When I first made the “change my life” decision, I happened to have in-hand the Fall catalog of classes for the Genesee Center for the Arts and Education. It is a local art co-op concentrating on ceramics, photography, and printing and book arts. Listed in the catalog was what turned out to be a particularly rare opportunity – a day long class learning Block Cutting and Spoon Printing, instructed by Laura Wilder who happens to be a renowned block cutting artist in the Arts & Crafts tradition. The husband and I have admired her work, acquiring several poster prints which adorn the walls of our home, including a special print commemorating a local park we love in our town.
Block cutting is a medium where the artist transfers a sketch to a linoleum block and uses a gouge (types of sharp carving knives) to cut away areas of the image. Ink will be applied with a roller to the uncut areas and an image is imprinted on paper rather like a rubber stamp. With block cutting, more than one block is used to layer different parts of the image on your paper, using a separate block for each color.
I learned of the technique a few years ago from an artist at a local arts festival and have been fascinated ever since. It is intricate work and forces your brain into acrobatics once you consider the complexities of cutting away what does not get printed, and multiplying that among several colors and corresponding blocks. To have an opportunity to learn how to work in this medium was tantalizing, but to learn it from Laura Wilder was a dream. I got into the class of only 8 coveted spaces. It wasn’t cheap at over $100, but it turned out to be worth every penny.
This past weekend was class time. I left the house already exhilarated and arrived exactly on time, making my way up the old creaky steps of the Co-Op building to the studio where we would be working. The whole building, a circa 1900 firehouse, is fragranced with ink, photo-chemistry, and time, and I felt immediately immersed in “Art” the moment I walked in the door. Having exchanged a brief email correspondence that week with Ms. Wilder where I explained that taking the class was part of my decision to change my life, I was warmly welcomed and had a lovely conversation with The Artist herself about my journey. Then we began.
Each place was set with all the tools one would need to learn Block Cutting and Spoon Printing, tools that were mine to keep (oh joy!) We eight students (all women) introduced ourselves and plunged into assessing our images – I had brought a photograph taken by The Husband during one of our Adirondack trips. It is a view from Baxter Mountain and it is his favorite of all (quite a pronouncement since, as a photographer, he has taken 5,000+/- images over the last 2 or 3 mountain trips). While the minute details would be beyond my skill level, I thought that I could adapt the image into something that would be “interpretive.” Crossing my fingers…
Laura Wilder was a wonderful teacher, humble, enthusiastic, warmly supportive and completely accessible. She helped me tweak my sketch and then I was making art. To have the hours tick by unmeasured, knowing only the feel of the gouge in my hand and the vision of my piece coming alive before my eyes as I cut at the linoleum block was a quiet, powerful joy. The day was magical. I had never before allowed myself to consider myself an artist owing to general lack of skill in high school art class and a failed attempt at water color painting in college (could I have picked a more difficult medium?) Could I really have art in me?
After lunching at a great Vietnamese restaurant on the corner, we moved on to inking. Ms. Wilder floated around the room to consult on ink mixing, visiting each student, ranging from the newly-minted college graduate to the first time grandmother. I settled on a two-color scheme of copper background and black detail. I used muscles in ways I have never used before. That wonderful ink fragrance filled the room as did the “sizzly-sticky” sound of inky rollers pulling ink from the palette and pushing it onto the cut linoleum block. This art was a beautiful mess! The creative energy of the room would sustain me all day – warmth, camaraderie, mutual respect and a feeling of complete belonging with an absolute rightness in being creative….
I laid the inked block onto the paper, carefully flipping it over, and began rubbing the paper with the back of a wooden spoon to transfer the ink. Peel back the paper and then repeat with the other block for the second color and the overlay image. I rubbed and rubbed, peeling back the corner so gingerly and there it was, exactly as I had hoped.
That first practice print on simple newsprint was a gift – Step One on this journey, a gift of Laura Wilder’s time, a gift to myself for trying and doing and a gift from God to show me the way. I was so serenely pleased with the art I created that day – 10 hand-made block print note cards in an original image. What pleases me more may be the raw beauty of this moment in my life. In it was wrapped up hope, my future, art, love, the Journey, and all the friends and family who have been encouraging me.
I know I want to continue with block cutting. I want to re-print variations of this image, and I want to carve more blocks. If nothing else, I’ve learned a new hobby. Maybe I will get better with practice, and who knows where that will lead. That’s the whole idea of this experiment.
As I said to Laura Wilder on the way out that evening, it was “a great, great day.” And then she hugged me.