I am blogging A to Z about artists, particularly women artists and mostly about my mother, Helen Burling Ottaway.
My mother loved water colors, but she also did etchings, for as long as I can remember. We had the largest etching press that she could get back in the 1960s. When I was 14, we moved from Johnson City, New York, to Alexandria Virginia for my father’s job. The press went into the basement, along with numerous boxes of books. Soon after we moved, there was torrential rainfall and the sewers in the Del Ray neighborhood backed up. The water stopped draining and just piled up! There was a crack in the foundation of our basement with a waterfall pouring down. My mother wanted the engine of the press saved first! She and my father and I could barely carry it up the stairs, but managed to. Next came boxes of books, some of which were so waterlogged that they were floating. The water was cold, dirty and up to my upper thighs. We unloaded box after box of wet books and spread them out to dry.
I think that my mother’s art was not in the basement, so we did not lose much of that! We installed an automatic sump pump eventually, because that was not the last flood. That was the most spectaular, though. The water was 8-12 inches deep in the front yard. Buses would still drive through the water, sending a wave to hit our front steps.
Afterwards we wished we had taken a photograph in the canoe in the front yard, to use for Christmas. Our Christmas ornaments were flooded too. All the color peels off the balls, so our tree was silver and glass that Christmas. My mother claimed she liked that better and kept it that way from then on!
Etchings are diddly, as my mother would say. A zinc plate, coated with a tar mixture. Then a drawing in the tar, set the plate in acid, and wait for the drawing to etch into the plate. At a certain point, my mother would take the tar off and run some proofs. These were experimental, trying different colors. She would put the tar back on and continue with the drawing. When she was satisfied with the proof, she would start running the edition. The tar is removed, and for each etching the plate is inked with a roller. The ink is gently wiped off, until it is light on the remaining flat parts of the plate and heavier in the lines. The plate is placed on the press, a piece of paper that is soaked is placed on the plate, heavy felt cloth is lowered over it and the plate and paper are run through the press. We had a guard, but keep your fingers away! The felt is lifted, the paper is lifted and the paper is set to dry. The plate is wiped and inked again. The edition is numbered: 1/20 or 1/50. My mother ran some plates many many times. A tiny one named Tag, of a unicorn playing tag with butterflies, is done in multiple colors. Others were a much smaller edition, of 20 or 30. The very large plates are a challenge to ink and wipe. It takes practice to wipe the ink but not wipe it out of the lines.
I have three photographs of H. Ottaway’s Iris and Poppies etching. The featured image is 17/30, colored edition, 1976. The one below is a proof for the color edition. The last one is a proof for her black and white edition.
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