I've always believed that John Muir was an important historical figure but I never really knew much about him (except that he liked nothing more than being in the wilderness). I recall him being briefly covered in American history class and wonder if kids are still taught about him today. I suspect not in most schools.
Much of my recent artwork has a historical theme. When I'm preparing to do the work I like learning about the subject matter. With the Muir piece however, the idea came quickly and I knew enough about the character to get straight to work without doing much background research. I mainly looked for references of the man himself and the Sierra Mountains he was so fond of.
These are the main photos I used as reference:
My love of nature validated the idea for me without having to give it much more thought. The appropriateness of depicting Muir in a piece of wood also felt right.
It was only after the print series was complete (and almost sold out) and when preparing for this post, that I looked more closely into Muir's biography.
John Muir was a fascinating man who lived an interesting life. It is well documented online. He explored and studied the American wilderness, helped set up the National Parks and traveled the world. He was a founding member of The Sierra Club who have an abundance of information on their website.
I was surprised and delighted to discover that as a boy, Muir was a keen inventor who fabricated incredible contraptions in wood! His pieces were mostly mechanical clocks and other time-saving devices. Apparently he even built a bed that would rise up and launch him out in the morning like the one in the Wallace and Gromit cartoon!
Muir also produced rather nice color drawings of his inventions.
I assume many of the concepts were never built but an extraordinary student desk was and can be seen in the photo above. The desk would keep time of the student's reading and studies. The books were on a moving device and would present themselves to the student when the allotted reading time for the previous book was complete.
Overall the ideas and work are not only ingenious but also very whimsical. They seem as much like folk art as clever engineering. John Muir's artistry and the fact that he liked to carve and work in wood made me very pleased I did the tribute portrait of him!
John Muir claimed to find writing difficult yet he was a prolific author. He wrote many articles and books on his conservation work. But I found this article in which he tells the story of his passion for making curious constructions pretty entertaining!
Portraying a legendary naturalist and conservationist.
Background details about the print.
After doing a couple of linoleum cut prints, I wanted to have a go at carving wood. So I headed to our local high quality lumber yard Baird Brothers. They specialize in fine hardwood and were happy to sell me offcuts. I came away with a stack of very nice, smooth and flat pieces of cherry and poplar for only a couple of bucks.
Without being cut down further, most of the pieces were definitely more of a landscape format. My first thought was that I may have to do an actual landscape piece with trees, hills and such. But I'd been working in portraiture and really wanted to do another portrait.
While admiring the lovely wood grain I decided it could be interesting to do both a landscape and a portrait in one. John Muir was the first person to come to mind.
The print was done using letterpress and a reduction woodcutting printmaking technique. This is where a single piece of wood is used for all the colors in the print, in this case 3 ink colors, blue, green and a metallic black.
For the first step I cut away any areas that were to remain the white paper color. The first color blue was then printed. Next I cut away the areas of the wood block that were to be blue. The green color was printed at this stage. Finally, the green areas are carved away and the darkest color, black, was printed to achieve the finished print.
When the print edition is completed it cannot be printed again.
The progression of how the three colors came together to make the final image can be seen here:
The print was accepted and displayed in the Butler Institute of American Art, 2017 Area Artists Annual Juried Exhibition.
The original edition of 10 prints have all been sold. However, I have 10 Artist's Proofs that are now for sale. Once the artist's proofs are gone there will not be any more of these prints because of the reduction process described above.