Unfinished business

As an artist, I've always tended to work pretty quickly. You may not think that watching me at the press, as I've learned to slow down for accuracy, but usually when I start a new project, I'll finish it within a month or so. Not so with today's work; it took me about six months to figure out how to complete this one.

What you're looking at is another Shelburne-inspired image. My regular readers may recognize the cherry trees in the background, but the figure in the foreground is a new character for you. He's an automaton, and more precisely, a Chinese opium smoker. He's one of several 19th-century French automata that live at the Museum; you can see a picture of him here: http://www.yelp.com/biz_photos/shelburne-museum-shelburne?select=cGpgWbc34iJhouIj9sYL8Q#cGpgWbc34iJhouIj9sYL8Q

I'll admit, I never really liked the doll collection at Shelburne, but I did enjoy the automata, and especially this guy. To me he embodied so much of the Victorian era: he's demonstrative of its delight in details, its penchant for Orientalist fantasies, and its all-around political incorrectness. This fellow would never fly today, but back then, he was a popular subject. There's a video of him in action at the Museum, so if you're ever there, you should check it out. If you place a lit cigarette under him while he's wound, he looks like he's actually "smoking."

Anyway, when I decided to move to Roswell, I had a lot of experiences and emotions to process about leaving Shelburne. Making art has always been my way of sorting through things, so I decided to make a piece involving my favorite objects from the Museum. I initially had envisioned doing a series, but in the end, only one object really interested me at the time: the opium smoker. 

I set to work. I already had a spare print of the cherry trees, so I layered some monotypes on top of it. I channeled the colors of the smoker's robe, and mimicked the folds of purple and gold. I worked quickly and with purpose, knowing I only had about two weeks before I left Vermont. For some reason, I felt I had to finish it there.

Except I didn't. 

Between packing up, finishing my Museum projects, and saying goodbye to friends, I didn't have much studio time. Once I left Vermont, moreover, I lost interest in the piece. I was too busy getting acquainted with a new museum and a new town to live in the past, and my art interest immediately shifted to my Roswell surroundings. For several months, then, the piece sat in a box with my other printmaking papers, forgotten.

That is, until this past Saturday. 

When I first moved here, I'd tried to push Shelburne out of my mind to focus on my new job, but now that I've gotten slightly settled, my former abode has resurfaced. My parents visited the new Art and Education Center, for instance, and an article I had written for Antiques magazine on Shelburne was recently published. Like it or not, that quirky place has been on my mind again.  

As I was digging around my boxes for more paper, I found the unfinished print, and studied it. 

Since I hadn't seen the piece for several months, I was able to scrutinize it with fresh eyes and immediately discern why I hadn't been able to finish it before. The problem I'd had was that I didn't know how to convey the magical quality of the smoking automaton, which for me represented the whole otherworldly, enchanted feel of Shelburne itself. Ink wouldn't cut it, but at the time, I didn't know what would.

Today, however, I do. I've recently gotten into leafing some of my prints with Hershey wrappers (the purple and silver ones, to be precise, since I prefer dark chocolate) and as I looked at the print, I realized that the silvery, shiny surface of the foil was exactly what I needed to make this piece dance.

After six months, it was time to get to work.

I started by doing a line drawing of the automaton. I had sketched it last summer, so I already had a reference drawing. 

I then grabbed my supply of Hershey wrappers and cut them into serpentine shapes for the smoke. I also used some of the purple foil to echo the patterning on the smoker's sleeve in the lower right corner, to help balance out the drawing. Finally, I did an ink wash over the drawing to make it more robust, and added some final detail work.

All in all, it took me less than three hours to finish it once I got going, but sometimes you have to wait for the right inspiration in order to complete something, no matter how long it takes.