Kathleen Loock (left) makes a woodblock print under the watchful eye of teacher Jenie Gao.
As she chisels the outline of an owl into a square piece of pine wood, Kim Kantor admits her inexperience.
“This is certainly different than anything I normally do,” says the urgent care pediatrician. “I’m not very artistic.”
Kantor and nine other students are learning to carve wood and make prints at an early February class at the Madison Central Library. None of them have experience creating art quite like this. But that’s the point.
Aside from learning new skills and techniques, the act of creating art in an unfamiliar way can lead to personal growth and spark creativity, says Jenie Gao, the artist-in-residence who’s teaching the class through the library workshop program known as The Bubbler.
“When we learn how to make something new, it opens us up to learning how other things are made,” says Gao, a 29-year-old originally from Kansas. “And we also benefit from the willingness to work on something without knowing what the result will be.”
The printmaking process the students are here to learn — also known as woodblock or woodcut printing — is an ancient technique, first used in China. Gao calls printmaking “the first social media.” It’s experiencing a resurgence.
To begin, the students sketch their design in pencil onto the wood square. Most of the students pull up pictures on their phones for inspiration. The designs range from a Memorial Union chair and a sunburst to birds, fish and other animals.
In this printing method, the students carve out the space around what they draw, rather than carve out the actual design. This creates an embossed surface that will be inked and pressed.
Amanda Funk, for instance, needed to carve out the space around the Rocky Mountains, leaving her scenery outline intact. “You have to think about the negative space that you take out to leave the image you want,” says Funk, an interior designer.
“Your print will be a mirror image of what you carve,” Gao tells the class, “so if you’re putting in any text, make sure it’s reversed.”
The carving itself is also done in a somewhat counterintuitive way. You need to hold the carving tool “not like a pencil but instead so it’s in line with your arm,” says Gao, demonstrating with a tool called a gouge. “It feels weird and unnatural at first, but this way, you have the most control.”
It also causes some students’ forearms to get sore. “It’s a very repetitive but meditative process,” says Gao. “We don’t usually focus on things that require this kind of attention.”
Next comes the inking and, finally, the printmaking. Using a small roller, students cover their design with a thick ink. Then, they press a large piece of paper onto the inked surface and use a wooden kitchen spoon to rub the paper onto the inked wood plank.
After that, they peel off the paper, leaving an ink impression of their design.
During the three-hour workshop, Gao is happy to see students sharing tools and techniques. “Creativity is about connection,” she says.
Gao is also asking for help from the community with constructing larger-than-life replicas of birds for an upcoming art installation called “In Unison.” Students will help cut fabric for the flock of native Wisconsin birds made from repurposed clothing that will be hung from the ceiling of the children’s section in the library.
Slowing down and taking the time to create art is one of its most important benefits, says Gao.
“We live in a time of instant gratification, where everything is made for us,” she says. “Art is very much a delayed-gratification process. Creating art teaches patience.”
Earliest printmaking artifacts found: Pre-220 A.D. in China
Oldest surviving woodblock: “Bois Protat,” dating to 1370-1380, rediscovered in 1898
Record for largest woodblock print: 282 feet long, “Type A,” made in 2007 in Mississippi
Woodcarving/Printmaking Workshop: Feb. 28, 5-8 pm. Registration required