me to articulate my new thoughts about light. Turning to brush and ink on paper offered me the chance to focus on creating the illusion of radiant light as well as smokey mists.

DD mezzos

Did the light paintings come before the mezzotints?

Yes, they did. I had been making light drawings for over a year and wanted to create prints very much. I had the opportunity to study mezzotint with Fred Mershimer. Fred is a master of mezzotint and introduced me to this complicated intaglio technique.

In the paintings you start from paper white and work to preserve that white to various degrees in certain places. How do you figure out what whites to preserve? How do you go about it? What materials and implements do you use?

The light images begin by observing, shaping, and manipulating reflected sunlight onto my studio wall.

The process of creating the drawings on paper starts with visualizing the two-dimensional reflected light I’ve observed as three dimensional. I make many small, rough, and very fast compositional sketches with pencil on paper.

Working on my computer in Photoshop, I begin to develop the theme of a given pencil sketch. I establish the shapes, rhythms, and movements of the light in space, and consider introducing ambiguous shadows of unseen objects.  As the image develops, I am mindful of the space the light lives in, and think about how the light will effect the space it inhabits.

I print out the preliminary computer sketch and draw the basic image with extremely light pencil lines on a piece of Fabriano Artistico paper. Using a brush and waterproof ink (Black or Sepia FW Acrylic Ink), I slowly render the image on the paper with thin ink glazes. As I work on the drawing, the image develops gradually. It changes, evolves, and matures. I work very slowly and carefully. Little by little, the illusion of glowing light appears as if coming from behind the paper.

06_Unanswered Questions X -Process

(Right) Donna Diamond, Unanswered Question X, black ink on paper, 2014, 24″ x 18″, with partially completed drawing (left).

Have you done mezzotints previous to the light series?

The light prints are my first mezzotints. I have been working on a small etching press in my home studio and plan to keep going. These first mezzotints are little, but I would like to go much larger.

Why choose the mezzotint medium for your light series?

I was attracted to mezzotint because of the tonal qualities. Mezzotint offers the chance to create whispering light, fragile edges that can dissolve, intense darks, as well as radiant moments. Mezzotint prints also have a mysterious quality that I am drawn to.

As I develop my mezzotints I have been looking at the work of printmakers I admire. I have been spending time with the masterful prints of Fred Mershimer, the elegant work of Mikio Watanabi, Judith Rothschild’s still lifes, and the recent mezzotints of Kirsten Flaherty.

How does your thinking change going from black to white? Is black and white sequence a more intuitive way to discover light in your imagery?

When burnishing an image onto a rocked copper mezzotint plate, the image can look either black or light. The burnished image will appear black if you lean over it wearing a black t-shirt. The burnished copper will reflect the color of your t-shirt. When you look at the burnished image under a light bulb (muted by tracing paper to avoid glare) it will appear light. So I can view an image I’m burnishing as either light or  black.

When creating drawings, the tones are glazed in layers. The transition from the white paper to grey tones is done slowly and gradually. This allows me a great deal of control over the values from paper white to ink black.


Donna Diamond, Whisper, mezzotint, 2015, plate size: 3” x 2”

Your mezzotints are quite petite. Why? Will They get bigger?

Working on small prints has allowed me to build my experiences with the complicated and challenging mezzotint technique. My suite of little mezzotints describes small and fragile moments of light. There is an intimacy about small prints that appeals to me – they are most often viewed at a close distance by one person at a time.

I am now creating sketches for larger mezzotints. Working with a larger format will allow me to elaborate and expand my thoughts about light and explore more complex ideas.

How does the color of your ink affect your results? Do you have a preference?

I’ve been giving this a lot of thought. I think in dark and light and my first mezzotints were printed with black ink. I began to experiment with tinted ink, a la poupee, and enjoyed the look of warmth in the tones. I do not know how this will evolve or where this will lead me.

How has your light series been received?

