Step by Step

::: By Hand and On Foot :::

Category: Spain (page 1 of 2)

One week in

It’s difficult to write about a pilgrimage. Every day you get up and walk.  That’s it. Nothing happens, and yet everything happens.  

The world slows down.  You see the flowers and the bees.  You hear the constant birdsong that happens in the Spanish countryside. The clouds sail by. You feel the warmth of the sun on your back. You hear the crunch of your boots on the gravel.

And the world slows down and opens up and presents itself to you with the possibility of finding your best self. You have the chance to give and receive kindness. You listen to stories and share your own. You have the opportunity for stillness.

It is a gift for which I am extremely grateful.

The Via de la Plata Revisited

It’s two years ago this week that I set out from Seville to walk the Via de la Plata, one of the many pilgrimage routes that cross Spain to Santiago de Compostela. And while I’ve spoken of many shows and events where I’ve displayed the prints that were the direct result of that trip, I just realized I’ve never sat down and written the what and why of them all. So here goes.

It might go without saying, but even though a pilgrimage is in some ways very linear (after all, it starts in one place and ends in another) the process of imagining a way to depict it in prints is not linear at all. In fact, it took over a year after I returned from the Via de la Plata to figure out how I wanted to make these prints. So in these several posts about my Via de la Plata prints, I might repeat myself, go in circles, get lost, or go sightseeing – perhaps like doing the pilgrimage itself after all.

A hot dry dirt road outside of Zafra.

First of all, it was hot. Very hot. There was a heat wave. I want to say I remember news broadcasts where they gave the temperature as 42 degrees Celsius, but since that would make it around 107 degrees Fahrenheit, perhaps my memory is faulty. But then again, it really did feel that hot.

So one of the ideas I wanted to convey in my prints was the heat, and the experience of walking long miles with a (too heavy) pack in the shadeless countryside in the heat. Yellow was my go-to color in a lot of the prints, along with other primary colors.

(A note and an apology about the color in some of the print images; I’ve gotten to the stage where my prints are too large to put in my scanner, so most of these were taken with my much-abused digital point-and-shoot camera. I’ve tried to photoshop the colors to where they should be, but the images are still a little off.)

First 4 churches
La cuestión palpitante, a monoprint and ink transfer drawing of the first 4 churches on the VDP

The other way I experienced the heat was somewhat hallucinogenic. I had trained, and I drank a LOT of water, and of course I wore a hat and sunblock, but still… being out in the heat can addle your brain a bit. I definitely could relate to desert saints and mystics who saw visions and imagined signs. When I began working on these prints, I looked for a medieval image of the sun or some sort of mandala image that I could use to represent heat and light and vision, and bonus points if I could find one from Spain.

San Isidro diagram
A diagram explaining the workings of the universe from a 13th century copy of San Isidro’s Etymologiae. More info here:

I was very pleased to find that San Isidro had done just that. In his Etymologiae he presented a diagram that served my purposes very well.

Isidro circle walkers
Como mechas ardientes, a monoprint with linoleum block figures and circle

And San Isidro (Saint Isidore of Seville, in English) was a major feature of this pilgrimage. After San Isidro died, his body was carried from Seville to Leon, and as it happens the route was pretty much the same as the modern Via de la Plata. So all along the way I encountered not only shrines and chapels dedicated to San Isidro, but the timing of my walk corresponded to a wave of local ferias and processions honoring the saint.

Modern chapel of San Isidro
The modern ermita of San Isidro, looking like it’s about to take off into outer space

San Isidro procession
San Isidro procession in Villafranco los Barros

Here is a print combining San Isidro’s wheel, his procession, the hot sun, the distant mountains, and with a background of a map.

San Isidro procession
Parece mentira, monoprint with linoleum block and chine colle

Coming up in future posts: strong women, famous artists, and rough stones.

A Last Hurrah

How time flies! Here it is, my last full day in Carrion de Los Condes. Tomorrow I take the train to Madrid, where I will have a couple of sightseeing days, then on Sunday I hop on the plane and head home to California.

Of course I couldn’t let my last day pass without one final adventure. All month long I’d been eyeing a particular high point just to the north of the Camino – a sort of mini mountain with a small monument on top. What is it? and how do you get there?

Even six years ago, when I walked the Camino, I noticed it. There is a sketch in my journal of the view across the fields, and the hill with the monument. I thought it was on Flickr, but alas, no, or I would have shared it.

Today I vowed to visit this spot, come what may.

I had decided that it looked closer to the N-120, the road on its far side, than to the Camino and the road to Vilalcazar de Sirga, so I drove to the next town, San Mames de Campo, and parked by the church. I walked a little way down one dirt road, but it seemed to curve back to the highway, so I walked back into town, where I met two women out walking.

“Pardon me,” I said in my best fractured Spanish, “but is it possible to walk from here to that hill with the tower?”

“Eh??” asked the older woman, and rattled off something in very fast Spanish, muffled by her voluminous scarf, and started wandering off.

The younger woman, who was the older woman’s caretaker, asked me, “El montecito? con el crucero?”

“Si! Si!” I eagerly replied.

“Do you speak French?” continued the woman. It is apparently my fate to always speak French in Spain. I wonder, if I visit France, if I will end up speaking Spanish there. She then explained that the other dirt road out of town would take me there, and that bicyclists ride from one town to the other on this road. “Look for a turnoff to the right,” she added, while the older woman, across the small plaza by now, irritably rapped her cane against the cobblestones as a signal to hurry up.

And so I thanked her and set off across the campo.

Looking back at San Mames.

Looking back at San Mames

The first turnoff to the right dead-ended in a plowed field, but that was ok; this was an adventure. (I have just finished reading an account of Andree’s ill-fated balloon expedition to the North Pole; perhaps I should pay attention to a warning therein: “Adventure arrives on a voyage of discovery in the form of a mistake, and is almost always unwelcome.”)

