Book Review: The Gravity of Birds

The Gravity of Birds by Tracy Guzeman

Book Review by Sara Demrow Dent


A books allure, for me, usually begins with the cover. I know this goes against everything we have been taught but I just can’t help it. I look at the image, whatever it may be – dark or light, beautiful or grotesque and start to fantasize about the pages within. Surely, if my taste in covers is the same at the author’s, we are starting off on the right foot. Luckily this highly subjective practice has worked for me. The Gravity of Birds, by first time novelist Tracy Guzeman, is no exception. The cover is beautifully presented with indigo script balancing on a delicate birdcage. It’s occupant, free and perched protectively above alluding to the sharply woven mystery that lies beneath.

This novel revolves around the complicated relationship between Alice Kessler and her older sister Natalie. Told over a 40 year period, Natalie is dark, secretive and a striking beauty while Alice, three years her junior, is much more introspective and acutely intelligent. An avid reader and passionate about birds and the study of ornithology, Alice shares much of her sister’s beauty but cannot see it. The book begins with a summer vacation by a lake in upstate NY where the teenage Kessler’s meet a charismatic young painter, Thomas Bayber. The black sheep of his wealthy family, he has chosen to cast off much of the demands of his privileged upbringing and focus on his talent as an artist. Alice begins an intense friendship with Bayber that sparks a series of events that both tears the sisters apart and forever links them in time.

The story jumps ahead to a decade when Thomas Bayber has found both fame and critical acclaim for his hauntingly beautiful work.  A previously unknown Bayber masterpiece that depicts Thomas, Natalie and Alice titled: The Kessler Sisters comes light. As Dennis Finch, an art historian and life long friend of the artist, begins to authenticate the piece its mysteries unravel and take him on an odyssey to find the missing sisters and uncover the truth about what happened between them so many years ago.

Being a painter myself, I love books that include art and artists and illustrate the complexity of paintings and how we look at them. This book does not disappoint. I could not put it down and wanted to see it through to its dramatic conclusion. The characters are well researched as is the art world my only negative critique is that Thomas’ character may be a bit of the stereotypical, narcissistic male artist – but just a bit. The perfect summer read The Gravity of Birds is a captivating mystery that deals with the power of art, the consequences of prideful mistakes and the gift of forgiveness.


Sara Demrow  Dent is a painter and writer who works out of her studio in West Newbury, Massachusetts and Maine. She has been a featured artist at the Newburyport Art Association and her work is represented by the Walsingham Gallery in Newburyport, MA. Sara will be blogging reviews of art and design related books and her next titles include The Goldfinch and Grace: A Memoir Grace Coddington.




Printmakers: A Few Thoughts and Many Definitions

by Kate Higley

What are all these terms for printmaking and why don’t they just draw and paint directly on the paper, anyway?

Bog II, etching & aquatint by Kate Higley

Bog II, etching & aquatint by Kate Higley

I’ll start with motivations.  I’m not sure why other artists make prints, but I have a few suspicions.  For me, all the repetitive parts slow me down in a really good way.   O.K., I admit it, I have been impatient and impulsive about many things for as long as I can remember.  Printmaking is like that scene from “The Karate Kid,” the one with the “wax on, wax off.”  When I started printmaking thirty-six years ago, I found all the details of the process calming.  Printmaking paces me and while I am performing tasks that might seem to be tedium, the other part of my brain is working out the more interesting design aspects.  A further attraction is the element of surprise. Every time I pull back the blankets of my press, it’s Christmas morning.  The results can be wonderful, puzzling or another bad sweater knitted by my batty great aunt.

