“STJ 86: Taste and Bee” – Process & Theology

This art piece – STJ 86: Taste and Bee – thinks through Anglican, Sarah Coakley’s, articulation of desire in a Mennonite context. Here are a few slightly edited excerpts of an essay I wrote for professor Jeremy Bergen this year at Grebel Uni.:

STJ 86 Taste and Bee

“STJ 86: Taste and Bee” by Lisa Obirek, December 2015

5 reduction linocut on stonehenge paper with added media: water soluble oil, paint pens, raw bees wax, nail polish, gold leaf

This piece is called a “print” and fits within the broader artistic medium of “printmaking.” The more specific term for this particular print is called a five-reduction linocut. This means I use a traditional piece of rubbery linoleum which is essentially just heated up linseed oil and I carve designs into the same block of linoleum in five different stages.  I use carving tools that are similar to traditional wood carving tools on a smaller scale. These carving tools have different ends, or “bits,” that make their own distinct cuts into the linoleum.

After each section of cuts, I roll/apply ink onto the piece of linoleum and then press it against a piece of paper which absorbs all of the ink on the surface of the linoleum except for the areas that have been cut out (i.e. “reduced”). Then I clean the ink off of the linoleum block and proceed to cut out all of the sections of the linoleum that I wish to remain the colour of ink I had just printed. In other words, I am reducing the surface of the linoleum by systematically cutting negative spaces into a larger, coherent, picture. After I finish making my second section of cuts into the linoleum, I roll/apply ink onto the piece of the linoleum and then press it directly on top of the inked image of my piece of paper used after the first inking. I continue with this process until almost my entire linoleum block has been cut away and the final image has emerged.

 1. Design plan.

STJ 86 1st stage

Decide on image and plan out the different sections of cuts and colours. The bottom right is my final “plan” documenting the progression of cuts, direction and type of cut, and the corresponding inking colours.

2. Cut 1st reduction into block of linoleum.

STJ 86 2nd stage

Cut out linoleum sections you want to remain the colour of the paper. In this case I will be using an off-white stonehenge paper so I removed (i.e. reduced) the parts of the linoleum that I want to remain white. You can see here that I removed most of the upper part of the linoleum and a few cuts in the face and bee.

3. Apply ink to linoleum block.

STJ 86 3rd stage

Here you can see that I have rolled on a few layers of light grey ink which has stuck to everything on the linoleum that I have not cut out.

4. Press inked linoleum onto paper.

STJ 86 4th stage

Here you can see my image has some paper-coloured face highlights set in a layer of light grey ink.

5. Cut 2nd reduction into block of linoleum.

STJ 5th stage

This is in the middle of cutting out everything that I want to remain that light grey colour. You can see that I have cut away most of the human body.

6. Apply 2nd layer of darker ink to linoleum block & press on top of first inked paper.

STJ 86 6th stage

You can see that the image is really starting to emerge now. Continue to follow the plan of cutting remaining reductions, applying ink, and pressing onto the same piece of paper that the previous reductions have been inked on.

7. Cut 3rd reduction, apply third colour and press onto existing prints.

STJ 86 7th stage

[look at all ’em gems]

8. Cut 4th reduction, apply fourth colour and press onto existing prints.

STJ 86 8th stage

[The colours are starting to not take/absorb…]

9. Cut 5th and final reduction into linoleum, apply final and darkest colour of ink onto linoleum.

STJ 86 9th stage

You can see that almost the entire linoleum block has been carved out.

10. Press onto whatever prints you haven’t thrown out yet.

STJ 86 10th stage

Final print with all five reductions. Now add the fun stuff (oils, bees wax, etc.) onto the usable copies and collage with the junk-pieces (aka suicide prints).


Now a more explicit theological reflection on the piece:

A mark of contemplation that grounds desire is “attentiveness to particular voices.” This art piece shows the naked bust of a woman on the left with her face turned upwards towards a beehive. Her tongue is stretched out to touch the honey dripping from the bee’s hive. The viewer’s eye is drawn to what is holding the woman’s gaze – a bee, honey, a taste of something on its way. This art piece is an effort to visually-think through the Mennonite song “Taste and See” whose lyrics are rooted in Psalm 34:1-10. This song describes the physical sense of wanting God. Taste and vision are the senses that feature most prominently in this song as well as the art piece. “Tasting” and “seeing” are what can enable us to see the goodness of God. However, what do we taste and what do yoweu see? For this, we turn our gaze and our mouth to particular creatures. This is to say, our senses can show us the goodness of God but our senses must attend to particular voices, particular beings. In this art piece, vision and taste are attentive to the voice and being of the bee. The bees in North America are disappearing at great rates yet the unsustainable farming of bees and the pesticides and monocultures that are killing them are persistent. In this way, bees are a marginalized voice that must be attended to in the contemplation that roots desire.

