I found printer trays from an old Chinese printing press in a junk shop in Sonoma County in 2006. Actually, the 15 trays were stacked in the grass in the back yard of the shop, next to discarded sinks and storm windows. I was intrigued by the both the mystery of their origins and the beauty of their weathered patina. They were hand-made in a fairly simple fashion with strips of wood nailed together with a press board backing. Between the strips of wood, pieces of sheet metal had been carefully cut and inserted, providing cubby holes for the lead type used in letterpress printing. Though only a few of the tiny leads remained, the labels representing each of the Chinese characters were still fixed to the surface of each tray.
For almost a year, the trays sat in my studio–I knew I wanted to do something with them but wasn’t sure what. I had recently begun working with mixed media and using and found images, but the trays represented a unique challenge because of their abstract quality. However I intervened, I didn’t want to overwhelm or hide the beauty of the trays and wanted to transform them in some way that was conceptually and aesthetically meaningful. I began by inserting tiny objects either found from nature or from my studio into the tiny slots, much as larger printer trays for English type are used as curio shadow boxes by hobbyists.
Concerned about the kitschy reference, I thought about trying to make an arrangement of objects that could define a larger composition, using the holes as picture elements. I tried black and white drawing paper folded and fitted into the slots as “pixels.” Unhappy with the result, next I tried higher quality paper that could be curled into the slots instead of folded, which created the illusion of tiny colorful discs. Pleased with the direction, I started slicing up old calendars featuring Van Gogh and Gaughin prints into tiny strips. While the use of the paper felt right, the resulting compositions of color-paper strips were either random, non-discript or contrived, consistently overwhelming the trays instead of complementing them.
I had recently been to the Friends of the San Francisco Library’s annual book sale, where I found a selection of incredible atlases for $1 and $2, each with maps that I was attracted to because of their distinctive visual language of lines, colors and typography to represent a particular view of the world. I found a beautiful map of the world’s sea floors from an old Reader’s Digest atlas. The maps in themselves had a strong visual quality with aquamarine blue for the oceans and tans, browns and oranges for the land. As I worked on the first work of what would become the Rearranged World series, I wanted to maintain the beauty of the maps even as I destroyed them. I found the best way to keep the qualities that attracted me was to organize the strips by color and make simple compositions that could maximize the contrast between the areas, resulting in a minimalist composition of concentric rectangles, with blue in the center, surrounded by a white rectangle to clearly divide the aqua from another, larger tan rectangle.
Pleased with the results of the latest effort, I started another to complement. I didn’t want to merely repeat the same pattern and, as I filled the little slots with curls of paper, recognized that leaving some of the slots empty could also be used as a way of adding contrast and variety to the texture. In the end, I completed three pieces which now work as a set.
In 2008 I participated in an show at the Thoreau Center with an environmental theme called “The Water Project” and included the three new works. As I struggled with the titles, I began to recognize some of the symbolic qualities of the works, as an expression of humanity’s rearranging of the world and how that impacts everything, including the seas, so I settled on the title Rearrange World: The Seas, with the idea that additional works in the same theme would follow.
I didn’t immediately complete the rest of the Rearranged World type tray pieces by using maps. I struggled to understand what made The Seas work while the earlier pieces using simple colored paper and snippets of calendars had not. It wasn’t the use of maps in particular or the composition of shapes but rather a combination of those elements along with the striking texture created by the curls of paper and the empty slots in relationship with the wood and tiny paper labels of the trays. What I enjoy the most about the works in this series is that they can be perceived differently depending on the distance of the viewer. From farther away, they read as works of minimal abstract and rich texture, but up close, new levels of detail and information emerge.