Friday, June 24, 2011

Summer Reading: Plaster Studio

I was so excited to finally get my copy of Plaster Studio! This is a book by two great artists and great teachers - Stephanie Lee and Judy Wise. I've been lucky enough to take a class from Stephanie Lee, and Judy Wise saved my bacon once when I was teaching down in Arizona and ran out of encaustic medium. So, no, I didn't get a free review copy, but am a bit biased in favor of these lovely ladies . . .

I was delighted that the book includes instructions for one of my favorite Stephanie Lee techniques - Cracked Burlap! Part of why I'm so excited to get this book and learn more about working with plaster is that it's a wonderful substrate for encaustic. Once dry, it's rigid and absorbent - the perfect surface for wax.

And the smooth but cracked surface she manages to create are very tempting to me.

And the instructions are really well done - step by step photos, with the written directions right underneath. And the detailed information about different types of plaster and how to use them - AMAZING!

The book even offers ideas for making three-dimensional substrates - cages, nichos, shrines, vessels. And all of them can be decorated with mixed media - I lean towards encaustics, but acrylics can also be used. The book includes ideas for both.

In fact, the only minor complaint I have about this book is that it includes projects with instructions to put wax over acrylic . . . something I've learned to think of as a no-no. (Imagine dripping candle wax on a plastic tablecloth and how easily the wax will chip off when it's cool - encaustic on acrylic doesn't generally create a very stable bond).

That said, a lot of people - including Stephanie Lee and Judy Wise - use encaustic over acrylic all the time very successfully. They use thin coats of acrylic on very absorbent surfaces so that the wax can still penetrate the surface.

Bottom line, I loved the book. I read it cover to cover, and am adding it to my list of "must have" reference books for encaustic - especially for those who are interested in doing dimensional or sculptural work.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Summer Reading: At Home with Handmade Books

A month or so ago, I got a surprise in the mail: My very first ever freebie crafty item to review! Yup, this is the disclaimer - this book was sent to me to review, completely unsolicited: At Home with Handmade Books by Erin Zamrzla.

I have quite a few books from the publisher, Shambhala. Titles like Art Heals by Shaun McNiff and Art is a Spiritual Path by Pat B. Allen. But I didn't even know they did full color how-to craft books!

But they do, and there is a similar philosophy expressed. The projects are beautiful, simple, practical and useable. The focus of the book is using recycled and reclaimed materials to make new and functional books. At Home with Handmade Books includes projects that use socks, tea bags, and sponges - and includes books that hold recipes, serve as pincushions, and double as sachets.

I loved this recycle-bin book project - it uses old hardback books and turns them into journals with blank interiors and Japanese-style binding. I love changing up the binding from hardback to hand-stitched!

There's also a whole series of travel books that you can make to feature collected postcards or store road trip souvenirs . . .

This though, is my favorite project . . . it's a book made of ziplock bags that you can use to store collage tidbits! I don't do a lot of bookmaking, but this is one I would absolutely make!

And the instructions are very easy to understand . . . something that's a challenge with complicated and precise projects like bookmaking.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Making with Heart

The Rebel Craft Rumble is happening tonight - it's a big fundraiser for SCRAP. I'm one of only four contestants competing for the chance to go up against last year's Craft Master, Sister Diane. It's quite an honor - and quite a challenge. One of my competitors, Miss Demeanor of Criminal Craft fame, has been talking some trash on Twitter about me . . . in a friendly, may-the-best-crafter-win, get-my-goat kind of a way. (To be fair, so has Sister Diane. And I haven't exactly been a shy flower). So, now I'm just gonna make it official and throw down the glue gun gauntlet right now.

What the heck makes me think I've got what it takes to compete with the top crafters Portland has to offer? Well, besides an incredible amount of hubris . . . perseverance and a willingness to try a lot of crazy stuff until something works.

A few months ago, I was working on an installation for Mad/50 with the theme "The Commons." I struggled with this thing. I was working with the idea of common space, the spaces and places that we share and hold in common. National parks, sidewalks, monuments, and even churches. I started off with this.

I like the trees and the background maps of Mt. Hood. They set the tone for the kind of common space I was looking for . . .

But it just wasn't workin' for me. The two women talking over the fence? Nope . . . too literal. Cheesy. The big church window? I liked the idea of it and set it aside. What the piece needed was heart, soul, some kind of center.