Another mark of contemplation that roots desire is “openness to interruptions.” Openness to interruptions implies a willingness to change a course of action and a willingness to risk something.  I am most practiced in the mediums of oil painting and water-soluble oil painting yet often work with a variety of other materials such as wire, beads, acrylics, inks, textiles, paper and found and recycled objects. Yet the medium of a multiple-reduction linocut is the artistic medium that most appropriately reflects the posture of risk implied in openness to interruptions. This is not to say that this medium is the most theological, it is simply to say that I have experienced no other medium in which the stakes are so high at every step of the process. A careful description of this process is required to demonstrate this openness to interruptions.

A multiple-reduction linocut print done on a single piece of linoleum, as opposed to multiple pieces of linoleum with the same image traced onto them, is often referred to as a “suicide print.” This is because of the highly technical planning required to carry out the intended reductions and the no room for slip-ups or mistakes in its execution. This is to say, one little slip of the carving tool, or the forgetting to carve out a certain piece and your entire design is, most likely, ruined. [I will try to find a picture of my STACK of failed prints and insert it here.] Look at the bee in my failed lino-cut prints, how many legs does it have? Two, even though it should have four like my design has planned for. Yet, I accidentally carved out two of the legs before I should have, resulting in the bee having two legs instead of four. This example of legs does not have dire consequences for the overall feel of the print. However it may be helpful when imagining some of the more stark aspects of the design that could have been carved away prematurely: an eye, half a honeycomb, a wing, a nipple, a nostril.

Unlike many other artistic mediums, oil painting for example, there is no opportunity to “fix” or to “try something else.” It is highly likely that you will make a mistake thus killing one or many/all of your prints and that is why it is recommended that you begin with many prints so that you can trash the pieces that don’t turn out with the hopes that you will have at least one good print at the end. I began with 16 prints and didn’t end with one satisfactory print. Unlike other artistic mediums, often one mistake leads you back to square one. All this is to say is that engaging in this artistic medium requires high risk at every step of the process. It also requires openness to the possibility that a little slip-up will interrupt your systematically disciplined plan.

Besides the minor failure of carving out two of the bee’s four legs prematurely, there were a number of other hiccups and failures along the way that lead to less-than satisfactory prints. For the sake of space, I will list only two: (1) Linoleum warping: I used the traditional linoleum block with a kind of mesh of burlap string woven into the back. Many people prefer to use softer knock-off brands of the linoleum blocks because they are easier to carve and cause less problems in terms of stretching from their original cut. I was drawn to the demands, limitations, and history of this form of linoleum. However, every time I had to wash off the ink off of the linoleum the burlap on the back would tighten thus warping the linoleum. This made it impossible to receive equal pressure when pressing the paper to the inked linoleum thus resulting in poor pulls/prints. To rectify this I glued the linoleum onto a sanded board that kept it from warping until the last two presses. (2) Ink not drying: I used non-toxic Akua inks and these inks do not dry until they are absorbed into paper. They are often used in multiple-reduction prints. However, even after adding a drying medium, the ink did not soak into the paper through the other layer(s) of ink. Typically it should not take more than 24 hours to dry and yet even after two weeks my prints were not drying, even after holding a hair dryer to one area for 45 minutes that area was still tacky. This lead to the inability for the ink layers applied later on to adhere sufficiently to the under layer(s). This also drove me to try another non-toxic inks which interrupted the colour plans and overall design forcing me to re-organize the originally intended 7-reduction plan.

I have only shown two ways that “STJ:86 Taste and Bee” demonstrates Coakley’s articulation of desire rooted in contemplation – an attentiveness to particular voices and an openness to interruptions. However, I could also make a case for its demonstration of the other four marks – rooted in practices, individual and communal, not exclusive to verbal speech, ascetic. Even with those, art can never been explained away. At best, it mirrors a place and points to something beyond.

The upper part of the design in “STJ 86:Taste and Bee” exceeds the rectangular purple block of the human body and of most of the bee’s body. Yet there are golden traces of the hive moving beyond where the woman’s gaze is pointing towards, through the bee. While there is absolutely an aspect of human dependence wrapped up in contemplation that grounds desire, it doesn’t start there, but beyond – outside the frame of the human and outside the frame of the solid, tangible, not-gold and not-glittery frame that is most apparent at first. My hope with this piece was to help us think through how Mennonites “desire.” I do not know if this piece does that or if it constitutes as good art. But whatever the case, perhaps we can keep our eyes and mouths open for a glimpse of what desire can look like for Mennonites.

About Lisa

Besides sleeping, I spent most of my time making things. For the most part, oil paint is my preferred medium to work and think with.

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