The Life of Briony

Briony Morrow-Cribbs

Although I no longer live on Whidbey Island, I live a remarkably island-like life in the green hills of Putney, Vermont. Year-round I work on my own art and illustration work. From September to June I teach at The Putney School, The River Gallery School and local community colleges. In the summer months I work as both a makeshift farmer at a local, family-run farm and as a gardener in a handful of Southern Vermont’s beautiful gardens.

This blog entry is split into the four main areas of my working life: Art, Illustration, Teaching and Gardening. It feels important to note that while in blog-form these “job” descriptions are easy to write about as separate, well-defined areas of my life, they often bleed into each other, mixing and bumping and sharing each other’s boundaries.

Art - 
I am excited to be showing a handful of hand-tinted etchings and sculptures at this year’s Putney School Faculty Show in the Currier Gallery. I’ll be exhibiting a few of the usual monstrous/beautiful animal prints and some new print-and-bone sculptures. Here’s a sneak preview of a few pieces that will be included in this year’s show.

Illustration - 
This last year I’ve had the opportunity to dive into a few different projects that have brought me back into the world of illustration. In the spring of 2013 I had a chance meeting with a group of woodworkers. When they heard that I both was the daughter of a woodworker and created copperplate etchings they asked me to join them in creating “The Anarchist’s Design Book”. The book, published by Lost Art Press in March of 2016, is an exploration of 18th century vernacular furniture. As explained on the Lost Art Press website, the “book explores 11 of these forms - a bed, dining tables, chairs, chests, desks, shelving - and offers a deep exploration into the two contraction techniques used to make these pieces that have been forgotten, neglected or rejected.” 

On my end of things, I got the chance to work completely different project than I was accustomed to and learn several new techniques. Not only was I illustrating man-made objects, but I also had the chance to lean the process of PurEtch, a nontoxic and biodegradable processes of etching copper plates with a photosensitive film resist. The project turned out to be a success and I had a great time working with a group of such hard-working individuals. (Watch the movie below to see how I used the PurEtch process.)

The cover of The 'Anarchist’s Design Book' /   Aumbry Illustration from the '  Anarchist’s Design Book' /   "Backstool" from the 'Anarchist's Design Book'

The cover of The 'Anarchist’s Design Book' / Aumbry Illustration from the 'Anarchist’s Design Book' / "Backstool" from the 'Anarchist's Design Book'

Eight years ago, in 2008, I began working with Algonquin Books, a division of Workman publishing, and Amy Stewart on a book that would eventually hit the New York Times bestseller list and be followed by a second New York Times Best Seller. That book - Wicked Plants - is now in several different languages and sold across the world. That book was also my introduction to commercial publishing. 

In January of this year, Algonquin asked me if I would recreate the original etched illustrations from Wicked Plants as pen & ink drawings to be used in a coloring book. I agreed and spent over a month drawing one or two illustrations per day. The book was released in early August of this year. Wicked Plants Coloring Books can be ordered through Amazon or through your local book store.  

Above Images: 'Wicked Plants' Cover, "Henbane" from 'Wicked Plants', 'Wicked Bugs' Cover, "Locust" from 'Wicked Bugs', 'Wicked Plants Coloring Book', and "Castor Bean" from 'Wicked Plants Coloring Book." 

Teaching -
I never thought I would be a teacher…let alone a high school teacher. And yet, here I am and I love it. I have the privilege of teaching printmaking and book arts at the Putney School , “An independent, coeducational boarding and day high school, with a strong program in the arts, music, [and] land use…” The school is full of bright, colorful students who want to make a difference in the world. I’ve learned a lot from the experience and have found that teenagers are not nearly as terrifying as I once thought they were. In addition to the Putney School, I teach book arts classes at the River Gallery School, a small art school that provides classes and workshops to students of all ages, the Community College of Vermont and have filled in as adjunct faculty at Smith College.

The art building at the Putney School, home of the Putney School Printmaking Studio

The art building at the Putney School, home of the Putney School Printmaking Studio

Farming and Gardening - 
Another unexpected joy that has come into my life is gardening. The Vermont winter months are good for studio time and teaching but in the summer, when the the landscape explodes into beautiful scenes and exquisite plants, it’s hard to stay inside. The last two years in Vermont I have spent my summers working at the Bunker Farm, a family run farm which produces naturally raised meats, annuals, perennials, and maple syrup. The farm is a second home to me and along with helping to run the farm stand, I transplanting annuals and perennials, can maple syrup and help process meat. 

Gardening helps fill out my time and has helped make me a more durable, tough “Vermonter”. (Out here you have to live in a place several generations become “of” the place). My gardening adventures take me to some beautiful places and give me a chance to be around some incredible botanical specimens. 

To finish off, here are a few images from the gardens I worked in this summer:

Heading Home to Vermont...

In the spring of 2009 I started to make plans to move from Brattleboro, Vermont to Madison, Wisconsin to go to graduate school and get my Masters of Fine Art degree at the UW-Madison. Five years later I find myself planning the same route, but this time in reverse. Over the last few years I have found that I was, in fact, able to find a spot and make a beautiful home for myself in the Midwest. Who knew this would be the place I would live the longest since I left my childhood home of Whidbey Island? Now, it’s time to head back to Vermont and continue the storyline that I began there.

