In Call of the Wild by Jack London there's the story of a farm dog named Buck who is stolen away from his comfortable life for a good master on the farm and sold to be used as a sled dog in the wild Yukon territory during the Alaskan Gold Rush. As Buck begins to slowly acclimate to the harsh and wild environment of his new home, he discovers his ancient ancestral roots that go back long before dogs were domesticated. In the process he taps abilities and resources within himself he never knew where even there. There is a way that woodblock printing has similar effect on me.
Woodblock printing has a long history going back to China with surviving artifacts from 220AD. Before that, impressions were carved into wood and then pressed into soft clay to reproduce beautiful and complex images in Mesopotamia before 3000BC. One of the things I love about making woodblocks is how basic the process has remained through out the centuries. Through out history a woodblock print has always required the following 5 basic steps:
1. Creating the design
2. Transferring the design to the wood
3. Cutting the design into the wood
4. Inking the block
5. Pulling the print.
The process of cutting the block is so different than drawing the design because of the way the wood grain resists your efforts. When drawing with a pencil or pen you can move with ease and grace across the surface of your paper. When you are attempting to reproduce the same effects within the wood with a carving tool that you created while drawing on paper you find everything becomes more basic and crude. As the design transfers in to the medium of wood there is a natural abstraction that results in the process. It is as if the wood makes its own demands and restrictions that you are forced to obey and the result has a certain stark reality unlike anything else.
The other aspect that endears me to woodblock printing is the fact that woodblock prints were always for the people where as paintings and early books were for the elite. The fact that woodblock prints are about making multiples makes them much less expensive but still original artwork. They are printed either by hand or with a specially designed printing press still based on the technology developed in the middle ages. There has always been something democratic about woodblock prints. This is especially apparent with the rise of chap books in Europe during the 17th and 18th Centuries as well as in 19th Century Mexico with artists like Jose Guadalupe Posada.
The other day I went for a walk in the woods with my friend. While we were sitting down for a rest by an ancient oak I pulled up a small piece of moss and put it up to my nose. The earthy aroma coming from that little piece of moss immediately took me back to some place that felt ancient and good. Making woodblock prints pulls me back to a collective past that at the same time anchors me to the real.