ACTIVATE (Gay Liberation Front). White Line Woodcut with Toner Transfer. 14.5" x 20.5" (37 x 52.4 cm). Photo credit: Stephen Petegorsky
Printmaker ANNIE BISSETT explores the visual symbols and verbal cliches associated with various belief systems: from the religious to the political to the economic to the prophetic. Working primarily in moku hanga, she has tackled religious relics and spiritual cliche, the historical struggle for gay liberation and the idiomatic expressions associated with wealth and poverty in capitalist America. Annie's numerous solo exhibitions include: Playing with Fire (2018) at Oxbow Gallery (Northampton MA), Past/Present/Now (2016) at Charles Krause Reporting (Washington DC) and I Was a 20th Century Lesbian at Hosmer Gallery (Northampton MA.) Her work is in the permanent collections of notable institutions like New York Public Library, Boston Public Library, Portland Museum of Art, and Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College. You can purchase Annie's four self-published books here. Annie lives and works in Providence, Rhode Island.
Other Peoples Pixels: Can you explain moku hanga for the non-printmakers among us?
Annie Bissett: Moku hanga, which means “wood print,” is a centuries-old Japanese way of printing that uses waterborne pigments, brushes instead of rollers, and a hand-held printing device called a baren instead of a mechanical press. Woodblock printing was brought to Japan in the 8th century by Buddhists from China and was first used to reproduce religious texts. After a time colors began to be added by hand and then, as woodblock printing became the primary form of commercial printing in Japan, printers began to carve blocks for each color. Japanese woodblock prints, also called ukiyo-e, are known especially for their intense use of color.
CLASS PICTURE. Japanese woodblock (mokuhanga). 14.5" x 20.5" (37 x 52.4 cm). Photo credit: Stephen Petegorsky
OPP: How long have you been using this method?
AB: In the early 2000s, after spending about 20 years working digitally as a commercial artist/illustrator, I found myself longing to make work for myself instead of clients and to work with my hands instead of on the computer. I tried painting and failed, tried collage but didn’t enjoy the search for source materials, and then I tried making drawings that I scanned and colored in Photoshop. That felt right, except that I was still at the computer. A friend noted that my drawings looked like Japanese woodblock prints and, serendipitously, I heard of a workshop being offered near my home by a New Hampshire printmaker named Matt Brown. I took that three-day workshop and fell in love with the method.
Selections from Secret Codewords of the NSA, each 6" x 6." Photo credit: Stephen Petegorsky
OPP: What keeps you returning to moku hanga? What do you love about the process?
AB: Although I’m a great admirer of Japanese art and aesthetics, I didn’t start working with moku hanga because of an interest traditional Japanese art. I took up moku hanga because it’s an artistic medium that is neither toxic nor messy, and it’s compact and portable enough to do on the side in my small home-based studio while I continue to serve my freelance digital commercial illustration clients. It’s also a beautiful method—wood, water, natural pigments, brushes, hand-held carving tools and handmade paper are the simple materials that make the method a pleasure to work with. And after my long career as a commercial artist working with four-color offset print technology, the transparent color overlays inherent in woodblock printing make intuitive sense to me.
Because the Japanese brought this art form to unimaginable heights of perfection, working with moku hanga can be a difficult burden to bear. Not many 21st-century western artists could hope to achieve the degree of perfection attained by the great 17th- and 18th-century ukiyo-e masters, but unfortunately that type of work is what many people think of when you say "Japanese woodblock.” I try to avoid this silent standard in people’s minds by calling what I do moku hanga or watercolor woodblock print—a term I especially like. Even though the method does come with a lot of cultural weight, I try to take the support of the beauty and elegance and history of the method without letting go of my own voice and my American concerns and identity.
I LOVE YOU. Japanese woodblock (mokuhanga). 14.5" x 20.5" (37 x 52.4 cm). Photo credit: Stephen Petegorsky
OPP: What role does text play in your work?
AB: My major in college was English literature. That, plus my decades as an illustrator, where my job was essentially to read a document and then make pictures to go with it, predisposes me to work with words and text.
Language is totally weird. It’s a mystery that we rarely treat with the awe and respect it deserves. If we were to spend just five minutes watching ourselves speak we would know this. Where do our words come from? Do we really know what we’re about to say before we say it, or do the ideas form simultaneously with the words? Are the movements of our tongue and lips conscious or unconscious? When I look at these questions I find language to be a strange fluid blending of conscious and unconscious, of mental and emotional, of controlled and uncontrollable. And I believe that we reveal ourselves and our innermost states in a brutally honest way through our speech.