So I tried to make a heart - home is where the heart is, and that's the real common space. I really went for it . . . I went dimensional, used plaster, paint, cord . . . the whole nine yards.

Yeah. It looks like . . . well. Some kind of dead squid thing. From a bad horror movie. Needless to say, it didn't make it into the final version. I kept trying to work with the church window . . . but it was just too big. In frustration, I went in a completely different direction. Circles, connected.

By a slightly less frightening, but still symbolically open, heart.

And here I am with the final piece where it was installed at SE Madison and 50th in Portland. Yup. I kept at it - through the crazy squid heart phase and all the things that didn't work. I kept at it. So look out, Miss Demeanor. It's you and me in the first round, and I am Gonna. Keep. At. It.

And if I'm lucky, I'll make it work! May the best crafter win.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Playing with Leaves and Octopodes

(For those of you who are wondering, octopodes is the most accurate, though not most common, plural of octopus.)

Back in September, I got invited to teach encaustic techniques to an organization I had never heard of before - the Nature Printing Society. It is a group of scientists, educators, artists, and other geeks and misfits who love making art prints from any sort of natural ephemera that will hold still long enough - plants, fish, and yes, even octopus.

nature prints by Bridget Benton made by placing feathers
and plants on light-sensitive etching plates; plates are then inked and printed

Making impressions of natural objects is one of the oldest - and most accurate - ways of recording the essential characteristics of natural objects: this is why the scientists love it. It also opens up whole new worlds of creative possibilities: this is why the artists love it. And as for the geeks and misfits, hey - who wouldn't love rolling ink on an octopus or tramping through the woods looking for nifty leaves and branches to print?

nature prints on fabric by Bridget Benton using an inked gelatin plate for mono-printing; shown here collaged with some mass-produced fabrics

Yup - you guessed it: artist, educator, and nature-loving nerd that I am - these are my people. I eagerly accepted the invitation to teach - it seemed like a great opportunity to learn some new things! In fact, doing the work to prepare to teach an encaustic class for nature printers opened up some new possibilities in my own work - I played with pressing leaves and other natural objects into the wax, and using oil paint to pick up the impressions. This led to a whole new series of work that I showed (and demostrated) during Portland Open Studios in October and at Guardino Gallery in December.

encaustic with oak leaf impressions

And I had a great time teaching at their annual conference at the Oregon coast. The whole group is so open to learning and sharing techniques that I felt completely at home. I took several classes while I was there, too, but there was one that had me giddy with excitement: Octopus Printing. Now, fish printing or gyotaku, is pretty well known in the U.S. as a Japanese import: you ink up a dead fish and then gently press paper onto the inky fish surface to pick up an impression. Using octopus as a giant rubber stamp, however, is not as well known.

gyotaku, or fish print, made by Nature Printing Society member

But I am deeply drawn to octopus. Octopodes. Octopusses. However you say it, I love their sensuous shape and suckerness. And to get a chance to print them? How could I resist? We started out with small ones, sold for food at local Asian markets. Thawed, cleaned, and dried, they are remarkably easy to position and print. They can also be re-frozen and then re-thawed and used again for printing. I admit, this is not for the squeamish.

me with my first octopus print!

several of my wee octopus prints!

I would have been happy just to make little prints. However, some local fisherman had caught a large octopus in their nets: knowing that we were in town and looking for non-commercially viable catch to print, they saved it for us. Several brave souls from the Nature Printing Society, including our intrepid Octopus Printing Instructor, Sharron Huffman, cleaned and gutted the octopus so that we could do giant octopus prints.

Sharron inking the large octopus

Sharron after the first print was pulled from the octopus

Now, Sharron has been printing octopodes for many years - she's as drawn to them as I am. She had one specimen, purchased at a Seattle fish market, that she carefully conserved and used for years to print from. She even has a detailed how-to on her website. Now, if you're lucky enough to live in the Portland area, and want to do some hands-on octopus printing, she's having a workshop in her home studio in February! Oh yeah - you can bet I'll be there!

print of large octopus tentacles by Bridget Benton

large octopus print on silk by Bridget Benton

If you're interested, here's the info: Sharron Huffman will teach Beginning Octopus Printing February 12, 1:00–4:00 p.m. at her home studio in Milwaukie, Oregon. $65 plus $15 materials fee. Limited to 5 participants. Contact Sharron at for more information and registration. I hope you'll join us!

participants in the octopus printing classroom, Nature Printing Society workshop, 2010