Interviewed by She Rides the Lion
Name: Annie Bissett
Northampton, MA USA
I've been a commercial illustrator since 1986, mostly based in
Massachusetts with a brief 3-year stint living in Taos, New Mexico,
which was so gorgeous it was like living inside a coffee table book.
I was an English major in college, didn't go to art school, so I'm
self-taught in both illustration and printmaking. I entered the
illustration field at the same time the Macintosh computer began to
take hold in the publishing industry, so I got to learn all my
computer skills on the job at a magazine in Boston where I worked.
Working digitally has allowed me tremendous freedom in where I choose
to live and where I find my clients, but after 20 years on the
machine I wanted to find a totally un-computery medium in which to do
some personal work. An intensive workshop with Matt Brown in 2005
introduced me to moku hanga (Japanese style woodblock printing) and I
fell in love with it.
What printmaking medium do you work in most often, and what are its benefits?
Moku hanga (moku = "wood" and hanga = "print") is a simple,
elegant, portable, completely nontoxic form of printmaking that can
easily be done in a home studio with just a few carving tools, some
paper and wood, pigments and brushes, and a hand-held rubbing device
called a baren.
While the method is simple, it isn't easy and the learning curve can
be steep. I liken it to learning to illustrate on a Mac -- you can
make something that looks pretty good right away, but it can take a
long time to really master the software. Moku hanga has a distinctive
look because the water based pigments are transparent by nature, so
you can see through each color to the color beneath it. You can
create some very complex and beautiful colors with overprints. You
can also create an ugly muddy mess with overprints -- part of the
learning curve! I love the juxtaposition of using a method that dates
back to the 8th century in Japan to express modern topics and concerns.
How do you choose your subject matter, and how does your printmaking method compliment this choice?
Maybe it's because I was an English major and I'm a word-person,
but I almost always start with a title! My topics tend to be either
about my spiritual life (I'm a meditator) or about various world
situations that are bothering me. Like wars and stuff. Because the
process of making a moku hanga print is rather long, especially
compared to the speed of making a digital image, I need a topic and
image that I can spend a lot of time with for a number of weeks
without losing interest. I often choose topics that I feel a little
uneasy or unsure about, and my printmaking becomes a form of inquiry.
Two years ago I began to make geo-political prints that are
based on satellite views of places in the world that attract my
attention, mostly because I hear about them in the news. I take the
satellite views from Google Maps, which are readily available online,
stylize the landforms, then add other elements gleaned from more
online research and make my prints, which can take up to two months
to complete. There’s something very satisfying for me in using an
ancient and laborious technique to reinterpret digital imagery
gathered instantaneously from all over the world.
Please choose one of your prints to discuss in detail. Describe your
thought process as you were creating this work.
"Raping Darfur" was one of the first of these map-based prints.
I wanted to do a piece that showed the horror as well as the
complexity of the situation there, so I started with a satellite view
of the disputed land, which you can see in the tans and browns in the
final print. The rivers are white to emphasize that one of the points
of contention is control of resources such as water. Because the
invading janjaweed fighters often rape the women in Darfurian
villages as part of their attacks, I decided to make the land and the
woman's body synonymous. Oil is also an issue, so at the bottom of
the woman's garment are logos of some oil companies that are active
The red rings in the middle of the print represent the destroyed
Darfurian villages. When the janjaweed attack, they burn the huts and
all that remains afterward are circular rings where the huts once
stood. The final elements, which I found online, are the black line
drawings of the jajaweed fighters on horseback and the helicopters.
There are very few photos of actual janjaweed attacks, but an
organization called Human Rights Watch has collected drawings by
children who have witnessed the attacks. The images in my print are
based on children's drawings.
The print was created with 5 wood blocks and a plastic drypoint plate
for the children's drawings.
Just this week I finished a triptych called "Three Prophets" that
looks at the three major world religions that are based around actual
historical persons (Christianity, Islam and Buddhism). Rather than
try to depict Jesus, Mohammed and Buddha themselves, I chose to
represent them through satellite views of the places where they were
born. I chose a long narrow shape so they would look like banners or
prayer flags. It was interesting to see how, if at all, the landforms
would mirror the qualities of each of the religions. I found
parallels: the watery/wind-like shapes of the Bethlehem area reminded
me of the Holy Spirit, Mecca's roads leading to the city center
emphasize the role of pilgrimage in Islam, and the perfect rectangle
of the garden in Nepal where Buddha is said to have been born echoes
the promise of enlightenment.
Thank you Annie Bissett. You have a wonderful shop and methodology and it was a pleasure to interview you.