Art People: Esther White, printer, photographer

Last modified: Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Inspiration for art can come from many places. For Esther White, her most recent work stems from her experience with chronic pain — and her effort to come to terms with it.

White, a Northampton printmaker and photographer, developed a severe case of tendinitis in her hands and lower arms about three-and-a-half years ago — the result, she thinks, of overwork, including Web design and other online work she was doing at the time.

With occupational and physical therapy and other interventions, she brought the worst of the problem under control, but she now struggles with less severe, but still persistent, pain in her neck, back and other places. Doctors, she notes, have not been able to identify a particular cause of that pain.

Yet White, 28, has found a way to manage her discomfort — by creating a series of monotype prints, based on drawings of her hands, that document her experience.

“That’s really where this work comes from,” she said in an interview earlier this week. “Doing a project that deals with the emotional aspects of what I’m going through has been really fruitful.”

Since last year, White has made dozens of impressionistic prints of her hands, combining freehand drawings with a variety of inks to ask, as she puts it in a catalog she’s developed for the project, “What color is this pain?” She currently has many of the prints on display at Amherst Town Hall in an exhibit titled “Private Pathologies, Unseen Symptoms.”

In her process, White inks a 13-inch-by-19-inch plate of thin plastic with rollers, then places paper on top of it and makes a drawing of her hand, the pressure transferring the ink to the paper. Depending on how much definition she wants in the print, she’ll either run the paper through a rolling press or leave it as is; sometimes she uses stencils to transfer the ink to paper.

“I feel like I could keep doing this [project] even longer,” she said. “I like to do the same drawing over and over again, or vary it a little — it frees me up to experiment with other aspects of the image.”

Indeed, her prints offer a kaleidoscope of colors and contrasts, the outline of her hand clearly vivid or much more abstracted. Differences in the viscosities of the inks, she notes, also make for a lot of variation, as different inks don’t necessarily blend to make a new color but instead pool around each other, creating new patterns.

The daughter of a photographer and an engineer, White says she’s absorbed aspects from both of her parents’ disciplines to develop what she calls a “methodical constraint” in her own work: she likes to experiment, but with certain limitations. Photography was her first real love; she studied it at Barnard College at Columbia University in New York City and has completed a number of projects that embrace aspects of portraiture, still life and documentary photography.

But for now, she’s concentrating on her printmaking to deal with her chronic pain, doing her work in what she calls “short bursts” and spending quiet time thinking about how she’ll approach her next stint in the studio. “It’s a way of turning something negative into a positive,” she said.

— Steve Pfarrer

Esther White’s monotype prints are on view at Amherst Town Hall through Aug. 30 and at The Laboratory/The Loft at Mill 180 in Easthampton through July 28. She’ll demonstrate her technique at Zea Mays Printing in Florence on July 13.


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