If you follow our Facebook or Instagram feeds you’ve seen a persistent release of drawings and print layers lately without a whole lot of context. I’ve appreciated the feedback and support! What you’ve been seeing recently has been the drawings and screen layers of a suite of prints involving all four major print media–lithography, etching, relief, and screenprint–a sort of kitchen sink print. This recent onslaught is deceptive, however. The series has, in fact, been years in the making. Begun as a kernel of an idea when my father turned 50, the suite became a tribute to the Sanders clan and documents my own spotty memory/understanding of them as I look forward to beginning a family of my own.
Not on Bread Alone
The “Raising” series is a return to an earlier theme in my work, “Not on Bread Alone”. You may know the phrase as a Biblical passage about how humanity can thrive only with both physical and spiritual sustenance. Today though, the phrase has taken a lubricious turn, alluding to man’s “need” for physical release. I first addressed this interesting shift in meaning in the above screenprint for a print exchange called A Moveable Feast. The dinosaur characters are playing out a familiar component of my content, the thin line between passion and predation. Is this an attack or an embrace? Is the female a lover or dinner? What of the Rococo garb and the size difference between the predatory male and the gentle giantess? The orange bread tag hinted at the piece’s inspiration and soon became a potent metaphor in my work and identity. It’s impact is as important today, as you can see from the OBI logo.
At any rate, I planned on returning to the theme and had even come up with ideas for prints and sculptures paired with colored bread tags that referenced the emotions illustrated in the works. While my kin were to be the subjects even then, the theme was much more focused on sex, more Harlequin novel than Nicholas Sparks. Dad’s 50th emerged as a motivation to return to the idea, and then my grandpa, Al, died and I felt like it was time to delve into the whole family dynamic as a way to process the loss, especially as Hannah and I were about to marry. When I finally began the portraits (the black lithograph layers in the finished prints) I found my priorities had changed. Hannah and I had been married for a year–and she had finished her thesis work peopled with a salaciously endowed, transgender hero and curvy antagonists–so the motivation to do a series of tongue-in-cheek portraits that doubled as an unblushing exposé of our sex life was behind me. Instead I found myself more interested in how, after a prolonged adolescence as a gooey hopeless romantic, I had settled into being a much more practical partner. I knew the Sanders’ pragmatism, sarcasm, and tough-love dynamic was an important influence. So, the focus of “not on bread alone” shifted again to focus not on sex, but on sentiment and how very specific types of love shaped me as a person.
Initially, the lithographs were to be paired with an etching “portrait” of the subjects’ equivalent dinosaur. The etchings nod to the rather traditional “Ozzie and Harriet” nature of the family. There have been a couple of divorces, and the politics are a bit left of center, but for the most part the family is tight-knit when together, but hands-off most of the time. This perceived distance became increasingly important as the series developed. The dinosaurs were generally chosen more for both physical similarities and behavior, a sort of prehistoric caricature of the person. Thus my lanky baby brother, Trevor, is paired with the bird-like Avimimus and Dad is the tough, but subdued stegosaurus. For the record, I tend to assign lots of folks “spirit dinos” not just family. Aside from what I see as an old-fashioned, sink or swim family dynamic, the dinosaurs wound up referencing my speculative, limited perspective of who my subjects were. Just as we have only a limited idea of what dinosaurs were like, I’m left with only passing impressions of who my family members are.
This is why I chose to only portray my father, brothers, grandparents, uncles, and Aunt Janet. While I’ve known my cousins for their entire lives, and my other aunts for at least a decade, I can say with confidence that I’m not confident enough about who they are to do them justice! I’ll continue to hammer the point below that these are not reliable historical documents, they are paltry pastiches based on my impressions and memories. This is also why I haven’t tried to tackle the Sizer side of the family. Outside Grandpa Bill and Grandma Shirley I’m sorry to say I don’t have enough concrete memories to populate the page. This is surely my own shortcoming. Maybe someday I’ll go back and try to tackle the rest of the family, but I had to plumb my memory banks pretty deep just to get what I got. Perhaps there’s an avenue for aesthetic exploration if I were to venture out from the core family. As the relationship’s distance is greater, the imagery becomes less defined, more ethereal?
Returning to the point, the pieces in this suite are meant to represent the variations on familial love I’ve experienced and how they’ve affected me. As an offshoot of my central thesis “Has Romance Gone the Way of the Dinosaurs?” the works are meant to investigate and challenge my own notions regarding romance, affection, and roles. To this end, the suite as it stands represents four distinct expressions of love.
–Dad’s parental devotion, busting his ass helping with school projects and scouts, but guessing he and Mom had done a good enough job raising us that he’s always trusted me to live my own life.
