Abra Ancliffe’s artist residency at UT Austin
Ancliffe examines works of famous astronomers and creates work sparked by punctuation and constellations during an artist residency at UT Austin.
The light of stars and passing comets, which astronomers have been chasing for centuries, punctuates the night sky. Parallels between marks in the sky and marks on the page inspired Abra Ancliffe, a faculty member and PNCA alumna, recently completed a residency in printmaking which included research in astronomy and wood cut type at the University of Texas (UT) in Austin. Ancliffe worked with the Publication Studio of the Design Department and world-renowned Harry Ransom Research Center.
Ancliffe spent some mornings examining the works of famous astronomers such as Galileo, Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, John Herschel, and Peter Apian, looking for “depictions of the night sky on the printed page.” On the backs of some pages of Herschel’s manuscripts, for example, Ancliffe found what appeared to be his spontaneous drawings of comets, dated with their moment of observation.
Ancliffe also spent time in the Rob Roy Kelley Wood Cut Collection, becoming acquainted with the collection of over 200 fonts ranging in style, size, and condition. And she spent time looking at Rob Roy’s portfolio exploring what she would do with wood type as she has primarily worked with metal. Ancliffe explains that wood type is “distinctive as a form,” and can have an incredibly “seductive” nature. After familiarizing herself with the collections, it was time to create work inspired by her celestial findings.
Ancliffe created two works during the residency with punctuation and constellations in mind, using the sidereal qualities of full stops, periods, and exclamation points. For her first work, she chose multiple exclamation points from different fonts out of the wood cut collection creating an ellipse form, which also resembles the path of a comet. Ancliffe used inspiration from Herschel’s and Kepler’s depictions of comet tails shifting as they move around the sun in relation to Earth, with the exclamation points, printed with black ink on black and blue paper, enacting that movement.
The second print was as if it was a translation of moon charts by Peter Apian, who has written one of the earliest printed astronomy books. The moon charts had rows of three moons in different phases, and shown with the moon cut in half horizontally rather than a typical vertical cut representation. Apian had an intriguing way of translating these celestial observations onto the page with eight rows of moons in the different phases such as waxing, waning, full, or new moon. Ancliffe used a colon and a period in silver ink on black and blue paper to represent the negative space in Apian’s images.
Ancliffe points out that maintaining an authentic self, staying connected with valued relationships, working hard, and being flexible are the main ingredients for a fulfilling residency. During her residency, she also encountered an unexpected amount of kindness and accessibility. Ancliffe tells a story about a moment she was helped, in a way that surprised her:
I had to run back to the Harry Ransom Center in the afternoon to see the paintings Herschel had done of the comets. I was almost done with the lock-up on the press bed, and I told the print technician I’d return and finish my lock-up. He said that was fine and he’d probably be gone when I came back. When I returned, he had finished my lock-up. It was the oddest experience. I’ve never had anyone do a lock up for me on the press. Ever. I always have done my own lock up…. It wasn’t a problem in any way, but I was amazed that I got this amount of support.
Ancliffe was exposed to invaluable collections in the fields of art and science, and was provided a space to create work from her access to historical collections seen by a privileged few. Along with the amount of access she had with the collections and with people available for support, she recalls that her most memorable moments were being able to pick up, hold, and touch the manuscripts. The ability to thumb through and notice things within the collections, as Ancliffe explains, “It almost felt to me like shaking hands with it.”