The second turnoff was more promising, and led nearer and nearer to the hill I was aiming for.

Today's trail

It also came closer and closer to Carrion de Los Condes; somehow my sense of distance and perspective had been warped, and I would have been better off simply walking from my house. In fact, the road led straight to Carrion, and I turned off onto another dirt road, hoping it would lead up to the hill.

About the same time I was noticing that I was drawing ever closer to Carrion, I also noticed that the wind was picking up… and wait, it was now coming from the northeast, not the west, which meant that the giant bank of grey and ominous clouds to the east weren’t going away, but were coming ever closer, trailing large veils of rain beneath them.

My goal, with clouds

And was that a flash of lightning? Suddenly the idea of scaling the highest point in the area, while carrying an aluminum hiking stick, didn’t seem like the wisest option any more, and I turned around and headed back to the car.

Now I am home, finishing up my packing. I brought a lot of stuff! and now I also have finished art to carefully wrap.

Prints wrapped for their trip to the USA.

Packing up the prints

Art supplies await their turn.

Ink ready to fly

And I still have not visited my little hill. My mother always used to say if you leave something behind, it’s a sign you really want to return again. I’ve left behind one last adventure. It’s a sure sign: I’ll be back!

the road ahead

Doing the Hokey Pokey

Because this is what it’s all about.

10 little prints, hanging to dry

I could also title this post “guerrilla printmaking,” because I’m making stuff up as I go along, and it’s quite fun in a challenging sort of way.

Shortly after arriving here in Carrion de Los Condes, I took a few hours to carve my floating kento. In moku hanga, a form of Japanese printmaking, you carve notches into your wood block and use them to align your paper as you print different layers of color. These notches are known as kento. With a floating kento, the notches are on a separate block of wood, which saves time and effort (though most adherents to this style of printmaking, at least the ones I know, enjoy the precision of carving the kento on each block).

Not being one to follow tradition, and having brought linoleum blocks not wood blocks, and a variety of sizes of block at that, and liking wide margins on my paper, Western-style, and having cut my paper back home in the US so the size is uniform, I thought for a bit about how to integrate my own preferences and situation with the genius of simple yet accurate alignment that a kento allows.

My solution was to carve notches not where the paper sits, but where the blocks would sit. That way the paper could sit exactly where the frame’s corners meet, and I could place each different size block where it would best center on the paper.

Carving the kento

I am an impatient printmaker. I could have Googled a floating kento, and maybe other people do it this way, too, or maybe I would find that what I’m doing is anathema. But I like puzzling out my own solutions, for better or worse – and the good news is, this has worked out for the better.

Last week, I tried another experiment. I wanted to print Nuestra Señora de Belen in two colors, but since my time here is limited, I didn’t want to carve two blocks, or do a reduction print. I’ve been playing with monoprints, where you paint with ink on a smooth plate and then transfer the ink onto a piece of paper. Why not print what is essentially a monoprint background for this image?

blue layer

The challenge here was that I wanted the church and its hill to remain white. I solved this problem by taking my original tracing and cutting out the church, and keeping the cutout. I also cut the tracing to the exact size of the block.

Cut out for positioning

I put the tracing down on the block, put the cut-out church back in its outline, removed the larger tracing, and voila! The church was correctly aligned, and I could paint around it. (Keep in mind that everything in printmaking is reversed, sometimes several times, so right becomes left and left, right; aligning different colors is no simple task.)

rubbing a block on the floating kento

(Does anyone know what this tool is? It’s brass, and heavy, and is perfect for rubbing a print. If you know, please tell me!)

I also wiped off ink at the bottom, to let highlights appear in the water, and on some of the blue layers also wiped a bit off the windy sky.

Rubbing the block

Today, I printed the black layer.

Pulled print, block in place, rubbing tools

I am quite pleased to say the kento worked perfectly. Everything lined up, the blue looks great behind the black, I didn’t smudge or get fingerprints on anything, and now 10 prints are drying in the kitchen. Hooray! Happy dance! It really is all about the hokey pokey today.

first print, Nuestra Señora de Belen

Next up: finish carving my whiplash sky block, and get a set of prints of that. If everything works out well, there will be just enough time for it to dry before I have to pack everything up and bring it home. The timing will be tight, but I’m putting me left foot in, my left foot out…


When my niece was small, she loved to stand on the couch and watch the tossing branches of the tree outside, and she’d exclaim “Wind-e-e-e!!!”. She would have a fine time here in Carrion de Los Condes, as the wind is whipping across the plains like a freight train.

I’m at Bar Espana, along with all the card-playing men of the village, taking refuge and a glass of wine. And the wind has given me an idea for another print, so I can’t complain.


The idea is the meseta as a tossing sea, and the wind as great ropes of air that twist above. The print will vary some from this first drawing – it will be darker, in some ways, but I’m also thinking it should be hand-colored to reflect the subtle fierce beauty of the area.

This morning, however, it was calm and sunny, and I took advantage of the fine weather to walk the 6km to Villalcazar de Sirga, the next town up the Camino to the east, and visit Sta. Maria la Blanca.

This dog was furious that I had the nerve to pass by his yard.

Peeved perro

Beautiful scenery along the way.

Half and half

Signs of pilgrims having passed by.

Pilgrim sign

But which way should they go?

Now where?

The church was lovely…

Nave, sta Maria la blanca

And you can see some more photos on my Flickr photo stream, but I was actually more excited by some of the modern stained glass, which gave me an “Aha!” moment and crystallized some of the things I had been thinking about in terms of portraying this lovely countryside.

Now back to my little windy Houston the prairie, to start carving this block.

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