Last year, one of our favorite poetry organizations, Poetry Flash, asked printmakers Alastair Johnston and Jinny Pearce to create a broadside of a poem in celebration of the annual Watershed Environmental Poetry Festival. The selected poem was Jane Hirshfield’s “The Supple Deer,” which appeared in the January/February 2008 issue of Orion (a poem that’s, ahem, “deer” to our hearts). We asked Pearce to describe the creative and technical process behind her illustration.
“The Supple Deer” has an uncanny quality that engaged me as an artist: that moment of the deer pouring through, the wonder of it. I asked myself, “How can I make the deer liquid?”
I usually begin an illustration by reading the material—in this case, the poem—over and over and over, doing sketches off the top of my head to catch initial impulses, because those can be vital. After that, I’ll consult numerous sources to learn more about the subject, and sketch, sketch, sketch. For the broadsides, I’ll run the most promising candidates past Alastair Johnston, at Poltroon Press, to see if they mesh with his thinking about typography, before selecting the final sketch to work up for the block.
Design-wise, the biggest challenge was to make a plausible opening for the deer in the fence, while retaining the astonishing sight of the deer’s passage through that narrow opening—the contrast being essential to the meaning of the poem. I ended up building a model made of sticks, strung up with yarn and stuck into sandbags to help me visualize. I believe I also enlisted a toy horse.
This print was made from a linoleum block, which works well with letterpress, as the blocks are very near “type high” (meaning they can be printed on traditional letterpress equipment, which Alastair uses at Poltroon Press). It is a relief technique, like wood engravings or wood cuts, meaning the areas you don’t want to capture are gauged or carved out, and the surface is then rolled up with ink for printing.
Though I am primarily an etcher, I am increasingly drawn to the power and graphic quality of relief work. Something about the sharp contrast and puzzle of its binary nature appeals to me. Wood engraving, which I am using increasingly in the studio, uses a much harder block of end-grain wood, or a synthetic substitute, carved with sharp line tools to exquisite effect. Much of my studio practice now is in this more traditional technique of wood engraving, in great part due to Alastair’s influence as a scholar of the renowned 18th century engraver and naturalist, Thomas Bewick, who used just such a method.