I am delighted to share that I just received the 2016 BRIO Award from the Bronx Council on the Arts for my recent light drawings. My earlier light drawings received the BRIO Award in 2013. In that year my drawings were chosen for exhibition by Curate NYC, a citywide festival of art exhibitions and an online showcase.
Additionally, in the past three years, my light drawings have been in gallery exhibits in and around New York City and at The Bronx Museum.

I have recently been editioning my mezzotints and they have been in a number of exhibits in the past few months, both in New York City and in Great Britain.

What’s next in the series?

I am now developing preliminary drawings for a new series of mezzotints. These mezzotints will be larger and more complex. The current preliminary drawings reflect the work that I’ve been doing with light and extend these ideas.

I am also working on preliminary drawings for a new series of linoleum cuts that echo the concepts and tonalities in my light drawings. The linoleum cut that I’m completing now explores a very wide range of values. I’m looking forward to working with artist and collaborative printer Justin Sanz printing the block this summer at the Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop.

Back to Justin

Finally two last questions to Juston on Donna’s mezzotints:

As to her tiny mezzotints, did she seek your assistance with these?  If so, what were the issues with plate-making or printing of these?

None other than she showing them to me and me being in awe of her abilities. She printed those on her own.

She’s planning much larger mezzotints in her light series. Has she discussed her plans with you? If so, what type of advice have you offered?

I believe she plans to embody the essence of life force and energy. My advice has mostly been encouraging her to follow the path she has chosen and to mention which of her numerous variations of color proofs I prefer.

01_Botanical Light

(Above) Donna Diamond, Botanical Light I, 2014, brush and sepia Ink on paper, 28” x 20” (Below) Donna Diamond, Event Horizon, 2015, brush and sepia Ink on paper, 28” x 20”

03_Event Horizon

Making Sky Aipens Go Big


One of the things I wanted to discover after returning to Baltimore last winter from a month in India was how my lessons in the traditional Uttarakhand painting style called aipen would affect my Planets series of watercolors. (To see a portfolio of the Planets, go to:

Aipan 2 planets

(left) Scott Ponemone, Planet VIII, watercolor, 7 Sept. 2015, 20″ diameter, (right) Scott Ponemone, Planet IX, watercolor, 22 Jan. 2016, 20″ diameter

Here are two from the Planet series. Each has a border 2.5″ wide.  Oddly enough the two here share a motif of anthemions. The ones on the right are from an ancient Greek vase at the Walters Art Museum; those on the left from frescoes in a 14th-century Eastern Orthodox church in Metéora, Greece.

In both cases the border was carefully drawn in pencil. The lighter colors were painted first; while the black was painstakenly painted second.

Apin planet X

Above (left) shows my planning for the border to Planet X. My first attempt (the pair to the top) I decided was too wide.  So I reduced the width a few degrees (of the circle) and decided it looked closer to the original, which was a  mosaic from Ostia Antica, the ancient port of Rome. Then I drew this pattern all the way around the border.

Aipen borders required a whole new procedure simply because there could be no drawing of the border on the watercolor paper. My previous ART I MAKE post describes aipan, its tradition, and the process in detail:

Aipan working

(left) Photo by Isabel Moreno Cortez, a PECAH artist from Mexico. (right) Detail of Aipen II, watercolor and gouache, 4 March 2016, 12″ diameter.

Here is a photo of me taken during PECAH 2015, an artist residency near Manila, a village in the Himalayan foothills. I was working on a traditional aipen grid pattern (Chowki) on top of an opaque ground of Indian red pigment.  Except for a few reference points and a penciled circle, I worked freehand. Needless to say, this took a great deal of patience and persistence and a steadier hand than I have now. Hence my right hand assisted the left.

The fun part of painting that aipen was that, once the grid pattern of straight lines and pointed arches was complete, I had many options on finishing up. For instance, what meander pattern should run around the outermost band; what to fill in the squares with (I chose a traditional Sun and pinwheels); and how many of the arches to fill in.