–The vast age difference among brothers provides unique glimpses into fraternal attachment. Brandon’s piece is full of nostalgia and a touch of envy, while Trevor’s is much more speculative: who he was when I was home and who I think he is (or ought to be anyway).
–The two couples–Phyllis & Al, Kevin & Janet–are evidence of the longevity of love when the partners are well matched. In Grandpa Al’s passing it became clearer how his quiet, minimal wit balanced Grandma’s frenetic energy. This is handled rather ham-handedly in their lithograph. I flipped the scale of the pair from the original photograph so Grandma’s bigger personality pushes her into the foreground. Hannah and I are only now starting to understand Kevin and Janet as relationship role models now that we’ve begun our own partnership. I’m most impressed with the subtle ways they’ve expressed their independence since they’ve emptied the nest.
–Darin and Kendal were so young when I was born, as a little kid I looked up to them more as older brothers than as uncles. With Darin in particular, that bond was re-established as I entered my 20s and he entered a 1/3-life crisis!
What unifies all of these bonds is humor. It allows distance so that a ribbing can take the place of a stern reminder or reprimand. It can make one more mindful, so that changes can be made. And it provides a release when the road gets rougher and routines start to wear thin. Everyone’s comedic stylings are a bit different–Kevin and Janet’s is wry, Kendal’s dry to acerbic, Darin tries to please, Dad’s a little bit goofy, Grandma’s is pointed, Brandon is daring. I’m noticing Trevor is a mix of Dad and Brandon, but his delivery is closest to Grandpa Al’s–quick but under his breath so that you just may miss it! In all cases the punchline might sting if the spirit weren’t sincerely loving. At the heart of this good humor is the family’s central principle: “Never, ever grow up”. Growing up kills hope and creativity. When Grandpa died I made the mistake of calling myself a grown-up within earshot of Grandma. She pulled me aside and said, “You come from a long line of men who never grew up, I don’t ever want to hear that from you again”. By the way, this is very different from not living up to your responsibilities.
I approached the screenprint imagery in the suite with that humor in mind. The drawings that fill the page are sometimes sentimental or nostalgic, but most are self-consciously silly. Obvious symbols and objects were often chosen to poke fun at my own shallow understanding of my subjects. My memory has always been a point of pride, so the choices in the screen layers are not only a commentary on the fallibility of memory, but also the shallowness of what I actually know about these people. They become a sardonic indictment of my–and by extension, all of our–feeble attempts to connect with and know our fellow humans. Yes I may know what they’re like, but can I tell their stories? Can I make you as the viewer appreciate them as people as I do? Ooof, big questions! For now let’s talk about some specific choices.
Dad is flanked by the tools of the trade from his old manual commercial art days. I vividly remember playing with the tape gun and composite rollers while he cut rubylith (the red layer!), and I remember being sent to bed while he stayed up fighting a deadline in the living room with his airbrush and a six-pack of Mountain Dew. Behind his head, the dartboard acts as a nimbus, but also makes him the target when his good nature means he gets taken advantage of (a trait I may have inherited). Darts winds up being a pretty powerful metaphor as it is at once a competition that measures Dad’s drive and skill, and a hobby that’s not to be taken too seriously. Recently I settled upon a overarching message in my (and I’m guessing the whole Sanders family’s) childhood: “You’re not going to be the best at anything, but work hard to be better than average at just about everything.” That pretty much sums it up. Case in point, “Fort Sanders”, the epic landscaping project Dad designed is indicative of his slow, steady improvement of our home without any special training. It was always fun to be the brawn for his big ideas, even when it led to him hammering his thumb into oblivion when I couldn’t hold still!
Brandon emerges from a stack of kegs studded with rock-climbing holds and ropes, a nod to his outdoor rec. degree, but also his bull-headed work ethic, always wanting to reach for more hours, more money (I probably could have replaced the kegs with stacks of cash instead, but that seemed a little gauche). He is surrounded by his dogs who, like him, are well-trained, but full of energy. Funshine Bear was his gift the Easter morning he was born, to go with my Good Luck Bear. The Furble, named Barf (he’s Blue actually)lived with mine, named Grody on a shelf in the bedroom we shared for 15 years. Their glow-in-the-dark eyes spooked Trevor long after we moved out! The bright colors wind up poking holes in Brandon’s tough demeanor, but they match the envy-green bread tag nicely.
Trevor has always been more interested in how things work than what they mean, so his piece is covered in K*Nex and megablox, Wii and Minecraft. No doubt these toys paid off as his math skills are way above my pay grade already and he’s planning on pursuing engineering. Baby Trevor shows off his cast, decorated with Winnie the Pooh characters, evidence that me and Brandon’s “start throwing him around as soon as he can hold his head up” child-rearing philosophy was maybe wrong-headed since the fearless little shit threw himself down the stairs at the babysitter’s. He’s got Ten Apples Up on Top, the book he always brought to me to read to him as a toddler. Even though I’ve bought him books almost every year since I imagine it’s still one of his favorites, just like Green Eggs and Ham is one of Dad’s. Trevor’s portrait wound up being an odd mix of his long, teen boy face, and his cute, toddler face, a happy accident that emphasizes how much I still think of him as my practice kid. I’m proud to say he’s turning out all right.
