It started with an invitation
…to participate in a 40 x 60 Woodcut Challenge! (Actually, it started with an inquiry about whether or not there were still any openings to participate, and thankfully, they’d seen my work and welcomed me to take part).
40 x 60 Challenge?
Hoofprint Workshop “…invited twenty artists to each carve their own 40in×60in woodblock, to be printed on canvas and displayed together at Hoofprint Workshop’s opening reception for the Woodcut Challenge Portfolio. A majority of the artists are Chicago-based; many live and work just blocks from [their] studio in Pilsen….” (And the Pilsen neighborhood, I discovered, is very close to the Back of the Yards neighborhood, where, you guessed it, the Union Stockyards used to be. But more on that later).
As with any print, for me, there has to be an idea or story behind it. And for this portfolio/event, I needed it to have something to do with Chicago. So the searching, dreaming, planning, sketching, dreaming began and lasted most of the summer while I shovelled chicken manure (“My Summer of 100 Chickens”—a letterpress book to come no doubt); tended the vegetable gardens; watched the turkeys grow from cute little clingy poults into big, curious toms and hens; and fed treats to the little pigs knowing that in a few months they’d be huge lumbering hogs (*NOTE: A “pig” is under 100lbs. Anything bigger than that is called a “hog”). It was a summer of more-than-the-usual-amount-of farm chores and lots of planning and dreaming about woodcuts and linocuts.
As I gazed at those mischievous, lip-smacking, playful, bullying, frolicking pigs in the pasture, I thought of swine, pork, bacon, Chicago?, slaughter, pork bellies, omnivorous beasts, gentle giants, pig farmers, primal cuts, pork diagrams, the old farmer warning me “Don’t you ever turn your back on those hogs. People have disappeared you know…,” and again the inevitable slaughter, slaughter houses, and then, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle…I wonder where that took place?…Chicago? And then, there it was: The Chicago Union Stockyards.
Research into the Yards, and Sinclair’s book revealed that some of the history was bleak indeed—around the turn of the century when he wrote the book (1906) it was dangerous, unhealthy, debilitating work that paid little. But at some point it changed and as a young fellow told me (whose Dad had worked The Yards) at the opening reception of our show, “there was good work there.”
Since Sinclair had already done the bleakest period of the slaughter houses, I figured I could still make the connection between my heritage breed Berkshires and the Stock Yard. Looking at old photos of the area, the practices, the railroad’s stock cars unloading shipment upon shipment of hogs, there, I could see the Berks—heavier and more lard-type than the modern-day variety, but the markings were the same. Got it! One of my Berks would be the star of the woodcut—bigger than life, a tribute, an homage to the hog—harking back to a different time when you could raise hogs for a living and a large percentage of the population made a living working in the Yards.
And then, The Poem
More searching online revealed the connection to a poem, Chicago by Carl Sandburg.(*poem at page bottom) It reinforced everything I was reading about Chicago and The Yards during my research into the stock yard business and city during the first quarter of the century. The title, simply “Chicago” began with a first line that was so perfect, I couldn’t have made up anything better if I’d tried:
“Hog Butcher for the World,”
When asked about the meaning of his poem, Sandburg stated that it was “.. a chant of defiance by Chicago… its defiance of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, London, Paris, Berlin and Rome. The poem sort of says ‘Maybe we ain’t got culture, but we’re eatin’ regular.’“
More text for the woodcut.
The ideas were coming together.
And now, the models
My pigs aren’t trained. They’re not circus pigs nor pets, so photographing them is always a bit of a crap shoot, especially when they get close to 300lbs. And the model I needed for this woodcut had to be a big guy (male, barrow, yes, because they are a little bigger than the female/gilts). I was waiting for that thick, muscular, hill-like neck-into-back; the thick ankles; the filled-out cheeks and wide face with multiple chins below it.
You don’t get that with a 4 month old hog. You get it right before they’re off to slaughter—best if you wait a little too long and accidentally don’t call to schedule ’till the meat locker’s schedule is already filled up past the prime date you had picked, and you know you’ll be dealing with hogs a bit past market weight (market weight is ideally 270lbs). These guys were just over 8 months old when I took them in.
So, you’ve got these 300+lb hogs, excitedly grunting and rushing towards you and the treats you’re carrying (apples, hard-boiled eggs, whatever’s on hand), and you try not to get run over in their haste to eat the most and the fastest so no one else gets any…. And then you start photographing. It takes a lot of patience and backpedalling and feeding and putting my palm on their foreheads, gently pushing and saying “wait!” and backpedaling, and putting one hand just over their upturned snout, as they open their mouth to smack lips and try to reach your fingers….meanwhile your other hand is click click clicking photos, hoping something will be in focus and the right angle. Hundreds of pics later, you sit down at laptop, download the pics, and go through them, and find that you’ve got the angle all wrong—none of the pics are right.
So you delete all the recent shots off the camera, go back out later in day, when the light is right, again, and start all over. Treats, coaxing, pushing “Look ominous!” you plead, “I need a scary hog!” you cry. “You’re a legendary man-eating monster!!” you beg…..
And you get close to something that will work.
Next up: Carving
For now,enjoy the poem that inspired the woodcut: