Friday, October 8, 2010

Getting Ready for Annie Bissett

We are putting the finishing touches on Cullom Gallery's next exhibit - a new suite of woodblock prints by Northampton, Massachusetts artist Annie Bissett.  Come meet the artist and celebrate the opening of this beautiful and insightful show on Friday night, October 15, from 6 to 8 pm.  (Cullom Gallery, 603 S Main Street, Seattle map).  The Gallery will also host a talk and printmaking demonstration with Annie Bissett on Saturday afternoon, October 16, at 1 pm.  Both events are open to the public.  Come and bring a friend!

Here is some information about Bissett's series, taken from our press release, and a sneak peek at a number of the prints.  We look forward to seeing many of you at the gallery next Friday night!

We Are Pilgrims is a suite of fifteen Japanese-style woodblock prints that centers on the lives of the earliest settlers of New England.  The suite is both a personal exploration of Bissett's legacy as a Mayflower descendant and a critical look at the contemporary impact of the pilgrims' arrival in America almost 400 years ago.

Annie Bissett employs the Japanese woodblock printmaking method known today as moku hanga, which is characterized by Japanese papers, water-based inks, self-carved blocks, and hand-printing, to complete the series. All prints were realized over a two year period in 2008 to 2010; the artist has also recently published a full-color 72-page catalog that illustrates all 15 prints and in an essay by Bissett, weaves historic facts that she uncovered with her thoughts on the  farther-reaching implications of the pilgrims' actions, beliefs, and institutions.

In her essay for the catalog, Bissett notes that the Mayflower was a small ship, estimated to be only 113 feet long.  Traveling at a rate of 2 miles per hour across 3000 miles of the Atlantic it reached the eastern shore of America in 66 days.  Several prints in the series consider both the hope and desperate anxiety felt by the pilgrims aboard the first ship, as recorded by Plymouth governor William Bradford.

Dorothy Bradford Comes to America.

With a Prosperous Wind.

In the catalog's cover image, "They Looked Behind", Bissett has carved a quotation from Bradford's ship diary in which he recalls, "If they looked behind them, there was the mighty ocean which they had passed and was now as a main bar and gulf to separate them from all the civil parts of the world."  Just two months earlier on the morning of their departure, Bradford had noted that they left under "A Prosperous Wind," the title chosen by Bissett for her twin views of the Mayflower under a starlit sky.
In one of the most dramatic prints in the series, "Dorothy Bradford Comes to America", Bissett has imagined the  accidental or suicidal drowning of William Bradford's wife, Dorothy May, as the ship sat anchored in Provincetown Harbor and Bradford was ashore on a scouting mission.

Honey I'm Worried About the Kids. 

Themes of corruption also weigh heavily throughout Bissett's series.  In another pair of prints, the artist uses the same carved block for a group of pilgrim men, women and children, overlaying it across two different backdrops.  In "No Friends to Greet Them" the group walks cautiously though a moonlit night; in "Honey, I'm Worried About the Kids" bare branches and shadows are swapped for a concrete wall covered with the balloon letters of graffiti tags.  Moral corruption trades places with the physical ravishes of disease in "10 Little 9 Little Indians."  In a nod to the seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, a central Indian figure stands with an arrow pointed down in a symbol of peace as the words, "Come over and help us" float overhead.

Bissett's version however replaces the seal's circular outline with the rosette of a smallpox virus, a disease that had been spread by even earlier European immigrants, and by the time the pilgrims arrived in 1620, had killed an estimated 90% of the local Wampanoag tribe, as she notes in her catalog essay.
God Blesses John Alexander and Thomas Roberts.

Still other prints in We Are Pilgrims look at the impact of institutions - educational institutions, and the institution of Christian marriage and its presumed heterosexuality.  Bissett's print, "Caleb and Joel Went to Harvard, 1665", imagines a portrait of the first two native graduates of Harvard Indian College.  Their bare chests show through gossamer versions of the pilgrim black frock and white collar and cuffs, behind them, a naive rendering of the college's original buildings.  Another print considers the historic and contemporary legacy of sexual bigotry as revealed through court records of the trial of John Alexander and Thomas Roberts, lovers who in 1637 were found guilty of homosexual acts with each other and each variously sentenced.  As Bissett notes, Alexander was whipped, branded, and banished from the colony;

Roberts was whipped and, as an indentured servant, returned to his master, and barred from ever owning land.  Bissett's gentle and familiar portrait of the two men posed with hands touching and one's arm over the other's shoulder, as well as the title of the print, "God Blesses John Alexander and Thomas Roberts, 1637" defies the image's red hot S-for-sodomy iron that reaches from the sky and the bigoted comments carved like wall paper behind the men, text the artist gathered from letters and emails sent to the Episcopal Church Diocese of New Hampshire in 2003 when the openly gay priest, Gene Robinson, was elected bishop.

As the current national debate struggles with questions of what it means to be American and who gets to be American, We Are Pilgrims, explores the American creation story from many angles, imagining what the lives of these early immigrants might really have been like, and what their lives mean to us now, almost 400 years later.

Born in Springfield Massachusettes, Annie Bissett spent two decades as a professional illustrator, working for the Washington Post, National Geographic Society, and TimeLife Publications, before turning her attention to Japanese woodblock printmaking in 2005.  She is an active member of Zea Mays Printmaking Studio in Florence, MA.  Her work has been selected for numerous juried exhibitions and biennials including the International Print Center of New York's New Prints 2009/Autumn, the 2009 Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop Annual Exhibition, New York; the 2009 Los Angeles Printmaking Workshop Annual Exhibition; the Hunt's Prize at the Boston Printmakers 2009 N. American Print Biennial; the exhibition Violence at the Jundt Art Museum, Gongaza University, Spokane, WA; and Printed Matter at Giant Robot Gallery, San Francisco, CA.  Annie Bissett has been represented by the Seattle gallery, Cullom Gallery since 2007, where her first solo exhibition, Far Away Up Close, was mounted in 2008.  Annie Bissett is also a leading voice in the growing American moku hanga printmaking movement; Bissett's blog, Woodblock Dreams, which she began in 2005, counts over 9000 views and hundreds of regular readers.  Her prints are part of the permanent collections of the Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas, Lawrence KS; and the Jundt Art Museum, Gonzaga Univeristy, Spokane WA.


  1. Wonderful essay. I love Annie Bissett's work.

  2. With her choice of important and relevant subject matter, fine and painstaking technique and an instinctive "eye" for composition, I rate Bisset as being one of the most significant printmakers working today.