Illuminated manuscripts and Gertude Stein

In the early 90s I began to work on pictures made up of elements gleaned from old European illuminated manuscripts. The first pieces were small watercolors on paper.  Most of them featured botanical subjects, some border decoration and a little text (usually the name of the flower).
It occurred to me early in the process that I wanted to include blocks of text in this work.  I was attracted to the way the calligraphic elements function as objects on the illuminated page.  Even when I was unable to understand the language in which they were written, I was often drawn to text when looking at old books.  I wanted to include blocks of text in my manuscripts.
 At some point in my academic career I was introduced to the poetry of Gertrude Stein.  She was a contemporary of the early cubist painters.  They were attempting to make their canvases function as objects rather than representations of the things artists were looking at. In the same way, Stein’s intention was to make words function as objects on the page (rather than form realistic descriptions of the writer’s vision).
It was the essence of the “Modernist” notion that art needn’t serve solely to document physical or historical reality. The poems of this modern, American, lesbian poet  seemed the ideal text for the illuminations I wanted to make. I spent several months corresponding with the Baltimore attorney for Gertrude Stein’s estate.  With his generous permission I have made dozens of paintings and several artist’s books illuminating Stein’s poems.
Some technical notes:
Because I was not a calligrapher, the first few blocks of text I did were made up of letters I drew, outlined and painted in.  This was a time consuming process with a less-than-fabulous result. It didn’t take me long to seek out Sally Sanders-Garrett, a wonderful Missoula calligrapher and teacher who gave me a crash course in pens, ink and calligraphy basics.  Spending days on end drawing letters had given me a lot of insight into the structure of the hand I wanted to use. I have been building on Sally’s instruction for years. (Folks from the Missoula calligraphers’ guild have been generous and  supportive far beyond what my scant skills warrant.  Bless them.)
Early in my illuminating, I decided to work on skin parchment rather than paper.  Many of the books from which I have drawn my inspiration were made in Europe before paper was available from the Orient.  I paint on calf, sheep or goat skins from a parchment maker in England.  The surface is very smooth and has a gelatinous feel.  The pigment and medium from which watercolor paints are made slide around on the surface rather than being absorbed. Under these circumstances an extraordinary level of detail is possible. I use a home made gesso as a ground for the gold leafed portions of the illuminations.

An Illuminated book of Gertude Stein’s “Tender Buttons”

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