Aipens 3X

(from left) Sky Aipen I, watercolor and gouache, 5 March 2016, 12″ diameter; Sky Aipen II, watercolor, 6 March 2016, 12″ diameter; Sky Aipen III, watercolor, 7 March 2016, 12″ diameter

I scrambled during the last few days of the PECAH residency to make roundels of skies with aipen-inspired borders. At only 12 inches across they are like miniature Planet paintings. Sky Aipen I used the traditional Indian Red gouache for the border background; the other two had watercolor backgrounds.  It was an intense workout, and I thought the results were pretty exciting. But what would happen when I made Sky Aipens as big as the Planets with their 20″ diameter?

BIG Sky aipens: step by step

I decided to record the steps I would take to paint big Sky Aipens. Except for the first one (of three), I even photographed the steps in painting the skies.  Recording the steps was useful not only for making this presentation possible but for slowing me down and allowing me to thoughtfully consider what would come next.

For the big Sky Aipens I decided to make my own gouache Indian red paint.  As it turned out I had all of the ingredients because I had regrained all of the doors on the parlor floor of my house.  They had been stripped of their graining by the previous owners.  Then the doors were stained black walnut. Fortunately the two pairs of pocket doors separating the three parlors retained almost all of their 1850s graining. And black walnut was the fashionable wood at the time.  But the look of the black walnut graining of the pocket doors and that of the black walnut staining on the other doors was night and day.  So I taught myself how to grain paint.

Aipan paint labeled copy

The ingredients: A apple cider vinegar; B powdered gum arabic; C gum arabic dissolved in E distilled water; D powdered Indian red pigment; and F the finished paint.  Formula: Stir 1 part pigment into 1 to 2 parts vinegar, then add half part dissolved gum arabic. Source: Ina Brosseau Marx, Allen Marx and Robert Marx, Professional Painted Finishes, Watson-Guptill Publications, New York, 1991.  See “Country Graining” on page 233. (Note: You can purchase gum arabic pre-dissolved with a preservative. My mixture will mold if not refrigerated.)


SA border sketch

As with the Planets, the big Sky Aipens begin with a full-scale sketch of the border. It appears that I first thought of making the border 3″ wide instead of the 2.5″ width I used on the Planets. You can see that I scaled back the scalloped outer edge a half inch. So I started intending to alternate large scallops with smaller ones peaking out between the larger ones. But it didn’t turn out that way, and I’m pleased that it didn’t.

Aipan 1 steps

In the topmost pair I followed the initial plan. Then I thought better of it. Why not connect the small scallops to create a wave pattern?  And so I did as seen in middle row left.  Then I filled in the lower band pretty much as intended. Finally I added the sun in the smaller scallops. The sun appeared in the initial plan but only when the border was 3″ wide.  And I left out the wavy plant-like device that was in the 3″ border.

Aipan 1 whole

Here are four stages of Sky Aipen IV, starting with a finished sky and only a penciled-in scalloped edge.

SA finished

Scott Ponemone, Sky Aipen IV, watercolor and gouache, 4 April 2016, 20″ diameter. NOTE: the painting is positioned on Arches cold-press watercolor paper so that the framed piece would be a diamond.


Sky Aipen V

PECAH Aipan 4

The source for parts of the borders on Sky Aipens V and VI is a aipen painted on cotton at the home of author Jugal Kishor Paithshali, near Almora, Uttarakhand. For Sky Aipen V it’s the wavy, plant-like device repeated three times under the arches.  For Sky Aipen VI it’s the white inverted teardrop with a hook at the bottom.

Aipan 2 skies

First, here’s the stages of Sky Aipen V’s sky.

SA2 sketch

Sketch with three variations on how to fill the spaces between the arches, and practice painting the wavy, plant-like device under the arches.

Aipan 2 borders

Details of the five steps of painting Sky Aipen V’s border.

Aipen 2 whole

Four views of Sky Aipen V in production.

