Reading List


by Cass Daubenspeck December 17, 2012

“Gill’s prints remind us that every biological form possesses a unique footprint.” – Verlyn Klinkenborg

Conservationist Aldo Leopold once discussed the two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One, he said, is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery. The other, that heat comes from the furnace. To avoid the first, he said, a person should plant a garden. To avoid the second, he should lay a split of good oak on the andirons and let it warm his shins during a blizzard in February.

“If one has cut, split, hauled and piled his own good oak,” he wrote, “and let his mind work the while, he will remember much about where the heat comes from, and with a wealth of detail denied to those who spend the weekend in town astride a radiator.”

Cover of the book, Woodcut

Go with the grain: the cover of Woodcut, by Bryan Nash Gill.

Artist and sculptor Bryan Nash Gill knows where heat comes from, and more than that, he knows good oak (and ash, and cedar).

Woodcut is a hardback book of his large scale relief prints made from the beautiful cuttings of salvaged dead or decaying wood. Born and raised in rural Connecticut, Gill has always taken inspiration from the New England countryside, but only started working with wood a few years ago while building his art studio. The first prints he made came from the two-by-fours, four-by-fours and eight-by-eights that now make up his workshop walls. The beauty he created from these prints evolved, and eventually became a series of works on paper and the book.

Looking down into the boles, you are forced to invert your usual orientation to a tree to understand what you are seeing. Not only the tree’s age (one light and one dark ring together equal one year) but the distinctiveness of its lifespan. Every ring, indentation, and swervy curve evokes that tree’s connection to a sense of place, time and circumstance. In a frequency curve of oak birth-years, for example, a botanist could show that the curve humps every ten years (much as the humps appear in the cedar image below), with each hump originating from some external cause -a scarcity of rabbits, for example. Still, the rings adapt to that change of course, and carry on as usual.

Woodcut of Eastern Red Cedar at 77 years old.

Eastern Red Cedar, printed at 77 years old. When found, the tree had a vine of poison ivy growing up its bark.

The prints in the book were made from relief printing, a basic “stamp-like” method similar to how a typewriter makes words on a page. It dates back eleven hundred years to handprinted scrolls made in China.

Put simply, the surface of each woodcut is rolled over with ink, then pressed onto paper.  But Gill’s process is more complex. He first cuts wood looking for an interesting place in its structure, like where the tree divides, or where a piece of material implanted itself in the bark. Because the cuts are so rough at the surface, he then has to sand the top until it’s even enough to create a smooth print.  Then he chars the wood, a process that creates space between growth rings to make them more visible. Lastly, the wood is modeled and shellacked, to preserve the surface as it is.

Maple woodcut shown at 79 years old.

A Maple shown at 79 years. The block features marks of peeling bark and rot, seen in the white shapes just off center.

Even with sealant, though, the surfaces of wood blocks continue to change over time. (Even after wood is “dead,” it lives on.)

“Wood is always moving because it consists of many open cells that are susceptible to climate,” says Gill. If left in a heated room for a winter, for example, a wood cutting will expand and form new cracks. These might go away again when the weather changes, and the same woodcut may have produced two unique prints.

Gill’s prints are not only beautiful reflections on the record of new growth in a tree’s lifetime, but on the passage of time in general. Looking into each cutting, you can see the distinctive patterns of each woody footprint that’s been shaped, like the face of a person, by history. And the rings offer an incredible insight into the way trees memorialize time. Compared to humans, trees move seamlessly from one year to the next, maintaining integrity of structure no matter what occurs. Humans, we have a much harder time. But there is a lot to be learned from trees, especially from Gill’s perspective.

All images by Bryan Nash Gill taken from the book Woodcut

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