Anne Chesnut art.i.facts
The following conversation took place in the winter of 2013 between artist Anne Chesnut and art history PhD Lyn Bolen Warren, whose gallery, Les Yeux duMonde, has exhibited Chesnut's work since 1999.
I remember encountering your prints of the subway and buses when I first met you in 1995 and being very impressed. I've since admired your work as it has changed and grown over the years. The only constant it seems is its medium. What first drew you to printmaking?
A love for drawing and a lack of a studio space…
Ironically, it was the expansion of back office computer space in lower Manhattan that forced me out of a painting loft and led me to a printmaking studio, and now the electronic descendants of those machines are not just part of printmaking workshops but how I work.
Drawing, my first artistic love, remains at the core of what guides and informs my art and led me to try lithography. Explorations and honing of skills in lithography, relief, and intaglio methods started me on my appreciation for each medium's unique characteristics. The joining of these traditional techniques with new electronic ones that blur the definitions of the artistic disciplines is of particular interest to me. Not as a new way for multiple printing or image making but for the fertile ground the new media offers to visualization—an opportunity to explore and exploit properties not previously possible.
You completed your MFA at Yale. Was printmaking your focus?
My formal education included the study of intaglio methods with Gabor Peterdi and freer monoprint explorations for Bernie Chaet's drawing class, but my focus on printmaking came after Yale. While I was living in New York, Robert Blackburn's Printmaking Workshop became my incubator. After participating in a lithography class, I subsequently spent every Wednesday night printing at the workshop for many years till I moved to Italy. Bob fostered a diverse community of printmakers through unfettered access to equipment that encouraged both innovation and the exchange of ideas.
Speaking of equipment, the advent of the computer has transformed so much in art. How would you describe your use of the new technologies? When did you start making digital prints?
Using the computer and digital printing as tools fits within the printmaking tradition of adopting equipment like lithography, originally developed for commercial applications. Already immersed in the exploration and exploitation of electronic technology as I was, this was just a logical extension of these devices for me.
Working as a designer, I was involved with the first generation of the new technology as it emerged—initially as a means for typesetting, then for direct color applications and separations, and finally for design and layout. Consequently, my approach towards these tools has always been one of "what else is possible" rather than viewing them as the means for accomplishing specific assigned tasks. However, it was not till the development of digital printing applications that employed archival liquid inks and accommodated heavy rag papers that I began to borrow and embrace these tools for printmaking.
You are definitely a pioneer in the still young discipline of digital printmaking. The way you combine traditional techniques with new ones in your prints to me also comments on the evolution of the medium. Can you describe your particular process?
Combining traditional and digital means, my recent prints meld layers of meaning and imagery. These composites incorporate my lithographs, drawings, paintings, and photographs with found objects and digitally created imagery. All are further manipulated before being united. While the development and evolution of how to fuse these images has been an independent journey for me the response has been supportive, especially from you and Jane Haslem. And also, Dean Dass, who included me in international print exchanges.
A simple example of blended images is the early print series Tree of Life, which intertwines casein paintings of leaves with photographs, ink drawings, and digitally drawn symbols.
Can you talk about your imagery and subject matter?
My surroundings have always informed my work. For many years, the frieze-like groupings of separate, unengaged figures on the overcrowded buses and subway platforms of New York City retained my interest in drawings, paintings, and finally in lithographs and monoprints. These cityscapes were replaced by the outdoor urban life of Southern Italy as I became immersed in a new place. The drainage ditch mussel gatherers, the African workers, and finally the open-air markets with their extreme contrasts between new and traditional commodities for sale in ancient settings were the subject of many prints and drawings.
Initially, on returning to Virginia the familiar locales seemed bland. Gradually, I found inspiration in my backyard and the ordinary; a discarded seashell, a worn garden tool, or a single number became the opportunity to examine them in a larger context. While the familiar populates current prints, the images are not an object record or a slice of daily life; rather they are about what things symbolize, or the creation of a whimsical new reality.
I am struck by the recurrence of various "tools" in your art, be they your Garden Tools, Utensils, or as you say, a single number, and the way you bring myriad associations to something we would ordinarily take for granted. Tell us about the letters and numbers.
Raised by a father who was a linguist and mathematician, I developed an avid interest in typography or language's form.
Abecedarium, a letter study, examines references associated with each character. [Y] Yankee's imagery not only includes the x-and y-axes, a signal flag, letter proportions and formation but also a y-chromosome, and in X-ray [X] the associations are tic-tac-toe, xxx, and an x-ray.
Scientific references and their relationship to numbers can be found throughout the six-part series Numerals/numbers—from 2, also the notation for Helium, to 4's depiction of many things found in fours, such as; heart chambers, blood groups, ink colors, directions, and quadrants.
I have always marveled at the way you have been able to work simultaneously as both a successful graphic designer and a serious artist and wondered how you view the relationship between the two?
One feeds the body, the other nourishes the soul. Fortunately, both speak the same language.
There have been two streams in design, one out of fine arts and one out of the commercial world, just as there has been with photography where these two are more widely recognized. My training was strictly in the fine arts context, which is far less common now.
Probably why so many museums and galleries seek you out for their graphic design.
On the frontline of technology, you made art of emoticons before I knew what they were! Your emoticons are wonderful comments on the symbols that have invaded our lives with the advent of computers, cell phones, and texting. I love the way you combine high and low art and humor in Heaven Scent, layering the emoticon with the rose window from a Medieval church. And in Winter Blackwork, you combine "real" ivy with the stitched or symbolic image and drawings too.