Sky Aipen V

Scott Ponemone, Sky Aipen V, watercolor and gouache, 21 April 2016, 20″ diameter.

Sky Aipen VI

JP aipen 1 full

For Sky Aipen VI I broke away from the regular boarder shape by adding ears inspired by another aipen at Jugal Kishor Paithshali’s house.

SA3 sketch

I modified the ears, as seen in this sketch, to resemble elephant profiles. I inadvertently first drew the teardrop shape (upper right) upside down.  The other six have the correct orientation (the hook toward the center).

Aipen 3 sky

Sky Aipen VI’s sky, step by step.

Aipen 3 border

The border, step by step.  Unlike the source material, I didn’t white-in the teardrops.

Aipen 3 whole

Six views of Sky Aipen VI’s production.

Sky Aipen VI

Scott Ponemone, Sky Aipen VI, watercolor and gouache, 11 May 2016, 22 7/8″ x 22 7/8″.

The sun (top), moon (below), bell and conch are auspicious Hindu symbols that are often used in Aipan.


Facades of Almora: Carved Survivors

AL nainital

Typical domestic construction in Nainital, Uttarakhand. (All photos by Scott Ponemone)



I have to admit that my first week in India was disappointing regarding the architecture I saw. I came with visions of exotic forms, but what I saw was rebar, cement and brick structures. I was losing hope of recording Indian architectural details to add to my glossary of patterns that so stimulate much of my own art making. While not particularly inspiring, I photographed the railings (above) in Nainital because that was about the best I could find up to then.

Maybe preserving historic domestic buildings hadn’t risen to a public priority in a developing country like India. Think how many wonderful buildings were lost in the U.S. well into the 1970s.  Think of Robert Mill’s designed 1817-19 Waterloo Row in Baltimore. Those 12 houses were bulldozed in 1967.

AL Mathpal 3

Yashodhar Mathpal showing one of his watercolors.


Fortunately I got to meet a gentleman who has been greatly interested in preserving India’s artistic heritage.  Dr. Yashodhar Mathpal (born 1939) is a watercolor artist and a recognized expert in prehistoric rock paintings.  (Here’s a link a short Times of India article: and a link to one of his books:

AL Mathpal painting

Yashodhar Mathpal, Full Moon in the Heaven, watercolor, 2014, 37 x 24 cms

While we had a lengthy discussion about artistic inspiration (that I wish I had recorded), what left a lasting impression was found in his private museum at his home in Bhimtal, not far from Nainital.  It was a two-story affair. The top level was devoted to his own art. While many of his paintings are of the illustrative nature–almost social realism in style–of rituals and daily life of the Kumaoni people of Uttarakhand, I found his small abstract watercolors that imagine Hindu gods becoming one with the Himalayas to be his most personal and affecting work.

The floor below was devoted to Mathpal’s efforts to preserve Kumaoni crafts traditions. For the most part by contemporary museum standards it was a disheartening affair. Dusty, poor lit, barely labeled, the objects he collected are nearly bereft of historical/socialogical context.  Yet, this was the first place is saw aipan designed objects. (I devoted a recent blog post to aipan and how I tried to incorporate it into my own art:  Moreover, here is where I first saw pieces of carved wood that once were part of decorations for doorways and windows of the region.

AL Mathpal carvings A

Pieces of carved and painted wood on display in the Mathpal museum.

AL Mathpal carvings 2

These pieces are terrific, particularly the running repeats, so reminiscent of Greek and Roman art.  While I photographed what was there, for me it didn’t really count until I could witness this tradition in situ. But where?