Scientia Carnalis, Briony Morrow-Cribbs, Masters of Fine Art Show, 2012. Photo by Jim Escalanté.

Over the last month or so I have had the wonderful opportunity to work with the talented photographer and web designer, Nick Wilkes, to create a new website and blog for my work. As I was pulling the material together for my site, I found myself enjoying the exercise of gathering the information and viewing these last few years of my life, the little twists and turns, through my production of art. As I organized images and laid them out, one next to the other, I started to see my experience of Madison illustrated through my work. I have to wonder what kind of strange, wild narrative this lineup of images would make for another reader if read in this way. Writing this blog entry, hopefully the first of many entries, is also an interesting practice. I’m using this first entry as a way for me to put into words the feelings of sadness in saying goodbye to a place and its people as well as the excitement of starting in on a new chapter in my life.

When I moved to Wisconsin from Vermont I had only spent a year and a half in Vermont. I had moved there from Washington State in 2008 in order to set up a little printing press with my best friend, Helen O’Donnell. We had a crazy, hair-brained idea of setting up an intaglio press and somehow – with our combined love for the medium, a donated press, Helen’s grandfather’s workbenches and a lot of love and support from our friends and family – we did it. It was such a crazy thing to do, and yet it was so much fun and such a huge learning experience. It’s hard to imagine that we started our little press, Twin Vixen Press, over six years ago. My decision to move to Wisconsin in 2009 was exciting but it also came with a dose of guilt about leaving Helen behind with the responsibility of our press. Helen was supportive of my move and gracious enough to pick up the slack and keep the press going this whole time. What an amazing woman.

Helen O'Donnell and Briony Morrow-Cribbs at Twin Vixen Press. 

2012 Twin Vixen Press Subscription Prints by Bobbi Angel, Briony Morrow-Cribbs and Helen O'Donnell

It’s hard to really remember the entirety of what has happened while I’ve been in Madison. Amidst the frenetic pace of grad school I managed to move through several large life lessons including learning to drive on the highway, move a two-bedroom apartment in less than 24 hours and break up with a fiancé. I’ve illustrated two books, made the cover to another and made enough work to show in four solo shows. And, when the lovely Frances Meyers decided to retire from teaching etching at the UW-Art Department in the spring of 2012, I was pleased to apply and accept the position of lecturing professor in printmaking for two years. Although taking the position meant a continued and unexpected separation from Vermont and Twin Vixen Press I found I really could not pass up the experience. Over the next two years I located in myself a love for teaching. Granted, I’ve had the luck of having some of the best students an instructor could ask for: they have been patient and supportive of me as I learn to be a better teacher and they surprised me again and again with their creativity and dedication. Teaching art is something that I now know I would love to continue to do throughout my life. I owe so much to my students and hope that they know how much I love and respect them. And of course I can’t say I did the job alone. Without the support of the rest of the print faculty – Jack Damer, John Hitchcock, Jim Escalanté and Michael Conners – I would have been totally lost.

Spring 2012 Beginning Etching class at UW-Madison Art Department. 

During my time at the UW I managed to work with some incredible instructors such as Fred Stonehouse, Chris Gargan and Lynda Barry and meet a large collection of amazing artists and friends that I know I’ll continue to have for the rest of my life. Who would I be if I had never met Sylvie Rosenthal, Leah Stargarter, Jason Gray, Nic WyniaAnders Zanichkowsky or Helen Hawley? How would I have gotten through this last year without my sweet neighbors, Ari Brice and Jeannine Shinoda, who never failed to lift my mood with generous quantities of food and love? Would I be the same person without having met the awesome Chinn Wang or having the experience of sharing a studio with the incredibly talented, Jeffrey Clancy? There are so many people that will be hard to say goodbye to, so many sweet people that I met here that will change my life forever.  (All I really want to do is continue this list but I’ll try to respect my readers’ patience and not play out an over-zealous, unending Oscar-thank-you speech.) Saying goodbye to a place and its people is something most of us have to do several times throughout a lifetime and yet, it’s always so hard to know how to go about it, and let people know what a huge impact they have had on your life. If I somehow figure out a good approach to the goodbye predicament I’ll let you all know…

Books completed while in Madison, Wisconsin. 

So, here I am at the end of this chapter of my life. I created some art, had some shows, made some incredible friends and found that I really enjoy teaching art. I guess I’ve come full circle. Ahead of me is the beautiful picture of Vermont and the incredible people I know I’ll meet there as well. This summer I will help at Helen O’Donnell’s farm, The Bunker Farm, where she now lives with her husband and sister and her brother-in-law. I’ll muck around in gardens and get dirt under my fingernails. I’ll start my time in Vermont with a project illustrating a book of furniture for Lost Art Press and a teaching a drawing class at Smith College in the Spring. I’m thinking there will likely be a dog and a pickup truck in my future as well.

Thank you to all who have made my time in Madison a beautiful one. I will be leaving for Vermont on June 7th. Hope to see you before then!

The Beautiful Bunker Farm