Bleigiessen Lead Pouring:
A New Years Eve ritual and how I started ink painting
by Misha Bittleston
Growing up in England, my mum was into all kinds of old European superstitious traditions like holding gold in your left hand while tossing pancakes in your right on pancake day to bring wealth, and jumping over the midsummer bonfire. Then there was the pouring of molten led into a bucket of cold water on new years eve to predict the future. The new years eve lead pouring (also known as bleigiessen) was one that really stuck with me.
It works this way. On new years eve, you melt some lead, for some reason there was lead just lying around where I grew up, I think it was used in old English house building and repairs, so you have a pan on the stove and you melt the lead in it, crazy as this sounds we would stand in the kitchen and stir it with a teaspoon while it was melting. This was often a group event and so everyone would take a turn pouring some molten lead into the bucket of water. The process was very dramatic because of the element of danger; the clouds of steam; and the explosive cracking and hissing noise when the lead hits the water and solidifies. The result is very unpredictable, but you generally pull out of the bucket an amazingly complex abstract shape, or multiple smaller shapes. When everyone has had a chance -- and this was especially the case when my brother sister and single mother lived in a close knit community of single parent families -- we would gather round and try and figure out what our lead shapes represented and predicted for us, the idea is that the abstract lead shape that had formed in the cold water would foretell for each of us something significant about what the new year would bring. My mum the artist would always be able to see something in every jagged shape. So growing up, lead pouring was tradition in my family, we kept our lead shapes around because some of them turned out to be quite beautiful, and we wanted to see if they might make more sense in hindsight. Although when I looked at my lead pouring the following year and it told me as little about the past year as it had about my future, it didn't diminish the experience.
My first ink paintings were made as a substitute for the lead pouring. I had left home and was now in the US, the idea of lead pouring in my little one room "apartment" seemed like a very bad idea, and I had plans with friends which limited my time on new years eve, because I was now working in paint I became interested in taking this idea and translating it into painting. I also had a lead related experience which had cooled me to pouring lead which was, eating a fruit yogurt and when I had finished realizing the chewiness came from the spoon's having been used for stirring lead and somehow found its way back into the silverware drawer. Anyway, I chose ink because the shapes you get when you first pour it into water reminded me of the lead pourings and of course the permanence of every encounter it has with paper lends itself to a vulnerability of process and general unpredictability. I lined up several sheets of paper, and with the expectation that they were going to tell me my fortune for the year to come, I wetted them and painted but without any intention, just letting the ink the water and the curling-up paper do all the work.
Soon I started to realize that this approach was the best experience of painting I was getting: it was the most energizing, the most liberating and surprising, and when I looked at the work the next day, some of these paintings turned out to be quite beautiful and others wonderfully ugly, but all had the uncertain imagery that I had first seen in the lead.
The greatest surprises kept happening when I painted this way, and I would always make these paintings when I was most inspired. It was how doodling felt at school, totally mindless or emptying and yet totally absorbing. The paradox I realized was that the emotional intensity of painting with color interfered with my creative sensitivity and often overwhelmed or diverged from the thought I was expressing, making it a less pure form of expression for me. And the plain truth the spontaneity and drama of black ink, and brilliance of white paper become unequalled to me; the pure relativity and suggestive power of grays unlimited by color association meant that it set me free from linear image creation, into a world so much more like the real world in its boundless ambiguity, mystery and the realism of its uncertainty. My creative search for my own spirituality which subjugated my sensuality had found its way out of my subject matter and into my process. Through my ink paintings I experienced a kind of painting transcendence that has made every other kind of meditation I have learned since then seem rigid and forced. I have found through ink a current of expression that flows straight out of me into the painting which no longer has the reverse effect of influencing and backing up on my feelings. The element that is finding its way back into my subject matter, which had become abstracted when I found religion in the process, is sensuality. I now feel that I am starting to achieve a wholeness of expression as I harness the full spectrum of my feelings through black and white ink painting.
Misha Bittleston, 200304.
Photo of me just after five AM, tired, inky mouthed and just finished my annual New Year's Eve tradition of making twelve paintings after midnight... This year I painted in Hotel Griffon in San Francisco for New Years Eve. The hotel was the Ramada last year, I use the hotel name as the title of the paintings. To protect from the ink I cover the room with plastic sheeting. See three of my twelve Griffon paintings in the background.