Kale, Winters End, by Barbara Nachmias Kedesdy

Kale, Winters End, by Barbara Nachmias Kedesdy

So what do all these printmaking terms mean and how do we classify a work as a print?  At the most basic level, a print is a piece of art that uses an indirect method of production.  Generally, it is two dimensional, but print processes can be applied to sculpture giving it a link to three dimensional work as well.  In most traditional types of printmaking, i.e., engraving, etching, lithography, woodcut, linocuts, there is a substrate, plate or backing upon which an image is developed and ink or other pigment is employed to transfer that image to paper.  Silk screen, also called serigraph and digital prints are quite different in their development, but are still indirect, with image developed separately from the final product.

As I write this and gather my thoughts about the development of prints, I realize that the earliest images found in caves are prints.  Pigments were applied to hands, the substrate, and then pressed onto cave walls.  At this point, you may want to stop reading since I am going to define quite a few printmaking terms.  If you just want to know one or two, I will mark them in bold so you can skip the rest.  Many visitors to print shows are confused by the sheer number of labels that can be applied to prints.  If you are looking to learn more, come to our opening on August 1,  7-9p.m.  Look for the artists and ask away.

Move ahead several millennia from cave art:  artists used sharpened tools to engrave metal plates which were then inked and pressed onto paper, thus engraving.  The term intaglio comes from the Italian and is a more general term meaning the design is incised. The ink is held in the grooves to make a print.   In the case of etchings, the grooves are created by the action of acid on metal.  There are other terms that one sees in the case of etchings, such as aquatint, spit bite, open bite.  These are all processes that create tonal areas using acid.

Up and Over, reduction linoleum print by Susan Jaworski-Stranc

Up and Over, reduction linoleum print by Susan Jaworski-Stranc

In this show, we have artists who make linocuts, (cuts into linoleum) and woodcuts.  The distinction here is that the ink is applied to the surface rather than the grooves. A relief print, then is a general term meaning that the ink is on the surface, not in grooves.

When looking at relief prints, there are a number of ways that they can be assembled and completed.  In some cases they are subtractive.  Each step requires cutting away the previous color from the plate so that it won’t be overprinted.  There is often a key plate at the end which will give details that are overprinted, thus an additive step. Multiple plates fitted together to form a single image result in “white line” woodcuts. 

Collagraphs, also relief prints, employ plates that are built up with a variety of materials resulting in differing levels and textures.  These are inked and printed, often with an embossed result.

The term monotype is used for a one of a kind print that has no portion that can be repeated.  Generally, a smooth plate is used since there are no permanent marks in the substrate.  Monotype artists also employ brayers (rollers) as tools to make marks or they wipe away inks with a variety of tools.  The use of stencils to block out ink or as mini plates to apply ink is also possible. Monotypes can be additive or subtractive depending upon whether they start fully loaded with ink and the image is created by wiping out or if the image is built up one layer at a time.  Some artists employ both in the same work.

Girl from Tierra del Fuego, by Jim Tinguely

Girl from Tierra del Fuego, by Jim Tinguely

A monoprint has some portion of the finished product that come from a plate or substrate that can be repeated, but the artist has applied the ink or used the plate in a way that makes it one-of-a-kind.  They can be intaglio or relief prints or combine several methods.

Work using photo emulsions applied to a plate and UV light to harden the emulsion is labeled a solar plate or an intaglio type. The surface these coated plates can be raised by hardened emulsion and hold ink as relief or it can be etched and hold ink as an intaglio.

Silk screens use a piece of fabric stretched on a frame where certain areas are blocked out.  Ink is pressed through the fabric and onto a paper or cloth.

Digital prints are created on a computer using programs that give the artist great freedom with color and design.  As they are eventually transferred and printed on paper, the indirect process defines them as prints.

Originally, lithography developed as a process in which the tendency of oil and water to repel each other was employed to make ink adhere to an oily drawing on stone.  More recently, that tendency has been used for substrates like plastic sheets, grained aluminum and even photocopied paper.  The resulting prints have the qualities of drawings.

I am sure that I’ve left out much that should have been included here.  Hopefully, I have elucidated rather than confused.  I look forward to further discussions during our opening and while the show is up.