Annie Bissett

Annie Bissett
2015 Last Fellow
Providence, RI

Research at AAS

I arrived at AAS in April 2015 ready to comb the archives for visual examples of spiritual and religious influences on American identity during the colonial period. What I didn’t realize until I got there is that spirituality and religiosity are ubiquitous in 17th and 18th century printed materials and ephemera. I immediately became confused about my topic and overwhelmed by the volume of materials in the archive.

With guidance from the AAS library staff I took off on a tour of children’s literature, games, primers, almanacs, type specimen books, newspapers, hymnals, and broadsides. I found many fascinating items—paper-folding forms and conventions I had never seen before, books full of moral lessons and maxims, books about trades and professions, many of which don’t exist anymore—but it was almanacs that captured my attention. Colonial almanacs were packed with astrological as well as astronomical references, weather predictions for an entire year, scientific and political essays, poems, recipes, puzzles and jokes. The almanacs seemed to me to be a combination of a yearly planner and a magazine.

Title page of The Pennsylvania Town and Country-Man's Almanack for the Year of our Lord 1775. Top: Two men with telescopes look at the astrological signs in the night sky. Bottom: A farmer tills his land using a plow and mulemarginalia in an almanac about Leeuwenhoek’s microscope studiesFrontispiece from the 1767 New Book of Knowledge. A Man standing in a field using a telescope to look up at the star filled sky. On the ground there is a globe and tools such as a quadrant and compass.

What tugged at my heart, though, was the handwritten marginalia I found. Owners of these almanacs had obviously kept these books close by and had written down accounts of harsh weather, chronicled deaths and illnesses, and even left some “comments” on some of the articles. In one almanac I found a factoid about some findings from Antonie van Leeuwenhoek’s new microscope studies, next to which someone had carefully written “a damd lye” and the comment “another” in the science factoid below about the distance between stars. I was stunned. Here was 17th-century science denialism! It was this comment that set me off on my “Almanack” woodblock print project.

In the “Almanack” series of prints, still in progress as of fall 2020, I take quotes from almanacs and science books, add woodcut illustrations from the AAS archives which I re-carve and re-print for my purposes, and then create an environment to hold them together. Essentially I decontextualize the colonial woodcuts and place them in anachronistic setting to draw out new meanings. These prints are quite large for multi color woodblock prints, 38 x 26 inches, and are printed by hand with watercolors rather than ink.


Watercolor woodblock print.
Wind is an Exhalation hot and dry, drawn up into the Air by the Power of the Sun, and by the weight thereof driven down.
– The New Book of Knowledge (1767).

An anthropomorphized sun based on an 18th century almanac illustration and a little city taken from a 1762 woodcut, whose original context I can't locate, are superimposed on a 21st-century US wind map. This is an example of the science of America's founders, based on Aristotle's natural philosophy and the Aristotelian concept of "exhalations," which are ill-defined but seem to be a way of describing the invisible flow of things such as wind and water.


Eighteenth century woodcut illustration of tilted houses and people running outside. Underneath the woodcut, the ground is cracked which leads down to petroglyphs of animals and handprints

An earthquake is caused by means of wind that be enclosed within the caves of the earth and can find no passage to break forth.
– The New Book of Knowledge (1767)

A woodcut I found at American Antiquarian Society, said to be an illustration of the Boston earthquake of 1727, is combined with petroglyphs from Utah and hand prints such as are found in caves all over the world. History lives in layers under our feet, and the land upon which the US was built was inhabited before the Europeans ever set foot on it. Sometimes history haunts us; sometimes history rises up seeking justice. These little Puritans can feel the quake, but seem unaware of exactly what it is that's shaking their world so.


Eighteenth century woodcut illustration of a fisherman holding a fish. The woodcut illustration sits on top of an ocean, and below lays a large sea monster rising to the surface


The horizon is a circle that divideth part of the world seen from the part that cannot be seen.
– The New Book of Knowledge (1767)

The image of the fisherman comes from a 1770 grammar book I found at AAS called A New Guide to the English Tongue. This picture was used to illustrate a fable called "The Fisherman and the Fish" in which a captured fish asks to be released, promising that she will come back and allow herself to be caught when she's grown larger. The fisherman says no, and the moral of the fable is "Never let go a Certainty for an Uncertainty."

The sea monster is a European image, from the mid-1600s.We tend to believe that every generation expands its horizon line of knowing a little more, when in fact the unknown remains always beyond the ever-moving horizon.


Telling Seventeenth-Century New England Stories Through the Archives:
A panel presentation with AAS Creative Artist fellows Annie Bissett, Diane Glancy, and TaraShea Nesbit. (October 2020)


About the Fellow

Annie Bissett, 2015 Deborah and Jay Last Fellow at AAS, has been working primarily with Japanese-style (watercolor) woodblock prints since 2005, when she studied briefly with New England woodblock artist Matt Brown. Annie’s print work builds on her 25+ year career as a freelance digital illustrator, serving a clientele that included Time-Life Publications, National Geographic Society, and the Wall Street Journal. Her prints have been exhibited throughout the US, in the UK, Canada, and Japan. She is on the teaching faculty at Zea Mays Printmaking Studio in Florence, MA, and currently lives and works in Providence, RI. In 2015, Annie led an AAS fellow’s talk during which she shared some of her previous works and then conducted a demonstration in printmaking.

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