interview with Coleman Stevenson





Travis Lawrence resides in the Midwest where he was born and raised.  A religious upbringing broadened his perspective, encouraging the interaction with ideas greater than and/or within himself.  He utilizes the art of creation as an act of opening doorways and manifesting these ideas through symbol and metaphor.  Similar to alchemy, printmaking, for Lawrence, is a meditative procedure of transforming the mundane into a higher state.  


I first encountered Lawrence’s work in the gallery at Mortlake & Company in Seattle, Washington.  The impact of a room full of his prints, a true series of images, stuck with me, so I reached out to continue the conversation the art had provoked within me.  Over the course of one week, across various forms of communication, the artist and I discussed process, from points of inspiration to the technical aspects of his work.  Here are some of the highlights of our conversation, illustrated by examples of his prints and drawings. 





the artist Travis Lawrence




How did you arrive at printmaking as your primary medium?


Discovering printmaking for me was a mistake. Or at least it appeared that way. During my soul-searching 20s I juggled a few different potential degrees to explore in college. After returning from my first dropout, I signed up with a double-major Philosophy/Anthropology and a minor in Religious Studies. It was an amazing, overwhelming few months, but I was so flooded with input, I needed more output. I tried balancing this with illustrated poetry, but it wasn't enough. I had been doing a lot of photography at the time, and when I signed up to switch majors back into the art department, I was given an Intro to Photo and an Intro to Printmaking. I even asked the guidance counselor what printmaking was (which she couldn’t even explain). As the semester passed, I found myself more in the print lab than the darkroom and I took this as an obvious sign. 


I had a hard time with academic art. I dropped out three times, and a big reason I came back to finish my degree was to have access to a printing press. I am from a small farm town, and there wasn’t anything of the sort available to me there. I first fell in love with etching because of the quality of linework. However, due to being a few years older than most of my classmates (and a dislike to their angsty music), I found it easier to take a woodblock home and carve it and return to the studio after-hours (when they all went to the bars) to do my printing then.  



Tell me a bit about your current, ongoing alchemical series...


I have been working on a series the last few years called “Pillars.” I gave it that name for a few different reasons. The first is the obvious tall form of the blocks. The second reason explores the symbolism of the word itself. Pillars can be decorative but are primarily functional in the sense that they uphold something while also allowing passage. If you study the tales through Western esoteric traditions, you will find many claims of ancient pillars that were also used to house information to be hidden and preserved over time. The content varies but usually deals with knowledge of the universe or sacred arts and sciences.  


The imagery I have been working with in these performs a similar duty. Visually, each individual piece contains an array of symbols interacting with one another, similar to classic alchemical manuscripts which worked in the same fashion. They are meant to be contemplative and engage the viewer to in the archetypal conversation occurring. 




The current 33 images from “Pillars”




This series currently has 33 pieces.  Is that number significant?  How do you know when a series is finished?


It is not intentional that I have 33 completed. It has been fun allowing people to come to that conclusion since 33 is one of those numbers that pops up a lot in esoteric theories and numerology. I actually have three more blocks on my desk that need to be printed, which would get me up to 36. I have another one sketched out. I don’t know when I will finish. Initially it was going to be 12, then 24, then 32. I will eventually stop at some point. Maybe. 




The Precious Dew, Hand-colored relief print, 5 ½” x 19”




Can you tell me more about the process for making these relief prints?


I think the journey to this series started a few years back. I switched gears with some woodblocks I was working on at the time and did some large-scale ones. I called them “Emblems.” They had this very raw iconic look to them but still had anthropomorphic characters. This was the time I really was starting to explore symbol conversations in my pieces. This bled into another series I did after called “Vessels” which were doing a similar thing. I felt the best way to understand these symbols and ideas was to directly work with them and play with them in different contexts and interactions. I have noticed with this recent series the full images usually just appear rather than any sort of crafting of the layout. I titled my last show “To Receive” after this idea. It is both a homage to Kabbalah, which literally translates as [“reception”], but the double meaning deals with the belief that these ideas are transmitted from something beyond us. Plato talks about the realm of ideals, and how we can’t fully comprehend it. This is what Jung was getting at with archetypes. The creative process taps into this and conjures these.


The image begins as a loose doodle in my notebook. I may leave notes to add to some details so that when I return to it I don’t leave anything out. I will lay down an outline sketch onto the block and then begin carving from there. Many printmakers will sketch out the image exactly how they want it so when the carving occurs, they have a near exact idea of what it will look like. I am more gestural where majority of my “drawing” occurs with the blade. I enjoy this way more, as it feels more like a process with life. I like comparing what I do with the alchemical process. You begin with a very mundane material and by a devoted process of removing the unnecessary, the perfected form begins to reveal itself. Once the block is carved, then it is ready to print. My finished prints are then colored.  




Dust to Dust, Hand-colored relief print, 5 ½” x 19”




Why hand-coloring?  Is it important to you that each copy be colored exactly the same?  Is there room for variation in editioning?


The most common method for colored prints is to carve multiple blocks and you end up with an edition that is nearly exact. I hand-color mine for a few reasons. One, I don’t want to print multiple blocks. Secondly, when I hand-paint my prints, each finished piece gets direct attention. The printing process is very mechanical even when using a classic printing press, so coming back and individually painting each print, I am able to put forth that energy into these. That is something I truly believe. (I also have to make sure my cat doesn’t go sit on them to suck that energy out.) There will be slight variation between the prints of the edition too. I stain the paper to give it a look of age, so technically each editioned print is also unique.  