Just like emoticon prints are drawn from our everyday world; the samplers are a modern take on "women's work." They are evocative scraps of my life akin to crazy quilt patches recycled from old dresses and shirts. The ivy on the battered, white-washed wall in Winter Blackwork is from the yard of my childhood home, and the drawings, from a long-forgotten sketchbook. Sampler, April 17 is a spring sampling from my yard.
Speaking of the Samplers, I notice knitting and a spool of thread (Ariadne's?) represented in certain prints in your Labyrinth series and then actual stitching in the Samplers and Quilts. When did you first start using stitching and why?
The use of stitching came about for two reasons. It is an integral part of the quilt prints, just as their names are puns on their subjects. And stitching was a way around printer size restrictions; in the Quilt, Sampler, and Dog Star series from two to sixty-three prints are sewn together.
The Quilts are amazing. Tell us about Patchwork Union and American Piecework.
American Piecework, a play on "peace", can be seen as a "state of the union" print. Its sixty-three squares forming the American flag were done in response to national issues early into this decade of war and conflict.
Patchwork Union, evoking a quilt with its stars and bars and five hand-sewn panels, examines the story of American enfranchisement and disenfranchisement. Frequently, we seem to discuss the world in the context of what we know now; for example, few are aware that non-citizen voting was common in the first 150 years of US history. And, we think of the vote becoming more and more inclusive; yet after each extension, often occurring out of turmoil, there has been a period of retrenchment where access is reduced.
The stitching also reminds me that, even if the prints are created on the computer, the hand, specifically your hand (and mind and sensibility), is still actually making the work.
For me prints are tactile, made on wonderful paper. They are not just things to be hung but are works that can be handled. The addition of sewing just broadens that physical aspect.
When I first encountered your extraordinary Labyrinth series, I was amazed at the intricacies in each print, and yet, all twelve prints in each series fit together, and the meditation of each one parallels the movement through a real labyrinth. Can you tell me about these?
The two labyrinth series explore not just the Greek myth but also areas of knowledge like science, math, and music whose notation may seem a maze to the uninitiated.
In Labyrinth: La Sinistra a unicursal, or single pathway, maze connects the three by four grid of twelve prints. The individual prints explore different ideas. 1.1 (row 1, print 1) recalls being lost or hidden during cornfield games of hide and seek under an endless Texas sky of stars. 1.4 (row 1, print 4) examines man's view of man, juxtaposing Leonardo's ideal on a field of human DNA strands and engineered wheat. In 3.1 (row 3, print 1) the bird skulls and feather reference Icarus, the son of Daedalus, who built the labyrinth for King Minos. But it is also about the modern mega city; the field is a bird's eye view of population density, notated by circles, where the voids forming two rivers and a rectangular central park reveal the location.
A multicursal maze runs through the other series, La Destra, and individual prints again reference mythology and notation devices. The mythic Minotaur is brought together with the contemporary image of life in gestation, a sonogram, and a jigsaw puzzle diagram in 1:4.
In between other subjects, animals reoccur; this affinity is perhaps a childhood legacy from working in a sculptor's studio—she expected me to learn to draw in detail the skeleton of an animal before sculpting it in clay.
So the skull of the hummingbird in one of the Labyrinth prints is one of your own drawings! Again you combine tradition with innovation—traditional drawing with drawing on the computer.
I also love the way you simultaneously suggest the macrocosm and the microcosm in these prints by representing the outermost stars alongside a single thumbprint or binary code for example. Similarly in your Constellation prints you link a distant constellation with your own home and dogs.
The series of dog star prints are about my two dead dogs and living dog. The Canis Major series is Henry, a macho male "Neapolitan Pointer," or in other words a very proud mutt. He was Marine-trained in Italy and became quite mellow with a "green card" to Charlottesville. The imagery through maps, emblems, and dog tags makes references to his European and American lives. Louisa, an oversized yet beta female Weimaraner, is the subject of the Canis Minor series. Along the bottom of these prints are magenta outline drawings representing her two Charlottesville homes in the style of mid-twentieth-century black and white star guides. The hunting dog series, Canes Venaciti, is of Ginny, a Vizsla, who as a lean, mean, running machine can easily represent two dogs. The image associations in these prints are to her and to the star stories of this very dim constellation.
Tell me about the Shoo Fly and Southern Fly in this series.
The subject of Southern Fly is one of the modern group of eighty-eight constellations. The image on the left has several constellation representations not adopted by the IAU [International Astronomical Union] to map the modern sky, so I called it Shoo Fly.
Can you tell me about the All That Remains: Bolivar? And why did you arrange them in this shape?
The placement is from the shape of the narrow peninsula separating the Galveston Bay from the Gulf of Mexico. The divisions into individual prints are based on the quadrants used for geological survey maps.
The prints were made as a result of my driving a road not taken in many years. In 2008, the Bolivar Peninsula, on an average just three feet above sea level, was scoured by Hurricane Ike's fifteen to twenty-foot storm surge, which put most areas under five to ten-feet of water and knocked down almost all the buildings. The land is now a mix of fragments and new buildings, and these prints are in response to three visits in 2011 and 2012.
There is so much in your work to discover! You seamlessly merge tradition and innovation, symbols, concepts, ideas, and suggestions to create an endless visual and conceptual feast for the viewer.
The process of interweaving imagery out of traditional and new artistic processes through multiple digital layers to create a final merged image that comments on our world through whimsy, political commentary, or both is sometimes a long narrative journey or story. It is my hope that the final images composed of many elements, whether old or new, detailed or abstract, anecdotal or scientific, familiar or unknown, will engage the viewers, to find their own narrative or reaction to the shared images and experiences, whether true or fictitious.
And indeed the final images do just that! Thank you Anne for your work and your words!