Avian Mythology in Print
Fontenot to present layers of romantic birds and culturally historic flowers.
Elizabeth Fontenot seems to enjoy the process of printmaking as much as the final result. She describes the smell of the wood, how the wood curls as it is carved and the fondness she has for the smell of oil-based paints and inks.
And there is the birch wood itself.
“It has that specific smell that is just warm, fuzzy feelings,” she said.
The Golden Triangle resident and Art Studio, Inc. tenant layers romance, nature and family history in her upcoming exhibition of prints, “Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit: Recent work by Elizabeth Fontenot,” which opens with a reception Feb. 1, and will be on display at The Studio through Feb. 22.
Fontenot recently graduated with a master’s degree from Lamar University and found she had much more work than what was needed for her thesis exhibition, so she booked a show at The Studio with the idea of experimenting.
“With my master’s thesis, I was a lot more limited,” she said.
Fontenot felt the time crunch and having to write a paper explaining every decision eliminated some of the exploratory decisions she could have made with her work.
“I felt that there was a lot that I couldn’t do that I wanted to do,” she said. “So I am hoping to do that this time around. I’m hoping to mix it up more — have a little more fun in this show.”
Fontenot’s TASI exhibition is going to be mostly printmaking.
“I do a lot of wood cuts and I’m pairing animal imagery with textiles and wallpaper and floral patterns,” she said.
The result is more diptychs, using two panels stuck together.
“So they are not real diptychs, but they are a unit,” she said.
Fontenot began her higher education at a small women’s college in Virginia where she studied ancient Greece and Rome. She said the school was a bit small, so she transferred to Louisiana State University to pursue an undergraduate degree in art, but held onto her ancient studies background, which she falls back on when creating her art.
“Because I studied Greek mythology and read all the stories — I have done translations — so when you read it in the original text it kind of changes how you might interpret things after reading it in English,” she said.
Fontenot said the word choices and literary patterns in the original texts greatly influences the interpretation of the text. This comes up in her art, but not directly.
Fontenot’s exhibition consists of prints of birds on floral fabrics and wallpaper.
“(Ancient Studies) definitely impacts,” she said. “Like if I see an owl, owls are related with wisdom which comes through a Greek goddess Athena, who is related to wisdom and earth and she had an owl next to her.”
Fontenot studied painting for her undergraduate degree and wanted a chance to explore printmaking more in depth for her graduate work.
“And I have always been interested in drawing things, even more than painting,” she said. “That’s where I lean. I like to draw things and I get satisfaction out of that.”
Fontenot said once she started to paint her drawings, she started losing satisfaction.
“So printmaking is kind of an ‘in-between,’ because I can still print things in color and get that vibrancy that you have in paintings and still maintain the drawing aspect of it,” she said. “I feel like I lose the immediacy as I continue to paint on to it, whereas with drawing, you kind of like rub it out, and most of it is gone.”
Although she can scrape away paint, Fontenot said something about it is just not the same.
With the “in-between” of printmaking, once a mark is made there is no going back, so it normally requires planning.
“I am not great at planning, so I’ll start with something and then lose focus and then just let my intuition kind of take over,” she said. “Then I realize maybe I don’t like something so then I have to sit back and think, ‘Oh, are you going to work with that? Oops, or that is a mistake.’”
Fontenot wasn’t introduced to printmaking until she transferred to LSU as an undergraduate.
“My first class, I just fell in love with it,” she said. “Here was a drawing and I could make ten impressions of the same thing. It is still my drawing — I was fascinated by it.”
Fontenot said that although printmaking is not for everybody, she thinks people are getting more involved with it and the processes, because there is screen printing, lithography, etching, engraving and things like relief and woodcuts. There are a lot of different processes that one can use, which may add to the growing popularity.
She said she also feels it is a lot more open as far as subject matter and how an artist wants to handle it.
“Most people are really open to experimentation, mixed media things,” she said. “I think it is really flexible.”
For Fontenot, painting didn’t feel authentic, but with printmaking, she can draw and just let things go.
“It is more along the train of your natural thought process,” she said. “For me, it was OK to layer a bunch of things and see what happens, but with painting, I’m always drawn to cover things up until they look right.
“I’m not sure what it was about printmaking that gave me that freedom. I think it is because I can make a whole bunch of one thing, and from that one thing, or from the multiples, I can go in different directions.”
Fontenot is not worried about messing up a “precious object.”
“I like the drawing part,” she said. “I feel like I can draw by carving things out. And then I can change colors. I can cut things out.”
It’s the flexibility she enjoys most.
“I’m like, ‘OK, so I have this image and I can make it a wood cut or I can make it an engraving,’ and each has its own little qualities,” she said.
Each process lends a little bit different quality or fuel to the work. Fontenot uses special tools called gouges for her wood cuts that are “V”shaped or “U” shaped. With engraving and etching, she can usually physically draw on it with an etching needle which has a steel point. Power tools can be used, but she prefers the small hand tools
“I like using the little gouges,” she said. “You can get really fine lines with them and a lot of detail.”
Fontenot uses woodcuts, etchings, and engravings in her printmaking process.
“Even with the woodcut, it is a subtractive process, and once you carve away your marks, you can’t really glue them back in,” she said.
Even though some printmakers fill in mistakes with a wood filler, the texture doesn’t stay the same.
“I have been printing on birch plywood, so you get a lot of the wood grain showing through, but like I said, once you carve it away you can’t really put it back in,” she said.
