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Nikki is mellow this afternoon, curled up on the floor beneath a print of herself and Rosemary, the woman she now loves. They weren’t always good together, thoughyou can see it up there on the wall: Nikki’s body so stiff in their embrace, her open mouth almost menacing against the arc of Rosemary’s slender white neck.
“She’s grudging in her love for me,” explains the print’s creator, Alexandria artist Rosemary Feit Covey, stroking the Siberian husky she adopted 5 years ago. “She has given her affection slowly, because I got her later in her life. But I wanted to show that she gives that of her own free will, because she could just rip my throat out.”
Covey is a wood engraver. Each of her prints, such as Black, White and Grey, the one depicting Nikki and herself, is made from a negative image carved into a boxwood block that is then inked and pressed to paper. At the moment, she’s standing in the Monroe Gallery at the Arts Club of Washington, where a retrospective of her work of the past 25 years adorns the robin’s-egg-blue walls. The stark, black-on-white pieces, selected by Corcoran Gallery of Art Curator of Prints and Drawings Eric Denker, are incongruous against the historic landmark’s flowered drapes and tidy linen tablecloths.
The artist is here to gauge reactions to the work at the previous evening’s opening party. An Arts Club staffer who attended the event mentions the possibility of draping some of the prints for a few weddings scheduled at the venue over the next several weeks. She is most likely concerned about the ones featuring leather undergarments.
“That’s a somewhat typical reaction to my work,” Covey says softly. There is a fair amount of bare flesh on display in these prints, but little of it could be called sexy: There are jutting ribs and protruding clavicles, sagging breasts and bulging veins.
Also craggy necks, such as the one in 10:07, part of a series of engravings Covey recently made based on an evening with a subject who wandered into her open studio at Alexandria’s Torpedo Factory, where she has kept a workspace for more than 20 years.
“It’s such a strange part of the body,” Covey remarks. “So vulnerable, with all the sinew and muscles in there.” At 47, she’s lately begun examining her own neck a bit too closely, she says, reaching up to touch the high turtleneck of the black dress that flows down to her ankles.
Covey’s work is often described as “dark,” a word she tolerates with some exasperation. But she does choose some ominous subjects: Her Vanitas Vanitas series, for example, reflects on recent outbreaks of diseases such as West Nile virus and animal-borne influenza. Sins of the Fathers finds two girls standing over a mass grave. And a series titled Porcupine Girl displays a nude woman alternately torn apart and crucified by spikes that have erupted from her own spine.
And then there is everything her skill with the medium reveals about the artist: a necessarily obsessive nature combined with an affinity for sharp implements. “There is a sense of generalized anxiety throughout much of my work, anxiety about different things,” she says, standing beside a rendering of a woman with features suspiciously similar to her own. The woman is dancing with a nail-encrusted skeleton with a large railroad spike between his legs. The print is called Nkonde, after a Congolese fetish Covey associates with both healing and death.
“I like ambiguity,” she says. “I don’t like it when explanations are simple. That makes things so short-lived.”
Two shelves full of book-sized, inky wooden blocks run the length of one wall in the back of Covey’s studio. The blocks’ spines are labeled with shorthand clues to their contents: “Frog.” “Victims.”
Covey pulls a block from the shelf, sets it down, and sprinkles talcum powder across its surface, which is blackened with dried ink. Fat rats with mangy coats emerge as she rubs the whiteness into the engraved marksit’s an illustration of a passage from The Pied Piper of Hamelin.
Covey typically makes her prints in editions of 80, but blocks often break before an edition is completed, and she often sells off most of a run. Many of the pieces hanging in the retrospective are the only originals she has left. “The prints are definitely finite things,” she says, “even though it would seem like printing is associated with reproduction.”
Above the shelves, damp prints dangle from clips on a line. They’ve recently been removed from the ’20s Vandercook printing press that fills much of the back of Covey’s cramped studio. A friend bought the press for her several years ago from the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, and Covey now uses it more often than not to make her prints. It offers more predictable results than hand-rubbing paper placed over the wooden blocksa technique she learned as a student of renowned illustrator Barry Moser and has used for most of her career.
“I hand-rubbed for years, and sometimes I still do because it gives more control over tone, especially the little details in the flesh tones,” Covey explains, rummaging around under the press and coming up with a handful of the wooden spoons she uses in the process. “I go crazy in kitchen stores, and people think I’m nuts. But when you find the perfect one, it’s like a fetish,” she says, smoothing a finger over one worn shiny from use.
