Wood Engravers Draw The Line In Westville
by David Sepulveda | Jan 23, 2013 3:35 pm
Posted to: Arts & Entertainment, Visual Arts, Westville
The Engravers are in the house. You might not have seen anything quite like it before.
The house in question is Westville Village’s DaSilva Gallery. A national touring exhibit has just opened there displaying prints made from elaborately engraved wood blocks.
The exhibit includes over 60 images and several illustrated artists’ books, and represents the work of 33 wood engraving artists from the U.S., Canada, Russia and the United Kingdom
All are members of The Wood Engravers’ Network. Their work dazzled a crowd that showed up for the show’s opening this past Saturday.
Established in 1994, W.E.N. has a growing roster of 200 members and actively pursues “communication, encouragement, and education in this historic, yet contemporary relief medium,” according to the WEN website.
The show came to the attention of gallery owners Gabriel and Inger DaSilva by way of Westville print maker Allan Greenier, who is a member of the network and has a small print of former President Johnson in the show. DaSilva noted that the exhibit became available just as he was planning a year-long calendar of exhibits featuring works on paper, the type of art he personally collects and for which he has the greatest affinity.
The exquisitely detailed works are predominantly black ink on white paper, and described as monochromatic (single color), though Greenier might quarrel with that seemingly obvious description. Greenier explained that during the medium’s heyday, engravings were often said to have “color,” referring to their expressive tonal qualities. In viewing the images at the gallery, a place where eyes and sensibilities are often preoccupied with lush color and painterly qualities, it is easy to forget that these are not color images-at least not in the traditional sense.
Using a tool called a burin, the artist extracts a host of marks, line patterns, and directional strokes from the block. They then show as white in the final print. Remaining raised (relief) areas receive the ink, providing the contrast that creates positive and negative shapes. Blocks are sometimes rendered with such fine line and detail, it is hard to imagine they are the result of a hand-created, relief engraving process. The resulting images are highly engaging and satisfying. While a few of the show’s images do have color, those that are black and white arguably signal the medium’s ultimate vitality.
Quipped Greenier, “Black and white ... Are there any other colors?”
The ability to create and render such intricate detail is one reason that wood engraving endured for centuries as the favored medium for illustrating books and other forms of printed material-at least until it was largely supplanted in the late nineteenth century by photo engraving processes. Using the end grain portion of the wood block, which is harder and more dense than the open grain, plank side used in other forms of relief printmaking, artists are able to carve in multiple directions with greater facility. Traditionally, Turkish boxwood was the preferred surface on which to engrave, but the wood has become as scarce today, as it is cost-prohibitive. As a result, engravers have become resourceful in adapting many different contemporary materials. Greenier’s engraved piece, for example, was made from a Corian block, material most often associated with today’s counter tops, while other synthetic materials like the popular Resingrave, have been specifically designed for the medium.
With such a large group of artists’ works, one would expect to see a broad range of images, themes and styles. Landscapes, figurative, botanical, architectural, fantasy, and nature themes abound; a minimalist, abstract design of horizontal lines speaks to the range of the medium in expressing contemporary imagery in addition to traditional themes. A sizable five-panel print that takes up the full span of the gallery’s back wall, “City of the World,” is notable for its whimsy and ambition. Dubbed a “Monumental Collaborative Puzzle Print,” it is the project of Cuban-born Maria Arango Diener, who solicited designs from 112 artists around the world on pre-configured puzzle-like shapes with prompts encouraging explorations of several themes: “How an individual sees themselves in their corner of the world or how they perceive themselves within the world or the world of printmaking.” The pieces, shipped back to Diener, were then assembled and printed as a whole, displaying an uncanny cohesiveness.
With several of the show’s artists in attendance—inlcuding Shirley Bernstein of Hampton, Connecticut, and Eric Hoffman of Rhode Island—the energized crowd seemed in awe of the artful trove as it moved through the gallery at this past weekend’s opening. Westville artist Fethi Meghelli pointed to “The Farm,” a highly detailed image of woman threatening to strike a child. He said he gravitates to images that denote some degree of social commentary. Photographer Joan Fitzsimmons was thrilled that her husband, Alan, who had reluctantly ventured out, seemed immersed in the show’s offerings; while Chris Heitmann, Westville Village Renaissance Alliance executive director, summoned an enthusiastic endorsement of the show overall: “The majority of the pieces are stunning!”
Notwithstanding a few folks whose vision seemed challenged by the high degree of detail, most stood in contemplation before the images, admiring them and heeding the admonition of a small placard floating above a row of prints: “One looks at a wood engraving as you would look into the eye of a lover, with intimacy and passion.” The gallery is located at 887-899 Whalley Ave. The show runs through Feb. 19.
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Looks like a brilliant show. Thanks for bringing it to life for those of us who could not make it to the opening!
Thanks for coming to the exhibit, I enjoyed the article very much. The artists from the WEN would be very happy to read such insightful article about the world of wood engraving
posted by: streever on January 24, 2013 11:09am
This is great! I love this type of work. I’m glad that the NHI published a piece on this exhibit, I’ll have to get over to Westville and see it.
posted by: redhed on January 25, 2013 1:21am
This was such a well written and informative article. Thanks so much David. What a thrill to have such talented people in your community. It makes me miss New Haven, the town that I grew up in.
Interesting article, great title! The engraved wood blocks look spectacular and I especially like that David chose to weave a history of wood engraving into the article. Am motivated to see the exhibit by the thought of looking “at a wood engraving as you would look into the eye of a lover, with intimacy and passion.”