Ukiyo-e is a form of Japanese printmaking which began during the 17th century. When translated literally, Ukiyo-e are “pictures of the floating world”. The pleasure of moonlight on a blossoming tree, the tranquility of a peaceful landscape, the enjoyment of wine and conversation or a beautiful woman’s company – nearly all pleasures were possible in the “floating world”. Prints depicting such a world transformed Japanese culture and the artists themselves. They became Rebels; printing taboo subject matter and glorifying the lower classes, Revolutionaries; breaking down the hierarchy of art and making it accessible for nearly all citizens, Globalists; reformatting imagery from foreign literature to please the Japanese palette and bring Japan into relationship with a world across the sea. Regardless of variations in style or character, at the heart of Ukiyo-e is a reverence for the universality of a sensory experience resulting from contact with nature and one’s own instincts.
As part of my submersion into the study of fine art in Florence, I enrolled in a printmaking class. The day before our first studio meeting, I spent the afternoon at the Piazzale Michelangelo overlooking Florence. It has a gorgeous view of the city and many important buildings, but I was looking for something else – trees. Growing up in Boulder at the foot of the Rocky Mountains I hadn’t realized how deeply reliant I was on being able to spend time in the natural world. From what I had been learning it seemed the idea of building a city in early human history typically meant “keeping the wilderness out” and had resulted an absence of trees in the city center. There were gardens in Florence and some small pockets of nature, but living three blocks from the Duomo meant that my walk to the studio everyday rarely brought me into contact with any of them. I yearned for nature, for solitude and space to enjoy the spontaneity of a world un-measured by human hands.
On the map it had shown an area of green space behind the historical buildings and the plaza full of tourists taking photos. I had gone to see if it could offer me the wild I sought out. What I found was a small Cypress forest. The thick shadowy earthen smell filled my nose and I stepped down from the stone platform at the edge of the plaza complex. Small birds looped through the tree branches, calling out to one another. The light filtered down in spirals illuminating patches of moss and wildflowers. It felt like home; it felt familiar and comforting like someone who knew me in a crowd of strangers. Towards the back of the forest the land sloped forming a hill and providing for an expansive panorama of the countryside surrounding Florence. I unwound my scarf and reclined against a tree, closing my eyes and feeling the combined sensation of the sun’s warmth and the fresh air on my face. For the next several hours I sat relaxing and enjoying the pleasure of the scene before me. The sun setting, I returned through the forest and on the path encountered a fallen Cypress cone. I picked it up and put it in my jacket pocket, continuing to roll it between my fingers for the rest of the walk to my apartment.
Printmaking is a term encompassing nearly a dozen techniques; some requiring chemical baths, or fine drawings into layers of wax or the scratching of metal plates with sharp tools. Woodblock printing is basically a 2D sculpture carved into a panel of wood. My first printmaking project for the course was to complete a woodblock print with nature as the theme. It was cold in the studio and I was wearing the same jacket I had been wearing the day before in the Cypress forest. Retrieving the cone from my pocket I examined it closely and decided that it was going to be the subject matter for my first print. First, I plotted heavy lines with a black marker on the wooden board and then began removing tiny slices from the surface with my chisel. It became a kind of meditation as I allowed my mind to return to the sensations of being in the forest the previous day while slowly carving into the wood before me. When I finally rolled the panel with gummy black ink and pressed it into a sheet of fibrous paper, the print I revealed had become an icon of my own “floating world”.