Online, there’s not much on Uttarakhand wood carving. The Crafts and Artisans of India website ( has this say on the subject:

The artists from the hills are skilled in encapturing the natural beauty of Kumaon and Garwhal through the craft of wood carving. The craft has declined over the current. However, in the olden days, carving on the main entrance door was considered a status symbol. The family which had more carving over the doors was considered to be wealthier or the family had high status in the society. With the increase in expenses and cost of living there are very few houses which now have the carved wooden doors. The existing designs today are of birds, floral and fauna, water mammals etc. In the hills today also many old houses display the beautiful art of carving over the window panels. These artists highlight natural beauty in their carvings. The designs have carvings of birds, flowers, mountains, fruits and even the human figures. The people of hills are very god fearing and this can be witnessed in their art as many images of god and goddesses can also be seen accompanying the craft. The ornamental wood carving on the front doors are known as Kholi in the local language.

The following weekend, I was in Almora, an important small city in the heart of the Kumoan region. (For my travels I was dependent on the itinerary of the directors of the PECAH residency program, in which I was one of six participating international artists.) On arriving, our PECAH hosts recommended exploring the bazaar that ran for blocks parallel to the principal vehicular roadway. It was quite a colorful and lively affair. The women artists in our group were fascinated by the fabric shops, where a rainbow of materials could be turned into saris overnight by the tailors in the next stall. However, what I wanted to see was along the quieter, more residential part of the lane.  There, I was told, were many houses adorned with the carvings I sought.

It was nearly dark by the time we walked along this part of the bazaar, but, emphatically yes, here was a veritable museum of Uttarakhand facade carvings. Without a doubt, I would return with camera in hand the next morning.


Alm rhesus

Alm window dog

At dawn, the bazaar’s street was nearly quiet.  The previous day’s litter and filth had been swept into neat piles.  A few cattle grazed on garbage. A couple of shopkeepers even left them handouts. Dogs lazily scratched themselves. Rhesus monkeys observed it all from their perches. In fact at least one dog watched me progress up and down the lane. Thank goodness, my camera, which I failed to notice the night before was low on batteries, kept working as long as I put the focus on manual.

In this gallery I’ll start with street views, followed by views across the facades of individual buildings, ending with closeup shots.

Alm * alley view

Alm * alley S curve

Note the open gate at the top of the alley’s curve. During shopping hours it’s closed to traffic.

Alm * facades boy

Despite the tradition of competitively carved doorways that I read about, in Almora the ground-level woodwork was plain and the doors themselves exhibited only raised panels. All of the fancy carvings was on the second- and third-floor facades.

Alm upper stories

alm * 3 brown windows

Alm * 3 green windows


Alm green facade


AL window pairing

alm failing window

Unfortunately, this facade was cut in half, and the half that remained was left to decay.

Alm * 3 vertical panels
AL shallow brown carvings

AL small elements B

AL flat patterns

AL carved panels

alm pattern green

AL dieties

Alm carved fragment

I was sorely tempted to work this fragment free and take it as a souvenir.


While in Delhi at the end of my India journey, I visited the National Handicrafts and Handlooms Museum, known generally as the National Crafts Museum.  Besides extensive holdings of amazing textiles, it’s grounds are composed of compounds of indigenous domestic architecture with appropriate paintings and/or carvings.  Unfortunately labeling was scant at best.  But it did offer one elaborately carved wooden doorway, perhaps the type that once would have been found in Almora.

AL crafts museum doorway

After lunch at the museum’s fine restaurant Cafe Lota, I explored the grounds further and came upon artists exhibiting their Pattachitra and Warli paintings.  I was familiar with Pattachitra because I took a brief class in this colorful depiction of Hindu dieties during my PECAH residency.  But Warli work from the Western Indian state of Maharashtra was new to me. It’s strikingly similar to Aipan in that the dark ground–often red ochre or black–is laid down first. Then the design–of stick figures engages in every-day, ceremonial or mythic activities in Warli work–is applied on top with opaque white paint made with a paste of rice and water. It was closing time, but guards allowed me to bargain for one of the smaller Warli paintings of a river scene below and a peacock as big as a tree above.


Dhaku Vittah Kadu and Mangesh Dhaku Kadu, untitled, Warli painting on cotton cloth, 2015, 40 x 43 cms.