What a winter: four weeks photographing leafcutter ants in Costa Rica and the next five at Rauschenberg’s studio in Captiva, FL. Both my husband and I were awarded Rauschenberg Residencies. It was a winter of snow and ice in New York and we missed it! Rauschenberg’s legendary print studio is in Capitva and I thought why not take advantage of this unique opportunity and learn how to screen print.
I’ve long been intrigued that the underground labyrinth of tunnels and chambers in a leafcutter ant colony mirrors the above ground tangle of branches and limbs of a tree stripped bare by the ants. I decided to do a series based on this curious parallel.
For ten years I’ve been taking photographs of trees. The pictures have no human perspective, no horizontal or vertical orientation and look like they are shot from the inside peering out, as if from the point-of-view of an arboreal animal. After several attempts, including translating them into paint, I had not figured out a way to work with them. I brought my vast archive of what I call “Lost in a Tree” photographs to Captiva to use as the basis for the aboveground, stripped-tree images.
To make a screen I learned it is necessary to first create a halftone of the image. With my inexact Photoshop skills when I pushed one of my photographs into black and white, plus isolating a portion to make a screen for one color, I inadvertently complicated things and created more color and detail, not less. The more I experimented the more my images became unsuitable for screen-printing. Flattening the richness I had created to make halftones just wasn’t the direction I wanted to go. But, had I not tried to manipulate them in the first place, I doubt I would have found such a wonderful new way to, essentially, climb and play in the trees again.
I worked in Rauschenberg’s main studio. His presence was everywhere - drips of paint on the floor, his materials neatly stacked in the corner. Pictures of his life – from young child to old man – shuffled as screensavers on the media room monitors. That’s where I spend most of my time. At night, alone in the room, it could be eerie, just me, and him on every screen. But, hardly a picture went by that didn’t radiate with his generous smile. When things were going really well, I’d hear myself say, thank you Bob!
The media room has the same Epson equipment my printer in New York uses and Carrell Courtright, the studio tech, taught me how to use them. Now I’m hooked. I want one of these printers. Had it not been for five weeks of 24-hour access, I could not have done the testing necessary to create this new, and as yet unnamed, tree series. The images would probably still be sleeping in my hard drive.
In addition I am thrilled to have printed brand new work from the Leafcutters project that I had just shot the previous month in Costa Rica. My retoucher in New York and I worked up the first massive file of “Adoration of the Golden Ant” and I printed it at 40x80 inches. I also printed three new photographs of ants holding up their prized leaf cuttings on a white gallery wall.
Again, thank you Bob.