Today I’m especially delighted to welcome back author, poet, artist and dear online friend Robyn Hood Black. You may remember her last visit as a Poetry Potluck guest several years ago, when she shared a spooky poem and one of her gorgeous relief prints.
That was an especially noteworthy visit, because she also brought along a batch of her favorite Jam Bars, which she aptly renamed “Oatmeal Jama Bars.” 🙂 Naturally Mr. Cornelius and I decided on the spot that they should become the “Official Alphabet Soup Cookie.”
In the years since, we’ve not only continued to marvel at Robyn’s literary achievements (her work has been published in several more anthologies, prominent haiku journals, and most recently in Lee Bennett Hopkins’s Lullaby and Kisses Sweet), but also her artistic ones.
If you like letters, words, books, and reading (all of us, yes?), then you’ll love Robyn’s Etsy shop artsyletters. There, she sells wonderful prints, cards, typewriter key jewelry, mixed media collages and other gift items with a cool vintage vibe.
A girl after my own heart, she has a keen eye for found objects (scrabble tiles, skeleton keys, metal letters, watch parts, text from antique books), and beautifully accentuates them with her pen-and-ink drawings, calligraphy, and relief prints.
Her handmade treasures represent a lovely connection with the past, and a nod to the unique charm of each and every letter of the alphabet (*swoon*), inviting us to appreciate words anew as visual art.
I know you’ll enjoy opening the door, peeking into Robyn’s studio and learning more about artsyletters. Let the awesomeness begin! 🙂
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✒MEET THE LETTER PERFECT ROBYN HOOD BLACK 🎨
Name of shop or business: artsyletters
Year established: 2012
Items you make: Literary art with a vintage vibe… drawings and hand-pulled prints, note cards and bookmarks, mixed media art celebrating words, letters, & found poems, and typewriter key jewelry. Among other things!
Studio Location: Tucked away upstairs in a historic building (1889) in downtown Beaufort, SC.
Etsy Shop: https://www.etsy.com/shop/artsyletters
art blog: http://artsyletters.com
author website and blog: http://www.robynhoodblack.com
Three words that best describe your art: bookish, vintage, serif-friendly
Self taught or formal training? Both! I was obsessed with oil painting lessons when I was six or seven. At Furman University, I took many art classes while getting my English degree. I’ve taken several workshops as an adult, but much of what I’m making now I’ve learned from books or video tutorials – and lots of trial and error.
Tools of the Trade: I have amassed a ridiculous amount of art supplies.
Some favorites: printmaking tools/knives, snappy black ink, Stonehenge paper, crow quill pens, vintage books and texts, typewriter keys, flourish-y bits of antique metal hardware, letterpress blocks (wood or metal), lamp black paint, and dreamy acrylic colors I can swirl. On a daily basis I use: my fingernails (really – they are super-strong!), tiny prospector tweezers for positioning text, etc., or retrieving jump rings for jewelry, and wine corks, which make terrific miniature brayers for tight spaces in collages.
Inspirations and influences: As a child running wild in Orlando, I loved my Disney storybook albums, which I still have. When old enough to ride my bike, I’d circle the lake to the Maitland Art Center. I enjoyed the exhibits, but its natural beauty and gardens fed my young artist’s soul. I’ve always felt God’s presence in nature.
I’ve taken workshops with some amazing folks, including Caldecott medalist Eric Rohmann, illustrator Melanie Hall, and calligrapher Peter Thornton. I never met Holly Meade in person, but her work inspires me at a deep level. I love Ashley Wolff’s work. And I know I’m among many Julie Paschkis fans around here! When I started making mixed media pieces, I found Seth Apter’s work and tips helpful.
Three significant milestones in your career: Though I’m an empty nester now, I feel like I’m still early on career-wise(!) – but here goes:
1. The publication of my first book, SIR MIKE, a Scholastic Rookie Reader, in 2005.
2. The first time my poetry appeared in an anthology for children – two found poems in Georgia Heard’s THE ARROW FINDS ITS MARK (2012). This spurred an obsession with found poetry as art, too.
3. The first time a complete stranger ordered one of my items on Etsy!
Food that inspires your best work: I’m fueled by granola, but good coffee and dark chocolate are also necessary.
Bestseller: My note cards featuring a relief print image of a wren on vintage books seem to be a favorite. (Original inspiration for these came from friend and former editor P.J. Shaw’s “Wren Cottage” writing business, whose logo features a gorgeous painting with a similar theme.)
