October 12, 2020


         Back in April I finally got around to trying an experiment I’d been mulling for three years.  I first got the idea from a couple of pieces I saw in Wellesley College’s Davis Art Museum back in 2017.  They were drypoint etchings made by South African artist William Kentridge, which you can see in my previous post here.  I’m not usually particularly interested in etchings, but these were cool because instead of a plain copper plate, the carved plates were old vinyl records.  Some time after seeing these pieces in the museum, I found a stack of vintage records at our town dump’s reuse-it shed, and grabbed a couple for experimentation.  At some point I took the next step and sketched some ideas for what to carve on a record, but even after that those records sat on my table for I don’t know how long before we went into lockdown in the spring, and I felt a little more urgency to do something.
      Let me tell you first about the record I used as a block.  It is a collection of Polkas by Lawrence Welk and His Champagne Music, from 1949 (Decca DL 5139).  I carved the B side, and if you’re really curious about the cultural treasure I defaced, you can actually listen to the pieces through the magic of the internet: Clarinet Polka, Pound Your Table Polka, Barbara Polka, and Friendly Tavern Polka.  (I would have thought this was beer music rather than champagne music, but what does a tee-totaller like me know about drinking?)
        The next question was What to carve?  I thought that it should have a musical theme, and it seemed obvious to make a little parade of musical critters marching around and around.  The critters themselves were inspired by another artist, Austrian-American Helen Siegl.  You can see my previous post about her charming monsters here.  My extra idea was to imagine creatures that weren’t just playing instruments but were instruments.  The critters featured on my piece are

• the Tufted Hornbeak, with its trumpet bill

• the Drumbelly, which is a species of gnome

• the Calliopine, which has hollowed quills, each tuned to a different note, through which it can blow air with amazing volume

• the Double-Belled Euphonibun, with tuba and trombone bells sprouting from its head, and an exceptionally elongated body for a pleasing tone and wide range

• the Harp-Finned Walkingcod, with its fin and tail formed of fine strings of tendon, together with its symbiotic partner the Melodious Octopodious, which is capable of plucking multiple notes simultaneously on both fin and tail

        The actual process of carving this unconventional block was much harder than usual.  The first difficulty was transferring my design to the grooved surface of a record.  I used carbon paper, which put down enough of a mark to function as a guide, although it was far from clearly detailed.  The second difficulty was carving.  My first attempt was simply scratching with an awl, but after first experiments it became clear that my scratches weren’t deep or thick enough to show up against the background noise of the record’s own texture.  I turned then to my mini Dremel Moto-tool and small-headed carving bits.  It took some experimentation to minimize throwing up burrs at the edges of my carving, and I ended up having to do quite a bit of scraping and buffing to get rid of burrs, edges, and tailings.  It was quite tiring for my hand, as well, and I didn’t like to carve for more than about half an hour at a time before taking a break.  I also ended up going back over most of my carving a couple of times, trying to make it show up better.  As you can see, it’s still a matter of fine lines without any larger areas of white or subtlety of texture.
        The printing stage was yet another challenge.  Kentridge printed his etched records intaglio, which means he forced ink down into his carved areas (and the records’ grooves) and wiped it off of the raised areas.  I printed relief, with the ink staying on the top edges of the groove and not going down into the carved areas.  Because of the record’s texture, the whole thing is basically grey instead of solid black.  I was quite pleased, however, that I got a subtle lithographic effect on the record’s label, where the ink Decca used to print their label repelled my ink slightly, so that you can see the writing in my print.  I think that’s cool.
        This is another of those experiments that I don’t expect to do again, while still being quite tickled by the way it turned out.  As for whether anyone else will enjoy it, it may be a while before I know.  I had expected that this piece would have been shown in several exhibitions by now, and I’d have had a sense of whether it was getting any love — but with all my shows cancelled, that was not to be.  Hopefully these cheerful musical beasties will still get their coming out someday, and when they do I hope they make a joyful noise indeed.

[Pictures: Parade, relief block print by AEGN, 2020;
carved record by AEGN;
details from Parade, AEGN, 2o2o.]

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