Covey’s worktable is cluttered with engraving toolswooden balls bearing metal blades with nearly invisible points. Most of them are actually designed for jewelers: Wood-carving paraphernalia isn’t delicate enough, and there’s not much demand these days for specialized wood-engraving tools. She displays her current favorite, an implement with a tiny forked blade.
Covey will work on an engraving for hours at a time, lost in the rhythmic movement of the blade, cutting away everything but the desired lines. She works in front of a mirror, turning the block toward it every so often to see what the reversed image will look like when it’s finally printed. “In a way,” she admits, “I think I was drawn to engraving because of the solitude involved. You don’t have to talk to anyone.”
Covey says she felt a connection to the demanding medium from the first time she worked with it under Moser, at a high-school summer-arts program in Easthampton, Mass. “I couldn’t understand why this block of wood had so much importance,” she remembers. “It didn’t look very good, and I didn’t like what I had done much. But there was such a strong feeling about it. And looking back now, I can see that it’s provided me with my whole life.”
That life has often been an isolated one, though Covey has recently started to reach out to other engravers through Internet newsgroups such as the U.S.-based Wood Engravers Network and England’s Society of Wood Engravers. She also mentions that there is another wood engraver with a studio at the Torpedo Factory. The two are friendly enoughthey share tips on where to get tools sharpened, if not much in the way of style.
“I have felt very much alone in what I was doing with my work,” Covey says. “Many wood engravers get very bound up in the wood-engraving tradition. To me, it was just a very personal means to an end. I never studied how other engravers used their tools. I just did it my way, for better or worse.”
Covey’s angular face peers out of most of the works on the Arts Club walls. She’s often been her own model, and it’s difficult not to read an element of autobiography into the pieces, even the ones she insists aren’t “about” her.
In Alone, she sits gripping the sides of a chair, tense and shirtless. A bed in the background is empty, its blankets rumpled. Covey looks young. The print was made in 1979, just after the marriage she entered at 19 ended, just as she was beginning to support herself with her artsomething she has managed to do ever since, supplementing gallery sales with portrait commissions and illustration work for publications such as the Washington Post Book World and the New York Times Book Review, as well as various books.
“With all of them up [in the retrospective], I can see a progression,” Covey says. “But it’s not so much in the physical body of the self-portrait [as] in seeing the themes that I’ve subconsciously worked through over the years.”
By way of example, she motions toward 8675309 X1, a print in a leather frame with a built-in zipper. A young woman, strapped into skimpy Leather Rack apparel, is curled into the fetal position. Her large, dark eyes peek out from behind her thighs. Some might look at the piece and see a woman in fear, in literal bondageespecially if they knew about her much, much older lover. But Covey knew the couple before she made the print. “Their relationship might look a certain way, but they really did get along. They had this thing in common,” Covey says. “I think they own a lovely island somewhere now,” she adds, laughing.
Some of Covey’s most personal pieces are tricky in their simplicity, such as one print of a pale little girl in a lacy white dress. Compared with some of her other works, it seems almost blandexcept for the child’s eyes, which are fixed intently on the viewer. Behind the girl sits a black woman in profile, a scarf over her head, her own gaze fixed off in the distance.
The print conveys tension in its contrasts: the child’s bright dress against the woman’s dark skin, the girl’s sharp nose and chin against the roundness of her caretaker’s face. It’s titled Johannesburg, 1958, and was based on a photograph from Covey’s own childhood in South Africa, where she lived with her Austrian grandparents until she was 8.
“As a child, you accept life as it is presented to you,” she says. “There was a constant level of anxiety that you could pick up as a child, even if you didn’t know the real cause. People around us were leaving; we were leaving. My mother was from England, and having servants was a very uncomfortable thing to her, and I remember that. Even after we left, there was the feeling that you could never say or do the right thing about where you had come from.”
Covey has visited South Africa a few times since then. On a trip during the late ’80s, she found some spoons that were ideal for hand-rubbing prints. One in particular was perfectly shaped, large and flat, with an African icon carved into the handle.
“I still feel a connection to the place I was born. But right then, I felt like such a tourist,” Covey says, shaking her head. “This is the equivalent of coming home here and exclaiming, ‘I found these really great plates with the Washington Monument on them!’”
“But in all my work,” she adds, “I am interested in things that are in opposition yet occurring at the same time. There’s truth in that.” CP
“Rosemary Feit Covey” is on view to Saturday, March 1, at the Arts Club of Washington, 2017 I St. NW. For more information, call (202) 331-7282.