By Craig Stocks / Photography by Craig Stocks
Some forms of art allow the artist complete freedom to experiment with different ideas during the creative process. Those artists have the freedom to try one set of shapes and colors, and then change their minds and try something else. But for Peoria artist Cathie Crawford, there’s no going back. Her art form is color reduction woodcut printing, and it’s a one-way process. Once the wood is cut away, it’s gone and it can’t be put back.
Cathie grew up in Queens, New York. She started college at a small private college, but when they drastically raised their tuition after just one year, she decided to move on. An art professor had encouraged her to go to Michigan, but her parents vetoed the idea saying it was “too far away.” She ended up at Ohio State University in Columbus because that was the farthest west her parents would let her go.
While at Ohio State, Cathie earned a Bachelor of Fine Art in printmaking, and then returned for another year to complete a Bachelor of Art Education degree. After teaching high school art for a number of years, she relocated to Peoria where she earned a Master of Fine Art degree at Bradley University.
Cathie was particularly taken with printmaking and originally specialized in lithography. While working on her MFA she rediscovered the much less involved woodcut process and immediately knew, “This is for me. Lithography is a much more labor intensive process,” she said. “The technique was getting in the way and interfering with what I wanted to do. I was a lithographer for 15 years and went to graduate school to become a better lithographer, but instead I rediscovered the woodcut and have been doing nothing else since.”
The other advantage of the switch is that she avoids the toxic chemicals associated with lithography. “Now I’m totally green,” she pointed out. “I even use baby oil instead of mineral spirits to clean up. There aren’t any solvents or dangerous stuff in my studio.”
Though it’s less labor intensive than lithography, the color woodcut reduction process is still time consuming. Cathie starts each piece by drawing the basic design on the matrix, which is a sheet of quarter inch luan mahogany plywood. Though some woodcut artists use smooth birch plywood, she prefers the distinctive texture created by the coarse, open grain of mahogany. The main technique is to use gouges and chisels to cut away portions of the wood to create the design to be inked and printed. At times, she also creates shapes with Mylar stencils.
Once the printing matrix is prepared, Cathie uses rollers and ink brayers to roll the ink onto the matrix. A sheet of heavy rice paper is then laid over the matrix and the stack is passed under a pressure roller to ensure the ink is transferred uniformly onto the paper. She typically does editions of 10 to 12 prints, repeating the inking and rolling process for each print in the edition. Each run is an all-day process.
Once the run is complete, she cleans the residual ink from the matrix and begins preparing for the next run where she’ll apply additional colors and details. The original sheet of wood is used for the entire run, but with each run she progressively removes portions of the surface to create smaller and finer details. Of course, once the surface is removed, there’s no turning back.
Cathie loves the surprises that happen along the way. “Without happy accidents,” she said, “it would be just pure tedium. I usually have a basic idea, and that’s the hard part – coming up with an idea that’s worth spending several months to create.” Once begun, the image will change and evolve as she works on it. “Sometimes I’ll just completely change gears,” she said. Occasionally she’ll uncover flaws in the plywood matrix that weren’t visible from the surface, so she’ll have to find a way to work around the flaw or incorporate it into the texture of the finished piece.
Color woodcut reduction printing is not a quick process. Earlier in her career, Cathie felt compelled to work quickly to finish a series, but as she’s become more experienced in her art, she’s accepted that time is also part of the process. “Sometimes I’ll stew on things for a week before I move on,” she said. “When I was younger I used to beat myself up over procrastinating. I’ve learned that, for me, it’s part of the creative process. It doesn’t happen overnight; sometimes it’s a long, drawn out process.”
For more, visit Cathie’s profile page at the Contemporary Art Center’s website. Her work is currently displayed at the McLean County Arts Center, the Galesburg Civic Art Center and the Peter Bartlow Gallery in Chicago. She will also be featured in a one person show at the Pearce Gallery from March 12 through April 26, 2013. There will be an opening reception on March 15th from 6:00 PM to 8:00 PM.