Fontenot has to make adjustments as she goes along, balancing the lights and darks. She can be very picky about capturing the look and feel of the drawing.
“I like it to look as best as I can make it, so I’ll use a mirror, because when you print things, they come out in reverse,” she said.
Through her process of developing the cuts and printing she has learned many things and has adjusted her methods.
“I started carving less and less to kind of let the forms flatten out,” Fontenot said speaking about a piece depicting an owl. “I was looking at patterns, like patterning in the feathers — how to make distinctions of what his beak looks like, what his wing tips look like versus his body.”
Fontenot found this also took a lot less time.
“When I decided this part is in shadow, I don’t need to make it lighter by carving into it, I started leaving parts blank,’ she said.
After the carving comes the printing process, which depends on what kind of fabric or wallpaper she decides to use.
“Like the image of the heron,” she said. “It had a really strong directional force, and then the fabric I paired with it had a lot of dark darks and light lights. So I felt like the heron needed to be printed dark,to stand up to that black and white that is in the fabric. So I try to balance the things out.”
Fontenot plans on setting up her studio space so she can make some little prints by hand.
She has been using Lamar’s printing press, which is basically two big rollers and a bed that is moved in between to sandwich the block.
At TASI, Fontenot uses a slab roller which is actually meant for making large, even pieces of clay, but can still be used for woodcuts. She admits it is a bit trickier finding the correct pressure thickness compared to the equipment that she had been using at Lamar, but she considers printmaking to be a trial and error process regardless of the equipment being used. Her long-term experiences with both devices has eliminated much of the guess work.
“I have been (at Lamar) for a while, so I know where to set the two rollers,” she said. “If you can put them closer together and put more pressure on it, or you can let it up. Like if you print from a wood block you need more space. I also print copper plates on it so you have to crank them down.”
“With the slab roller, it is a little bit trickier. I usually stick up newspaper to get it to the right height, so that is a little more trial and error.”
Fontenot said that when she was at Lamar, she could put her block on the press bed and ink it up right there, but moving them around was still a hassle. She also enjoys having her own space, “just to go and get away from stress and stuff and focus on the task at hand,” adding that she finds it is a lot easier if she has a place where she doesn’t have distractions.
Fontenot said what initially started her body of work was she kept going back to the same animals and their embodiment of symbolic meaning. She wanted to explore where those meanings came from because in their natural habitat, these birds don’t necessarily have all these meanings.
“It is our culture and our stories and our customs that we read meanings into them,” she said. “For me, the owl is a universal life-force or wisdom, kind of like a god figure — it could just mean something that is bigger than you.
“And the great heron, for me, is a former professor who was always there watching, guiding with patience and generosity. He had a great generosity of spirit.”
Fontenot said she was able to draw many of the birds based on the ones she found at the natural science museum at LSU. They have a rather large bird collection and she would go there between semesters and draw. She has also used photographs and combinations of different images to create her drawings.
Fontenot has always been interested in where cultures overlap and she utilizes this interest in her art. She does research on many of the birds she is interested in, trying to uncover the meanings and symbolism related to them.
For instance, the owl can symbolize the death of someone or be some kind of omen, and the heron can symbolize good luck on a hunting trip.
She doesn’t research the flowers as much as the birds.
“Mostly I stuck with roses in my thesis show, because it also brings in my family ties,” she said. “We have this rose bush that came from my great grandmothers house. So we split it up and we have rose bushes all over the place.”
Fontenot said it is a kind of family history — “This ideal home that is imagined. I guess an imagined family history.”
Fontenot tries to layer her work to reflect the way cultures overlap.
“I have my own personal readings of different animals and flowers and stuff, and I try to leave it open ended to try for others to bring in their own backgrounds, cultures, and history.”
She said her birds are drawn a certain way because of what she has read and learned and they are idealized and romanticized in ways.
“I feel like that is my own personal twist,” Fontenot said. “And also bringing in the roses places it in a context of family and where I am from.”
She said that with this show, “I just wanted to get really nerdy and carve out some feathers, and legs.”
She enjoys doing birds’ feet.
“It is the texture thing of how am I going to represent this?” she said. “How am I going to show the difference between the the feathers of this bird’s body, verses his wings and his beak when I just have this little gouge?”
Fontenot said she is thinking of teaching at the college level, but she is not ready to go back to school yet.
“I need a break,” the recent graduate said. “I want to travel.
“I just want to be able to focus on making art for awhile — I just want to work on my own stuff without anybody else’s supervision or questions.”
She said she is aware that the way she sees nature is not necessarily the reality of nature.
“I have all these symbolic meanings behind plants and animals,” Fontenot said. “But I realize that is just from what I know and studied and have been told.”
She said she wants patrons to have a unique experience with each piece.
“I understand that not everybody is going to have an experience with animal X or that animal Y, but I’m hoping that they might identify with some of the patterns and subject matter, and invent their own relationship with the work,” she said. “Even if it is not a clear emotion or connection, maybe it is something more subconscious that they are attracted to. I think that is more what I’m going for.”
The show is about having fun with things and, as an artist, it really comes down to you have to like what it looks like, aesthetically, Fontenot said.
“Then you really have to enjoy what you are doing,” she said. “Even through all the frustrations of school and critics and things not going right and mistakes, I think if you really love what you are doing, you are going to persevere and come out with something you are really happy with.”
The Art Studio is located at 720 Franklin in downtown Beaumont.