I have recently traveled to Hartford to the Mark Twain House. & Museum several times because I currently have three prints on exhibit in the gallery of the museum. The exhibit is titled, The Evocative Mark Twain Inspires the Printmakers Network of Southern New England and includes 58 prints by 18 members of the group. Each print is inspired by a Mark Twain quotation. We began creating the artwork for the show three years ago.
At the time that I began thinking about making a print, I had been working with images of stones. Thinking that I could spin off from those images, I looked for a quote by Twain where he referenced stones or rocks. I didn’t find one that inspired me, but I did find an amusing quote where he mentioned fossils. I figured I could make fossils lodged in rocks.
Nature made thousands and thousands of now extinct species in her apprentice-days which turned out to be pure failures, like the flies and the Russians, and she devoted millions of years to trying to hunt up long-felt wants for them to supply, but there were none, and a museum never occurred to her. So she abolished them all, and scattered their bones in myriads in the eternal rocks, and there they rest to this day, a solemn reminder for us that for every animal-success achieved by her she has scored fifteen hundred failures. “Flies and Russians,” published in 1972 in the collection Mark Twain’s Fables of Man.
First I made plates, inked them, printed images of fossils, and cut them out.
Then I had to figure out how to incorporate images of Russians and flies with the fossils. How could compose a print with these disparate images that would make some kind of sense? My solution was to arrange them in a display cabinet, a cabinet of curiosities.
I then created a digital image of a cabinet with flies buzzing around it and had Staples print it out 36 inches by 24 inches in dimensions.
I then pasted the fossils into the cabinet.
The biggest challenge was how to depict the Russians! I gathered lots of images of Russians – historic and modern, leaders, peasants, military, etc. But none seemed to be right.
So I researched why Twain held such disdain for the Russians and I learned that at one point he thought highly of them. In 1867 Twain visited with the then Czar of Russia, Alexander the II. In fact, they met in the Ukraine.
At that time, the US and Russia were on friendly terms because Alexander II had just abolished serfdom in Russia and emancipated the serfs. He also supported the abolitionist movement in the US. But as time went on the former serfs, now freed farm workers, struggled for their existence. Russia did not provide any economic or social support for these workers and they were starving to death. Their protests were ignored.
The situation became worse under Alexander II’s son, Alexander III, who was a tyrant. It continued under Nicholas II when he took over the reign. Protesters were routinely rounded up and sent permanently to work camps in Siberia. An example of the brutal treatment by the military took place in 1905 outside of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg where 3000 farm workers who gathered to protest encountered 10,000 troops of the Imperial Guard. Chaos broke out and at least 130 workers were massacred and many more injured.
As reports of this cruelty reached the US, Twain reversed his opinion of the Russians and he went so far as to advocate for the assignation of the Czar. He urged the Russian citizens to revolt, but died in 1910 before they did seven years later.
After learning about this history I realized that I could not treat the Russians with any degree of respect, so I depicted them as Russian dolls, printed and collaged into the cabinet. I hope Twain would approve.
I made this print in 2020 – not knowing the state of the world in 2022! Nature’s mistake by creating Russians is again confirmed.
For the second print, I browsed Twain’s writings looking for quotations that inspired images and came across his description of the fashions worn by women attending an elegant ball at the Lick House Hotel in San Francisco in 1863.
At that time San Francisco was enjoying a great deal of economic prosperity due to the Gold Rush. James Lick, earning his fortune in manufacturing pianos and in real estate, was one of the most wealthy individuals in California. The hotel he built was the fanciest hotel west of the Mississippi. It had a dining room that sat 400 hundred people that was a replica of a salon at Versailles. (The hotel was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake.)
Women’s fashions at that time were very lavish in the use of layers of fabrics and a profusion of embellishments of bows, trims, lace, buttons, and ruffles. Hats were equally elaborate with lots of stuff heaped on top.
In the article published in a San Francisco weekly journal, Twain pointed out that no man should describe women’s fashion, but since he was requested to do so, he did by describing the attire, from head to toe, worn by five women attending the fancy ball. He used the opportunity to humorously satirize the fashions as only Twain could do. His descriptions were outrageous! I selected these phrases of the women’s hats to inspire my print:
On the roof of her bonnet was a menagerie of rare and beautiful bugs and reptiles, and under the eaves thereof a counterfeit of the “early bird”…tule hat, embellished with blue-bells, hare-bells, hash-bells, etc., with a frontispiece formed of a single magnificent cauliflower imbedded in mashed potatoes. …from her head depended tasteful garlands of fresh radishes. …a tall cone of brilliant field-flowers, upon the summit of which stood a glittering ‘golden beetle’ … a graceful cataract of white Chantilly lace, surmounted by a few artificial worms, and butterflies and things, and a tasteful tarantula done in jet. “The Lick House Ball,” The Golden Era, a San Francisco weekly literary journal, 1863
My first step was to collect photographs of items he referenced and digitally transform them into black and white outlines.
I then arranged the images into two millinery creations of my own. This is the lithographic plate, which I printed by hand.
I then hand colored the print and decorated the frame with items reflecting the hats – butterflies, insects, reptiles, and flowers. Notice that when printed, the image is reversed.
To promote the exhibit in various media, I created a colorful digital image of Mark Twain using a historic, copyright free photograph of him.
This is the quote that goes with the print: You know I like color and flummery and all such things–I was born red-headed–maybe that accounts for my passion for the gorgeous and ornamental.
The exhibit is open until January 23, 2023 at the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, CT. https://marktwainhouse.org/
There is a catalog of the exhibit that you can review online. If you click on the book, the pages will turn and you can see all the other wonderful prints in the exhibit. https://www.blurb.com/books/11064832-the-evocative-mark-twain-inspires-the-printmakers