TOM FELS’ CYANOTYPES
by Arlene Distler
Brattleboro, Vermont – To view Tom Fels’ cyanotypes this January at Mitchell • Giddings Fine Arts (MGFA) is to enter a magic kingdom, a secret world of trees and leaves revealed by alchemy.
The process of cyanotype goes back to the mid 1800s. Then, and well into the 20th century, it was primarily used to make “blueprints” of notes and diagrams. The origin of the nomer is obvious — cyano- types are made by the application of light-sensitive chemicals to paper or fabric. These chemicals, ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide, give a deep blue hue to the paper. The color is equivalent to Prussian blue in painting.
The first use of cyanotypes as art, as an esthetic phenomenon in its own right, is credited to Anna Atkins, who created cyanotype “photograms” of seaweed. Because of her work with cyanotypes, Atkins is considered the first woman photographer.
Fels was drawing landscapes and trying to capture the play of light and shadow in the leaves of trees. Frustrated with his attempts, he decided to try cyanotypes as another way to capture this effect. He wanted to work large and finally found 2’ x 3’ cyanotype paper. To create his “Arbor” series, he held up the paper against the branches of trees. This creates a wonderful spaciousness in the prints. Also, because neither he nor the trees could hold completely still, these prints have some blurring that imbues them with an “aliveness” that gives them a very appealing shimmering quality. This is particularly true of the “Catalpa” series, made from a tree near Fels’ North Bennington home.
For Fels, the cyanotypes are a satisfying expression of a “love of shadows.” His is a decidedly graphic sensibility, although the word “graphic” was never mentioned in our hour-long conversation. Never- theless, this is a strong quality in both the “Linea” drawings (also part of the MGFA show), and his three large drawings which will be shown concurrently in the “Open Call NNE (North-Northeast) 2016” juried exhibition from January 9 through March 12 at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center in Brattleboro, Vermont.
The “Linea” series, so named for the multiple parallel lines that comprise them, are applied with pencil or graphite stick. They are minimalist and abstract, the wavy drawn lines forming a geometric shape that floats in the center of the paper. Of these relatively small works on paper (four to six inches), Fels said, “These came about as a result of visual ‘notes’ put down in a notebook. I like lines. I wondered, ‘Where would you go with that?’ I just kept doing it and by the time I was done, I had a style. I found the line drawings relaxing and engaging.”
The three large drawings at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center are yet another side of Fels’ oeuvre, though there are certainly overlapping qualities, and the stream they