‘We Are Pilgrims’: Local printmaker’s book inspired by her New England roots

Last modified: Thursday, July 17, 2014
An ongoing push and pull between public discourse and private musings inspires Northampton artist Annie Bissett, who does moku hanga, traditional Japanese woodblock printing. In the 15 woodblock prints included in her self-published book, “We Are Pilgrims,” Bissett explores her New England roots, going back to ancestors on the Mayflower, John and Priscilla Alden.

Combining historical research with inventive detail that can be “truer” that factual accuracy, she portrays 22-year-old John as “a hunk with head lice,” adding an anachronistic plaid shirt to imbue him with a hearty aura of L.L. Bean. Priscilla’s portrait is more poignant, showing the 16-year-old bride mourning family members who failed to survive their first New England winter.

Although delicate in color, Bissett’s prints suggest hard circumstances. Crossing the Atlantic, 66 days on stormy seas, seems to have been a “less said, the better” experience. Two variations of “With a Prosperous Wind” quote William Bradford’s journal, which recounts Pilgrim history but notes only that the Mayflower set sail “with a prosperous wind.” Space looming above the ship emphasizes both the vulnerability of the voyagers and their faith that a heavenly hand guides their journey. Similarly, “They Looked Behind” weaves a passage from Bradford’s diary into robustly patterned waves, revealing bleak isolation.

Even in safe harbor, life was harsh. “Dorothy Bradford Comes to America” shows Bradford’s wife drowning in Plymouth Bay. Was it suicide? The wind was calm, the water was shallow, and it’s hard to imagine an “accidental” slip overboard. While some speculate that she suffered postpartum depression, little is known of Dorothy other than her mysterious death, which Bissett reports in lines with the lilting meter of an Edward Gorey limerick.

The past engages the present in “God Blesses John Alexander and Thomas Roberts, 1637,” depicting two gay men condemned as “sodomites” and branded with a burning “S” (paralleling Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter “A” in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tale of sin in Puritan New England). Labels and laws change over centuries, but some attitudes persist, as seen in the homophobic text surrounding John and Thomas that quotes messages of intolerant outrage at the 2003 election of Gene Robinson as the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire.

Discerning national identity

While personal history was one inspiration for “We Are Pilgrims,” additional impetus came from the national dialogue following terrorist attacks on the United States homeland: “After 9/11, we were asking, ‘What is an American? Who gets to be American?’ ” Looking further back than the oft-invoked Founding Fathers (circa 1776) to discern national identity, Bissett researched the earliest European settlers. “But of course,” she points out, “you can’t tell the story of European settlers without the parallel story of the Native Americans.”

Contact between new and native was catastrophic for indigenous American peoples, who lost their land, their way of life, and, all too frequently, their lives. A landscape with Native American basketry patterns superimposed on land forms suggests a relationship with the earth that was at odds with European colonizers. “10 Little, 9 Little Indians” references a smallpox epidemic, probably carried by European traders, which killed an estimated 90 percent of the native population of the Northeast.

Yet another print, yet another dilemma: “Caleb and Joel Go to Harvard, 1665” introduces two Native American young men enrolled in Harvard, class of 1665. Joel, class valedictorian, died in a shipwreck before receiving his diploma; Caleb died of tuberculosis a year after graduation. As Bissett comments, “It was 305 years before the next Native American graduated from Harvard.”

Inequity in education, inadequate healthcare, religious intolerance, homophobia, mental illness, environmental issues — “We are still addressing a lot of the same issues,” Bissett said. Mark Twain claimed, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” Bissett supports this, not only with the lilting rhyme she wrote for Dorothy Bradford, but also, more significantly, in stories from the past that resonate in tune with the present.

Shifting between public and private, “Loaded” pushes the hot-button topic of money. The economic crash of 2008 served as a starting point.

“I was affected by it, but mostly I wanted to understand what it was about,” she said. A lot of her focus is around language (note the text woven into “We Are Pilgrims”), and she was intrigued by how people talk about money: filthy rich versus dirt poor; swimming in cash versus drowning in debt. “Many of our clichés use the same metaphor at both ends of the spectrum,” she said.

“For the ‘rich’ clichés, I used faux bank-style lettering,” she said. “For the ‘poor’ quotes, I used my father’s handwriting, since he grew up dirt poor, one of 10 children.” Her father is now deceased, but she traced and recombined phrases from letters he wrote to her. “I love it,” she says, “that I am now collaborating with my dad.”

Part of “Loaded” involved creating her own currency — “Cash for the Crash” — and for a third part, she says, “I scanned a dollar bill, pulled out little pieces, and blew them up. The first one that I came to was the [fragment of the] wave, which I loved because it suggests Hokusai’s great wave and references the Japanese printing methods I use.”

Hands-on approach

Bissett came to printmaking after 20 years as a commercial artist, “mostly digital, mostly technical,” she says. “I was really tired of working on the computer, and wanted to reinvent myself with a looser way of working.”

Her move away from the computer led to hands-on materials — wooden blocks, horsehair brushes, pure pigments, rice paste, and a printing tool traditionally covered with bamboo bark. But looser is not what she got. Printmaking is a complex process that involves taking the image apart, working mirror image in reverse, and then building the image by printing one color on top of another. Traditional Japanese printing methods make it even more hands-on, with pigment blended into paste and transferred to paper with a hand rubbing tool, resulting in translucent hues that emphasize the wood grain.

“To me, there was really something intuitive about deconstructing images into layers, then reassembling them,” she said. “It’s what I do, as an illustrator and as a fine artist.”

Bissett takes a good story, adds a dash of humor, looks back in history, and layers on current concerns. “I tell stories, and I also have a political interest,” she says.

A current series explores National Security Agency code names. “Code words are very visual,” Bissett laughs. “I’m working on an NSA primer, with a code word for each letter of the alphabet. The prints are small, and the words are embossed, because they are secret.” She whispers, “You have to go really close to see them.”

See more work by Annie Bissett at www.anniebissett.com and check out her blog, “Woodblock Dreams,” at http://woodblockdreams.blogspot.com.