So what have you been up to lately?

Fair enough question when you think about it. One friends ask friends all the time. To be honest I feel like I’ve been saying the same answer for a long time now. This isn’t a bad thing because next week I get to show not only my friends but other people exactly what I’ve been up to.

It was June last year when my good friend Murdoch sent me his ideas for a collaborative piece he’d titled ‘When The Demon Knife Weeps’. Murdoch did the initial illustration and the idea was that I would adapt it to a woodcut. I really like Murdoch’s skills at drawing and illustration and so I was looking forward to the challenge. I was also looking to try something I had not done before with this medium, I wanted to see what would happen if I tried my hand at a large scale woodcut.

At the very start I didn’t really know what I was doing and almost every part of the process of making this woodcut has included me having to research and problem solve to get the desired outcome. Firstly, I have taught myself to make woodcut prints from hardwood. Hardwood doesn’t come large so I had to try a different timber source and many people on lots of different blogs were saying they used plywood. So off I went to the hardware store to buy some plywood sheets. I found the largest piece I could fit into the car (around 85cm by 120cm) and literally stood there in the store for an hour carefully inspecting every sheet they had for imperfections – all while tradesmen and handymen gave me strange looks.

Finally after some scaling issues and a week of drawing, I got Murdoch’s image onto the first sheet and started carving

Plywood is much more fragile than hardwood and required a careful and steady hand. I found myself spending around two or three hours a day, most days of the week working on the block and slowly the weeks went by. In fact almost three months went by (as work and life kept interrupting me) until I finally finished what was to be part one of a three part image.

Now I only have a small book press in my printing room. Most of the time I make prints by hand. I did try this with a test print of this block but that ended badly so I knew I needed help. I called, emailed and finally was put in touch with a wonderful Polish man named Jacek (phonetically pronounced: Yart-zeek). He had a printing workshop called ‘Under The House Of Art’ and he was in possession of the largest, manual etching press in the southern hemisphere. It just so happens that he was 15 minutes drive from my house – a lucky break in no uncertain terms!

In the weeks leading up to finishing the first part of my woodcut, I started to get quotes on paper to print on and what it might cost to frame such large woodcut prints. Needless to say, these aspects of the project were going to cost me much more money than I had and so I needed to rethink how this was going to work. Thinking specifically about the subject matter of the prints and some of the oldest forms of Japanese Ukiyo-e, I decided that the answer lie in making scrolls. It was my girlfriend however that suggested I use linen cloth instead of fragile cotton rag paper. And so then it was a trip to the fabric store to by around 20 meters of finely woven linen cloth.

So, arriving at Under The House Of Art with my plywood woodcut and my roll of cloth, I set about using the smaller of the two presses Jacek owned. I tested my first panel and breather a huge sigh of relief when, by the second print got a great looking relief print.

The woodblock itself looked pretty impressive too!

So by now it’s mid September and I’m starting to wonder if I can get this finished by the end of 2010. Filled with more confidence the second time round, I started on the next panel of my collaborative triptych image. This one was the same as the first and the days and the weeks slowly ticked by. Days off were spent not leaving the house. Weekends were spent bent over with fine carving tools giving me callused hands and all the while I learned new techniques to shade areas, how to use my tools for specific effects and generally enjoyed the meditative task of carving out the images characters.

Soon November came to a close and I contacted Jacek (that’s him in the corner of the photo) to organise another printing session and in early December, I made final prints of the first two parts of ‘When The Demon Knife Weeps’.

During this printing session it would take around one to two hours to get a good print. Much fussing had to be done and checking and rechecking and inking and aligning so as not to waste the fabric. Truth be known… about half the fabric I bought ended up on the reject pile (now hidden in the back of my wardrobe). After two days of printing the downstairs area of my house looked like an overcrowded laundry and I had locked in two artists proofs and an edition of one for display/sale. I was now two thirds of the way through this piece.

2011 didn’t start the way most of us in Brisbane had planned. On the 11th January I was sent home from work as the Brisbane river rose an rose and eventually flooded my workplace. After a week of helping my friends and others with the aftermath of the flood, I was told that I wouldn’t be going back to work anytime soon. A problem on one hand and gift on the other as I sat down and decided to start the final part of my triptych. Where as the first two had taken a few hours a day over several months. I shut out the world and in a workman like way, sat down from 9-5 every day for three weeks and carved. My forefinger and thumb bruised in the first week and by the second the indent from the tools became an easy groove to sit them within. Either way, by February I sat at my kitchen table with the completed woodcut in front of me. I felt happy but manly I think I just felt relief at, seven months later, not screwing it up but in some small way I was really proud of having the perseverance to complete what was becoming the most remarkable piece of art I have attempted to create to date.

However, even with the prints physically made, I still had a lot of work ahead of me. Now I needed to make ready for public viewing. More trips to the hardware ensued and with the help of my Japanese Bookbinding book, I set about turning my large pile of fabric into scrolls. I have to at this point send out immense thanks to Eileen who foolishly said “I’ll help!” and set about pinning and hemming the sides of the cloth and working with me to finish them off. You’ll find her personal textile creations here. Neither of us realised that this task alone would take another two months as no less than 40-metres of sewing occurred. Yep, every part of the process was another lesson learned. Come April however I had this to show for all the hard work and… well to be honest I stopped counting the hours after the first panel hit 100 hours.

The final part of the puzzle was what to store the finished scrolls in? After investing so much into making them, I wanted to make sure the elements, dirty hands or accidents didn’t ruin them. More research ensued and again following the example of traditional scrolls, I enlisted the help of Naut from Naut Cases to custom make me storage/display cases. Made with beautiful birch paneling and a sliding (cigar case-styled) lid – I picked three of these up last week. This week I am spending my nights lining the cases with gold satin-backed shantung and with any luck this weekend the project will come to a close and next week I’ll get to show you in person what Murdoch and I have made.

WHEN THE DEAD HEART BEATS is on at Nine Lives Galley from Thursday 9th June, kicking off from 6pm. It will feature over 20 new works on paper by Alex Gillies & Murdoch Stafford.

  1. Fucking amazing, am so stoked for you dude.

  2. seriously amazing mate. cant wait to see it up in the gallery. great stuff.

    • Jade fernandez
    • June 7th, 2011

    I cannot wait to see this! So awesome!

  3. Alex, this is fantastic work. I can imagine all the research you had to do to attempt so many new things — working large scale, printing on fabric, constructing the scrolls and the box. The final result is powerful yet elegant, and very finely executed. It’s just gorgeous. Wish I could come to Australia and see it in person! Congratulations.

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