Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Review of Magical Secrets in the Mid America Print Council

In the Journal of the Mid-America Print Council this issue there is a lovely review of Magical Secrets by Deborah Kelley-Galin of the Pueblo Community College Southwest Center in Mancos, Colorado. I've copied and pasted it below. Take a look!

It had been saved by a group of artists during World War II, and though it was never melted down, it sat for years - dismantled and abandoned - in the yard of a Scottish boarding house. When it was offered to Kathan Brown, an art student studying the British Arts and Crafts movement, she accepted. And though the press's first owners hoped it would see better times, none could have imagined that a determined young woman would take it on a two-month trip by freighter through the Panama Canal to California. From there, Brown launched another phase of the machine's epic journey, one that would scure both a place in the annals of American art history. Inspired by historic photos documenting the collaborative efforts of Crown Point Gold Mine employees, Brown's new workshop bore the name Crown Point Press.

Magical Secrets about Thinking Creatively: The Art of Etching and the Truth of Life is a continuation of Brown's interest in collaboration, this time reaching beyond the physical confines of the Press's San Francisco facilities to meet the artistic community at large. Magical Secrets, its associated DVD, website and online blog condense forty-four years of experience into 13 "Secrets," each highlighting elemental turning points that enabled artists, assisted by Crown Point staff, to bring their artistic aspirations to fruition.

Those who may be intimidated by Crown Point Press's astonishing success will be surprised by the author's honest and open writing style. Brown began printing the works of artists who attended her regular figure drawing sessions; the later iconic success of Crown Point Press was due in part to the influence of New York's Parasol Press Ltd. While preparing his Parasol Press portfolio Seven Still Lives and a Rabbit in 1970, artist and long-time friend Wayne Thiebaud convinced owner Robert Feldman to include Crown Point Press etchings. Although Feldman considered etching to be a passe art form, he acquiesced to Thiebaud's wishes. Brown and Thiebaud did indeed produce colored, multi-plate etchings for Parasol; Crown Point Press and New York's Parasol Press subsequently joined forces for a number of years.

Although they were at the height of their careers, many of the artists invited to work at Crown Point Press had little or no knowledge of printmaking. Brown and staff were first presented with each artist's final goal: "Collaboration" was often the process of problem-solving - guiding each artist toward this goal while initiating him/her into the methods and techniques that could facilitate success. Part of the book's charm is the author's willingness to share uncomfortable moments when artists and staff encounter frustration, mirroring the struggles we all, as artists, confront in our work. Brown stops short of revealing any major catastrophes, however the atmosphere would surely have been fertile grounds for amusing disasters.

Magical Secrets is also interesting for its art historical value. Artists and their work are defined within their contemporary "art world" context. Secret #4, for example, "Have an Idea: Thinking about what you are doing," provides a broad-scope view of the meaning and motivations behind conceptual artists and the pieces they create. When choosing artists to invite to the Press, each one needed to fit Brown's criteria: How important will this work be in the next century? Quoting John Cage, "The way you could have enjoyed life in, say, 1200 is different from the way you enjoy it now. And that accounts for the changes in art." Brown initially chose artists whom she believed were "in the forefront of those changes." Although the first artist she worked with, Richard Diebenkorn, forewarned, "The marvelous possibilities of painting seem to me to be more complex than thought..." Brown found a substantial foundation in "The conceptual artist's... idea to try for something bigger to begin with, to reflect the scientific universe, the natural world, or human nature." Additionally, Brown found that her conceptual collaborators usually fell into three categories: those who use language, systems, or action to attain their goals. Secret #4 guides us through the works of Tom Marioni and Sol LeWitt, paying particular attention to Marioni's color drypoint Flying With Friends and his approach to soft ground etching.

Equal thought, however, is given to representational artists and the evolution of realism. Consideration is given to image sources in Secret #9, "Use Every Source: Using sources of images and ideas as if they were tools." The merits of anonymous historical works and modern art are given equal respect here. The cover of Magical Secrets displays a soft bite and soap ground aquatint with soft ground etching by Laura Owens. Untitled (LO270), 2004 features an elegantly colored chicken precariously spanning a gnarled tree branch. Its subject matter and style are based on a "two-hundred-year-old brocade of uncertain origin, probably Japanese." Another Owens work, Untitled (LO273), is a rendition of a nineteenth-century scrimshaw piece - primitive drypoint ships and whales float beneath a stormy, aquatinted sky. Several of Owens's other pieces were derived from early American needlework. Brown admits that she likes "thinking about an anonymous needleworker long ago choosing the subject to work on for a long time, probably in her home."

Although Magical Secrets was written to appeal to a broad range of creative thinkers, printmakers will be the primary beneficiaries. Each will undoubtedly find a chapter whose "secret" and examples resonate on a personal level. The book also includes biographies of all of the associated artists and a comprehensive glossary of printmaking terminology. For strictly visual learners, there is also a DVD included inside the book that includes artist interviews and views of the studio settings. The DVD is excellent material for anyone teaching a college level printmaking course, giving students the opportunity to see artists accomplish their individual visions through a variety of techniques and in doing so, a bit of the Crown Point spirit of camaraderie rubs onto them. The Press has also set up a new Magical Secrets website geared towards developing a 'real time' dimension to the project. This is the place to go if you want to register for your regular food-for-thought, the "3-Minute Egg."

Magical Secrets is the small embodiment of a huge effort. Once engaged, you may have a major revelation, or you may just solve a nagging mystery. Even the hopelessly 'blocked,' or those otherwise immune to inspiration, can learn much from Kathan Brown's problem-solving sorties.

- Deborah Kelley-Galin


Blogger Freiluftmaler said...

"Magical Secrets" is a unique book on creativity. It is an incredible gift that has come to me by incident. The review given here is quite rational and maybe a bit intellectual too. In fact the book does not appeal to me like that at all. It´s not on theories,but straight on to doing and experience. I could immediately relate to what´s been said even though I first had not much of an idea what the work of a John Cage might have to tell me.
The book opens doors and gives way to connections in thinking and imagination. At the same time it´s been a terrific confirmation of my own searching. I have this book always in reach.

5:35 AM  
Anonymous Deborah Kelley-Galin said...


The review posted on this website was written for a more academic forum, so that is probably why Freiluftmaler thought it was a "bit intellectual." I agree with Freiluftmaler in that the book is a wonderful inspiration on many levels. I have used the book and DVD in my classes, and it is a great way to introduce students to the excitement of printmaking.

4:46 PM  

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