The Dream, Hand-colored relief print, 5 ½” x 19”




How did you determine the color palette for these? 


Colors chosen can be determined for representational meaning or may be just aesthetic decisions. For example, in The Dream I have a red ouroboros dragon. In the alchemical tradition, this is a representation of the volatile stage. The three major alchemical phases with their associated colors [black, white, red] can be seen as candles in To Establish and the jewels of the crown in The Hidden Stone. In Chamber of Light, we see the white pelican drawing the red blood from within to fuel generation.  




Chamber of Light, Hand-colored relief print, 5 ½” x 19”




Several prints in this series use text as an integral part of the imagery itself instead of it appearing separately as titles or external captions.  What’s your motivation there?


Typically, the text is in Latin or Hebrew, and this aligns with the traditional currents that have been exploring these existing ideas. (There is only one currently in contemporary English, and that is more for cultural reference.) Much of our alchemical language still uses Latin context. The Kabbalah has also been a big influence on me during the creation of these Works. For those who are unfamiliar with the translation of the text used, they are required to actually put forth effort in researching the meaning. Text is just another form of symbol, so including text within the images is no different than the forms themselves presenting avenues of inquiry.  




To Establish, Hand-colored relief print, 5 ½” x 19”




When you encounter a graphic symbol, do you automatically experience it as words (instant translation) or is it more of a feeling?


That is hard to for me to answer. If it is a symbol in the form of a glyph, such as a character, I tend to see it the same way as hieroglyphs or the markings made by what some modern folk refer to as “primitive cultures.” There is a life to it. A captured moment of movement of a thing. More intricate graphics such as illustrations begin to have more of a conversational aspect to them for me. I read a lot of Jung in my early adult life, so I share a similar approach.  



I’ve noticed that the Hebrew character Yod is used frequently and cleverly as part of the imagery in this series.  Can you talk about the significance of that particular letter to this work?


If you look at the Hebrew alphabet, the Yod is the character that is found in all the letters. So in more mystical schools of thought that grew out of the Jewish traditions or were influenced by them, the Yod is seen as the seed. Out of the Yod, language was built. Out of language, our conception of reality is constructed. Yod is that spark. In the beginning was the Word. Those familiar with the famous tarot deck designed by Pamela Colman Smith and A.E. Waite will recognize it floating around.



Keys and keyholes also feature prominently in this body of work. What does that mean to you in the context of alchemy?


That which is hidden. You have to unlock it. In order to unlock it, you have to penetrate it. It is a passage. The other side is The Unknown. 




Exhale, Hand-colored relief print, 5 ½” x 19”





The Hidden Stone, Hand-colored relief print, 5 ½” x 19”




You mention an interest in you still write?


I do. I try to daily. I write more than I draw. I keep a notepad on me at all times. I don’t really share it anymore.



Why not?


I am not sure. I have considered it. I changed my approach and intent somewhere in my mid 20s and at that point I stopped doing readings and putting it out to share. I think it became more of a personal exploration. They took the form of psalms or prayers. I teased the idea of releasing some around the time I was 30 but shelved it. A few years back I began logging each day and made it a point to enter something into my journal. It was mostly working out ideas in a poetic manner, or sometimes I would just allow automatic writing to dictate the ideas for me too. I was pretty faithful with it and only missed maybe 5 entries a year.  



I appreciate what you say here...poetry has taken a different role in my own work in recent years, and I very much identify with using it to work out ideas for other projects. Would you tell me more about how an automatic writing session resulted in a finished work of another kind?


I did a series of automatic writings that went with these automatic doodles, where I would transform the scribbles into these simplified “irrational machines” that defied three-dimensional rules.




“3: furthermore” from Dei Ex Machinis (observations of)





“19: exempt an instance” from Dei Ex Machinis (observations of)




Several of the prints in the “Pillars” series feature images of books.  That seems a clear reference to the long tradition of alchemical knowledge contained in manuscript form, but what is your personal relationship to books/bookmaking?


I’m currently working on a small self-published book of the scans [from the automatic writing series]. In another [book sculpture] project, I found a bunch of old library cards and I chopped them up and recreated them into this little pocket size book with illustrations. I carved out a keyhole in the back and adhered an old key to the book ribbon. I guess that [key] symbolism has been with me for a while.




Page from library card book





Page from library card book




From series to series, how concerned are you about shifting gears visually?


I have been mentally exploring new visual directions. New mediums. When I print these three blocks on my desk, I will see where I am.









Learn more about Travis Lawrence, his available work, and upcoming gallery exhibits at and on Instagram @travislawrence


Contributing Editor Coleman Stevenson is the author of Breakfast, The Accidental Rarefication of Pattern #5609, and The Dark Exact Tarot Guide.  Her writing has appeared in a variety of publications such as Paper Darts, Seattle Review, Mid-American Review,, and the anthology Motionless from the Iron Bridge.  In addition to her work as a designer of tarot and oracle decks, her fine art work, exhibited in galleries around the Pacific Northwest, focuses on the intersections between image and text.  She has been a guest curator for various gallery spaces in the Portland, Oregon, area, and has taught poetry, design theory, and cultural studies at a number of different institutions there, most currently for the Literary Arts Delve series, which includes seminars at the Portland Art Museum.