For a reference for my original piece, I set up some old books beside a flower pot that housed baby wrens just outside our back door. I hunkered down across the patio with a camera for about 45 minutes waiting on just the perfect shot as Mama Wren flew back and forth feeding those babies. She finally perched on the books.
What is your earliest memory of being creative? What is the first thing you ever made as an “artist”?
I don’t ever remember not being creative. Creativity was highly valued in our house growing up – entire villages of pipe cleaner people, elaborate Halloween costumes and haunted houses, and variety-show “productions” thrust on longsuffering adults who had to be the audience.
The first thing I made to sell as an artist were little natural sculptures – I painted rocks into birds and glued them onto pieces of pine bark, and coated everything with acrylic gloss (a habit I haven’t outgrown). My sweet mom patiently took me around to gift shops to sell them!
With artsyletters you’re able to combine two lifelong passions: writing + art. Any plans to both write and illustrate a book someday? If so, would it be something for adults or children?
That’s been a lifelong dream. I have a picture book-type project in the works that has received some interest, but I need to finish polishing the dummy and executing finished sample pages. I’d also like to try some haiga (haiku with art), since I fell under haiku’s spell a few years ago.
Whether it’s calligraphy, relief printing, making collages or typewriter key jewelry, each must have its own challenges and rewards. Do you have a favorite art form, and how does it stretch you as an artist?
That’s such a kind way to describe my inclination to do way too many things! I love them all. My favorite is whatever I’m working on at the moment. ;0)
I have deep wells of curiosity and wonder, so I enjoy the challenge of exploring various forms. Assembling a piece of art (or jewelry) for me is like composing a poem – it’s all about selection and connection. Juxtaposing a broken brass remnant and a clipping of 100-year-old text to create a certain effect is much like trying out certain words and sounds together in my writing. I want to include everything, but I can’t, so choosing just the right individual elements (or words) uses up a lot of my gray matter.
Have you always been a vintage junkie? What types of items set your heart aflutter?
I grew into my vintage obsession as an adult but came by it honestly. My mother’s mother, who could stretch a penny from one side of Arkansas to the other, frequented “Sales.” She bought and sold items at flea markets, and I remember loving to visit her humble little house – cluttered to be sure, but to an imaginative kid, an endless treasure chest!
I think of her as I treasure hunt now. At the Salvation Army Store, I recently bought a small brass measuring pitcher with some kind of stamping on the bottom and a partial alphabet across the top rim (how perfect is that?), and the word “2 deciliter” on the handle. It was 99 cents and will be a great prop for Etsy photos. Prowling Ebay, I discovered it’s likely German, and one was listed for 12 British pounds, so I got a bargain to boot.
Things like that set my heart aflutter, as do any bits of brass or iron or pewter with some seductive curve or scroll, or the warm heft of a well-used wooden letterpress block, black with years of ink, or, of course, an old book – especially if it has deckled edges and contains poetry. Even better if it gives up some small clipping or handwritten note from a century ago, tucked secretly into its pages. I always wonder who handled this book, who wrote these words, read these words?
I love how you make collages with altered book pages and found items. Could you tell us a little backstory about one of your favorite pieces?
Since my favorite thing is always what I’m working on at the moment… I was recently asked by a poet friend to make a mixed media piece as a birthday gift. My friend and I had enjoyed the harvest moon together, and since the recipient has a fall birthday, I knew when I found a short Amy Lowell poem called “Wind and Silver” in a 1928 anthology that I wanted to use it. It can take me a long time to find the right words and elements for a piece.
Sometimes I make a found poem by covering words with acrylic washes to reveal a short phrase, and sometimes I use a literary excerpt intact. I do clip the actual text. Yes, I’ve gone to the dark side. But I want the authentic little snippet of history that someone read a century or so ago; I want to share this actual item with my viewers or customers.
Among my old watch parts, I found a gorgeous watch face. The backside was shiny with gloriously etched details, and I discovered the watch was manufactured between 1897 and 1902. It took center stage as the “moon,” and I used other vintage watch parts and brass elements in the piece.
Please take us briefly through the steps of making one of your relief prints.
Printmaking definitely challenges the control-freak aspect of my personality, because the results can be serendipitous! I start with a pencil drawing on thin paper (love my Ebony pencils), then lightly coat the finished sketch with graphite to transfer it onto a block of wood or a carving block (softer to cut and easier on the arm and hand). I simply sketch over the lines from the reverse side, and the graphite transfers the sketch in onto the block.