MIXED FEELINGS (full set). Japanese Woodblock Print with transfer drawing. Each print is 12.5" x 19." Photo credit: Stephen Petegorsky
OPP: Printmaking—the origins of reproducibility of image and text—is the perfect media to address cliche. I’m thinking of the spiritual cliches on the banners from Relics (2016) and the economic cliches in Loaded (2012). Do you use cliche with sincerity or irony?
AB: To me, cliches appear to be ossified or “frozen” bits of language that we use either as shorthand or as meaningless filler in our speech. I guess the question I’m asking when I work with cliche is, what happens if you soften or “melt” a cliche? Does meaning return? Is there something to discover there? I think yes.
So to answer your question, I’m 100% sincere in my use of cliches, although the results are often very humorous and/or full of irony, because people are funny.
A REAL FAKE: THIS IS NOT MUHAMMED. Watercolor woodblock print with gold mica, rubber stamp, and removable printed veil. Photo credit: Stephen Petegorsky
OPP: I also see a scholarly interest in the iconography and stories from all the major world spiritual traditions. Is this purely scholarly interest?
AB: I’ve always been a seeker—it seems to be a baked-in part of my personality. As a young child I was interested in my friends’ beliefs, religions and traditions and was invited to their churches, temples, mosques and celebrations. I was raised mainstream Protestant, I got “born again” in high school, and then, accompanied by a lot of pain, I lost my religion when I realized I was gay in my freshman year of college. But even in my post-Christianity period I continued to study various spiritual traditions, and I’ve practiced a number of them.
Religion, as is true of all human constructs, can be a force for good or for evil. Religious power can easily be warped and manipulated to rationalize all manner of cruelty and bigotry. But at their best, the various religions are repositories of human wisdom, aspiration and spiritual technology that come to us from our ancestors, through centuries of history, and sometimes at great cost. I think there’s much of value to be found there.
DEFY (ACT UP). White Line Woodcut and Rubber Stamping. 14.5" x 20.5" (37 x 52.4 cm) Photo credit: Stephen Petegorsky
OPP: Tell us about the prints from the ongoing series I Was a 20th Century Lesbian that I’m reading as “flags” for various activist organizations that played a role in the history of gay liberation. Are these flag prints based on real flags from these groups?
AB: That group of prints, which I call Counterspells, uses a printmaking method called “white line woodcut” that was developed in the early 20th century in the gay mecca of Provincetown, Massachusetts. As in moku hanga, white line woodcut uses watercolor as ink, but instead of multiple blocks a single block (matrix) is incised with a line drawing and colors are painted by hand, one small area at a time. Although the matrix can be re-used, each white line print is a monoprint (one of a kind).
Using the white line method allowed me to use a single matrix—a simple grid of equilateral triangles—for all the prints. I chose the triangle to reference the downward-pointing pink triangle that was sewn on the uniforms of imprisoned gay men and other sexual offenders in Nazi concentration camps. In the 1970s, the gay community reclaimed the pink triangle as an international symbol of gay pride.
Many of the gay liberation organizations I depicted were short lived, but they built on one another, so to use the same matrix for all of them let me express this in a tangible way. On the other hand, it was quite a limiting format, having to express the essence of each organization through this grid of triangles. I think you’re right that they do read as flags, but I invented them.
Selected images from Woodblock Dreams Tarot (in progress), 2018-2020. Photo credit: Stephen Petegorsky
OPP: What’s cooking in your studio right now?
AB: I’ve been working on a woodblock tarot deck for 2 years. For the four tarot suits (56 cards) I created woodblock backgrounds, textures, and illustrated elements which I then scanned and collaged in Photoshop. Thus, those digitally-collaged woodblock prints only exist digitally. There are 21 additional cards in the tarot called the Major Arcana, and I’m creating those as fully developed woodblock prints in very small editions (four of each). Each of those prints is scanned, reduced in size, and type is added digitally. For the sake of time, treasure and sanity, it’s the only way I could imagine making an affordable tarot deck that I could complete in my lifetime.The deck is called Woodblock Dreams Tarot, and I expect to have it ready for the printer by the spring 2021. It’s been a good project for the Time of COVID.