Arts & Crafts Profiles: A Q&A with Holly Bird
“The lyf so short, the craft so longe to lerne.” — Chaucer
Interview by Kate Nixon
One can find this quote as the tagline on the Craftsman Magazines covers of the early 20th century. The words also seem perfect in fitting the perpetual passion that Arts & Crafts enthusiasts and artists exude with their lifelong learning of the many styles and media of the movement. These words can also be found on artist’s Holly Bird’s website – an indication of an artist in it for the long haul.
Holly Bird will be the latest artist to have an exhibit at the Neil and Barbara Chur Family Gallery located on the National Historic Landmark District Roycroft Campus in East Aurora, New York. Starting July 7th, Bird’s exhibit will feature her works in drawing and printmaking, many of which reflect her love of line drawing, mythical subjects, and vivid use of naturescapes. In addition to being an award-winning printmaker, artist, and graphic designer from Palm Harbor, FL, she currently produces linoleum, woodcut block prints, and copper-plate etchings within her home workshop, Studio Ibis. Bird creates hand-crafted works of art using methods centuries old and uses her lifelong experience as an avid sailor, Sea Scout leader, and keel boat racer to pay tribute to her love of sailing and her beloved native waters of Florida. I interviewed this enthusiastic artist for her take on what she finds inspiring, how she maintains her love of hand-crafted art in an increasingly digital world, and what she sees in the next generation of Arts & Crafts artists.
A&CC: First of all, what does it mean for you and your work to get an audience at the Roycroft Campus?
HB: I’m thrilled! It’s come full circle for me. I’ve always been attracted to the design aesthetic of the Arts & Crafts Movement, ever since I came across it in college at the University of Florida. I also had an interest in American art colonies and other historic intentional communities and had known about the Roycroft Campus for quite a while.
My husband’s from Buffalo, born-and-raised, so on one of our visits there, coming up from Florida to see my in-laws, we managed to duck out for an afternoon with a borrowed car and drove to East Aurora. This was back in the late 1990s, maybe even around 2000, when we ate lunch at the Inn and I saw the campus buildings for the first time. I was all in!
I’d taken etching as an elective in college at the University of Florida, and that visit to the Campus was also when I first saw the work of relief printmakers Laura Wilder and Dorothy Markert. I was happy to discover that there was a contemporary take on printmaking in the A&C style out there. At the same time, I picked up a flyer for the Roycrofters At-Large Association (RALA) and realized that there were actually quite a lot of like-minded, contemporary A&C artisans and artists out there. It was sort of my Wayne’s World moment for the next phase of my career: “One day. Oh, yes. This will be mine”. And here I am, absolutely honored and delighted to be invited to have an exhibit at the Chur Gallery.
By the way, I just want to mention how important it is to me to have met and gotten to know the other artisans working in the A&C Revival. I’m honored to be both a juried artist in the Arts and Craftsmen Guild on the Roycroft Campus and a Master Artisan in RALA. My connection to the Roycroft Campus brought me in direct contact with these printmakers and other artisans in the field, and I can’t tell you how great it’s been to hang with like-minded creatives. Until now, it’s been a little lonely way down in Florida, A&C-wise!
A&CC: So on your website, it says you’ve been an early adopter of computer technology – but you also like having artwork in your hands rather than have it disappear when you turn off the computer. Do you use technology in your work currently or are printmaking processes meant to be organic and made with the hands and heart philosophy?
HB: Yes, I very deliberately employ traditional printmaking techniques for all the reasons fellow A&C enthusiasts can understand. I print by hand with a baren and wooden spoon using metal pins and tabs for registration on a wooden chase, or I use my 24” etching press to produce all of my work.
But there are two ways I sometimes, but not always, use a computer to aid my planning for a new block print. I’ll create composites of my visual references, both from my own photos and sketches in Photoshop for the final composition of a piece. That may be printed out and re-drawn as my final working reference. My goal is to produce a bold, black and white drawing that also works well as a stand-alone composition and then I add simply add color to that composition.
But, because I’m also an old-school graphic designer, that’s where I leave off of the computer. All of my final conception stages are a series of pencil drawings on tracing paper, refined again and again until I’m happy. Then I flip the final tracing paper drawing over and transfer it to a linoleum block or woodblock. I’ll draw it one more time in ink on the surface before carving. Once that’s done, I can stop looking at references and trust my final block drawing and the tools. So, I put on an audio book and start carving away.
Nothing’s better than getting my hands all inky and the smell of fresh wood and linoleum though. When I’m in the zone and deep in a print project, nothing I’ve ever done as an art director on a Mac can compare with the feeling of directly contacting a copper plate with a real steel stylus or pulling a print. It’s a fresh discovery, every time.
A&CC: What do you love about the Arts & Crafts movement? How does it influence your artistic process?
HB: It was a such a radical departure from what had come before it. Clean lines. Open spaces in the design instead of the horror vacui of the Victorians. The natural and organic forms taken from nature. I loved it, and I love that it’s not just a style, but a philosophy. A design reform and also a rebuttal of the Industrial Revolution in the West that spread around the world with varying degrees of success as an international movement. The emphasis on the dignity of the artisan and the value of old techniques and skills in hand-made (and hand-assisted) work. It dovetailed so neatly with my own experience with being on the forefront of the Digital Revolution and how it eviscerated my own field.