Then, it’s carving time! I leave the lines alone and cut away the surface around them. Ink is rolled onto the block with a brayer, and then I place my paper – carefully – on top. I hand rub the paper with a flat round tool called a baren. The paper is gently pulled back, and – Voilà! The print is revealed, back to its original orientation after being reversed.
You recently moved to Beaufort, South Carolina. What is the art community like there and how has living in this new environment inspired your work?
I couldn’t be happier. This small coastal town has a thriving art community, with several galleries downtown. You can always find a literary event or play or music. I’ve met some fellow creatives here who have welcomed me more warmly than I ever could have imagined. Beaufort has a very friendly vibe.
The natural environment, with its stunning waterways and Spanish moss dripping from live oaks, envelopes me. It takes me right back to my childhood days exploring the scrubby woods and teeming lakes of Florida.
Being an alphabet freak, I especially like all the framed letters you offer in your shop – some are printed, some are metal letters mounted on old dictionary pages, while others are handpainted illuminations. What’s your favorite letter, and why do you like it?
Mmm…. As a child, I remember LOVING a capital, cursive L – it’s so curvy and elegant and inviting. But then there’s that kicky “K,” and the “M” is simply majestic, don’t you think? Of course, “J,” as in Jama, is so very fun to write…. [This preoccupation with letters must have started a long time ago – I remember actually giving a cursive “demonstration” on the chalkboard in second grade.]
Please describe your studio. How have you fashioned your work environment to enhance creativity and maximize productivity?
My studio has high ceilings, old wood floors with decades of character, and great natural light through two large windows. Which is good, because the fluorescent lights might take an hour or two to all come on, depending on their mood and the weather. A built-in cabinet with glass doors stole my heart when I first saw the space.
I do have a lot of stuff everywhere! But I have to pick up on occasion when I open as a shop to visitors. The palette knives I had as a small child are handy, along with my first easel. I share the space with lots (and lots) of books – many become fodder for my projects and even jewelry, and then I have art books for inspiration and techniques. I do love the vintage metal cabinets and flat files which house my bits of treasures, most of which are organized in old printing trays. I love those trays, too!
My Pandora stations include folk rock, Bach, U2, Sting, and George Winston. I usually have something playing, unless I’m writing or super-concentrating. When I’m carving and making prints, I MUST listen to Celtic music! It’s both lively and haunting, and I like the effect it has on the lines in my prints.
How do you chart your growth as an artist? How do you define success?
I have so much yet to learn! But it’s nice being at a stage in life in which I’m less concerned with what others think. I want happy relations with family, friends, and customers, of course. But I trust my own tastes and intuition to a much greater degree than I could in my younger days, and I think I’m more discerning.
Success? Doing what you love. Leaving some light in your footprints.
What do you like best about the creative life?
Opportunities for timeless moments in the midst of busy days. Blake’s “World in a Grain of Sand,” Wordsworth’s “meanest flower that blows” and Issa’s “dewdrop world” all speak to me – probably why I’m enamored of shards and scraps, small things that hold larger stories.
I need time alone to make and ponder, but I also love spending time with creative folks – in person or among fellow bloggers. I think there’s a synergy that attracts creative people to each other.
Any new projects you’re especially excited about?
I’m trying to incorporate more haiku into my art – miniature art boards, glass cabochon necklaces, etc. I’ve been using my own published poems but might add some from the masters, too. I’m also adding more old typewriter parts and other odd bits into jewelry, and that’s fun.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I’d like to thank you, Jama, for being an elegant cheerleader for indie artists, me included! And I’d like to thank so many in the blog world who have supported my little business.
I’m having a Holiday Open House at my Studio the afternoon of December 5. Online, folks can use Coupon Code TAKE5 for five percent off in my shop any time!
Thanks so much, Robyn!
Everyone, Robyn has generously offered a $20 gift certificate to her Etsy Shop for one lucky Alphabet Soup reader!! Please leave a comment at this post no later than midnight (EST) Tuesday, November 24, 2015 for a chance to win.
And there’s more! She’s also offering 10% off anything in her shop for all Alphabet Soup readers. Just enter the special code JAMA10 at checkout. Happy Shopping!! 🙂
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Copyright © 2015 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.