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Shades of black: Mezzotint prints at the Arts Center feature chickens, dancers

Linda Whitney’s mezzotint exhibit at the Arts Center features a number of images of chickens, part of a book she calls “The Song of the Dyslexic’s Chicken Alphabet.” John M. Steiner The Sun

Using a painstaking process originally developed in the 1600s, artist Linda Whitney creates prints that bring out the many shades and textures black ink on a white field can have.

Her work pairs jingle dancers with Betty Boop, the fine feathers of a chicken and a metal sheriff’s badge and “The Space between History and Hollywood” — the title of Whitney’s mezzotint exhibit at the Arts Center in Jamestown.

“It’s very time-intensive. You have to be very patient with this type of process, and you have to be very dedicated to work at the size I work,” Whitney said of the mezzotint process.

The method begins with a plain metal plate and a curved, toothed tool called a rocker — which would have something like 85 tiny teeth per inch. The artist rocks the rocker across the entire copper plate, not just once, but nine to 12 times in different directions.

“It’s like you’re digging a little tiny hole in the field,” Whitney said. “But you’re going to dig so many holes that all there are in the field are little holes and little piles of dirt.”

When the plate is wiped with ink, it goes into the holes and then onto the paper during a printing process.

If that were all there was to mezzotint, every image would end up as a solid field of ink — color or, as Whitney uses, deep, pure black.

Instead, the mezzotint artist takes the metal plate, scored and gouged, perhaps over a period of 100 to 200 hours or more, and then uses a tool called a burnisher to smooth out some of the holes made during the rocking process.

“You create your image by pressing down hard when you want white, and not as hard when you want gray,” said Whitney, who generally does five burnishes on each of her pieces.

Typically, her larger prints take about a year to create, though Whitney said she’d been “going day and night” since December to finish some work for the exhibition at the Arts Center.

The rocking and burnishing processes require strong wrists, and Whitney attributes hers to milking dairy goats and doing color printing in her youth. She does plan to use a modified rocker arm to make the rocking process easier on the wrists in the future as she plans to retire.

Whitney’s exhibit features a number of images of chickens, part of a planned alphabet book she calls “The Song of the Dyslexic’s Chicken Alphabet.”

While chickens seem like a strange focus for such complex art, Whitney said they offer an opportunity to show the many textures mezzotint is capable of creating — feathers, beaks, roosters’ combs and claw-like feet are all shown using just one color of ink.

“I like chickens, but I live in town, so I can’t have chickens — but I have friends with chickens, and there are so many weird chickens in the world,” she said.

Many of Whitney’s larger pieces feature images of the Turtle Mountain people, the powwow and jingle dancers in traditional regalia.  She spent a lot of time at powwows with her ex-husband, who is Turtle Mountain and danced at them.

“I’ve always been interested in how Hollywood portrays things incorrectly, especially Native Americans but not just Native Americans, so that’s where the whole idea of juxtaposing Howdy Doody or other characters with the powwow dancers” came from, Whitney said.

She taught herself the mezzotint process.

“I’ve been teaching printmaking since I was a graduate student and I always wanted to investigate the old techniques,” Whitney said. “I’m a traditionalist. The young printers tend to be much more contemporary and tend to mix and match, and don’t stick to the rules, so to speak.”

When she started teaching 20 years ago at Valley City State University, she had her students do a mezzotint print, but she’d never done one herself. She decided that it wasn’t really fair to ask someone else to do something when she hadn’t done it herself, and gave it a try.

Eventually she wrote a grant to fund further mezzotint work and continued in that area.

Whitney, currently chair of the art department at VCSU, praised the Arts Center’s installation of her work, which is on display through June 14.

A reception is planned for 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. June 5 at the Arts Center.

Sun reporter Kari Lucin can be reached at (701) 952-8453

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