I sort of duck out of art history when Modernism shows up though, and it’s no accident that I have a deep love of the PRB, Golden Age book illustration, the A&C Movement, Art Nouveau before the post-WWI period, mainly because of the emphasis on representational form and drawing. (I can neither confirm nor deny falling asleep in my 8:00am art history course surveys once we hit Cubism and Futurism.) Which simply means that it’s not that I don’t have enormous respect and admiration for the later movements — I do. But I’ll always prefer the ones that emphasized solid drawing skills.
A&CC: Speaking of your drawing skills, I do love your mythical and faerie designs you have (I especially like the piece entitled “Ondine”). Where do you look for inspiration in your art? You had mentioned some earlier artists that were inspirational – Pyle, Rackham, Crane and Parrish among others – how do you translate the elements you love about them into inspiration for your canvas?
HB: Ah! Thank you! Those mythic themes that show up in my copper plate etchings are near and dear to my heart and are the frustrated illustrator coming out; the one that didn’t get to go New York in the ‘80s and illustrate picture book fairy tales alongside Brian Froud and Alan Lee.
One of the things I love about those early Golden Age illustrators I mentioned is narrative. “Narrative” was a bad word (along with “illustration”) when I was in art school the end of the 1970s. So I made sure to illustrate and use narrative every chance I got in school, to the consternation of my art professors.
I’ve always appreciated the skill in which those late 19th and early 20th c. book illustrators could distill a line or a paragraph and render it into a beautiful B&W interior illustration or a book cover painting. When my copper plate etchings are not portraying a mythic figure like Athena, they’re mostly about narrative. The stories they illustrate may or may not have been ever written, but I want the viewer to be plopped in media res and wonder what’s going on.
There’s a look, a style and aesthetic about that period of book illustration and the artists of the time that I’ve loved ever since I first burned through reading the family library of fairy tales my mother bought, and then later everything I could find on Greek, Roman and Norse mythology in local and school libraries.
A&CC: So you also teach classes in block printmaking, linocuts, and copper plate etching. How do you like teaching and what do you get out of teaching Arts & Crafts processes? Do you find that printmaking designs can appeal to younger generations?
HB: For me, teaching graphic design at the university level over ten years was not fun because I wasn’t having fun with design anymore. The field I knew was gone forever. Even working in television wasn’t fun anymore. But I absolutely love teaching the things I’m truly passionate about, like printmaking. (No grading!)
And it’s coming back! I’m seeing younger and more passionate printmakers in the last few years than all of my time since 2006 when I started my new art career in earnest. There’s been a resurgence on college campuses in all forms of printmaking, but the really exciting thing is how relief printmaking has come out of the woodwork, so to speak, and has finally been rediscovered by people younger than forty. Thank goodness!
Younger artists are discovering the pleasures of the process and the direct, strong graphic appeal. It also has a grand history of social commentary. (See: Goya.) Not to mention Albrecht Dürer’s business model and the timeless appeal of making, showing and selling multiples: do the work on a matrix upfront and pull as many prints as you can or want to.
Printmaking in general is so accessible and scalable. A pro artist can take printmaking in so many sophisticated directions, but people with no background in art whatsoever can walk in my class and have that same “WOW!” moment when they pull their first print. My students know a secret I learned: the prints you pull are almost always better than you expect them to be. It’s one of the most rewarding art forms out there. (And things don’t blow up in a kiln either.)
A&CC: I hear you were/are a consultant for the Museum Of The American Arts & Crafts Movement in St. Petersburg, FL. It must be exciting to see such progress. Did you feel proud to contribute?
HB: Yes — I am so very proud to contribute to this fabulous new museum. Can’t believe I’m so lucky to have this built only about an hour away from me, and I’m excited for it to open.
In 2008, just a few miles away from where I live in Palm Harbor, there was an exhibit at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art (LRMA) in Tarpon Springs, FL of color woodblock prints from the collection of The Two Red Roses Foundation. It absolutely changed my life. I went back three times to see the prints over those two months. It’s a straight line from that very exhibit to the interview I’m doing right now with you, ten years later. I don’t know that I’d be here without it.
After TRRF announced the new museum, I attended a LRMA fundraiser at the Foundation’s nearby headquarters and got a sneak preview of this fantastic collection. I later made an inquiry to the Foundation and was glad to get an invitation to come by to show my work. Since that time, I’ve consulted with them in helping to design the Museum’s future printmaking studio and demonstration workspace, on the same floor where the print collection will be housed. I’ve also written an article for their newsletter on the multiple color woodblock techniques of Margaret Patterson, after the Museum acquired a print along with Patterson’s original woodblocks.
I will always be grateful to the Foundation for that pivotal show and the path it led me to. I am quite honored to have played a role in the building of the Museum of The American Arts and Crafts Movement, and can’t wait for it to open to see all of what the collection has to offer to the public. There’s a bright path — in sophisticated, muted, yet saturated colors! — in my art life that directly links my upcoming Chur Gallery exhibit in East Aurora, New York to right here in Florida from ten years ago. You never know what direction a career might take when walking into an art exhibit, and I’m grateful to the Arts & Crafts Movement for the inspiration.
Holly Bird’s exhibit at the Roycroft Campus starts July 7th with an opening reception Saturday, July 7th from 10AM-3PM in the Neil and Barbara Chur Family Gallery located in The M&T Bank Visitor Center. The exhibit will run in the Chur Gallery from July 7th through September 7th, 2018.
For further information, call 716-655-0261
For more information about the artist Holly Bird, visit her website at: www.studioibis.com