Ham and Rye
Kendal and Darin’s heads are wreathed in a tennis racquet and the Millennium Falcon, overlapping in a Venn diagram. Even though the two of them rarely get together, they’ve always been a cohesive unit to me, probably because we’d always go to see them both when we’d visit Colorado. As a result wives and kids are pushed aside and the two of them are stuck together. The two diverge in interests and temperament, Kendal more disciplined and competitive (thus the road bike and racquet, even the gallon of milk!), Darin more fun-loving and indulgent (the b-ball hoop and pie with a glacier-sized scoop of ice cream). While they’re different in most ways, they overlap in passion and wit.
Kevin and Janet are surrounded by pipe organs, representing their faith and their brilliance (organ is really hard!!). Janet plays at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, where the two of them are extremely active. Janet also bakes for a local coffee shop, but the two of them often bake together, at least around the holidays. Kevin’s an avid runner, even a heart attack won’t keep him off the roads. Hannah and I usually reserve an evening when we’re in Iowa to go have dinner and drinks at their house while we play heady board games and cards. They may be a bit more subdued than me and Hannah, but the way they’ve raised their scary smart kids and still continue to enjoy each other is heartening for us.
Seed Loaf and Sourdough
As the oldest grandkid with very young parents I spent a lot of time with Grandpa (Seed Loaf) and Grandma (Sourdough). If this weren’t the first print I finished in the series I could have continued to fill their composition up with the patterns from their 70s era carpet in the kitchen, or the games they had in the basement, or their Brittany Spaniel, Sam, who was my buddy as a baby. For the longest time when I’d dream of home it would be their house, even long after they’d moved to Missouri. A very special trout hangs over their “mantel”. They’d had company coming over for cards, Grandpa came home late pleased with his trophy catch. Grandma took one grumpy look at it and said, “Big Deal!”. The name stuck. Speaking of fishing, that’s me with Grandpa after my first fishing trip. I caught that big bullhead, but then thought he looked hungry on the stringer. I fell in the pond trying to feed the fish more worms and that was the end of that! They taught me to play all sorts of games (family get-togethers still revolve around cards and other games) like cribbage and Rummikub (the faces on the “wild” tiles always reminded me of great-grandpa Ralph). Grandma also taught me to cook pretty young. One day she was cooking lasagna, my favorite at the time, and said that if I helped with the dishes me and my folks could stay for dinner. I was maybe five so I figured she was bluffing. Damned if she didn’t send me home! It’s still one of the most important lessons of my life.
Grandma also taught me how to bake as evidenced by the pie crust surrounding she and Grandpa. That’s where the “Not on Bread Alone” comes back into play. While the lusty reading of the phrase was put aside, bread and baking remained a good metaphor for the series as I found much of who I am came from the crusty exchanges and quick-rising humor of my forebears. Through persistent poking and prodding I was kneaded into the person I am today(see how I side-stepped calling myself a loaf?!). Making bread also remains a precious activity for me and Hannah. As the oven heats up the house and we anticipate the time it takes between rises; baking a loaf or two allows us to spend a quiet day together on the weekends. Also, we’ve been nursing our bread sponge for years so you could say it’s the closest thing to practice we’ve had so far for the baby! Like the bread sponge, the suite has a genealogy of its own. It acts as a family tree, each generation spawned from a mother-or-seed loaf of sourdough. You can see how later prints developed a more mature style, a sourer flavor. The bread tags keep us close, keep us fresh. At some point I’ll do a portrait of Hannah and myself and maybe one of the baby as well. You can bet ours will have the OBI orange tag front and center!
A lot of thought went into this project as you can see. I’ve certainly grown from the experience as an artist and a person. I’m excited to get beyond the superficial to learn more about the family. The waxing of each print became a testament to my desire to look into my subjects and our relationship. It’s been a tremendously satisfying exercise as we look forward to the addition to our own family, about ten more weeks! Objectively this work is undeniably personal and sentimental. However, as I mature as a person and an artist I’ve begun chaffing at the irony and distance I once infused work with to protect myself from my audience. In the classroom I’ve discovered that ironic distance is not a good teaching tool, students glean more from someone who is authentically invested in them. Through sincerity we can bridge gaps, understand our shared experiences and become better. To extend the bread metaphor to its limits: we are the loaf; by kneading us together we create stronger bonds that help us rise as one.