Once upon a time, two papas—an emperor penguin and a sea horse, to be precise—took a tandem ride. But they had neither an ordinary bicycle nor an ordinary purpose. Their contraption, though the size of any old ten-speed, was perfectly outfitted for the tiny stature of a penguin captain, while the back seat generously accommodated the winged legnessless of a sea horse passenger. Perched high above their heads, in a kitchen sink converted to cradle a bird’s nest, were three eggs. Their eggs. And they embarked upon this expedition to bring their babies into the most beautiful world they could discover.
This is the stuff of Ray Maseman’s etching “Bicycle for Two.” He doesn’t actually tell you where or why the fantastic scene takes place, but his characters are so enchantingly vivid, they entice you to engage, to open your imagination and let it wander to its farthest reaches. In the case of “Bicycle,” you're invited to wonder at the exciting purpose and destination of the tandem-riding paternal duo.
All of the work in Maseman’s Fairy Tales at New Grounds Gallery captures the imagination in this way. He incorporates the gadgetry of mad scientists and the innovation of great adventurers—cogs and gauges, propellers and sails, handcars and hot air balloons. His protagonists are always animals; in addition to his ubiquitous penguins and sea horses, Maseman often depicts elephants and giraffes, and occasionally bears and bats. When humans are portrayed, they’re bow-and-arrow touting, armor-clad knights who threaten the tranquility of an animal kingdom and its picturesque castle turrets.
His protagonists are always animals; in addition to his ubiquitous penguins and sea horses, Maseman often depicts elephants and giraffes, and occasionally bears and bats.
The detail in the prints is astounding and could easily be mistaken as the product of a fine graphite pencil. An etching starts as a drawing, only instead of paper, the surface is a coated metal plate; instead of a pencil, the tool is a long needle. Maseman works, as all New Grounds Print Workshop members do, with nontoxic materials and techniques. (This is a vast departure from traditional printmaking.)
To produce these impressions, Maseman veneers a copper plate in acrylic polymer, which he carves away to create the lines that will make up the image. The plate is submerged in a vertical plastic vat of ferric chloride; it is the reaction of this chemical to the copper that actually performs the etching, leaving behind relief indentations where the polymer was scraped away. The coating is washed off using a soda ash solution followed by a water rinse. The plate is then ready to be inked, registered to a sheet of paper and run through the printing press. Every color in every etching represents an independent inking, registration and printing. Some of Maseman’s images are the result of two plates—one for the texture of the background, another for the detail of the foreground.
The short of it is that etching is a labor-intensive process, and Maseman demonstrates a greatly tuned technical skill, which brings up a compelling contrast within his work. On one hand, he illustrates sensational journeys taken on marvelous machines; his images exude the youthful vibrancy, infinite possibility and liberating quality of a particularly captivating children’s storybook. And on the other, his characters are fathers and saints and heroes, devoted to and defined by the responsibilities of adulthood—